Houston is the fourth largest city in the U.S., but it feels more like an eclectic collection of small cities. The city has 2.2 million people in a greater metropolitan area twice the size of New York, but its relaxed, welcoming atmosphere is that of a much smaller town. There's something for every traveler, including beautiful parks, eclectic galleries, delicious restaurants, and enjoyable hotels in Houston. The city's low cost of living makes it a perfect place for travelers on a budget. Here's how to enjoy the city without spending a fortune.
Head to Hotel Indigo at the Galleria for a great deal on a room near the biggest mall in Texas. There's also a business center with computers and printers, a 24-hour fitness center, and a pool. Each room comes with Wi-Fi, a coffee maker, and a mini-fridge. You can explore hundreds of stores, and there's an ice skating rink in winter. Just remember to wear comfortable shoes.
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There are 20 great museums in the Houston Museum District, and they're all within walking distance of Mecom Fountain on Main Street, near the Sam Houston Monument. Many of them have free admission on at least some days, and the air conditioning is a welcome relief from hot summer weather. Here are some of the best ones.
The Menil Collection, which was started by philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil, contains more than 16,000 artworks from the Paleolithic to the present. The collection is divided into four areas: Antiquity, Byzantine and Medieval, Tribal, and 20th Century art. It's one of the top free attractions in Houston.
The Houston Museum of Natural Science houses the Burke Baker Planetarium, the Wortham IMAX Theatre, and the Cockrell Butterfly Center. You can also view permanent exhibits on astronomy, Native Americans, paleontology, energy, chemistry, gems and minerals, seashells, Texas wildlife, and more. There are also traveling exhibits on topics that kids and adults will enjoy. Admission is free every Thursday from 2 to 5 p.m.
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The Houston Center for Contemporary Craft hosts local and national artists who focus on using fiber, metal, glass, clay, wood, or found or recycled materials for their art. It provides exhibition, retail, and studio space. Visit Asher Gallery to buy artists' creations and the Artist Hall to explore their studios, ask questions, or just watch them work. Artists use the Craft Garden behind the building to grow plants for their art. Admission to all parts of this fascinating place is always free.
The Lawndale Art Center is right next door. It focuses on contemporary Houston artists in all media, and it holds over 20 exhibitions, informal talks, and special events per year. Admission is also free.
Memorial Park features tennis courts, playing fields, a fitness center, swimming pool, and six miles of bike trails. Many people jog or walk around the park, and the 600-acre Memorial Park Golf Course is among the best in the nation.
The Houston Arboretum and Nature Center is on the west side of the park. This 155-acre nature sanctuary teaches visitors how to protect native plants and animals in the city. It's just a few miles from downtown Houston, and you can walk the center's beautiful trails and visit the interactive exhibits at no charge. Dogs on leashes are welcome as well.
The Nature Center building includes the Discovery Room with interactive exhibits and activities and the Nature Shop with items for all ages. There's also a Wildlife Garden with plants to attract hummingbirds, butterflies, and other wildlife. The Carol Tatkon Sensory Garden contains native plants that are attractive to the senses.
Hermann Park is a great place for shade on a hot summer day. It also has walking trails, fishing, a train for kids, paddle boats, and a Japanese Garden. You can play golf or take kids to the playground as well. It has plenty of swings, slides, and play space.
Houston has a diverse performing arts community. You can attend free performances by the Houston Symphony, Theatre Under the Stars, or the University of Houston if your vacation is at the right time. The Miller Outdoor Theatre hosts free performances in Hermann Park during the week and on Saturdays from March to October. Actors perform kids' shows during the day and more adult material at night. Bring your own blanket or lawn chair or reserve a seat in the covered seating area. Take your own drinks and snacks or get something at the concession stand.
There aren't actually any beaches in the city, but surf and sand are less than an hour away by car. Relax on the beach, swim, and build sand castles with kids. Galveston is one of the most popular destinations. All of its beaches have showers, bathrooms, and refreshments for sale. Access to the beaches is free, but there is a parking fee. Brazoria County's beaches are about an hour south of Houston. You can visit the busier Surfside Beach or the more isolated Bryan Beach. All beaches are open from March through October.
Houston has all the fun features needed for a romantic getaway or a fun weekend with kids. Best of all, you won't have to save for long.