Almost every major city has at least one stand-out attraction you associate it with almost immediately, a huge draw that makes you go, yeah, I need to check that off my bucket list. Chicago has the Bean. NYC has the Statue of Liberty. San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge. LA has Hollywood. But Houston, we seem to have a problem.
When people think of Houston, their mind might go to NASA, sports, or hurricanes. And that’s largely all they know about Texas’s largest city. For whatever reason, it’s a city you don’t hear much about outside of the Lone Star State, which is strange because they’re actually the culinary and cultural capital of Texas (yup, it’s not Austin) and the fourth largest city in the country (I know, right?).
They’re also the only city in the U.S. without an ethnic majority, which means it’s super diverse both in terms of population and cuisine and you can find just about anything you’re craving or seeking there. Nearly 90 languages are spoken on a daily basis with nearly a quarter of residents born outside the U.S. If you like international melting pots, Houston is actually really cool – here’s why it’s high time to give it another look.
Let’s Taco Bout That Food
OMG that food. When you think Texas, you probably think Tex-Mex and good barbecue. Of course, there’s that in Texas-sized portions, but there’s also so much more. Let’s start with the staples. Head down the Esplanade on Navigation Blvd. and you’ll be greeted with sights and smells to transport you South of the Border. Called El Corazon de la Communidad (the heart of the community), the area is home to a collection of Mexican restaurants, each better than the next. Ninfa’s is one of the OG spots (open since 1973) and a great place to try staples like tamales, enchiladas, fajitas, and empanadas.
If you’re craving the meat sweats, there are plenty of barbecue joints to hit the spot. Anthony Bourdain’s go to is Burns BBQ, while Killen’s literally always has a line out the door with people jonesing for their smoked brisket, house-made sausages, and rib slabs. There’s also Tejas Chocolate & Barbecue, a combined chocolatier and beef shop making all your food dreams come true.
With one of the largest Asian populations outside the continent, a tasty bowl of pho, sushi, or hot pot is never far away. “Asiatown,” their version of Chinatown, has influences from Vietnam, India, Korea, Malaysia, and more with dazzling neon signs in dozens of languages fighting for your attention. Hundreds of dumpling shops, noodle houses, and dim sum spots are all within a few miles which is simultaneously overwhelming and amazing and has me salivating just writing about it. Be sure to try “Vietjun,” a fusion of Vietnamese and Cajun traditions like crawfish with Asian spices that’s local to the region. While you’re in the area, get a cheap massage, hit up Super H Mart, an authentic ethnic grocery store, rent a private room at the karaoke parlor, and visit Harwin Drive for cheap tchotchkes and trinkets – it’s definitely cheaper than booking a flight.
Murals, dessert monstrosities, and elaborate backdrops. Yup, Houston will satisfy the Instagram crowd. BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir is an epic Hindu temple and serious #architecturegoals, while Gerald D. Hines Waterwall Park is the best spot to pose with bae. To color up your feed, head to the Sugar & Cloth Color Wall and Rainbow Staircase on Green Street or the Biscuit Paint Wall. The Houston Graffiti Building is where much of the street art is, while catchy quotes like “Hey, Y’all” and “Made in Texas” are can be found all around the Shops at Houston Center. If you want to beat the heat or are feeling super extra, there’s also a Texas-shaped pool in the Marriott Marquis Houston, which shot from above is pretty drone-worthy. Get a day pass and lounge at the lazy river.
For the foodies, Houston’s Unicorn Dessert Bar is Instagram gold, while Amorino has the authentic rose shaped gelato from Italy. Aqua S boasts Japanese bubble tea wrapped in cotton candy cones, while Mico’s has giant Choco Taco ice cream creations. The prize for cutest interior goes to Present Company HTX with its lush garden walls, neon signage, and birdcages and the cutest exterior goes to Bebida’s.
Houston’s Museum District is also nothing to scoff at. The fourth largest in the country, 18 cultural institutions are just a few blocks from each other. There are your classic art and history museums, but what I find more interesting is unique establishments like the American Cowboy Museum, Buffalo Soldiers, the only museum in America dedicated to African American soldiers, and even a museum dedicated entirely to funeral services (I didn’t say Texas wasn’t weird).
Houston also has a reputation for its urban sprawl, but they actually rank first in the nation in terms of populous cities with acres of parkland. They even have their own version of Central Park. Discovery Green in the heart of downtown has everything from bocce ball to croquet, waterscapes and ice skating, and is 12-acres of serenity. Hermann Park Conservancy is another landscaped beauty with paddle boats, tiny trains, botanic gardens, and an 18-hole golf course.
With parts of Houston just 20-minutes from the Gulf of Mexico, there’s never a beach far away. The Kemah Boardwalk is essentially the Jersey Shore of Texas with amusement rides, games, and fare food. A little further afield, Galveston, is an hour away and home to 32-miles of shore, classic Victorian homes, Moody Gardens, watersports, and thrill rides.
If you’re more into nature, Armand Bayou is the largest urban wilderness preserve in the US and a great place to explore wetland and marsh habitats. Take a pontoon boat ride and get to know the local wildlife with 370 species in the area. The region is a bird watcher’s paradise especially during migration season with Brazos Bend State Park and Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge top spots to see feathered friends.
To Infinity and Beyond
And for the star attraction, Space Center Houston is out of this world — literally. Full of interactive exhibits and artifacts brought back from space (not like the fake moon rocks your mom used to buy), channel your inner astronaut as you explore replica space shuttles, take a tram tour of Rocket Park, test out Mission Control, and try a virtual reality expedition to Mars. Who knows, maybe it’ll even inspire a career change.
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