Houston is a city I had never thought much about. I know that sounds bad, but when I thought of Texas I thought of Dallas or Austin, cowboys and hipsters, and lots of open space in between. Houston crossed my periphery in articles about space, or oil, but never as a great place to visit. It definitely didn’t cross my mind as one of the most diverse cities in the south, which it is, or a place with a vibrant arts, culture, and culinary scene. How happy I am to have been proven wrong.
My friend Emily and I visited in early October, when it was still 90 degrees during the days, but sweater weather at night. We talked to every Uber driver we had, and every single one said the same thing: they loved their city, loved that it was so diverse, and felt there was something for everyone, from sports to science to art to music to food. One in four Houstonians was born in a foreign country, a fact that permeates the culture of the city, from areas with signs mostly in Persian to some of the best Vietnamese food in the country. A big reason for this is “the energy industry,” as was repeated so often it almost felt like the citizens had been given a script. Oil, in other words, brings lots of people to Houston, as does the Houston Medical Center, which is the largest medical center in the world.
Also, it’s Beyoncé’s hometown, so bonus points for that. While Emily and I didn’t get to stalk Queen B’s house, we did have a great time in Houston over the four days we were there. Here’s how you can too.
Assuming you’re not coming from within driving distance, you’ll arrive at George Bush Intercontinental Airport and pick up a rental car. You don’t necessarily need a car in Houston as Uber is pretty fast in the city, but it’s easier and probably in the end cheaper than Ubering everywhere you want to go.
Check into your hotel. We stayed at Hotel Icon on Main St., which was in a good location for exploring the entire city.
Stop for lunch at the Honeymoon Cafe and Bar. This place is so cute! I want the wallpaper in my own house, and the chicken salad on a croissant was delicious.
Spend your afternoon exploring Montrose, the young, artsy, and eclectic district. Wander through local galleries and shops, and head over to Rice Village for more shopping. DAO Chloe was one of my favorite shops, and Pavement Clothing is great for thrift and vintage.
Head back to the hotel to freshen up, then go across the street for pub food and cocktails at Hearsay Gastro Lounge. Even if you end up eating somewhere else, this place is worth stopping just to take in the 1880s architecture, insanely high ceiling, and giant chandelier.
After dinner we went to 8th Wonder Brewery, a really cool open air bar and brewery with a large outdoor space. We sat outside under twinkle lights amazed at the heat even in October. A bartender told us it was the start of the busy season, as summer can be unbearable. This was funny coming from the Midwest.
Spend today around the Buffalo Bayou, one of several waterways through the city. This one has seen massive revitalization in recent years. The Sabine Promenade features 23-acres of picturesque walking and biking trails, there’s an elevated pavilion with skyline views, and the Eleanor Tinsley Park is the perfect place to relax with a picnic or a good book.
Take a Buffalo Bayou Kayaking Tour, or rent kayaks and go on your own. Make sure you have the right address if you’re doing the tour, because if you type in the name of the company Google Maps will take you to the individual kayak rental shop, not the tour starting point. We ended up kayaking solo, but I’m sure the tour is great, especially if you have questions about the bayou’s history. Either way, the skyline views were great and it was fun to be on the water!
Hang out in the park and take a walk along the promenade, then if you have time and $2 to spare, tour the Buffalo Bayou Cistern. This sounds a little odd and it admittedly was a bit, but was also kind of cool, and for $2 there’s no reason not to go. The former drinking water reservoir was decommissioned in 2007 and set to be demolished, but the Buffalo Bayou Partnership fell in love with the site while revitalizing the park, and decided to restore it. During the tour you’ll learn about the history and how the cistern worked, and can take photos of the massive cement columns, which look pretty cool in the shadows. The best part though was our guide. I think it’s a rule that tour guides have to be a little eccentric, but this guy took it to a new level. He clearly loves his job, and made an old water reservoir sound as majestic as the pyramids in Egypt or something. When he led the group in shouting to hear how the reservoir echoes, Emily and I couldn’t keep it together.
Tonight, have dinner at Oxheart, the best meal I had in Houston and one of the best I’ve had in the country. The Michelin-star restaurant in the Warehouse District serves vegetable-centric, locally sourced dishes, with preparations you never would have imagined for yourself. Golden Delicious apple broth and roselle, with cranberry hibiscus and oyster mushrooms made up a sweet, tart, and smoky soup. We sipped Topo Chico water and watched in amazement as the chefs worked almost silently in the open kitchen, turning out beautiful preparations on locally made pottery dishes. Porridge of Texas grains, vadouvan, cauliflower, and little surprise bursts of navel orange; Mung bean crepe stuffed with corn and alliums, potato skins and miso; and ‘Appalachian Greasy’ beans cooked with Chinese Long beans, dried tomato, and early autumn herbs were other stand outs. Service is important, and our server Tony was attentive, friendly, and explained every dish with knowledge but without pretentiousness, which was a welcome change from some other restaurants. I highly recommend the beverage pairings too, and appreciated that they included a cider among the wine. Of course I can’t forget dessert, which was melon sorbet with cream cheese mousse, lemongrass, and freshly juiced cucumber. I’ve never ended a meal so refreshed.
After dinner, we went to White Oak Music Hall for a concert. In Chicago and Milwaukee, where we live, most music venues are old, converted theaters, so it was interesting to see a brand new venue and talk to the owner about what it was like to start from scratch. One thing that stuck out to me was that because they were building something new, they could do more to accommodate artists, like include showers and other amenities and make it a nice place for bands to relax before and after shows. The theater has three stages, from intimate to outdoor. The venue serves alcohol, and food trucks often line up outside. Next door, Raven Tower has a 3,000 square foot patio overlooking the White Oak Bayou, 24 beers on tap, and some of the best views of Houston you can find. We both agreed that the music hall was one of our favorite parts of the trip.
Fuel up for a day of photos at Blacksmith–speciality coffee and a sinfully good bacon, egg, and cheddar croissant.
We spent the rest of the morning driving around and taking photos at the Sugar & Cloth Color Wall, the Biscuit Paint Wall, the Pride Wall, and the Houston Graffiti Building (which is funnily enough the graphic on Houston’s snapchat filter). If you’re not into street art (or getting the perfect Instagram photos), you could spend this time exploring more of downtown.
Next, we stumbled across what turned out to be a highlight of the trip: the Beer Can House. John Milkovisch started the project in 1968 when he began adding aluminum beer can siding to his house, eventually covering the entire thing and adding garlands of cut beer cans. It’s estimated that over 50,000 beer cans decorate the house, which now whistles in the wind. Emily and I were obviously amazed, as you know if you witnessed my Instagram stories at the time.
We wanted to get out of the center of Houston and see a few other areas, so we split lunch into three parts: ghormesabzi at Darband ShishKabob, kulfi at Kwality Ice Cream, and spicy Vietnamese crawfish at Crawfish & Noodles. This is a lot of food and a lot of driving around, but for me half of travel is trying new foods, and I liked driving around and getting a feel for different parts of the city. Shout out to the guys eating next to us at Crawfish & Noodles who noticed our faces when the steaming sea bugs were set in front of us, and asked if we knew what we were doing. We didn’t, but learned quickly. Anything to get to that garlic sauce.
Walk off your three-part lunch with a stroll through the Museum of Fine Art Houston, the Menil Collection (a private collection spanning prehistoric to present day art), and The Rothko Chapel, which is a modern art monument as well as place of worship.
Hungry yet? I hope so, because dinner at Underbelly is not a light affair. But it is light hearted, which you’ll notice immediately from the menus set inside old kids books and the cheery staff. There are a few strict rules though, and they are: “We buy directly from farmers. We only use whole animal. Our food is inspired by the cultures of Houston. It’s all about relationships.”
The menu draws on Houston produce, Gulf seafood, and under-utilized cuts of meat. The in-house butcher shop allows Chef Chris Shepherd to process and use every bit of meat possible. The menu changes daily, but Korean braised goat & dumplings are a steady favorite.
After dinner, head around the corner for drinks at Anvil Bar & Refuge, where classic cocktails get a lift from homemade bitters and other twists.
On your last day in Houston, grab breakfast at Common Bond Bakery, a boulangerie with such beautiful offerings it’s a mental challenge just to choose. We ended up with a selection of sweet and savory, and a bag of macaroons to go.
If there are any museums or shops you haven’t visited yet now’s the time. Depending on your flight time, you could grab lunch at the Houston Food Park, where food trucks gather around lunch. Or you could stop at Saint Arnold Brewing Company, a German-style beer hall.
You’ll notice this trip didn’t include a visit to the Space Center, one of the city’s main attractions. This visit was about exploring neighborhoods and eating local food, but the Space Center is definitely on my list for next time. If you have an extra day, I would definitely check it out, or if museums and street art aren’t your thing, you could go on Day 3.
On the flight home I scrolled through photos on my phone and was amazed at everything we had fit in. From outdoor adventure to art and history, science to street art, and food from local to foreign, it’s no wonder Houston’s slogan is ‘The City With No Limits.”
Have you been to Houston? What was your favorite part?
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