Houston, We Have the Perfect Family Getaway

All photos by Anna Jonas

Houston is hardly a traditional vacation destination. Sun, sand and sea are replaced by sidewalks and skyscrapers. But what makes Houston a great place for your family’s next getaway isn’t the opportunity to get away from it all – it’s the chance to get right in the thick of things.

With a population of just over 2.3 million, the fourth largest in the United States, it’s a bustling metropolis with lots to do. Offering tons of family friendly fun, there is something for every interest – no matter if you’re passionate about food or fossils, fine art or festivities. Plus, any city known for Beyoncé and NASA is bound to be cool. But there’s more to H-Town than cowboys and football. The most ethnically diverse city in the country is just getting started.

How to Get There

The fastest and easiest way to get to Houston is to fly. Time in the air is typically around five and a half hours, depending on where you decide to take your layover. American Airlines and United both offer a range indirect flights from Ottawa to George Bush Intercontinental Airport multiple times per day.

Where to Stay

The four diamond Marriott Marquis hotel is one of the newest in Houston. Located in Avenida, a stone’s throw from Minute Maid Park and the Toyota Center, it was built for the recent Super Bowl and is just part of many new developments blooming around the city. Take some time to unwind at the full-service spa, sleek fitness center or outdoor bar – whatever floats your boat. Luxurious rooms host beautiful views of either pool, park or city, and the 6th floor rooftop terrace overlooking the city’s downtown core features a Texas-shaped lazy river, boasting the honour of the largest rooftop pool in the state. The building is also home to several stellar restaurants, including Xochi, the newest venture by well-accoladed Chef Hugo Ortega.

What to Do

Getting access to the best of what Houston has to offer AND skipping the headache of spending time travel planning? We’d call that a win. Visit all the top attractions for a fraction of the price with CityPASS. The voucher booklet includes tickets to Space Center Houston, Downtown Aquarium and Houston Museum of Natural Science, as well as your choice between either the Houston Zoo or Museum of Fine Arts Houston and either the Kemah Boardwalk or Children's Museum of Houston, saving a whopping 49% off the regular cost. Fun for both adults and kids, you can swing by the participating locations any time and in any order within a 9 day stretch. Not only does it make your life easier, your CityPASS can also give you the VIP treatment at some spots, letting you skip the ticket line.

If you’ve always wanted to spend a day in the life of an astronaut, find out what it’s really like at NASA at Space Center Houston. Discover a behind the scenes view of the Johnson Space Center and delve into both the past and future of the American space program. View the varied space suit collection, board a real shuttle carrier and walk through the Skylab trainer. See aircraft and items that have been to the moon and back and take a trip to Mars with an interactive exhibit. Make sure to take the tram tour where you can step inside the authentic Apollo mission control room and feel how big the universe really is standing next to the massive storied Saturn V rocket.

The 500,000 gallon exhibit at Houston’s Downtown Aquarium is filled with 400 different species of marine life from all over the world. Pet and feed stingrays at Stingray Reef and marvel at the rare white tigers dozing in the Maharaja’s Temple. The six acres of entertainment include a kids’ area with amusements and play structures, as well as a mini CP 100 socially designed train tour around the property where passengers can learn about the importance of sharks and how the recent floods impacted the aquarium and its inhabitants. The aquarium also has a restaurant and bar featuring a 50-foot wraparound tank, second largest round tall tank in North America, so you can dine under the sea.

One of the great thing about Houston’s museums is that many of them are within walking distance of each other, located in the city’s museum district.

There is no doubt that you’ll learn something new at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. It is an absolute must see for educational fun at any age. Not only do they often feature thought provoking travelling exhibits, but also more than a dozen zones of permanent displays covering subjects like space, paleontology, chemistry, rocks and minerals and local wildlife, as well as the third largest collection of Faberge in the world. Their impressive dinosaur exhibit includes some of the only complete skeletons of certain species in the world, as well as a remarkable trilobite collection. Hit the interactive energy room detailing the energy refining process from start to finish, or visit the Cockrell Butterfly Center, a roomy greenhouse full of the flying creatures in a recreated natural habitat. Get an even more hands-on experience in the Curiosity Room modeled after the homemade museums of Victorian times where visitors can touch any or all of the artifacts.

The Museum of Fine Arts Houston is one of the 10 biggest fine art museums in the United States, housing a collection of over 65,000 pieces, and is expanding with a new building opening in two years time. Even the tunnel between buildings is a work of art, featuring a dynamic light exhibit designed by artist James Turrell. Take a historical trip around the world and peer into different cultures with their expansive collections of American, Asian, Latin American, European, Islamic and African pieces. The museum is well known for its Indian memorabilia and culture wing, but also includes a serene sculpture garden combining natural and manmade beauty and a comprehensive photography, film and furniture collections. Its grounds also house two cute cafés ideal for a quick lunch or bite to eat.

Consistently voted among the best children’s museums in the country, the Children’s Museum of Houston is heaven on earth for newborns to 13-year-olds. The museum is a hub of activity with areas available for every age group, including a designated zone for toddlers. Climbing towers, a water park, robots and science experiments are all part of the fun. Here, kids can roam a little town where they run the show, giving them a hands-on approach to learning about things like financial literacy by letting them take on a job, earn make-believe money and spend it on items of their choice, even giving grown-ups an “allowance”. Older kids can learn new skills in the tech room with a 3D printer or become super spies in the S.E.C.R.E.T. program, a mission that will take them through secret codes, laser rooms and other challenges to stop a fictional evil mastermind. Parents should wear comfortable shoes for this busy day.

Wonder at over 6000 animals of all sizes from around the world at the Houston Zoo. Take a trip across the globe as you gaze at gorillas and marvel at monkeys. Watch as California sea lions play, Asian elephants feed and African lions roar. Kids can hang out and learn about the animal kingdom in special kids’ zones. Swing by the "Plan Your Day" booth to find details on once-in-a-lifetime animal events and experiences happening each day, such as the chance to feed live giraffes. The zoo also actively advocates for the protection of wildlife and teaches visitors how they can help make a difference.

A particularly stellar time to visit Houston is in April, when the famous Art Car Parade rolls into town. Approximately 250,000 people descend on downtown Houston each year to see over 250 cars in the well-known parade, now coming up to its 32nd year. Vehicles come from around the US, Canada and Mexico to participate. Some entrants are cars, others are scooters, and some don’t even look like cars anymore. Some participants even drive their art cars all year round. Loud music and people in costume get the crowd pumped up and booths promising food and free samples ring the lawn outside of the Houston’s City Hall.

For an alternative evening activity, sit and stay awhile at the free “Twilight Epiphany” Sky Space art installation on Rice University campus. Another masterpiece and brainchild of James Turrell, the lighting-based art display interacts with the sunrise and sunset in real time, resulting in a rainbow of alternating colours.

Where to Eat

You may not immediately think of Houston as a culinary hot spot, but you couldn’t be more wrong. The big city has recently become home to a number of top-notch restaurants and chefs whose specialties are as varied in influence as the city itself. 

Want a taste of the local cuisine but not sure here to start? The Houston Montrose Walking Food Tour hits three must-try spots – BB’s Café, El Real and Hugo’s. Start at BB’s, inspired by the owner’s Louisiana grandmother, and chow down on your weight in Cajun crawfish and boudin balls with a side of local Purple Haze beer. Don’t forget to top it all off with some deliciously doughy homemade bread pudding. Next, make your way to El Real for some real deal Tex Mex, complete with Cheese enchiladas, puffy tacos and perfectly tart margaritas. An homage to the traditional Tex Mex establishments of yore, the restaurant occupies what was once a movie theatre and still screens old school films on the wall. Finally, do-si-do on over to Hugo’s for an upscale feast of ceviche, empanadas and mojitos, with Mexican hot chocolate and churros for dessert. The brainchild of Hugo Ortega, winner of a James Beard award, it is Mexican food as you’ve never seen it before. You will practically have to roll back home, but it will all be worth it to have tasted some of the best food that Houston has to offer.

Try your hand at the two-step and learn to honky-tonk at Goodnight Charlie’s, featuring great cocktails and even better vibes. You can’t beat a warm evening spent swaying in their classic southern porch swings. Come for the quality live music and stay for the friendly staff and wine on tap.

Doubtful that you can get some of the best seafood you’ve ever tasted in what may look to outsiders like a strip mall? Think again. We challenge you to find an omakase more divine than that of Kata Robata Sushi + Grill, run by experienced master of Japanese cuisine and three-time James Beard nominee Chef Manabu “Hori” Horiuchi. The well curated selection of hot and cold dishes that are both traditional and modern are created with fresh fish that is regularly flown in from Japan, along with robata grilled meats and what could be called the best selection of sake and Japanese whisky in the state.

A new restaurant on the scene at less than a year old, BCK: Kitchen & Cocktail Adventures in Houston Heights is all about nostalgia. With a menu boasting meatballs, corn dip, apple pie with Froot Loops, spaghetti o’s and a chocolate jelly roll, it’s Americana at its finest with craft cocktails to match. Customers can contribute to the list by marking their dish suggestions onto the butcher paper Local’s Board. Top off your meal with a visit to the memorabilia room full of throwback childhood toys.

For the vegan or vegetarian traveller, Hungry’s is a must. From salads to sandwiches to pizzas, this café and bistro boasts a plethora of options for herbivores and omnivores alike. The homemade hummus sampler and goat cheese french baguette are out of this world.

Head to The Breakfast Klub for a real deal classic southern breakfast, complete with grits, chicken and waffles, biscuits and sweet tea. The staff is a picture-perfect example of southern hospitality and the atmosphere is as warm as the delectable fried “katfish”. Be warned – you’ll have to get here early to beat the line; it’s rare that there isn’t one snaking out the door.

You can’t visit Houston without indulging in some serious Texas barbeque. This place doesn’t joke around. Even the venue is the real deal, decked out in mounted stag’s heads and beer bottles. The original Goode Co. BBQ on Kirby Drive is a local institution, serving up two-meat platters with options like mesquite-smoked beef brisket or pork ribs so juicy that they’re falling off the bone. Spicy sausage is our personal favourite. Get it with classic southern sides like potato salad, jambalaya or jalapeno cheese bread. If you get addicted to their pecan pie, you wouldn’t be the first; have no fear, you can ship one to arrive on your doorstep by the time you get home.