A Surprisingly Fun Weird Houston Weekend With Kids

Ready for an exciting, fun and often weird Houston weekend with the family in Texas? Check out our guide to finding the best in art, good barbecue and hands-on fun.

Space Center Houston gets into the Halloween Spirit with astronauts trick or treating.
Space Center Houston gets into the Halloween Spirit with astronauts trick or treating. Photo c. Space Center Houston

Hear the name “Houston” and you might think Lyndon, Big Oil, maybe even the Astrodome.  Today, families should equate Houston with fine art, modern architecture, and outer space. The creative exhibits and state-of-the-art teaching at Space Center Houston make this one of America’s most interesting places to take a child. On the downside, Houston has an urban sprawl comparable to Los Angeles. On the plus side, three or four days is ample time to discover some of this southern city’s unexpected charms.

Houston Weekend Of Architectural Funk

With a Rice University alumnus at the helm, my family was steered to the neighborhood of Montrose, near the university’s striking, white marble campus. From this sleepy area of low-rise, turn of the century homes, it’s easy to see downtown’s glittering modern architecture. Downtown’s curving glass and steel skyscrapers have a certain ‘city of the future’ mystique.

We got in a rental car and within a few minutes’ drive of Montrose’s tatoo parlors and sleepy, single family homes were the Houston Opera, the efficient light rail system, a well-frequented theatre district, and commerce/entertainment centers.

We walked around the very lively Bayou Place, then shot some pool upstairs at Slick Willie’s, a kid-welcoming singles bar. Our base was within a 10-minute drive of the city’s major museums. We were poised to explore the rest of this surprising city.

Houston’s Cultural Edge

The modern exterior of the Menil Museum and its grounds defines an entire Houston neighborhood. Photo c. Menil Collection
The modern exterior of the Menil Collection grounds defines an entire Houston neighborhood. Photo c. Menil Collection

Houston is known in international art circles for the wealth expended on private collections and the buildings to house them. We had two favorite museums.

One was The Menil Collection, an eclectic personal selection of antiquities, world masters, rare books, Surrealism and other 20th century works with a perfect bookstore. The other museum is The Children’s Museum of Houston, where youngsters to about age 7 frolick in plastic groceries and water play tubs. All ages were enjoying the crafts class held in gorgeous air-conditioned splendor in this fanciful pagoda designed by Robert Venturi. The museum, closed most Mondays, offers several discount entry options for visitors.

The Houston Museum of Natural Science is as endowed as one could wish, having opened in 1909. Natural and all sciences feature kid-friendly fare at a planetarium, butterfly zone and traveling exhibits, with a few IMAX films in rotation.

I had seen a documentary about the building of the Rothko Chapel, a “sacred monument to awaken the body and engage the soul” and wanted very much to experience it in person. John and Dominique de Menil commissioned this non-denominational spiritual shrine in the mid-60s. The chapel, designed by architect Philip Johnson, is covered in dark, brooding murals by artist Mark Rothko. Although we saw admirers meditating within the odd structure, my family went out to the sculpture garden to find respite. Perhaps your children will respond differently. 

A Houston Weekend Of Folk Art

A selection of work by blacksmith artist Joe Haden, whose work is featured at The Art Car Museum in summer 2023. Photo c. Art Car Museum.
A selection of work by blacksmith artist Joe Haden, whose work is featured at The Art Car Museum in summer 2023. Photo c. Art Car Museum.

A surprise favorite was the scrap metal and chrome Art Car Museum at 140 Heights Blvd. near Washington, founded in 1998 by the non-profit Ineri Foundation for contemporary art. Garage Mahal, as it’s fondly known, showcases full-size ‘art cars’ as well as other artworks selected by its staff. A distinctly Western phenomenon, the art car movement which began in the 1980s has spawned numerous masterpieces to delight children. Make an appointment to see the decorated vehicles, low riders and mobile artworks. Check out the cars displayed within the museum and whatever is on display on the lawns. 

If your family is into folk art, drive by The Beer Can House at 222 Malone (daylight hours are best for viewing) and admire its facade and fencing made entirely of scrap cans and pull-tops, glistening in the sun. Similarly, The Orange Show at 2402 Munger is not all about oranges. Actually a Center for Visionary Art, it has limited hours that change seasonally.

We did see the galleries open at Project Row Houses (currently Wednesday to Sunday afternoons.) This community site comprises 22 tiny, so-called “shotgun” houses (shoot a bullet in the front door and it comes out the back…). Thirty years ago, they were restored as galleries celebrating art and African American culture. Today, the focus is on sculpture and community and supporting their traditional minority neighborhood. It’s a great way to reuse what look like former slave quarters.

Space Center Houston: To Infinity & Beyond

Family studies the interior of a space capsule at Space Center Houston. Photo c. Space Center Houston
Family studies the interior of a space capsule at Space Center Houston. Photo c. Space Center Houston

To my mind, the only motivation families need for a long weekend here is Space Center Houston. This education center, about an hour’s drive from downtown, is adjacent to NASA’s campus, home of Mission Control. (Remember: “Houston, we’ve got a problem.”)

The SCH and NASA enjoy a strange symbiotic relationship. Guests within the Space Center Houston are free to try computers, tour capsules, watch videos and enjoy Q&As with NASA staff. Families can also try dozens of interactive exhibits designed to illustrate space exploration to skeptical tax payers and soon-to-be tax payers.

To tour the actual 1,600-acre federal NASA facility called Johnson Space Center you must board a guided tram on special routes. Much to our amusement, the guide insisted that we have our souvenir photo taken in front of a space backdrop (no obligation to purchase.) He then handed out numbered cards for each of us to carry, and retrieved them at the end of the tour. “Just security folks, don’t worry!” he called out. “You don’t have to buy the picture if you don’t like it!”  Despite the precautions, our tram did stop to enter a few of the buildings. Secure balconies allowed us to watch a tiny bit of space shuttle work going on. It was an eyeful, and we enjoyed every minute spent with the ‘right stuff’.

Lots of Good Eats down South in Houston

Mesquite grilled brisket is a favorite mail order item from Goode Company
Mesquite grilled brisket is a favorite mail order item for Texans away from home. Photo c. Goode Company

Barbecue is a religion throughout Texas, and Houston is no exception. One particularly popular place with families has grown to six branches, and that place is Goode Company. Houston weekends, raucous groups line up for the cafeteria style service. Try huge portions of jalapeno pork sausage, sweet water duck, brisket and other meats. Sides include jalapeno cheese bread, baked potatoes, Austin baked beans and more. It’s casual, fresh, tasty, and easy on the wallet.

Don’t miss El Patio, a pretty Mexican restaurant with wicker chairs placed outdoors in a garden of potted plants. Again, a Houston classic. It has large portions, moderate prices and a friendly, casual ambiance that makes El Patio a very good choice with kids.

Try the terrific nouvelle cuisine cafeteria for burgers, good wines, a variety of coffees and many kid-pleasing dishes at the very attractive Houston Museum of Fine Arts.

Houston marked our family’s first visit to Dave ‘n’ Busters. I know this large chain is a very popular, rainy Sunday destination where parents find relief from restless kids. People love the slot machine gaming and kids arcades with ticket redemption booths. We felt it was a training camp for young gamblers serving overpriced food and soft drinks.

Houston Weekend Trip Planning Details

Parents, if you have tme, stop at the Kemah Boardwalk. The modern, pint-sized amusement park in view of the local fishing fleet is very appealing. Choose from several outdoor cafes or, if it’s too hot, head inside for the fish sticks at The Aquarium, where you’ll dine surrounded by 50,000-gallon fish tanks.

There’s always Galveston, about three hours’ south by highway. It’s a popular local beach and family reunion destination. We enjoyed learning more about its history as a major oil port.

There are lots of family-welcoming hotels in Houston and a few B&Bs with that Victorian charm. For more information about Houston accommodations, and what it has to offer families, browse the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau.

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