24 MAY 2019: Whatever you choose to call it – Space City, Bayou City, Magnolia City, Energy Capital of the World – Houston is sure to surprise and certain to defy any singular nickname. Beyond the iconic Space Center Houston, the city may not boast an array of attractions that jump off the pages of a guidebook, but America’s fourth largest metropolis is steadily forging an identity as a cultural melting pot with world-class culinary, arts and sports scenes.

“Houston takes you awhile to figure out,” says local bike tour guide Jason Buhlman, who relocated to the city from Michigan eight years ago. “It’s not obvious where to go like New York or Chicago, but when you figure it out, it’s really cool.”

One aspect of the city that is quickly discernable to visitors is that the Texas city couldn’t be further from the State’s stereotypical cowboy culture, boasting instead a chic, cosmopolitan atmosphere with a vibrant arts scene, more than 10,000 dining venues, 19 first-rate museums, and more green space than one might expect, including nearly two dozen bayous and a river running through the heart of the city.

Indeed, Houston has undergone a true “metamorphosis” in the past decade, moving well beyond simply being a centre for the oil, medical and aerospace industries, to become a diverse melting pot with a population in the greater metropolis of 2.3 million, a quarter of whom are foreign born and speaking close to 150 languages.

“Houston is the best of both worlds,” says Trudi Smith, who works for the city’s Buffalo Bayou Partnership. “It’s very neighbourly but also very sophisticated.”

It’s also “the friendliest place on earth,” according to Visit Houston president and Boston native Mike Waterman, who adds, “I’ve lived in 13 other cities and I’ve never lived in a city that was more welcoming.”

With the self-proclaimed tagline “culinary and cultural capital of the South,” the city exudes an air of coming into own and stepping into the spotlight. And with easy, direct access from Canada via non-stop flights to Toronto, Calgary, Montreal, Vancouver and Edmonton, interest from Canada is increasing, with close to a quarter million visitors making the trip annually for quick break cultural weekends or longer stays that might include a trip to nearby Gulf of Mexico beaches and/or unique Galveston.

To that end, here’s quick guide to help get a handle on Houston, based on a recent visit by Travel Industry Today:

HISTORY

The city dates to 1836 but make no mistake, Houston is a modern, urban metropolis. Some of the area’s earliest buildings, however, are preserved by The Heritage Society, at Sam Houston Park in downtown Houston. The San Jacinto Battleground Historical Complex marks the spot where Texas won its independence from Mexico and includes a museum and towering monument. Nearby Sugarland (half an hour from downtown) is also one of Texas’s most historic towns.

Good to know: Houston was named after (but not founded by) General Sam Houston, first president of the Republic of Texas.

MUSEUMS

Museums range from the Art Car Museum to the National Museum of Funeral History, but the city is renowned for its Museum District, which aggregates 19 venues across four walkable/bikeable zones creating the most concentrated collection of cultural institutions in the country. Chief among them is the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), established in 1900 and among the 10 largest art museums in the US with an encyclopedic collection of nearly 70,000 works dating from antiquity to the present. A campus redevelopment, to be completed in 2020, will feature multiple public plazas, new pedestrian walkways, gardens and two pedestrian tunnels that will link all the Museum buildings, plus 46,000 sq. m. of new construction.

Good to know: 10 of the museums are always free and others without cost at certain times, such as the MFAH all day Thursdays. Another freebie is the neighbouring Menil Collection/Drawing Institute, the latter a brand new $40-million, 3,000-sq.-m. purpose-built facility smack dab in the middle of a residential area, reflecting the ethos, “everybody has the right to live with art.” Not surprisingly, Houston also has an extensive list of theatrical and performing arts options.

ARTS CITY

Major museums like the MFAH and Contemporary Arts Museum get most of the limelight, but Houston significantly supports the arts at the grassroots level making the city a magnet for creative types. This is perhaps best demonstrated at Sawyer Yards, a unique “creative campus” in the city’s arts district that houses art studios, public galleries, dining and entertainment in a 22-hectare repurposed industrial development (including surreal silos) surrounded by a working rail yard. More than 400 artists in residence open their studios to the public every second Saturday, but fine art exhibitions are available every weekday.

Good to know: The Cistern at Buffalo Bayou Park hardly seems like a place to gets one’s art on, but visitors will be treated to an amazing light display in the cool – literally and figuratively – 17,500-sq.-m. former drinking water reservoir constructed in 1926 beneath what is now Buffalo Bayou Park. Row upon row of eight-metre columns, and the rhythmic dripping of water add to the ambiance. Laser Floyd, anyone? (buffalobayou.org for tickets and tour times)

SPACE CENTER HOUSTON

For all its new-found cultural diversity, there’s no getting around the fact that Space Center Houston is the city’s star attraction. The must-see site is the public embodiment of NASA, where visitors can learn about the US manned program and see exhibits that include more than 400 space artifacts, including an actual Saturn V rocket. Interactive exhibits range from walking through the replica of a space shuttle to touching a rock from Mars. This year promises to be extra special at the Center as NASA celebrates the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing with an array of Apollo 11-themed events, culminating with a special event on the actual anniversary date, July 20.

Good to know: It is recommended to reserve tickets for the popular NASA Tram tour ahead of time at spacecenter.org or on site at timed ticket stations.

FOOD & DRINK

More than 70 countries and regions around the world are represented among the city’s 10,000-plus dining venues, ranging from standard barbecue and Tex-Mex fare to Indian and Korean and all things in between. Current hotspots include James Beard-chef Hugo Ortega’s Xochi, located inside the Marriott Marquis, featuring the flavours of Oaxaca, Mexico, from ants to tacos and crickets to quail; and One Fifth, a “deep dive” interpretation of Eastern Mediterranean and North African food by Chris Sheppard. Meanwhile, the Saint Arnold Brewing Company is the oldest craft brewery in the state. Channeling its inner Bavarian beer hall, the restaurant has great food, free tours, and an outdoor beer garden overlooking the city.

Good to know: “The best food spots are not $100 a plate,” says Jason Buhlman. “It’s $10-15 (CA$13-20) a plate barbecue, or Vietnamese, or in Chinatown. [The latter] is way out of town, but it’s really good!”

PARK LIFE

Houston has more than 50,000 hectares of parkland, some of it – like Memorial Park – in the heart of the city with other spaces framing the city’s 22 bayous. Buffalo Bayou Park is a massive urban space comprised of groves, meadows and woodlands, and presents many recreational opportunities (including pontoon boat tours), while also offering great views of the city skyline. A visitor centre (at The Water Works park entry site), will help visitors plan their outing. Lake Houston Wilderness Park is 30 minutes from downtown.

Good to know: Austin might be better known for its bat caves, but Houston is home to its own 250,000-strong colony of Mexican free-tailed bats, which emerges nightly from beneath the Waugh Drive Bridge in Bayou Buffalo Park.

SPORTS

Houston boasts major league teams in all sports except hockey. The baseball Astros were World Series champions in 2017 and the city hosted the Super Bowl in 2018. For those who would rather play than watch, there are 165 golf courses that operate year-round. There is also a myriad of walking, hiking, biking, and kayaking options in city parks. Tour de Brewery even offers guided cycling tours with beer tastings at three local breweries.

Good to know: Houston has made “preliminary” overtures to the NHL to attract a team to the city.

TRADITIONAL TEXAS

While Houston is as far from traditional Texas cowpoke as the Space Center is from the moon, a taste of a boots and 10-gallon hat culture is a welcome cultural treat, not least the iconic Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo – nearly three weeks worth of rodeo events, livestock exhibits, carnival rides, (mostly country music) concerts, food (including barbecue contests) and shopping. Over 2.6 million visitors attend the annual early Spring event, which dates to 1932. General admission is only $15 (CA$20) for adults and $5 (CA$6.75) for kids (concerts extra).

Good to know: Goode Co. Texas Barbecue is a Houston institution with four locations in the city, including the original grill shop at 5109 Kirby Dr. Brisket. Ribs are the go-to’s for most, but there are plenty of other options; and leave room for the pecan pie. Follow up with a visit to a traditional country music bar, with Goodnight Charlie’s (2531 Kuester St.) the latest on the scene. The new venue keeps the slowly disappearing Texas honky tonk tradition alive, but is far from a dive, placing, for example, considerable attention on food and drink offerings (both basic and premium). Live music takes places Thursdays through Saturdays.

GALVESTON

Located about an hour from Houston directly on the Gulf coast, Galveston is renowned for its 44-km. long beach, amusement pier, and bewitching birdwatching, but it’s the city’s stunning Victorian architecture and style that truly sets the city apart, bringing to mind charming Charleston, S.C. and other similar southern belle destinations. Adding a “baycation” to any Houston visit is a natural extension.

Good to know: Double up a trip to Galveston with a stop at the Space Center, it’s on the way.

HOTELS

The Four Seasons Houston is ideally situated in the heart of the city, a short distance from the cultural district, restaurants and convention centre. A roof-top pool is a bonus and guests can arrange a bourbon tasting experience or play virtual golf (with drinks and munchies) in the Topgolf Swing Suite; or relax and rejuvenate at the well-equipped spa.

Good to know: Shaped like the state of Texas, the rooftop lazy river at the Marriott Marquis has become a bona fide city attraction. Voyeurs not staying at the hotel can ride the elevator up to the top floor to take a peak.

PLANNING

A visit to Houston can be planned (and customized) at the Houston Marketplace with several offers of tours, museums, shopping, craft breweries and unique attractions. Among the new experiences is the Houston Museum Pass (with eight participating museums) and the Houston Brew Pass (with nine craft brewers) in which users select an experience online and receive an itinerary via smartphone or by e-mail. Go to visithouston.com.

Good to know: CityPASS has Houston covered with the popular discount card including five city attractions for nearly half of the regular price at US$59 (CA$79.50) for adults and US$49 (CA$66) for children ages three to 11. The pass includes actual tickets to Space Center Houston, Downtown Aquarium and Houston Museum of Natural Science, plus an option to choose between the Houston Zoo and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and Children’s Museum of Houston or Kemah Boardwalk (amusement park).

POLITICS

Yes, it’s a thing for a lot of travellers pondering a visit to the US these days and Texas, a state traditionally known for putting the red in redneck, may be considered at the heart of the matter. However, changing demographics are slowly turning the state “purple” thanks to the blue hue of almost every major metropolis in the state, including Houston.


HOUSTON
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Michael Baginski

Editor at Large, Mike Baginski is well known and well respected within the industry across Canada, the US, in the Caribbean, Mexico and numerous other destinations outside North America.

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