This large Texas metropolis can seem overwhelming at first glance. But with a little bit of research, you will discover that there is plenty to do in "The Bayou City". Houston is home to the Space Center Houston, NASA's astronaut training, and flight control complex, as well as a buzzing Historic District, full of 19th century architecture and upscale restaurants, and some world class museums and art spaces, like the reverent Rothko Chapel. Whether it is your first time to this great Texan city or your tenth, there is always something new to discover. Depending on your travel dates, you may even be able to take in a sports game or enjoy Houston's signature event, the Livestock Show and Rodeo.
1. Johnson Space Center
The Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, home of the NASA astronaut corps, is located in Southeast Houston. The center spans 1,620 acres and consists roughly 100 facilities.
Space Center Houston, the official visitor center of NASA's Johnson Space Center, is a must see attraction in Houston. This is a huge complex, where you can walk through the space shuttle replica Independence and the enormous shuttle carrier aircraft it's mounted on. In the visitor center, you can wander inside a replica of America's first space station, Skylab, and touch a rock from the moon. You can also experience a simulation of a zero gravity environment in the Living in Space exhibit or encounter a virtual rocket launch complete with exhaust at the Destiny "Blast Off" Theater. This is also the place to learn about NASA's upcoming missions, including travel to Mars. If you are here on a Friday around noon, you can even meet an astronaut.
From the visitor center, you can take an open air tram tour to Johnson Space Center, home of mission control, to see where astronauts train for space missions. This tour also takes you to Rocket Park to see actual rockets on display. Tickets are free but limited, and you can get a timed ticket to avoid waiting in lines.
If you want to experience something truly unique, sign up for a Level 9 Tour and enjoy a behind the scenes look at Johnson Space Center. You can see the Buoyancy Lab, the ISS Mission Control, and simulation labs, along with other areas off limits on regular tours, and possibly even encounter an astronaut. This is a one of a kind experience, and only 12 tickets are sold per day for this exclusive, four to five hour VIP tour. Tours begin at the Space Center Houston, which you are free to explore with the purchase of this ticket.
2. Houston's Museum District
The Museum District is one of Houston's greatest cultural attractions, with 19 museums residing in this beautiful area of downtown. Eleven of these are free to the public. Highlights include the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the Children's Museum of Houston, the Menil Collection, the Holocaust Museum, and the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, to name just a few. Also in this area is the lovely Hermann Park, with the Houston Zoo and the Miller Outdoor Theatre.
Most of the museums are within easy walking distance of each other, although the Menil and the Rothko Chapel are a little farther out. Museums that are free of charge include: The Menil Collection, Rothko Chapel, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, Lawndale Art Center, Houston Museum of African American Culture, Moody Center for the Arts, and the Houston Center for photography.
3. Walk, Bike, or Paddle in Buffalo Bayou Park
Buffalo Bayou Park is a beautiful 160 acre green space running through the city, with the slow moving waters of Buffalo Bayou as its centerpiece. This urban park is home to extensive walking and biking trails, a dog park, sculptures, and plenty of shady areas to relax.
f you want to get active and enjoy some of the great outdoors, rent a kayak, canoe, or stand up paddleboard and enjoy a paddle along the bayou. Rentals are available at the park, and various tours are offered, ranging from one to three hours in length. Similarly, guided cycling tours are also available from outfitters in the city.
A particularly unique site in Buffalo Bayou Park is the Cistern, an old underground drinking water reservoir from 1926, which now hosts changing art installations. Today, visitors can go on a short guided tour.
The park is also home to a huge colony of Mexican free tailed bats that inhabit the Waugh Drive Bridge. Approximately 250,000 of them fly out from the bridge each evening at sunset.
4. Shop the Vintage Stores on 19th Street in The Heights
For vintage clothing, retro décor, and old collectibles, 19th Street in The Heights is the place to go. This funky area has all kinds of quirky shops selling everything from evening gowns to casual clothing, as well as jewelry, footwear, household gadgets, and all kinds of unique items. This is also a good place to shop for gifts. The merchandise is not all vintage; some places sell new pieces or a mix of new and old. Even if you are not looking to buy anything, the whole area is worth seeing and offers a different shopping experience.
5. Day Trip to Galveston
The beautiful beaches of Galveston are less than an hour away from Houston. If you are looking for a quick break from the city, head out to Galveston for a little time soaking up the sun, wandering through the historic downtown, and dining at a seaside restaurant. Miles of endless beach and shallow, turquoise water stretch along the ocean front. At the heart of the beach action is Pleasure Pier.
Other attractions to visit include the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig and Museum, the Texas Seaport Museum, and the Strand Historic District. If you are traveling with the family, head to Moody Gardens.
If you do not have your own car or want to keep things simple, you can also take an organized tour to the island. One option that combines some sightseeing in Houston is the Houston Sightseeing Tour and Galveston Day Trip. This includes a 90 minute double decker bus tour of Houston and transportation to and from Galveston, where you will have free time to explore on your own.
6. Sports Game
When it comes to seeing a game in Houston, sports fans have plenty of options, and whether it is football, baseball, basketball, or soccer, the city takes its sports seriously. Houston is home to the Houston Texans (NFL), the Houston Astros (MLB), and the Houston Rockets (NBA). The Texans play at the NRG Stadium, formerly Reliant Stadium. The Toyota Center in downtown Houston is home to the Rockets, and the Astros play at Minute Maid Park, also in the city center.
7. Walk through Rice University Campus
The Rice University Campus is an oasis in downtown Houston and a favorite outdoor space for many Houstonians. Walking and running trails, thousands of mature trees, and lovely old buildings are spread over this 300 acre campus. Also on the grounds are a large number of impressive contemporary artworks that lend to the tranquil atmosphere. Many of these installations are equally, or even more, impressive in the evening when they are lit.
8. Experience the Gerald D. Hines Waterwall Park
The Gerald D. Hines Waterwall Park showcases an impressive multi-story sculptural fountain that sees sheets of water cascading over large concrete walls and sculptures. The structure's semi-circular shape towers 64 feet above you and is fronted by a large arch and 46,500 square feet of water. It is an attraction that needs to be seen to truly be appreciated. This 2.77 acre park, covered with dozens of live oaks, is located in Uptown Houston.