For me, Houston has always been a stopover, not a foodie destination.
Although this sprawling city — located on a Gulf Coast plain on the edge of a natural forest coming down through East Texas — may be a bit too spread out for my urban liking, a recent trip changed my way of thinking entirely with the city’s extraordinary museums, public spaces and food.
Where to stay
I had a great visit at the Sheraton Houston West, located about 12 miles from downtown or an easy 30-minute drive from Hobby Airport. The 158-room hotel — located in a quiet neighborhood but close to many Houston attractions — offers great value and perks.
Also worth checking out is the Sheraton’s new sister property, the Westin Houston Memorial City. Located adjacent to the Memorial City Mall, the luxurious 267-room hotel has two major perks: an 18th-floor pool with a panoramic view of the Houston skyline, and Trattoria Il Mulino, a new addition to the Houston culinary scene.
Modeled after its parent — the famed New York City eatery Il Mulino — this new dining concept features classic Italian cuisine and a few surprises, including the best home-made meatballs in the Southwest.
Where to dine
For those who love to eat out with an open mind, book a “Where the Chefs Eat” culinary tour — a wonderful way to learn about Houston’s eclectic food scene.
The tour is very intimate, so expect a very entertaining afternoon of undiscovered restaurants and markets with one of the city’s top chefs. I was paired with two esteemed chefs: boundary-pushing Chris Shepherd, who is in the midst of opening two new eateries, and award-winning Monica Pope, whose popular Houston restaurant, T’afia, is known for its local ingredients and regional menu.
On their day off, we ventured to Kasra Persian Grill, a great family-run Persian restaurant in a strip mall, where I had the best hummus ever. We also toured Houston’s sprawling Chinatown and visited off-the-beaten-path Vieng Thai, where our guide ordered off-the-menu Thai specialties.
Where to appreciate great art
Ten museums in Houston’s Museum District — including the globally renowned Menil Collection — are free. An additional seven museums have dedicated free times each week.
If you only have time for one or two stops, don’t miss the Museum of Fine Arts, which has one of the most expansive permanent collections of art from Europe. The John A. and Audrey Jones Beck Collection includes several works by Mary Cassatt, Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh, Wassily Kandinsky and Henri Matisse.
Another must-see is Rothko Chapel, a nondenominational worship place designed by abstract expressionist Mark Rothko and architect Philip Johnson. On the walls, muted, natural light illuminates 14 nearly monochromatic paintings by Rothko. Spend a few moments here, and you’ll forget you’re in Houston.
Where to hang out on a lawn
Opened in 2008, Discovery Green — a 12-acre downtown park — is becoming one of Houston’s most popular public green spaces. Visitors young and old can be found strolling through, taking in free concerts at the amphitheater or visiting the weekly farmers market on Sundays.
Another great place to take in pedestrian-friendly paths is the campus at Rice University, a neo-Byzantine maze of brick buildings near the Museum District and Hermann Park. Visit the Raymond and Susan Brochstein Pavilion, a 6,042-square foot building designed by award-winning architect Thomas Phifer surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows that look out on a 10,700- square-foot wraparound plaza.
The Houston CityPass offers a discounted, easy way to visit top attractions — Space Center Houston; Houston Zoo; Houston Museum of Natural Science; Downtown Aquarium; the Health Museum; George Ranch Historical Park; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Children’s Museum of Houston. At 40 percent off regular ticket prices, you don’t have to wait in a line. The pass is valid for nine days. For more information, visit www.citypass.com/houston.
‘Where the Chefs Eat’ culinary tour
$180 per person
The very entertaining and delicious food tour is limited to 16 participants, and tours sell out quickly. The tour includes tastings at each stop, complimentary local Saint Arnold’s beer, limo-bus transportation and a gift bag. Ticket proceeds benefit the Houston Food Bank. For more information, visit www.houston
Average Houston high temperature in August
Population of Houston, the fourth-largest U.S. city
Year Houston was founded
If you go
Sheraton Houston West: www.sheratonhoustonwest.com
Westin Houston, Memorial City: www.westinhoustonmemorialcity.com
Trattoria Il Mulino: www.ilmulino.com/houston.html
“Where the Chefs Eat” culinary tour: www.houstonculinarytours.com
Kasra Persian Grill: www.kasrahouston.com
Museum of Fine Arts: www.mfah.org
Rothko Chapel: www.rothkochapel.org
Discovery Green: www.discoverygreen.com
Rice University: www.rice.edu