With summer, aka HELL ON EARTH, in full swing here in the Big Easy, it seems we’re all looking for something original to do in the city-- something fun and exciting to help take our minds off of work stress, the ridiculous heat or just everyday life problems. With a number of inner-city festivals and parades dwindling as the summer months get hotter, maybe the exact thing all New Orleanians need to do is to begin exploring neighboring cities and states. My first recommendation, you ask? Look no further than the booming downtown area of Houston, Texas!
Downtown Houston began its revitalization in the mid-1990s, and since then, more than $6.1 billion worth of buildings, parks, and infrastructure have been fully completed. Today, there are more than $2.2 billion being spent on new downtown construction projects alone, with another $2 billion being spent on pre-development and design for future projects into 2020. Additionally, Houston continues to welcome waves of new businesses relocating offices to its central business district. By 2019, urban professionals will see an additional 1.5 million square feet of office space being completed, as well as seven new, modern and lavish hotel high-rises dotting the already gorgeous downtown skyline.
Furthermore, who can overlook the vast success of two of Houston’s most beloved urban parks: Discovery Green and Market Square Park – both of which have been heavily attributed for being the economic catalyst for growth in the eastern and northern ends of downtown Houston, respectively.
With all of this robust activity, combined with its strong economy, a constantly growing urban population, and solidified status as being one of the nation’s top culinary and entertainment destinations, it’s not hard to understand how downtown Houston has transformed itself into the “It” area in Houston.
A mere 5-hour drive from the greater New Orleans area, it’s easy to see why Houston makes a great weekend getaway destination. I recently had the chance to experience downtown Houston in all of its fresh, booming glory, and here are some of my personal must-sees for the next time you find yourself there.
1. Market Square Park: Market Square Park is a gorgeous public park in the downtown area. The square was donated to the city of Houston in 1854 by Augustus Allen and was used as an open-air market for years. Today, the historic park area is home to many activities such as live entertainment, tasty local temptations, and even dog runs as the park is completely dog-friendly. Locals love to bring a blanket, some food and their four-legged friends on Sundays to relax on the bountiful green landscapes across the park. Be sure to bring your bikes on the last Friday of every month as the bike tour “Critical Mass” holds designated rides in the park area.
2. Discovery Green: Since 2008, Discovery Green has been downtown Houston’s newest public park. Located on Avenida de las Americas across from the Hilton Americas Hotel and George R. Brown Convention Center, the park includes a lake, designated performance areas for music/entertainment acts, two dog runs, a children’s area, and multiple recreational spots for fitness junkies. The almost 12-acre area will also be used as the central hub for the upcoming 2017 NFL Super Bowl as it arrives in Houston next February. While there are so many different features to the park, my personal favorite is The Grove, a gorgeously modern restaurant that can be seen as you enter Discovery Green. With its floor-to-ceiling glass windows, The Grove restaurant offers an elegant urban dining experience where you’re surrounded by the lush landscapes of the park at a full 360 degrees. The restaurant also grows its own herbs and produce on its environmentally-friendly rooftop, which are used in almost all of their daily food specials. Be sure to check out their delicious brunch menu and have a few mimosas as they offer them bottomless during brunch hours.
3. Museum District: The Houston Museum District is comprised of 20 museums, galleries, cultural/art centers, and community organizations dedicated to promoting art, science, culture, and history. These 20 museums record a collective eight million in attendance per year and the district is served by four stops on the Houston METROrail, the 15.2-mile light rail system that operates throughout the city. In the late 1970s, the area now known as the Museum District had fallen into disrepair and badly needed attention from not only local, but state and national government. The Museum District Development Association of Houston proposed a multi-phase plan to revamp the area and help make it more pedestrian-friendly, even citing the French Quarter as an influence. The area is now largely cited as a huge success for the city of Houston. The two major highlights of the area for me are The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and Hotel ZaZa.
Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts is one of the largest museums in the United States spanning multiple facilities over 270,000 square feet. The museum’s permanent collection covers more than 6,000 years of history with over 64,000 unique works of art. Currently, the museum’s coup de grace is the Kusama: At the End of the Universe exhibition featuring two of artist Yayoi Kusama’s signature infinity rooms. I had the pleasure of experiencing both infinity rooms and both were absolute marvels. Nearby the museum, we entered the world of Hotel Zaza, where modern comforts unite with fascinating design elements unlike any hotel you’ve ever seen. Be sure to have a cocktail in the outdoor area of the hotel’s restaurant, Monarch, as the drinks and view of the district are to die for.
4. Four Seasons Houston: The Four Seasons Hotel Houston is the only AAA Four Diamond hotel in downtown Houston, and boy does it show. As with most Four Seasons properties around the world, Four Seasons Hotel Houston is known for its services and bountiful amenities. The hotel has one of the city’s most premier restaurants nestled inside on the third floor, Quattro, featuring an Italian-style menu with breakfast, lunch, dinner and an antipasto bar. The bar, aptly named Vinoteca, offers one of the city’s best Happy Hours with premium spirits and a wide array of live music offerings. The hotel itself currently houses 468 guest rooms, including 64 luxury residences and 12 specialty suites throughout its 30 floors. Currently, the hotel is undergoing new renovations, due to be completed just in time for the 2017 Super Bowl, which will help re-launch the hotel with a whole new appearance that is uniquely “Tex-centric.”
Once you experience the food and drink offerings in the hotel, pay a visit to the newly renovated spa & fitness center on the fourth floor of the hotel. The fitness center houses some of the world’s most powerful gym equipment, as well as a series of unique wellness classes for unwinding and self-reflecting. Once you’ve broken a sweat, take a dip in the world-class outdoor pool complete with cabana bar and jacuzzi. If relaxing is more your style, be sure to grab a facial, massage, or mani/pedi at the Spa Center, which is currently being hailed as one of the city’s premiere spa destinations. All in all, you could spend your entire stay without ever leaving the Four Seasons Hotel Houston and still have one of the most relaxing vacations of your life, guaranteed.
5. One Park Place Building: Only a block away from the Four Seasons Hotel Houston is One Park Place, a 518-foot tall apartment building located adjacent to Discovery Green. While the building itself has 346 apartment units, the ground flour houses a specialty grocery store called Phoenicia Specialty Foods, a comfort food restaurant and gastro pub labeled as MKT Bar, and a soon-to-be French brasserie and crêperie called Brasserie Du Parc. Walking into Phoenicia, you’re immediately hit with the smells of delicious breads being baked on site. Hailed as downtown Houston’s first major grocery store, the site also houses a wine bar, café, delicatessen and coffee bar. Also located inside of the grocery store is MKT Bar, where breakfast, late lunch, dinner and weekend brunch is served in a casual yet exciting atmosphere. Be sure to try one of Houston’s local beers as their craft brew selection is absolutely top-notch. Finally, renowned Houston chef Philippe Verpiand of Étoile is set to open his new, authentic French brasserie in the Fall of 2016. Overlooking Discovery Green, the 3,000-square foot restaurant space is set to feature a 360-degree square bar with a dedicated bar menu, as well as a formal dining area with traditional offerings.
6. Restaurants El Big Bad & La Fisheria: Downtown Houston is a haven for wonderful lunch and dinner spots scattered about, especially Mexican and Tex-Mex faire. One of my favorite spots was El Big Bad, a gastro-cantina that offers tons of infused tequilas, fresh juice margaritas and super fresh Mexican dishes. Be sure to try the Green Chile Guidasa, a slow-cooked pork stew with spicy tomatillos and green chili peppers, and pair it with a Cucumber Mint Margarita to cool those taste buds down. Next, stop on by La Fisheria Seafood & Mexican Cocina for delicious coastal seafood, upscale plates and scrumptious Mexican cocktails. Start your meal off with the Ceviche De Pescado, a fantasic mix of fresh fish with fresh lime juice, then work your way into the La Pesca Del Dia, which is the chef’s fresh catch of the day served with a lemon capers sauce, sautéed vegetables and fried yucca plant. Also, make sure to wash all of that fresh fish down with a Mexican Martini featuring Wahaka Mezcal and Grand Marnier.
7. Reserve 101: New Orleans has its fair share of whiskey bars, but none take the cake quite like Houston’s very own Reserve 101. Located about two blocks away from the Four Seasons, this swanky, upscale wooden bar seems to cater exclusively to whiskey connoisseurs. With a relaxed and casual atmosphere, frequent whiskey tastings and the largest selection of whiskey in the state of Texas, Reserve has something for everyone, no matter what your whiskey experience is. The bar is even rated “Gold” by Whiskey Magazine, making it one of the best whiskey bars in the world. Mike Raymond, the owner (and frequent NOLA traveler), recommends the Monkey Banana Sour, which is made with Monkey Should Scotch, house made banana puree, simple syrup, lemon juice, fresh pecan oil and a bit of egg white. If you’re not one for drinks with egg whites, then definitely take a sip of the Black Barrel Black Eye instead, featuring Jameson Black Barrel, Campari, vanilla vodka and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.
So if you find yourself in need of a quick getaway from New Orleans in the next few months, check out what downtown Houston has to offer. Trust me, you won’t regret it!