Let me start with an obvious disclaimer: There is no way you can fully experience Houston’s exquisite array of enticements in a mere two days’ time—but it’s certainly fun to try. I tend to plan my visits to the state’s largest metropolis with the precision of a tactical force executing a well-rehearsed operation, but when the opportunity for a last-minute trip sprang up recently, I happily got in the car knowing little more than where I’d be staying.
With a native Houstonian as my guide, I ended up on a whirlwind tour of sights and meals that spanned the highbrow-lowbrow spectrum. Here’s one iteration of my ideal “choose your own adventure” Houston weekend to keep in your back pocket for when the mood or the chance strikes.
Upon Arrival: Thrifty or spendthrifty?
Option A: Head to southwest Houston’s sizable Chinatown for a budget-friendly feast of bánh bèo (steamed rice cakes topped with minced dried shrimp), bánh nâm (rice cakes with pork and shrimp steamed in banana leaves), and bánh it ram (fried dumplings) at Nam Giao (6938 Wilcrest Dr), where entrees are south of $10. Walk off your meal at the nearby Hong Kong City Mall, a Galleria-like emporium housing dozens of shops and kiosks selling everything from bubble tea to imported-silk dresses.
Option B: At Le Colonial, in the tony new River Oaks District, prepare your palate for dishes like bo xao sate (cubes of filet mignon in a spicy saté sauce, $25), goi ga (a red- and green-cabbage salad topped with Texas pink grapefruit, $14), and other upscale takes on the tastes of Vietnam. Since you’re already within spitting distance, you might as well do a little shopping (window or otherwise) at Dior, Tom Ford, Dolce & Gabbana, Stella McCartney, Hermés, and the other no-expense-spared storefronts. (Even the stop signs are a chic black-and-white.)
Afternoon: Montrose or downtown?
Option A: Check in at La Colombe D’or, a five-suite gem in Montrose with enough opulent art on its walls that you may mistakenly think you’re sleeping in a museum—and, in fact, you’ll be within a short walk or drive from 18 museums in the nearby Museum District.
Option B: If you haven’t heard yet, Houston’s downtown is no longer a ghost town after the business folk head home, and the historic Lancaster Hotel, which completed a renovation in 2013, is right in the heart of things in the seventeen-block Theater District.
(Option C: Pretend you’re a local and check into a vacation rental in one of the city’s charming neighborhoods. You’ll find a few Houston options on this list of urban vacation rentals.)
Dinner: Brand-new or tried-and-true?
Option A: Open since June, Ritual is a restaurant-taproom-bar in the Houston Heights that is riding “the Southern new wave” with its dried-kimchi-dusted hoecakes and red beans and rice, as food editor Patricia Sharpe puts it in her latest review, which also makes mention of the heritage-pig guru on staff.
Option B: Despite opening two months before 9/11 and enduring an early downturn, Indika (in its Westheimer location since 2006) has not wavered in delivering satisfying classic Indian dishes with contemporary tweaks. If the goat masala doesn’t catch your eye, try the vegetarian tasting, which is a hearty greatest-hits meal.
Late-night: Live music or bar crawl?
Option A: The Raven Tower, a quirky former bachelor pad on the Near Northside with a view of Little White Oak Bayou, has been turned into an al fresco hangout with a small bar and a big patio and a crowd-pleasing lineup of musical acts to further enliven things. (Its namesake tower, looming overhead, will be reopening this fall.) The adjacent White Oak Music Hall, which debuted this summer, is gunning to be the city’s next live music institution—even if it still has a few kinks to work out.
Option B: Forget driving all over town. The Pastry War, the Original OKRA Charity Bar, Captain Foxheart’s Bad News Bar & Spirit Lodge, Little Dipper, Notsuoh, the Nightingale Room, the Honeymoon Café & Bar, Warren’s Inn, and other watering holes occupy one square block next to Market Square Park downtown. Start—or end—your evening just down the street at La Carafe, a cash-and-wine-only joint thought to be the oldest bar in town.
Morning: Waterway or urban oasis?
Option A: Now that 160 acres along Houston’s main waterway have been gussied up, you can walk, run, cycle, kayak, or skate your way through Buffalo Bayou Park. Three tours to consider: the weekend skyline paddling tour, an audio tour that takes you through the park’s seven works of public art, and a subterranean tour of the Cistern, a now (nearly) empty underground drinking-water reservoir filled with 221 twenty-five-foot-tall concrete columns (go ahead and let out a yell to hear the 17-second echo). For brunch, you’ll be having buttermilk drop biscuits and salmon gravlax toast at the Dunlavy.
Option B: Once a couple of parking lots, the twelve-acre Discovery Green is now downtown’s lush playground. You can kayak on Kinder Lake, practice your downward dog during hatha yoga sessions, or let the kiddos frolic through the fountains. For lunch, you’ll be having wild mushroom mac and cheese or a redfish B.L.T. at the Grove.
Afternoon: A little art or a lot of science?
Option A: Of the 18 museums within the Museum District’s 1.5-mile radius, don’t overlook smaller, more focused collections like the Houston Center for Photography and the Asia Society Texas Center (for a mid-day snack, have a fresh-baked cookie at its Jade Stone Cafe).
Option B: Visiting the most visited museum in Texas on a Saturday may seem a daunting undertaking, but the Houston Museum of Natural Science shouldn’t be missed. (You can always call ahead to inquire about the day’s expected crowds; 713-639-4629.) With sixteen permanent exhibitions, there’s more than enough to fill an afternoon if not an entire day. (If you’re in need of sustenance and/or caffeine and/or something stronger, the nearby Bosta Kitchen has you covered.)
Dinner: Meat or veggies?
Option A: Protein lovers looking for something more adventurous than a typical steakhouse will like the looks (and tastes) of James Beard Award winner Chris Shepherd’s meaty menu at Underbelly—perhaps shaved guanciale with pear butter on toast or green chili meatballs with charred corn pico will pique your palate.
Option B: Though far from strictly vegetarian, the prix-fixe menu at Oxheart, helmed by James Beard Award winner Justin Yu, elevates fresh produce to an art form—think an English cucumber poached in fermented cucumber juice or a mung bean crepe stuffed with alliums, potato, and miso.
Late-night: Bourbon or whiskey?
Option A: If your preferred poison is made from 51 percent corn and barrel-aged, the lineup at Alba Huerta’s Julep has a number of pleasing bourbon-based offerings you’ll like, including its signature drink (made with two bourbons) and classics like a Stone Fence Sour and an Old Pepper. Oh, and a Pappy tasting can be arranged too.
Option B: At Reserve 101, in trendy “EaDo” (i.e., “east of downtown”), the whiskey list, organized by location and distillery, is claimed to be the most extensive in the state. So don’t feel foolish if you need help navigating the offerings—the bartenders are obliging guides.
Morning: Post-constitutional brunch or taco picnic in the park?
Option A: Start your final morning with a brisk stroll around McGovern Centennial Gardens, the long-awaited addition to revitalized Hermann Park. Take the spiral path up to the top of the thirty-foot mount to burn a few extra calories (and to take in a stunning bird’s-eye view) before ordering oysters and hushpuppies and beignets at State of Grace’s decadent brunch.
Option B: Order your breakfast tacos to go at the Original Villa Arcos then zip over to Smither Park for a picnic amid the whimsical mosaic backdrops. Just down the street is the equally magical, maze-like Orange Show, a beloved Houston landmark that will reignite your imaginative faculties and leave you in awe of its creator Jeff McKissack’s singular vision. (For more on this “razzle-dazzle piece of American folk art,” read William Martin’s 1977 feature, “What’s Red, White, and Blue…and Orange All Over?”)
Before you leave: Ecumenical sanctuary #1 or ecumenical sanctuary #2?
Option A: Before you have to get back in traffic or brave one of the airports, sit a spell in silent reverie at the Rothko Chapel and ponder just what was going through Mark Rothko’s mind when he created those moody canvases.
Option B: There’s something just as calming about the Beer Can House, a ranch house turned shimmering cultural statement that a retired upholsterer named John Milkovisch decorated with an estimated 50,000 empties. And while there’s no telling exactly what came over him during the creative process either, the Sunday congregants who visit are just as reverential.