Things to Do in Houston
The first time I visited Houston, I fully expected to see people walking around in cowboy hats and boots and talking like Larry Hagman. The show Dallas was my only reference to Texas. But it turns out that the city of Houston is actually pretty cosmopolitan, and I didn’t see a single cowboy hat. With residents from all over the world living and working there, Houston has a diverse culture and a renown food scene. My husband and I recently made the trek to Houston to visit friends who just moved into the city, and we had a great time. Here’s a report on our 24 hours in Houston:
Houston is not the most attractive city, and the layout is a bit odd. A car is required for most outings. Right now you can use Uber, but that’s in danger as the city of Houston and Uber are sparring over fingerprint requirements. (Lyft pulled out long ago.) That would be a shame, because as most major cities have proved, ride-sharing is extremely popular and considered essential, as it eliminates parking problems, drunk driving, and getting lost in strange places.
We got a good last-minute deal at the Omni Houston in Uptown, and we were glad we chose this hotel. It has attractive decor, an inviting pool area with comfy lounges and bar service, a restaurant, bar, nightclub, gym, spa, large, comfortable rooms, and friendly staff. Since we were only staying one night, we were not able to take advantage of all the amenities. We considered using the pool, but it was 98 degrees with a heat index of 109, so we didn’t really feel like being outdoors. That didn’t seem to stop other patrons from enjoying it though. On another visit we stayed at The Houstonian, a pretty swanky hotel that offers guests a day membership to its luxe fitness club.
Our friends, Cezar and Marlena, picked us up at the hotel, and we took a short drive to Oporto Fooding House & Wine in Midtown. (There is a smaller Oporto Cafe in another part of town; we went to the restaurant on W. Grey.) Oporto is a small-plates Portuguese restaurant. They don’t take reservations for parties of less than eight, but you can call to get on a waitlist 30 minutes ahead. On a Saturday night, it was full and lively, so if you want to be guaranteed a spot, you might want to come early. Oporto offers valet parking, which is the most convenient option, since it doesn’t have it’s own parking lot.
The bar menu offers creative cocktails and many options for wine by the glass or bottle, but we all opted for caipirinhas since they were made with authentic cachaça. The caipirinhas were excellent, but they came in small glasses filled to the brim with shaved ice, so there wasn’t a whole lot of drink in the drinks. Cezar said it was more like a caipirinha snow cone! (The classic seemed slightly larger than the special versions.) The menu was full of delicious things. It was hard to choose, but we each ordered two plates and shared. Many of the menu items are close to Spanish tapas, but they each had their own twist on flavors. We ordered baked goat cheese, mussels, hangar steak, piquillo peppers stuffed with seafood, shrimp in garlic sauce, octopus, and charred vegetables. Every single item was fantastic — perfectly prepared and bursting with complex flavors. The sauces were amazing, so we asked for the bread so we could sop it all up. Even the bread basket was out of this world. My particular favorites were the big, juicy mussels and the stuffed peppers, both which had red sauces to die for. We tried some Portuguese wine and a sinfully delicious espresso chocolate torte. Service was fantastic. This was truly one of the best meals I’ve had.
After dinner we went to our friends’ apartment to chit chat, and before we knew it, it was nearly 3:00 a.m. and we had to go back to the hotel for a few hours of sleep. Unless you know our friends, that won’t be an option for you, but here are some other ideas for after-dinner hangouts:
Anvil Bar & Refuge. This is a cool bar with excellent and uniquely crafted cocktails. There are snacks on the menu, but I’ve only had drinks.
Barbarella. This is a funky dance place in Midtown, close to Anvil. It’s not really my kind of place — it’s for the younger crowd — but we took our adult children here once and had a good time. It’s kind of weird in an ironic way. It has a light-up, elevated dance floor, not-so-good drinks served in plastic cups, and a sticky floor and plastic chairs around the bar. It’s an experience.
We had a comfortable, but short sleep at the Omni, and headed downstairs to their restaurant around 8:30 for a buffet breakfast. (Breakfast is not included with your room unless you get a special breakfast package.) The buffet here is pretty good. There were large bowls of fresh berries, and all the usual things you could want on a breakfast buffet plus extras like cheese blintzes, almond and cashew butter for your toast, and a variety of fresh-baked breads and bagels that didn’t appear to come from a grocery store package. There’s an omelette bar as well as well as pre-made eggs. All of the food was actually cooked in pots and pans rather than microwaved, so everything was pretty tasty. Service was very friendly.
So what to do with the rest of our day? The pool beckoned, but since Houston + Summer = Hot as Hell, we decided to look for an indoor activity. A quick Google search turned up the Aquarium. We like to see fish swimming around, so why not? It didn’t take long to get there. Parking is $8, cash only. There’s a large outdoor water park with carnival rides, which was full of kids having fun while their parents roasted. We bought our tickets for the indoor exhibit, $25 for the two of us. As far as city aquariums go, this one is on the smaller side, but it’s a pleasant outing. I was a little disturbed by several large fish that seemed to be stuck in tanks that were much too small for them. Someone should do something about that. Otherwise, there was a good variety of fish. I tend to be pretty ridiculous when visiting aquariums: I wave at the fish and say “Hi.” I actually bonded with one who hung out and watched me with as much interest as I was watching him (or her). I was admiring a school of pretty fish that looked like they had gold glitter sprinkled on them. Turns out that they were piranhas. Look at those teeth!
Besides fish, there are a few frogs and snakes and a macaw. And then it ends with a white tiger exhibit, of all things. It was totally unexpected but pretty fascinating to watch. There is a shark tank somewhere, but apparently you have to take a ride from the water park to see it, so we missed out on the sharks.
Afterward our stomachs were rumbling for lunch. There’s a seafood restaurant upstairs that’s associated with the Landry’s chain, so we decided to give it a try. We really didn’t want to eat any fish after communing with the fish downstairs, but since we didn’t see any live shrimp, we decided to go with shrimp cocktail and shrimp tacos. They were pretty good, and we shared a tasty mango mojito to wash it down. There’s a large fish tank in the restaurant with stingrays and other larger fish, so we walked all around to see our last exhibit. The coolest things were the stingrays with leopard skin.
After lunch we were in need of coffee. Since Charbucks still has a lock on coffee where we live, we were excited about getting a good cup of joe, and we heard that Tout Suite was the place to go. Not long after we left the Aquarium parking lot, we found ourselves near Minute Maid Stadium, right across the street from Tout Suite. This neighborhood was super sketchy on a Sunday afternoon, but with the parking lot around Tout Suite completely jammed, we figured it had to be good. It’s definitely the biggest hipster coffee joint that I’ve ever been in. It’s actually a complete cafe. It’s huge, and almost every seat was full, but people are constantly coming and going, so we didn’t have to wait for a seat. In addition to espresso drinks, they have a breakfast and lunch menu, fresh juices, beer, wine, and cocktails, and good-looking pastries, including an extensive selection of macaroons. You have to walk by all the bakery items before you can order your coffee. We picked a few macaroons (espresso was our favorite, the others were too sweet for our taste) and ordered lattes. The lattes were perfectly balanced: strong, but no bitterness … just the right amount of milk. The coffee was so good I wanted to kiss the barista! We had fun watching people hesitate before going into the restroom. There’s a sliding barn door that just says “WC” on the wall — nothing about men or women. Everyone goes in the same door, but men veer to the left and women go to the right. You share the sinks to wash your hands. We left happy, but our 24 hours wasn’t quite over yet.
We’ve heard about The Heights — a trendy Houston suburb — so we decided to check it out. The Heights is an older neighborhood with neat rows of Craftsman cottages and Victorians on tree-lined streets. We parked the car and decided to walk around and admire the homes, the cute free libraries, and a cool playground for kids. Just as I was starting to wonder if I was having a heat stroke or a heart attack, we found ourselves at the corner of Harvard and White Oak, looking right at a gelato place! The last thing I wanted was more food, but my body dragged its limp, sweaty self straight to the door of Gelazzi, and I found myself asking for samples before I even knew what I was doing. This is a cute place. The donut gelato tastes exactly like donuts, but I went with the more refreshing key lime. As we left, we noticed that people kept stopping to take photos in front of the “Welcome to Houston” mural on the side of the building, so we did too. As we walked back, an ominous black cloud started forming overhead, and we made it to the car just before the rain hit. We had spent almost exactly 24 hours in Houston, and it was time to go home.