When most people think of Houston, they think of the oil capital of the world, a massive metropolis spread out over a flat expanse of southern Texas. Although Houston welcomes many visitors throughout the year, the majority tend to be there on business and not pleasure, and, although the city has much to offer in the way of entertainment and culture, it has not been known as a tourist destination.
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We wanted to find out what downtown Houston had to offer the traveller, and we were happily surprised with what we found. Indeed, had we had more time in Houston, we would have gladly spent an extra day in downtown to see it all.
We started our adventure at Discovery Green. It is a public urban park which was opened in 2008 and covers 11.78-acres (47,700 m2). The park is a peaceful oasis in amongst the towering buildings around it. Discovery Green is a multipurpose area, with a boating lake, sports pitches, fountains and fantastic pieces of artwork. Art work that can be found throughout this green space include the Monument au Fantóme by Jean Dubuffet; Synchronicity of Color, by artist Margo Sawyer - Its 151 panels hold 1,500 aluminum boxes in 65 colors (the paint on these boxes is also us under water applications for oil rigs and was gifted by International Paint LLC); the Listening Vessels, by sculptor Doug Hollis, are two parabolas, cut from solid limestone; the Mist Tree, also created by Doug Hollis, is a 15-foot (4.6 m)-high-by-22-foot-wide stainless steel structure.
The Pool at the Marriott Hotel
On the northern border of the park was our next stop – The Marriott Hotel. An unlikely choice of destination you may think, but the small blue panel on the side of the building gives a clue as to what the attraction of this hotel is. The panel is actually part of the swimming pool that sits atop the body of the hotel. When you take the elevator up the tower, you are then able to appreciate the pool below – the water traces the outline of the state of Texas! Maybe not the best pool to swim lengths, but it is certainly unique. Also, in the evening, it is lit up and well worth seeing then.
Christ Church Cathedral
After the quick detour to check out the swimming pool, we took the ten-minute walk to the Christ Church Cathedral. Although not always open for visitors just coming in off the street, if you ask one of the very helpful church workers, they may be able to open the main church hall for you to look in. The interiors of the Church were beautiful and more reminiscent of Churches in the UK than the US. The Cathedral dates from 1893 and is the cathedral church for the Episcopal Diocese of Texas.
The Flying Saucer Draught Emporium
Walking in the summer sun of Houston was by now taking its toll on us, so it was time to take a break for lunch and replenish our lost fluids. Our tavern of choice this day was The Flying Saucer Draught Emporium, although there are a number of great taprooms and food joints around the downtown area that we could have visited. The Flying Saucer is a chain and offers over 200 global beers (check out the photo of the menu!), as well as great hearty pub grub.
It was tempting to stay longer at the Flying Saucer, but we had a number of other attractions to visit. Next our walk took us past the Esperson Buildings, known as the crown jewel of Houston’s skyline. Today this building is the only full-blown example of Italian Renaissance architecture in the downtown.
The Julia Ideson Building
Our next destination was the The Julia Ideson Building. It is a Houston Public Library (HPL) facility built in the Spanish Renaissance style and houses the archives, manuscripts, and the Texas and Local History Department. Designed by Ralph Adams Cram, the Ideson Building opened in 1926 as the Central Library for HPL. We weren’t sure, however, how much book reading actually was done in this library, as it was all too easy just to look up and take in the beautiful designs. The library also hosts exhibitions, and we happened upon a very interesting one on the Second World War.
Houston City Hall
Just across the street from the Julia Ideson Building, is the Houston City Hall. This imposing edifice was constructed between 1938 and 1939. The architect of the City Hall was Joseph Finger, an Austrian-born Texan architect responsible for a number of Houston-area landmarks. The main reason for our visit, however, was the chance to walk through the beautiful reception area – a real must for anyone interested in architecture and design.
Buffalo Bayou Park
Our little trip then took us into the Buffalo Bayou Park. This 160-acre park spreads out along the banks of the Buffalo Bayou which itself meanders through the city of Houston. The park offers many activities, but the one we were specifically here for was an art exhibition entitled Rain which was being held in the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern. The cistern was built as an underground drinking water reservoir in 1926 and reminded us of a modern day Basilica Cistern in Istanbul. In 2010 it was going to be demolished, but instead, the Buffalo Bayou Partnership decided to develop it and turn it into a public exhibition space. We were very lucky, because we had the chance to experience the inaugural installation, which was by influential Venezuelan artist Magdalena Fernández. The installation was an abstract video projected onto the cistern's pillars, with a background soundtrack of a rain storm. It was very effective!
Downtown Houston is often overlooked by visitors, preferring instead to head to the Space Centre or the museum quarter. We were very happy to say, however, that we had a great time walking through the centre of the city, and were aware that there were other attractions to visit. Had we had the time, we would have visited The Heritage Society Museum in Sam Houston Park, in which several restored historic homes can be toured, and the Houston Police Department (HPD) museum, which is located in the lobby of HPD headquarters. Something for our next visit perhaps.
Join us next time when we look back at the non-Elvis highlights of Memphis.
Until then, happy reading and safe travels.
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