As you’d expect of the fourth largest city in the US, Houston has no shortage of attractions to keep visitors entertained. Regardless of whether you’re a culture vulture, a nature freak, on a budget or have cash to splash, you’ll find an endless number of things to see and do. The only problem may be packing them all into just one visit. To help you make the most of your trip, we’ve rounded up 20 of the very best things to do in Houston for first-time visitors.
20. Miller Outdoor Theatre
Suburb cultural opportunities don’t usually come for free, but Miller Outdoor Theatre is a rare, and very welcome, exception to the rule. Located in the equally delightful Hermann Park, the theatre offers 8 months of free programming each year, giving locals and visitors alike the perfect opportunity to take in a play, a symphony, or a concert in idyllic, open-air surrounds. Bring a blanket, some snacks, and layout in the sun to enjoy one of the best outdoor treats the city has to offer.
19. Rothko Chapel
Religion, art, and architecture collide to wondrous effect in the stunning Rothko Chapel. Founded by Houston philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil, the chapel is decorated with 14 awe-inspiring mural canvasses by Russian-American artist Mark Rothko, all of which were completed shortly before his death in 1970. Today, the chapel offers a mixture of activities, meditation classes, and opportunities to reflect in its calm, tranquil environment.
18. Beer Can House
If you like folk art, you’ll love Beer Can House. Created by a retired upholsterer named John Milkovisch, the house is one of the greatest examples of recycling in the world: a normal home transformed into an aluminum wonder courtesy of the 50,000 beer cans decorating its walls. Quirky and fun, it’s one of Houston’s most celebrated local attractions. If you want to do more than just admire the exterior, you can even take a tour of the house itself for a mere $5.
If you can bear to leave the delights of Houston behind for a day, head on over to Galveston. Located just 50 miles southeast of Houston, the barrier island is a treasure trove of sandy beaches, amusement parks, and recreational pursuits. The Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier is worth the trip alone (especially if you have kids), offering everything from arcade games and a rollercoaster to a Ferris wheel, a carousel, and a water ride. Those intent on a quieter afternoon in nature should head to the Galveston Island State Park, a scenic spot full of hiking trails, picnicking spots, and paddling opportunities.
16. Houston Museum of Natural Science
Whether you’re 5 or 65, a visit to the Museum of Natural Science is guaranteed to please. Jewelry enthusiasts will love the sparkling gems on display at the gem vault, while the extensive collection of dinosaur fossils and artifacts will keep would-be paleontologists entertained for hours. The museum is also home to the Cockrell Butterfly Center- while entrance does come with an additional charge, the stunning variety of multicolored butterflies and tropical flora on display makes it more than worth the cost.
15. Discovery Green
If you’re looking for a pleasant space to revive after a morning trawling Houston’s retail and cultural destinations, you’ll find few places better to do it than at the charming Discovery Green. The park may only be 12 acres, but it’s got no end of activities and attractions to keep you entertained. With outdoor yoga classes, live shows, a putting green, a bocce ball courts, picnic lawns and even a library, you’re guaranteed to find something to keep you amused, while the “art carts” full of free hula hoops, Frisbees, bouncy balls and other toys are a guaranteed pleaser for kids
14. Minute Maid Park
Sports lovers, rejoice… if you’re starting to find tripping around Houston’s endless museums more of a chore than a pleasure, a quick trip to Minute Maid Park should be more than enough to revive you. The air-conditioned stadium is a huge relief on the hottest days of summer, while there’s enough on offer to keep you entertained even if you’re not lucky enough to visit on game day (in which case, we highly recommend booking a tour of the grounds to make the most of your trip). Don’t miss indulging in a few ballpark classic eats while you’re there- the hot dogs and nachos are said to be epic.
13. Johnson Space Center and Space Center Houston
The 250,000-square-foot Johnson Space Center and Space Center Houston is a must-visit for anyone who grew up wanting to be an astronaut. Featuring a giant range of science and space shows, shuttle launch displays, space suites exhibits, Mission Control tours and a Starship Gallery jam-packed with artifacts, this is the kind of place you could happily dedicate the whole day to- if you haven’t got that kind of time to spare, book yourself on the 90-minute narrated tram tour for a whistle-stop journey through the key highlights.
12. The Menil Collection
If you want to experience one of the best museums in Houston for free, take a trip to the Menil Collection between Wednesday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. for free admittance. As home to a huge collection of photography, sculptures, impressionist and surrealist pieces (not to mention one of the most impressive collections of African and Byzantine art you’ll find anywhere in the US), it’s unquestionably one of the shining jewels in Houston’s expansive collection of museums.
11. Art Car Museum
For motorheads, the Art Car Museum’s vast collection of uniquely painted and decorated vehicles is guaranteed to please. Featuring everything from ornate hippie VW’s to derby racers and police cruisers, if you can imagine a car that’s worthy of bedazzling, you’ll find it here. Along with the cars themselves, the museum is also home to numerous rotating exhibits of sculptures, photography and modern art.
10. The Galleria
For those looking to indulge in a spot of retail therapy, a visit to the Galleria comes highly recommended. Occupying more than 2.4 million square feet and boasting more than 400 (largely upscale) stores, it’s the perfect place to browse the latest collections from the likes of Burberry, Chanel, Christian Louboutin, Giorgio Armani, and Gucci. Once you’ve finished shopping, you’ll find more than 50 great little spots for a refreshing beverage or a light lunch. Just be sure to wear comfortable shoes…there’s going to be a lot of walking.
9. Houston Murals
Fans of street art shouldn’t miss a tour of Houston’s famous collection of street murals. The diverse range of vibrant artwork can be found splashed across the city, encompassing a range of styles and meanings. Start your tour at the Houston Graffiti Wall, located at the intersection of Chartres Street and Bell Street, before winding your way along St. Emanuel Street and Leeland Street (home to the charming "Abstract Happy Beach Wall"). The neighboring Montrose and Midtown neighborhoods are also worth a visit, if for no other reason than to wonder at the intricacy of the Biscuit Paint Wall.
8. Herman Park
Houston is packed with a multitude of stunning parks. Chief among them is the delightful Herman Park. Covering a huge expanse, the park is a delight of botanical wonders and attractions, and has enough activities (playgrounds, pavilions, picnic areas, lakes, gardens, a golf course, a railroad ride for kids, pedal boats, trails and more besides) to keep you entertained for the entire day. If you can’t quite fit in a whole day, aim to make it at least 2 hours, and be sure to check out McGovern Centennial Gardens and the Miller Outdoor Amphitheater while you’re there.
7. Armand Bayou Nature Center
For those with even a vague interest in flora and fauna, a tour of the Armand Bayou Nature Center is a must-visit. As the largest urban wilderness preserve in the U.S, the center is home to a vast array of animals, with everything from armadillos, alligators, and turtles, to doe-eyed deer and majestic eagles. To make the most of your visit, take advantage of one of the various tours on offer: while they all have their attractions, a moonlight cruise of the bayou is an experience you’re unlikely to forget in a hurry.
6. Houston Zoo
As home to more than 6,000 animals ranging from cheetahs and giraffes to otters and bats, Houston Zoo makes a great day out for all the family. As well as offering the chance to watch the animals at play in replicas of their natural habitats, there’s a vast array of other activities and attractions to keep you entertained, including a water play park and a 4-D movie experience.
5. Holocaust Museum Houston
Thought-provoking, informative, and hugely engaging, the Holocaust Museum Houston should be on everyone’s itinerary. As well as offering a vast collection of exhibits detailing the horrors of the Holocaust (including film footage of the concentration camps and a railcar that was used to transport the victims), the museum is also home to a number of inspirational pieces dedicated to the resistance (including a Danish fishing boat that was involved in the rescue of over 7,000 Danish Jews).
4. Houston Museum District
Even if you’ve only the vaguest interest in culture, you really shouldn’t miss a visit to the Museum District. Packed with 19 museums (with some of the chief highlights including the Houston Museum of Natural Science (home to the fascinating Cockrell Butterfly Center and the Burke Baker Planetarium), the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (a masterpiece of rotating exhibits that never fail to inspire), The Buffalo Soldiers National Museum (the US’s first, and only, museum dedicated to the history of African-Americans in the military) and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (the perfect place to take in some of the work of past masters and contemporary heroes), it’s the kind of place you could spend your entire trip without once getting bored.
3. Children's Museum of Houston
If you’re visiting Houston with the kids in tow, don’t miss a visit to the excellent Children's Museum of Houston. The Tot*Spot exhibit is perfect for tots (as the name suggests), while older kids will have an equally great time at the EcoStation, an exhibit dedicated to encouraging youngsters to engage in nature by offering everything from bug collecting to leaf rubbings. The FlowWorks interactive exhibit’s water games, meanwhile, are the perfect way for them to cool down on a hot summer’s day, while the Kidtropolis, a mini-city for kids, run by kids, is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.
2. Buffalo Bayou Park
Stretching for 52 miles between Katy, Texas and Houston’s River Oaks area, Buffalo Bayou is one of the best spots in Houston to enjoy some outdoor recreation. As well as its extensive hiking and walking trails, the park is home to numerous other attractions and activities, including a skateboarding park, a tributary, a nature-themed playground and picnic pavilion, a dog park, the Houston Police Officers' Memorial, and the Cistern, Houston's first underground drinking-water reservoir that now makes a popular tourist spot.
1. Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo
If you’re visiting Texas, it would be remiss not to take in at least one rodeo. Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is among the best there is; come competition season (usually between late February and early March), the NRG Stadium comes alive with the sights and sounds of bareback riding, bull riding, steer wrestling, tie-down roping, barrel racing and more besides. Even if rodeos aren’t your thing, there’s more than enough other activities and attractions to keep you entertained during the competitions, including parades, barbecue contests, trail rides, an amusement park, livestock auctions, calf scrambles, and horse shows.
Written by Liz Flynn
Read more posts by Liz Flynn