As a native Houstonian, it’s sometimes easy to take for granted the one-of-a-kind sights that this city offers. Sure, I can tell a visitor about the shows in the Theater District or why a beer-can-covered house is worth a visit, but when was the last time I checked these places out myself? Too long, which is why I recently set out on a mission to revisit some of Houston’s most sought-after sites, looking at each of them through the eyes of a visitor.
I picked up a Houston CityPASS online - before setting out. For those that don’t know about the CityPass program, here’s the basic scoop: Each book includes admission to five of Houston’s most popular attractions. You have one month to use them and they save you nearly half off regular ticket pricing.
Note: One of your five tickets is a choice between the Museum of Fine Arts and The Children’s Museum of Houston. Since I don’t have kids - and I thought I’d get weird looks if I tried to set up shop in the museum’s Kidtropolis - I chose to visit the Museum of Fine Arts. Read on for my highlights.
MONDAY - 2:30PM: Located just a few blocks from the Visitors Center, the Downtown Aquarium was my first stop. Amusement rides and games flank the building’s south side. (For $5, CityPass holders can upgrade their ticket for unlimited access to the Ferris wheel, carousel and shark voyage train.) Once inside, ask about or look for the Aquarium’s feeding schedule sign. There are opportunities to see staff feed the seahorses, saltwater fish and play with the tigers, too. (Yes, tigers. You never know what you’ll find in Houston.) Expect to spend a couple of hours here, meandering from exhibits like the Louisiana Marsh and the shark-infested Gulf of Mexico tank to the rainforest room and the Sunken Temple exhibit, the latter of which showcases a 20-foot-long Tiger Reticulated python. Parking: $6, in the Aquarium’s lot behind the building.
TUESDAY - 11AM: After visiting The Health Museum - and seeing the Planet You 3D film - I can confidently say that I will never look at dust mites the same way, again. I’m not going to spoil the surprise, but suffice it to say, it’s a movie you’ll never forget! While most of the museum is geared towards kids, there was plenty to pique my interest, too - especially the postcard confession gallery, where guests are invited to write an anonymous secret on a postcard, as a way to relieve stress. Other stations, like the Age-o-Matic and Feature Change, allow guests to morph their appearance with the help of facial imaging technology. Sidenote: The Children’s Museum is just a stone’s throw away, in case you want to hit up both. Parking: $3 in the Hermann Drive lot.
TUESDAY - 2PM: I’ll be the first to admit that three hours wasn’t nearly enough time at the Museum of Fine Arts. Spread out in two, multi-level Museum District buildings, the art-filled complex is an awe-inspiring mix of sculpture, artifacts, imagery, video and installation work. Even if you aren’t a big art buff, it’s hard not to appreciate an up-close look at works by Picasso, Matisse and Rembrandt. In case you want to learn more, the MFAH offers audio tours for some of the pieces - look for the Guide by Cell icon next to the artwork. Tip: If learning makes you hungry, too, check out the Café Express on the lower level of the Beck Building. Parking: Free, across the street, in the lot along Bissonnet.
WEDNESDAY - 10AM: Since I’ve been to the Houston Zoo in more recent years, I didn’t spend as much time visiting the reptiles, amphibians and bird exhibits. This time, I just couldn’t wait to see the two baby elephants - Tupelo and Baylor - and the multi-million-dollar African Forest exhibit that opened in December 2010, all three of which did not disappoint. In the latter, guests are taken on an eco-tour through a wooded canopy, past leaf-covered huts, the chimp house, rhinos, kudo and - beyond the gift shop - the giraffes exhibit. The zoo also added a new restaurant - the Twiga Terrace - overlooking the rhinos and giraffes. Parking: Free in the zoo’s lot.
THURSDAY - 3PM: It’d been a couple of years since I visited the Museum of Natural Science and even then, I hadn’t had an opportunity to really explore. Upon entering, I was given a map of the multi-level facility and instructions on which exhibits my general admission provided access to - basically all of the permanent exhibits, but not the planetarium, IMAX theater, butterfly center or special exhibits. That said, if you plan on upgrading any of your CityPass tickets, this would probably be the place to do it, especially for the Butterfly Center and the special exhibit. As far as the permanent sites go, I saved the best for last - the Smith Gem Vault. Inside, spotlights illuminate an array of vibrant jewels, necklaces and sparkling creations, including pieces by designer Ernesto Moreira. Parking: $10 in the 6-story garage on Caroline Street.
Friday - 10AM: If you have antsy kids, the 40-minute ride to Space Center Houston might challenge their patience, but once they arrive, they’ll have plenty of options to release pent-up energy. Just past the front door, a towering, multi-level Space Place tempts little ones with buttons, lights, slides and climbing options, while the rest of the facility makes room for a mix of space artifacts, theaters and interactive attractions. Make sure to check out the Skylab Trainer - America’s first space station - which is tucked away in the Starship Gallery. Guests get a peek at the living quarters that helped the crew prepare for life in space. You’ll also want to join the 90-minute tram tour, which goes on a behind-the-scenes journey through mission control and the mockups. It incorporates real working areas of Johnson Space Center, so be aware that some parts might not be accessible during your visit. Parking: $5 in Space Center’s lot.