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The 20 best things to do in Houston

Oddball museums, iconic restaurants, and lush parklands are just a few of the best things to do in Houston

Written by
James Wong
Contributors
Jonathan Thompson
&
Krista Diamond
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As the country’s fourth-largest city by population, Houston already has plenty of bodies to keep occupied. That’s especially good news for travelers rolling through town—when it comes to the best things to do in Houston, there’s something for everyone.

Take their cultural access alone, with a mind-boggling collection of over 150 museums that range from NASA's Space Center Houston to a museum focused on the history of funerals (yes, you read that right) and massive art exhibitons. There are sprawling outdoor spaces for nature lovers to explore year-round (even in sticky summers) and a brimming restaurant scene that rivals even Dallas and Austin (particularly when it comes to Asian cuisine and brunch).

You could call it an embarrassment of riches if it weren’t so darn entertaining here. Whatever your reason for touching down at IAH, the best things to do in Houston will keep you busy—here’s everything to check off your bucket list.

Best things to do in Houston, ranked

  • Museums
  • Science and technology
  • Clear Lake

What is it? The first word spoken on the moon was "Houston," so it’s fitting that the city is home to one of the finest interstellar museums on planet Earth.

Why go? NASA’s Space Center Houston boasts a mammoth amount of permanent displays and attractions, including a flown SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that's over 156 feet long. Plus: an extensive artifact collection, live shows, and a NASA Tram Tour that takes visitors behind the scenes at Johnson Space Center.

  • Things to do
  • Greater Houston

What is it? Considered Houston's most significant natural resource, Buffalo Bayou has hundreds of acres of parkland and running trails.

Why go? One of the finest ways to enjoy the bayou’s beauty is from the water itself, starting downtown at Allen’s Landing and working your way west. Rent a kayak from the Buffalo Bayou Partnership or join one of the company’s boat tours, including history tours and the popular twilight tours.

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  • Bars
  • Dive bars
  • Greater Houston

What is it? The oldest haunt in Houston, La Carafe is an intimate, candlelit tavern that's been serving locals for more than 125 years.

Why go? Enjoy a string of immortal jukebox tunes (think Django Reinhart, Edith Piaf, and Hank Williams) while sipping wine or beer in this venue, which has been listed on the National Register for Historic Places. Keep an eye out for the resident ghost: an old bartender called Carl who’s allegedly still hanging around, possibly waiting for one final tip (he doesn’t accept credit cards, either).

  • Museums
  • History
  • Greater Houston

What is it? Visitors can discover everything from the mysterious traditions surrounding the burial of a Pope to the recreation of Abraham Lincoln’s state funeral at this morbidly curious museum.

Why go? Alright, taking a trip to this museum may not be the most upbeat day out, but it's certainly engaging. The real must-see here is the enormous 1916 Packard graveyard bus, created to "eliminate funeral processions." It could carry a coffin, pallbearers and 20 mourners, but was hastily retired after the sheer weight in the back caused it to tip over on a San Francisco hill, sending bodies (both living and dead) bouncing down the street like a real life version of Coffin Flop.

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  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Museum District

What is it? As one of the largest museums in the United States, expect exhibitions and installations galore.

Why go? On Thursdays, you can check out everything from Renaissance art to rare African sculptures with a cocktail in hand, before enjoying the resident DJ and grabbing a bite to eat from one of the curated food trucks usually parked outside. Plus, if you can tear your eyes away from the Matisses and Rodins in the museum’s sculpture garden, you’ll find yourself in the perfect position to enjoy sunset over the city skyline, too.

  • Restaurants
  • Mexican
  • Second Ward

What is it? Legend has it that the fajita was invented in Houston—and the restaurant that had the bright idea is still serving the treat today.

Why go? Original Ninfa’s has been around so long that its slogan is "the best Mexican food in Texas since Texas was in Mexico." It’s not all hot air either: the food here is incredible, particularly when ordered with the famous "off the menu" toppings. They also serve some of the finest margaritas in town. 

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What is it? The historic beach town, Galveston, is less than an hour’s drive from Houston. It's considered by many to be an extension of the city itself.

Why go? There’s plenty to do here, too. From 32 miles of beaches (chilled-out Jamaica Beach is the locals' favorite) to an evocative historic district full of Victorian architecture and old seafaring inns. Check out the chateau-like Bishop’s Palace before pedaling a beach cruiser bike along the seawall at sunset. Had enough of volleyball and sun-bathing? Spend some time fishing and exploring the historic ships at Seawolf Park, including the U.S.S. Cavalla and U.S.S. Stewart.

What is it? Houston boasts the second largest Chinese population in the U.S. (after Los Angeles), so it's only fitting to visit Chinatown when in town.

Why go? Head to the thriving district in the city’s southwest for an epicurean adventure. Savor the rich (and tempting) tastes, sights and smells of the bustling Hong Kong Food Market. After that, nibble on dim sum at Ocean Palace or a steaming bowl of vermicelli soup at Tan Tan. Finish your afternoon with a peaceful stroll around Jade Buddha Temple's serene lotus ponds, statues and gardens. 

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  • Museums
  • Science and technology
  • Binz

What is it? The Houston Museum of Natural Science boasts a number of world-class exhibits, including fossils in action. 

Why go? Most major paleontology exhibits feature dinosaur skeletons lined up one after the other. This museum, however, tried something entirely different: it recreates actual encounters between dinosaurs as they might have occurred millions of years ago. The results are fantastic, with skeletal dinosaurs eating, chasing, and fighting. The breathtaking jewelry vault and indoor rainforest are also not to be missed.

What is it? This non-profit showcases Houston's thriving performing arts scene, with a mission to expand the city's reputation as a world-class center for culture. The complex has two performance chambers and an upscale restaurant for those looking to make an evening of it.

Why go? If you're looking for the perfect excuse to dress up and see some performing arts, think of The Hobby Center like Houston's own Broadway—if all of Broadway squeezed into one building, that is. Featuring hits like Tootsie, Hadestown, and Hamilton, not to mention drag shows, parodies, and seasonal goodies, this place has it all.

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What is it? "Inspired, hip, tasty, funky, savvy" shouts the famous mural at 520 Travis Street, which has become something of a photographic flag-bearer for the city.

Why go? This wonderfully vibrant, colorful image isn't just Instagram bait; it aims to boost local pride by drawing attention to the city’s more celebrated characteristics, right here in the heart of the Market Square District. Its message is clear: Houston, we don’t have a problem.

  • Museums
  • History
  • Greater Houston

What is it? Towering over the Houston Ship Channel, the San Jacinto Monument is the tallest war memorial in the nation, standing 15 feet higher than the Washington Monument.

Why go? The 570-foot obelisk—topped by a massive 220-ton Lone Star of Texas—pays tribute to those who fought for Texas' independence from Mexico in 1836. The outstanding San Jacinto Museum at its base contains a number of fascinating artifacts from the Texas Revolution and subsequent Republic, and serves as the access point for the all-important elevator to the summit. The San Jacinto Museum also houses the Albert and Ethel Herzstein library where you'll discover rare books and delicate manuscripts.

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  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • Galleria

What is it? Formerly the Williams Waterwall, the Gerald D. Hines Waterwall is one of Houston’s most popular spots to relax (naturally, it's also one of the city’s most photographed sites).

Why go? A dramatic 64-foot semicircular fountain, the Gerald D. Hines Waterwall recycles a ferocious 11,000 gallons of water per minute in what has become liquid Instagram gold. Once you’ve taken your mandatory snap, grab some lunch to-go from the neighboring Galleria before returning to the oak glades in the Waterwall’s three-acre park for picture-perfect picnicking.

  • Attractions
  • River Oaks

What is it? Retired upholsterer John Milkovisch and his friends guzzled some 50,000 beers to give his small home in the Rice Military neighborhood its iconic—and bizarre—aluminum armor.

Why go? A scenic drive from downtown, Beer Can House is one of H-Town’s quirkiest and most popular sites. It's also, perhaps, one of the world’s greatest examples of recycling. Shell out $5 to get inside the house, or just admire the beloved folk art creation from the sidewalk. Tours are offered on weekends 1pm-5pm.

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What is it? The home of the Houston Astros can keep as many as 40,000 fans cool through all nine innings thanks to its 242-foot-high retractable roof and surprisingly effective air conditioning. 

Why go? If the promise of relief from the Texas heat isn't enough to entice you, Minute Maid Park's food will do the trick. Chow down on exclusive dishes like the tortilla-wrapped hot dog topped with hot Cheetos, queso, sour cream and pico from Torchy's Tacos (one of Austin's original fast food restaurants). Besides, even if you aren't a baseball fan, the atmosphere alone is worth the ticket price. You'll be rooting for the home team before you know it.

What is it? From neon-lit tattoo parlors to tree-covered bungalows and quaint coffee shops, this four-square-mile neighborhood is a pocket of eccentricity like no other this side of Austin.

Why go? Spend an afternoon perusing its experimental art galleries or find a one-of-a-kind treasure at one of the offbeat boutiques along Westheimer Curve. 

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  • Attractions
  • Museum District

What is it? This octagonal building in the Museum District is an oasis of peace and calm where religion, art, and architecture intermingle.

Why go? The 'Chapel' (a misnomer given that the venue is without denomination) is decorated with 14 mural canvasses painted by celebrated Russian-American artist Mark Rothko shortly before his death in 1970. Rothko considered them to be his most important works and their power in this tranquil space is undeniable.

What is it? Since Rice University unveiled James Turrell’s "Twilight Epiphany" Skyspace in June 2012, the glass pyramid has become a cult favorite among Houstonians.

Why go? Locals come out in droves to enjoy the spectacular natural light show, particularly at sunset. The ingenious structure uses LED lights in sequence with the rising and setting of the sun to create a dazzling display that's projected through a square aperture at the apex of the pyramid. 

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  • Theater
  • Binz

What is it? One of Houston’s brightest cultural gems, Miller Outdoor Theatre in Hermann Park has staged free outdoor performances since 1923. With eight months of free arts programming every year, the sloping lawn in front of the stage gets packed with locals toting blankets and picnics.

Why go? Because where else can you can enjoy everything from drama to the symphony, free of charge? Just check the event calendar before your visit (and book tickets in advance, if necessary). Besides, it's a great way to lay back and enjoy some toasty Texan weather without being accused of laziness.

  • Art
  • Museum District

What is it? One of the most significant art assemblages of the 20th century, the Menil Collection is housed in a magnificent purpose-built gallery designed by none other than Renzo Piano (the same architect behind NYC's Whitney Museum of American Art).

Why go? Displayed in spacious, naturally lit white-walled sections, the superb works are the collection of John and Dominique de Menil. The nearly 15,000 pieces range from Paleolithic carvings to Surrealist paintings, and many prominent artists—including Picasso and Rene Magritte—have entire rooms to themselves. With free admission and parking, it would be a crime not to spend time here.

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