So, I was told Houston would be boring. Just a big city with no character. As always, such a bleak painting did not hold me back. There is always beauty to be found if you look close enough and I am a connoisseur of the sublime.
With Houston, however, it turned out to not be so difficult to find something to love. I was kindly provided with a free CITYPass by Visit Houston to explore the city and see for myself and I made sure to make ample use of it. Here’s what I thought of Houston.
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Take Me South
I had mixed feelings upon boarding my bus towards Texas. I was extremely excited since I had all these romantic notions of cowboy ranches, cowboy getups and endless landscapes in my mind.
But I was not that naive to suppose Houston would look anything like that. It turns out I was naive enough to presume the rest of rural Texas looked like that. As I would find out during my six-hour bus ride, Texas has quite the diverse landscapes, offering swampy bayous with ghostly white and crooked trees and grassy flatlands.
As I would later find out in the Museum Of Natural Science, Texas is much more diverse than I had glimpsed and I was happily educated on its many different species and biotopes.
Did you know, for instance, that it has alligators, turkeys and jaguars? I certainly have a lot to learn still. And I certainly want to come back soon to see it all for myself. I can already hear the mountains and ranches calling.
Just let me quickly stock up on antihistamines so that I won’t turn into a big pitiful sobbing creatures with all these animals testing my body’s sensitivity and my patience with it. Sure, allergies are never a good thing to have when venturing outside, but I won’t back down and neither should you (here are my hacks to cope with allergies when travelling).
And so I grabbed my sunglasses, stocked up on cookies from my wonderful Hotel DoubleTree Suites and off I went to tick off my list. I am a very indecisive, you should know, and it was therefore a blessing to have been given the CityPASS in order to test out the hot spots for you, my friends, and see what I think of it. So let’s get this started, shall we?
Going all Ape in Houston Zoo
It has been quite a while since I last visited a zoo. I prefer to roam nature and find animals as I go but every now and then I like to mini travel the world in zoos with its vibrant diverse species and informational insights into worldwide territories and developments.
Also, I got to be really nostalgic when seeing kookaburras and cassowaries in Houston. The wombat wouldn’t show itself. So typical!
I had a bittersweet moment just standing in front of the animal enclosures, reminiscing when I last had seen these animals in the wild in Australia when suddenly a family walked by and called the cassowary a ‘peacock’ and the kookaburra a ‘random big bird’.
For a split second I was close to telling them how that ‘peacock’ could be the last thing they saw when they would get too close but I didn’t want to scare the kids.
I also felt like I needed to educate everyone standing around the bird cages that the kookaburra sound were used in the original Tarzan movie to imitate the ape shoutings. And it made me feel like such a nerd that I moved on.
Next, I ventured into African realms with all different kind of antelopes around and a giant marabou looking mighty bored. He was the talk of every visitor around as his sign was just two metres too far away for people to check and the nerd in me giggled again.
I had recognized him and read up a little more to increase my nerd-o-meter still some more for the day. I watched sunbathing turtles and saw giraffes doing a little tongue-acrobatics, which made me think back to my African safari.
The bug house was especially cool as I always ejoy trying to spot the masters of camouflage and I am actually not as good at it as I like to think, which makes it a much more interesting game to play until there is a proud kid pointing it out.
A little cheating never hurt nobody, especially if you’re playing with yourself. Right after the bug house I spotted a big lights installation as part of the zoo’s Christmas lights show and one of these cheesy frames held the words Texas in it.
Naturally, I had to take a really touristy photo but saw no way to take a decent selfie or timed photo and had to esign to ask passerbsy.
If you have read my blog for a while or have stumbled upon my How to Take Awesome Travel Photos post, then you know how much I hate to have strangers taking photos of me.
I don’t particlarly enjoy having photos taken of me in the first place as I prefer to feature the landscape and not ecssarily myself though I am constantly asked if I really have been to places if I’m not in the picure (did the tree in the forest really fall if you didn’t hear it fall?).
Plus, my parents like to see photos of me being still alive and unharmed in the big wide world. So there I was, giving some strangers the benefit of the doubt and instantly regretted it.
I had a very pretty photo saying ‘lexa’ with the top and right cut off and my body wasn’t completely in it either. Of course that happened after about three minutes of posing and my temporary photo assistant taking pictures in such a way that the camera did not even registered her finger movement.
That in itself is a skill. I still fired her instantly and asked another pair of people. They were not much better but at least the picture was not crooked and I had all body parts.
It always puzzles me how in this technological and digital age people still treat big cameras as an alien tool with a cockpit full of mystical buttons.
A Dose of Education at Houston’s Museum Of Natural Science
Before having my buttons pushed completely, I took a big stroll through the park, watched happy kids roll on the grassy hills, people pedal in swan boats and couples chilling on picnic blankets. (Sadly, I missed the Waterwall in Gerald D. Hines Waterwall Park, one of the most unique Texan waterfalls.)
Before this got too creepy, I headed to Houston’s Museum Of Natural Science and was cheerily welcomed by the museum staff. Everyone was super friendly and funnily enough one guide always seemed to appear out of nowhere and told me interesting information on the respective exhibits.
I, for instance, found out that most of the paleontological fossils were actually collected and lent by the local Mr Smith. But that’s not it; the dinosaur hall itself is the biggest in all of the USA, and we all know how big the USA is. In fact, West Texas is apparently the best place in the world to dig deep and come out victorious when it comes to fossils.
Walking beneath giant skeletons and admiring the photorealistic imaginings of how those skeletons would have looked like in flesh and bone during a time very long ago, I spent quite a considerable amount of time in those halls, trying to strain my imagination.
I also did a little face comparison check with my ancestors, watched a group of kiddies ask very on-point questions and then headed out for a little bling.
I am not a big fan of gems, pearls and diamonds when it comes to jewellery (Marylin Monoe definitely did not speak for me) but the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals and the Lester & Sue Smith Gem Vault were just like entering a magical world.
Thrown into pitch-black rooms with the brightest colours radiating from tiny stones surely made me understand better why over centuries gems have been in such demand. Still, I would rather not wear them as their beauty has no comparison and needs to be marvelled at like this.
“It belongs in a museum!” Indiana Jones
With a total of 16 permanent exhibitions that I had access to with my CityPASS I certainly was pressed for time as I wanted to squeeze in another museum before the day ended.
And so I ony briefly got an idea about how energy, gas and oil are “produced” and utilized, I walked through Egytian halls with well preserved sacrophagi and one mummy (and a group of very ignorant tourists that jumped out of the doorways and threw their scarves around – it made me wonder if they had escaped the zoo).
Like I said before, I was drawn to the Texan Halls of Wildlife and Coastal Ecology as I had a lot to catch up on in this department and I was in Houston, after all.
Similar to New York’s American Museum of Natural History, the exhibition was arranged in such a fashion that you could get an idea of the different biotops, including both flora and fauna, with beautiful landscape drawings and the preserved animals arranged as if caught in motion.
I imagined myself in a Disney movie where all animals gather. However, none broke out in song and I just about restrained myself.
Feeling Old at the Children’s Museum
This is so typical of me. One minute I am about to rehearse a Disney scene and then suddenly, when I am surrounded by jolly children and lots of toys, I am suddenly very uch grown up and snobby. I foolishly had expected the Children’s Museum to be a museum ABOUT children.
In fact, it was for children. This meant awesome climbing facilities that were just a little bit too small for me, an actual tiny village in which kids could familiarise themselves with and try out tricks of the trades, such as brokering, burger making or governing. I did try out the trade game and I won. Stock markets, beware!
So I mainly walked the halls decked in scraming colours and Willy Wonka-like furnishings, which I loved, all the while dodging children coming out fo nowhere. Some even had scary tigers faces painted on them.
I felt truly out of place. I would have gone for cookie monster (that is until they invent a chocolate monster). In any case, I watched the children try out their hand at all kinds of games and hands-on crafting until I spotted a table full of computers. I finally had found my purpose in this place!
You see, my nerd-o-meter was already high but put me in front of a computer with games and it is exploding. I had grown up with computers. Whenever I didn’t climb trees or scraped off my knees, I was sitting quietly on old PCs and discovering the world of adventure games.
I guess this is where my love for travel first appeared because I loved to visit the Caribbean or fiht my way through dense Asian jungles. This computer, however, had only one game and, believe it or not, I hadn’t yet tried it.
It was the infamous minecraft and I felt like a complete nincompoop being unable to even navigate my way out of a cave. (I am still convinced it was a bug.)
And so with the help of the grasshopper beside me, I managed to build a qeird looking house with stairs as the roof and a wall full of book shelves. And then the square moon popped up and zombies came to attack me. As if I wasn’t already majorly annoyed by those jumping green slobs.
Well, if I knew one thing, it was to fight on screen and so the league of Halloween scares was soon diminished. And so was my time at the museum. I was one of the last ones to be kicked out as I was blocking the doorway to gain access to the rest of the wifi.
Getting no County on
I was about to meet with a girl I had met on courchsurfing. She had offered me a stay but I ultimately had declined as the DoubleTree Suites wanted me to check out their Houston hotel and write a review on it.
We still wanted to meet up and me playing games had already caused a delay in my punctuality. The couchsurfing messaging tool just opened and then decided to be stuck and so I was left to run about, checking people’s faces and sweaters. Awkward.
We had agreed on wearing animal prints – I opted for black cats and she wanted to don a pony sweater. She, however, didn’t, which made the finding process somewhat more difficult.
In the end we did find each other and I proposed my typically tourist idea of getting a pre-Thanksgiving dinner just to see how it would be. I had never had a Thanksgiving myself and silly me put her Costa Rica getaway exactly during that time. Dang my plannign skills!
So we headed for the next supermarket in downtown Houston, checked the individual ingredients and decided on not spending a fortune on a makeshift Thanksgiving meal on a park bench and headed for a country club (another bright idea of mine).
We soon found a full-on cowboy looking place including the riding a bull game but the place was deserted. Not a single soul was drinking away their pain at the bar. No cowboy hats or boots around.
My companion was new to the city as well and so we walked from place to place but Houston is actually one of the most culturally diverse places in the US and so we found all kinds of fusion and hipster places but no similar country bar. It would later turn out that I had one right near my hotel and forgot to ask. I have to come back!
You might be curious to see where we did eventually decide to rest our weary feet and it was curious indeed. We found a BBQ place with out of tune live country music and then headed for a gay bar of all places and in it were only middle aged men.
After we had talked for hours by the bar on this and that and decided to leave when a couple of men decided it was appropriate to wear their stained shirts in their jeans pockets and strut around with full confidence. I did not know where they took it from but we certainly did not want another look and left.
A Day at the Houston Downtown Aquarium
I had one more day left in big Houston and hopped the downtown bus early to spend a lovely day at the Downtown Aquarium. I had announced my visit and was met with my own personal guide who was soon accompanied by a biologist because I asked too many nerdy questions.
So I had a “fish expert” explains all the different areas for me, showing me around the colourful reefs in the shipwreck section, pointing out the different fish and their diets in the South American in the sunken temple or giving me insights into what swam out there in the Gulf of Mexico.
They even had a very old fish who nonchalantly swam his circles, being unbothered by the visitors.
But the aquarium, I was surprised to find out, did not only featured under water life but also ones close or even not so close ones. I spotted turtles and a tiny gator in the Louisiana swamp section, marvelled at a Chinese lizard who – very oddly for his kind – avoided water like the plague.
And then there were the elegant white tigers, making long strides around a Maharaja Temple set. In total, the aquarium has four tiger siblings, two males and two females. At any given time, there are only two to be seen and I met with Coral and Reef. Fun fact: the female tiger Marina adores perfume and her brother Nero is a real poser.
If you want cool tiger pictures, he is your “man”. And if you cannot get enough of tigers, you can even have a sleeping bag sleepover next to the area and see the tigers sleep at night. I should have done that!
Never mind, I got myself some dead fish and dunked my hands into the ray tank with eager little swimmers already putting out their heads to satisfy their hunger.
As a thanks I got splashed mightily and watched kids around me squeal in delight. Next, I hopped on the little blue train and drove beneath a huge tank full of all kinds of sharks swimming in the azure blue waters underneath a white light.
It was pure magic and I could have stood there forever, watching the relaxed motions. But the tank watching was not over yet and so I made my way to the restaurant which not only has the highest tank in the USA (the cleaning divers have to stop every now and then to adapt to the pressure changes) but also a full on view of the big central aquarium from every seat there is.
I made myself comfortable in a little nook and had an amazing trout followed by a decadent chocolate cake that oozed chocolate sauce from its middle, which mixed with the melting vanilla ice cream on top. Oh, and it had a giant shark cookie stuck in it.
I felt a bit weird eating fish while watching fish but the quiet swimmers did what they usually did. Swim and not care at all. To get the full view, I even saw the ballroom that can hold up to 500 guests and can be reserved for special events.
So all in all th aquarium is so much more than that. It is more like a mini amusement park/aquarium with its 500,000-gallon aquatic wonderland hosting over 200 species of aquatic life as well as food and fun establishments. I certainly was greatly entertained on my last afternoon in Houston.
Now if you want to stock up on your own CITYPass (which you can use up to a year after purchase), click through the following affiliate link* to get to the booking page.
Tell me: Have you ever thought of Houston being so full of fun things to do?
My big thanks go out to the city’s tourism board for providing me with the Houston CITYPass and telling me to go for it and being super helpful with tips and arrangements. Also, a special thanks goes out for the Downtown Aquarium for being especially hospitable and giving me a private tour and tasting of their insane dishes in the aquarium restaurant. I had a blast and my opinion is, as always, my own.