Our visit to Houston was a little different than the usual.
Although we had 7 days up our sleeves, Erin was flying out of town for a conference, which meant I was in “solo dad” mode for 5 of those days. Regardless, we made the most of every minute in the city which exemplifies the catchphrase “everything is bigger in Texas”.
So let’s get started on my countdown to the top 13 things to do in Houston with kids…
410 Bagby St, Houston, TX 77002
This aquarium packs a punch. While it took us only around 1 hour to walk through the beautifully themed exhibit areas - sunken temple, Louisiana swamp, shipwreck, rainforest and more – we saw over 200 different species of aquatic life. The whole experience was very polished, with a perfectly orchestrated combination of sound effects and mood lighting, and elaborate decorations from ceiling to floor. Oddly enough, one of the exhibits is a white tiger – the first time we’ve ever seen a big cat in an aquarium.
Since we used the CityPass we got free access to Stingray Reef (normally costs extra) for hands-on interactions with stingrays and sea stars.
But sometimes it’s the simplest thing that impress our kids – the free splash fountain behind the aquarium kept them amused for over 30 minutes. I recommend bring swimwear and a towel for your kids (I wish I did!). If you have time, also check out the mini amusement park, complete with carousel and Ferris wheel.
12. Beer Can House
This is one attraction that you’re not going to find anywhere else in the world. In 1968 retired upholsterer, John Milkovisch, started decorating his backyard with thousands of marbles, rocks and metal pieces. Once the landscaping was complete, he took his project to the next level and added aluminium cladding to the exterior of his house. But not just any aluminium – aluminium beer cans! Over the next 18 years, he continued to adorn his house with flattened beer cans which not only added a unique decorative touch, but a practical benefit too – lowering the family’s energy costs.
While John and his wife have sadly passed away, the house is managed and maintained by not-for-profit group Orange Show Center for Visionary Art. Admission to the house is open on Saturday & Sundays from 12pm-5pm ($5 for adults, kids 12 and younger are free). But it’s also completely free to admire the house from the outside. In the former garage you’ll find a small gift shop, and we had a fascinating chat to the friendly young fellow operating it.
11. Art Car Museum
If you’re looking for a distinctive attraction for car lovers in Houston, look no further. Colloquially known as the “Garage Mahal”, this museum features creatively decorated and designed art cars created by local, regional and national artists.
Unfortunately, the day we tried visiting it was closed in preparation for a new installation. So check out their website in advance to ensure it’s open.
We attended the semi-final show of this internationally-renowned annual event.
While the event is organised for charitable, educational and scientific purposes, it’s one heck of a knee-slapping fun night out for the family. It also happened to be our very first rodeo ever. Along with 72,000 other spectators, we watched a series of competitions including: bareback rodeo (horses), saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling, barrel racing, chuck wagon, half scramble, and our kids’ favourite “mutton busting” (young children holding onto the back of a sheep running at full pelt).
While you can’t bring your own food in, the security personnel were not particularly thorough in checking bags. In saying that, we bought food from on-site vendors which was typical stadium cuisine - neither hearty nor cheap.
After the rodeo concluded, we were introduced to our very first country music concert, featuring Florida Georgia Line. I’ll be honest, as a metropolitan Aussie I haven’t been widely exposed to country music. But after visiting Nashville earlier this year, we’ve become firm fans of the music genre. And after this concert, FGL made it to the top of our road trip playlist.
9. Houston Zoo
Everything is bigger in Texas, and this zoo is no different. The massive Houston Zoo is home to over 6,000 animals from bears to giraffes to chimpanzees. I found the complex layout to be very well designed and intuitive, with plenty of shaded paths and shady picnic tablets. An important feature for respite from the hot Texas sun.
While our visit coincided with Spring Break, and it felt like every kid in Houston was there, it was easy to walk around and find the animals we were looking for. The playgrounds were perpetually popular, teeming with youngsters of all ages.
Lunch in Twiga Terrace Café (cheeseburger and pizza) wasn’t worth writing home about, so I recommend bringing your own food.
Mia’s favourite exhibit was the bongo drums in Forest Village. Based on her effortless rhythm, I’m convinced she was a musician in a former life. I recommend checking the zoo’s website in advance to see if the Splash Pad is open (it was closed during our visit), and bring along a change of clothes or swimwear.
8. Live Show at Alley Theatre
Even if your kids aren’t admirers of the performing arts, this will change their outlook.
We watched the spellbinding Around the World in 80 Days in Alley Theatre which featured 5 actors playing 42 roles. Quick and witty dialogue was the hallmark of this hilarious performance. With minimalistic props, and a 2-piece musical accompaniment (with live sound effects), the entire production team crafted a very engaging experience. Each actor was entirely believable and the fast-paced script entertained us all. In fact, my 6-year-old son laughed out loud on numerous occasions.
Tip: Parking is available on-site for $10 (cash only), and if you want to blend in with the crowd, it’s best to wear smart attire. I failed in that department with my characteristic travel-friendly shorts and t-shirt combo.
If you want to see America’s largest Christian church in action, home to over 43,000 attendees each week, then make your way to the former Compaq Center sports arena. Everyone is welcome and entry is free. We attended on Easter weekend which featured special performances.
We had the chance to meet senior pastor Joel Osteen personally after the service. An understandably regimented process unfolds upstairs (near the bookshop), where visitors line up in rows as Joel shakes hands and has a brief chat with each visitor. Like meeting a movie star, but great to personally meet the man behind it all.
This is the 73rd Skyspace created by American artist Turrell, and one of his largest. The aptly named “Twilight Epiphany” paints a stunning array of colours on the skyspace ceiling every day at sunrise and sunset. It’s a place of quiet contemplation and reflection. Seating space, on a first-come-first-served basis, is available on the top floor and the ground floor in the centre of the structure.
To preserve the tranquillity and ambience, cameras are not allowed inside but photos can be freely taken outside.
Access is free and university parking is available for visitors at a rate of $1 per 20 mins (we paid $3). Keep in mind the payment system only supports credit cards.
5. Galaxy FBO
We came here one morning for brunch at the delicious Black Walnut Café on the 3rd floor. While it’s a bit of a drive (1 hour north of Houston’s city centre), it was well worth it. Our kids loved watching the aircraft with a panoramic view over Runway 14-32.
This small private airport attracts clientele like business flyers, aircraft hobbyists, sports stars, and celebrities. We had a chat to a very friendly team member who explained the process of hiring a private aircraft. I always thought of it as a realm exclusively for the rich and famous, but was surprised to discover that a 6-hour return flight between Houston and San Francisco for 6 people would cost about the same as a commercial flight. No need for long-winded security checks, no queuing, just step onto the plane and off you go. As a frequent flyer I found that concept captivating. If you’re planning a family getaway or special event, this might be the unique touch you’ve been looking for.
Located 45-minutes drive southeast of the Houston city centre, this iconic landmark, a year-round summer fair, is considered amongst the best boardwalks in the United States.
Kemah Boardwalk is hours of fun for all ages, with most amusement rides suited to visitors over 42” (4 rides require a height of 48”). Prices per ride vary between $4 and $6, but it’s much better value for the “All Day All Ride Pass” (under 48” is $18.99 and above is $24.99). We used the CityPass again, which included a free all day pass.
The Boardwalk Bullet is one of only two wooden roller coasters in Texas and is by far the fastest and scariest I’ve ever been on. Bring a change of underwear for that. Mia loved the white-knuckle Drop Zone so much she went on at least 5 consecutive times. In addition to the rides, you’ll also find a playground, restaurants, arcade games and dancing water fountains. My kids could have spent over 4 hours here if we weren’t also visiting the next destination on this countdown.
On-site all-day parking is available for $8, but if you’re willing to walk a bit further, 3rd party carparks are available for $6.
There’s something about shiny rockets and heroic astronauts that brings out the inner child in every adult. Or the inner nerd, I’m not sure which one. But we all absolutely loved the wide range of exhibits and artefacts at Space Center Houston.
Upon entry, my kids were instantly mesmerised by the Ultimate Science Lab show. Using fun props like balloons and liquid nitrogen, the lab-coat-clad presenter delivered a richly educational show. Raptured kids in the audience were having so much fun they didn’t even realise they were learning.
Angry Birds Space Place was a firm favourite for my kids, being able to play one of their favourite tablet games in the name of edutainment. Other child-friendly hands-on activities like designing a city train track, riding bikes, and riding a 1-person hovercraft, garnered lifelong fans. But my favourite element was the tour of Johnson Space Center via tram. Here we saw the mission control centre that manages the International Space Station, and got up close to the massive Saturn V rocket.
On-site parking is only $6 (card or cash) and we used the CityPass for free entry. I’d recommend setting aside at least 3-4 hours here. Time will fly by quickly.
It’s easy to see why this is frequently rated as one of the best children’s museums in the country. Our kids were entertained and educated non-stop with plenty of fun, interactive exhibits and activities. I was pleasantly surprised by how well the museum covered relatively complex topics like atoms, density, viscosity, elasticity in easy-to-relate terms for youngsters.
Caius’ favourite area was Kidtropolis – a mini city just for kids, featuring ATMs (with their very own cash & cheques), art academy, grocery store, vet, diner, ambulance, city hall, bank and more. It reminded me of Kidzania which we visited previously in Dubai and Kuala Lumpur.
Mia couldn’t get enough of Invention Convention, featuring launch-your-own rockets, programmable robots, and DIY LEGO racing cars.
We loved the museum so much that at lunch time we left for a nearby Texas BBQ restaurant and returned (free re-entry is provided). However, there’s also an on-site café which provides kiddy favourites and healthy options.
Kids could spend from morning to evening here and never run out of things to do.
Parking across the road in multi-level lot was $9 (for 3+ hours).
We’ve explored dozens of museums all over the world, and I can confidently say this is one of the best. Broad-ranging permanent exhibition topics include: ancient Egypt, palaeontology (with the largest dinosaur hall in North America), gems & minerals, chemistry, African wildlife, oil exploration, and so much more.
All exhibits utilised the latest technology - interactive videos, kid-friendly animations and easy-to-follow signage. Presentation was faultless.
The only downside? It’s huge! You could easily could spend 4 hours here and still see only a fraction of what’s available. So plan your visit beforehand and walk through the exhibits that will most appeal to you and your kids.
Parking is $10 and you pick up the ticket from regular museum ticket booth.
Travel Tip – Driving In Houston
The most efficient way of getting around the sprawling metropolis of Houston is by car. Unfortunately, everyone else has the same idea, and traffic was consistently painful – roads seemed to be busy at any time of the day, especially the closer we got to the city centre. That aside, the highway layouts are designed fairly sensibly and navigating was quite easy, considering the city’s size (thanks to Google Maps).
But there is one pain point for out-of-town tourists – tolls. In the name of efficiency, there’s no way to pay for tolls other a local EZ TAG device. Paying afterwards via mail incurred a “penalty”. The EZ TAG program cost over $40 just to sign up, so for a short-term visitor it’s not worth it. Rental car agencies will charge around $12 per day for an EZ TAG device. Or you can take the risk and try to only choose non-toll roads. Google Maps does a pretty reasonable job of this most of the time (use the “avoid toll roads” option). If you’re taking your own car, it’s probably just cheaper paying the “penalty” when it’s mailed to you. But keep in mind rental car agencies usually charge a high “administration fee” for handling these toll fees.
Where To Stay In Houston
We stayed at the Red Roof PLUS+ in Energy Corridor (check latest prices), west of the city centre. Positioned along the Katy Freeway (Interstate 10), driving into the city centre only took about 25 minutes without traffic (up to double that during peak hour).
Our room featured a kitchenette with microwave, full-size fridge, hotplate and dishwasher. Oddly enough the room didn’t include flatware or cooking utensils, but after requesting those from the manager, he provided them promptly. Staff were always courteous and we appreciated the complimentary welcome pack that included bottled water, nuts, cookies and popcorn. Overall, I found it was good value budget-friendly accommodation in a large city.
Save Money In Houston
We used the Houston CityPASS for discounted entry to 5 attractions, saving up to 48% on regular entry prices. Excellent value! I recommend buying it online before you arrive in Houston to save queuing later.
Wow! That was a big list for a big city. We fit in a zoo, aquarium, rodeo, roller coasters, space rockets, and even a house made from beer cans. I’m certain there’s many other fun family-friendly activities that could be added. But if you’ve only got 1 week in Houston, I can’t imagine a better way to spend it… except for including a generous dose of Texas BBQ. Check out our drool-worthy dining tips in Houston.