Houston: Like No Place Else

These nine attractions set this Texas city apart in the Lone Star State.
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This major area attraction is the public portal to NASA’s Johnson Space Center, located 27 miles southeast of downtown at Nassau Bay. It’s a bit Disneyland, a bit science museum, with tours to the old and current Mission Control Centers, an IMAX space movie, interactive space displays, and real space capsules. Some tours and exhibits vary according to what’s going on at the Center; you can see moon rocks and you may even see astronauts in training.

(2401 Munger St.) The colorful, playful Orange Show folk art piece was created in an east Houston neighborhood by a Houston postman to honor his favorite citrus fruit. He used bits of junk and material salvaged along his mail route to create an oddball monument. His masterpiece is now a hub for eclectic, unusual events, folk art and happenings — from workshops and story-tellings to Houston’s famous, fabulously eccentric Art Car Parade and festival.

When concrete and humidity make Houston’s downtown heat intolerable or one of the monsoon rains hits, office workers still go out for lunch — they just go underground. There’s a clean, bright and cool six-mile tunnel system that runs beneath much of downtown, connecting major buildings and offering hundreds of underground restaurants and shops, some spaced along the tunnel and others clustered in large open areas. Almost all access is from inside buildings on the system. Weekday business hours only.

Five minutes west of the downtown skyline, Sunday drivers, skaters and bikers take a slow turn through this peaceful, wooded and nearly hidden old cemetery. They roll past the striking but subdued monument-grave of filmmaker, billionaire businessman and Houston native Howard Hughes.

Things really are bigger in Texas. This monument to the 1836 battle that made Texas a Republic is 15 feet taller than the Washington Monument. Ride the elevator to the top, right under the 220-ton Texas star, for a great view of the Houston ship channel and the Texas coast. The tower’s base houses a museum of Texas history. The U.S.S. Texas, a World War I-era battleship that also fought in World War II, is docked here. Located in San Jacinto Battleground State Historical Park, 26 miles east of downtown Houston.

Houstonian John Milkovisch, a retired railroad upholsterer, covered his small suburban house at 222 Malone Street in 50,000 crushed beer cans. (See what you can do in a city with no zoning laws?) The result is the Beer Can House, a folk art monument and one of Houston’s favorite oddities. Milkovisch died in the 1980s after devoting 20 years to his beer can project. These days the place is managed by the city’s other folk art attraction, the Orange Show.

Forbidden Gardens

A Chinese real estate mogul spent $20 million to build a monument to the culture of his native land. He lives in Seattle, but where did he put his Chinese monument? In Katy, a Houston suburb, in 1997. (The land was cheap, and there were no zoning laws to stop his vision.) The Forbidden Gardens occupies 40 acres on the flat Texas Gulf Coast plain, includes 6,000 tiny terra-cotta soldiers, miniature replicas of the ones unearthed in China in the 1970s, as well as miniatures of the Forbidden City of Beijing, the Temple of Heaven and the canal city of Suzhou. The Texas humidity has not been kind to the tiny cities and the little pink men, but the site is amazing just the same.

This micro-cinema, housed in a little white 1924 church in the Heights neighborhood, is part indie-movie house, part art space. Moviegoers sit in pews and watch films and multimedia performances. It’s hipster central.

Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens

Tours of the home, built in 1928, of Miss Ima Hogg, daughter of Texas Governor James Hogg, are especially popular in March when the azaleas bloom, but the home and garden are open all year. (Make reservations for morning tours.) Miss Hogg was a legendary philanthropist and collector, and her soft-pink, mansion-like home is filled with Americana. (Don’t believe anyone who tells you she had a sister named Ura.) The rolling lawns and gardens off Buffalo Bayou in the River Oaks area are magnificent. Managed by the Museum of Fine Arts.

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