I Heart Houston: Favorites from the Bayou City

Often overshadowed by Austin for its funky vibe, San Antonio for its historical and tourism value, and Dallas for its cosmopolitan reputation, Houston has all of those qualities and more.

Namesake of the Bayou City, Sam Houston, 1st President of the Republic of Texas

There is not another city in the South, and very few in the nation, that has the diversity Houston does. It’s reflected in cultural activities, restaurants, markets, consulates, religious buildings, and even the street signs. Couple that diversity with a world-class theater district, phenomenal museum district, variety of professional sporting events, and an endless array of festivals, and Houston can compete on the international stage of tourism.

I originally wrote this post for National Geographic Traveler‘s series, “I Heart My City” in March, but it’s yet to be published. With so many people asking me for my recommendations on Houston, I thought I’d just publish it myself. After all, that’s why I have my own Website. I can publish what I want when I want. And with the New York Times naming my hometown as its #7 place to visit in 2013, I thought I’d share what I love about the Bayou City…Space City…Houston.

The first place I take a visitor from out of town is out to eat. Houston has over 11,000 restaurants and we eat out more than any other city.

When I crave a shrimp po’ boy, I always go to Ragin Cajun.

To escape the hustle and bustle of the city I head to Old Town Spring for its nostalgic Victorian feel.

If I want to shop for antiques I go to the Heights.

For complete quiet, I can hide away at Hermann Park, located between the Museum District and the Texas Medical Center {the world’s largest medical center}.

Lindsey Plaza

The Reflection Pool in Hermann Park

When I’m feeling cash-strapped I go to the Harwin Shopping District.

For a huge splurge I go to Neiman Marcus in the Galleria. It’s Texas-sized!

A hidden gem in my city is Rice University for its gorgeous trees and Neo-Byzantine, rose-colored brick buildings that are topped with red clay tile roofs.

Phoenicia is my one-stop shop for great foods from over 50 countries.

Locals know to skip the megaplexes and check out a movie at River Oaks Theater instead.

If you have to order one thing off the menu from Chuy’s it has to be grilled shrimp tacos, the creamy jalapeno, and boom-boom sauce.

Photo ops in my city include downtown, Reliant Park, the Medical Center, and the Galleria. The best vantage point is from the JPMorgan Chase Tower. On the 60th floor of the 75-story building is an observation deck. Some also claim to see all the way to the coast.

If my city were a celebrity it’d be Tommy Lee Jones, ruggedly Texan, yet intelligently polished and worldly.

If you come to my city, get your picture taken at Hines Waterwall Park or the Beer Can House. John Milkovisch drank over 40,000 cans of beer and then decorated his house with the flattened cans.

The most random thing about my city is that Houston” was the first word heard from the moon on July 20, 1969.

In my city, an active day outdoors involves the Sabine to Bagby Promenade that runs along Buffalo Bayou. This pedestrian-friendly park has biking and hiking trails, canoe launches, and public artwork.

My city’s best museum is the Museum of Natural Science. The Gems and Minerals Hall is my favorite permanent exhibition. I could spend hours in there.


Gems and Mineral Hall at the Museum of Natural Science

For a night of dancing, go to Whiskey River. For live music, check out Cynthia Woods Mitchel Pavilion or the seventeen-block Theater District.

Katz’s Deli is the spot for late-night eats.

My favorite jogging/walking route is Memorial Park. The 1,500-acre park once was the backyard of Ima Hogg, daughter of Jim Hogg, the former governor of Texas. Yes, Ima is her real name.

You can tell a lot about my city from the number of Fortune 500 companies. Houston is second only to New York City. If it were an independent nation, Houston would rank as the world’s 30th largest economy.

You can tell if someone is from my city if talking about the high price of oil excites them.

In the spring you should eat crawfish. They’re in season.

In the summer you should visit Saint Arnold’s Brewery for a tour and free tastings of Summer Pils, Weedwacker, and Lawnmower or Karbach Brewing Company.

In the fall you should tailgate and watch high school, college, and professional football games. Fall equals football in Texas.

In the winter you should ice skate at Discovery Green.

Don’t miss the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in March. It’s the world’s largest in both categories.

The best way to see my city is by kayak through Buffalo Bayou.

If my city were a pet it would be a friendly and loyal mixed-breed dog.

If I didn’t live in a city, I’d live (where?) in the Texas Hill Country.

Just outside my city, you can visit Galveston Island for some beach time and fun at Pleasure Pier or Schlitterbahn.

The best book about my city is the true-crime book, Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson.

When I think about my city, the song that comes to mind is “Home to Houston” by Steve Earle.

If you have kids, you won’t want to miss Kemah Boardwalk, Johnson Space Center, and Discovery Green.

To find out what’s going on at night and on the weekends, read the Houston Press.

For a great breakfast joint try the Breakfast Klub for waffles and wings or the Kolache Factory for a quick bite.

The convergence of 90+ languages with a Texas twang could only happen in my city.

I’ve lived in Houston for ten years, and I believe it to be a very underrated destination. I’ll be the first to sing its praises and point out its negatives. The Bayou City has so much to offer the people that live here as well as its visitors. There’s more to the city than oil and gas, and after a decade here, I’ve still yet to discover all of its offerings.

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  • @mrsoaroundworld
    January 14, 2013

    I LOVE this!! Took me right back 2 weeks ago when I had the pleasure of visiting the city for the first time. Still in mad love with Tex Mex and those Kolache Factory breakfast thingies, OMG! Loved it – and the beauty of it is that I haven’t seen half the places. So it simply means I need to go back!

    • Leah Travels
      January 14, 2013

      You didn’t see a bit of the city. I’m really sorry that the weather was crap. Yes, you will have to come back soon. I’ll show you this and more.

  • Priscilla
    January 14, 2013

    That’s putting a positive spin on our adoptive city. I came dragged by the hair, but have grown to love it for all those reasons you wrote about.
    Great job!

    • Leah Travels
      January 14, 2013

      If you can get past the weather, which can be so hot and humid, Houston is a great place to live and visit. It’s something different for seasoned travelers. And for people who live here, there’s really nothing it doesn’t have…except mountains, but who needs those messing up our beautiful skyline?

  • Liz
    January 14, 2013

    Great write up! Houston is quite the diverse city….although I’m happy to live outside of the hustle and bustle. Funny you mentioned the Hogg family. I live in West Columbia where the Varner-Hogg Plantation attracts lots of visitors. A beautiful home and the land it’s situated on…gorgeous. Very well kept and there’s always activities and tours happening. West Columbia was the 1st Republic of Texas. Little tidbit…

    • Leah Travels
      January 14, 2013

      I’ve never heard of the Varner-Hogg Plantation. I’ll have to look that up. Perhaps the spring would be a great time to visit. I need to get out to the George Ranch as well. So many things around Houston yet to discover. AND, I didn’t know that West Columbia was the 1st Republic of Texas. Do you mean that this was before the signing at Washington-on-the-Brazos? Tell me more!

  • Anita Mac
    January 14, 2013

    I’ve yet to visit Houston, or Texas for that matter! Thanks for the must do’s and must eats….love when it is all laid out for me! Had no idea Houston was second to NYC for fortune 500 companies. That is impressive!
    What’s it like for cycling? May be in need of a spring cycling destination. If we skip Europe this year, it is a toss up between Texas, Arizona or North Carolina for a week!

    • Leah Travels
      January 14, 2013

      Texas’ economy ranked 14th in the world just behind Russia and ahead of Australia in 2008. I haven’t seen more recent data, but I’m sure it’s moving up considering all the businesses moving to Texas.

      As for cycling, it’s ok. I’d recommend Austin. It’s very bike friendly and there are lots of cyclists that take on the massive hills around the city. Lance Armstrong living in the city really exploded the sport. Spring is great in Austin with the fab weather and the wildflowers blanketing the sides of roads.

  • Aaron
    January 15, 2013

    Great post, the eats alone make me want to get there. Kayaking to checkout the city, sounds amazing! Love capturing signage, so you mentioning street signs has me curious. 🙂

    • Leah Travels
      January 20, 2013

      There’s an area of town that has English and Chinese street signs. The first time I saw them I thought it really odd. Now knowing the demographics it makes perfect sense. And, yes, the food is fab. No shortage of choices in Houston.

  • Mateo
    January 15, 2013

    Great points Leah. Houston in extremely under appreciated due mostly to it’s long, at times miserable, summers. Many ask me how I can handle the Houston traffic. I simply tell them that you have to be smarter than the masses, know where to go and when. BTW the traffic in Houston is much more manageable than Austin, SA, & DFW. Another aspect that is also over looked is the world class/affordable golf community found in Houston. Keep exploring and sharing with us. Safe travels.

    • Leah Travels
      January 20, 2013

      Absolutely, the traffic is a breeze to so many other major cities, and not just those in Texas. If you don’t mind being hot and sweaty, it’s a great place to call home.

  • Tish
    January 26, 2013

    As a fellow HOUSTONIAN I have to say I LOVE this list. Houston is truly an international city and I LOVE my city. We welcome everyone!

    • Leah Travels
      January 28, 2013

      Awesome! I’m glad you do. I’d love to know what you’d add to this list.

  • Ana O'Reilly
    May 26, 2013

    We’re about to set off for Houston and found this article in the nick of time! Great advice, thanks!

  • Tom @ Waegook Tom
    May 18, 2014

    OK, you’ve made me want to visit Houston, especially with all the talk of food and the amusement park. I’m tentatively thinking of visiting the South again next year, so will see how that goes. Although I’m curious, how easy is to get around without a car? I’ve heard that it’s not exactly a city made for public transportation?

    • Leah Walker
      May 19, 2014

      Yeah, Houston isn’t great for life with no car. You’d be better off in Austin or San Antonio, where there is much to see in downtown. I hate saying that, but it’s true!


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