It’s easy to think of downtown Houston as a sprawling enclave of steel and concrete, with skyscrapers— those sentinels of the energy and commerce that make the nation’s fourth-largest city hum—reaching ever upward. But if that’s all you know about Downtown, you’re missing out.
The city’s core is a patchwork of small neighborhoods, each with its own vibe and character. One of the finest is the Historic District, so-called because it’s one of the oldest sections of the city. Rising up in brick and cobblestone from the banks of Allen’s Landing—where Houston was founded—the district today is always abuzz with activity as merchants and restaurateurs bring new life into Houston’s old buildings.
If you’re staying at the historic Hotel ICON, housed in what used to be the Union National Bank Building, you’ll love the Edwardian-era details from the building’s 1911 roots, from the wood and marble throughout the public areas to the huge windows in the guest rooms, offering views of city life.
Breakfast is served in the hotel’s restaurant, Line & Lariat, or you can step outside and head for Minuti Coffee on Texas Avenue, which specializes in Italian blends specially created for the shop. If you like what you’ve tried, you can even buy a bag to take home. For a heartier breakfast option, Houstonians love Barnaby’s Café on Congress Street in Market Square. Linger over the Buffalo Scramble, a combination of ground buffalo, spinach, mushrooms and egg whites served with wheat toast, or the chicken-fried steak and eggs and watch the city come to life around you.
Market Square was the site of Houston’s original city hall, as well as a bustling outdoor market where vendors from all over the city came to sell produce and other goods. Today the square is a public park, with beautiful mosaics and water features. During the day, the restaurants around the square teem with workers from the nearby offices; at night, the park offers a variety of events, from outdoor movies to concerts. If you’re traveling with your favorite pooch, there are two dog parks where Fido can run free.
After breakfast, meet up at the northeast corner of Market Square Park for an Urban Art Tour, hosted by AIA Houston. It’s a great way to experience the daily rhythm of the city, as well as learn more about Houston’s public art pieces and 19th and early-20th century buildings. The tour is one of several in downtown hosted by the American Institute of Architects; check its website for available tours and times.
From the Prairie stop on Main Street, you can also hop on the METRORail and go one stop northbound to the University of Houston Downtown, where the O’Kane Gallery hosts both professional and student exhibitions.
Buffalo Bayou runs along the edge of the Historic District, offering paths for running and walking. The Buffalo Bayou Partnership offers Second Saturday Boat Rides along the waterway, every half-hour from 10 am to 2 pm from Allen’s Landing. A water tour gives a unique perspective on the city and its history and allows you to get a glimpse of what life in Houston was like at the city’s founding. Beneath the Preston Street Bridge is “Big Bubble,” artist Dean Ruck’s 1998 installation that lets you push a big red button and create a bubble in the bayou.
Grab lunch at Mia Bella, where a table at the window lets you see the METRORail running up and down Main Street. Over at the Spaghetti Warehouse, home-style Italian (don’t miss the fried ravioli) comes in the ambiance of a rambling old warehouse building. And at Niko Niko’s, casual Greek fare arrives with little pretention and lots of flavor.
If it’s time to slow down a bit, walk over to the Sundance Cinema in the Bayou Place complex. Part of the Houston Theatre District, the cinema hosts first-run and independent films in a decidedly adult, but casual, setting. If you want to enjoy lunch with your movie, the theater’s menu features wine, beer, pizzas and sandwiches.
As happy hour begins to descend on the Bayou City, you want to experience Batanga, where Latin flare arrives with an energetic bar and a sprawling patio. The happy hour munchie menu showcases some of the restaurant’s favorites, and the mixed drinks provide something for every palate. If classic cocktails are your speed, stop in to Moving Sidewalk on Main Street and order up authentic libations that evoke the heyday of the cocktail era. A few doors down, The Pastry War is a celebration of tequila and mescal, featuring some of the finest small producers of the spirit. Both in education and experience, you’ll never think of tequila the same way again.
Houston’s Theater District comes alive at night, featuring some of the finest talent in the country. The Tony Award-winning Alley Theatre is completing a multi-million-dollar renovation and presents an exciting calendar of plays. “One Man, Two Guvnors” (Oct. 7-Nov. 1) takes you on a comical, satirical romp through 1960s London, while “All the Way” promises a Texas-sized production of the 2014 Tony winner about LBJ (Jan. 29-Feb. 21). Lovers of musicals should check out the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, home to the Houston-based Theatre Under the Stars and touring productions presented by Broadway Across America. “The Phantom of the Opera” (Nov. 18 -29), “Beautiful—The Carole King Musical” (May 31- June 5, 2016) and “Beauty and the Beast” (April 27- May 1, 2016) highlight the Broadway calendar, while “Matilda” (Oct. 6-18), “The Bridges of Madison County” (Jan. 19-31) and the 2014 Tony winner for best musical, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” (May 3-15), are featured on the TUTS calendar.
Theatre-goers at the Hobby Center can dine at Artista, the Latin-infused restaurant with views of the city. The menu blends an old-school, steakhouse style with edgy Latin and South-American flavors. Savvy diners know to ask that coffee and dessert be waiting for them at Intermission.
The Houston Symphony and the Society for the Performing Arts are both residents in Jones Hall. The Symphony performs classical and pops programs, showcasing some of the world’s top talent. SPA’s eclectic programming reflects the diversity of Houston, and it’s not unusual to see Chinese acrobats share the season with Folklorico ballet troupes, best-selling authors and even bagpipers.
Wrap up your evening back in Market Square with a nightcap at La Carafe, one of the oldest buildings in downtown, now a cozy wine bar. From dawn to dusk to dark, you’ll feel you’ve traveled the world when you’ve only walked a few city blocks. That’s the beauty of the Bayou City.