We moved to Houston at the end of June 2021, in the middle of the strange pandemic impacted years. Texas, being the kind of state that it is, had no mandatory mask requirements and by the time we arrived, most businesses and attractions were open again. Being locked inside fortress WA for nearly 18 months, it was good to explore somewhere new!
Attractions & Museums
Space Centre Houston
Space Centre Houston is the museum part of the Johnson Space Centre, which has played a significant role in space exploration including the moon landing when Neil Armstrong famously said “Houston, Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed”.
The Space Centre has lots of displays related to various NASA expeditions and an amazing 747 which was remodeled to be able to carry the space shuttle. Being able to walk inside this was pretty incredible.
The best part of the experience was the tram tour which takes you into the actual NASA campus. There are heaps of buildings, mostly off-limits, but driving through gives you an idea of the number of people and amount of infrastructure involved in space missions. We viewed the astronaut training laboratory with mock-ups of the International Space Station which was pretty cool. The tram also stops at Rocket Park which has a full sized Saturn V rocket which was amazing (the fuel tanks for the rocket were so large and the flight module for the astronauts so small!). We sadly didn’t get to see Mission Control where the Apollo moon missions were controlled from, but we will go back!
The Houston Zoo is located in the middle of Herman Park (see below) and has a wide range of animals including a lot of African specialities. It was nice to see animals which don’t live at Perth Zoo, such as hippos and gorillas. There were of also some familiar favourites like meerkats and otters.
Houston Museum of Natural Science
The Houston Museum of Natural Science is large and on our visit we spent most our time in the fantastic hall of paleontology. It starts with stromatolites, progresses to the largest collections of trilobites (to my delight) and then has an amazing array of dinosaurs. Almost every dinosaur I could remember was presented including Allosaurs, multiple T-rex skeletons, stegosaurs, dimetrodon, triceratops and pterodactyls flying above! There were also fish, crocodiles, mammals including woolly mammoths and giant armadillos. To do this hall justice would require several days.
After the fossils, we whipped through the lovely shell exhibition, spotted animals and birds in the Texas natural history dioramas and admired the beautiful gems and minerals.
Also at the HMNS is the Cockrell Butterfly house which was really good. It was a bit like a scaled down version of the cloud forest in the Gardens By the Bay in Singapore with a multistory waterfall, orchids and flowering plants but also many fluttering beauties. As well as the butterfly house, there is an entomology hall with lots of fun facts about insects (as all as arachnids and other invertebrates) and some live and preserved specimens.
Arts & Culture
Museum of Fine Arts Houston
The MFAH is a world class art museum. We became members as a Christmas gift from my family which is good as it is super large, has lots of traveling exhibits and is a great place to escape to on hot days. There are several buildings, which are connected by a series of tunnels which have curated artworks and are one of the best parts of the museum! The permanent collections span everything from antiquities to contemporary arts and displays of American, Asian, Islamic and even Australian Indigenous art.
The travelling exhibitions have been excellent with highlight being climbing up buildings (Seeing is Not Believing), walking through the colourful netting of SunForceOceanLife, the gravitas of the Obama portraits and the wonders of Escher. One of the best places to visit in Houston.
Bayou Bend is Ima Hogg’s former home and one of the first houses built in River Oaks (now part of the MFAH). The gardens are lovely with lots of mature trees as Miss Hogg had the house built around the existing vegetation. We have been a couple of times, including for the River Oaks Azalea Festival although due to very cold weather, a lot of azalea buds were damaged so the display wasn’t as spectacular as usual. My favourite parts are the butterfly garden and the white garden, with only white flowers.
Inside the mansion is a large collection of American decorative arts and paintings. Probably less our thing, but still fun to ogle at ornate egg cups with legs, fancy bridge tables and cauliflower tea-pots!
Rienzi is another house museum which has been donated to the MFAH. It is more modern than Bayou Bend, being built in the 1950s and housing European decorative arts collected by the former owners. We visited the gardens during the Azalea festival and then attended a special dinner from March. This was really good as we explored the house with drinks and canapés (allowed in certain rooms!) and then had the rest of the meal in the very fancy ballroom. Very tasty food with both matching cocktails (standard) and matching art pieces (not usual for dinning)!
The Menil Collection is an art gallery comprised of the art collected by French philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil. The main gallery is housed in a Renzo Piano design building which is supposed to be larger on the inside than the outside (TARDIS-like) and has lots of natural light form the folded roof. The building is great and the main collection is pretty good, with some very intriguing temporary exhibitions. There are also several other galleries including a light installation by Dan Flavin, drawing institute and lots of green-pace and outside sculptures. Nearby, the Rothko Chapel is a very meditative experience and the Broken Obelisk memorial to MLK is beautiful.
The Buffalo Bayou Cistern is a decommissioned underground water storage reservoir. It is an amazing, cavernous space filled with columns and is available for tours and art shows. We visited “Time No Longer” by Anri Sala which was a film and sound installation. It was quite meditative slowly ambling around the catwalks on the edge of the reservoir as the lights created shadows and reflections. After the show we tried to work out how deep the water was – we were surprised that it was only about 10 centimeters!
We’ve seen a few James Turrell artworks (for example on Naoshima Art Island) and so were anticipating an intriguing ‘slow burn’ experience at the piece at Rice University. Called “Twilight Epiphany”, the lights of a pavilion with a sky hole slowly change colour during dawn and dusk, playing with your perception. Some people got bored and didn’t stay until the end, when the epiphany happened. We really enjoyed it!
Minute Maid Park – Home of Houston Astros
I was worried going to my first Astros game in the middle of the Houston summer that I would get badly sunburned and end up very hot. However, Minute Maid Park is covered and air-conditioned so a great place to go on a hot weekend!
Since Mark used to play baseball, he has done a good job at explaining the rules to those less familiar and we have seen some good games, the most runs being scored in a 11-2 victory by the Astros. There has been a home run hit at every game, though I haven’t always been paying attention at the right time!
We have cheered for Altuve (the star), commiserated with the pitchers when they keep getting sent off the mound and laughed at catcher Maldonaldo nearly getting lapped around the bases. Orbit the mascot is great and a highlight of each game is the clapping during ‘Deep in the Heart of Texas’ which is sung at 7th innings stretch break, after the traditional ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’.
Toyota Centre – Home of Houston Rockets
The Houston Rockets are not the best NBA team going around, but it is still good fun to watch them play at Toyota Centre. The first time I saw the was against Brooklyn Nets and I nearly barracked for the opponents as Aussie hero Paddy Mills was playing for them. Like lots of sports in the states, there is a lot of spectacle surrounding the game but I do enjoy all the cheering and clapping for defense.
Kyle Field – Home of Texas A&M Aggies
The only NFL game we have been to so far was at Kyle Field, home of the Aggies (the Texas A&M NCAA team). It was about an hour drive to College Station, and the amount of traffic going to the game was just the beginning. The sheer scale of what is a non-professional league, was incredible. The stadium seats over 100,000 people and the game started a lot of hoolpa including fireworks and a jet flyover! There were multiple types of cheerleader, huge brass bands for each team and thousands of people rocking all the Aggies swag.
The actual game was less impressive (in my opinion) than other sports, being very stop/start and at times hard to follow. With so many time outs and stoppages, it can take 30 minutes for the last 10 minutes of game time! The highlight was the marching bands at half-time who put on very impressive displays. The Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band is known nationally for its precision military marching formations and is the largest college marching band in the country with over 400 members!
Nature and Parks
Memorial Park is one of the largest urban parklands in the US, double the size of New York’s Central Park. A lot of upgrade work has been recently completed, or is in progress, to restore ecosystems and provide more facilities for visitors. We have run countless laps of Seymour Lieberman Trail, a crushed gravel 3 mile (~5 km lap) which apparently 10,000 people on average use daily! We’ve also run through some of the single track in the southern sections which is soul nourishing.
The newly developed Eastern Glades section has picnic areas and lakes which are home to a lot of giant frogs, a couple of grebe families and of course red-eared sliders! It reminds us a bit of our backyard back home (Hyde Park).
At the western end of Memorial Park is the Houston Arboretum & Nature Centre. There is an education center with a nice display area for kids and some live animals – turtles, tarantulas, snakes etc. There are lots of paths around different habitats and although supposed to be good for bird watching, we have had better luck seeing great butterflies here.
The Arboretum is also an excellent location for armadillos. After spending the better part of a year looking for one (or listening for one which is actually the best way to find them), all my Christmases came at once when we saw six in an afternoon!
Houston Botanic Garden
The Houston Botanic garden is a relatively new attraction, which opened in 2020 on the site of a former golf course. There are different areas including a culinary garden, global garden with some great cacti, children’s garden and more natural spaces of wetlands, coastal prairie and woodland glades. The only issue is visiting when it is not too hot outside – with some parts still being fully established not all of the garden has much shade. Last year there we also enjoyed walking around the spectacular Christmas light show.
Buffalo Bayou & Waugh St Bats
We were pleasantly surprised by the amount of running routes in Houston, with the most convenient (and probably best) being the trails along Buffalo Bayou. With many interconnecting parks leading towards downtown, there are sport facilities, public artworks and space for concerts. During spring, there are wildflowers and lots of birds and squirrels all year round. After a large amount of rain (when the water rise dramatically), I even saw a pair of river otters! Once you get over how brown the bayou is, it is actually quite beautiful and there are lots of nice views of the city.
Buffalo Bayou is also the home of the Waugh Street bats, with pre-freeze numbers of over 200,000 Mexican free-tailed bats! The bats live in crevices under the road bridge, with huge numbers emerging in an easterly direction at sunset – the line of bats curls along the tree lined bayou and then off into the night. It is estimated that they eat 2.5 tonnes of insects per night.
Herman Park is a large urban park in the Museum District of Houston. The entrance is grand, with large fountains and the Sam Houston Monument. There is a large lake with pedal boats, reflecting ponds and an obelisk (like a scaled down version of Washington), a Japanese garden and even a small train for kids. The adjoining McGovern Centennial garden has edible gardens, a sculpture walk and even a hill (rare in Houston)! Even though it’s man-made there is a lovely stream running down and good views from the top.
The park and surrounding areas around Rice University have lovely old live oak trees, with broadly spreading branches, hence there are some lovely shaded running routes.
Herman Park is also home to the Miller Outdoor Theatre which hosts a range of free concerts including music, dance and theatre. It’s a nice place to bring a picnic – you can even see the bat flying around in the early evening.
Brazos Bend State Park is a great for alligator viewing not too far from the city. We enjoyed walking around spotting lots of birds and gators relaxing on the banks, admiring the views from the observation trail and just being in nature (after what is sometimes a very concrete existence in Houston).
When we visited in January, we saw a cluster of people standing near a park ranger with a large stick. Intrigued, we headed over a saw a mother keeping a close watch on some young gators! The ranger advised us not to get any closer, as if we made the babies start chirping, then the mother would charge…
There is also a nature centre with more information about the resident plants and animals, as well as a few snakes and some baby gators (that you can get close to without being concerned about being attacked!).
Sawyer Yards is the Houston arts district, home to over 350 artists and creative businesses. On Saturdays you can visit the studios in the transformed industrial warehouses (and maybe see some of the infamous trains going past which often cause traffic chaos on the busy inner city streets). We enjoyed wandering around through the different buildings with paintings, sculptures, ceramics and more. There are also a couple of bars and it is close to some of the Houston craft breweries.
Central Market has the single path philosophy of Bunbury Farmer’s Market, with some of the prices of Cottesloe Boatshed! Great for mushrooms, plump freekah and home of really good sandwiches. You can either get build your own or pre-selected flavour combinations. The amount of meat, cheese and vegetables they stuff in would cost twice as much if actually buying from the store.
Specs is not really an attraction per se, but their Midtown store is pretty mind blowing! Although outside the rabbit looks gimmicky, inside there are rows and rows of French wines, all the different types of single malt scotch you could want and beer from around the world (Coopers being the Australian representative). The problem is with so many unfamiliar wine growing regions, where to start?
Galleria & Waterwall
I wouldn’t recommend shopping at Galleria, particularly on the weekend as it is too crowded with traffic jams extending on all the surrounding roads. However, it is good for people watching (long lines outside the designer shops) and the nearby Waterwall is quite nice.