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Check out a galaxy of new bars and quirky museums in Houston, America's Space City

With its flourishing urban parks, cultural spaces and rooftop bars, this cosmopolitan city built on oil is on a mission to invest and evolve. Drill down into eclectic neighbourhoods to discover the real Texan treasure.

Photographs By James Breeden
Published 11 Jun 2021, 08:00 BST
Locals admire the work of artist Article on Downtown’s Houston Graffiti Building.

Locals admire the work of artist Article on Downtown’s Houston Graffiti Building.

Photograph by James Breeden

Paddling slowly west into the blazing bayou sunset, it doesn’t feel like I’m anywhere near the concrete heart of a US city. Indeed, it doesn’t feel like I’m anywhere near the US at all.

“I like to pretend I’m on the Amazon when I’m down here,” says canoeing guide Matt Sandel, who’s expertly navigating our two-man vessel. “The wildlife down here, from the turtles to the baby alligators, is insane. As soon as you get onto the bayou, you feel like you’re a thousand miles away from the real world.”   

The real world in this case is Houston, Texas — and we’re a lot less than a thousand miles from its oil-powered skyscrapers. In fact, the glass gave way to grass just a few yards behind us, around the last river bend.

On a late spring afternoon, we’re exploring Buffalo Bayou Park — a sinuous green arm with a watery main artery, reaching west from Downtown as it grasps for the suburbs. The bayou twists and curls in on itself like a Texas rat snake, but Matt, president of the local Hokulele Paddling club, knows these old waterways like the back of his paddle. As we glide into the twilight, runners and rollerbladers high on the banks above seem to flow along with us.

Houston has a reputation as a gargantuan city brimming with oil and cowboy boots, eternally associated with the iconic NASA ‘we have a problem’ quote. But beneath the lazy cliches, it has an entirely different face.

As we continue paddling, Matt points out Montrose, a colourful slice of city with lively nightlife, hipster-friendly bars and one-of-a-kind boutiques. Further on is well-heeled River Oaks, then glitzy Uptown and dozens of other neighbourhoods, spun together in a twinkling urban spiderweb that’s larger than the state of New Jersey.

Inside that entanglement, there’s a huge amount to explore. After all, this is one of the fastest-growing cities in the US — Houston is expected to replace Chicago as the third-largest city in the US in the next two years. Of course, NASA — whose Johnson Space Center is based in the city — and its ongoing mission to conquer the heavens frequently overshadows the city itself. But when you look down the other end of the telescope, you’ll see an incredible food and drink landscape, mountains of world-class museums and a stellar shopping scene — all underpinning one of the most diverse cities in the US.   

Infusing it all is an easy, welcoming Southern charm — an effortless cool, no matter how sweltering it gets at the height of summer. This is the Texas of actor Matthew McConaughey; the H-Town of pop superstar Beyoncé. It’s a place of possibilities and potential. Houston… we have no problem at all.

An installation at Seismique, a warehouse on Houston’s west side that bills itself as ‘the art experience of tomorrow’.

Photograph by Alex Montoya

What to see and do in Houston


SPACE CENTER HOUSTON: Nerd out over the world’s largest display of spacesuits and moon rocks, as well as a flown SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. New exhibit Mission Mars details NASA’s current goal to land astronauts on the Red Planet. 

SEISMIQUE: Billing itself as ‘the art experience of tomorrow’, Seismique is part interactive museum, part escape room — and part alternate universe. Situated in a cavernous, 40,000sq ft warehouse on Houston’s west side, its exhibits feature the latest technology — from holograms and augmented reality to lightmapping and motion tracking. 

THE MENIL COLLECTION: Ranging from 5,000-year-old antiquities to one of the world’s most extensive hauls of Magritte paintings, this 17,000-piece collection is free to visit and sits in a magnificent Renzo Piano-designed modernist gallery at the centre of a tree-lined campus. 

CYCLE EADO: Houston’s hottest neighbourhood right now is EaDo (East Downtown). As well as Truck Yard, a beer garden with food and live events, you’ll find coffee shops, restaurants and hipster-friendly bars popping up in colourful bunches like Texas bluebonnets. Get a feel for this lively enclave from the saddle: the recently created Rails to Trails network of bike paths crisscrosses the entire area.  

ROTHKO CHAPEL: This serene, non-denominational space is home to 14 works by Russian-US artist Mark Rothko. The paintings — all dark hues and texture effects — seem to move in the stillness as light floods in from a central skylight. 

THRIFT SHOPPING IN MONTROSE: Spend an afternoon wandering the avenues of edgy, eccentric Montrose, sifting thrift for vintage treasures in quirky boutiques like Pavement, Out of The Closet and Fashion Time Machine

THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, HOUSTON: The jewel in the museum district’s crown is its fine arts showcase, which added a new £350m modern art wing in 2020. 

MEMORIAL PARK: One of the largest pieces of urban parkland in the US, Memorial Park spans a whopping 1,500 acres. Last year, it got even bigger with the addition of the sprawling Eastern Glades: 100 acres of scenic hiking trails and elevated boardwalks. 

Manready Mercantile sells unique Texan treasures, from candles to cowboy hats.

Photograph by James Breeden

What to buy in Houston


SPACE MONTROSE: Founded by husband-and-wife team Carlos and Leila Peraza on Westheimer Road, Montrose’s main drag, Space Montrose showcases handcrafted goods, including artwork, jewellery, clothing and homeware, drawn from a pool of around 200 US entrepreneurs. Imagine a physical incarnation of online emporium Etsy and prepare for multiple ‘I’ve got to have it’ moments. 

THE GALLERIA: A virtual city within a city, it would be remiss to overlook The Galleria, a lavish temple to consumerism that dominates Uptown. As the state’s largest shopping centre — home to 400-plus tax free stores and multiple restaurant and hotels — it’s a tourist destination in its own right. 

MANREADY MERCANTILE: Hidden away in leafy Houston Heights, Manready Mercantile is a carefully curated man cave, selling everything from cowboy hats and candles to hip flasks and handmade leather goods. If you’re looking for one-of-a-kind Texan treasures to take home — or just a whimsical T-shirt for rooftop beers in Houston — you’re in the right place, partner. 

Painted pavements outside the Leopard Lounge vintage clothing store, Montrose.

Photograph by James Breeden

Where to eat in Houston
 

THE PIT ROOM: Whichever way you slice it, barbecue is king in Texas, and this is one of the prime spots to enjoy its prime cuts. Located on the eastern edge of Montrose, The Pit Room is famed for its brisket, which is dry rubbed and smoked for 16 hours. Arrive early to secure a spot on the sun-drenched patio; come lunchtime, the queue stretches down the block. 

NINFA’S ON NAVIGATION: Affectionately dubbed ‘the birthplace of the fajita’ by locals, this restaurant — the first of two Ninfa’s founded by ‘Mama’ Ninfa Laurenzo — opened in 1973 and is now a Houstonian institution. Here, the food is sizzling and plentiful, the margaritas are moreish and the mood is always jovial. 

GUARD AND GRACE: Sitting sleek, sublime and spotless at the base of a Downtown skyscraper, this steakhouse is a temple to the meaty arts. The smart order is the ‘filet flight’ — a trio of 4oz Angus, prime and Wagyu steaks — ideally enjoyed with a bowl of the restaurant’s mind-blowing truffle gnocchi on the side. 

Stop in for your meat fix at Downtown steakhouse Guard and Grace.

Photograph by Michael Anthony

Like a local


ORDER KOLACHES: Forget oil — kolaches are the real fuel on which Houston is built. Czech settlers are believed to have invented the pillowy, filled pastries in the 19th century. Today, Houstonians can’t get enough of both the sweet and savoury forms. The Kolache Shoppe, in Upper Kirby, is a favourite, while Christy’s Donuts Kolaches, in Montrose, is renowned for its sausage-stuffed variety. 

EXPLORE BRAVERY CHEF HALL: A recent addition to Downtown’s social scene, this indoor market-cum-bazaar features pop-up restaurants, a wine bar, a cocktail lounge and a chic patio bar, Secret Garden. It’s a fluid space in which to graze on, sample and embrace cosmopolitan, 21st-century Houston. 

HOUSTON EXPERIENCE MARKETPLACE: This clever website allows you to seek out cut-price tickets, tours, activities and experiences across the city. It’s particularly good for brewery fans: the one-day Houston Brew Pass — offering tastings at any four of the 14 participating craft breweries — is a steal at $28.95 (£21). 

Buffalo Bayou Brewing Co offers spectacular views of the Houston skyline.

Photograph by James Breeden

After hours
 

BUFFALO BAYOU BREWING CO: The showstopping skyline views from the rooftop were always going to make this brewery a popular spot. Opened in November 2019, its three floors have capacity for up to 1,000 punters, with a lively beer garden for good measure. Reach for a delicious glass of Buffalo Sunset beer as you admire the views — and don’t leave without trying the curry fried oyster banh mi. 

93 ’TIL: Tucked away on a quiet side street near The Menil Collection, 93 ’Til is a chilled vinyl lounge that serves exquisite cocktails while spinning classic records. Grab a table on the cool, sheltered patio and try the house special, sugar baby love — a sweet riff on an old fashioned, with a burnt marshmallow top. 

EAST END BACKYARD: The brainchild of retired footballer Brian Ching — a local legend, thanks to his days with Houston Dynamo FC — this EaDo bar is essentially a sprawling, family-friendly terrace with a Florida-style vibe and food trucks parked around the edges. 

Truck Yard, one of EaDo’s most popular beer gardens.

Photograph by James Breeden

Where to sleep in Houston
 

THE SAM HOUSTON: Named, like the city itself, after the former president of Texas, the Sam Houston is a bona fide bargain. A four-star boutique hotel a stone’s throw from bustling Main Street, it has a breezy, modern-chic atmosphere with stylish, comfy rooms and big-hitting, seafood-focused The Pearl Restaurant & Bar. 

MARRIOTT MARQUIS HOUSTON: What sets this hotel apart is the enormous, Texas-shaped lazy river on its roof, which lights up after dark for a memorable pre-dinner plunge. It’s also positioned in the heart of Downtown and is home to high-end Mexican restaurant Xochi. 

THE HOUSTONIAN: Houston’s grande dame sits resplendent in 27 acres on the edge of Memorial Park. It has a world-class spa and outdoor fitness options ranging from bike trails to tennis courts and a selection of pools. The hotel was George H W Bush’s official Houston residence for a number of years; whatever your views on the 41st president’s politics, there’s no disputing he was clearly a man of taste. 

Getting there & around

British Airways flies direct from Heathrow to George Bush Intercontinental Airport three times a week. United Airlines offers multiple departures daily, flying via Chicago.

Average flight time: 10h25m.

While walking tours can be a good way to get a feel for Houston (book with preservationhouston.org), this is truly a driving city. Hire cars or Uber taxis are recommended, particularly for attractions such as Space Center Houston and Seismique. The light rail service, METRORail, is useful for travelling to and from the museum district, Downtown and the NRG Stadium (for NFL games). 

When to go

Houston is very hot and humid in summer, with July often reaching a clammy 40C. The city is far more comfortable from February to May or September to November.    

More info

Visit Houston

How to do it

America As You Like It has city break and fly-drive packages to Houston, including a four-night trip from £995 per person, with return flights from Heathrow to Houston with United Airlines and four nights at the Hotel Derek in The Galleria, room only. 

Published in the June 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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