21st century Houston is a thriving art nexus, the home of world-class museums, acclaimed art galleries and a huge community of talented artists. At the heart of it all: the Houston Museum District, whose 17 museums and 50-acre zoological park–all within walking distance of one another and accessible by METRORail–form one of the largest cultural districts in the country, with more than half a million square feet of exhibition space and six million annual visitors.
Where to begin your tour? Follow our guide through these must-see art spaces that help define Houston.
|Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Start your art trek at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), pivotally sited at Bissonnet and Main Street. Founded in 1900, the MFAH is the oldest museum in Texas as well as the most prominent.
KNOWN FOR: Being a dynamic cultural complex in the heart of the Houston Museum District, featuring two gallery buildings, a film theater designed by Bauhaus architect Mies van der Rohe and a serene sculpture garden to inspire visitors of all ages.
DON’T MISS: The underground Wilson Tunnel, which features James Turrell’s The Light Inside, a color-changing light installation that makes walking between the two main museum buildings a one-of-a-kind experience.
INSIDER TIP: Come for the art but stay for the gallery talks, lectures, guided tours and sketching in the galleries (all free with general admission).
Eat + Drink
- Cafe Express: Located in the bottom floor of the museum’s Beck building, Cafe Express offers salads, sandwiches and pasta with over-the-counter service.
- Monarch: Located just steps from the museum, Hotel ZaZa’s fine dining restaurant has a hip, see-and-be-seen bar.
- Raven Grill: Less than a mile from the museum, this cozy neighborhood spot serves up casual, Southwestern-focused fare.
Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
Diagonally across from the MFAH, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH) is the next stop. You can’t miss its gleaming metal structure or neighboring palm tree sprouting from a pyramid (actually a sculpture by internationally noted Houston-born protagonist Mel Chin).
KNOWN FOR: Award-winning exhibitions showcased in an iconic all steel parallelogram building.
DON’T MISS: The treasure-filled Museum Shop located downstairs which sells artist-designed jewelry and unique gifts for the whole family.
INSIDER TIP: Admission is always free.
Eat + Drink
- Nippon Japanese Restaurant: About half a mile from CAMH, Nippon Japanese Restaurant is as close to authentic Japanese food as you can get and is known for serving the best Ramen in Houston.
Jung Center of Houston
Next door, The Jung Center of Houston houses one of the Southwest’s finest collections of work in psychology, spirituality and comparative mythology.
KNOWN FOR: Continuing education for the human spirit.
DON’T MISS: “One of Houston’s quirkiest bookstores,” according to Texas Monthly.
INSIDER TIP: The art gallery, always free, features different artists every month.
Eat + Drink
- Grand Prize Bar: This dive bar, four blocks from the Jung Center, serves up longnecks and innovative cocktails.
Holocaust Museum Houston
Three blocks away, the Holocaust Museum Houston (HMH) is one of the largest and most important institutions in the country dedicated to remembering the significance of the Holocaust.
KNOWN FOR: Educating students and the public about the dangers of prejudice and hatred in society.
DON’T MISS: The award-winning permanent exhibit focused on the lives of Houston-area Survivors of the Holocaust: Bearing Witness: A Community Remembers.
INSIDER’S TIP Visit on weekends at 12:30, 1:30, 2:30 or 3:30 for a free guided tour (allow two hours).
Eat + Drink
- Bodegas Taco Shop: This custom taco shop, two blocks from the Holocaust Museum, serves more than 10 flavors of salsa.
Houston Museum of Natural Science
Blocks from the Holocaust Museum Houston, the art of nature takes center stage at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, whose family friendly programming attracts all ages.
KNOWN FOR: One of the largest collections of gems and minerals in the world–more than 750 beautifully crystallized specimens.
DON’T MISS: The Paleontology Hall–two stories tall and the size of a football field–which houses hundreds of fossils and fossil casts. Opening Summer 2012.
INSIDER TIP: The museums permanent exhibit halls are free every Tuesday from 2pm until closing time.
Eat + Drink
- McDonald’s: Located on the first floor of the museum
Children’s Museum of Houston
Within easy walking distance, the Children’s Museum of Houston (CMH) is a hands-on educational and entertaining family-oriented destination.
KNOWN FOR: Being named America’s No. 1 Children’s Museum in 2011 by Parents magazine.
DON’T MISS: Kidtropolis, USA–You get to use a debit card with money!
INSIDER TIP: Come early or come late to avoid the crowds.
Eat + Drink
- Kid’s Cafe: Order fresh, healthy and affordable salads, sandwiches and vegetarian options at the cafe inside the museum.
The Health Museum
On the next block, the whole family can learn about health, wellness and the marvels of the human anatomy at The Health Museum, the most visited health museum in the country.
KNOWN FOR: The Texas-sized human body with ribs as tall as the ceiling and a brain bigger than your car. Visitors can walk through the interactive exhibit and learn about how each organ functions.
DON’T MISS: Planet You 3D, A 3D film that takes a microscopic look into the creepy crawlies that live on your skin.
INSIDER’S TIP: The museum is free to all guests on Thursdays, 2 – 5 p.m.
An exciting live animal adventure set in a 55-acre tropical landscape, the Houston Zoo adds adventure and animal magnetism to the Museum District.
KNOWN FOR: The African Forest, a 6.5 acre exhibit that recreates the wilderness habitats of some of the continent’s most majestic animals.
DON’T MISS: Giraffe feeding opportunities at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. each day.
INSIDER TIP: Download the Zoo’s smart phone app and get some great tools to make your Zoo visit even more enjoyable.
Eat + Drink
- Inside the Zoo: Enjoy a chicken tender basket or a fresh salad at the air-conditioned Macaw Cafe. Cypress Circle features pizzas, burgers, hot dogs, po-boys, gumbo and more. Twiga Terrace inside the African Forest offers burgers, hot dogs, quesadillas, grilled cheese and more.
- Pinewood Cafe: Inside Hermann Park, this cafe serves up picnic-friendly foods (customizable picnic baskets are available), full sit-down meals and even a build-your-own-grilled-cheese bar.
The Weather Museum
A project of the Weather Research Center, The Weather Museum provides a facility for people of all ages to learn about the weather, its history and public safety.
KNOWN FOR: Being the nation’s first weather museum.
DON’T MISS: Touching a tornado or making your own weather video.
INSIDER TIP: Download videos to your smart phone that describe the exhibits.
Buffalo Soldiers National Museum
The Buffalo Soldiers National Museum preserves and promotes the history, tradition and outstanding contributions of the Buffalo Soldiers.
KNOWN FOR: The largest collection of African American military memorabilia in the U.S.
DON’T MISS: Re-enactments of historical characters (Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and others) that happen every Saturday.
INSIDER TIP: On Saturdays, Buffalo Soldier Corporal Tyrell D. Biggs performs a 45-minute one-act play tracing his life from the plantation through the Civil and Indian Wars.
Eat + Drink
- Reggae Hut: Four blocks from the Buffalo Soldiers Museum, Reggae Hut serves up Jamaican and Caribbean cuisine.
Asia Society Texas Center
The 38,000-square-foot Asia Society Texas Center, designed by Yoshio Taniguchi, features an art gallery, a 273-set theater, reception spaces, a cafe and more.
KNOWN FOR: Innovative Asia-themed programming in arts and culture, business and policy, and education.
DON’T MISS: Exhibitions of traditional and contemporary Asian art in the Louisa Stude Sarofim Gallery.
INSIDER TIP: Admission to the architecturally stunning Center is free. Non-member admission to the Sarofim Gallery is $5.
Eat + Drink
- The Jade Stone Café: Inside the Center, this cafe offers delicious soups, salads, and sandwiches from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Houston Center for Contemporary Craft
Along the Main Street Corridor, the stunning Houston Center for Contemporary Craft (HCC) celebrates the red-hot medium of contemporary craft.
KNOWN FOR: Contemporary craft (objects made from ceramics, fiber, glass, metal, wood and recycled materials) and artist studios that are open to the public.
DON’T MISS: Asher Gallery (gift shop) for one-of-a-kind gifts, jewelry and home decor made by local and national craft artists.
INSIDER TIP: Stop by on First Saturdays for “Hands-On Houston” to enjoy free craft activities. Also, bring your lunch and sit outside in the Craft Garden.
Lawndale Art Center
Steps from the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, in a handsome 1930s Art Deco structure on Main Street, is one of the most dynamic nonprofit art spaces in Texas–Lawndale Art Center.
KNOWN FOR: Rotating exhibitions of contemporary works by local artists in 4 galleries.
DON’T MISS: Annual events including Día de los Muertos each fall, Design Fair each spring and an annual juried exhibition of artists living within 100 miles of Houston, The Big Show, each summer.
INSIDER TIP: It’s one of the only art spaces open on Mondays.
The Menil Collection
A jewel among Houston’s museums is The Menil Collection, a five-minute drive from the MFAH and CAMH. Considered to be one of the most important private art collections in the world, the perpetually graceful Menil sits at the heart of a 23-acre green oasis in the Montrose area.
KNOWN FOR: Free admission to a world of art housed in a masterpiece of modern architecture.
DON’T MISS: Surrealism galleries–room after room of “Dreamscapes.”
INSIDER’S TIP: There is an invisible “sound sculpture” (by Max Neuhaus) you hear as you approach the museum’s main entrance.
The Rothko Chapel, on the Menil campus, has become a pilgrimage stop for thousands of visitors who are drawn by its importance both as an artistic masterpiece and as an ecumenical gathering place for people of all religious beliefs.
KNOWN FOR: Fourteen monumental paintings by Mark Rothko in a serene chapel setting.
DON’T MISS: Barnett Newman’s commanding Broken Obelisk sculpture on the Rothko Chapel’s Plaza.
INSIDER’S TIP: Check the website, rothkochapel.org, for outstanding programs held in the Chapel free of charge.
Eat + Drink
- Anvil Bar and Refuge: Located seven blocks from the Menil, Anvil is considered one of the top cocktail bars in the country.
- Hugo’s: Expect authentic regional Mexican cuisine in a stunningly earthy, Latin-inspired setting at Hugo’s, a block from Anvil.
- Vinoteca Poscol: Across the street from Hugo’s, this casual wine bar serves small plates and pastas, cheeses and house-cured salami.
Houston Center for Photography
Nearby, the Houston Center for Photography (HCP) deepens the understanding of the photographic arts.
KNOWN FOR: Hands-on workshops and classes allow all levels of photographers to develop a closer relationship with the camera and learn new tips and tricks about photography.
DON’T MISS: One-of-a-kind outreach programming and volunteer events that strive to excite and educate the community about photography as an artistic medium and a tool for cultural investigation.
INSIDER TIP: Becoming a member with HCP allows you to be a part of a whole new world of photography enthusiasts.
Eat + Drink
- Bocados: Cozy and comfortable, this remodeled Montrose residence–located a block from HCP–serves up Tex-Mex standards.
- The Chocolate Bar: This Montrose dessert shop–four blocks from HCP–is a chocolate lover’s dream.