Texas Sun Makes Winter More Fun: Houston Weekend
As I get older, winter gets less fun. I’m not quite ready to pack up for Florida for the season, but after the holiday season, I’m so ready to get out of St. Louis. A dose of milder Texas weather along with an endless list of restaurants and an inspiring art-filled itinerary in winter is my kind of winter getaway. This year, we headed to Houston for a long weekend. Last year, it was Austin. Both have great food, interesting art scenes and temperatures that feel like spring to people from the Midwest.
Texas conjures thoughts of barbeque and Tex-Mex, and while those options were varied and numerous, we were delighted to find a huge range of other tasty options. This should be no surprise, as Houston is now the fourth largest city in the United States and you can find any type of food. Of course this makes it hard to narrow down the choices for a long weekend getaway, so I’ve done it for you. With careful planning, you can pack in a lot of art in one weekend and eat fabulously along the way.
With our art-centered itinerary, Houston’s Museum District made it easy for us to decide where to stay. We were around the corner from more museums than could be tackled in one weekend, but we managed to pack in seven art attractions.
From Matisse to a whole room dedicated to a space themed installation to "The Corn Poppy" by Kees van Dongen—there is something for everyone's taste at Houston's Museum of Fine Arts.
Museum of Fine Arts
The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston is comprised of multiple buildings that are connected by underground tunnels. The complex is massive so you’d be well-served to do a little research ahead on which type of art you want to prioritize in case you have a time limitation. With over 70,000 works of art, it is best to narrow down and hit the wings that intrigue you most. There is something to appeal to everyone here and we adored the Yayoi Kusama infinity room, the American painting and sculpture area and the contemporary art. The outdoor sculpture garden was a great way to soak in more sun and get a little exercise—you can climb the grand staircase for an amazing view of the city and plunk down for a recharge in one of the outdoor sofas.
Don't miss the Yayoi Kusama Infinity Room at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Bayou Bend House
The Bayou Bend House is part of the Museum of Fine Arts located not far from the main MFAH campus. The house belonged to Houston’s civic leader and philanthropist, Ima Hogg, who lived from 1882-1975. I love seeing historical homes and we were able to take a docent-led tour. We were incredibly lucky to end up on a private tour with a knowledgeable docent who made our tour educational, interesting and personalized based on our interests. A wide range of furnishings, ceramics, silver, paintings and gorgeous jewelry owned by Ms. Hogg are on display. Getting to the house was a pretty walk over a pedestrian bridge that crossed a river. Even though it was January and the gardens were not plush, the design and footprint of the property was impressive.
The Menil Collection is another multi-building art campus that includes an outdoor sculpture garden in a nice park-like setting. The garden was filled with picnicking families, people playing frisbee and couples on blankets. The museum is free, although you will need a timed entrance ticket. We saw a wide variety of modern art, perused an entire building dedicated to Cy Twombly’s work and visited the Rothko Chapel, a quiet and sacred place where people were meditating and soaking in the calm vibe. The nearby Bistro Menil was recommended for lunch by our tour guide at Bayou Bend and we were extremely glad we listened. The crab crepes were light and lemony and my husband’s burger was delicious.
Quick Side Trips:
Contemporary Arts Museum
The building itself is a sleek stainless steel work of art. We popped in for a peek at a video installation called “If Revolution is a Sickness,” and also saw an exhibit about zoot suits. The museum is free and smaller than the rest, so it is well worth popping by when you are at the Museum of Fine Arts across the street.
Beer Can House
This odd house, covered in more than 50,000 aluminum beer cans reminded me of our trip to Austin’s Cathedral of Junk. We buzzed by and quickly saw the exterior of the Beer Can house (we didn’t take a tour of the inside). I wouldn’t go out of your way to see this, but if you are in the neighborhood it is amusing to see this strange house sitting in the middle of some modern apartment buildings.
On our way dinner at the Galleria, we stopped by the Gerald D. Hines Waterwall Park. Surrounded by beautiful tall oak trees, the wall is a massive 64-feet tall. Everyone in the park looked happy to be standing in the mist of this massive art piece. We saw everything from families getting their pictures taken with the cascading water as a backdrop to a wedding proposal where the woman was led blindfolded to giant lit letters spelling out “Marry Me.” If you want to get close, expect to get a little wet!
Before I travel to a new place, I research a variety of sources about the city: online search of travel-centric information, blogs, travel TV shows, YouTube videos and of course, talking to friends who have been to the area. I was intrigued by a video of BAPS, a Hindu temple on a travel tv show because it was not on my radar. Even our friends who live in Houston were unaware of it.
Interior photos of BAPS are not allowed. Bottom right photo is from the BAPS website showing the offering to the gods that was on display when we toured.
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Houston is the first traditional Hindu Mandir of its kind in North America. According to the BAPS website, a Mandir is not primarily considered a place for communal worship but the home of God, or the particular Deity. Temple activities revolve around the sacred images installed upon the altars. It's a haven for spirituality and a place of peace and everyone is welcome to visit. We were astonished with the beauty of the marble carvings throughout the building. As we removed our shoes to enter, my husband started talking to a man who said he would be happy to show us around. It turned out he volunteers at BAPS every weekend. His explanation of the vignettes we saw made the visit much more meaningful and interesting. Worshipers came and went as we toured and while we tried to be quiet and unobtrusive, nobody seemed to notice us as they were focused on their acts of devotion. After our fabulous tour, the volunteer told us he was a professor at the University of Texas. I was guessing he was a professor of history or religion based on the tour, and we all shared a laugh when he told us he teaches cybersecurity. BAPS has an immense gift and snack shop and a café. The mango lassi and pistachio rosewater cookies were a great snack.
Top L-R: Goode Company Seafood smoked tuna dip; Lucille's fried green tomatoes
Middle L-R: Lucille's "pork and beans"; Bistro Menil crab crepes
Bottom: L-R: Lucille's lemon meringue pie; Ninfa's churros with dulce de leche dip
Narrowing down where to eat in Houston was a struggle since there are so many amazing places to eat.
We started with a happy hour arrival at Goode Company Seafood. Recommended by a local, we wanted to make sure and squeeze in a visit. Since it was close to our hotel, we opted for a quick happy hour in this fun train car dining room, with kitschy-cute nautical décor. The smoked tuna dip with homemade crackers was just what we needed to stretch us to our dinner reservation at Lucille’s. Featuring Texas BBQ and southern style cuisine, Lucille’s is a James Beard Award Finalist. We shared a massive “pork and beans” which was a braised pork shank big enough for two along with fried green tomatoes. The brussels sprouts with truffle salt and a fried egg on top were also delicious. We could barely finish it all, but somehow we made room in for a piece of lemon meringue pie.
You should not miss a Tex-Mex meal in Texas, and everything I read pointed me to Ninfa’s, a restaurant that claims, “the best Mexican food in Texas since Texas was in Mexico.” We visited Ninfa’s Uptown for brunch to fuel our long museum day and the combo of enchiladas, churros and saucy slathered huevos were just right. After accidentally getting us tied up in traffic due to the Houston Marathon (oops), we had a window seat during brunch to watch the race go by.
Musaafer's dining room feels a million miles away from any mall. With high ceilings, glamourous furniture and exotic flair, it was a treat to dine here. Top row center: kulcha flatbread stuffed with chicken tikka. Bottom row left: street food snacks. Bottom row right: "butter chicken experience."
After visiting BAPS, I was even more excited for the vibe at Musaafer. The word musafir means traveler in Hindi/Urdu and the restaurant’s varied menu is based on the chef team’s trip around India. I have to admit I was a little worried booking a special dinner in a mall, but Houston’s Galleria is a vibrant place with very high-end offerings (the mall was busier on a Sunday night than any mall I’ve been to in 20 years). This Indian restaurant has a romantic and dramatic dining room and bar with an entry that makes you feel like you are entering someone’s house. We started with a kulcha flatbread, stuffed with chicken tikka filling. It looked a bit like the modern art we’d seen in the afternoon and the warm spices paired perfectly with a glass of sparkling wine. Moving into the impressive dining room, we settled in for sharing the “butter chicken experience” (yes, it sounded ridiculous) and the street food snacks. It turns out the butter chicken, served two ways with different sauces, was terrific, and the street snacks were served in a dramatic fashion, offering up layers of crunchy spice. This is an expensive experience, but the quality of the food and the artful setting made it worth it.
For dessert, I wanted to squeeze in one more restaurant, so we had after-dinner drinks and a peanut butter and jelly-themed dessert with a scoop of creamy French vanilla gelato at George’s Bistro & Bar.
On our last day in Houston, we indulged in a substantial brunch before heading to the airport. A gourmet but fast casual breakfast was found at Common Grounds. The coffee, pistachio croissant and a shared biscuit eggs benedict was perfect after our last long walk across the Rice University campus…we soaked in all we could in an art and sun drenched weekend.
Top row, left: Sculpture on the Rice University campus
Top row, right: Sunshine gleamed through the Hermann Park sculpture.
Bottom row: Common Grounds in Montrose had an amazing pistachio croissant and terrific coffee.
Sharing our itinerary in case it helps you plan your own art and sun drenched weekend: