Trip Guide: Houston’s Museum District

Not only are there 18 museums within a 1.5-mile radius, but the magnificent 445-acre Hermann Park is now in full bloom.

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The view of McGovern Centennial Gardens from the mount.
The view of McGovern Centennial Gardens from the mount.

Photograph by Todd Spoth

This guide was updated in July 2016.

In terms of cultural heft, Houston is Texas’s reigning heavyweight champ, and one of its best pockets is the Museum District, a leafy neighborhood wedged between the Rice University campus and the Texas Medical Center. Not only are there 18 museums within a 1.5-mile radius, but the magnificent 445-acre Hermann Park is now in full bloom with the opening of the McGovern Centennial Gardens, which I wrote about in my May 2015 column.

The waterfall cascading down the thirty-foot-tall mount that anchors McGovern Centennial Gardens.
The waterfall cascading down the thirty-foot-tall mount that anchors McGovern Centennial Gardens.

SEE + DO

Museum hopping . . . 
For a full run-down of exhibits, performances, and events at each of the 18 museums, you’ll want to consult the official Museum District website, but here are a few of my favorites:

Asia Society Texas Center1370 Southmore Blvd, 713-496-9901
Crowd favorites: two to three rotating exhibitions on display each year, the sitting area overlooking the Water Garden Terrace that’s edged with (artful) artificial fog
Don’t overlook: the Jade Stone Cafe, for banh mi, Thai tacos, and miso soup (note: it’s only open till 2)
Before you go: check for upcoming events, including artists’ talks, Breakfast Yoga Club, and Creation Station family activities, as well as performances in the 273-seat theater
Get in free: always (main exhibit hall only); plus, kids 12 and under always free

Houston Museum of Natural Science ­– 555 Hermann Park Dr, 713-639-4629
Crowd favorites: the 1,500 winged beauties in the Cockrell Butterfly Center; Wyrex, the 10-foot T. Rex in the Morian Hall of Paleontology; the Geovator that takes on you on a simulated descent to the bottom of an oil well in the Wiess Energy Hall (this is Houston, after all)
Don’t overlook: the Hall of Ancient Egypt on the third floor, the gift shop!
Before you go: plot out your #HMNSelfies
Get in free: Thursdays from 3 to 6 (permanent exhibits only); kids 2 and under always free

Menil Collection1533 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400
Crowd favorites: Cy Twombly’s Untitled (Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor), René Magritte’s L’empire des lumières (The Dominion of Light), the Witnesses to a Surrealist Vision room
Don’t overlook: the Menil’s satellite buildings (the Cy Twombly Gallery and the Dan Flavin installation at Richmond Hall), the bookstore, or Bistro Menil
Before you go: pack a blanket for a picnic in the park across the street, where you’ll also find a red swing hanging from the sturdiest oak tree
Get in free: always
On the horizon: the Menil Drawing Institute, which will be the first freestanding facility in the U.S. designed for the exhibition and study of modern and contemporary drawings (slated to open in 2017)

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston ­­– 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300
Crowd favorites: James Turrell’s The Light Inside, Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Young Woman, the MFAH Films series, the Cullen Sculpture Garden
Don’t overlook: the Hirsch Library, where you can peruse the same books and periodicals on visual arts that the museum’s curators reference (always free)
Before you go: follow the @MFAH on Twitter to see which food trucks will be onsite the day of your visit
Get in free: all day Thursday (open till 9 p.m.); plus, kids 12 and under always free
On the horizon: a $450 million expansion that includes a 164,000-square-foot building for twentieth- and twenty-first century art, a new 80,000-square-foot space for the Glassell School of Art, and a conservation center (expected to be completed by 2019)

Plus, where to go . . .
…for history:
the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, the Czech Center Museum Houston, the Holocaust Museum Houston, the Houston Museum of African American Culture
…to entertain (and educate!) the kiddos: the Children’s Museum of Houston, the Health Museum
…to do a little soul-searching: the Jung Center*, Rothko Chapel*
…if you’re a shutterbug: the Houston Center for Photography*
…if you love crafting: the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft*
…to see site-specific installations: Rice University Art Gallery*
…if you have a contemporary bent: Contemporary Arts Museum Houston*, DiverseWorks*, Lawndale Art Center*
*always free

The highlights of Hermann Park . . .
The 445-acre landmark, which was set aside for the “health, comfort, and happiness” of Houstonians back in 1914, draws people in from all corners of the city. There are as many ways to enjoy Hermann Park (6100 Hermann Park Dr) as there are locals who love it, but here’s a tackle-able to-do list to get you started:

1. Count the number of steps it takes you to get up to the apex of the 30-foot-tall mount, where you can view the lush expanse of the newly opened McGovern Centennial Gardens.
2. Pay the $3.25 fare to board the miniature red train for a twenty-minute ride around the park.
3. Ride the train again! (It is, after all, the only way you’ll get to see Destination Mound Town, Houston-based artist Trenton Doyle Hancock’s fantastical narrative landscape that adorns the interior walls of the Hermann Park Railroad tunnel.)
4. Rent a pedal boat for a spin around the three islands dotting McGovern Lake, two of which are just for migratory birds.
5. Marvel over the teahouse built with nary a nail in the Japanese Garden.
6. Spend a day at the Houston Zoo – or a night!
7. Wander through Patrick Dougherty’s Boogie Woogie, a site-specific installation made of locally sourced saplings that will be on view for four or five years before being dismantled.
8. Bring your blanket or lawn chairs to enjoy a musical or a concert or a play at Miller Outdoor Theatre, but leave your wallet at home: every show is free of charge.
9. Go for a jog or a stroll along the two-mile Marvin Taylor Trail—and be sure to wave to the path’s nonagenarian namesake if you see him sitting on the bench by the sign that bears his name.
10. Walk the length of the 740-foot-long, black-bottomed Jones Reflection Pool and cast your gaze north to pay your respects to General Sam Houston, sitting atop his horse, Saracen, at the park’s grand entrance.

Coffee and pastries at Woodbar (left) and the interior of Bosta Kitchen (right).
Coffee and pastries at Woodbar (left) and the interior of Bosta Kitchen (right).

Photographs by Jordan Breal

EAT + DRINK

Comfort food . . . 
If nothing butters your biscuits like shrimp and grits and fried oysters, you’ll be in seventh heaven at Lucille’s, where chef Chris Williams pays homage to his grandmother’s cooking—and recreates her famed chile biscuits. 5512 La Branch, 713-568-2505.

What could be better than fried chicken? Chicken fried twice, Korean-style, at Dak & Bop, where the crispy poultry can be ordered in drums, wings, strips, or a combination thereof, with your choice of sauces. Several Texas craft brews are on tap and the cocktail menu more than holds its own too—and since your bird will be fried to order, you’ll have more than enough time to savor your pre-feast drink. 1801 Binz, 713-528-0280.

Located in nearby Midtown, the Breakfast Klub, best known for its wings and waffle dish, easily made Texas Monthly’s list of the state’s best breakfast spots. But don’t overlook it at lunchtime, when daily specials like “katfish” with “krawfish” etouffee and “chikin fried chikin” are served. 3711 Travis, 713-528-8561.

Brunch is a verb . . .
Before and/or after perusing the masterpieces on view at the Menil Collection, cross the street to enjoy the art of dining well at Bistro Menil, where lunch offerings include pizzas, panini, and salads, dinner could be crisp duck confit or Greek-style lamp chops, and brunch (served Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) involves choosing between a crab omelet, salmon with potato latkes, and mixed berry crepes. 1513 West Alabama, 713-904-3537.

A wall of wine bottles (1,000!) greets you at Davis Street at Hermann Park, a sleek spot with a popular patio for happy hour meet-ups, a nightly dinner menu (rotisserie chicken, hand-cut steaks), and, most importantly, a decidedly Southern Sunday brunch: hello, jalapeño johnnycakes and smoked Gouda grits! 5925 Alameda Rd, 844-328-4778.

Note: If meals, not museums, are the main thrust of your visit, consult the Texas Monthly Dining Guide for reviews of the city’s best offerings. Also worth bookmarking is Houston Chronicle food critic Alison Cook’s 2014 list of the city’s top 100 restaurants.

If you take your coffee with . . .
…a pastry (or two) and/or a cocktail: There’s a long lineup of baked treats—cinnamon rolls, monkey bread, and orange cranberry scones literally lined up along the bar—at Woodbar, the little sister to Canopy, the lunch and dinner spot next door. In the evenings, it morphs into a cocktail bar with savory nibbles like pulled pork tacos and mini lobster rolls. Tip: The parking lot is, weirdly, valet only, but there is free street parking nearby. 3939 Montrose, 713-528-6848.

…a po’boy and/or a glass of cabernet: You could hunker down all day long at Bosta Wine & Coffee, starting with a muffin and a cortado for breakfast, then a po’boy from Antone’s and a Topo Chico for lunch, followed by a pre-dinner meat and cheese plate and a glass of grenache. 1801 Binz, 713-533-9560.

Nearby nightcaps . . . 
Anvil Bar and Refuge1424 Westheimer Rd, 713-523-1622
Grand Prize Bar1010 Banks, 713-526-4565
Monarch at Hotel ZaZa ­– 5701 Main, 713-527-1800
Zimm’s4321 Montrose Blvd, 713-521-2002

Don’t leave town without eating . . . 
Dinner at Pax Americana, where you could throw darts at the menu of small plates—creamy goat ricotta on sunflower rye, lamb meatballs with golden beets, rock shrimp in a chilled celery root broth—and wind up hitting a winner each time. No wonder it made food editor Patricia Sharpe’s list of the top 10 best new restaurants of 2014. Tip: It’s the early-bird diners who get the Asian-spiced fatty brisket. 4319 Montrose, 713-239-0228.

La Colombe d'Or is an eclectic, five-suite boutique hotel.
La Colombe d’Or is an eclectic, five-suite boutique hotel.

Photograph by Jordan Breal

STAY

My pick . . . 
La Colombe d’Or is quite unlike most boutique hotels in Texas. For starters, it feels much more like an eclectic, art-collecting uncle’s worn-in mansion than cookie-cutter guesthouse. It’s small, with only five suites—most with dining rooms and all hung with museum-worthy paintings—which lends it a wonderfully intimate vibe and means that you’ll likely have the lobby, the library, and the cozy bar all to yourself. 3410 Montrose Blvd, 713-524-7999.

Also recommended . . .
Hotel ZaZa, which exudes the look-at-me personality of a Kardashian sister, is cheekily over-the-top (there’s a 1,035-square-foot space-travel-themed suite), so it may not suit everyone’s tastes, but the rooms and service are consistently lauded. 5701 Main, 713-526-1991.

BEFORE YOU GO

A few tips:

  • Check museum times before you go, as many are closed the beginning of the week.
  • If you’re staying downtown, hop on the METRORail for a quick and easy ride into the heart of the Museum District (or, if you’re driving, consult this list of parking options).
  • Prepare yourself for crowds and potentially long lines at the most popular attractions, particularly the Houston Zoo and the Houston Museum of Natural Science

Read . . . Houston’s Hermann Park: A Century of Community by Barrie Scardino Bradley; Sacred Modern: Faith, Activism, and Aesthetics in the Menil Collection by Pamela Smart
Bookmark . . . Houstonia magazine’s slideshow of 10 objects in the Museum District to keep your eyes peeled for.
Watch . . . Marvin Taylor’s oral history interview about his efforts to rehabilitate Hermann Park’s jogging trails.
Follow . . . @MenilCollection on Instagram, @HermannPark on Twitter

Texas Monthly writers on Houston’s Museum District…

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