Ballet and Broncos: 5 Things to Do in Houston

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 Houston, Texas skyline
The skyline of Houston, Texas, one of the most diverse cities in the world

“I’m going to write a blog called ‘Houston Doesn’t Suck,’ my daughter declared as she was preparing for her move to this much-aligned Texan town.

It’s true that Houston has suffered an image problem, perhaps due to its sprawling size, lack of zoning and reputation as an oil-and-gas focused town. But Houston isn’t the same place it was a few years back. On a recent visit, I met designers, architects, tour guides, restaurateurs and bartenders and heard from all two recurring refrains: “Everything has exploded in the past five years,” and “We’re so much more than oil and gas.”

There’s been an explosion in the arts, food and fashion scene and the city is undergoing unprecedented growth with 26 projects under construction and 20 more in the planning stages. With more than 2.1 million people, Houston is the second fastest growing city in the country, not far behind New York.So maybe it doesn’t suck to live there any longer. But how about to visit? I’m among the many who have predicted that Houston is going to be our next It City. Here are 5 reasons you’ll want to check it out for yourself.

  1. 10,000 Drinking and Dining Options

Possibly the most diverse city on the planet, Houston has no ethnic majority and around 100 languages are spoken here. All those cultures translate to the availability of just about any type of food, with more than 10,000 food and drinking establishments.

OKRA Charity Saloon downtown Houston
OKRA Charity Saloon in downtown Houston, where profits benefit different charities each month

I started my trip with drinks at Anvil in Montrose, the first bar in Houston dedicated to the classic cocktail and a James Beard Award nominee. Good luck with making up your mind from its 100 enticing-sounding concoctions in categories like Bitter & Bold or Tropical & Tiki.

We followed that with dinner at Underbelly where Owner/Executive Chef Chris Shepherd buys whole animals directly from farmers and processes them in the butcher shop at the back of the restaurant. The menu changes daily, but some items include charcuterie, chili marinated flank steak and seared snapper.

I was charmed by the patio at the lushly landscaped Tiny’s No. 5, which serves hearty brunch fair, wood-fired pizzas, sandwiches, burgers and seafood for lunch and dinner.

On my list for drinks is a trip to OKRA Downtown Charity Saloon, a bar that gives all its profits to a different charity each month, based on the votes of its patrons and The Pastry War, specializing in Mexican agave spirits.

  1. Museums that run the gamut from high art to a beer can house

The movie Boyhood was largely filmed in Houston where Director Richard Linklater spent his own boyhood. The charming scene where the children frolicked around sculptures was filmed on the backside of the Museum of Fine Arts, just one of 19 cultural institutions in the Museum District. Located just Southwest of Downtown, it’s easily walkable and includes Hermann Park with the Miller Outdoor Theater and newly opened eight-acre McGovern Centennial Gardens  with several lush gardens and an interactive family garden.

The Art Car Parade in Houston started in 1988 with 40 cars. Today, more than 250 fancified cars participate, drawing crowds of more than 250,000.
The Art Car Parade in Houston started in 1988 with 40 cars. Today, more than 250 fancified cars participate, drawing crowds of more than 250,000.

The top-rated Children’s Museum of Houston is here, with the “Kidtropolis, USA” exhibition, a city where children choose what they want to be, earn “money” and can even run for office.

While there may be a downside to Houston’s no-zoning policy, the new 30-acre campus of the Menil Collection in the Museum District is a stunning example of the positive side. As prominent architect David Bucek, who was instrumental in the project, told me over lunch at Bistro Menil, “We couldn’t have created this campus if we’d had zoning laws. In Houston, we have integration that is very unique. We have a lot of things meshing into each other. It’s a different kind of beauty.”

The Menil Collection has 15,000 works of art dating back to the Paleolithic era, a private collection of the de Menil family who came to Houston from Paris in 1941 and donated their home and its contents to the city in 1987.

And then there’s the Beer Can House. Mary and John Milkovisch lived in this small home and John got tired of mowing his lawn. So he mashed down beer cans and cemented them into the ground. Well, that was so much fun he kept drinking beer, mashing the cans and hanging them all over every exterior surface of the home over the next 18 years. (Mary drew the line at any cans in the interior.) The couple has passed away but the Beer Can House continues to draw admirers the world over.

While we’re on Houston’s quirky side, check out the Art Car Museum, aka Garage Mahal. It’s small but admission is free so it’s worth a visit if you have time. Houston has more art cars than any other city, and hosts an annual Art Car Parade every April.

  1. Historic hotels in burgeoning areas

 Hotel ICON
Can you tell from the lobby that Hotel ICON used to be a bank building? The rooms are modern and luxurious.

In Midtown, unsightly neighborhoods have been razed for attractive new apartment complexes and a lively nightclub scene has sprung up, attracting young professionals, like my daughter, who enjoy the walkability and central location.

We wanted to stay close to her and uncovered a gem with La Maison in Midtown, a small three-story, seven-room bed and breakfast. Owners Sharon Owens and Genora Boykins do hospitality right. Each afternoon wine and appetizers are served, while morning brings a delicious hot breakfast. When we checked out we got a parting gift of a small silver fortune cookie!

On my next visit I stayed downtown in Hotel ICON. This 1911 former bank building is now a 135-room hotel with a massive, marbled-column lobby with contemporary rooms with lush linens and a lavish bathroom. It’s right on Houston’s METRORail light rail line that takes you to major attractions.

  1. Huge variety of parks and bayous with more green space coming

White Oak Bayou, Houston
White Oak Bayou, part of the $215 million initiative, Bayous Greenways 2020 of the Houston Parks Board, which is building a series of interconnected parks and trails along 10 bayous. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Ranking first among the top ten most populous cities in acreage of parkland, Houston continues to enhance its park systems and create more green space.

The ambitious Bayou Greenways 2020 Project of the Houston Parks Board (where my daughter works) is tying together 150 miles of now stand-alone parks and trails along Houston’s bayous, previously ignored and largely unsightly areas that are seeing new life. New sections are being continually opened, with the goal of completion by the year 2020.

Rent a kayak for a trip down Buffalo Bayou Paddling Trail or hop on a bike with B-Cycle, Houston’s new bike share program for short rides. Rent a bike for longer rides along the 345 miles of an interconnected bike network. And Houston is so flat you’ll never need to worry about gears on those bikes.

Downtown you’ll find Discovery Green, a 12-acre park with public art, dog park, gardens, one-acre lake and winter ice rink that replaced a former field of asphalt.

  1. Activities that range from the ballet to the rodeo

Founded in 1955, The Houston Ballet has been called one of the best ballets in the country, has traveled extensively throughout the world and opened a $46 million Center for Dance in 2011.

The Midtown Arts and Theater Center Houston is the city's newest performing and visual arts facility.
The Midtown Arts and Theater Center Houston is the city’s newest performing and visual arts facility.

A new Midtown Arts and Theater Center Houston (MATCH) for small and mid-size performing and visual arts groups recently opened and The Alley Theatre has reopened this fall after a $73 million makeover.

About the only time Houston turns truly Texan is during the annual three-week Rodeo Houston in March. The Rodeo was opening just as I was leaving, but I got to attend a pre-party event, the World Championship Bar-B-Que Contest, a three-day event with more than 250 entries.

As we made our way through the huge maze of wooden structures, each hosting its own competitive team and hard-partyin’ crowd of fans, I got a view of the massive grounds of the Rodeo and resolved to make it to the main event next year to see events like concerts and a rodeo parade and shop at the giant Western Shopping Mall to take home my own piece of Texas.

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