The Best of Houston, the Space City

By Sandra Scott

George Ranch is where visitors can discover 100 years of Texas history.
George Ranch is where visitors can discover 100 years of Texas history.

Houston is the most populous city in the Southern United States and best known as the home of the Space Center where the iconic phrase, “Houston, we have a problem,” was first spoken. It is also referred to as the “Bayou City” because four major bayous pass through the city. Houston came in at No. 5 on “Lonely Planet’s” list of “Best Value Places to Visit in 2019” — the only major U.S. city on the list. The city makes a good base for visiting nearby destinations or as a stopover before or after a cruise.

1.  Houston Space Center: Besides the Space Shuttle outside and the many indoor exhibits there are several presentations. One of the presentations is “Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo” with a behind the scene look at Mission Control. Other videos, talks and displays deal with the Orion Mars Mission. There are special times when visitors can have lunch with an astronaut. Work is on schedule for the first manned Mars Mission which will send astronauts to Mars. Plan to spend the day or more. The center is about 40 miles from downtown Houston but there are tours from the city available for those who do not have a car.

2.  The Houston Natural Science Museum: There are 16 permanent exhibits including the Burke Baker Planetarium, the Cockrell Butterfly Center and a giant screen theater. The newest exhibit, the Wiess Energy Hall, includes technologically advanced exhibits on science and energy. The “Geovator” takes visitors on a virtual reality voyage down into the earth and back a few million years to the time petroleum was formed. Energy City, a 3-D landscape of Houston and the surrounding Gulf coastal area, pinpoints various types of energy and shows how energy is delivered to the city.

3.  Rodeo: The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the largest event of this kind in the world, is Houston’s signature event. Since 1932 the annual event has educated, entertained and showcased Western heritage. The 20-day event kicks off with the Downtown Rodeo Roundup, Rodeo Parade and the World Championship Bar-B-Que. There are a variety of events from pig racing to a wine competition and concerts by high-profile performers.

4.  The Museum of Fine Arts: The MFAH is located in Houston’s Museum District and is one of the largest museums in the United States. There are extensive art pieces from every corner of the world. The museum also offers live musical presentations, workshops and lectures. The museum offers special programs/activities designed for families and children. Visit on Thursday when it is free. Across the road is the Museum of Contemporary Art, which is always free.

5.  George Ranch: The ranch is where visitors can discover 100 years of Texas history. The 20,000-acre historic park is a working ranch with historic homes, costumed interpreters and livestock. Visitors can participate in hands-on activities. They offer a variety of workshops, special events, and an historic food program that can include a chuck wagon breakfast. It is 30 miles from downtown Houston but worth a visit. Special day tours from Houston are available.

A 500,000 gallon aquarium in downtown Houston.
A 500,000 gallon aquarium in downtown Houston.

6.  Houston Downtown Aquarium: The multi-use, six-acre site is a dining complex, a 500,000 gallon aquarium, fun rides including a miniature train and horse-drawn carriage, and several habitats, including the Louisiana Swamp and the rain forest. A favorite exhibit is the White Tigers of the Maharaja’s Temple. Young and old love petting the sting rays. They offer special children-friendly programs such as “Be a Marine Biologist for a Day” and “Animal Meets and Greets.”

7.  Nature Parks: It is easy to commune with nature while in Houston. The Houston Arboretum and Nature Center has five miles of walking trail. The 160-acre Buffalo Bayou is home to numerous urban parks with hiking, biking and kayak trails plus a unique underground cistern that brings to mind Istanbul’s Cathedral Cistern. Consider a 30-minute bayou cruise and maybe you will see herons, jumping fish, and maybe even an alligator.

8.  Sports: Think of Houston as “Sport City Central” with five professional teams and four stadiums that hold more than 150,000 fans and feature events throughout the year. Minute Maid Stadium has a retractable dome — get there early to watch the Astros’ batting practice. It also hosts many sports-related events including Olympic soccer tryouts. There are dozens of daily-fee golf courses and the weather makes golf a year round sport.

9.  Galveston: Not far away, in Galveston, a resort island, there are several beaches on the Gulf of Mexico along with a slew of restaurants and other diversions. The Strand historic district, a national historic Landmark district is populated with Victorian-era homes, shops, and restaurants. It is home to the largest Mardi Gras celebration in Texas with musical events, races and, of course, the parade. The Island Express connects Galveston and Houston with three trips on weekdays.

10.  Tips: Get a city pass with tickets to the main attractions at a savings of nearly 50 percent plus it eliminates standing in line. The Metro Rail connects downtown to the museum district and with the metro and green link buses making everything in easy reach. Besides taxis there is also Uber, Lyft, Zipcars and short-term rental bikes. And check out some of the unique places like the National Museum of Funeral History and the Beer Can House on 222 Malone St. that is covered in beer cans, bottles and other beer paraphernalia.