The sprawling city of Houston, the fourth-largest in the United States, was once associated with its web of mirrored skyscrapers, massive highway systems, rich oil business, and lack of zoning. These days, the city is experiencing a booming cultural transformation. With renowned art galleries, restored Mid-Century Modern design, buzzy restaurants, fashionable shops, ample green space, and up-and-coming neighborhoods, there’s plenty here for visitors to uncover. Here are five great reasons to visit this thriving, sophisticated, even edgy city.
Diverse Dining Scene
Houston takes its food seriously, and so should you. Make reservations at BCN Houston, an intimate 54-seat restaurant located in a 1920’s-era home with chic minimalist touches and original art by the likes of Pablo Picasso. Helmed by Spanish chef Luis Roger (an elBulli protégé), the menu includes steamed mussels, stewed pork cheeks in wine ragout, and a stunning lobster bouillabaisse with rice (pictured).
Savor the flavors of the coastline at Mexico City native Hugo Ortega’s Caracoal (which translates to ‘snail’), where delicious regional dishes are served in a contemporary white space. Seafood lovers should order the wood-fired oysters dressed with breadcrumbs and chipotle butter, the Spanish octopus cocktail, and the deceptively simple catch of the day, served with a flavorful tomatillo-caper sauce and crispy shallots.
In the leafy Montrose neighborhood, the new 99-seat Bistro Menil (across from the prized Menil Collection) is a perfect spot for a local Houston draft: try the IPA-style More Cowbell. Feast on the grilled quail topped with pomegranate molasses, duck-sausage confit, or the cocoa-nib-and-black-peppercorn beef filet with roasted mushrooms. The paired cask wines (an affordable option) offer a “greener” option for wine lovers.
At Pax Americana, a revolving collection of modern art (think Warhol) adorns the walls. The spritely seasonal menu is spread into categories from land to sea. Sample the Portuguese octopus with smoky grilled rapini and Meyer lemons, or the hearty, nine-spiced brisket with potatoes and black garlic. Save room for the impeccable Texas wildflower honey panna cotta.
New Drink Offerings
Cocktail enthusiasts will revel in the new drinking spots that focus on handcrafted libations. The mezcaleria Pastry War (named after an 1838 conflict between Mexico and France) serves a "Cane and Clove" made with rum and smoky mezcal stirred with a range of bitters. For a taste of the South, grab a booth at Washington Avenue’s sophisticated Julep (pictured), a cocktail bar serving small seafood bites like smoked bluefish and bay scallops.
In downtown Houston, the highly lauded Oxheart team has opened Public Services Wine & Whisky. Housed in the stunning Cotton Exchange building from 1884, the bar serves a small menu that includes a homemade baloney plate with smoked cheese and buttery Ritz crackers, and snifters of Kavalan Taiwanese whisky.
Spacious Green Parks and Outdoor Spaces
There’s no shortage of urban green space in Houston. Downtown’s bustling Discovery Green (pictured), a 12-acre spread of art sculptures, a seasonal ice-skating rink, a playground, and a kayak pond has something for everyone. Head to quiet Cullen Sculpture Garden, a tranquil place surrounded by the sculptural works of Louise Bourgeois, Henri Matisse, and Auguste Rodin.
Tucked in the Museum District and within walking distance of Rice University, Hermann Park has plenty of green space and a serene Japanese garden. Just outside downtown, the 160-acre Buffalo Bayou Park has added new spruced-up walkways, a skating rink, and public art as part of a $45 million renovation.
Vibrant Arts & Culture
Actress and fashion icon Tilda Swinton recently shot a W magazine spread at the dazzling Renzo Piano–designed Menil Collection (pictured), the contemporary institution whose collection includes works by Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns; there's also a separate pavilion dedicated to the work of Cy Twombly. Down the street, visit the intimate Rothko Chapel, home to 14 of the artist’s somber works. Move towards downtown with visits to The Museum of Fine Arts, one of the largest in the United States, to see the Damien Hirst surgical-stainless-steel sculpture, End Game.
In the heart of the Museum District, the parallelogram-shaped Contemporary Museum offers revolving exhibits and a well-curated gift shop on the lower lever. Elsewhere, you’ll feel like you’re in Jurassic Park after a visit to the Houston Museum of Natural Science, which recently underwent an $85 million renovation that added the 30,000-square-foot Hall of Paleontology, featuring dinosaurs like the Stegosaurus and a gigantic T. rex.
Houston is a welcome hodgepodge of highbrow, lowbrow, and vintage offerings. The fashion-savvy set heads directly to the flagship Tootsies for labels like Lanvin, Stella McCartney and Valentino. Explore more than 70,000 square feet of design offerings at Kuhl Linscomb, which features everything from modern furnishings to Sferra bedding to Molton Brown toiletries. Seeking some tunes for your collection? The independent emporium Cactus Music stacks a wide range of LP's and vinyls.
In Montrose, score a pair of authentic, vintage cowboy boots and Western wares at the long-running Texas Junk Company. Along Kirby Drive, the fashionable Abejas Boutique (pictured) includes an assortment of designer, vintage, and one-of-a-kind pieces. The chic, light-filled Dao Chloe Dao (a Project Runway winner) store caters to a flirty, feminine crowd. Uncover 18th- and 19th-century antiques and industrial pieces at Found For The Home. Be sure to support local artists at Space Montrose, which sells an array of soaps, candles, and paper goods.
Where to Stay
Tucked away from the bustling Galleria area, the quiet, 378-room Omni Hotel has a lush lobby with hanging terrariums and two swimming pools (one is heated). Those in the Museum District should stay at the 315-room, boutique-style mainstay Hotel ZaZa, home to a lively bar scene. Downtown, the recently renovated 135-room Hotel Icon is situated in a 1911 bank building within walking distance to nearby museums, bars, and restaurants.
Kate Donnelly is a freelance writer based in New York. She's the founder of the creative collaborative, From Your Desks. She's a Contributing Editor at Fathom and her work has appeared in AFAR, Bon Appetit, Departures, Forbes, Style.com and Refinery 29. She travels for the food. Follow Kate on Twitter @k8bdonnelly.