Where we’re at: I’m recapping my travels in 2019, including this trip to Texas in December.
Until recently, Texas was a big — huge, actually — untouched swath on my state scratch-off map. A quick weekend in Austin for a conference finally introduced me to the state in 2018, and a year later, I had an opportunity to visit Houston, and I grabbed it.
Gil, the Israeli I’d started to whirlwind date on globe-hopping work trips for both of us, had meetings in Houston, and proposed we fly out to spend the weekend there. I knew next to nothing about Houston other than Beyonce and several of my distant relatives hail from it, and that seemed good enough for me (plus, getting away from December in New York.)
I booked a flight, meeting Gil at the gate of our connecting flight — not a bad way for a date to kick off!
I was very deep in my “trying to deny Christmas was coming” mode in this period and so I was all too thrilled to take on the distraction of digging up everything there is to do, eat, and see in Houston — and I’m pretty proud of the results. I’m not sure this is a city I was rushing to visit, but we truly had a fantastic time here, full of striking modern art, offbeat eateries, and seriously cool bars.
We kicked off strong with brunch at Pondicheri, a Mumbai-inspired industrial-chic Indian restaurant in River Oaks. The food was out of this world and we seriously flirted with the idea of coming back for dinner, too.
We decided to walk off our decadence with a modern art stroll. We were already learning an important lesson: a good weekend in Houston requires a lot of Ubers — but we did try to use our own two feet when we could.
One of the few associations I had with Houston was that it was home to the Rothko Chapel. Sadly, that was closed for construction a the time of our trip, but there was plenty else to explore. We started with the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. This museum was blink-and-you’ll-miss-it tiny, but admission was free, there were some cool pieces to check out, and the gift shop was a lot of fun. (Is that an embarrassing commentary on a museum? Oh well.)
We had a fair amount of time to kill before the sunset surprise I’d planned, so we decided to walk to our next destination. I’m glad we did — we strolled through Hermann Park, which was pretty and bustling and scattered with public art, and onto the Rice University Campus, which was great for people watching and art peeping.
I was especially pleased to spot a Jaume Plensa sculpture on the grounds of Rice, which brought me right back to an incredible show of his at the Nashville Botanical Gardens. My mom had read that blog post, just like some of you may have way back when, and when she joined me at Bonnaroo two years later, she left a day early to go see that show.
So crawling inside that sculpture, I couldn’t help but think of her.
Soon it was sunset, and we turned the corner to my big surprise “wow moment:” sun was setting on James Turrell’s famous Twilight Epiphany Skyspace installation.
Built in 2012, the piece literally lights up for forty minutes twice a day, while sunrise and sunset light sequences run and curious bystanders wander around or settle into the art to contemplate the weird and wonderful. I have to admit that I was slightly underwhelmed at first by the size — I had pictured it in my mind as much larger. But maybe that was just my “everything’s bigger in Texas” mindset.
When it comes to big installation pieces like this, I have to admit that even after four years at Pratt and a Bachelor of Fine Arts to hang in a future office someday, I would struggle if someone asked me to articulate what the “point” is. Why did Christo and Jeanne-Claude blanket Central Park in orange gates? I have no idea.
But I can still remember how 15-year old me felt when my mom and my best friend’s mom brought us there, and I felt the same way sitting in Skyspace contemplating how the color of the sky changed through the skylight as the colors morphed gently on the ceiling: like there was a sense of wonder to the world, like the limits of human creativity were boundless.
After a few drinks at the charming Toasted Coconut tiki bar, our 5am flight time was catching up to us and we called it a night. The next morning, I had another surprise in store, and we ended up at brunch at The Kitchen at The Dunlavy based mostly on location convenience.
It was a good call. We took our meals out onto the balcony overlooking Buffalo Bayou Park, and then when we were finished, started a long stroll along the river.
It was a beautiful walk, and we passed dog parks, residents on their morning runs, and more installations and sculptures, all with the city skyline in the distance. Who knew Houston was such an art-loving city?
And then, my next surprise, which I knew the engineer in Gil would geek out over: a tour of the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern. Guided tours cost just $7 — the first attraction admission we’d paid — and lasted thirty minutes, a low investment of both time and cash. But the payoff was huge.
We loved this place! The tour, in which we learned all about the history of the cistern built in 1926, was fantastic, and really highlighted the unique properties of this underground space. I was instantly transported back to Istanbul, where I’d seen an underwater cistern for the first time. And after our first day’s art immersion, I was not at all surprised to hear that this space, too, has been the base of multi-media art installations in the past, too. Next time, I’m coming back for one of the sound healing meditations they regularly host!
That evening, Gil’s business partner arrived, and we tried to head out to Pinstripes, a hip bowling alley, together. We were shocked to hear that they were fully booked for the entirety of our remaining stay — who knew bowling was so popular in this town! — and wandered back outside, trying to decide what to do, when we were intrigued by some bright light flashes coming from the across the street.
We wandered over to see what was going on — I thought it might be an art gallery — and stumbled upon The Color Factory!
If you’ve missed the craze of pop-up experiences like The Ice Cream Museum, The Color Factory, The Rose Mansion… first of all, where have you been? (Hopefully, at a real museum, ha ha.)
I don’t know how I’d yet to visit one, and I was definitely not wearing the proper outfit for such an occasion (sob), nor did I even have my proper camera. But, it was kind of fun that it happened to spontaneously and unexpectedly… and we had a blast actually enjoying the full experience rather than trying to just take the cutest photos — which, according to the biting New York Times op-ed I linked to above, is mostly the point.
Well camera or no camera, neutral outfit or not neutral outfit, I can confirm this is a great date night — for three!
Back in downtown, Gil and I headed to the Okra Charity Saloon, right downtown, which had caught my eye from the moment I started my trip research. Here, every drink gets you a token. While you sip, you can read about four local charities serving the community, which rotate monthly. You toss your token in the box associated with your favorite, and at the end of the month, the bar donates their profits there. How fun is that?
I absolutely love this idea, which I think is such a creative way to raise money for great causes and introduce people to the organizations serving their community — I can imagine many great connections, regular donations, and volunteer sign-ups have originated here. Charitable giving and catching up with friends over a drink — I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a clever blend of two of my favorite things!
After, we wandered over to Truck Yard Houston, which I was absolutely delighted by as a Ferris Wheel appeared in view. With an open-air beer garden, surrounding food trucks, karaoke rooms inside shipping containers, and a massive Ferris Wheel rotating above it all, it was truly an adult playground for the ages!
I absolutely loved this place — who knew Houston had so many fun places to get a drink?
The next morning, Gil and I set our alarms — and double dipped with a sunrise at Skyspace, too. We had it to ourselves that foggy morning, and it was just plain dreamy.
After a nap back at the hotel, we headed out again for another epic Houston hidden gem (well, hidden to those of us who didn’t realize how incredible The Magnolia City is — and how sweet of a nickname is that, by the way?!)
This time, we were at Axelrad Beer Garden, a literal hipster hang strewn with colorful hammocks around the open-air backyard stage. Lawn games, plentiful pups, and a few vendors selling artisan eats made this the perfect daytime hang. I didn’t want to leave!
The next morning the boys all went to meetings, and I went to yoga. Sick of calling Ubers, I decided to jog there, which definitely earned me some strange looks in the particular neighborhood I found myself in. I guess all the runners stick to the Buffalo Bayou. Noted. But, my efforts were rewarded when Yogaworks Houston gave me a free mat rental for having forgone driving to get there. What a cool way to promote green choices!
Later that day, I Uber-ed out to the suburbs to visit my great aunt Margie, who it was wonderful to catch up with, and then returned to the city for a celebratory game of bowling with the boys. It was no Pinstripes, but Lucky Strike was both right around the corner from our hotel, and available for booking.
And the next day, after a morning of desperately searching downtown for a coffee shop to work from, I hopped a flight back to New York, full of newfound appreciation for an unexpectedly fun and artsy city.
When Gil had first invited me I wondered if we should just hop straight in a car and head to Galveston for the weekend — I guess my mind is at least always halfway at the beach — but in the end I’m so glad we stuck around the city.
I couldn’t wait to see what Texas city — or what international dating adventure — would surprise me next.
Stay tuned: California post coming right up!
It’s so fun to read about Houston from a visitor’s point of view; you’ve introduced me to some new places to check out when I’m in town. And yes! when you come back through Houston, please make a trip down to Galveston Island. We have tons of great history and attractions, local shopping, restaurants, breweries, distilleries, etc…not to mention the beach.
Would love to — you had be at the beach! Okay, and the distilleries 😉 Lots more of Texas to explore!
I am just wondering how you handle budgeting when traveling? In this post, you mention a lot of activities and eating out and drinks, etc. It seems like this could get expensive. Do you actually write out a budget before you leave or do you just wing it?
Hey Erica, for short trips like this, I definitely just wing it. I’m lucky to be able to do that, I know! Luckily I have pretty affordable taste in restaurants, don’t love shopping, and like to walk a lot — those all help the budget, naturally!
I spent 3 weeks in houston (not far from where you stayed based on location to lucky strike!) for work 4 years ago. My husband flew in for the last week and we really enjoyed it – but agreed on the ubers and not much opportunity to walk many places. Still a great city and the restaurant scene was great even back then!
That’s fun, Martha — what a cool opportunity to explore! After this year, with so many travel bloggers sticking to the US, I really was inspired to vist some of the gorgeous natural areas of Texas someday too.