Insider's Guide to Houston

In its 175-year history, the city founded near the banks of Buffalo Bayou has grown from the capitol of the Republic (1837 to 1840) to the fourth-largest city in the nation. What began with 6,642 acres has expanded into nearly 600 square miles, bringing with it a rich history that’s jam-packed with interesting facts, must-see sites and experiences to enjoy. Think you’ve got Houston figured out? Think again.

Bat Country

See Texas’ second-largest urban bat colony on its nightly exodus from beneath Montrose’s Waugh Drive Bridge between Allen Parkway and Memorial Drive. A quarter-million Mexican free-tailed bats call the bridge home and emerge around sunset, nightly, over Buffalo Bayou. For the best vantage point, grab a spot on the platform just southeast of the bridge.

Beyond the Grave

Situated on 84 acres along the Washington Corridor, Glenwood Cemetery serves as a serene resting place for some of Houston’s most iconic residents. Although we aren’t going to suggest parking it there for an afternoon picnic, it is definitely a solid destination for a shade-filled stroll. Keep an eye out for the ornate headstones of more than 20 mayors, past governors, oil tycoons, even Howard Hughes.

Garden State

The former John Staub-designed home of Houston philanthropist Ima Hogg now serves as the Museum of Fine Arts’ Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, housing early American decorative arts and painting collections. Outside, the property’s 14, lush acres are considered the largest organic, historic public garden in the state of Texas and provide a perfect escape on a nice Houston afternoon. 

On the Market

Have a hankering for jalapeno peppers at 6 a.m. on a Tuesday? In Houston, you can find them at Airline Farmers' Market. The Heights-area market has been delivering an endless array of fruits and vegetables for more than 50 years. The open-air market behind Canino's Produce is open daily from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and stocks a wide array of produce at wallet-friendly prices. Before you go, venture out back to Taqueria Tacambaro for sweetbread tacos.

On the Record

Empire Records meets H-Town at Upper Kirby’s vinyl emporium,Cactus Music. The old-school record store stocks new and used CDs, but the real appeal here is the vinyl, which can be test-driven, prior to purchase, on Cactus’ dual turntables. Even better, the indie-shop also hosts in-store performances from local bands, complete with free Saint Arnold’s beer.

A-maze-ing Objects

It took more than 20 years for Houston postman Jeff McKissack to finish his maze-like Orange Show Monument. Made using concrete, brick, steel and anything else he could find, McKissack created a series of walkway mazes, balconies, arenas and exhibits inside an East End lot. When he died in 1980, the future of the project was uncertain, until a non-profit set out to preserve the structure. Together, 21 original donors—including Dominique de Menil and members of ZZ Top—helped pool enough money to restore and reopen the site for tours and special events.

Setting the Stage

Forget the tacky carpet, life-size Miley Cyrus cutouts and stadium seating at most modern cinemas,Landmark River Oaks Theatre plays by its own rules. This historic institution is known for its stunning art-deco interior, indie-film repertoire and second-level bar and lounge. It’s also the only theater in Houston with a weekly midnight series, including The Rocky Horror Picture Show, shown on the second Saturday of every month.

Animal House

Love seeing the giraffes at the zoo? Don’t miss a chance to feed the whole giraffe family in the Houston Zoo’sAfrican Forest. For $5, guests get the chance to help serve up crunchy lettuce snacks to the giraffes, zebras and ostriches during daily feedings at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. 

Staying Power

For more than a decade the Galleria-area Houstonian Hotel served as the formal residence of President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, while he served as vice president and president (1981-1992). Although they slept in The Manor House, before it became the hotel’s signature restaurant, the Bush family later moved to room 271 so the Secret Service could room above and below. Today, guests can reserve the two-bedroom suite and experience La Dolce Vita, at least for the night.

Sole Survivor

Visitors who arrive in Houston sans the oh-so-essential pair of cowboy boots should stop by Westheimer’s Tejas Boots for a custom pair designed by Jose Gonzales. The local institution has been outfitting presidents, governors and athletes for more than 25 years. Sure, a pair will set you back around $1,000, but can you really put a price on the happiness that a perfectly-crafted set of black alligator boots will bring? Check out Tejas’ other products including belts, buckles, shoes, skins, bags and wallets.

Shot Collar

Houston’s oldest family-owned biz, Hamilton Shirts, is still cranking out its bespoke button downs the same way it did in 1883, with hand-cut paper patterns and hand-stitched details. More than 700 seasonal fabrics—used in creating the company’s famous made-to-measure and ready-to-wear shirts—are stocked at Hamilton’s Richmond Avenue-based homebase.

Right of Passage

Looking for Downtown’s professional set during the week? Forget finding them at the crosswalks—the real action is 20-feet below, in the 7.5-mile-long tunnel system. The series of subterranean passages allows the district’s 150,000-employee workforce to take on tasks—doctors appointments, banking, shopping, post office and salons, among other things—in air-conditioned bliss. Access the network via street-level stairs, escalators, office-building elevators or head to Wells Fargo Plaza, which offers direct street-to-tunnel access.

Button up!

Go ahead. For once, we’re giving you permission to press the red button. Seriously. We won’t tell you what happens, since it’s best experienced first-hand, but venture behind downtown’s Wortham Theatre—where Preston Street crosses Buffalo Bayou—and look for the non-descript red button, inset in the staircase, that leads down to the water. You can thank us later.

Show Boat

Explore Houston from below—on a kayaking or pontoon adventure along Buffalo Bayou. Beginning at the Shepherd Street Bridge, paddlers travel to Allen’s Landing and eventually wrap up near the Theater District. Along the way, spot blue herons, loggerhead turtles and an occasional alligator sunning itself along bayou banks.

Master Collection

The University of Houston campus is home to a fully functioning Hilton Hotel—used as a teaching hotel for the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management. It also happens to be the resting place for Elizabeth Taylor’s first wedding album. The college maintains an archive of documents of Conrad Nicholson “Nicky” Hilton Jr., who married Taylor in 1950 and divorced her in 1951. Make an appointment to view the fascinating collection.

Neighborhood Watch

In 1993, artist and activist Rick Lowe helped launch the neighborhood non-profit, Project Row Houses, in Houston’s Third Ward. What started with 22 shotgun-style houses has grown to 40 properties, spread out over six blocks. The mixed-use spaces have helped transform the community, creating a positive respite for art exhibitions, residency spaces, houses for young mothers, office spaces and low-income residential and commercial spaces.

Houston History

The Houston Museum of African American Culture is dedicated to telling the story of Africans and African Americans in Houston and beyond. Located inside the Houston Museum District, HMAAC offers dynamic programming, lectures and exhibitions that involve people of color. There are also film series, educational classes and even worship services at the campus on Caroline Street.

Parks and Restoration

Downtown’s 20-acre Sam Houston Park opened more than a century ago and remains a proud oasis of living history in the city. The park mixes the great outdoors and museum spaces, which are open to the public, as well as historic homes, which can be toured through the Heritage Society. Sam Houston Park is open from dusk to dawn, daily, and admission is free.

Buy and Buy

Take one step inside Chinatown’s Hong Kong City Mall and it’s easy to forget that you’re still in Texas. More than 20 restaurants and cafes, along with a multitude of shops fill the center, including mall anchor Hong Kong Food Market. The grocery store is filled with a mind-boggling assortment of odd produce, seafood (anyway you like it), pungent durian, even an entire frozen food aisle dedicated to fake meat. If you’re still hungry afterwards, venture over to the west wing of the mall for all-star dim sum at Ocean Palace.

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