Houston: It’s not Manhattan

You’re not surprised?

Houston may not be a place that comes to mind as a targeted travel destination such as Paris, a national park or beach resort. But if you’re in town for business, family visits, sports, special events like the annual rodeo, or driving through Texas on a road trip, you might want to spend a little extra time finding out what’s up in downtown when you visit Houston. Here’s what I found on my first time in Houston.

downtown houston

METRORail platforms and fountains at Main Street Square, Downtown Houston

What’s up? What’s down?

In many large cities, the downtown sidewalks are bustling with workers and shoppers while passing buses and taxis blast their horns. The streets of downtown Houston are relatively quiet and suggest a much smaller city. One of the reasons is that the city’s businesses and population aren’t concentrated here. Rather, Houston is quite spread out over 579 square miles. Another reason is Houston’s tunnel and skywalk system. (Click here for a pdf version of the tunnel system map.)

Houston tunnel at Hyatt Regency Hotel

S. Louisiana Tunnel

Below the streets of Houston are seven miles of underground passageways that along with several skywalks link office buildings, retail and dining establishments, hotels and theaters throughout downtown. The tunnels are open Monday through Friday between 6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. primarily so that workers can more comfortably get around during Houston’s hot and humid summers and sometimes stormy weather conditions.

In downtown Houston, you won’t find high-end shopping like that on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue or New York’s Fifth Avenue. Houston’s upscale shopping district lies about nine miles west of downtown at The Galleria. But the tunnel system leads to many other retail stores in the Skyline District, such as The Shops of Houston Center with its impressive skylight ceiling.

The Shops at Houston Center

The Shops at Houston Center

Historic District

North of the Skyline District is an area of several blocks that was once the center of old Houston and where many original buildings remain. Back when cotton was more important to Houston than oil, the Houston Cotton Exchange was run in this building, constructed in 1884. It now houses offices and a bar.

Cotton Exchange Building in Historic District

Cotton Exchange Building

The Historic District’s Market Square Park is a popular place for lunch, strolling the grounds or running your dog at the dog park. Around the square are restaurants and cafes in buildings that date from the 1880s. There’s also a very nice memorial at the square, “Lauren’s Garden”, a tribute to Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas, a Houston resident who died aboard United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11, 2001.

Lauren's Garden at Market Square Park

Lauren's Garden at Market Square Park

Although during the day you may notice quite a few empty retail and restaurant spaces, I’m told that the Historic District comes alive at night. There are numerous bars and clubs such as Char Bar, Sambuca, Warren’s Inn and Dean’s, a thrift clothing store turned hip bar that once a month also showcases Texas-made short films.

Dean's Credit Clothing

Dean's on Main

Parks and Recreation

Sam Houston Park

Sam Houston Park

Just below the skyscrapers of Houston’s Skyline District is Sam Houston Park, a lovely area with walkways, pond, gardens, and gazebo. The Houston Heritage Society maintains several of Houston’s oldest buildings that are located in the park. Built in 1823, “The Old Place” is thought to be the oldest remaining structure in Harris County.

The Old Place

"The Old Place" at Sam Houston Park

You just might see these little guys around the pond in the park.

ducks at Sam Houston park

Sam Houston Park

Across Interstate 45 from Sam Houston Park is Buffalo Bayou Park and the Sabine Promenade where there is hiking, biking, canoeing and kayaking on Buffalo Bayou.

Buffalo Bayou

Sabine to Bagby Promenade on Buffalo Bayou

Discovery Green on the eastern edge of downtown was opened in 2008. It’s located on 12 acres directly in front of the George R. Brown Convention Center between Minute Maid Park and the Toyota Center. The park has a lake, dog runs, playgrounds and a restaurant.

Convention Center at Discovery Park

Convention Center at Discovery Park

I rather like this photo I took at Kinder Lake in Discovery Green.

The lake at Discovery Park

Kinder Lake, Discovery Green

Hearty meals

If you like a good steak, Houston won’t disappoint you. I had steak dinners two out of three nights. At Massa’s, my filet mignon was served with a large portion of au gratin potatoes and sauteed mixed vegetables. Do you think I finished it?

Steak with au gratin potatoes and sauteed vegetables

Steak at Massa's

But don’t fret if you don’t like steaks. Houston has many other restaurant options, farmers markets and specialty foods markets. At Phoenicia Specialty Foods, I found a wide selection of gourmet food items, freshly prepared entrees, delectable desserts and fresh bread, including their award-winning pita bread.

fresh bread at Phoenicia

Fresh Bread and Pita Bread Conveyor Belt at Phoenicia Specialty Foods

Museums

One of my favorite things to do in any city is to visit art museums and galleries. I was very impressed with Houston’s Museum District which includes the Museum of Fine Arts, Holocaust Museum Houston, Natural Science Museum, Weather Museum, and the Houston Zoo within easy access of the METRORail system.

children learning about art

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The Museum of Fine Arts consists of two buildings and a sculpture garden with over 60,000 works. I enjoyed listening to the groups of children visiting the European Art galleries as they eagerly asked their guide questions about the art they were seeing and gave their opinions.

Symbol of hope at Hermann Park

Also in the Museum District is Hermann Park which has a series of plazas containing fountains, monuments and statues. The Richard and Annette Bloch Cancer Survivors Plaza features the sculpture “Cancer…there is hope”, by sculptor Victor Salmones. It depicts patients just entering treatment and those who have successfully completed treatment exiting the maze. Hermann Park seems an appropriate location for this exhibit as the world-renowned Texas Medical Center with over 40 institutions, including 13 hospitals is nearby. 6 million patients from all over the world are cared for at Texas Medical Center each year.

Cancer Survivors Plaza

Cancer Survivors Plaza

More than country music

Marilyn Manson to perform at House of Blues

House of Blues, Houston

Although country music is a popular genre, it’s not the only entertainment available. It’s not surprising that one could find a blues club in Houston, but I was surprised by the sign on the House of Blues announcing Marilyn Manson’s upcoming performance in May. He’s not exactly B.B. King.

The Theater District has several venues to enjoy theater, concerts, ballet, cinema and nightlife.

Hobby Center for Performing Arts

Hobby Center for Performing Arts

Stop and think about it

METRORail at University of Houston Downtown

Houston METRORail

Would you consider a Houston visit?

I’d like another chance to see more museums, spend time in the parks; venture further afield to places like NASA’s Johnson Space Center and Galveston; and perhaps more importantly, I’d like to complete my mission to find the best ribs in Houston.

Downtown transportation tips: Cab rides are a flat $6.00 anywhere downtown. The program is called “Six in the City”. The METRORail trains run 7.5 miles down the Main Street Corridor from the University of Houston Downtown in the north to Reliant Park in the south.

34 thoughts on “Houston: It’s not Manhattan

  1. Laurel

    Very thorough review of Houston. I’ve only been there for a day as a stopover to Galveston. I had no idea about all the tunnels, which made me laugh, since in Canada we have them for the exact opposite reason. I remember thoroughly enjoying my steak dinner as well. Also good to know that there are parks and green spaces. I definitely needed more time to properly explore.

  2. Courtney Mroch

    It may not be Manhattan, but it sure does have a lot to offer judging from your pictures! Thanks to shows like GCB and Big Rich Texas, I’m now interested more and more in going to the Lone Star State. I’ve only been in Houston’s airport. And I only really had San Antonio and Galveston on my radar before. Now Houston is thanks to you!

  3. Renee King

    I think the park beneath the viaducts is the best use of wasted space ever and water lillies are to die for. Nice report….I still want to see the Johnson Space Center one day.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Me, too. I thought about renting a car and going out to the Johnson Space Center, but decided to find out how much I could do by foot and public transportation downtown.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Houston downtown is quiet, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting or fun things to do. Hope to discover more next time I visit.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Interesting to think about those what-ifs sometimes. Although I don’t think I’d consider Houston itself a travel destination, there’s plenty of things to see and do there is you’ve got a chance. I also know people who love it as a place to live.

  4. jade

    Haha, love this headline at the top! Personally, I’d love to be one of those students at the museum- looks like a nice small tour and I’m sure you’d learn a lot!

  5. Anwar

    Interesting information! Makes me want to consider visiting Houston again. i visited it once, and I really enjoyed Johnson Space Center, but I didnt care as much for the city itself. I did find the downtown ab it quiet. I generally don’t like cities that are very spread out (like LA), but its good that you pointed out various things to do in the city and some historic areas so I’m sure if i find myself back in the area I have plenty of things worth exploring.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Thanks, Anwar. I was surprised when I started walking around downtown and saw so few people in the middle of the day. But as I delved into the city, I discovered there’s more to Houston than meets the eye.

  6. fotoeins | Henry

    Hi, I saw your comment on ytravelblog regarding Köln, when I saw you had recently posted about Houston. I’ll be in Houston next week, and while my friends have filled in a number of places for me, your post has also provided some great ideas about things to do in the area. Thanks!

    1. Cathy Post author

      I’m a little late responding to these comments, so I suppose you’re in Houston right now. Hope you’re enjoying it. I hope my ideas were helpful.

  7. Annie - FootTracker

    I remember paying $60 dollars for a cab ride in Washington DC….(it was the traffic’s fault), so Houston’s $6 dollar program is a welcome surprise for me. I had a very different mental image about Houston before, but your photos have convinced me to give it a try.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Kind of a nice program they’ve got there in Houston. I especially like the name they’ve given it — “Six in the City”. 🙂

  8. Michael

    Seen from your pictures, Houston doesn’t seem all that bad and certainly brings it alive, so to speak. When we were there, it felt so barren, with only the skyscrapers to entertain us.

    1. Cathy Post author

      I was surprised about the quiet downtown streets, too. It wasn’t what I expected. But it all makes more sense to me now and I was glad to find some very interesting things to do there.

    1. Cathy Post author

      I wish I had taken a photo of the other steak dinner at III Forks, too. It didn’t have all the potatoes and veggies, but it was delicious.

  9. Cam @ Traveling Canucks

    When I visited Houston a couple years ago it felt very empty – which was strange because I assumed it would be a vibrant city. Not the case. Although, I did catch a baseball game and that brought a lot of people into the city center

    1. Cathy Post author

      You certainly don’t expect it to be so quiet knowing that huge energy companies have their HQs right there! In Houston, you’ve got to spread out to find all that’s going on.

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  12. AverageDrafter

    Thanks for visiting our fine city! Our sprawl is so famous Arcade Fire wrote a whole album about it.

    The main issue with Downtown and the lack of activity is there is very little residential living there. Also, because Houston has no zoning laws, there is no requirement to concentrate bars, nightclubs, restaurants, etc in particular areas.

    Both of these situations have improved in the last decade or so, and increased rail access to the city is sure to improve this.

    Of the sights to see in Houston that NOBODY knows about I offer two:

    The Orange Show is a folk art center/exhibit/foundation/display piece that is a Houston institution. It is also the founder and primary benefactor for the Art Car Museum and Parade – also unique Houston attractions.

    The other is the Rothko Chapel – I’ll let director Richard Linklater (Boyhood) explain:

    “My favorite place is the Rothko Chapel. It is the Citizen Kane of chapels—a different experience every time. Sometimes transcendent, sometimes foreboding, often exhilarating, occasionally tedious, each experience is a confluence of the natural light, the other visitors—if any—and your own mood in the moment. The one constant: total absorption into the dark, imposing Rothko canvases. What a combination of art and architecture! I try to visit every time I’m in Houston—it’s a habit I got into in the eighties.”

    It is a stark and beautiful place, a perfect encapsulation of Rothko who considered it the culmination of his life’s work, but never saw it completed before his suicide in 1970.

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