48 Hours in Houston

This upscale city in the Lone Star State has much to offer the culture-seeking visitor.


 

When you hear the word “Texas,” you probably think of at least one of these things: Oil, beef, guns and cowboy hat-wearing Americans.

And maybe that’s why, of the tens of thousands of Calgarians who visit Houston every year for work, few of them stay longer to play and be a tourist in America’s fourth-largest city. If they did, they’d discover a vibrant cultural, arts and dining scene, flavoured and complemented by regional charm.

Houston has a lot to offer weekenders or business-trippers with a few extra days on their hands. In the last 10 years, the downtown core has doubled its number of hotel rooms and, in a nod toward an emerging culture of young, trendy professionals, it has seen a resurgence of boutique hotels.

The Magnolia Hotel is set in a revamped 1926 landmark, and is home to Houston’s only rooftop pool and Jacuzzi, while the Alden Hotel is home to the sleek 17 restaurant and a+ bar and grille. The Hotel Icon, also downtown, is a mixture of neo-classical architecture and contemporary styling. There’s also a lot of buzz around town about its restaurant and lounge, Voice.

If you like the familiarity of the brand-name hotel, the gorgeous Four Seasons, in the heart of the downtown financial district, is upscale and urban chic. Its current Stay Longer promotion, which offers a second night’s stay for free, is good until the end of the year.

Steps away from all these hotel options is the lively Main Street entertainment district, which is home to several cafes, restaurants and bars. Main Street is also where you’ll find Houston Pavilions, a huge, three-level structure where you can shop, eat and be entertained for hours on end and into the evening, when the nightlife starts up. The recently opened House of Blues is a tribute to Houston’s first blues club where local legends played. And if you don’t like the music, alternate entertainment — including a duelling piano bar, the “upscale” Lucky Strike Lanes bowling alley and more — is not far away.

Outside the booming downtown is the area known to locals as “Uptown,” which is the second-largest business district in the city. Here you’ll find the Galleria, the city’s famed shopping destination featuring more than 375 stores and restaurants, including Tiffany & Co., Neiman Marcus, Gucci, Saks Fifth Avenue and others, as well as a skating rink.

Also notable in the Galleria district is Hotel Indigo, which combines the feel of a boutique hotel with the conveniences of a large chain hotel.

Houston’s Montrose neighbourhood, which is famous for its eclectic vibe, is home to boutique and vintage shops, cafes and bars, tattoo parlours and gay and lesbian venues. You’ll also find the Rothko Chapel, a sanctuary that welcomes visitors from all religious denominations to experience its “modern meditative” setup. Nearby, you’ll find The Menil Collection, a museum featuring a diverse look at artwork carefully chosen to represent people from all walks of life. Also nearby is Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts.

Montrose is also home to many of the city’s most renowned restaurants. For authentic Mexican food, which is harder to find than you’d think in a city with an abundance of Tex-Mex, seek out Hugo’s. Executive chef Hugo Ortega grew up in Puebla, Mexico, where he returns regularly to get new ideas for his menu. Hugo’s features classics such as homemade corn tortillas, Oaxaca moles, seafood cocktails and more. And there’s no shortage of tasty drinks, with two pages of tequila options, fresh margaritas — courtesy of the morning bartender who spends a great deal of his shift squeezing lime juice — and exquisite Mexican hot chocolate, made from cocoa beans roasted and ground onsite.

If you’re looking for a more contemporary American menu, try Mark’s American Cuisine, housed in a former church with golden ceilings and hand-painted walls. The upscale menu represents the “melting pot” of American food and includes Kobe beef Osso Bucco and Texas red snapper.

Perhaps the best part of the Houston experience, for adults and kids alike, is Space Center Houston, a wondrous showcase of all things outer space. Here you can experience a space shuttle landing, go inside spacecraft and see what it’s like to live in outer space. You can also tour the adjacent NASA headquarters.

You can get discounted admission to Space Center Houston with a CityPass, which costs US$39 for adults and US$29 for kids and includes admission to some of the city’s most popular destinations including the Downtown Aquarium, the Houston Museum of Natural Science and the Houston Zoo.

There are also admission passes for the Museum of Fine Arts, The Children’s Museum, George Ranch Historical Park and the Health Museum.

With these and many more enterainment options close at hand, visitors to Houston are bound to discover there’s much more to this part of Texas than oil and cowboys.