Following on from our last two posts about Houston’s museums and galleries, we thought we would now highlight some of the interesting and exciting things to do and see in Houston which don’t cost a penny. As befits such a large and iconic city, H-Town has many nature areas, churches and buildings that are free and open to the public to explore, as well as a great selection of museums and galleries that do not charge an admittance fee. In today’s world of social distancing, there is the added bonus that many of these attractions allow the visitor to enjoy their experience, while maintaining a suitable distance from others.
This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but over this and the following travel blog post we will detail, in no particular order, our favourite free things to do in Houston.
Glenwood Cemetery sits just north-west of Downtown and is a beautiful, peaceful, and well maintained burial ground. The cemetery was established in 1871 with its most famous resident being Howard Hughes, Jr. (1905-1976), the billionaire and man of legendary accomplishments in business, aviation and film making. Perhaps surprisingly, the Hughes family monument is not a grand affair, but it is very respectful and in keeping with the surrounding graves and monuments. We find that it is lovely walk around the cemetery, one which it seems few people take, yet along with the beautiful and ornate gravestones it also has one of the best views of the Downtown skyline.
Gerald D. Hines Waterwall Park
When visiting the massive Galleria shopping mall, its easy not to check what lays out with the shops. When you are looking for a little break from your retail therapy, pay a visit to the Gerald D. Hines Waterwall Park along Post Oak Boulevard. The park is a multi-story sculptural fountain that sits opposite the south face of Williams Tower. Both the fountain and tower were designed by John Burgee Architects with Philip Johnson.
Discovery Green is a large urban park in Downtown Houston, which opened relatively recently in 2008. Covering almost 12 acres, the highlight of the park for us are the number of eye catching pieces of artwork. Installations such as the Monument au Fantóme, by Jean Dubuffe; Synchronicity of Color, by artist Margo Sawyer; Listening Vessels, by sculptor Doug Hollis; and the Mist Tree, also created by Doug Hollis, are all fun, inspiring pieces. Discovery Green also has a small canoe lake, the Gateway Fountain, where kids can run around and through the waters, and a playground. The park is also well served by several cafes and takeaways, and often hosts performances and concerts.
Buffalo Bayou Park
Buffalo Bayou Park is a 160-acre park on the banks of the Buffalo Bayou which winds slowly through the heart of Houston. We treasure the scenic walking paths that wind through this park, and there seems to be ongoing improvement works to develop this central green space even further. As well as the walking paths, highlights of the park include the impressive skatepark (although we have never been tempted to try it out!); various art installations, such as Henry Moore’s Spindle Sculpture and the Tolerance installations of Jaume Plensa; a dedicated dog park with pond; and there is even the Waugh Drive Bridge bat colony (which we will cover in more depth in our next post).
The Menil Collection
The artwork of the world class Menil Collection spans the prehistoric era to the present day. The heart of the collection are the 10,000 art works and objects that John and Dominique de Menil gathered from the 1940s until Mrs. de Menil’s death in 1997 (he died in 1973). Nearly doubling in size since 1997, the collection now stands at some 17,000 works and continues to grow. The Collection includes the Arts of Africa, Arts of the Americas and Pacific Northwest, Arts of the Ancient World, Arts of the Pacific Islands, Medieval and Byzantine Art, the Menil Drawing Institute, Modern and Contemporary Art. The Menil doesn’t have its own dedicated car park, but we have always found ample parking on the curbside around Menil park, and we would advise setting aside at least an hour and a half to see this impressive gallery.
While at the Menil Collection, you should also visit The Rothko Chapel which is just a two-minute walk away. This spiritual space, where people of all faiths visit, is famous for its 14 murals created by American artist Mark Rothko. Photography isn’t allowed within the chapel, but there is a lovely photo opportunity in the grounds outside, where Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk rises above the reflecting pool on the Plaza. The sculpture is a fitting dedication to The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr..
Houston Arboretum & Nature Center
Within the urban sprawl of H-Town, it is perhaps surprising to find such a large oasis of calm at the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center. Part of the bigger Memorial Park, the arboretum covers 155 acres which were developed in 1951 after land was set aside by the City Council for the Houston Botanical Society. Big enough to reconnect back with nature, but not so that you could get too lost, the arboretum boasts over five miles (8 km) of nature trails, with forest, pond, wetland, and meadow habitats. Specialty gardens include a Hummingbird & Butterfly Island, Sensory Garden, and Wildlife Garden.
Houston Police Museum
In the heart of Downtown, the Houston Police Department museum is located in the lobby of HPD headquarters. This small, but interesting museum features unique displays and a memorial wall honouring the ultimate sacrifice made by those officers that gave their lives in the line of duty. Included among the displays are artifacts from the Honor Guard, SWAT, Mounted Patrol, badges, uniforms and other equipment utilized over the years. Because of its location, you will need to go through security to access the museum, so make sure that you have official identification such as your US Drivers Licence or your passport if you are a non-US visitor.
Christ Church Cathedral Houston
When visiting the Houston Police Museum, make sure that you take the ten-minute walk to Christ Church Cathedral, the cathedral church for the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. The cathedral dates from 1893 and the wooden interiors are well worth seeing. The cathedral is part of a larger complex and when we visited, we found that the sanctuary was closed. However, we made inquiries at the adjacent office and they very kindly gave us access.
The Chapel of St. Basil
Another church worth visiting is the Chapel of St. Basil within the grounds of the University of St. Thomas, and this is also just a short walk from the Menil Collection. The Chapel of St. Basil was designed by Philip Johnson who created a fascinating play of natural light within this sanctuary. The light cascades from the dome, from the skylight over the altar and over the statue of Our Lady on the east wall, as well as from the tilted glass cross in the west wall, all of which is beautiful and striking.
Buffalo Bayou Brewing
Although entrance is free, if you are like us, you may leave with considerably less money than you arrived with, since the craft brews served here are so good! The Buffalo Bayou Brewing Company upgraded to this brand-new three-story, 28,000-square-foot facility in 2019. The brewery hosts a capacity of 50,000 barrels a year and the bar boasts more than 70 beers on tap. There is also a 200 seat restaurant in the brewery, although we did not get a chance to try out the food. The main reason for including this brewery on our list, however, is the third floor patio area – it has absolutely stunning views of Downtown Houston. There aren’t many better places to sit back and enjoy a brew!
Houston City Hall
We have already covered some free Downtown highlights, but one building that should always be on the list when visiting this area is the Houston City Hall. Handsomely framed by Hermann Square, with its eye catching reflecting pool, City Hall was constructed in 1938-1939 by architect Joseph Finger. When visiting City Hall, also make the effort to enter the lobby area, as these rich and opulent interiors are impressive.
There seems to be an explosion of spectacular street art and murals throughout the world at the moment, and Houston has been leading the way in this movement for a number of years with fantastic examples all over the city. For this reason, you really need a car to fully explore the street art scene in H-Town, although there are plenty of great examples in a walk-able distance within Downtown. Other notable areas of the mural scene are around Westheimer & Montrose, in East Downtown (especially on Leeland Street), and around the Winter Street Studios (although we will cover this one in more depth in our next blog post).
Join us next time when our family adventures continue exploring the free attractions of Houston. Until then, happy reading and safe travels.
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