The Big Houston Surprise(s)
I wasn’t expecting to see a string quartet performing near the arrival gate when we deplaned in Houston. Instead, I had anticipated oilmen in cowboy boots and rabid sports fans. The music was a pleasant surprise. This wasn’t my first visit to Bayou City, but it was the first time my husband and I had allowed a few extra days to “play tourist” before heading out to family in the suburbs. Given this, I’d done my homework and learned that Houston is America’s fourth largest city and its most ethnically and culturally diverse. This last point was driven home as we passed a virtual United Nations of restaurants on the way to the JW Marriott in the city center.
“Where is everybody?” I asked our waiter in the hotel’s Main Kitchen, a chic street-level eatery with floor-to-ceiling windows. “We’re surrounded by a forest of gleaming office towers and there isn’t one person on the sidewalk.”
“They get around in the tunnels under the buildings, ma’am, because the weather here in Houston is usually either too hot, too cold, or too wet to walk outside,” was his reply.
Given this news, I was glad we were there in one of the better months (March-April, October-November). I appreciated this fact even more the next day when we toured Bayou Bend, a grand historic house surrounded by 14 acres of sweeping lawns, gracious gardens, and natural woodlands. Bayou Bend was the home of philanthropist and art collector Ima Hogg. During her lifetime, she amassed an intriguing collection of early American furniture, decorative art, and paintings dating from 1620-1876. If you go in April, the estate’s spectacular azaleas will be in bloom, and you’ll be able to enjoy bluebonnets (Texas state flower), magnolias, plumbago, and other southern charmers. Miss Hogg gave the house to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 1957. mfah.org
When we visited the MFA main campus, I noticed that the exhibits reflected Houston’s multicultural population, including emphasis on African American, Islamic, and Latin American art. Having said that, I was most enthralled with the Mark Rothko retrospective, which, it turned out, was the perfect prep for our next stop.
The Rothko Chapel is an interfaith sanctuary, a sacred space, and a cultural landmark in the Houston Museum District. It was the top recommendation from friends and family who are well-acquainted with this city, and now I know why. Some visitors sit on a bench in the chapel and appreciate the stillness; others look for meaning in Rothko’s paintings; a few read from copies of the Bible, Torah, Quran, or Bhagavad Gita that are available on a table at the entrance.
I could have spent much longer at the Rothko Chapel, but I also wanted to see the nearby Menil Collection. Housed in an intimate-yet-spacious museum designed by Renzo Piano, the art collection reflects the connection between contemporary works and the art of ancient and indigenous cultures.
Our favorite Houston meal was enjoyed at Bistro Menil across the street from The Menil Collection. Here, Chef Greg Martin offers innovative “European-inspired American fare.” Equally interesting are the craft beers from Houston and Austin, and the impressive range of cask wines from the California, Oregon, Argentina, and New Zealand. bistromenil.com
Because I barely scratched the surface of the attractions in the Museum District, the next time I’m in Houston, I’ll stay at the conveniently located Hotel Zaza. hotelzaza.com
“We choose to go to the moon” ~ President Kennedy
Space Center Houston is 40 miles from the city. Here, the engaging, interactive exhibits capture the imagination of kids and adults alike. I also love that exhibit areas are staffed with former employees of the NASA Johnson Space Center, who freely share their personal experiences and insight. We took two NASA Tram Tours and were able to see the Apollo Mission Control Room, which left us wondering how so much was accomplished with data processors that had less capacity than an app on any of today’s smart phones.
The highlight of our visit was “Lunch with an Astronaut,” an event that takes place every Friday and should be booked in advance. Over lunch, “our” astronaut, Ken Cameron, talked about his experiences in space and answered every question thoughtfully.
We ended the day with a visit to Houston’s Rice University, the site of JFK’s historic moon speech. Here, standing in James Turrell’s “Twilight Epiphany Skyspace,” we studied the heavens and looked for the man on the moon. skyspace.rice.edu ELIZABETH HANSEN
Photography courtesy of Visit Houston & HANSEN / ADAMS STOCK PHOTOS