Three Family-Friendly Days in Houston
We’ve just returned from a weekend trip to Houston, and I was utterly impressed with the city! I flew in with my 10-year-old son on a Friday afternoon, spent two very busy days doing everything we could fit in, visited one more major attraction on Monday morning, and then flew back to California. This trip was sponsored by Travel Texas, but we created our itinerary from scratch, based on Google searches and friends’ recommendations.
I wrote a post before we left about what we planned to do. We largely stuck to that plan, except that we added a few more stops, and we changed up our Sunday brunch plans because of logistics. Below are my thoughts on every one of our weekend activities. We enjoyed all of them, so this is a great list to start with in planning your own trip to Houston with kids. A note: my son is a foodie and into math and science. He doesn’t gravitate to animals like my two daughters, so we didn’t visit the Houston Zoo, and he felt like he’s a little old for the Children’s Museum. For other kids, those could be great options as well.
Our Three-Day Houston Itinerary
We flew into Houston, rented a car, and drove to our hotel, the Houston Marriott Medical Center/Museum District. We checked in and talked transportation with Vanessa at the front desk. She highly recommended taking the METRORail from the hotel into downtown instead of driving, and there is (very conveniently) a stop right in front of the hotel. We dropped off our things in our room and took Vanessa’s advice. Tickets are $1.25 each, good for three hours, and easily purchased at kiosks at every stop.
Nine stops from the Marriott we got off at Main Street. Our ultimate destination was a 6pm dinner reservation at Xochi, but we arrived downtown an hour early to wander around. We loved the quirky art everywhere, and had fun exploring Discovery Green with its art, fountain (no running in the water for us pre-dinner though!) and kayaking.
Then on to Xochi for dinner, with its James Beard award-winning chef and Oaxacan cuisine. We LOVED our meal! We started with the Memela (toasted masa pancake, roasted pork rib, refritos, crema, queso fresco, salsa de albañil), and then my son ordered the Cordoniz (bacon-wrapped quail stuffed with chorizo Istmeño, mole de higos, pan de elote) and I got the Cochito Istmeño (dry-rubbed pork shank braised in Istmeño peppers and roasted pineapple). We didn’t have room for dessert. Will definitely go back next time we’re in Houston – hopefully with more people, so that we can try more things!
Astros / Red Sox
My son had never been to a baseball game before, so what better place than Houston? We walked over to Minute Maid Park after dinner and arrived in time for the National Anthem and first pitch. It was a fun game between two first-place teams, with five home runs and an Astros victory. Couldn’t have planned it better! We then walked to the nearby METRORail station, rode back to our hotel and went to sleep.
Space Center Houston
We began Saturday by driving roughly 40 minutes to Space Center Houston. It was the destination that I was most looking forward to, and I wasn’t disappointed! My son loved it as well. We arrived right when they opened at 9am, exchanged our City Pass vouchers for ticket books, and took the advice of the docent to head straight to the tram tour. There were two tram choices – Houston Mission Control or Astronaut Training – and we went for the astronaut training. The tour was interesting, taking us by most buildings on campus, with stops at the astronaut training facility and the Saturn V rocket. Note that even though the tour is listed at 60 minutes, ours was over an hour an a half with a 25-minute wait to depart initially and then a 10-minute wait to go from the Saturn V rocket back to the main building. Not a big deal, but factor it into your planning.
When we arrived back after the tour, we spent well over an hour exploring the Space Shuttle replica Independence, the 747 that flew the space shuttle, and the other exhibits of the Space Center. A lot of fun for both of us, and a required stop for all kids (and adults!) who enjoy space, science and math.
We departed Space Center Houston and drove over to Tookie’s Burgers, a recommendation from a Houston resident who saw my planning post. Readers’ recommendations rarely disappoint, and this one definitely didn’t. Plus it’s located close to the Kemah Boardwalk – our next stop. We both got the standard Tookie’s cheeseburgers, and shared fries and onion rings. A very good lunch, and inexpensive. Note: Be careful that if you type Tookie’s into Waze, you choose the right one. We ended up at Tookie’s Seafood across the bridge before we realized there were two different restaurants.
We left our car near Tookie’s and walked over to the very quick ferry that took us to the Kemah Boardwalk. Our City Pass booklets included unlimited ride passes, so we obtained wristbands and headed to the Ferris Wheel. There was a great view of the rest of the amusement park from the Wheel – enough that my son decided he didn’t want to go on any other rides! He’s never been into coasters or spin/drop rides. But we had fun walking around and playing a lot of the boardwalk games. He was particularly proud of the large stuffed racoon he won through water pistol accuracy.
From the Kemah Boardwalk we traveled with our new stuffed raccoon to Smither Park, another recommendation from Houston residents. The park is fairly small, but is full of unusual art – mostly mosaics. We spent roughly 20 minutes exploring the park and watching two artists at work on new pathways. A fun, creative art space!
After some down time back at our hotel, we Ubered over to Tiny Boxwoods for dinner. We loved the restaurant! The setting is perfect – next to a nursery, with a perfect tree-lined courtyard. But the food is even better. We started with the French Picnic (artisan bread, rosemary ham, whipped goat cheese, kalamatas, basil pesto), my son got the Black & Blue (a buffalo filet with berry balsamic reduction and blue cheese risotto) and I ordered the fig, prosciutto and brie pizza. Everything was excellent, but my son’s meal was the best. If we ever have a flight issue and end up stranded in Houston for a few hours, I’m immediately going online and making a reservation at Tiny Boxwoods! My wife and other kids would love the menu as well.
We started Sunday by taking an Uber over to Rothko Chapel, a simple meditation garden and chapel in Midtown. I loved the photos of the modern chapel online, but when we arrived we learned that no photos are allowed. So I put my camera down and we absorbed the silence for maybe 10 minutes. I was sure my son would be annoyed with sitting still for that long, given how active he is, but when we exited he said that it was “really cool”. So I learned something new about him! We also explored the bamboo-lined garden, with its Broken Obelisk, before walking to brunch.
Weights + Measures
Our original plan was to have brunch at Golden Dim Sum, but when I mapped out everything that we wanted to do on Sunday, it was the one outlier activity, fairly far from everything else. So I did a quick search for the best brunches in Midtown Houston and found Weights + Measures, roughly a 1.5 mile walk from Rothko Chapel. We walked over, arriving right before our 11am reservation, and had a great meal. My son opted for the lunch side of brunch and ordered a margarita pizza. It was perfect – authentically thin-crust, wood-oven Italian. I had a mimosa (because brunch) and the house specialty, the cake donuts and fried chicken. Yum! Excellent service and a perfect brunch environment as well.
Houston Museum of Fine Arts
We departed Weights + Measures at 11:45 and walked half an hour to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, arriving right when they opened at 12:15. This wasn’t on our original agenda, but it’s located between our brunch spot and the Museum of Natural Science, and we had tickets as part of our City Passes, so we stopped in. I’m glad we did! We loved the museum – one of our highlights of the weekend. The Pre-Columbian and African displays were particularly impressive. I think my son took at least 50 photos of the various artifacts, and he typically doesn’t take a lot of pictures. We also loved the European Art. Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh, Modigliani, Pissarro, you name it – they’re all there, and we had them to ourselves! Seriously, head to the Museum of Fine Arts right when they open and soak it all in. Oh, and the light tunnel between the two halves of the museum is seriously cool.
Houston Museum of Natural Science
The Museum of Natural Science was a mixed experience for us. We were really looking forward to our visit, but when we arrived we waited in line 15 minutes or so to get our tickets (with our City Passes), and that foreshadowed a fairly crowded Sunday afternoon museum experience. We enjoyed the Hall of Paleontology, the pendulum, and the Hall of Chemistry, but some of the areas like the Hall of the Americas underwhelmed, especially since we were coming straight from the Museum of Fine Arts which seemed to have a larger collection of South American artifacts.
Hermann Park / Japanese Garden
From the museum we walked across the street to Hermann Park and explored the park, spending the most time in the Japanese Garden. We loved this – it felt like we were in Japan! Highly recommended if you’re nearby. And it’s very convenient if you’re staying near the Medical Center. It was a short walk from there back to our hotel.
Sammy’s Wild Game Grill
We were really looking forward to Sammy’s Wild Game Grill, with its exotic meats, and it lived up to our expectations. Their empanada of the day was camel. We ordered two and they were incredible – seriously the best empanada I’ve ever had. I have no idea if the flavor comes from the meat (I haven’t tried camel before) or if it was simply perfectly spiced, but I highly recommend it! Then my son got the sliders of the day: Venison, Lamb and Emu. I ordered the al pastor wild boar tacos. My son loved the burgers – especially the emu. My tacos were fine, but they didn’t compare to the empanadas! Will definitely return next time we’re in Houston.
Buffalo Bayou Cistern
From Sammy’s we took an Uber a little over a mile to Buffalo Bayou Park. We could have walked, but we had a Cistern history tour booked at 6:30 and didn’t want to be late. We checked in and then headed down with 28 others to see Houston’s first underground reservoir – built in the 1920s to hold 15 million gallons of drinking water. Houston’s growth and newer, far larger reservoirs quickly made the cistern unnecessary, but it was still in active use until 2007. It’s now an art space, and there are a few history tours every week. We both really enjoyed the tour, and my son especially liked the echo test. Sound bounces around the chamber for 17 seconds!
Buffalo Bayou Park
After our cistern tour we spent over an hour enjoying Buffalo Bayou Park – mainly watching skateboarders at the skate park as the sun slowly went down. I definitely want to explore the park more, maybe renting bicycles, next time we’re in Houston. There’s a great view of the city too.
The Chocolate Bar
A friend in Houston messaged me while we were there and recommended heading to The Chocolate Bar for ice cream. Sounded great to us! There are two locations, so we mapped them and had an Uber take us to the one closest to our hotel – on University Blvd. We both got the chocolate with almonds and caramel and ate them as we walked back to the hotel along the edge of the Rice University campus.
Our final morning we had breakfast at the hotel, packed up, checked out and drove half an hour to the Battleship Texas State Historic Site. This was a perfect way to end the trip – running around and exploring a 100-year-old battleship! It was nicely educational as well, since you can see how the crew of the USS Texas lived, and you’re even able to raise and aim the ship’s guns. And there was virtually no one else there (Monday mornings are apparently a great time to go), so we played with some photo ops that wouldn’t have worked if the ship was more crowded. We spent roughly an hour and a half at the battleship before heading to the airport, returning our rental car and flying out.
Finance and Summary
It’s fairly inexpensive to fly to Houston from anywhere in the US. The Marriott is $125-150/night in the summer. Parking in the garage next door is $13/day.
We left the car in the parking garage for the majority of the weekend and used METRORail and Uber to get around, and we walked a lot too – 46,500 steps between Friday afternoon and Monday afternoon. Our seven Uber rides added up to $68.
Breakfast was included with our hotel stay every day because of my Marriott status. Lunch was $25 at Tookie’s (including tip) and $44 at Weights + Measures. Dinner was $100 at Xochi, $104 at Tiny Boxwoods and $36 at Sammy’s Wild Game Grill. Our City Passes were $110 ($59 for mine, $49 for my son’s plus a service fee). We got our money’s worth, given the normal entrance fees to Space Center Houston, the museums and Kemah Boardwalk. Our Astros tickets were our biggest splurge at $240. The cistern tour was $10 total. Battleship Texas cost us $15.
Overall a nicely inexpensive three-day weekend with a lot of excellent activities. My son’s favorite stops were the Museum of Fine Arts and Battleship Texas. I loved Space Center Houston and Buffalo Bayou Park. All of our meals were excellent. If we could only recommend two dishes, they would be the filet from Tiny Boxwoods and the camel empanadas from Sammy’s Wild Game Grill. Seriously, my mouth is watering just writing this up!
Take your kids to Houston! There are a lot of amazing attractions and activities.