AOL PICK from our Editors
The best things to do in Houston are spread out throughout the city and are as diverse as its neighborhoods. If you have limited time in the city, focus on the best things to do in Houston that showcase the Space City, such as Space Center Houston, the city’s natural attractions like watching bats or kayaking on Buffalo Bayou, visiting Memorial Park—which is bigger than NYC’s Central Park—and the pulsing world-famous art and theater scenes.
Considered the finest private art collection in the world with more than 16,000 works on rotating display, the Menil includes diverse works of art from Cézanne and Picasso to Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol. The late Houston philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil fled France as World War II approached and moved to America, where they began collecting art. They opened their collection to the public in 1987 and it has been one of the best things to do in Houston ever since. The museum arranges works by four categories: Antiquity, Byzantine and Medieval, Tribal, and Twentieth-Century Art. Don’t miss the nearby interfaith Rothko Chapel, and the Byzantine Fresco chapel—both are part of the collection and are free to the public.
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Buffalo Bayou is the lifeblood of the bayou city. For a soft outdoor adventure, explore this waterway on a three-hour guided kayak trip, with a fine view of the skyline. You’ll pass under the Waugh Drive Bridge, a year-round home to some 250,000 Mexican freetail bats. After you finish your paddling trip, drive over to the Waugh Bridge at least 30 minutes before dusk to witness hundreds of thousands of bats emerge from the bridge and then fly east over the bayou and into the city, where they consume millions of insects nightly. Watching the bats as they leave their day time roost to cloud the evening sky is often cited as one of the top things to do in Houston. The best place to view them is from the sidewalk over the bridge or adjacent grassy area by the Wortham Fountain. On Friday and Saturday summer evenings, biologists offer free educational talks starting 30 minutes before dusk, and even let visitors hear the bats’ sonar clicks with special bat detectors. On the 2nd and 4th Fridays between March and October, you can watch the bats by pontoon boat, leaving from the Sabine Promenade. Kayak trips leave from the Woodway Boat Launch near Memorial Park.
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Neighborhood: Clear Lake City area
This world-class aeronautical museum is also the official visitor center to NASA’s adjacent Johnson Space Center, which is itself Mission Control for the U.S. Space program. Space Center Houston opened in 1992, giving the public a more insider view of the incredible space programs next door, with hands-on displays like an interactive mock-up of a communications console, NASA artifacts like the Lunar Rover Trainer which was used to prepare astronauts for space travel, a five-story theater, and behind-the-scenes tram tours of Johnson Space Center (included in general admission). One of the world’s only remaining lunar landers is at the Space Center making it one of the best things to do in Houston. Genuine space buffs should spend the extra money for the exclusive four to five hour Level 9 Tour, but it’s only on weekdays. You’ll get to hold the red phone in the historic Mission Control, where they guided Apollo 13 back home after astronaut Jack Swigert said, “Houston, we’ve had a problem,” plus see the current Mission Control, and the Neutral Buoyancy Lab where astronauts may be training.
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Neighborhood: The Heights
The locals call this place “Garage Mahal.” Even if you’re not a car aficionado, the Art Car Museum is worth a visit just so that you can say you’ve been here. Come to see a handful of art cars such as pink cadillacs and low riders on rotating exhibits. The museum also showcases creative artists that never get acknowledged in typical art circles. Houston’s Art Car Parade is actually managed by the Orange Show, but some of the cars that take part in it find their permanent homes here. We consider it one of the top things to do in Houston if you like kitschy, funky art. The museum has free admission and is open Wednesdays through Sundays. Call ahead to confirm that it’s going to be open when you want to visit—sometimes it closes to get ready for a new exhibit.
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Neighborhood: Theater District
This six-acre campus opened in 2003, rebuilding what was once Houston’s Fire Station No. 1 and the Central Waterworks building and turned it into an entertainment center. The facility has a 500,000 gallon aquarium with sharks, sawfish, rays and tropical fish, plus a Louisiana swamp complete with gators, a tropical rainforest with a white tiger, and a Sunken Temple. Outside, ride the Diving Bell Ferris wheel for a stellar view of the skyline, definitely one of the best things to do in Houston on a pleasant evening. If you have time, we also recommend the drop 20-feet on the Lighthouse thrill ride. The only reason to dine at the Downtown Aquarium's restaurant is to watch the fish in the surrounding tanks since the food is nothing spectacular (quite frankly, you would be better off dining elsewhere). Your best bet is an all-day Adventure Pass that lets you ride all the rides and visit everything at the Aquarium for just $15.99. An even better deal is the 9-day CityPass for $39 for adults ($29 for kids 3 to 11 years) that includes all Aquarium rides, plus seven other Houston attractions. You can buy CityPass at any of the attractions.
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At 1,400 acres, Houston’s Memorial Park is one of the largest urban parks in the country (in contrast, NYC’s Central Park is only 843 acres). Located just north of River Oaks on the west side of town and bounded by Buffalo Bayou on its southern edge, come here and take a hike! Over 30 miles of trail wend their way through woods, and are the perfect place for jogging and cycling. The park also has a well-known golf course, and an outdoor pool at 5402 Arnot that anyone can swim in and is free Tuesdays through Sundays from 1 to 8PM. Perhaps the best part of the park is the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center at the parks’ western edge which has ongoing daily events like canoe trips and photography classes (check the website for details and information on how to sign up for events: www.houstonarboretum.org)
. The Houston Parks and Rec Department owns the park, but the nonprofit Conservancy has full-time staff dedicated to the park and they provide more information than Parks & Rec.
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There’s a style of art for everyone. For some, it’s fine art at the Menil. For others it’s folk art. In 1956, Houston postal worker Jefferson Davis McKissack started building this architectural maze as a tribute to his favorite fruit using concrete, wood, brick, and other random objects: a tractor seat, mannequin, whirligigs and wagon wheels. McKissack has since passed, but Marilyn Oshman took over care of his creation, got it listed in the National Register of Historic Places and formed the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art honoring the artistic drive to create in everyone. They also manage the Beer Can House at 222 Malone St.—completely covered in over 50,000 beer cans. The Center runs tours through each attraction on Saturdays, with additional hours in summer. You can drive by and gawk any day of the week. Each May, the Center also organizes Houston’s famous Art Car Parade, one of the top things to do in Houston if you love cars and happen to be visiting then.
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Who knew Houston had a Chinatown? At six miles long, it’s actually one of the longest in the nation, with Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Vietnamese and Middle Eastern markets, among others. It runs along Bellaire Boulevard, skirting the residential neighborhood by the same name, so you can park right on the streets. Asian architecture and fountains set off Houston’s famous Hong Kong Market. Stop at the gorgeous Jade Buddha Temple on two and a half acres, where Buddhist monks study and meditate. The best value is the four-hour Asian Heritage Discovery tour, run by Christy Chang. For just $30, you can sample Dim Sum, light incense at the Jade palace, practice Chinese calligraphy, shop at the market, and enjoy an authentic 10-course Chinese meal and all with a knowledgeable guide. It usually runs mid-morning, but she’ll customize the tour for you if you ask. If you enjoy stepping into another culture for a day, this tour is one of the best things to do in Houston.
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Neighborhood: Museum District
One of the best things to do in Houston occurs from March through October, when you can enjoy free performances of everything from the Houston Symphony to CATS, and the Harlem Gospel Choir to Indian Folk Dance on the lawn of the Miller Outdoor Theatre. Every Saturday evening throughout the summer, a different performing art company presents their work to the public on this outdoor stage, and there are other performances on the weekdays as well. Come early (check the website for showtimes and plan on arriving about an hour beforehand) and grab a free spot on the lawn (or pay for covered seats). Bring a blanket from your hotel and perhaps a picnic meal and enjoy a free performance that could cost upwards of $100 at the Alley or Wortham.
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Hurricane Ike destroyed much of the Kemah Boardwalk, but despite this devastation they’re finally back in action —rebuilt and better than ever. Watch sailboats on Clear Lake as you saunter and shop on the wooden boardwalk chock full of shops and restaurants—plus over a dozen thrill rides. But why shop when you can try your hand at sailing, kiteboarding, paragliding, and windsurfing in Clear Lake? Rentals and lessons are available from several shops and organizations (www.kemah.net). When you get hungry, T-Bone Toms’ southern comfort food is legendary and Bakkhus Taverna Greek always has a crowd. In summertime, we recommend visiting on Tuesdays or Thursdays for free concerts. Rock the Dock has been around for years on Thursdays, and in 2010, Christian station KSBJ kicked off the Booming by the Bay rock concert series on Tuesday evenings geared to the young adult crowd.
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