A Guide to the Best of Downtown Houston
Only about 10,000 people live in downtown Houston, so the majority of moving bodies throughout the neighborhood either work there, flew in for a convention, or stopped in for a ballgame or night of performing arts.
(Fun side note: Did you know that Houston has the country’s second largest number of theater seats concentrated in a downtown area, just after NYC? )
Revitalization efforts over the past decade, particularly concentrated around the convention center and Theater District areas, reinforce Houston’s standing as a diverse, cosmopolitan global player. Along with the Museum District, Downtown is one of the best neighborhoods to find free and low-cost entertainment.
Discovery Green and Market Square Park have calendars packed with live music, movie nights, yoga, and even the occasional epic Doomsday Wrestling show. Houston Public Library’s Downtown outpost offers such a beautiful range of classes, lectures, and special events it’s as much a community center as it is a media repository. And there's always new things to be discovered at the Downtown Aquarium. The oft-overlooked Heritage Society Museum features a stunning art collection, historic home tours, and even opportunities for children to play with 19th century toys. Local purveyor of fine arcade games, Joystix, opens its doors on the first and final Fridays of the month, and for only $15 gamers can spend all night enjoying unlimited play in room upon room of nostalgic digital classics.
The neighborhood’s other claim to fame—with a higher price tag than “free,” sorry to say—is the aforementioned 17-block Theater District. What Montrose and the Museum District are to the visual arts, Downtown is to the performing arts. According to the Theater District’s website, Houston is only one of five American cities boasting “professional resident companies in each of the major performing arts disciplines: ballet, opera, symphony and theater productions.”
(Second fun side note: Robert Pattinson once named Houston his favorite American city after spending an evening exploring Downtown. If it’s good enough for Batman, it’s good enough for us.)
The Best of Downtown
Drink Like a Local
This beachy dive seems plucked straight from the heart of Midtown or Washington Avenue and right into the middle of downtown’s skyscrapers. If you’re thirsty after a night of theater, dance, or live music and want something exuberant and unfussy to cap off your time downtown, head to Sunny’s for a few rounds of pool, darts, and foosball. You may even luck into some test tube or jello shot specials.
If lounges are your scene, the former Dean’s Credit Clothing—now just “Dean’s” to save you a few milliseconds searching for the website—serves up amazing cocktails (try The Wall and The House Shot) and hosts movie nights, open mic comedy, karaoke, and other events. And even if there’s nothing else going on, you can snuggle down in the plush couches and chairs while enjoying time with friends.
Look, we’re going to shamelessly set fire to the comments section here: These days, Houston is weirder than Austin. notsuoH’s commitment to all things experimental and eccentric has been blessing downtown denizens with art, music, chess, kink, performance, and… uhhh… clowns since 1996. It’s everything aficionados of all things curious appreciate in a watering hole. Keep Houston weird, friends. We appreciate you.
There’s no need to fear—Flying Saucer has all the beer! In fact, this Downtown stalwart offers a club where the more you drink, the more rewards you rack up. Keep in mind that you’re limited to how many beers you can log per night, so please don’t do anything that would require medical attention. Finish every drink in the challenge and you’ll get your name immortalized on the bar’s very walls!
Remember that scene from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure where the titular manchild hops up on a biker bar table and steps and flails about to The Champs’ “Tequila?” That’s what our brains do every time we step into El Big Bad, only we don’t chuck the glassware to the floor because we’re not rude. With over 30 different infused tequilas to choose from and excellent Tex-Mex cuisine to soak it all up, it’s the perfect spot for a lazy weekend afternoon or start to a wild night out.
Eat Like a Local
The always-reliable Zero’s only opens for the weekday lunch crowd, providing hungry office dwellers with classic sandwich-chips-and-a-drink lunches (you can add a cookie, too!). It’s a perfect spot for meals that remind you of what you’d carry to school in your lunchbox… or makes it possible to enjoy a delicious, quick working lunch when the boss breathes down your neck.
Irma’s Original doesn’t have a menu. Instead, the offerings change every day based on the freshest ingredients found locally that morning. To wash it all down, no trip to Irma’s is complete without their famous lemonade! Make sure to call ahead if you have any food allergies or dietary restrictions to see if the day’s menu has something you’re not able to eat.
If you enjoy the delicious breakfast options at the other Niko Niko’s locations, you have the Market Square stand to thank. The iconic Greek institution piloted its egg-stuffed pitas here, feeding grateful (not to mention hungry) residents and workers their early morning protein and carbohydrate fixes. Luckily, they’re open until 9 p.m. so you can still enjoy a meal while you take in one of the park’s many and varied entertainment options.
While the Market Square location is no longer with us because nothing beautiful in this cold, cruel world lasts, Treebeard’s legacy of cozy, comforting Southern cuisine lives on in the Downtown tunnels and The Cloister at Christ Church Cathedral. Come hungry, though. Everything on the menu, from the much-loved red beans and rice (vegans, they have an option available for you!) to the generous sides, is designed to make you not want to eat the rest of the day… especially if you’ve finished off your meal with some of the richest desserts this side of Empire Café.
Shop Like a Local
Phoenicia stores should be as ubiquitous as HEB. Let’s put that out there into the universe, shall we, Houstonians? This sumptuous Mediterranean market sells delicious fresh produce, meat, baked goods, and fish alongside imported teas, coffee, pasta, cheeses, olives, housewares, and other staples of Southwest Asian, North African, and Southern European cuisine. They also serve hot and cold meals for those on the go. Phoenicia’s crowning glory, however, is the highly entertaining conveyor belt rolling out their amazing bread, piping hot and begging for a little feta and olive oil on the side.
If you’re looking for a gift for your favorite Astros fan—or if you happen to be your favorite Astros fan (we’re not here to judge)—you can find some exclusive team merch right there at Minute Maid Park. It’s open during the off-season, too, and offers authentic game-used balls, jerseys, and more team swag that has been officially confirmed by Major League Baseball.
Everything we just said about the Astros shop applies to the official Rockets shop, too. You just have to swap out the team names. And sports. And go to Toyota Center instead of Minute Maid Park. Last we checked, the Rockets haven’t won any championships since Hakeem Olajuwan was in short shorts, but their merch is still pretty cool.
Hang Out Like a Local
While primarily known as a food hall in the Bank of America tower, Understory provides enough options to keep people coming Downtown even after work lets out. It hosts monthly markets featuring small local vendors, as well as installations advertised as perfect selfie spots for you and your friends. Even if you can’t stick around for long, you can still take a second to enjoy the rotating artist features up on the walls.
Discovery Green’s sunny café features indoor and outdoor dining options when you want a quick burger, taco, hot dog, or other classic snacks while you’re visiting the park. Best of all, it tends to keep extended hours whenever a major event is happening—and they seem to happen pretty often. Try to go during Comicpalooza if you can. Many a cosplayer takes a break at Discovery Green for photo shoots, so you can admire their detailed handiwork while you tuck in to your food.
Given that MKT Bar is located within Phoenicia Specialty Foods, you know the food and drinks are going to be stellar. Their Grocery Get Down events provide live music and seasonal specials, and they adorn the walls with different artists that change out every few months. But even stripped of its artistic leanings, MKT Bar’s food and drinks stand out, particularly the pizzas and charcuterie. Saturdays and Sundays offer up an all-day brunch menu featuring Texas and Mediterranean interpretations of established classics (try the baklava pancakes and chicken and waffles with maple syrup infused with Moroccan spices).
For Outdoor Enthusiasts
Along with Hermann Park, Discovery Green is one of the city’s premiere destinations for free and low-cost entertainment. Seriously, just take a peek at that calendar for this upcoming spring and early summer alone. Live music, art, flea markets, yoga, a book fest, the temporary roller rink… and all of this in addition to a water park, pond, food vendors, playground, and dog run. There’s always something, and it’s always worthwhile. Parking here can be a challenge, but that’s true of anywhere in Houston.
Though only a fraction of Discovery Green’s size, Market Square Park is no slouch when it comes to entertaining Houstonians in search of free or otherwise affordable entertainment. There’s always the dog park, Historic Remnants art by Richard Turner, Lauren’s Garden memorial, and the Niko Niko’s food stand. The park often hosts movie nights, bingo games, and live music. Be sure to keep an eye out for other events such as Doomsday Wrestling shows (they’re an all-ages-friendly delight!) and arts markets.
Sam Houston Park offers an amazing array of programming to help residents get to know the city’s past, including the Kellum-Noble House. Built in 1847, UNESCO recognizes the city’s oldest-confirmed home as a Site of Memory associated with the country’s slave route. The house itself isn’t going to be a light and fluffy experience; history often isn’t. But it needs—demands, even—acknowledgement.
Tranquility Park commemorates the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing with appropriately midcentury sci-fi aesthetics. It’s a peaceful place to take a walk during the day and a beautiful, dramatic viewing experience at night.
For Art Lovers
Though mainly known as the home of Houston Ballet and Houston Grand Opera, the two different halls that make up Wortham Center host live music, plays, comedy, and other performances. They’ve also got a kids’ matinee series so you can introduce your little ones to Shakespeare, musicals, and more!
One of the crown jewels of Houston’s world-class theater scene, the Alley hosts premieres and major highlights on its main stage in the Hubbard Theater, while the black box Neuhaus Stage focuses on more experimental and hardlined shows. Every summer, catch one of their signature murder mysteries to add a little chill to your sweltering nights. Not in the mood for theater? Alley is also one of the spots where you can catch Inprint’s $5 Margarett Root Brown Lecture Series events!
Houston Symphony and Performing Arts Houston (formerly Society for the Performing Arts) call Jones Hall home, though plenty of traveling lecturers, comedians, dancers, storytellers, and musicians also pass through to entertain the city. Please note that while PAH operates out of Jones Hall, not every event they hold is hosted here.
Hobby Center for the Performing Arts
Give your regards to Broadway without having to hop on an airplane. Traveling productions for Broadway Across America - Houston and Theatre Under the Stars (which also produces local musicals) play here beneath the famed sparkling ceiling. How do you think TUTS got their name, anyway?
Houston Ballet’s main productions are held at the Wortham Center, but dance fans can still enjoy other performances, often recitals, at the company’s 175-seat Margaret Alkek Williams Dance Lab. They also host classes for kids and adults at all experience levels, with financial aid options available.
For Date Night
Montrose residents may miss the wonderful drag shows at Hamburger Mary’s, but it’s hard to be too upset considering their new Downtown home has a stunning two-story stage, complete with appropriately dramatic balcony seating. The queens deserve the spotlight! Even if you’re not in the mood for song, dance, and jokes, you and a date can enjoy the smaller, more intimate bar located in the front for one of the joint’s titular (pun intended) specials and a kitschy cocktail sipped out of a plastic leg.
As the name probably tipped you off, Bayou Music Center is one of the premiere destinations for seeing big-name music and comedy acts in Houston. Depending on what act performs that night, the line to get in can stretch across the entirety of the Bayou Place. Don’t believe us? Drive by it sometime when a KPOP act swings into town. Reserved seating and standing room only general admission are both available.
Reliable and romantic, this New American spot sits nestled in a 19-century building with exposed brick and antique (or antique-inspired) décor. Sip on wine and cocktails (try the Flaming Leah and old fashioned) and nibble on their excellent smoked gouda grits, deviled eggs, and a selection of bright, fresh salads. Hearsay also offers a stellar brunch menu on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, for those of you who prefer date days to date nights.
You don’t even need a date to enjoy a night out at Xochi. You don’t even need friends. But it certainly makes the experience all the better. This Hugo Ortega masterpiece serves lush Oaxacan dishes with a heavy emphasis on mole that ranks up there with La Guadalupana’s. Cap off the evening with some of their incredible hot chocolate. Not every date needs booze to turn up the heat, after all.
Sambuca features live music, primarily jazz and Latin, every night of the week except Sunday. If you love dancing but don’t love that the Downtown clubs don’t typically serve food, this is where to go for classic dishes like filet mignon, salmon, and chicken to pair with your wine, cocktails, or mocktails (even if you drink alcohol, make room for one or two of these!).
Located in Sam Houston Park, The Heritage Society overlooks the old buildings on the property and holds educational programming for kids and adults alike. Its permanent exhibitions include a replica of the Duncan General Store, a Model T Ford, and 10 different historic homes, churches, and playhouses. A variety of specialized tours are also available, focusing on Black history, women’s history, and architecture. It’s going to take more than one day for history buffs to really soak up everything, but if your time is tight, the docent-led home tours last about two hours.
Though not in the part of Downtown labeled “Theater District,” Rec Room still deserves accolades as a primo spot to watch daring, experimental work by emerging talent as well as established artists looking to try something new. If you’re on a tight budget, they sometimes host free performances in their bar.
Pac-Man Fever Fridays at Joystix
On the first and last Friday of each month, from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., get to Joystix and for just $15, you can get an unlimited play pass to more than 200 classic and contemporary arcade games. There’s even a bar next door (Eighteen Twenty Lounge) for refueling. Seriously it’s one of the best deals going when it comes to an epic night out that you’ll never forget.
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