Most people do not associate Houston with the word “vacation.” There are good reasons for this. The city lacks virtually any kind of natural physical beauty—no mountains, no sparkling lakes, no beaches—unless you count Galveston, an unprepossessing fifty-mile drive to the southeast. Indeed, there’s no place you would immediately associate with any sort of R&R, unless your idea of a great vacation is floating along the Texas-shape lazy river on the roof of downtown’s Marriott Marquis—not that there’s anything wrong with that.
But. The truth is Houston is a great destination for a long weekend, and even a week, especially in late fall when the cool weather has set in, or in early spring, when the azaleas are ablaze with every hue imaginable of pink, purple, red, and a cottony, almost otherworldly, white. What is finally coming to be accepted, after decades of ignorance (and snobbery, maybe), is that the fourth-largest city in the country has so much to offer visitors that trying to experience all the highlights in a short visit is impossible.
Yes, we have world-class high arts, like most big, impressive cities. You wouldn’t want to come here without checking out the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston or the Menil Collection. Nor should you miss sampling some of the rich performing arts offerings, including the Houston Grand Opera, the Houston Ballet, the symphony, the various nationally known theater companies—those artistic baselines that allow all big cities to claim high culture points. And we, of course, have professional sports teams: the Rockets, the Texans, the Astros, the Dynamo, and the Dash, with fancy stadiums to match. Additionally, a decade or so back, some community leaders decided that Quality of Life mattered and started pouring tens of millions into our parks, paying the world’s best landscape architects to convert once-beleaguered spaces into badly needed urban oases. (To recall the muddy ditch that has now become a stunning reflecting pool in Hermann Park is to recall an entirely different Houston.) You can rent a bike and traverse lush, grassy parts of the city that would never be imaginable from our infamous, myriad highways. Tall pines, sprawling oaks, teeming bayous, and the occasional alligator are all right there in the city limits.
But what really separates Houston from other major U.S. metropolises, and from other cities in Texas, is its vibrancy: the cultural, social, ethnic, geographical, and economic mix that gives this place a uniqueness can be found in everything from dinner out to a walk in the park. It isn’t just that you can have a Malaysian meal one night and breakfast tacos the next morning and a Cameroonian stew for lunch. Or that you can sample the work of a different James Beard Award winner at every meal during your stay. Or that you can spend your time shopping for saris off Westpark, Gucci at the Galleria, Brunello Cucinelli in the River Oaks District, and custom cowboy boots at Lucchese. It’s that Houstonians, for the most part, represent self-selection at its best: people are here because they want to be, because a certain kind of ambition drew them here.
They were willing to build a city in a place with a less than perfect climate and a less than perfect geographical location because it allowed them to follow their own dreams, whether those were to become an energy zillionaire or to send a child traumatized by violent revolution in another corner of the world safely to school. As in Los Angeles, every neighborhood tells a different story, from the funkiness of Montrose and the Heights to the (sometimes over-the-top) flamboyance of River Oaks, the vibrancy of Houston’s several Chinatowns, and the great Latino ebb and flow that is Gulfton.
Here, mixing it up is everything. And so you get an architectural mélange, from the late Philip Johnson’s downtown skyscrapers and John Milkovisch’s Rice Military bungalow covered in beer cans to the oil barons’ elegant mansions of Shadyside and the shotgun shacks of the Fourth Ward. But you have to look fast. Historic preservation remains a relatively new concept here, change the dominant constant. (As the late Houston Post publisher [and the first director of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps] Oveta Culp Hobby once said, “I think I’ll like Houston—if they ever get it finished.”)
This openness and optimism so permeates the city—most of us have lived through at least one oil boom and bust, not to mention hurricanes and flooding—that you are likely to feel welcome at the trendiest restaurant or the humblest dive. Houston asks you to see the world in all its forms and join in.
1624 Westheimer Rd, Houston, 77006
Make your necessary reservations now for this transportive Mediterranean restaurant, which is built around six- and nine-course menus.
Duck n Bao
5535 Memorial Dr, Houston, 77007
Handmade soup dumplings and crispy-skinned Peking duck are not to be missed at this contemporary Chinese restaurant.
807 Taft St, Houston, 77019
New American meets French cuisine in this inspired restaurant from chef Aaron Bludorn.
La Colombe d’Or Hotel
3410 Montrose Blvd, Houston, 77006
Housed in a renovated historic mansion as well as a new, modern tower, La Colombe d’Or is a crown jewel of Houston’s Montrose neighborhood.
The Lancaster Hotel
701 Texas Ave, Houston, 77002
Located in the Theater District, this hotel features more than 200 works by Texas artists.
4018 Chartres St, Houston, 77004
This no-frills hostel, not far from the Museum District, features themed rooms and a female-only dorm.
Museum of Fine Arts Houston
1001 Bissonnet St, Houston, 77005
One of the largest art museums in the world, MFAH is home to an engaging permanent collection as well as exciting exhibitions.
Space Center Houston
1601 E NASA Pkwy, Houston, 77058
Along with access to Johnson Space Center, this complex is filled with more than four hundred space artifacts, from shuttles and lunar modules to an array of vintage space suits.
The Houston Zoo
6200 Hermann Park Dr, Houston, 77030
Covering 55 acres in Hermann Park, this popular attraction is home to more than six thousand animals from about seven hundred species.
At his latest restaurant, Texas’s most celebrated Mexican chef teams up with close relations to revisit the street food of his youth.
La Colombe d’Or reopens with a glistening new tower and redesigned garden bungalows, but the heart of the hotel is its historic 1920s mansion.
With posh hotels and restaurants and free museums, this historic area of Houston makes for an easy, elegant weekend escape.
Even as new developments rise around it, Houston’s 19th Street remains a funky, independent haven for shoppers.