Credit: Mabry Campbell / Getty Images
When it comes to Super Bowl cities, you win some (New Orleans, Los Angeles) and lose some (sorry, Indianapolis and Northern Jersey). So where does Houston fit in? On the surface, it’s the sprawling destination — 665 square miles! — for Big Oil execs to get steaks, BBQ, and martinis. But that’s just one side of the city. In fact, Houston is one of the most ethnically diverse cities the U.S., with new neighborhoods full of kick-ass restaurants and cocktail bars to rival those of L.A. or New York, and a thriving arts scene. This is the Houston you want to check out: Weird enough to out-weird the beard-bros of Austin, funky enough to trade soul kisses with New Orleans, and innovative enough to impress the Tesla-driving technocrats of Silicon Valley. Let this be your guide.
Gulf Hake is served at Oxheart in Houston. Melina Mara / The Washington Post / Getty Images
Where to Eat
In 2016, Houston had no fewer than five chefs nominated by the James Beard Foundation for best in the Southwest. Our suggestion: Check them all out. Start with Saturday brunch at Provisions, the casual half of the twin-concept new American eatery Pass & Provisions from the jointly nominated duo Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan. Their menu leans local and seasonal with creative touches — baked eggs with peas and pancetta, a duck confit omelet. The P&P Bloody Mary with a Japanese zest of citrus and chili is touted as Houston’s best.
For lunch, head to Hugo Ortega’s swank seafood restaurant Caracol, where the dishes pay tribute to the chef’s Mexican childhood (his flagship Hugo’s is great for interior Mexican plates, moles, and cabrito). Choose from shrimp, fish or braised pork tacos, two types of ceviche and more; don’t skip the wood-fired Gulf oysters (happy-hour tapas, such as crab fritters and house-fried chicharrones, for $7).
Happy hour: You have to try hard to go wrong at Kata Robata, where sushi master Manabu Horiuchi serves among the nation’s best omakase. Hori-san, as his widespread admirers know him, has specialties flown in from Japan and daily fresh Gulf seafood.
Dinner takes all: For the past five years Justin Yu, a native Houstonian, has raised the bar at Oxheart. His fanatically orchestrated, veggie-focused farm-to-table execution earned him the regional win in the 2016 James Beard competition, and demand for reservations surged further at 31-table restaurant when Yu announced this winter he would shutter Oxheart before the end of March. In other words, you might need to pull some strings to get in here on Super Bowl weekend.
Where to Drink
Simply put, you go to Houston for cocktails. In 2009, Bobby Heugel helped launch the cocktail craze in Houston with Anvil Bar and Refuge. A sleek Modern space in the hip Montrose neighborhood, the mixed-drink menu at Anvil emphasizes top-shelf liquors and house-made mixers, boasting a seasonal menu as well as “The 100 List,” a roster of classic cocktails running from Aperol spritz to the Queens Park Swizzle.
Heugel’s empire extends across town to the Pastry War, a cozy lounge where you can sample hand-chosen agave spirits as you soak up the cantina atmosphere, enjoy tamales washed down with habanero-flavored house margaritas and chuckle at the list of brands Heugel refuses to serve that is posted on the wall. You can drink with a purpose at the old-timey OKRA Charity Saloon on historic Market Square, where each month patrons vote on a local non-profit to receive a donation. A cooperative effort between Heugel and assorted Houston food service pros, OKRA occupies a former Prohibition-era casino and specializes in classic cocktails and craft beer. Since 2013, the group has given away more than $855,000.
Broken Obelisk at The Rothko Chapel James Leynse / Getty Images
From Surrealism to Street Art to Space
There are two ways to get out of the humidity in Houston: A pool (almost every backyard has one) or a museum. This must be why there are 19 in the city’s Museum District. Start at the Menil Collection, a top-shelf assemblage of art that belonged to the late oil-equipment heiress Dominique de Menil and her husband John. Housed in a white-walled Renzo Piano–designed museum on a leafy green campus, the collection emphasizes 20th-century masters such as Picasso, Pollock, and Warhol, with a mind-blowing selection of surrealist art from Rene Magritte, Marcel Duchamp, and Salvador Dali. Nearby stands the Rothko Chapel, a serene non-denominational temple whose octagonal interior is decorated with meditative Minimalist masterpieces painted by Mark Rothko. The de Menils also commissioned the Cy Twombly Gallery next door, dedicated to the splashy neo-expressionist work of Twombly, an American painter who died in Rome in 2011.
Houston is famously resistant to zoning and likewise, the arts spread beyond traditional institutions. As a town with a lot of pride in its hip-hop pioneers, that enthusiasm is echoed across the Bayou City, with business owners enlisting street artists to help transform their properties with splashes of color and cartoonish characters. Warehouse walls and entire blocks are covered in vibrant murals bolstered by citywide festivals that celebrate graffiti as a welcome form of public art. “Graffiti has paralleled what’s gone on with rap music,” says Gonzo 247, the artist behind the up-and-coming Graffiti and Street Art Museum (2219 Canal St, open weekends). “It’s gotten to the point where this art form has really been accepted.” Top walls include the so-called Graffiti Park at the corner of Leeland and St Emmanuel streets; 800 Chartres; and the Talento Bilingüe de Houston community center on South Jensen.
And let's not forget the astronauts. About 30 miles southwest of downtown, there once lived a community of moonwalkers. That is what NASA historians dubbed the astronauts who lived in the Timber Cove subdivision in the suburb of Clear Lake. The area’s most famous resident, John Glenn, died in December 2016, followed six weeks later by the last of the true moonwalkers, Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan, who passed away at 82. Pay homage to America’s space heroes at the 1,600-acre Johnson Space Center, also located in Clear Lake, not far from the leafy neighborhood. There are excellent exhibits at the Smithsonian-affiliated gateway Space Center Houston, which offers JSC tram tours and hosts a million visitors annually. Nerd-out at historic Mission Control, take a behind-the-scenes tour, or learn about the state-of-the-art robotics that will assist the planned Orion asteroid mission. Through July 2017, the Mission to Mars exhibit features NASA technology designed for a trip to the red planet.
A bridge over the Buffalo Bayou Getty Images
Get Outside, Then Go Surfing
After decades of neglect, Houston has begun investing hundreds of millions of dollars into its parklands, and though you won’t mistake it for Portland anytime soon, with nearly 50,000 acres of public green space, there is no shortage of outdoor diversions. Exhibit A: The Buffalo Bayou. Formerly the home of the “Reeking Regatta,” today the 26-mile stream is a celebrated Texas Parks and Wildlife paddling trail. Passing through forested Memorial Park and past the mansions of River Oaks, boaters may encounter alligators and beavers as they negotiate Class II riffles before emerging just west of Houston’s downtown skyscrapers. Meanwhile, Buffalo Bayou Park along the lower stretch has undergone a $58-million redesign, with new hiking and biking trails offering fresh-air fiends miles of exploring. Memorial Park also boasts six miles of swooping singletrack, a magnet for mountain bikers.
Those who want fresher air and a bigger adventure can cross the causeway to Galveston, just 50 miles south of the city, and learn why for more than a century this barrier island on the gulf has been considered “the Playground of the South.” At the east end of the island is the busy port city that shares its name, home to the third largest Mardi Gras celebration in the nation. But really it’s the beaches that make Galveston a year-round getaway. Though the water tends to be a bit murky, some of the Lone Star state’s best surf action is found along the piers that line the sea wall (built to protect Galveston from hurricanes); Ohana Surf and Skate can get you dialed-in with a wetsuit and board. Anglers can grab a rod and cast right from the beach for red drum, spotted sea trout, shark, or hire a guide and head offshore for tarpon or red snapper. Away from the city, Galveston Island State Park offers 2,000 acres of untrammeled nature to explore — and camping too.
The pier in Galveston. Tim Leviston / Getty Images