Houston has something for everyone
By MIKE EDDLEMAN
In a state like Texas with beaches, mountains, forests and a long list of historic icons to visit, Houston rarely makes the list when people begin naming top travel destinations.
But Houston has something no other place in Texas has, and that’s everything.
Growing up in Houston may make it seem less like a travel stop to me, but Elizabeth and I have made it a regular destination for weekend getaways. Recently, we made back-to-back weekend trips to Texas’ largest, most diverse city, and I was reminded why it is such a great place to pencil in when you might just be looking for an escape.
Houston offers four things in abundance – dining, shopping, museums and parks.
Our first trip was with the whole family, seven of us in all, for a weekend getaway that had a youthful focus to celebrate a pair of birthdays.
Tops on the list was a trip to the Houston Zoo. It is a beautiful sprawling zoo, and it’s only downfalls are the price of food and the heat if you plan to go in summer. But it includes a splash pad, petting zoo and even an education facility where items such as fossils, feathers and rocks of all kinds can be exchanged.
We rode the carousel and even fed giraffes to highlight the afternoon before everyone began to run out of steam. I was delighted to learn that the Hermann Park Conservancy still runs its train through the park, a sprawling place that surrounds the zoo. In the park, visitors can ride paddle boats, picnic, see a show and play on a handful of different playgrounds.
The kids loved the Water Wall at the Galleria as much as we do, and it is a stop for us on every visit. The best option when stopping is to park in the Galleria garage and walk a block or two, then let the kids run wild in the grass and sprint through the mist of the fountain. Once you’ve been to the fountain during the day, you immediately want to see it lit up at night, but fair warning, it shuts down promptly at 9 p.m., and we were once caught walking up the sidewalk just in time to see it go dark.
We usually pass on the Galleria itself, but if you are a shopper, there is no better destination with 375 retailers, plenty of food options and an ice rink.
If someone can’t find food they love in Houston then they must not love food. When we head for Houston we dig deep for international options, and that seems to narrow the list to only hundreds of choices. On this trip with the kids, we chose Columbian for dinner, a spot called La Fogata on the Southwest Freeway.
While it looked like a diner, the food was authentic and delicious, with seafood options and plates of meat with a side of meat. The Sunday stop for food before leaving town was more indulgence than sustenance as we made our way to The Chocolate Bar on West Alabama near downtown.
The Chocolate Bar can make or break your sweet tooth depending on how much willpower you have when it comes time to stop. They serve ice cream and coffee and offer every kind of chocolate treat you can imagine. Visitors can even have their own custom chocolate bar made while they wait.
But the real reason to stop at The Chocolate Bar is the pies and cakes. Maybe you want a slide of Uncle Daryl’s Cake, the Candylicious Junkyard or Aunt Etta’s? Do you think you will eat a whole piece? We’ve learned that one slice feeds at least three, but it is difficult to not want your own just the same.
Highlighting the diverse options for entertainment in Houston, when we returned a week later – just Elizabeth and I – to recover from the previous trip, we made a side trip on Saturday to Galveston because from pretty much anywhere in Houston it is not more than a 90-minute drive if you have some traffic luck.
The Strand downtown is always a good stop for traditions like La Kings Confectionary where you can load up with a bag of candy, an ice cream or just watch them make taffy.
The Star Diner was a place we stumbled upon by accident, and it is everything an old-time diner and soda shop would have been. We shared a Reuben and the “7 salad plate”, which was a sampling of all the salads on the menu. It is a popular place, and the staff is friendly, serving up great food. It has irregular hours so be sure and check before you go.
A trip to Galveston is not complete without a leisurely walk on the beach. With parking all along the seawall these days, it is never difficult to find a spot to start from and enjoy the narrow, but lengthy stretch of beach.
We finished off a busy day with dinner and a couple of great craft beers at St. Albert’s Brewery east of downtown.
The outside tasting area is spectacular with games, great landscaping and a giant television, but it is the great hall dining room that impresses the most. It has the look of an old European church, but with funky murals throughout. The food is mostly comfort food and delicious, and the brewery knows how to make a good beer.
It always comes back to great food, and over the last few years we have been delighted by Argentinian, Greek, Bosnian, Columbian, Italian, Mexican and others at great prices. If you have a taste for one thing in particular, simply search for it online in Houston and I guarantee you will find it.
On Sunday, before we headed back home, we decided to make a few shopping stops at the cool, eclectic spots in the area around Montrose. Agora Coffee, on Westheimer, is the perfect place to begin. The coffee is strong and the atmosphere is mellow, and there are a number of shopping opportunities within a block or so.
This trip did not include much in terms of museums, but if there is something you want to see, Houston probably has a museum for it. The Museum of Fine Arts and Houston Museum of Natural Science anchor the museum district filled with old churches and smaller museums including the Holocaust Museum, Contemporary Art Museum and the Menil Collection.
Across the city there are other museums worth a visit and in half a dozen trips we still have not seen them all.
Both weekends we managed to find great hotel deals online for Houston. In fact, the value found in hotel nights in the city is one reason it is such a regular destination. Throughout the year, clean, comfortable national chain hotels can be found for $50-$60 per night even on weekends, and often, the higher-end options in the Galleria area can be had for less than $90 per night.