12 Top Tourist Attractions in Houston & Easy Day Trips
Houston, the fourth largest city in the US and one of the great metropolises of the south, is only a few miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico near the border with Louisiana. It's an important center for the processing of oil from Texan oilfields and offshore drilling rigs, and in 1962, became the headquarters of the US space program's Mission Control Center. Linked to the Gulf of Mexico by the 50-mile-long Houston Ship Canal, the economic importance of Houston is reflected in its impressive skyline and the numerous cultural attractions that have sprung up over the decades. But it wasn't always that way. Founded in 1836 and named after Sam Houston, a hero of the Texan war of liberation and first president of the independent Republic of Texas (of which it was the capital from 1837 to 1839 and from 1842 to 1845), it wasn't until the completion of the canal that the city found its mojo. Today, Houston is as popular among tourists as it is for business types, and offers much to keep curious travelers occupied.
1 Space Center Houston
About 25 miles southeast of Houston on the west side of Clear Lake, the Houston Space Center - the official Visitor Center of NASA's Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center - is the city's most important tourist attraction. Little wonder, as this is the home of the world-famous Mission Control, the monitoring center for all NASA manned space flights. The Visitor Center boasts an excellent space exhibition with film shows, models of space capsules, astronauts' rations, samples of moon rock, and a variety of objects collected during the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs. Visitors can try on astronaut helmets, steer a spacecraft in a fun simulator, wander around huge rockets, and even have lunch with a real astronaut.
2 Houston Museum of Natural Science
The excellent exhibits of the Houston Museum of Natural Science allow visitors to experience science and nature from the time of the dinosaurs right up to the space age. In addition to its extensive collections of fossils, dinosaur bones, gems, and ancient artifacts from Egypt and North America, the museum also boasts a planetarium, a butterfly center, and a huge movie screen (try to plan your visit to coincide with one of the fun "sing-along" movies). Other notable highlights are its ever-changing temporary exhibits, along with educational and entertainment programs. Opened in 1909, this excellent attraction consistently ranks as one of the country's top non-Smithsonian museums.
Address: 5555 Hermann Park Drive, Houston
3 The Museum of Fine Arts
The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston - one of the largest such establishments in the country - contains a vast collection of American, European, African, and Far Eastern art spanning some 6,000 years. Highlights of its more than 63,000 works include Italian Renaissance and French Impressionist paintings, American and European decorative arts, a notable collection of African and pre-Columbian gold, and numerous fine sculptures. The large complex also includes a sculpture garden, a movie theater, a library, a research facility, and a café, and hosts many fun events such as film festivals, lectures, and workshops. A gallery associated with the Museum of Fine Arts worth visiting is the Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, tucked away in in the River Oaks suburbs and home to a large collection of decorative arts, paintings, and furniture.
Address: 1001 Bissonnet Street, Houston
4 Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
One of a number of important cultural institutions in the heart of Houston's excellent Museum District, the Contemporary Arts Museum presents regional, national, and international art exhibits. Started in 1948 by a group of local citizens, the museum aims to present the art of the time and its role in modern life through exhibitions, lectures, and other activities. The museum presents numerous exhibits each year in its two galleries, featuring emerging talents and well known contemporary artists.
Address: 5216 Montrose Blvd, Houston
5 The Menil Collection: The Rothko and Byzantine Fresco Chapels
Houston's Menil Collection is a group of museums housing the large art collections of founders John and Dominique de Menil. All told, the four sites - one of the largest private collections in the US - house more than 17,000 important paintings and sculptures, along with prints, drawings, old books, and photos. Perhaps the most popular collection is the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, home to the only intact Byzantine frescoes in the western hemisphere. Stolen from a Turkish chapel, the 13th-century frescoes were later discovered and rescued by the Menil Foundation and, with permission from the Church of Cyprus, were fully restored by the Foundation. Also worth visiting is the Rothko Chapel with its rich tapestries by Russian-American artist Mark Rothko.
Address: 1533 Sul Ross Street, Houston
6 Houston Zoo
The Houston Zoo - one of the city's most popular attractions with more than one-and-a-half million visitors each year - covers an area of 50 acres in the heart of Hermann Park and features more than 6,000 exotic and indigenous animals. The zoo also contains an education center and children's zoo, ensuring its popularity with families. Highlights include feeding the giraffes and watching a variety of marine life up close in the aquarium, as well as sea lions, otters, and fish. Other fun attractions in Hermann Park are the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the Miller Outdoor Theater, a Japanese Garden, and the Pioneer Memorial Log House Museum. Also fun is a paddle boat trip on McGovern Lake, or a stroll along the park's walking trails.
Address: 6200 Hermann Park Drive, Houston
7 The Children's Museum of Houston
The Children's Museum of Houston, founded by a group of parents in 1980, is a must-do for those traveling with kids. Crammed full of fun, hands-on exhibits related to science and technology, history and culture, health and human development, the museum offers plenty of opportunities for youngsters to let-loose and explore. Highlights include robot building in the Invention Convention area, pretending to read the news on TV, run a business, and even get elected as Mayor of Kidtropolis. And bring a towel as there's plenty of fun to be had in the FlowWorks wet zone.
Address: 500 Binz Street, Houston
8 Holocaust Museum Houston
Founded in 1996, Holocaust Museum Houston provides a chilling account of the persecution of people before and during WWII. Focusing on the stories of survivors, exhibits highlight the dangers of prejudice and hatred in society using the all-too-real examples of the terrors of the Nazi regime in Europe. Among the larger items in the collection are a railcar used to transport victims, and a small Dutch fishing boat used to transport Jews to safety. Of particular note is the Boniuk Library with its more than 5,000 volumes related to the Holocaust, plus numerous artifacts, documents, photos, and films.
Address: 5401 Caroline Street, Houston
9 The Health Museum
More fun than it sounds, the Health Museum is a great excursion for kids as well as adults. Numerous interactive exhibits are on hand to teach about the workings of the human body and how to keep it healthy. Highlights include live, hands-on science classes as well as demonstrations, traveling exhibits, summer camps, and other programs. Visitors can explore giant models of internal organs and hands-on stations; view themselves aged by 30 years; and visit the Amazing Body Pavilion, a fascinating, larger-than-life walking tour through the human body. Included with admission are 3D movies related to human health.
Address: 1515 Hermann Drive, Houston
10 Houston Arboretum and Memorial Park
There's nothing quite like a little peace and quiet after all that city sightseeing, and the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center is just the place to escape the hustle and bustle. This nature sanctuary in the very heart of Houston is spread across 155 acres and boasts five miles of walking trails and plenty of opportunities to catch a glimpse of some wildlife. Be sure to visit the Nature Center with its educational exhibits, as well as a hummingbird and butterfly sanctuary. Another area to explore is Houston Memorial Park, an urban oasis and recreation area popular for its cycling and hiking.
Address: 4501 Woodway Drive, Houston
11 The Waterwall and Glenwood Cemetery
Another city park to visit is the superb Gerald D. Hines Waterwall Park, an impressive multi-story sculptural fountain that sees sheets of water cascading over large concrete walls and sculptures. The structure's semi-circular shape towers 64 feet above the viewer and is fronted by a large arch and 46,500 square feet of water. Another excellent location to visit is Glenwood Cemetery. Opened in 1871, it's a fascinating place to explore with its many remarkable tombstones and memorials and is the final resting place of notable citizens of the short-lived Republic of Texas.
12 Editor's Pick USS Texas (BB-35) and San Jacinto Monument
The world's last remaining dreadnought - the large battleships built in the run-up to WWI - USS Texas is notable for having served the US in two world wars. Now a floating museum in La Porte, 25 miles from Houston on the Gulf of Mexico, USS Texas was launched in 1912 and still impresses with its dimensions. Tours of the ship are available (both guided and self-guided), and a number of fun educational and interpretive programs are run throughout the year. Be sure to take in the adjacent San Jacinto Battleground, a 1,200-acre national historic site that is home to the 567-foot-tall San Jacinto Monument commemorating the decisive battle in the Texas Revolution. Another site worth a visit is the 1940 Air Terminal, a museum housed in an art deco airport terminal built for the first passenger flights to Houston.
Address: 3523 Independence Pkwy, La Porte
Day Trips from Houston
As much fun as there is in Houston, be sure to visit some of the attractions within an easy commute of the city. For those seeking a little seaside break, take a trip to Kemah Boardwalk, a lively 60-acre entertainment center on the Gulf Coast just 30 miles from Houston's downtown core. A highlight is a stroll along its long boardwalk, one of the best and busiest in the US and one that takes you past numerous rides, games, and restaurants. Of interest to history buffs is the small community of Washington-on-the-Brazos, or Old Washington. Settled in 1834, the town was the location of the signing of the Texas Declaration of Independence and the drafting of the Constitution of the Republic of Texas. The Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historical Park commemorates the places where Texas declared independence from Mexico, and also the Barrington Living History Farm, where Anson Jones, the last President of the Republic of Texas, once lived. Nature trails, a visitor center, and restaurant are all located within the park.
Where to Stay in Houston for Sightseeing
When visiting Houston, try to book accommodations as close to the downtown core as possible. Thanks to its status as a popular convention city, Houston has plenty of great dining and entertainment options here, as well as sports facilities, museums, and shopping. The following hotels are highly recommended:
- Luxury Hotels: One of Houston's oldest hotels, The Lancaster is perfect for concertgoers given its location opposite the Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, home to the Houston Symphony Orchestra. Other great downtown luxury hotels are Hotel ZaZa Houston, popular for its high-end spa and proximity to the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and Hilton Americas - Houston, a large, modern hotel close to convention centers and sports stadiums.
- Mid-Range Hotels: Popular for being an easy walk from the city's convention and sports facilities, the renovated Embassy Suites by Hilton Houston Downtown is an excellent choice for those vacationing with families thanks to its large outdoor pool. Also worth considering is the centrally located Doubletree Hotel Houston Downtown, with its fitness center and gardens, and the Best Western Plus Downtown Inn & Suites, popular for its outdoor pool and proximity to attractions, including the Downtown Aquarium.
- Budget Hotels: Just a few kilometers west of the downtown core, the Red Roof PLUS+ Houston - Energy Corridor offers pet-friendly options along with free Wi-Fi and breakfasts, while La Quinta Inn & Suites Houston Galleria Area (named after the adjacent shopping mall) boasts a swimming pool and hot tub and is within an easy bus ride of the downtown core. Although located 30 minutes north of downtown Houston, the renovated Greenpoint Extended Stay Hotel is popular for those traveling with pets and for its proximity to the airport.