It’s a steamy Friday afternoon, and I’m fighting for my life on Interstate 10 heading into Houston, battling never-ending construction and kamikaze drivers. Why? Because of jealousy: Houston, which I relentlessly belittle, as every loyal Austinite should, has a newly minted light-rail train system. My oh-so-progressive city doesn’t. And although the sole route, the METRORail Red Line, is a mere 7.5 miles long—running from downtown to just south of Reliant Stadium—and serves only a snippet of the nearly 600-square-mile metropolis, it still manages to link a lion’s share of the city’s tourist hot spots. The lure of exploring Houston, of all cities, without a car is so irresistibly counterintuitive, I’ve decided to swallow my envy and spend some time train hopping.
My journey begins at the northernmost station, at the University of Houston—Downtown. From here, I have a commanding view of Buffalo Bayou, once an artery for merchant ships bearing nineteenth-century swag and now the focus of ardent civic improvements like jogging trails, boat launches, sculpture, and stairways. Across the muddy bayou, downtown rises up, a jumble of noble architecture and crusty relics. I buy a 24-hour pass, board a cool, clean Siemens-built Avanto train car, and descend into the concrete jungle, noting historic specimens that line our route down Main Street—like the turreted Sweeney, Coombs, and Fredericks Building, one of downtown’s few remaining Victorian dowagers, and the wedding-cake-ish Gulf Building, a primo example of art deco. My fellow passengers are much more numerous than I’d expected and much more interested in serious commuting than joyriding (although the train’s highest daily ridership—in the tens of thousands—was during Super Bowl 2004). Even more surprising, strangers on this train talk to one another. Pleasantly. When was the last time you saw fellow commuters communicate without resorting to inflammatory sign language?
I turn my attention back to the passing landscape as we exit the downtown area, whooshing under Interstate 45 and U.S. 59—both already clogged with traffic—and into the welcoming green of the Museum District, Rice University, and Hermann Park, picking up and disgorging passengers along the way. We glide through the skyscraper canyons of the Texas Medical Center and then into the sprawling homogeneity surrounding the Smith Lands and Reliant Park stations. Here in the concrete prairie, some fast-talking iron fence salesman evidently made his fortune.
The entire trip, from the beginning to the end of the line, at Fannin South, takes exactly the 32 minutes allotted. But for a visitor, the train’s appeal lies not only in its zip (and air conditioning) but also in its destinations. So, on the return, I disembark a few times to do touristy things: once to shop, once to explore a blossoming urban neighborhood, and then to prowl downtown. I begin at the Museum District, which some people tout for its culture (must be the dozen or more high-brow institutions clustered here) but which I unapologetically laud for its gift offerings. Shops at both the Museum of Fine Arts and the Contemporary Arts Museum offer scads of artsy and edgy baubles, bags, books, and glassware. In the exhibit space at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, a few blocks away, I am astonished by the creative possibilities of dried lotus blossoms and pistachio shells; in its Asher Gallery, I am equally wowed by the scope of jewelry for sale, from the Flintstone-esque to the downright diaphanous.
Next stop: the Ensemble/ HCC station. A group of businesses directly across the street—a music club, a record store, a taco bar, and a white-tablecloth bistro—hint at the renaissance the entire Midtown neighborhood has experienced in the past ten years or so. Half a block away is the trendsetting restaurant T’afia, whose credo to “eat where your food lives” has spawned a tiny Saturday morning farmers’ market. (I get the good out of my 24-hour rail pass and return by train the next day to join locals stocking up on artisan cheeses, organic barbecue, botanical lotions, and good-looking produce and pretzels.)
By the time I’m back downtown, at the Main Street Square station, the place is subdued: The office workers have vanished, and the clubbers and the baseball fans headed to that night’s game at Minute Maid Park have yet to appear. I stroll the streets, reveling in an unexpected perk of light-rail travel: walking. Although the selection of bars and restaurants right along the rail line is overwhelming (as are, frankly, the panhandlers), I eventually wend my way to Market Square, a patch of green flanked by some of the oldest surviving buildings in the city. I sit at a sidewalk table at La Carafe, a 50-plus-year-old bar that’s still going strong (although the 147-year-old redbrick building appears a bit askew), and share a beer with my new companion, the green-eyed monster.
Purchase tickets at any of the sixteen stations. Twenty-four-hour day pass: $2. Weekday service from 4:30 a.m. to 12:45 a.m., Friday until 2:15 a.m. Saturday service from 5:30 a.m. to 2:15 a.m., Sunday until 12:45 a.m. 713-635-4000, ridemetro.org.
WHILE YOU’RE IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD:
You could jump on METRORail from your window (but don’t) at the posh Hotel Icon, in the nearly century-old Union National Bank Building, or the Residence Inn by Marriott, in the 1921 Humble Oil Building. (Both slash rates most weekends.) In addition to the ballpark and a wild variety of restaurants and bars, downtown also boasts a thriving theater district, with performances ranging from Arsenic and Old Lace at the Alley Theatre to David Sedaris at Jones Hall. Maps and detailed information at downtownhouston.com.