Where to Go in Houston

Travel Features Houston
Where to Go in Houston

I finally went to Houston last month, and I hate to say it, but I had a really great time. Look, I’m from Atlanta: I’ve always felt like I need to hate Houston for vague, definitely ridiculous reasons that I’ve never been able to justify. The two cities seem so similar that it’s almost like you need to choose one and stick with it: which poorly planned, sprawling Southern metropolis that’s almost uninhabitably hot for at least a third of the year do YOU support? Of course I’d pick the town I’m from, and not just because it’s got better music or because our baseball team used to beat theirs all the time (you know, back before the Astros became the biggest cheaters in baseball). (Sorry, Houston; I love ya!)

I realize I’m not doing myself any favors with proud Houstonites (sorry, sorry, Houstonians) right now. If they grew up there, though, they probably know what I’m talking about, but from the other direction. They probably look askance at Atlanta the same way I did Houston, and also without really knowing why. And it’s not even just a city vs. city thing; any Von Erich fan can tell you how real the Texas vs. Georgia feud is, and it’s only going to get worse with the Texas Longhorns joining the SEC.

I put aside my lifelong distrust of Houston for a few days last month and discovered something genuinely shocking: Houston’s awesome. The food alone makes it worth an extended visit, but Houston is a uniquely multicultural city with its own personality and fascinating history. Yes, there are some surface similarities to Atlanta, but they’re ones found in almost every major Southern city—haphazard planning, terrible traffic, and an emphasis on growth and modernization over preservation. The surface-level trappings that unite Houston and Atlanta are found just as much in Tampa or Charlotte, whereas like Atlanta Houston has a culture and history that makes it stand out from much of the South. No matter how suspicious you are about Houston, you owe it to yourself and the city to stop by and get all those precious preconceptions shattered.

When you do make it to Houston, here’s what you need to fit onto your schedule. Here’s our guide to the best places to visit in Space City, including legendary tourist sites, great hotels, and the best places to eat and drink.

Where to Go

POST Houston

Let’s start with the best view of the city you’ll find anywhere. POST Houston is a large mixed-use development that opened in the former Barbara Jordan Post Office in late 2021. It’s home to a 5500-capacity music venue whose calendar includes upcoming shows from bands like Jimmy Eat World and Young the Giant, as well as coworking spaces and a thriving food court (I’ll talk about one of its restaurants later on). The reason any first-timer to Houston needs to come here, though, can be found on the roof. POST Skylawn is a five-acre greenspace on top of the former post office that offers an amazing view of downtown Houston. It’s the best photo you’ll get of the city, hands down. And while you’re up there, check out its sustainable farming operation, and peruse its events schedule to see if anything fun or interesting is happening while you’re in town. 

Obviously any first-time trip to Houston requires a stop at Space Center Houston, the NASA museum at the Johnson Space Center. You can see spacecraft up close in person, and explore the insides of a space shuttle replica. Learn about potential Martian projects in the Mission Mars exhibit, take a gander at an impressive collection of moon rocks, check out vintage Saturn V rocket segments in Rocket Park, and tour select facilities at the Johnson Space Center, including the legendary Mission Control center. Houston will forever be linked to NASA and America’s space program, and the Space Center should be one of the first places you visit in the city.

As above, so below: if you’re less interested in outer space than, uh, large underground spaces, definitely stop by the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern. This underground reservoir was opened in 1927 and, with a maximum load of 15 million gallons, serviced the drinking water needs of Houston for 80 years. Since 2007 the cistern and its 221 columns have been open for tours, amazing guests with an eerie stillness and cavernous echoes. On a recent trip a tour guide dove deep into the cistern’s history while demonstrating some of its unique sonic and optical properties; her original ode to the beauty of the cistern was a glorious, reverb-drenched delight (in multiple languages, even), and the visual tricks made possible by a few inches of water and a flashlight almost seemed like magic. Abandoned reservoirs might not make for obvious tourist sites, but as proven by places like Buffalo Bayou and Istanbul’s Basilica Cistern, they can make a deep, lasting impression.

Houston is also home to a museum dedicated to an often overlooked part of our military history. The United States Armed Forces remained segregated until 1948. That’s after World War II. Before then African-American soldiers served exclusively in four regiments for almost a century, from 1866 until integration was completed in the 1950s. The men of those regiments became known as Buffalo Soldiers, a name most likely given to them by the Indigenous Peoples they were pitted against during America’s campaign to subjugate the frontier. You can learn about the Buffalo Soldiers, as well as the larger history of African-American contributions to our armed forces, at the fascinating Buffalo Soldiers National Museum.

Sometimes the best meals you’ll eat on vacation are the ones you cook yourself. The Houston Farmers Market has been a home for locally-grown produce and other goods for over 80 years, and is a great place to stock up if you plan on making yourself a meal. You’ll find a constant bounty of local fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices, along with a recently-opened butcher’s shop; many of the vendors have maintained a stall here for decades, giving the Farmers Market a true connection to the past. And if you don’t feel like cooking for yourself—or don’t have the ability to wherever you’re staying—the Farmers Market has a handful of restaurants worth a taste: the burger joint Underbelly Burgers, James Beard semi-finalist Trong Nguyen’s Viet-Cajun spot Crawfish & Noodles, and the casual-yet-delicious farm-to-table eatery Wild Oats.

Where to Eat


I can’t praise Himalaya enough. Chef Kaiser Lashkari’s massive menu includes Indian and Pakistani favorites, as well as unique Southern riffs on traditional South Asian dishes, with kebabs, biryani, paneer and chicken tikka masala available alongside HFC (Himalaya Fried Chicken) and Tex-Mex inspired Paratha-dillas. Everything I tasted at a recent feast was fantastic, and I say that as somebody who generally doesn’t like Indian food. Lashkari, meanwhile, is a true character—a deeply charismatic and funny man who also happens to be an amazing cook. It’s no wonder Anthony Bourdain was a big fan of both Himalaya and Lashkari.

The best bites over at POST Houston—and perhaps in Houston, period—can be found at Golfstrømmen, whose international menu might seem unusual at first, but makes sense once you learn more about Houston’s broad diversity. Norwegian chef Christopher Haatuft joined forces with Texas resident Paul Qui, who’s won both Top Chef and a James Beard Award, to open a sustainable seafood restaurant that combines Norwegian, Asian, and Southern culinary traditions into something new and unique. (It’s surprising that Houston has the largest population of Norwegians outside of Norway until you remember that the oil and gas industries are massive in both places.) Those influences come together in dishes like Gulf Crab Rangoon, bluefin tuna and Norwegian salmon with wasabi and soy, and the Tuna Tostada—a crispy tortilla covered with bluefin tuna, avocado, and salsa. My favorite was the Sichuan Ipswich clams, where they take New England’s famous big-bellied clams and fry them up Sichuan-style. It’s got a touch of citrusy sweetness with that slight Sichuan sting, along with that greasy, fried chewiness you get from a good Ipswich clam. I think I ate three bowls all by myself. (They’re small bowls, okay?)

The two things I remember most about Riel are the wall-sized mural of its namesake, Canadian politician and Métis resistance leader Louis Riel, and the bone marrow show of Ancient Age I finished the night with. After hitting up a tiki bar earlier in the night, and having a few cocktails at the restaurant, it’s no surprise my memory of Riel is a little hazy. Based on my notes and photos, though, I can tell you that I’m a big believer in the crawfish rolls (a Houston take on the classic lobster roll), the caviar tater tots, the tempura cauliflower, and the maple porkloin. That Wagyu bone marrow is good, too, with or without the Ancient Age. Headed up by Manitoba-born chef Ryan Lachaine, Riel is another example of Houston’s culturally diverse culinary scene, with a menu influenced by the Gulf Coast and Lachaine’s Canadian and Ukrainian background.

Where to Drink

Lei Low

If you’ve been reading with bated breath since I mentioned a tiki bar in that last paragraph, wait no more: I went to Lei Low, Houston’s preeminent Polynesian(-ish) paradise. Although its strip mall exterior is highly unassuming—if it wasn’t for a Hawaiin mural, you’d probably miss it—Lei Low is a vintage tiki spot with all the charm and relaxation you’d expect. Its sizable cocktail list includes all the tiki classics, as well as a variety of Mai Tais, while the decor is on the sillier, kitschier side of the tiki spectrum—which is fantastic. I could’ve lost my whole night here if I didn’t have other obligations. 

If you’re looking for something a little classier, Julep’s knockout cocktail list won it a James Beard Award in 2022. With seven delicious house cocktails, two varieties of the timeless julep, and a long list of inspired takes on the classics, Julep is where to go when you want to get drunk as elegantly as possible.

And since nothing’s better than a great dive bar, let’s talk about Big Star Bar for a second. The beer’s cheap, the vibe is authentically old, the music is occasionally live, and every year or so they have a crawfish boil. If that doesn’t sound like a top-notch dive, I don’t know what to tell you. (You might want to dock it a few points for having a website—something no true dive needs—but you should refund it a few points since it looks like the site hasn’t been updated since 2006.) 

Where to Stay

La Colombe D'or

La Colombe D’Or is as much of a museum as it is a place to sleep, and that’s just one of many reasons to stay at this luxurious hotel in Montrose. Its rooms are spread out across three different connected buildings, with its entrypoint in the Fondren Mansion (built in 1923) making a grand first impression. Suites are located inside the mansion, inside a cluster of garden bungalows, and inside the first floor of the apartment tower behind the main house, and they’re all opulent in their own way. My room in the tower, for instance, had a separate living room and bedroom, with a large bathroom connecting the two. Art can be found all over the property, from statues in the courtyard between the mansion and tower, to paintings and prints inside both. With its green and gold decor evoking early 20th century glamour, Bar. No. 3 is a beautiful place to grab a drink, while Tonight & Tomorrow serves breakfast, lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch. With only 32 suites, La Colombe D’or has a personal touch you won’t often find at a hotel, and that makes it an ideal place to stay during your Houston vacation.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the Marriott Marquis Houston. Yes, it offers the quality and service you’d expect from a Marriott Marquis, but most importantly it has a lazy river in the shape of Texas, which is one of the most Texan things I’ve ever heard about. Kudos, Marriott Marquis.

Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.

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