Houston, Texas: The Gem of the South
As a native Texan, I often get a kick out of the stereotypes that are often attributed to myself or my state. I often wonder, upon meeting someone and telling them I’m from Texas, if they assume that I live in a rural townhouse with some horses out back and a gun collection in the garage. This picture, when contrasted to my actual setting, seems almost comedic. I won’t pretend that lifestyle doesn’t exist in my home state, but it is extremely far from the lifestyle of most Texans. I have spent the first 18 years of my life in the 4th (soon to be 3rd) largest city in the United States, a city that plays host to one of the best medical research hotspots in the world. A city that has led and continues to lead the effort to put humans on the moon and beyond. A city that shows its inclusivity through the diversity of its people, and through those people, its food, activities, and culture. Any and every big city will have a lot of things to keep you occupied, but there is a definite vibe about Houston, Texas that makes it unique. My city is simultaneously Texan and international, trendy and captivating. It is a city on the forefront of the future, and is a place that everyone should experience.
Whatever you may like, Houston has got it in copious quantities and high quality. Museums, sports, shopping, outdoor activities, theatre, art, people, weather- in a metropolitan area of over 6 million people and 4,299 square kilometers, there’s stuff to do. Here are some of my favorites:
Space Center Houston
You may be familiar with the lines “Houston, we have a problem” or “Houston, the Eagle has landed.” These famous phrases originate from the city’s contribution to space travel. NASA’s Johnson Space Center has been the hub of global space flight for over a half-century. While visiting the space center and adjacent museum, you can tour mission control from where the moon landings were orchestrated, and see the 6.2-million-gallon pool that astronauts use to practice spacewalks. A life-size replica of the 110-meter-long Saturn V rocket, the vessel upon which humans travelled to the moon in, highlights the Space Center’s Rocket Park. The Space Center is a must-see for everyone, as it is the representation of human achievement and ingenuity.
The Museum District
As well as being one of the most aesthetically-pleasing parts of the city, with beautiful parks and modernistic architecture, the Museum District holds a collection of world-class museums that will leave you both awed and learned.
The Houston Museum of Natural Science
HMNS boasts numerous permanent exhibits, such as the butterfly center, planetarium, the hall of precious gems, and the hall of paleontology, which is one of the largest paleontology halls in the United States. The Cockrell sundial out front is one of the world’s largest sundials. You may have heard that everything is bigger in Texas, and the HMNS has taken that to heart.
The Houston Museum of Fine Arts
Like many things in Texas, it’s huge. If you love art, you could easily spend days wandering the spacious galleries, which exhibit everything from ancient Roman vases to Monet. There are always incredible temporary exhibits that stop by HMFA that you simply cannot miss. Pro tip: general admission to the museum is free on Thursdays!
The list of things to do in the museum district seemingly has no end. I also highly recommend the Centennial Gardens, Miller Outdoor Theatre, the Houston Zoo, as well as the other smaller museums such as the Contemporary Arts Museum or the National Museum of Funeral History. When you go to the Museum District, take your time and enjoy all that the area has to offer.
Many people say that Houston has essentially 3 downtowns: the actual downtown at the heart of the city, the medical center, and the Galleria. The Galleria itself is the 7th largest mall in the United States, with over 375 shops, two hotels, and an ice rink. That’s what’s on the inside. Outside, the shops don’t stop. Whatever you want to buy, you can find it at the Galleria. Personally, I’ll go to the Gallo to hang out with my friends, browse the shops, and people watch. The mammoth complex makes for a nice daylong activity. Be careful though, it is extremely easy to lose track of how much you spend!
Another shopping area that I really like is the Rice Village. The Village is located adjacent to the prestigious Rice University, which is also known as The Ivy League of the South. The Village blurs restaurants and trendy stores together in a friendly, upbeat part of town that makes a nice place to visit if you want to chill and enjoy the night. I would advise going to Torchy’s Tacos- where the tacos are as good as their names. The bars in this part of town are nice as well.
Houston benefits greatly from its geographical location when it comes to the culinary side of life. As a southern state, barbecue is one of the things that is obsessed over, almost as a religion. Likewise, as Houston is only a 5-hour car ride from the Rio Grande and Mexico, the Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine is authentic and simply scrumptious. Cajun cuisine also has a place in Texan hearts; I would recommend going to French Quarter Cajun Seafood or Ragin Cajun- try the boudin sausage and gumbo for an authentic dining experience.
Those are the geographic specialties that you MUST try when in Houston, but don’t be afraid of trying something a little exotic. Houston has a large Asian population and so has many fantastic Chinese, Dim-sum, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Korean restaurants. Also, if you like meat and want to spend a little money on a memorable meal, go to a Brazilian Churrascaria restaurant. The food doesn’t stop until you say so, so go there hungry!
Theatre and Arts
If museums and shopping aren’t your style, you might instead enjoy going to one of Houston’s many fabulous theatres. The Alley theatre is a wonderful Tony-award winning troupe that will leave you satisfied, with a fantastic venue that puts high quality acting on center stage. If you have a taste for classical music, the Houston Symphony at beautiful Jones Hall is the place for you. The city has much to offer as far as theatre goes, so make sure you do your research on what’s currently showing.
Although Texas has no official religion, it is commonly said that Texans go to pray at the football stadium every Sunday. So if you have the chance, go to NRG stadium to watch the Houston Texans play. The atmosphere is one of a kind, and if the team wins, the air comes alive with happiness and good will. You’ll get a feel for how important football is in Texas. If you like basketball, baseball, or soccer, tickets to the Rockets, Astros, and Dynamo games are usually not too expensive. All of Houston’s sports venues are superb, so go embrace the spirit of competition!
Miscellaneous Things to Do
The Houston’s Aquarium is one of the country’s most underrated. I would recommend going at night, when the water reflects the various light displays that the aquarium exhibits. Enjoy a ride on the Shark Train, and don’t be too frightened by the surprise at the end.
Montrose is one of the coolest parts of the city, with a diverse range of shops and people. Enjoy what Westheimer Road has to offer, whether it be thrift shops, sushi joints, or tattoo parlors. Houston has no zoning, which means no building is out of place.
Venture to the San Jacinto battleground and historic site, and visit the USS Texas, a World War II era battleship. If you like history at all, or simply want a taste of Texan culture, you could easily spend a day in this part of town. The view from the top of the monument (which is taller than the Washington monument by the way) is spectacular. For lunch, the Monument Inn offers some of the best seafood in the state, which you can enjoy as you watch the ships enter and leave the port.
The Gem of the South
I hope you find time to enjoy a city as spectacular as Houston, Texas. The city has so much to offer both its residents and tourists, but is not typically on the tourist circuit. When you venture to the Gem of the South, enjoy the unique vibe that the city bestows, and don’t forget: there’s no place quite like Texas.