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Houston guide: Where to eat, drink, shop and stay in Space City

Hanging out with astronauts, scoffing finger-sullying barbecue and steppin’ out in boozy honky-tonks all justify a visit to Texas’s largest city

Christian Koch
Thursday 20 February 2020 15:31 GMT
Houston, the home town of Queen Bey
Houston, the home town of Queen Bey (Getty)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Houston, we have a problem. Or rather, we did have a problem. For years, outsiders dismissed the oil-rich Texas city as nothing more than a sprawling jumble of asphalt freeways, neat suburban homes and bland corporate HQs that only David Brent would get excited about. In recent years, however, the Bayou City has unbuttoned its shirt, polished its boots and started to have fun.

The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landings in 2019 brought a palpable buzz to the city. But Nasa’s Johnson Space Centre, which acted as command-post for 1969’s epochal Eagle-has-landed mission, isn’t Houston’s only claim to fame. It’s also, lest we forget, the city that gave us HRH Beyoncé (in Downtown Queen Bey’s lyrics adorn banners in the streets). And aside from that, the city has plenty of cultural charms to sample. Here are some of the best.

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What to do

Pay homage to space heroes

Apollo 17, on show at Houston Space Centre, was part of the last moon landing
Apollo 17, on show at Houston Space Centre, was part of the last moon landing (Wikimedia)

To celebrate 50 years since Neil Armstrong first took those leaden steps on the moon, Mission Control at Space Centre Houston has been painstakingly restored to look exactly how it did in 1969 (think discarded headsets, retro Coca Cola cans, ashtrays and nicotine-stained walls). As Nasa facilities are further than just a small step apart, a 90-minute tram tour (included in the ticket price) whisks visitors between sites, including Rocket Park (home to the dinosaur-sized Saturn V) and buildings where white-lab-coated scientists mooch about (most of the training/planning for Nasa space missions happens here). Precious hours can be spent ogling the gallery of flown spacecraft or finding out answers to questions such as: “How do astronauts poo in space?”

It’s also crammed with more interactivity than you can you can shake a lightsaber at: visitors can touch genuine moon rocks, eat freeze-dried ice cream or lunch with grandpa-like ex-astronauts. Space Centre Houston is a 30-minute drive down I-45 from Houston. Tickets from $29.95 (£24).

Be dazzled by Houston’s museums

Whenever “America’s Top 10 Cultured Cities” listicles appear online, Houston invariably makes a cameo, partly thanks to its Museum District. Check out Museum of Fine Arts (tickets: $17/£13), a fantastic primer to pos-twar American art with Pollocks, Warhols and Rothkos galore.

Meanwhile, Houston Museum of Natural Science (tickets: $25/£20) is kids’ museum-nirvana, with a planetarium, palaeontology wing and “Death By Natural Causes” exhibition showcasing the everyday ways in which people can snuff it (you can calculate your life expectancy there too).

Houston’s Museum District has everything from planetarium to palaeontology (Getty)
Houston’s Museum District has everything from planetarium to palaeontology (Getty) (Getty Images)

Expect more grim-reaper larceny at National Museum of Funeral History (tickets: $10/£8) with its historical-hearses coffin collection, Day of the Dead room and memorabilia from famous funerals such as Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe (warning: Jim Henson’s send-off is genuinely tear-jerking).

Engage in some batty behaviour

Every night around dusk, a murky cloud of 200,000 Mexican free-tailed bats soars from beneath Waugh Drive Bridge in Buffalo Bayou Park for their nightly insect feed. Quite often, there are hundreds of people there to watch them too. The pageantry of this biblical-like swarm of winged mammals set against Houston’s skyscrapers is spectacular. Buffalo Bayou Park can also be admired on kayak tours or Houston’s BCycle bike-share scheme.

Buffalo Bayou Park is a bat-lovers paradise (Getty/iStockphoto)
Buffalo Bayou Park is a bat-lovers paradise (Getty/iStockphoto) (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Where to stay

Houston attracts lots of business travellers during the week, but this means hotel rates drop dramatically at weekends.

Pick of Downtown digs is Hotel Alessandra, all fanatically polished marble decor, Art Deco furnishings and martini carts ordered to your room. The rooftop pool, with its sweeping skyline views and ledge-loungers that are semi-submerged in the water, offers a much-needed sanctuary from Houston’s subtropical summers (in August the mercury surges to 35C). Doubles from $199 (£159), room only.

Hotel Magnolia was built in 1926 and was previously the HQ for the Houston Post Dispatch and Shell. Unlike other chic boutique lodgings, its complimentary bedtime cookies and convivial happy hour lend a welcoming vibe, as does its raffish library and billiards room. Doubles from $159 (£127), room only.

Sara’s Inn is Houston’s longest-running B&B. A Queen Anne home (an architectural style popular from the 1890s to the 1910s), it features 11 antique-laden rooms, some with four-poster beds, winding staircases and claw-foot bathtubs. Chill out on its Southern-style porch or its period-styled parlor room before exploring the surrounding Heights, arguably H-Town’s most charming neighbourhood. Doubles from $109 (£87), B&B.

Where to eat

Size matters in Houston, as any drive down its never-ending, SUV-choked freeways will tell you. The city’s food also subscribes to this “bigger-is-better” ethos. Take Goode Company BBQ. Here, beef brisket is slow-cooked for 14 hours, the ribs look like something the Flintstones might have gorged on, while meals are often five-course affairs. Smoked sausage and pecan pie is washed down with longnecks-on-ice (bottled beer) and gallons of ice tea. For further immersion into barbecue culture, visit during rodeo season (3-22 March, 2020), when amateurs and pros compete in nightly cook-offs.

Rodeo Goat offers similar carni-nirvana. At this ice-house (old-school beer joint), burgers come stacked with hydroponic sprouts, poblano cheese and candied bacon.

The Texan penchant for enormity is also on display at MAD, a new Spanish-inspired restaurant named after Madrid’s airport code. Inspired by the 1970’s La Movida Madrilena countercultural movement, its choreographed colours are worthy of an Almodovar movie, while the food is predictably fancy: sauteed baby eels, duck tongue tacos, wood-fired paella with socarrat (crust at the bottom of the pan; who knew that was even a word?) and cacao-coated “liquid olives”. So posh it has genuine Picassos on the wall, there’s a hefty tag to pay for such lavishness: a two-month waiting-list.

Around 44 per cent of Houston’s population is Hispanic, resulting in some first-rate Latin American food, such as Oaxacan restaurant Xochi with its endless fiesta of moles, including a try-it-if-you-dare chicatana (ants) version.

Where to drink

The shirt-soaking humidity of Houston doesn’t prevent partying at all; people just simply head to their nearest breezy open-air patio, especially when clocks strike happy hour. The beer garden at craft brewery Saint Arnold is no exception. Not only is it gargantuan (25,000sq ft), but thanks to its railroad-tracks location it couldn’t be more yee-haw western either. Brewery tours are free, while the Pub Crawl pale ale, Fancy Lawnmower kolsch and 14.7 per cent bourbon-barreled stout are every bit as fantastic as their names suggest.

Visiting a honky-tonk bar is a Texan rite-of-passage. At the barn-like Goodnight Charlie’s in the Montrose nightlife district, a country band rumbles away, but the real fun is watching good-ole-boys in boots and 10-gallon hats politely asking women to dance the two-step with them. For all their jaw-jutting machismo, cowboys really are quite chaste.

A short walk away is Present Company, a bar with cheap mescal cocktails, retina-scorching neon, palm-tree-festooned patios and an anything-goes vibe (when we visited, some loon was milling about with three monkeys on his arm while everybody else broke out into impromptu Macarena line-dances).

Where to shop

The nearest thing H-Town has to a hipsterville is The Heights neighbourhood. Dotted among its low-rise bungalows, you’ll find the usual tattoo-clad baristas, avant-garde picture-houses and vintage stores. But Manready Mercantile transcends all that; the cowhide-lined emporium sells jerky, unisex denim and also has a DIY candle bar, where patrons make customised soy candles in whisky glasses ($28/£22). If the quirk gets too much, nip into second-hand bookstore Kaboom Books, which is like stepping into a comforting hug.

On the first Saturday of every month, food-trucks, craft-stalls and live-music line up The Heights’ 19th Street for First Saturday Arts Markets.

At the other end of the shopping spectrum are Houston’s malls, many of them so huge they have hotels inside, such as 3 million sq ft Galleria, which also houses 400 stores and an ice-skating rink.

For pure Texana, Cavender’s Boot City sells rows-upon-rows of traditional cowboy boots, Stetsons and Wrangler denim. The boutiques of River Oaks – Houston’s answer to Rodeo Drive – are probably best avoided, unless $10,000 Brunello Cucinelli coats and Patek Philippe timepieces are your thing.

Architectural highlight

Local railroad worker John Milovisch probably wasn’t sticking to 14-units a week when he decorated the outside of his home with 50,000 crushed beer cans (if he were, it would have taken him 137 years to guzzle the lot). However, the copious can consumption did produce Beer Can House, Houston’s folk-art landmark.

Beer Can House is a local folk-art landmark
Beer Can House is a local folk-art landmark (Wikimedia/Andrew Wiseman)

Nuts and bolts

What currency do I need?

US dollars (USD).

What language do they speak?

English. Expect mellifluous accents and to be addressed as “y’all”.

Should I tip?

Definitely. Typically 15-20 per cent in restaurants, 10-15 per cent for taxi drivers and $1 (80p) a drink in bars.

What’s the time difference?

Six hours behind the UK, one hour behind New York.

What’s the average flight time?

From the UK, 10 hours 15 minutes; there are four flights a day on United and British Airways. From New York, airlines including United, Delta, Spirit and Southwest fly to Houston with a flight time of four hours.

Public transport

There are free Greenlink buses in the Downtown area. For further distances, consider the efficient-but-rarely-used Metro Rail train service, linking Downtown to Museum District and beyond.

Best view

The most impressive Houston views aren’t looking down from 57th-floor eyries, but gazing at its skyscraper-studded skyline from afar. Aside from Buffalo Bayou Park, check out similar photo opps from street-art-splattered Graffiti Park (2102 Leeland Street) or Glenwood Cemetery.

Insider tip

Check out the chisel work of local 92-year-old sculptor David Adickes. His Mt Rushmore-style giant president heads span George Washington to Obama, and can be found in his studio yard (2401 Nance Street). Don’t expect to see the current Potus: he’s mysteriously absent for some reason

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