By Andy Rhodes
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- Flexible itineraries, from a long weekend in Houston to a road trip through Central Texas and the coast
- Strategic advice for history buffs, outdoor adventurers, families, and more
- The top sights and unique experiences: Marvel at the original Mission Control at the NASA Space Center or browse the compelling collections at the Contemporary Art Center. Go boating past Spanish moss and cypress trees, kayak along the shore, hike through the Big Thicket Natural Preserve, or spot rare species on a coastal birding trail. Relax on the pristine Padre Island National Seashore, and watch the sun set over the water from the top of a historic lighthouse
- The best local flavors: Dig in to authentic, smoky barbecue, classic Tex-Mex staples, and down-home Southern cooking
- Expert advice from longtime Texan Andy Rhodes on where to stay, where to eat, and how to get around
- Full-color photos and detailed maps throughout
- Thorough background on the state's culture, history, geography, and regional vernacular
Looking to explore more of the Lone Star State? Try Moon Austin, San Antonio & the Hill Country or Moon Texas.
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Discover Houston & the Texas Gulf Coast
Planning Your Trip
Explore Houston & the Texas Gulf Coast
THE BEST OF HOUSTON
COASTING ALONG THE GULF
FAMILY ROAD TRIP
HIGH POINTS IN HISTORY
Everything about Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast is larger than life. From towering skyscrapers to endless stretches of sandy coastline to high-powered humidity, this region of the Lone Star State exemplifies grandiosity, all with a hearty sense of Texas pride.
Naturally, this results in excessive opportunities for exploration. As the country’s fourth-largest city, Houston offers travelers a cosmopolitan playground to discover, but with a Texas flair that sets it apart from other urban landscapes. And when you’ve had your fill of bustling restaurants and active nightlife, the calming waves of the Gulf Coast beckon just hours away.
Mention the word “Houston” and iconic images immediately start gushing, from oil booms to NASA, from Urban Cowboy to Enron. The Texas mystique lives large in Houston, just like the diverse characters that have called the city home, including Beyonce, Roger Clemens, and George H. W. Bush.
Travelers in Texas and across the country often associate a visit to Houston with the words “business trip.” Fortunately, there are countless attractions and destinations beyond the city’s convention center and hotel room walls. Its 8,000-plus restaurants (that’s not a misprint) specialize in the regional cuisine of lesser-known countries far beyond most cities’ standard fare. The multifaceted nightlife ranges from down-home honky-tonks to stylish, sophisticated dance clubs. And the city’s surprisingly efficient and navigable public transportation system makes it easy to get out and explore.
Just down the road, the Gulf Coast boasts more than 350 miles of shoreline, appealing to all types of recreational travelers. Salty fishermen escape to Galveston or Mustang Island near Corpus Christi for no-frills fishing while South Padre Island draws visitors from the opposite extreme: road-tripping families and spring breakers who frolic on the pristine white beaches.
Houston may never top the list of trendy destinations, but its distinctive characteristics as a cosmopolitan Southern city with an independent spirit befitting of Texas’s colossal charm make it a worthy destination for anyone seeking a memorable escape.
Planning Your Trip
Where to Go
The fourth-largest metropolis in the country offers all the amenities of big-city living—plus a distinctive Texas twist. Spanning several miles, the Museum District hosts nearly a dozen attractions, including parks and cultural facilities ranging from the small Buffalo Soldiers Museum to the enormous Museum of Natural Science. Sample tasty local cuisine here from authentic barbecue to Cajun and real Tex-Mex. Nightlife options are refreshingly laid-back, from trendy beer joints in the Heights to live blues clubs in the West University neighborhood. Some of the can’t-miss sights are outside the city limits. NASA Space Center is an absolute must, the Kemah Boardwalk is a fun place for families to frolic, and the San Jacinto Battleground is where Texas won its legendary independence.
|Houston Museum of Fine Arts||San Jacinto Battleground Historic Site|
The Gulf Coast
Stretching more than 350 miles along the Gulf of Mexico, this region of sun, sea, and sand offers the ultimate escape from cities, suburbs, and small towns. Occasionally referred to as the country’s “Third Coast,” its moderate beaches and waves don’t attract crowds the way Florida’s mighty surf does, but the call of the ocean draws casual beachcombers, lifelong fishermen, and frolicking families. For those with limited time who need a quick saltwater fix, there’s nearby Galveston Island, just 50 miles southeast of Houston. Though the beaches aren’t exactly pristine, they’re close and easily accessible. Less crowded and more inviting is Mustang Island near Corpus Christi (about 3.5 hours from Houston), offering steady waves and wide-open stretches of sand. Texas’s preeminent beach—think soft white sand and surfable waves—is on South Padre Island, a nearly five-hour drive from Houston but well worth the effort for those wanting to truly kick back, relax, and soak up the warm Texas sun.
South Padre Island
East Texas Getaways
Houstonians escape to East Texas to play in the Piney Woods. From national forests to Main Street communities to historical attractions, this abundant area offers plenty of recreational and leisure activities to chase away the intensity of urban life. Spend a day in Angelina National Forest for a woodsy hike to the abandoned Aldridge Sawmill. Up the road, you can enjoy the clickety-clack of the Texas State Railroad as it rambles along historic tracks through the pines. Nearby Lufkin and Diboll boast fantastic facilities—the Texas Forestry Museum and the History Center, respectively—dedicated to the region’s logging heritage. If you have a few extra days, take time to smell the 35,000 roses at Tyler’s famous Rose Garden and Museum. Or bust a move to the northeast, where Marshall bills itself as the “Birthplace of Boogie Woogie.”
sunset in Angelina National Forest
When to Go
The region is downright pleasant in spring and fall, quite tolerable during the mild winter months, and absolutely hellish in the summertime.
Spring is the ideal time to visit, so plan for March or April. Vegetation is blooming in parks and gardens, festivals capitalize on sunny 73-degree days, and people enjoy the final few months they’ll be able to spend outside. Fall is the next-best season. By late October, things begin to “cool” down to the 80s, drawing cabin-fever sufferers out of their homes to restaurant patios and neighborhood parks.
Winter is a distinct season, but snowflakes and icy roads are rare. Temperatures can be erratic, jumping from the 30s to the 70s in just a few hours. This is a good time to plan a trip to South Padre Island.
Houston has gone to great lengths to accommodate its sweltering humid weather during summer (May through mid-October), mainly via overpowered air-conditioning systems and subterranean downtown tunnels. The constant flow of air-conditioning and water recreation allows residents and visitors to (barely) tolerate the heat. The coastal communities don’t have these fancy amenities, but the constant 15-mph wind coming off the water is a welcome change from oppressive urban humidity.
Explore Houston & the Texas Gulf Coast
The Best of Houston
With dozens of worthy attractions and hundreds of notable restaurants in greater Houston, choosing an itinerary may be challenging. But who can complain about having too many good options?
Begin your odyssey in Houston’s Museum District, starting with the enormous Museum of Natural Science, which introduces visitors to the area’s cultural heritage—from prehistoric creatures to modern oil-drilling techniques. Grab lunch at El Real Tex-Mex Cafe in the nearby Montrose-Kirby area, and then head back to the Museum District for an afternoon of amazing art at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, the Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston, or both. For dinner, head back to Montrose-Kirby for some lip smackin’ Goode Co. Barbeque, followed by a nightcap at Anvil Bar & Refuge—its Nitro Cuba Libre is the fanciest rum and Coke ever made.
Houston’s Museum of Natural Science
Return to the Museum District to wrap up your cultural tour of Houston by sampling from attractions dedicated to animals (the zoo), children, health, history, and photography. For your lunch break, try some regional Cajun cuisine at Treebeard’s in the nearby downtown business district. After a couple days of museum hopping, treat yourself to a nice downtown dinner at III Forks and a few cocktails at Dean’s Credit Clothing.
Explore additional cultural attractions inside The Loop, beginning with a morning in the Montrose-Kirby area. The Menil Collection and Rienzi house fantastic fine art collections. Nearby West University is a hotbed for shopping (Rice Village and Kuhl-Linscomb, in particular), and a dinner at Uchi or Underbelly can be a Houston highlight, but be sure to make reservations well in advance. Afterward, stay in the neighborhood for some live Bayou City blues music at the legendary Big Easy Social and Pleasure Club.
Rienzi’s house and gardens are home to its fine art collection.
For those who still want to soak up the city scene, there are plenty of urban attractions to be found. The Heights is the hip place to find trendy shops, including boutiques like Hello Lucky and Latin American folk art at Casa Ramirez. Enjoy a hearty lunch at Gatlin’s Barbecue, and then walk it off in the Uptown district at the Arboretum nature sanctuary. If you have time, squeeze in a visit to the intriguing Orange Show art collective, and then enjoy a traditional Mexican dinner at Molina’s. Nearby, the Firehouse Saloon offers genuine country-and-western culture with live music on weekends.
It’s finally time to escape The Loop, so head southeast of Houston to NASA Space Center for an otherworldly experience. If you have kids in tow, visit the nearby Kemah Boardwalk for some traditional touristy fun on amusement park rides. Those interested in the Lone Star State’s legendary heritage should go to the San Jacinto Battleground Historic Site, where Texas famously won its independence in 1836. Top the day off with a seafood dinner at the bayside TopWater Grill.
COASTING ALONG THE GULF
Combining a Houston trip with excursions along the Gulf Coast is not only possible, it’s encouraged. For those with limited time who need a quick saltwater fix, there’s nearby Galveston Island, just 50 miles southeast of Houston on the Gulf Freeway (I-45). Though the beaches aren’t exactly pristine, they’re close and easily accessible. Less crowded and more inviting is Mustang Island near Corpus Christi, offering steady waves and wide-open stretches of sand. Texas’s preeminent beach—think soft white sand and surfable waves—is on South Padre Island, a nearly five-hour drive from Houston but well worth the effort to truly kick back, relax, and soak up the warm Texas sun.
The following itinerary offers a solid introduction, but most visitors may prefer to enjoy these coastal towns at their leisure. To truly experience more than one of these destinations, plan for at least five or six days. Factor in driving time: from Houston, it will take about three-and-a-half hours to reach Corpus Christi via U.S. Hwy. 59 through Victoria (State Hwy. 35 along the coast is more picturesque but takes about 45 minutes longer). The five-and-a-half-hour drive to South Padre Island on U.S. Hwy. 77 is pretty lengthy, but absolutely rewarding once your feet hit the soft sand.
Just an hour southeast of Houston, welcoming waves beckon at Galveston Island. Visit The Strand district, a 36-block National Historic Landmark District that features New Orleans-style hotels, restaurants, art galleries, boutiques, and a seaport museum with the 1877 tall ship Elissa. Enjoy a local lunch at Mosquito Café. In the afternoon, you can choose your adventure based on the weather—if it’s nice outside, visit Pleasure Pier for the amusement park rides; if it’s too hot, windy, or rainy, head to the indoor pyramids at Moody Gardens for aquariums and exhibits. Dinner and drinks await at the tremendous Saltwater Grill.
the Moody Gardens Festival of Lights on Galveston Island
If you want to extend your stay, consider spending the night at Tremont House, a stunning 1879 Victorian hotel in The Strand district. Spend the morning at Broadway Street’s stately historical mansions—Bishop’s Palace and Moody Mansion—then enjoy lunch at Fisherman’s Wharf, with a deck overlooking the bay, before heading to your next coastal stop.
|Galveston’s historic Strand district||Port Isabel Lighthouse, South Padre Island|
A few hours down the coastline, Corpus Christi offers wide-open beaches on Mustang Island. Named for the wild horses that once roamed free on the island, the park offers five miles of outstretched beach, perfect for swimming, fishing, sunbathing, and beachcombing. Those seeking recreational fun can rent a kayak or windsurfing equipment and tackle the gulf waters. Be sure to schedule time for a meal at Water Street Seafood Co. Stay at the Radisson, located right on the sand of Corpus Christi Beach.
On your next day, hit one of the top-notch cultural attractions like the USS Lexington or Texas State Aquarium.
South Padre Island
Serious beachcombers should alter their schedules to spend a few days on South Padre Island. Soft white sand and bright blue water are major attractions, and so is the marine life at Sea Turtle, Inc. and on dolphin tours. It’s also well worth the 74-step climb up the tight spiral staircase to experience the breathtaking views from the Port Isabel Lighthouse.
The seafood here is the best in Texas, so be sure to catch a lunch or dinner at Pier 19 or Sea Ranch. If it’s too hot outside, play indoors at Schlitterbahn Beach Waterpark.
East Texas Excursions
If you happen to be heading back from the coast along U.S. Hwy. 77, be sure to visit the legendary King Ranch to experience Texas’s cattle culture where it was born. Then hightail it to one of East Texas’s national forests for some camping or cabin time.
Another option—via U.S. Hwy. 59 and State Hwy. 103—is to explore the Piney Woods by bike or canoe, or hike to the abandoned Old Aldridge Sawmill in Angelina National Forest. Learn about the region’s logging heritage at Lufkin’s forestry museum, or take a leisurely ride on the Texas State Railroad. At mealtime, be sure to sample a regional specialty like chopped beef barbecue or fried catfish. An East Texas day trip or overnight regional jaunt directly from Houston is also feasible.
FAMILY ROAD TRIP
Houston and the Gulf Coast are ideal stomping grounds for frolicking families. The cities are brimming with museums and recreational pursuits, and the entire coastline is a natural playground. From toddlers to great-grandparents, there are activities for all ages and interests.
Houston’s Museum District is a natural place to get things rolling on a family road trip. Start things off at the Museum of Natural Science, where kids and parents can learn about dinosaurs, mummies, gems, butterflies, and oil production through interactive exhibits. Another option is to actively participate in the fun exhibits at the Children’s Museum. The Museum District is surprisingly lacking in walking-distance restaurants, so plan to get in the car for lunch or eat at the only restaurant available in the science museum, McDonald’s. As that can sometimes be a necessary option (for silencing hungry children), it may be fitting to visit the nearby Health Museum next, where proper body maintenance is a main theme.
Head southeast of town for a day of family fun at NASA and Kemah Boardwalk. Young children may not grasp the historical significance of viewing Mission Control, but they’ll certainly appreciate Kids Space, a massive collection of exhibits, games, and hands-on activities. Grab some lunch on the bay at TopWater Grill, and then head to Kemah Boardwalk, featuring restaurants, shops, fountains, and an impressive collection of amusement park-style rides at the water’s edge.
the NASA Space Center in Houston
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