America’s fourth-largest city is the country’s culinary frontier.
Though Houston is America’s fourth-largest city, it’s long been overlooked as a tourist destination. Sure, it’s a little hot and humid. And yes, locals often say, “Houston is an hour from Houston” because the city’s so big. But if you can get past all of that, you’ll discover a fun-loving, cosmopolitan town with 22 art museums, seven major-league sports teams, plus NASA and the Johnson Space Center. And that’s not to mention the world’s largest rodeo and livestock show.
Since the ‘70s, Houston has undergone a significant population boom and cultural renaissance, thanks largely to several waves of new immigrants, notably many refugees. By some measures, it’s America’s most ethnically diverse city, where one in four residents are foreign-born. Nowhere is this more apparent than in its multilingual culinary landscape, which ranges from contemporary barbecue and Tex-Mex to Indian, Nigerian, and Viet-Cajun, a hybrid cuisine that evolved right here on Houston soil.
All of this to say: You’ll never be bored in Houston if you know where to look. To get you ready for your next trip to Space City, here are the city’s essential hotels, restaurants, and attractions.
Where to stay
First-time visitors should set up a homebase “inside the loop,” which is Houstonian for the area inside of Interstate 610. This includes central neighborhoods like the up-and-coming Heights area, upscale River Oaks, and Montrose—the city’s historic hub of counterculture that also borders its world-renowned, walkable Museum District. For a funky yet sophisticated Texas experience, the iconic, centrally located Hotel ZaZa Houston Museum District beckons with poolside cocktails, all-day fine dining at Monarch restaurant, and rejuvenating treatments at the on-site ZaSpa. Among the boutique property’s 315 rooms, there are seven distinct suites, including the two-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath Tycoon Suite with a balcony hot tub and the 1,000-square-foot Houston We Have a Problem Suite, which leans into the Space City theme with moon-inspired couches and an astronaut statue.
Houston also boasts standout locations for hotel groups like the 29-story, 1,000-room Marriott Marquis Houston, featuring an iconic Texas-shaped lazy river on the roof. The recently renovated Four Seasons Hotel Houston is another one to consider, located near the George R. Brown Convention Center and equipped with a speakeasy bar and restaurant by chef Richard Sandoval. Attached to Memorial City Mall, the affordable Westin Houston has a photo-worthy, 18th-floor infinity pool.
For a bit of history in Montrose, consider La Colombe d’Or, which is set across three distinct buildings. The hotel is based out of a 1920s mansion that once belonged to oil tycoon John Mecom Sr., but the current owners have also added rooms in a modern high-rise and a collection of bungalows. The intimate, 32-room property notably touts an impressive, museum-quality collection of 425 pieces of art and sculpture, including a Picasso lithograph and a Man Ray’s artist proof.
Finally, for a splurgy taste of old Houston—vibe-wise, think Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, filmed at his local high school alma mater—look no further than the elegant, 250-room Post Oak Hotel in Uptown. Here, at the most expensive hotel in Houston, you’re greeted by a canopy of old oak trees, Frank Stella artwork in the lobby, and a Rolls Royce dealership in the same building.
Where to eat
Houston is worth traveling to for the food alone. For a sense of place, start with thoughtful, regionally-inspired restaurants like chef Aaron Bludorn’s eponymous Bludorn, where New American and French techniques meet Gulf Coast ingredients in dishes like lobster chicken pot pie and jollof-style crab rice. Another take on the global Gulf Coast ethos can be found at Manitoba-born chef Ryan Lachai’s Riel, known for kimchi carbonara and house tater tots topped with caviar. For a more classic take on Gulf Coast seafood, head to Brennan’s of Houston, the Texas-Creole sister to New Orleans’ Commander’s Palace, open since 1967.
Tastes in Space City are increasingly eclectic, and many of the city’s most essential “relaxed fine dining” restaurants defy strict categorization. In East Downtown (or EaDo), Nancy’s Hustle spotlights its namesake Nancy Cakes—fluffy corn cakes served with cultured butter and trout roe. In Montrose, Justin Yu’s Theodore Rex dishes out culture-crossing sour pork sausage with chorizo spices and lime leaf, and Good Night Hospitality’s March features a rotating tasting menu focused on different regions of the Mediterranean with wines by master sommelier June Rodil, who also curates the list at the broadly European-minded Rosie Cannonball next door.
But one might argue that the true soul of Houston food is Mexican—both the Velveeta-laden Tex-Mex kind as well as dozens of traditional regional varieties from Oaxaqueña to Hidalguense. The standard bearer for the former is the original Ninfa’s on Navigation, opened in 1973 and credited with the introduction of fajitas, or tacos al carbon. For something more south-of-the-border, look to the Tatemó, serving a new-school tasting menu centered entirely on nixtamalized corn, or chef Hugo Ortega’s Xochi, turning out Oaxacan staples like mole flights and tlayudas. On the fusion front, there’s Jūn, the gorgeous Mexico-meets-Southeast Asia restaurant in the Heights, overseen by Top Chef: Houston finalist Evelyn Garcia.
Though Austin might claim the title of Texas’ barbecue capital, there’s plenty of top-tier pit smoking happening in Houston. Find noteworthy renditions of brisket at Hill Country purist Truth BBQ and modern Feges BBQ—as well as at the Asian-inflected Blood Bros. BBQ, where it’s also chopped and served in fried rice. Beyond barbecue, kolaches are another pan-Texan delicacy of old European origin. Sweet and savory doughy pastries typically eaten for breakfast, the best can be found at several locations of the homegrown Kolache Shoppe and at East Downtown’s all-day bakery and café Koffeteria. (They also serve a Hot Cheeto croissant).
In recent years, many waves of immigrants have left their imprint on the Houstonian palate. For example, the West African restaurant scene is flourishing with major players like second-generation Nigerian-American Ope Amosu’s ChòpnBlọk, specializing in trad platters of smoky jollof jambalaya with proteins and plantains. Meanwhile, the city’s best sushi can be found at Kata Robata and the 16-course Omakase Neo HTX. And on the South Asian front, there’s Anita Jaisinghani’s modern-meets-traditional Pondicheri, dosa-slinging mainstay Shri Balaji Bhavan, and Goan-inspired natural wine bar De Gama Canteen. Perhaps best known is Himalaya Restaurant, an Indian-Pakistani spot in the Mahatma Gandhi District with a show-stopping house chicken marinated skinless in Indian spices and fried crispy Southern style.
Be sure to leave a full day just to make a small dent in the city’s diverse Asiatown. Highlights include two cavernous Chinese-Vietnamese dim sum buffets, Kim Son and Ocean Palace, spice specialist Mala Sichuan Bistro, Cantonese eatery Mein, vegan banh mi sandwich shop Duy Sandwiches, Korean barbecue newcomer Hongdae 33, and Viet-Cajun pioneers Cajun Kitchen and Crawfish & Noodles—tossing mudbugs in garlic butter as well as in citrus and Southeast Asian herbs like lemongrass and basil. And if you should find yourself on the west side of town, in the suburb of Katy, check out rising stars like Malaysian restaurant Phat Eatery and Money Cat, a Japanese small plate concept that integrates Houston’s multicultural flavors.
Things to do
Make the most of your time in Houston by planning a visit during the city’s annual rodeo season, a 20-day affair typically taking place at the NRG Stadium in late February and early March. The largest of its kind in the world, the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo includes a tournament-style competition in eight events like bareback riding, steer wrestling, and tie-down roping—plus an 80-ride mega carnival, food vendors, and an A-list music lineup that has featured performances from the likes of Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Selena, KISS, Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton, and of course Houston’s own Beyoncé.
Houston also quietly boasts a portfolio of fine arts rivaling that of any major city, from the century-old Houston Symphony to the highly competitive Houston Ballet, named by the New York Times as one of the country’s finest. But the city’s crown jewel is its Museum District, which includes The Museum of Fine Art and the always-free Menil Collection—a Renzo Piano-designed museum with works from Max Ernst, Andy Warhol, and Cy Twombly. On Menil’s 30-acre arts campus, you’ll also find the Rothko Chapel, a standalone, non-denominational house of worship and meditation built by Mark Rothko in 1971.
Beyond entertainment, Houston’s green artery is the 160-acre Buffalo Bayou Park, offering hikes and runs along numerous trails encircling 10 miles of waterway—which can also be explored by kayak or pontoon boat. Akin to the Bethesda Fountain of New York’s Central Park, Wortham Grove is the most photogenic corner of the park, adorned with a dandelion-shaped fountain and benches. To toss a frisbee or catch a game of volleyball, head to the open fields of Eleanor Tinsley Park, which hosts major music events like the Free Press Summer Festival.
For an easy day trip, head 40 north of downtown to the city of Conroe, built on a 22,000-acre lake popular for swimming, fishing, and water sports. To the southeast, the Kemah Boardwalk overlooks Galveston Bay with a small theme park and a 50,000-gallon aquarium. In recent years, the area has attracted quality eats including Th Prsrv, a Thai-meets-Native American restaurant focusing on pre-colonial foodways, and Pier 6, a refined waterfront seafood joint run by a second-generation oysterman. Just a bit further is the beach city of Galveston, featuring a well-preserved historic downtown with old estates like the 1895 Moody Mansion. On the island’s west end, the 2,000-acre, camping-friendly Galveston Island State Park spreads out across swamps, coastal prairies, and dunes typical of the Gulf Coast.
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