H-Town’s downtown is not very old, not very big and certainly not very flashy. That said, there are many points of interest for locals (even if they don’t know it) and visitors alike.
First to some of the isms:
Here are other downtown highlights:
Houston’s “Plymouth Rock” is a small park on the confluence of Buffalo and White Oak bayous. It was a mosquito-infested marsh in 1836 when brothers John and August Allen stepped ashore and decided this was home. There’s not much there and there are much better spots from which to enjoy the bayou. I only include it here to keep the tourism officials happy.
1001 Commerce St.
This entertainment complex comprises several restaurants, including the Hard Rock Cafe (its spinning guitar is a replica of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Gibson Firebird), and the Bayout Music Center, which hosts more than 100 concerts and acts each year. Other spots include Sundance Cinemas, The Blue Fish (sushi), Samba Grill (South American) and Live at Bayou Place (one nightclub with four distinct personalities).
500 Texas Ave.
It’s hard to keep up with downtown’s shiniest jewel. The sprawling city park offers so many activities and special events. There’s a festival, so it seems, nearly every week and daily events range from outdoor yoga and movies on the lawn to upscale flea markets and blues concerts. Also on site: two restaurants, a dog park and splash pads for the kids.
The Old Hanging Oak
Said to be about 400 years old, the Old Hanging Oak may be the oldest tree in Harris County. It has survived 52 mayors, construction of the adjacent Albert Thomas Convention Center int he mid-’60s and that center’s rebirth as Bayou Place. Although a marker says many criminals dangled underneath its magnificent canopy, that story has not been proved.
Corner of Bagby at Capitol
Wait. Did I say downtown wasn’t flashy? Oops, how could I forget this neon-dripping, white tiger-touting, Ferris wheel-flouting, family friendly entertainment/dining complex? Doh. The heart of the complex is a locally owned (yes, it is and I’ll hear no other arguments) seafood restaurant wrapped around at 150,000-gallon aquarium. The food is pricey (and can be underwhelming), but you’re paying for the spectacle and it does deliver that. There’s also a separate Aquarium Adventure Exhibit that houses the white tigers (no, I can’t explain it; won’t try), carnival games, a train ride through a shark house and several rides.
This pretty green space recently underwent a major overhaul that included the addition of a dog park and outdoor restaurant. This is the city’s original business district and was the address for several city halls (all of which burned). It’s a pleasant spot for a picnic and the walk-up Niko Niko’s, a locally owned fave, makes an excellent gyro.
City Hall and Hermann Square
City Hall and Hermann Square (bet you didn’t know that’s what the front lawn is called) are the closest things to quaint you’ll find downtown. Completed in 1939, the modern City Hall is richly detailed: The entrance doors are cast aluminum; the lobby is marble with touches of nickel, bronze and silver. (Keep this in mind when you’re exploring downtown: City Hall is home to the visitors center, which houses exhibits, a well-stocked gift shop and — most refreshingly — public restrooms.)
JP Morgan Chase Tower
Office workers toiling on the upper floors of Houston’s tallest building, the JP Morgan Chase Tower, report that when winds are stiff, you can feel the building sway. It might have been worse.
Architect I.M. Pei designed an 80-floor building, but the FAA insisted the plan be scaled back to 75 because there was concern the building’s height could pose a danger for planes landing at Hobby Airport. If the lobby is open, take the express elevator to the 60th floor observation deck for breathtaking views.
George R. Brown Convention Center
With its air funnels, pipes and porthole accents, the 900-foot-long center resembles a landlocked cruise ship. Spanish-born architect Mario Bolullo said it was an homage to Paris’ Pompidou Center with its “intentional unfinished look.”
1001 Avenida de las Americas
Hobby Center for the Performing Arts
We think it looks like an airport, but architect Robert A.M. Stern designed the glassed-in lobby and terraces of the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts to be the city’s front porch. You decide. And if you’re wondering about the sculpture out front, don’t ask. We’ve been shaking our heads since it was installed in 2002.
Wortham Theater Center
The Wortham Theater Center is home to the Houston Ballet and the Houston Grand Opera. And folks around here are mighty proud of it. The Wortham was built for $74 million in the midst of one of the city’s bleakest periods — the 1980s oil bust. All of the money came from private funds, making the 437,500-square-foot swankienda all the more impressive.
The home of the Houston Symphony underwent a $24 million face-lift following a visit by Tropical Storm Allison in 2001. Opened in 1966 and named for the legendary late banking and publishing mogul Jesse Jones, Jones Hall hosts more than 250 performances and events each year. If you peek inside, you’ll see a cometlike sculpture by Richard Lippold called “Gemini II.”
Minute Maid Park
Incorporating the old Union Station (circa 1911), the train-themed home of the Astros baseball club opened in 2000 with -- as many may remember -- a much different name. (Ding, ding, ding. That’s right: Enron Field.) Among its features are a retractable roof, a grass playing field and a replica of a coal-fueled train that runs along the roofline on 800 feet of track. Public tours are offered at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Cost is $9.
501 Crawford St.
Home of the Houston Rockets and the Aeros, the center also hosts some of the biggest musical spectacles. Coming soon: Coldplay, Nickelback, Van Halen, Madonna and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
BBVA Compass Stadium
OK, it’s technically not downtown. Stop quibbling. The Dynamo’s new open-air stadium will host its first game May 12, and we couldn’t be more excited. Well, us and the little cluster of EaDo bars that are its next-door neighbors.
This mixed use complex boasts a number of dining and entertainment venues connected over three blocks by second-story walkways. Among the entertainment options are Lucky Strikes Lanes (bowling and drinking), House of Blues (dancing and drinking) and Pete’s Dueling Piano Bar (sing-along and drinking). Restaurants include Andalucia (tapas), Guadalajara del Centro (Tex-Mex), III Forks (steakhouse) McCormick & Schmick’s (seafood), Mia Bella (Italian) and Yao (a Chinese and sushi spot named for Rocketman Yao Ming).
Sam Houston Park
Forward-looking Houston is not much interested in its past, but you’ll find a little blast of it at this pretty park. The oldest municipal park has become a resting place (of sorts) for several historical structures, only one of which is original to the site. Among the nine structures an 1823 cedar cabin, the city’s oldest church (1891) and a modest 1866 home that when built was part of Freedmen’s Town. There’s a museum and gift shop on site and home tours are available several times a day Tuesday-Sunday. Cost is $10.
This park located across the street from City Hall commemorates man’s landing on the moon at the Sea of Tranquillity in 1969. It’s take a bit of patience but poke around the park with its landscaped mounds and quaintly modern fountains and you’ll find an authentic footprint made with astronaut Neil Armstrong’s space boots. There’s also a wall that depicts the history and flight path of Apollo 11.
First United Methodist Church
First United Methodist Church traces its roots to 1839 and the floor of the Senate Chamber of the Republic of Texas, whose capital was then in Houston. The Gothic-style sanctuary was completed in 1910.
Annunciation Catholic Church
A steeple designed by Galveston’s Nicholas Clayton (a Victorian architectural legend in these parts) is the focal point of Annunciation Catholic Church. Construction on the Romanesque-style structure began in 1867 and wasn’t completed until 1884.
Antioch Missionary Baptist Church
Arguably Houston’s most historic church, Antioch Missionary Baptist was founded by nine former slaves just months after June 19, 1865. (Known as Juneteenth, that was the day Texans learned of the Emancipation Proclamation, two years after it was signed by President Abraham Lincoln.) The Gothic Revival building was completed in 1879. And while it has many architectural details to admire, its most prominent feature is the neon “Jesus Saves” sign.
Christ Church Cathedral
The building you see was constructed in 1893 but the church’s roots go back much further. It was the second Episcopal parish in the Republic of Texas when it was founded in 1839.
1117 Texas Ave.
This leaning building is the oldest commercial structure in Houston. Constructed in 1867, it housed, among other things, a bakery owned by an Irishman named John Kennedy. Today, it is home to La Carafe, a wine bar with almost as much personality as its eclectic clientele. The joint is said to be haunted by a former bartender.
Here’s a happy Italian Renaissance couple: the Esperson Buildings. The 32-story Niels Esperson Building was Houston’s first skyscraper and the tallest building in Texas when it opened in 1927 during the city’s first building boom. Its 19-story annex, the Mellie Esperson, named for Niels’ wife, opened in 1941.
If you want to know more about Houston, stop by the Houston Visitors Center at City Hall. It’s open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday. You’ll find brochures, a gift shop and plenty of people ready to tell you where to go and what to do.
This story originally was pubbed March 5, 2011; it was updated May 2, 2012.