When someone mentions Houston, the first thing that comes to mind is the NASA space center. This is what initially attracted us to visiting this part of Texas but we weren’t really sure what else there was for the kids to do here.
Houston is big, so big in fact it’s the fourth largest city in the United States with a population of just over 2.3 million and really does offer something for all the family to enjoy.
After spending four days here these are some of our highlights from our visit to Houston.
Stop off at Buc-ee’s
Before we left San Antonio we had several recommendations that we had to stop at a Buc-ee’s on our three hour drive to Houston.
As anyone will know who has done a Texas road trip, you see the fun Buc-ee’s road signs when you are in the middle of nowhere telling you that its 100 miles to the next stop – so it’s the place to stock up on snacks, food, gifts, petrol and their billboards advertise “If you want a clean bathroom, stop at Buc-ee’s.”
The closest we have to Buc-ee’s in the UK are motorway service stations but nothing can prepare you for a Buc-ee’s experience – it’s on a totally different scale and a Texan experience in its own right.
It was huge – with everything from hot food counters, clothing, souvenirs to award winning restrooms and yes they were really clean. The girls loved their Buc-ee’s experience and left with cotton candy and Buc-ee’s souvenirs.
If you are staying downtown, kids will love the green space, boating lake and cool interactive artwork at Discovery Green. This was just across the road from our hotel the Hilton America’s Houston and was a lovely part of the city for the girls to run around and have fun.
Check out the Murals
Houston is famous for its vibrant murals which can be found throughout the city and looking for them is a fun way to explore the city and also provides great photo opportunities. Some of our favourites were found in downtown Houston which boast about Texan and Houston pride.
Our friendly and knowledgeable concierge at the Hilton Americas Houston gave us a cool secret tip of how to explore downtown by going underground.
20 feet below is a network of 7.5 mile long tunnels connecting 95 city blocks that provide a way for the workers and tourists of downtown to easily get around linking offices, shops, restaurants and hotels in the cool comfort of air conditioning.
Get a CityPASS
Tip – I would recommend taking a look at the Houston CityPASS especially if you are planning on visiting several of the city’s top attractions. It not only saved us money it also provided us with ideas of where to take the kids that we might have overlooked. See the full list of Houston attractions it covers and how to buy tickets.
This is one of the most visited zoo’s in the United States and with 6,000 animal residents across its 55 acres it’s a must visit for families when in the city. I recommend arriving early for several reasons:
- You will be able to get a parking space,
- The crowds are less,
- The animals are the most active first thing in the morning.
The best part of arriving early is that you can watch the Asian elephant bath in their 80,000 gallon pool at 10am – this is an event not to be missed, we loved it.
Set aside at least half a day at the zoo or you could easily spend a fully day here as there is so much to see and do here, so wear comfortable shoes as there is a lot of walking. As we explored the 15+ areas of the zoo taking in different parts of the globe we saw animals including lions, tigers, black bears and zebras. As we were in Texas, Holly was convinced that the Ankole Cattle were Texas Longhorns.
At the 6.5 acre African forest were some of our favourite animals, the Orangutans and Gorillas, I could have spent hours watching these fascinating creatures.
To get even closer to the animals, kids can feed lettuce to the giraffes at the dedicated feeding platforms $7 typically at 11am and 2pm, which we missed out on so check the daily schedules and arrive early to beat the crowds.
Walk through Hermann Park and its Japanese Garden
After the zoo stop for a quick lunch at Pinewood Café which overlooks the lovely McGovern lake at Hermann Park. From here it’s a short walk across the gorgeous Hermann Park to the Houston Museum of Natural Science and the Museum District.
I recommend making a slight detour to call into the Japanese Garden a peaceful hideaway in Hermann Park. As soon as you enter this enclosed garden you feel as though you have been transported to Japan with its waterfalls, cherry trees and lush gardens.
Houston Museum of Natural Science
It would take several days to fully explore all of the 17 permanent exhibitions in this incredible museum so arrive with a plan.
With so much to see and learn it’s a must-do when in Houston and is one of the most impressive museums that we have visited. The cities space exploration theme was evident as soon as we entered the museum with a gigantic moon towering over our heads, to honour the 50th anniversary of the moon landings.
After checking out the mesmerising pendulum that spans several floors you must visit the amazing Morian Hall of Paleontology where kids in particular will love the huge prehistoric dinosaur skeletons on display.
We also enjoyed the Texas wildlife section and the hall of chemistry which tested the girls knowledge of the periodic table and had lots of fun interactive exhibits before being transported back through time when we visited the Hall of Ancient Egypt and the mummies.
The 500,000 gallon aquarium adventure exhibit is home to 300 different species of marine life from all over the world. We saw alligators at the Louisiana Swamp, got close to a giant pacific octopus in the shipwreck before the girls were transfixed by the teeth of the red-bellied piranha in the rainforest exhibit.
The aquarium offers many interactive activities for kids including opportunities to touch sea creatures such as stingrays at stingray reef which was really scary especially when they jump out of the water at feeding time, but super fun – our kids loved it.
Strangely for an aquarium you can also get a chance to marvel at rare white Bengal tigers in the Maharaja’s Temple which offers a unique experience.
After exploring the aquarium climb the stairs to check out the restaurant and bar area with its huge wraparound, offering a dining experience as if you are under the sea. Kids will also be drawn to the amusement rides at the aquarium especially shark voyage which takes you on a ride through the centre of the 200,000 gallon shark tank.
Space Center Houston
The Space Center Houston was the one attraction that we were all so looking forward to visiting and it certainly didn’t disappoint.
It was well worth the 11 hour flight from London to Texas to experience this amazing attraction. It was fascinating and inspiring, giving us a glimpse into the life of a NASA astronaut and the history and future plans of US space travel.
Make sure to book onto one of the NASA tram tours early as it’s the most popular attraction and gets really busy later in the day, so it’s best to arrive early. As the Apollo mission control room was getting refurbished to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the moon landings we went on the astronaut training tour.
This 90 minute tour gave us a tour of the campus and a behind the scenes look at where NASA astronauts train for current missions and where scientists and engineers are developing the next generation of space exploration vehicles. All that and more before stopping off to see an actual Saturn V rocket.
After lunch at the back at the main plaza there were lots of inspiring shows and interactive exhibits to learn about space which are really child friendly and educational – there was so much to see and do here it’s advisable to arrive with a plan.
We got close to spacecraft, including Gemini V, Faith 7 and Apollo 17 and touched one of the few moon rocks on earth available to the public, walked through the Skylab trainer (here astronauts first trained for life in space) before learning about how NASA plans to visit Mars in the future.
The finale of our visit was to Independence Plaza, a truly amazing exhibit where we got to walk inside both the original shuttle carrier aircraft NASA 905 and the full scale replica of the Independence space shuttle.
A short drive from the Space Center Houston was the coastal town of Kemah – home of Kemah Boardwalk which stretches out over the Gulf of Mexico. Kemah Boardwalk provides a good old fashioned seaside amusement park experience like you see in the movies with shops, rides, carnival games and restaurants.
We exchanged our CityPASS booklets which gave us unlimited ride passes so we could ride any of the attractions as many times as we liked, much to the delight of the girls.
There are rides here for all the family including a Double-Decker Carousel, the Bullet a 96-foot wooden roller coaster and 65-foot Century Ferris Wheel which provides amazing views from the top of the boardwalk and coastline.
If you have experienced the Tower of Terror ride at Disney it is nothing compared to the 140 ft Drop Zone free fall here. The Kemah train was my personal favourite which takes you on a lovely little tour of the area.
Dine at Tookies
After visiting Kemah Boardwalk we called at Tookies, which was recommended to us. Although we were a little apprehensive when we pulled up outside( I guess you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover) we were rewarded with some of the best burgers we have ever tasted, complemented with great friendly service.
I can now understand why the locals love Tookies so much. If you are in the area visiting Space Center Houston or Kemah Boardwalk, a dinner at Tookies is a must.
Children’s Museum Houston
We had heard good things about the Children’s Museum in Houston which was why we skipped visiting the Doseum in San Antonio and the Thinkery in Austin and after visiting I can now understand why it is so highly rated – its by far the best children’s museum that we have been to.
Perfect for kids of primary school age (3 – 11 years) a highlight for our kids was Kidtropolis – a city designed for kids to run and where they can earn a salary for doing jobs which is very similar to one of their favourite places to visit KidZania.
Don’t miss the climbing towers at PowerPlay and the water area of FlowWorks outside – not only do you get to learn about the properties of water it’s also a great way to cool off.
For children aged 8 and over they can enlist in S.E.C.R.E.T the only digital spy interactive experience in Houston where they have to go on special missions to save the museum.
Shop at the Galleria
For our shopping fix in Houston downtown offers very little so the best place to visit was the Galleria, a huge shopping mall with over 400 shops and 50 restaurants – it even has its own ice skating rink in the middle of the mall.
Here we found all of our favourite stores from Bath and Body Works, Macys, Disney Store and the girls new favourite store Justice for Girls.
If you have younger kids and want a break from shopping take them to the Little Galleria play area complete with mini-versions of Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Williams Tower on the Gallerias second level.
A 15 minute drive from our hotel in downtown, the mall offers free parking and although we heard that traffic and parking can be a problem here at peak times we had no problem getting a space.
Buffalo Bayou Park
It’s worth stopping at Buffalo Bayou Park – a Houston landmark and a great park for kids to run around and explore, we loved it here. The girls came across cool slides and climbing nets but for me one of the main reasons to visit is for the great views of the city skyline.
Buffalo Bayou Cistern is also found here, and during a guided tour you can see the cities first underground reservoir that was built in the 1920s.
You can also find Texas’ second largest bat colony ( the largest is in Austin) where 250,000 bats fly out over the Buffalo Bayou each night under the Waugh drive bridge.
Watch a game or take a behind the scenes tour
Downtown Houston is the perfect location for sports fans. We could see Minute Maid Park – home of MLB team Houston Astros and the Toyota Center home to the NBA Houston Rockets from our bedroom windows at the Hilton and both were a short walk from our hotel. The city’s soccer team Houston Dynamo and the NFL side Houston Texans stadiums were only a short drive away from downtown Houston.
You can take a behind the scenes tours of both Minute Maid Park (home of the Houston Astros) where you can sit in the dugout next to the field or if basketball is your sport you can take a tour of the Toyota Center for a behind the scenes look at the home of the Houston Rockets.
We were planning on visiting NRG stadium home of the Houston Texans for a tour as my husband loves the NFL but these are only run on certain days/times of the week so unfortunately we missed out.
Here are some of the other suggestions and recommendations we had for our visit to Houston that we didn’t have time to cover on this trip but are worth checking out.
Where to Stay
Before our holiday to Houston Texas we spent countless hours researching which area to stay at but nothing can prepare you for just how vast this city is.
We looked at hotels in the Galleria and Museum District areas where lots of the city’s hotels are located, but we were really happy with our choice – the Hilton Americas Houston in downtown Houston. – Read our review here
Our rooms were spacious, modern and trendy and we felt that the downtown location of the Hilton Americas Houston offered the perfect base to explore what the city had to offer.
Other hotels that were highly recommended and worth checking out are below
Driving in one of the biggest cities in the United States can be challenging but with the benefits of Google maps we were fine and felt that having a car is essential to make the most of what the city has to offer basically because it’s so vast.
Although the metro system is convenient and easy to use and great to get around the city from downtown to the Museum District, we felt safer travelling by car or taxi especially with kids.
If you are staying at the Hilton Americas Houston take advantage of their complimentary shuttle service that will take you and pick you up from any location in downtown Houston from 7am to 7pm.