Black gold or ‘Texas Tea’ may have put Houston on the map, but today it’s the city’s cultural riches that draw visitors from around the world. Energy capital, rodeo town, biotech and medical research centre, aerospace innovator, international arts destination – like Texas itself, Houston transcends its stereotype.
Also known as the Bayou City, in its 175-year history, the town founded near the banks of Buffalo Bayou has grown to become the fourth largest city in the USA. It’s also officially ranked as America’s most diverse city – a cosmopolitan metropolis where a quarter of its residents were born outside the US, and more than 90 languages are spoken.
Outta this world
Houston’s other official nickname is Space City. In 1969, ‘Houston’ was the first word Neil Armstrong spoke from the moon. So my first stop has to be one of Houston’s most famous attractions, NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center and Space Center Houston.
The centre captures the history of manned spaceflight in the U.S. I’m enthralled by the historic Mission Control, which conjures up memories as a child of watching the first lunar landing on our black and white TV. The staff still manage a wry smile, even though they probably hear “Houston, we have a problem” jokes a few hundred times a day.
Today, the centre manages the operations of the International Space Station and it’s where modern astronauts from around the world train for their missions, and rockets and the Mars Rover are tested.
Space Center Houston
is the official visitor centre featuring interactive displays of spacesuits, space capsules, moon rocks, and an amazing model of the International Space Station’s orbiting laboratory. Blending fact with fiction, one of the most popular exhibits seems to be the original Starship Enterprise from Star Trek. I can’t resist picking up a NASA T-shirt that reads: “It’s not rocket science – oh wait, yes it is!”.
Wild Wild West
You’ll probably notice that the cowboy culture in Houston isn’t as prominent as other Texas cities. Before the oil boom, Houston was more about cotton than cattle, however you’ll still find plenty of places to get fitted out in designer Western duds and Lone Star trinkets.
The exclusive collections at Pinto Ranch embody the romanticism of the old west, but with a more contemporary style. Here you’ll find all sorts of western wear for men and women, from handcrafted cowboy boots to hand-engraved sterling silver and gold buckles created by the best silversmiths in the United States.
Lucchese is another famous Western bootmaker that has been outfitting Texans and wannabe Texans for more than a century. To top off your outfit, The Hat Store has specialised in the fine art of steaming and hand shaping hats since 1915 and has outfitted everyone from President George H.W. Bush to country singer-songwriter and actor, Lyle Lovett. Houston’s oldest family-owned business, Hamilton Shirts, is still cranking out its bespoke button-downs the same way it did in 1883, with hand-cut paper patterns and hand-stitched details.
If you want to see some real cowboys, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, held every March, is the largest in the world. At other times you can learn the boot scootin’ boogie at Wild West with free two-stepping lessons. Meander next door to Armadillo Palace for a taste of a real Texas honky-tonk, complete with live music in the evenings.
Beef ribs and brisket
I embark on a quest to find the best beef ribs and brisket, both staples for Houstonians. The queue outside The Breakfast Klub is a sign that there must be some truth to the restaurant’s claim to be “the best breakfast in town”. I eschew the catfish and grits platter, and opt for the other signature dish: wings and waffles, a golden Belgian waffle surrounded by six chicken wings and grits topped with powdered sugar and fresh strawberries. I may never be that brave again. While it’s said that everything is bigger in Texas, the saying certainly rings true for meal sizes.
Museums and malarkey
H-Town is sprawling – its two million residents share an area twice the size of New York City – so while an excellent public transportation system does exist, most Houstonians drive, and a car will make it easier to get around. However, after my gargantuan meal, I decide to walk it off around the Museum District.
There are 19 different institutions in this easily walkable area, celebrating craft, photography, fine arts, and health, and surrounded by leafy parks with artificial lakes set against the backdrop of a concrete-and-skyscraper cityscape. It’s easy to spend a whole day visiting venues such as the Museum of Natural Science, Museum of Fine Arts, Contemporary Arts Museum, Health Museum and the Buffalo Soldiers Museum – the only institution in the US which recognises the contribution of African-American soldiers to US military history.
The Houston/Galveston region is said to be one of most haunted destinations in the U.S. Believers and non-believers alike flock to places like the Downtown Houston building that now houses Spaghetti Warehouse, and has been named one of the most haunted places in the city.
Hosting six US Presidents while in office, the former Rice Hotel is where John F. Kennedy spent his last night before being assassinated in November 1963. It’s said that cold spots, rattling doors and beds, orbs of light and a presence are felt in JFK’s room. Now renovated in to the Rice Lofts luxury apartments, it’s claimed that the lofts are haunted by spirits who dance on the rooftop.
Houston’s White House
For more than a decade, the Houstonian Hotel served as the formal residence of President George H. W. Bush and his wife Barbara. The pair stayed at the property many times each year and, although they did sleep in The Manor House before it became the hotel’s signature restaurant, the Bush family later moved to room 271 so the President could be more easily guarded by the Secret Service staying in the rooms above and below.
You never know what awaits around the next corner in H-Town, and therein lies the appeal of this unpredictable and incomparable city. Houston, we have no problem. •
Photography by Kris Madden
Delta flies to Los Angeles with connecting flights to Houston. delta.com
Air New Zealand commences direct flights from Auckland to Houston in December 2015 operating up to five return services per week. 132-476; airnewzealand.com.au
Where to Stay
• Four Seasons Houston. 1300 Lamar St; +1-713-650-1300; fourseasons.com/houston
• Houstonian Hotel. 111 North Post Oak Lane; +1-713-680-2626; houstonian.com
• Houston City Tours. 13/12 Houston St; +1-832-388-8434; houstoncitytours.us
• Houston CityPASS provides discounted admission tickets to five top Houston attractions: citypass.com/houston
Where to Eat/Drink
• The Breakfast Klub. 3711 Travis at Alabama; +1-713/528-8561; thebreakfastklub.com
• Underbelly. 1100 Westheimer Rd; +1-713/528-9800; underbellyhouston.com
• Wild West. 6101 Richmond Ave; +1-713/266-3455; wildwesthouston.com
• Goode’s Armadillo Palace. 5015 Kirby Drive; +1-713/526-9700; goodecompany.com
• Spaghetti Warehouse. 901 Commerce St; +1-713/229-9715; meatballs.com
When to Go
Houston has a maritime climate, tropical almost year round, with hot, humid summers and mild winters. Winter (December–February) and spring (March–May) are peak times for travel.
What to Do
• Space Center Houston. 1601 NASA Pkwy; +1-281/244-2100; spacecenter.org
• Pinto Ranch Houston. 1717 Post Oak Blvd; +1-713/333-7900; pintoranch.com
• Lucchese Houston. 4051 Westheimer Rd; +1-713/960-1121; lucchese.com
• The Hat Store. 5587 Richmond Ave; +1-713/780-2480; thehatstore.com
• Hamilton Shirts. 5700 Richmond Ave; +1-713/264-8800; hamiltonshirts.com
• The Houston Museum of Natural Science. 5555 Hermann Park Dr; +1-713/639-4629; hmns.org
• Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. 1001 Bissonnet; +1-713/639-7300; mfah.org
• Contemporary Arts Museum. 5216 Montrose Blvd; +1-713/284-8250; camh.org
• Buffalo Soldiers National Museum. 3816 Caroline St; +1-713/942-8920; buffalosoldiermuseum.com
• Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau: visithoustontexas.com