For an exciting, fun and often weird weekend with the family in Houston, Texas, check out this first-hand report on what to do and see for kids interested in the arts, good barbecue and hands-on fun.
Hear the name “Houston” and you might think Enron, maybe Lyndon, maybe Big Oil, maybe even the Astrodome. But today, families should equate Houston with fine art, modern architecture, and the Space Center Houston, whose creative exhibits and state-of-the-art teaching make this one of America’s most interesting places to take a child. Despite its size and an urban sprawl comparable to Los Angeles, three or four days is ample time to encounter some of this southern city’s unexpected charms.
Houston Has Architectural Funk & Steel Skyscrapers
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. The curving glass and steel skyscrapers which sprouted during the 70’s – 80’s oil boom had a certain ‘city of the future’ mystique and warranted an up-close visit.
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 new, efficient light rail system, a well-frequented theatre district, and commerce/entertainment centers like the ultra-modern Bayou Place.
We walked around the very lively Bayou Place, then shot some pool upstairs at Slick Willie’s, a kid-welcoming singles bar. From the Lovett Inn, we were also close to Rice, within a 10-minute drive of the city’s major museums, and poised to explore the rest of this surprising city.
Houston’s Cultural Edge & Bounteous Folk Art
Houston is known in international art circles for the wealth expended on private collections and the buildings to house them. Our favorite museums were the Menil Collection, an eclectic personal selection of antiquities, world masters, rare books, Surrealism and other 20th century works with a perfect bookstore, and The Children’s Museum of Houston, where youngsters to about age 7 frolicked 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 is closed most Mondays, but hosts free family nights every Thursday. The Houston Museum of Natural Science is as endowed as one could wish, having been opened in 1909 and featuring kid-friendly fare at a planetarium, butterfly zone, Challenger Learning Center 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. This non-denominational spiritual shrine had been commissioned by John and Dominique de Menil in the mid-60s, designed by Philip Johnson and hung with dark, brooding murals by 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 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. Fondly known as the Garage Mahal, it actually showcases a collection of full-size ‘art cars’ as well as folk and political visual arts selected by its staff. A distinctly Western phenomenon, the art car movement of decorated vehicles, low riders, and mobile artworks which began in the 1980s has spawned numerous masterpieces to delight children. Check out the front yard’s taxi wreck, the cars displayed within the museum and, across the street, don’t miss the enormous chrome-armored Carmadillo.
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 all about oranges. Well, it’s actually a Center for Visionary Art and a neat institution, but call ahead because it has limited hours, is open for a different amount of hours during each season, and was “closed for the winter” at our visit.
We did see the galleries open at Project Row Houses (2521 Holman Street, a set of 22 tiny so-called “shotgun” houses (shoot a bullet in the front door and it comes out the back…). They have been restored as galleries celebrating art and African American culture; some provide housing to young moms, or welcome art students with special services. It’s a great way to reuse what look like former slave quarters.
Space Center Houston: To Infinity & Beyond
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.”) We spent an entire day there and could have moved in. The SCH and NASA enjoy a strange symbiotic relationship. Guests within the Space Center Houston are free to try computers, tour capsules, watch videos, enjoy Q&As with NASA staff, and listen to updates on the International Space Station. Families can also try dozens of interactive exhibits in Kids Space Place designed to illustrate space exploration to skeptical tax payers and soon-to-be tax payers.
On the other hand, the actual 1,600-acre federal NASA facility called Johnson Space Center could only be toured via 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), then handed out numbered cards for each of us to carry, which were retrieved 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, from whose balconies we could 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
Barbecue is a religion throughout Texas, and Houston is no exception. One particularly popular place with families, with two branches, is Goode Company. It was decorated with cowfolk memorabilia, brightly lit and very loud, with raucous groups lining up for the cafeteria style service. Huge portions of jalapeno pork sausage, sweet water duck, brisket, turkey breast, ribs and other meats are served with jalapeno cheese bread, baked potatoes, Austin baked beans and other sides which lean toward the Mexican rather than the Southern. It’s casual, fresh, tasty, and easy on the wallet; attributes which must appeal to local parents more than the ordinary food.
Another choice we enjoyed for an outdoor patio lunch was El Patio, a pretty Mexican restaurant with wicker chairs placed outdoors in a garden of potted plants. Again, large portions, moderate prices and a friendly, casual ambiance make other El Patio branch a very good choice with kids.
At the very attractive Houston Museum of Fine Arts, we found a terrific nouvelle cuisine cafeteria, Cafe Express, where burgers, good wines, a variety of coffees and many kid-pleasing dishes were being served.
From the Menil Collection, you can check out Empire Cafe or the Brick & Spoon for home-baked muffins, cappuccino and an eclectic breakfast menu. Our son liked the very mixed crowd of young artists in paint-splattered overalls, musician types with Rasta hair-dos, new parents with teeny babies, and scruffy indigent-looking locals dining inside and out. If you’re interested in exploring the city’s latest and topmost-of-the-line shopping mall, the Pavilion on Post Oak (said to surpass the Gallerias I, II, and III) or just to watch the glass Williams Tower Water Wall fountain, you’ll need to nosh. There’s another very Texan meal at EatZi’s Market and Bakery, a yuppie eatery which originated in Dallas. In an attractive bistro setting, fresh prepared foods and excellent baked goods are ready to go or stay, it’s up to you.
Houston marked our family’s first visit to the despicable Dave ‘n’ Busters. I know this large chain is a very popular, rainy Sunday destination where parents find relief from restless kids. It is beloved for its slot machine gaming; kids arcades with ticket redemption booths; and very noisy, sports bar atmosphere. We felt it was a training camp for young gamblers serving overpriced food and soft drinks.
Houston Trip Planning Details
With an extra long weekend, parents may be interested in stopping at the Kemah Boardwalk. It has a modern, pint-sized amusement park and several outdoor cafes overlooking the local fishing fleet. If it’s too hot to sit outside, check out 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. We were disappointed in its honky-tonk atmosphere and sleazy T-shirt stores, but did enjoy 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, contact the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau or call the tourist information office at 800/4-HOUSTON or 713/437-5200.
Photos courtesy Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau.
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