Looking for a stimulating, quality leisure experience that's not too far away? Houston has many attractions beyond its outer loop, Beltway 8, to suit your recreation and leisure desires. These activities--fun for the whole family, with friends, or a significant other--are perfect for day trips, and many are just a few minutes from Downtown Houston.
Armand Bayou Nature Center is currently the largest urban wilderness preserve in the United States. Made up of 2,500 acres of wetlands, forest, prairie and marsh habitats, this preserve is known for its hiking trails and guided canoe or pontoon boat tours useful and educational for field trips and scout programs. With over 370 species of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians, there is much to see at this preserve. Enjoy live animal displays of snakes, spiders, hawks and bison. The Armand Bayou Nature Center strives to preserve the environment and practice stewardship of the land.
Constructed on Galveston Island from 1887-1982, Bishop's Palace, also known as Gresham House, is recognized as a national landmark. Made of stone and steel, Gresham house was designed by the famous Victorian-style architect, Nicholas Clayton. The three-story house features irregular shaped stones, Tudor arches with carvings of animals and people, and unique geometric forms creating a dramatic effect for viewers. This house is also known for surviving the Great Hurricane of 1900, which is to date, the deadliest natural disaster to ever hit the United States. Bishop's Palace is open seven days a week.
Brazos Bend State Park is the perfect place for bird watchers, wildlife spectators, sports fishermen, hikers and bikers, stargazers and nature lovers. Over 270 species of birds have been spotted here along with the American alligator, the most notable resident of the park. There are many trails for hikers and bikers to wander through where you can enjoy scenic oxbow lakes, marshes and streams and the opportunity to spot some of the 21 species of reptiles or 23 species of mammals found in the park. The George Observatory boasts three domed telescopes, the most impressive being the 36-inch Gueymard Research telescope, so stargazers can get a closer look into outer space.
Mercer Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, located along Cypress Creek in North Houston, lures visitors daily with its free admission. This 250-acre park, originally belonging to the Mercer family, was purchased by Harris County and now includes maintained hiking trails, expansive gardens, restroom facilities and picnic areas. The nationally recognized arboretum and botanical garden provides a lush assortment of native and cultivated plants as well as being home to a variety of wildlife. Enjoy an afternoon strolling through the gardens and picnicking among the collection of plants, including native Dogwood trees, pink camellias, camphor daisies and orchid trees. You may even spot some of the wildlife popular in this region, including pine warblers, black-capped chickadees, and cardinals.
Moody Gardens, located on Galveston Island, contains many attractions that will stimulate your mind. The aquarium pyramid, reaching 12 stories high, allows visitors to explore the four oceans of the world and learn about the underwater world. The Discovery Pyramid is home to traveling exhibits from around the globe providing interactive demonstrations. The newly redesigned Rainforest Pyramid hosts a lush environment with exotic plants from Africa, Asia and the Americas. There you will also find a leafy canopy, waterfall and pools accompanied by variety of animals, birds and butterflies so you get the true rainforest experience. Other attractions include a 6-story 3D theatre, a stimulation ride, and Palm Beach, Moody Garden's own waterpark.
A fighting vessel in both World War I and II, Battleship Texas (temporarily closed for maintenance) became the first battleship memorial museum in the United States in 1948. Anchored on Buffalo Bayou and the busy Houston Ship Channel, visitors and students can experience history first hand. The ship is highly interactive and you will see just how sailors in the first half of the 20th Century lived and worked. Nearby, the San Jacinto Monument is the world's tallest war memorial representing those who fought for Texas' independence. Although the land was purchased to build the memorial in the 1890s, construction was not completed until 1939. A museum is located at the base of the monument welcomed by the six flags of Texas. The base features text panels highlighting significant events in history leading up to and resulting from the Texas revolution.
Located just 20 miles from downtown Houston, the Kemah Boardwalk features a variety of restaurants, charming retail shops, rides and amusements and weekly festivals, all overlooking Galveston Bay. The boardwalk is also a venue for events, festivals, parties and field trips. With a number of attractions to keep you busy, it really is a place you can spend the entire day. Dining options include lively and popular eateries such as the Aquarium, Landry's Seafood House, Starbucks and Joe's Crab Shack, along with Cadillac Bar, the Pizza Oven and the Flying Dutchman. There are about 15 different amusements/rides including a double decker carousel, a Ferris wheel, a rollercoaster, speedboat thrill ride and sting ray and rainforest exhibit. The Kemah Boardwalk also provides specialty shops and kiosks for your retail needs.
Located on Galveston Island, Moody Mansion was completed in 1895. This four-story, 28,000-square-foot mansion depicts the home life of a prominent Texas family. Mr. Moody was a businessman, active in creating his financial empire based on cotton which then grew to include banking, ranching, insurance and hotels. The Moodys bought the home from the original owners after the Great Hurricane of 1900. The guided tour, available daily, provides a history of the Moody family and tours the 20+ rooms, all decorated in a different style. The tour is a tribute to the bygone era, showcasing the ornate and luxurious lifestyle of the Moody family, whose legacy continues on today through many organizations and attractions in Galveston.
The National Museum of Funeral History is home to our nation's largest display of historic funeral service memorabilia and artifacts. The funeral history museum was established by Robert L. Waltrip to educate the public and preserve the rich heritage of the funeral industry. Browse through the many exhibits including 1921 Rock Falls Hearse, Fantasy Coffins, Civil War Embalming and 1900s Casket Factory. The museum also features rare artifacts such as the original eternal flame from President John F. Kennedy's gravesite. Open daily, visitors can enjoy a tour lasting one hour covering most of the artifacts as well as little known facts about funeral heritage.
The Gulf Coast can be termed as a bird lover's paradise. A variety of beautiful birds can be found along the coast particularly in the cooler months when many species migrate to escape the frigid northern temperatures. It is not difficult to spot these winged beauties, as you can see many of them while driving along the bayous and preserves or just hanging out on the beach. Some of the species include whooping cranes, egrets, blue herons, and roseate spoonbills. Some hotspots for sighting these birds include Anahuac, Bolivar Peninsula, the Clear Lake/Bay area and Galveston.
Schlitterbahn Galveston Island Waterpark, open year round, offers more than 32 rides and attractions. In the summer season--late April through September--attractions include a large wave pool, uphill water coaster, speed slides, water playgrounds, whitewater rapids and more. The heated indoor season during the cooler months offers patrons a climate-controlled environment with heated rides, tube slides, body slides, a wave river, wave pool, a giant hot tub with a swim up bar and man-made surfing wave. Schlitterbahn offers free parking, free tubes, free life jackets and the option to bring your own lunch to picnic.
Space Center Houston, the visitors center for NASA's Johnson Space Center, is the only place on earth where visitors can get a full intergalactic experience. Comprised of a variety of permanent exhibits, theatres and other attractions, Space Center Houston is fun for the whole family. Some of the permanent exhibits include a multimedia "blast off" experience, a hands-on Living in Space exhibit, a behind-the-scenes NASA tram tour and an astronaut gallery containing space suits, crew photos and portraits. Visitors can also enjoy mission status, receiving live updates on current space flights. Space Center Houston includes a number of interactive activities for children (and adults) such as jumping on the moon, piloting a space shuttle and flying in space.
Located off of US 290 in Northwest Houston, Traders Village is the largest and most visited flea marketplace in the region with more than 100 acres of open-air shopping and special events nearly every weekend. Bargain hunters will find everything from crafts and collectibles to jewelry, furniture and electronics. Roughly 1,000 merchants are on hand at the market at any given time. There are rides for the kids, an assortment of food stands and restaurants and even live music. An RV park is also on site.
By AJ Mistretta
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