One writer's guide to Houston CityPASS
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 from the Houston Visitors Center - they can also be purchased at participating attractions or online - before setting out. For those that don’t know about the CityPass program, here’s the basic scoop: Each book is $62- kids’ are $52 - and include admission to five of Houston’s most popular attractions. You have nine days to use them and they save you nearly half off regular ticket pricing.
Note: Two of the five tickets provide a choice between two attractions. One is an option between the Houston Zoo and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, while another is a choice to visit Kemah Boardwalk or the The Children’s Museum of Houston.
2:30PM: 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: $8, in the Aquarium’s lot behind the building.
10AM: Plan on carving out at least three hours when you take the brood to visit the Children's Museum of Houston. Located in the Museum District, the three-story facility unfolds in a labyrinth-like set-up, appealing to everyone from birth to 12 years (and the adults that love them). The youngest kids can crawl, play and touch upstairs in the TotSpot, while the older siblings create and construct gadgets in the lower level Invention Convention workshop. On the main floor, pint-size patrons can take on roles of city leaders, workers and shoppers in the mock community, Kidtropolis, using the debit card they receive upon check in. Some of CMH’s other highlights include Power Play, a 35-foot climbing tower, FlowWorks, a hydroenergy exhibit, and Fiddle Sticks Gifts, the museum’s smartly-stocked giftshop. Parking: For 3 or more hours, $9, in CMH’s adjacent parking garage.
10AM: I’ll be the first to admit that three hours wasn’t nearly enough time at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. 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.
2PM (OPTION 1): 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 was excited to see the zoo’s new Gorilla exhibit and wander through the multi-million-dollar African Forest exhibit. 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. If you're hungry, the zoo's Twiga Terrace restaurant is a great place to grab a bite, as it overlooks the rhinos and giraffe exhibits. Parking: Free in the zoo’s lot.
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.
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: $6 in Space Center’s lot.
1PM: Grab a bite at a Bay Area mainstay before heading to the Kemah Boardwalk for the afternoon. Sure, the boardwalk has plenty of Landry’s-owned restaurants to choose from, too, but area mainstays like Tookie’s Hamburgers & More and Stomp’s Burger Joint are wallet-friendly and chock-full of local flavor. After, head towards the coast and the waterfront community of Kemah. There, the 35-acre Kemah Boardwalk stretches out over the Gulf of Mexico, offering a dozen rides, retail, dining and classic boardwalk games. Trade your CityPass voucher in for an all-day ride pass, which enables guests to ride everything from the wooden Boardwalk Bullet rollercoaster and the 140-foot Drop Zone to the upside-down Inverter and the Boardwalk Tower, the latter of which offers a birds-eye view of the Bay. (Note: The Boardwalk Beast Speedboat thrill ride and the Stingray Reef & Rainforest Exhibit aren’t included in the all-day ride pass.) Parking: $7, for the surface lot.