Its cool little bro Austin might get all the attention, but if you’re heading to Texas, spare a few days to for Houston, home of the National Space Centre and the Houston Astros.
As well as sport, and its NASA connection, Houston shares the perfect sunbathing weather with its Texas compatriots, boasts a decadent developing food culture, modern architecture and the cool streets of a (literally) underground scene.
Plus it’s a major stopover destination for American mall culture, where, despite our currency’s current malaise, there are still some bargains to be snapped up by the savvy shopper.
Houston Space Centre
This NASA facility is unmissable. Plan a whole day out for the centre, especially if you have children in tow, as there’s so much to see and do. It’s on a huge site a little way out of Houston and as well as being the location of the iconic Mission Control, it also houses an array of artefacts, from real-life space suits, to an actual piece of the actual moon that you can actually touch.
A tram circuit has been set up to take visitors around the most interesting points. At Mission Control, you can sit in the very viewing gallery where anxious onlookers, including the President, watched some of the most famous space expeditions. Or imagine yourself back in time, waiting for news of Apollo 11, which put the first men on the moon, and Apollo 13, which gave birth to the iconic, if slightly misremembered line: ‘Houston, we have a problem’.
The next stop on the tram circuit is Rocket Park, which gives you the chance to see more of the machinery of space exploration. Seeing the rockets and launchers up close in all their enormous glory gave me chills. It’s a place to marvel at the wonder of science and what can be achieved.
Book tickets online before you go and check out what revolving exhibitions are taking place at spacecenter.org.
As you might expect, you go big or you go home when it comes to eating in Texas’ biggest city. Our unmissable recommendation is the Jackson Street BBQ. Vegetarians beware, you’re in the deep south now and meat is the order of the day. The owners have a passion for good meat, treated well and smoked on-site.
There are brisket, ribs, sausages and burgers, plus all the classic sides. If you only choose one thing, try the brisket. And if you only have one side, make it the Fried Mac (‘n’cheese obvs). But when in Texas… you may as well have a bit of everything.
It’s all served in a huge warehouse-style indoor BBQ, with Americana decor and an excellent craft beer selection.
Arrive hungry and don’t plan anything energetic for after dinner.
When the sun’s gone down it’s nice to take a walk around Houston, but grab a taxi when you want to visit particular sites as it’s quite a maze. Don’t miss the view from the Chase Tower Sky Lobby and get a picture for Instagram in front of the city’s bright-coloured mural.
A unique feature of Houston’s architecture is actually beneath your feet. Known by the locals as The Tunnel, a seven-mile network of subterranean walkways, 20 feet below, connects shops, restaurants, banks and work places. It’s how the locals avoid the intense Texan sun during the day, and is worth exploring. You can take a tour of the underground with Discover Houston.
Houston’s baseball team is the famous Astros, and whether you know anything about the game or not, if there’s a match on while you’re there, you should go simply for the experience (and the hat).
We saw the Astros v the Cincinnati Reds and I’ll put my cards on the table – at no point did I have a clue what was going on. I believe a home run was scored at one point though. For tourists it’s more about soaking up the atmosphere, eating monkey nuts and chicken waffle sandwiches (pictured below) and getting chatting to the locals.
One of the passionate bar staff had nails specially painted for the game, and we got chatting to a hardcore Astros fan in line for food, who did her very best to explain the rules of the game to us clueless Brits.
We ended up with the general view: Baseball – like rounders but not.
Games can be long, but you can always head on out when you get bored.
Thanks to huge malls, tax-free shopping initiatives and the nearby hub airport, shopping in Houston is worth a stopover. Simon Shopping Destinations like to remind international travellers that adding 24 hours onto their trip, business or pleasure, is all they need to enjoy a ‘shop-over’, with centres in easy reach of the airport.
We stayed at a hotel in the The Galleria, which incidentally has a line of excellent restaurants (try the South African) – and spent a long morning getting our retail therapy at Houston Premium Outlets.
Despite the poor pound, designer clothes and denims, high-end cosmetics and big ticket items such as diamond jewellery all still offer serious savings, though you might be disappointed if you’re hoping to buy technology. iPads and the like are currently a similar price on either side of the pond.
We returned with bundles of clothes, cosmetics and even vitamins, plus the obligatory four pairs of slightly different shaded Converse.
We thought it would be great fun to see Houston from an open top bus. But it was so sweltering it was difficult to focus on the architecture and instead we spent most of our time trying to stay in the shade and glugging down fast-warming bottles of water. There’s a reason you don’t see many Houstonians on the streets in the heat of the day!
Houston is a big, working city so it can get a little confusing. People are friendly and helpful so don’t be afraid to ask for directions and recommendations.
We stayed at The Westin Oaks Houston at the Galleria, we shopped at Simon Shopping Destinations The Galleria and Houston Premium Outlets (look out for extra savings and seasonal sales on the website). Return flights from London to Houston with BA start at £330.