I wanted to go somewhere for President's Day weekend, but wanted to go somewhere much warmer than NYC but not longer than a four hour flight and reasonably priced. My two options were Savannah or Houston, and since I was treating my mom, she picked Houston to bank on the weather (turns out Savannah's weather was about the same, and was sunny the whole weekend while it rained half the time while we were in Houston--oh well!). We booked the trip back in November and was able to get a direct flight and hotel stay through Expedia for just under $600 per person.
Where We stayed in Houston
I stayed at the Whitehall Houston, which is right at the edge of downtown Houston. While I enjoyed our stay overall, I was kind of disappointed in our room. The hotel gave us a handicapped room, which I wouldn't have mind except the shower area seemed small. It was basically a small area with a curtain and it just seemed that water would get everywhere since there was no door/tub/etc. So I called the lobby to change rooms and they were nice enough to allow us to, but the next room we had were right behind the hotel elevators! As we were settling into the room, I kept hearing rolling mechanic sounds and it took me a while to realize it was the elevators! I didn't want to change rooms again though, the noise eventually lulled me to sleep but it was a bit annoying. Also, when we arrived, the room had two bottles of water that seemed complimentary so we took them. Then the next evening we were given only one bottle and the last day none! So I am confused as to whether we were supposed to get water or not. The hotel also only had valet parking available. Upon my research for hotels, I think that's the case for most hotels located in the city center but I thought the prices for Sunday were a bit excessive. Friday and Saturday night valet parking is $19/night but Sunday jumps to $29! So overall, I did like the hotel for its location and the staff was fine, but the minor things like the room comfort, water bottles, and parking gouge for Sunday night were the "cons" to me. The hotel was very clean though and also has an outdoor pool, which we did not use since it was not warm enough. So I would say stay here only if you can get a good deal.
Highlights of Houston
There are tons of resources online of what to do in Houston. The information that was most helpful to me for planning was Thrillist's list of 50 free things to do in Houston. I also was NOT in Houston on a Thursday, but if you find yourself there on a Thursday, a bunch of their museums are free so plan accordingly!
For our trip, we saw/visited:
- The Heights' 19th Street Shopping District: This stretch of vintage/antique shops is about 20 minutes from downtown Houston. If you love antique/vintage shopping this might be worth a look. It's about two city blocks long, so you can pretty much browse the block in less than half an hour. Parking is free on the street.
- Discovery Green: An urban park in downtown Houston, not much was going on when we went. You can stroll thru it in 15 minutes! Easy to find street parking (metered). Probably more lively in the summer. Had these cool flower sculptures below though.
- The Downtown Underground Tunnels: It rained half the time we were in Houston. On the first day we arrived, it rained most of the day! Luckily, because we were staying downtown, we were able to get around the city center by going underground. These tunnels span over 6 miles and is meant for city workers to get around when the weather is too hot out or raining. There is NOTHING worth seeing in these tunnels though--everything below was fast food, fast food, fast food places and then a random Hallmark-type shop here and there. However, it was interesting to see all the people working in the area file thru the tunnels like ants on their lunch break. You can wander in/out of office buildings that lead into mini mall areas so you can probably kill an hour or two here if you just want to move around the city and the weather is bad, but otherwise, there is not much to experience here. Also, it's easy to get around if you just follow the color-coded maps. I think the tunnels are closed on non-office working days/hours though.
- The Galleria: Another option to kill time when it's raining. This mall is about 20 minutes from downtown and it is HUGE!!!! Probably one of the biggest malls in America I've ever been to. It has every single store you can imagine for clothes/shoes/dept. stores, etc. It even has a indoor ice skating rink!
- Hermann Park: Huge park in the city center. Can be hard to find parking though there are dedicated lots. I think Lot C is the bigger one so a little easier to find parking. Can rent a paddle boat or just stroll around. This park seems bigger and more family-oriented (more picnics, more lawn space) than the Buffalo Bayou one (where you seem to find more bikers and joggers and distinct trails).
- The Johnson Space Center: This was by far the best part of visiting Houston, especially if you are a bit of a space nerd like me! I've always been fascinated with space since I was a kid and to see scientists and artifacts from past missions was surreal. I was in awe of all those who work here and to think about all the work that goes into exploring a realm beyond Earth.
Tips on visiting the Johnson Space Center
Buy tickets online. When you do, you have to pick 'times' for when you want to do the tram tour and visit the shuttle (they call it the Orbiter tour online). I don't know if it's because we went on off-season day, but no one checked on the times you actually entered these exhibits but a lot of what I read online recommend that you get a timed entry. We went on a Saturday, and the center opens at 10 am. Definitely start your day as early as possible so you can see as much as you can. The highlights are the tram tours, the Journey to Earth movie, and then check out the Orbiter tour. Below is a picture of what you are allowed to board/explore at the end of the Orbiter (the Endeavor Shuttle!) tour.
For the tram tour, note there are TWO TRAMS. Although most reviews suggested to allocate 90 minutes total to both tours, it took me two hours because there was some congestion/crowding to get on the trams. Also, if you do buy tickets at the center instead of in advance, you can rsvp for timed entry later but honestly, I don't think they check unless it's super crowded. To risk wasting time, just take these tram tours ASAP. The two trams are the blue line, and the red line. Start with the blue line, which will take you to the Mission Control Center--which is 100% for reeeeeals! This stop lasted no more than 5-7 minutes. We were lucky and it turns out that just as our group arrive, the sun was rising above Earth from the vantage point of the International Space Station that's orbiting Earth. Sunrises like this last 3 seconds! And astronauts up there get to see a sunrise/sunset every 45 minutes during orbit.
At the end of the first tram tour, you will end up at Rocket Park. You get off and can explore some of the rockets that were launched on previous missions.
I thought this was the coolest thing to see in person. While this looks like a continuous unit below, it's actually 4 separate pieces (which you will see that it is as you walk alongside of it). You can see rocket park in about 15 minutes, after which you get back on a tram to the main center. This is where we had line congestion, because both blue and red trams take you here before ending back at the museum. So after you get off here on the blue tram, explore rocket park, go back to the museum, get online again to take the red tram, and skip the rocket park on the way back.
The thing to see on the red tram tour is the place where current missions are being prepared for. it's in a warehouse-type place that spans a couple of football fields, and you will see people at work and all the models they have. The 'next big thing' they seem to be working on is called Orion, and the mission is to one day send humans to Mars and to travel back!
After the tram tours are over, you can check out other parts of the museum but I think the other main highlight is the movie shown at the Journey to Earth theatre. It talks about the history of past space missions and is engaging. Then you can head to Independence Plaza (ie Orbiter tour aka visiting the shuttle) and see artifacts, including touching a rock from the moon (it felt smooth, after years of probably millions of people touching it!).
Above: Last spacecraft to return to us from the moon. Below: Model of what it was like for astronauts on the moon.
Overall, I really found the visit to the Space Center educational and interesting. It's great for kids and adults. If you have zero interest in space though then skip this!
- Menil Collection: The Menil Collection is a small museum in the Museum District of Houston. They're probably most famous for Magritte artwork. It's a nice visit which you can do in 20-30 minutes. Free parking.
- Houston Center for Photography: This place is literally a block away from Menil Collection. It's also very small, free, and you can see everything in 15-20 minutes. Worth seeing if you're in the area.
- Buffalo Bayou Park/Rain Exhibit at the Cistern: The weather was not great the day we went to Buffalo Bayou Park so I didn't see much of it. However it seems like a great place for a hike, run, or biking activity with miles of trails. We also came here though to see the Rain Exhibit at the Cistern. It's basically an art show with light and thundering rain sound by artist Magdalena Fernandez. It's $10 though and you must rsvp for it. The whole show is 30 minutes and I thought it was cool but I can see people either liking it or hating it. The exhibit closes sometime this spring.
- James Turrell's Skyspace: This art installation is on campus at Rice University. It's free and online it says rsvps are required but honestly, you don't need to make them! No one checks, and people on campus can easily wander in and out of the exhibit. The "show" starts right at sundown, although the lights turn on ten minutes before. It's basically a light show (no music or sounds), where the roof of this exhibit changes from deep blues/purples/reds/yellows, etc. It's meant to be meditative I guess, as you gave thru the hole into the sky but it was hard to enjoy with a bunch of rowdy school kids around. So your experience will depend on what you expect and who else is there. There are two areas of seating, benches on the ground floor and benches on the level above. Honestly, I thought the exhibit looked more beautiful on the outskirts. Tip on parking: Rather than pay for visitor parking on campus, just park a couple of blocks outside of the university on the residential streets! It's probably a 15 minute walk (or less) from the residential street to the installation. Just make sure to park near the Shepherd School of Music, or near West Lot 1 (you can google this Google maps!).
Above: The view from inside. Below: The view from outside (which I thought was more interesting!)
- Houston Museum of Natural Science: It rained the morning we were leaving Houston and we had four hours to kill before going to the airport. Most museums are closed on Mondays but luckily the Museum of Natural Science was open! There is a parking garage (which is $20 for guests; there is street parking in front if you can find it) and tickets to all the exhibits are sold separately, which worked out for us because we only wanted to see an iMax movie and the Butterfly exhibit. The iMax move we saw was Wild Africa and it was wonderful! I loved it. I love nature films and this one was very well done and in 3-D. The film was shot lusciously and lasts 40 minutes. Admission was $11 and I thought very much worth it compared to other nature films I've seen in other museums (including NY!). The Butterfly exhibit on the other hand was just ok, you can see it all in 20-30 minutes and I was more interested in seeing some of the unique bugs/reptiles they had on showcase. The butterflies were nice to see but there wasn't too many of them or too much variety. Great for kids, but for adults, might be a bit boring unless you've never seen a butterfly before!
- Market Square Park: This is an area of downtown Houston where they seem to have a lot of cool bars and restaurants. It's a quick 15 minute walk around the area and is probably where the nightlife is popping. Since I was with my mom, I didn't try any bars but the bar scene did look cool. We had dinner at one of the restaurants around here (La Fisheria) but I thought it wasn't good so I won't comment further on it except it was a waste of a meal for me!! Oh well.
I love how you can grab a drink at the bar below and sit in the outdoor living room couch setting!
- Kemah Boardwalk: If you have extra time, or visit the NASA space museum, you can drive out to Kemah Boardwalk after. It's about a 20 minute drive from the Space center (about an hour and change from downtown Houston), and basically this is where people go to eat seafood and go on rides. It's like a mini Coney Island/amusement park. Seemed expensive though but kids would love it. Food is probably overpriced as well but it's right by the water and the ambience is nice. There is free street parking but you have to look for it, and there's also parking lots where you can pay for the day. We got lucky and found free street parking though, just be patient! We just walked around here for 15-20 minutes to have a look since the weather was good but otherwise didn't stay long here.
- Chinatown: Being Asian, I'm always curious about other Asian communities outside of NYC. Houston has a big Chinese/Vietnamese community and it was interesting to see it sprawled out over mini shopping plazas. There didn't seem like any place to really 'walk' around like you can in NYC Chinatown, but we did come across Hong Kong City Mall which had a ton of Vietnamese food vendors and a huge Asian supermarket to explore. Long story short though--I'd skip trying to explore Chinatown Houston unless you're really curious. Also, I didn't find the food that compelling (sorry! NYC Chinese/Vietnamese food is way better!)
- Brookstreet BBQ: The highlight of all my meals was hands down this DELECTABLE place in the Montrose area of the city. I loved it so much we came back here on our last day before we went to the airport. Everything was very fresh, juicy, and flavorful and you can pick how many meats you want to try (ie 1, 2, or 3 different types of meats) and you get two sides. Most of what we tried was very good. I'm usually not a fan of brisket (find most places make it dry) but this place was soooo juicy. The St. Louis ribs were my fave, and the chicken was good too. Tried the pulled pork which was ok but I'm not a fan of pulled pork in general. The Mexican-styled corn was also yummy as was the bread (I have no idea what kind, but it was buttery) and the potato salad and baked potato casserole was also winners in my book.
Above: Ribs, pulled pork, and chicken. Below: briiiiiisket! Great value meals (never spent more than $35 for two!)
- Good Dog Houston: Another good, casual spot to eat by the Menil museum. Can get a nice gourmet hot dog with different types of toppings. Not a place you have to go out of your way for to try, but if you're in this area and hungry, it's worth coming here to get a snack.
So...Is Houston Worth Visiting?
Overall impression: Houston is not terribly exciting, there is some stuff to do and I think it would be a great place for families to visit (lots of things for kids to do) but for an adults-only trip, I think there are better options (ie Chicago, LA, Austin). However, we did enjoy our time in Houston and the art scene was much more vibrant than I expected. I'm used to being able to walk around neighborhoods though and I found that you really need to drive to get around the city, which is sprawling. So yes, Houston is worth visiting if you haven't traveled to many other cities in the U.S., much less outside of the U.S., but if you're a seasoned traveler, you might find Houston a bit boring (and I don't mean that to be insulting, just that it's very family-friendly and not the type a visit a solo traveler or adventurous traveler might find as interesting).