Pros: A lot of fun and interesting museums, NASA Johnson Space Center, other attractions.
Cons: Hot and Humid in summer, traffic.
How long do you think you can stay on a Mechanical Bull? Ten seconds? That's Bull!
The first time I visited Houston I came to visit a couple of fellow Swedish students (Houston University). I was a Swedish exchange student at the time, but not to Houston but to Case Western University in Cleveland Ohio. We visited Gilley's, a Cowboy restaurant and bar featuring country music, dancing, and a Mechanical Bull (among other things). We tried the Mechanical Bull but it did not go too well. One thing we Swede's were laughing about was that the sign at the reception said to leave your guns there. If you have a gun in public in Sweden you'll get arrested no matter where, not just in the restaurant. I should add that this was 20 years ago and Gilley's burned down 10 years ago (thanks Jennifer). However, I am sure there are other Mechanical Bulls around Houston (we have many in Dallas).
Later I came back to Texas as a resident (Dallas) and we've lived in Texas for ten years now. During this time we've visited Houston many times, mostly for pleasure. I've also taken Swedish visitors to Houston. The last time I've visited was a couple of weeks ago when I accompanied my son to a visit to Rice University where he might apply. We did not visit a lot this time, just Rice University, Hermann Park, the Science and Natural History Museum, and downtown a little bit. However, this review is an overview that draws upon all our previous visits to Houston as well as the latest visit.
Houston an Overview
The city I like the best in Texas from a tourist perspective is San Antonio. However, Houston also has a lot to offer and is therefore a pretty good tourist destination, especially if you are bringing kids. The Johnson NASA Space Center is interesting for adults and great for kids, the Houston museum district and the theater district is quite impressive and has a lot to offer. Houston also features several parks, including the Hermann Park, Texas' largest shopping mall the Galleria, water parks and amusement parks, and a great Zoo. The world's tallest memorial column (570 feet), the San Jacinto Monument is located half an hour east of Houston. Galveston, which is located 50 minutes South East of Houston has nice beaches, interesting hotels, including Moody Gardens Hotel, as well as many interesting sites (including Moody Gardens). Galveston is also quite exciting on Mardi gras. My kids love Galveston, especially Moody Gardens, so we often combine a visit to Houston with a visit to Galveston.
Houston is the fourth largest City in the United States if you count the city proper. However, in my opinion "city proper" is an impractical definition (administrative). The Houston Metro is the sixth largest metro in the country with 6 million people (Dallas, Texas is fourth). However, downtown Houston is larger and features a lot more hustle and bustle than Dallas. Public transportation in Dallas is very bad but in Houston it is only somewhat bad. I still recommend a car. Houston is quite hot and humid in the summer. We have never gone on a vacation to Houston in the summer but I doubt that it would be pleasant. Dallas is already pretty bad in the summer. Houston and its surroundings are quite flat and there is not much natural beauty on Houston. But that is not why are coming to Houston.
Below I have selected a few Houston high lights that we as a family has greatly enjoyed, and that my brother from Sweden and his family also greatly enjoyed.
The NASA Johnson Space Center
The NASA Johnson Space Center is center for human space flight training, research and control. Do you remember "Come in Houston"? It is a large center featuring 100 buildings and they have dedicated a number of attractions for visitors. One of the attractions is the NASA tram tour which will take you to various buildings, a rocket park featuring a giant Saturn V rocket, the mission control center, and other things. The tour is mostly for adults but is interesting to children as well. They have Space Theater with a huge screen, a blast off theater, an Astronaut Gallery, a spaceship gallery including real space craft and training vessels, other exhibits including a moon rock, and best of all the Kids Space Place. The Kids Space Place is a huge space themed play ground. This is a place that young kids could stay at for days. You can also spend an afternoon with an Astronaut here but we have not done that.
Unfortunately NASA Johnson Space Center was not chosen as the resting place for one of the five Space Shuttles, which does not make much sense considering that the control center at NASA Johnson Space Center was the second most important space center for the shuttle after Cape Canaveral. However, there is a lot of other things you can see and do here for the roughly $10.00 ($8.00 kids) that a ticket costs. I should add they still have a model of a Shuttle.
The Houston Children's Museum
The Children's Museum of Houston children's museum in Houston might be the largest Children's Museum that I've visited. It features 14 galleries (83,000 square feet) with hands on activities of various kinds. The galleries are clean, colorful, imaginative, fresh, fun, and educational and they are not too crowded. Some of the galleries teaches science and features rides, computers, educational equipment, and play laboratory tools. There is also an outdoor/indoor exhibit featuring trees and plants. In Dallas we have two extremely small children's museums so this museum is great in comparison. Last time we took the kids here they really loved it and had a hard time leaving.
This is their web site
The Museum of Science and Natural History
The Museum of Natural Science in Houston is located next to the Hermann Park nearby the famous Sam Houston statue and across from Rice University. The museum has three floors featuring several exhibits including Paleontology, the Energy Hall, the Americas, Texas Wildlife, Malacology (mollusk exhibit), Chemistry, Earth Forum, Egypt, Gems and Minerals, and the Gem Vault. The museum also hosts traveling exhibits. In addition the museum has an IMAX theater, a Planetarium, and a large butterfly exhibit (Cockrell Butterfly Center). There is free parking around the museum but most likely you will have to park in the museum garage for $10.00. The museum is open 9AM to 5PM every day except Tuesdays when it is open until 8PM.
The Museum of Natural Science in Houston can be crowded but some of the exhibits are truly impressive, like the Gems and Minerals, and the Gem Vault, as well as the Energy Hall, the Paleontology section, and the very large Butterfly exhibit (separate entry fee). It is one of my favorite Natural Science Museums, but not my favorite.
The Hermann Park
Hermann Park is located a few miles from downtown Houston nearby the Houston museum district and it is also right across from Rice University (which is a beautiful university that is open to visitors). It features the famous Sam Houston statue (on a horse) at one end and the Houston Zoo in the other. The Hermann Park features a rectangular pool, an obelisk (some resemblance to the National Mall), a pond, gardens and a theater as well picnic areas and picnic tables, walkways and small sightseeing train. City parks are typically not a great in Texas but I think this is one park Texas can be proud of.
Final Opinion on Houston
Traffic in Houston can be a little difficult. I've been driving in rush hour in Houston and it can be as crowded as traffic in Dallas, and Houston has its share of dangerous and aggressive "get out of my way" drivers. I also found it a little bit difficult to navigate downtown Houston and my Garmin lost satellite reception due to the Urban Canyon effect, something that does not happen in Dallas. However, overall it is not as bad as let say New York City. I can get by here with some effort and therefore I recommend driving as public transportation in general is nearly outlawed in Texas.
Houston is even hotter and more humid in June/July/August/September than Dallas, and therefore I would not even think about coming to Houston as a tourist destination during those off months. We have typically gone in spring, the fall, or during winter and then Houston can be beautiful. I would go to San Antonio first, but Houston is a good second (in Texas). If you visit Houston I especially recommend the attractions mentioned above.
I am entering this review into my "Celebrate America" write-off since this is an American travel destination which I like. I invite anyone else to do the same (American products you like are also welcome).
Ya'll come here