A Guide to the Best of Houston’s Museum District
Houston’s Museum District understandably earns worldwide accolades by bringing together 18 different museums and cultural centers all within walking distance of each other. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Houston Museum of Natural Science; and Houston Zoo make up the main draws, but visitors (even locals!) should also add another day or two onto their itinerary and check out Holocaust Museum Houston, Houston Museum of African American Culture, the Health Museum, and Buffalo Soldiers National Museum. Anyone curious about the many various cultures represented in the city can explore Asia Society Texas, Italian Cultural and Community Center, and Czech Center Museum Houston.
Hermann Park is the true beating heart of the city, though. Spend even 30 minutes there and listen to the variety of beautiful languages being spoken around you. Take in a free concert or play at Miller Outdoor Theatre, stroll the Japanese garden, and buy some nibbles at Ginger Kale while contemplating renting a paddle boat.
Along with Downtown, the Museum District provides some of the best free and low-cost activities in the city—and not just at the aforementioned Miller Outdoor Theatre. HMNS and MFAH both offer free general admissions on Thursdays, and many of the nearby museums, galleries, and cultural centers themselves are also free. Hermann Park and McGovern Centennial Gardens offer an overlooked, but highly informative series of free workshops on gardening and other naturalistic topics designed to teach Houstonians about the earthly joys found right here at home.
With so much natural beauty mixed in among the recent development, the Museum District embodies many of the qualities that make Houston a world-class city: The diversity of backgrounds collected at Hermann Park, the ability for all budgets to find something fun to do, and the commitment to arts, culture, and history.
The Best of the Museum District
Drink Like a Local
Specifically the Monarch restaurant and lounge within Hotel Zaza, or Poolside if you happen to be staycationing. While the food is undeniably excellent, locals know that the hotel’s cocktails stand out. The Paloma Diablo adds a touch of jalapeño to spice up the classic tequila drink, while the Strawberry and Black Pepper Mule combines two familiar flavors in a delightfully unfamiliar way. But really, everything there is excellent.
Grand Prize Bar
Given its location right on the border between neighborhoods, Grand Prize Bar blends Montrose’s laid-back cool with the Museum District’s taste for excellent food and cocktails. Its menu changes regularly, but March 2023 sees its first-ever Cooking for a Cause, where the bar’s former chefs return every Wednesday to cook up tasty meals benefiting the ACLU.
Yes, wine exists outside of Rice Village. This friendly spot offers an impressive selection of wines and tapas-style dining featuring dishes prepared specifically to pair with their vast portfolio. As the name implies, the bar makes for a perfect spot for resting your feet and unwinding after a long day of exploring Houston’s excellent museums.
Eat Like a Local
Mo Better Brews
Mo Better Brews deserves a hallowed slot on every Houstonian’s regular brunch rotation. Featuring a breezy patio, strong coffee, and a brilliant playlist, it serves vegan dishes with a particular flair for Southern-style comfort food. The “chik'n” fried mushrooms and grits receives the most raves, but you can’t go wrong with the bagel and “lox” or “Smokey Rob” pizza featuring smoked oyster mushrooms.
A beautiful, cozy house featuring southern food named after the owners’ beloved grandmother Lucille B. Smith, herself a celebrated culinary innovator, entrepreneur, and educator. Enjoy established classics like braised oxtails and shrimp or catfish and grits (try them with a side of the fried green tomatoes) or more contemporary, uniquely Houstonian fare like the oxtail tamales or grilled octopus with coconut curry and peanuts. Lucille’s has mastered the art of balancing the tried-and-true with the emerging and new.
The atmosphere at Reggae Hut radiates joy, from the bright colors to the ecstatic Caribbean menu. If you simply want a quick pattie and some plantains or a full jerk chicken meal with rice and peas and a bottle of homemade ginger beer, you can find your satisfying fill at this Houston institution. Those of you with sensitive palates take note: that homemade ginger beer is STRONG!
Green Seed Vegan
Even a big meal at green seed vegan will leave you feeling refreshed and energized, not heavy and sluggish. Their fresh, flavorful menu features a delicious array of cooked dishes as well as smoothies, but the raw dishes are the real highlights. The tacos made with sunflower walnut chorizo, “rawrrito” with zucchini bacon, and nori rolls encasing a divine almond pâté are standouts among an already long list of standouts.
Shop Like a Local
Museum gift shops
Support local museums and find great gifts for yourself (and everyone on your shopping list) with one swipe of your card. From branded merch to educational toys to jewelry, home decor, and an incredible selection of books you may not even find at Houston Public Library, you’re sure to find the perfect present.
Feeling inspired after your latest trip to the MFAH or CAMH? Art Supply is located right there on Almeda Road to help you indulge all your creative whims. Even if the craving doesn’t hit until after you get back home, don’t fret: they still have a generous online shop.
Melodrama Boutique always stays on trend when it comes to femme fashion, but takes things one step further by spotlighting local designers. No matter what you’re looking for, from a casual brunch with friends to a black-tie wedding, this is a one-stop-shop to find showstopping looks. Make sure to check out Melodrama’s lovely selection of home goods, too!
Hang Out Like a Local
There’s no need to pack a picnic basket for your jaunts to Hermann Park. Ginger Kale serves as the park’s official snack bar, offering a menu full of staples like hamburgers and hot dogs and some newcomers like the Japanese-style egg salad sandwich, vegetarian-friendly açai bowls, and several avocado toast options. Make sure to leave room for a chia pudding dessert!
Though part of Asia Society Texas, Java Lava still stands on its own as a fun spot for coffee and light bites on its own. The bright, airy shop serves Hawaiian coffee and dishes inspired by the island (try the salmon musubi) alongside breakfast favorites. Other menu standouts include the Hanoi egg coffee and golden oat latte.
Cafe Leonelli is located inside the Museum of Fine Art, Houston’s Kinder Building and focuses on quick Italian food for both visitors on the go as well as friends looking for a nice, relaxing pitstop in the middle of a museum day. Their focaccia, particularly the truffle potato, is especially great, and we also recommend Cafe Leonelli’s pastries for a tasty, quick bite.
For Outdoor Enthusiasts
Sitting on 445 acres of natural beauty, free and low-cost entertainment, and food, Hermann Park is the home of festivals, concerts, a train, Japanese gardens, ponds, fountains, and impressive wildlife. If something isn’t happening there, it just means that something else is in the works. No visit to Houston is complete without a day exploring this critical Houston institution.
A fun fact about the Houston Zoo is that it’s the second-most visited zoo in the country, with the San Diego Zoo claiming the top spot. Outside of its impressive collections—with a world-class Galápagos exhibit set to open in April—Houston Zoo also involves itself in global conservation initiatives. The central theme around the different animal enclosures reflect this, and the zoo’s placards and literature are full of information about how to support endangered and otherwise threatened species.
McGovern Centennial Gardens
McGovern Centennial Gardens often goes overlooked because it sits right across the street from its bigger parent, Hermann Park. But it comprises just as much of Houston’s heart, showcasing dramatic, impressive feats of landscaping, sculpture, and architecture spread out over eight acres. True to its origins as the former Houston Garden Center, the Family Garden section encourages children to learn about local seasonal foods and how to cultivate them at home.
Cockrell Butterfly Center
Part of the beloved Houston Museum of Natural Science, the Cockrell Butterfly Center feels like a tropical paradise nestled within our subtropical home. Put on your brightest clothes and get up close to hundreds of ephemeral, fluttering jewels and exotic flora. HMNS had closed the Cockrell Butterfly Center for renovations, but it reopened this March.
For Art Lovers
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
In a global city like Houston, it makes sense that the main artistic attraction embraces a global perspective as well. MFAH is set to open its expanded Islamic Art Center in early March, and over the past few years has invited installation artists from around the world to encourage visitors to explore and play with the exhibits. Even their non-installation shows still contain considerable interactivity. The recent M.C. Escher retrospective, for example, invited hands-on learning about how optical illusions work.
Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
Conveniently located right across the street from MFAH, CAMH admission is always free and features rotating exhibitions rather than a permanent collection. It also approaches the arts through a multicultural, international vantage point, with an emphasis on contemporary sociopolitical issues. All this without medium bias. You’re just as likely to watch video loops as you are to walk around paintings as if in a traditional gallery.
Houston Center for Contemporary Craft
Traditional crafts unfortunately don’t receive the same accolades as studio art, though they’re just as valid as aesthetic objects. HCCC celebrates crafts as simultaneously functional and fashionable, and offers a number of classes and workshops to help ensure that the different practices don’t die out. They also host artists in residence to encourage promising craft talent to continue furthering their individual visions and overall contribution to their chosen media. Like CAMH, admission is always free.
Though it operates out of Midtown’s MATCH (Midtown Arts and Theater Center Houston) rather than the Museum District neighborhood proper, the Museum District Association still considers DiverseWorks part of itself. We’re not going to argue with the final authority on the subject! DiverseWorks focuses on amplifying both local and national writers, visual artists, and performers struggling to find a home for their work. Many of these creatives directly challenge major social issues, and are themselves first-timers wanting a leg up in their respective industries.
Lawndale Art Center
Living artists from around the world and working in a variety of disciplines congregate at Lawndale Art Center to showcase pieces emphasizing the current news and problems of today. It presents a wide range of lectures, film screenings, and other events meant to further build on the major themes present in its exhibitions.
For Date Night
Miller Outdoor Theatre
Pack a picnic (or grab a to-go meal at nearby Ginger Kale) and a blanket for an inexpensive night of dinner and a show. Most of Miller Outdoor Theatre’s concerts, dance performances, and plays are free to enjoy, though you may have to spend a little extra if you want to sit in the pavilion’s seats. 2023 marks the 100th anniversary of the beloved stage and its amazing acoustics, so programmers are pulling out even more stops than usual in celebration.
Movies at MFAH
MFAH’s film programming offers rarities and international films that you won’t find at your neighborhood theater, including film festivals (the Iranian Film Festival is especially well-curated), lectures, and special screenings with the directors and actors themselves in attendance. The Movies Houstonians Love series brings in notable locals to show off their favorites. MFAH also partners with the Houston Film Critics Society for one-of-a-kind programming throughout the year.
Cullen Sculpture Garden
Another perfect picnic spot, particularly if you and your date love the visual arts. Though part of the MFAH, you don’t need to pay any admission to enter. Settle down at one of the tables or benches for your meal before taking a walk and soaking in works by master sculptors such as Henri Matisse, Auguste Rodin, Joan Miró, and many more. In fact, the overarching garden itself is a sculpture by Isamu Noguchi!
Burke Baker Planetarium
Romantic nights under the stars aren’t exactly feasible inside Houston city limits, given the extensive light pollution and all. HMNS’s Burke Baker Planetarium is the next best thing, offering a range of shows to teach you about the cosmos, including rundowns of a typical backyard night sky, black holes, and even ancient star-tracking techniques. Not into astronomy? You can also catch laser shows set to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and a look at the last days of the dinosaurs.
The Jung Center
Named after groundbreaking psychologist Carl Jung, this interdisciplinary organization devotes itself to plumbing the depths of human philosophy, art, and potential through lectures, meditation sessions, art, self-help workshops, and more. Even if you’re not ready to attend events, you can still stop in and browse the bookstore for some fascinating new additions to your reading list.
Houston Museum of African American Culture
Houston isn’t Houston at all without the cultural influence of its Black communities. Houston Museum of African American Culture takes a broad look at the African diaspora, with exhibitions ranging in scope from the local to the international. Because of this, it doesn’t limit itself to the type of media it presents. You can attend film screenings and lectures, read their latest research in online white papers, browse art shows, support Black artists through their shop, and plenty more.
Asia Society Texas
Houston has also been critically shaped by its Asian communities, and Asia Society Texas is one of twelve centers across the United States meant to help educate, celebrate, and preserve Asian and Asian-American culture. Through film festivals, art shows, performances, holiday celebrations, lectures, architecture tours, and more, it commits itself to dispelling stereotypes and teaching the world about the sheer diversity found across Asia. Asia Society Texas also offers classes in Tai Chi, Qigong, mahjong, and the Korean language.
Italian Cultural and Community Center
Live la dolce vita at the Italian Cultural and Community Center, which opened in 1976 thanks to the collaboration of 20 different Italian-American organizations hoping to celebrate both one another as well as the greater Italian diaspora. In addition to travel opportunities oriented on cultural exchange and language lessons for all skill levels, the Center also hosts movie nights, luncheons with the latest Italian fashions, cooking classes (to not offer cooking classes would be an insult to the culture), and wine tastings.
Czech Center Museum Houston
The history of Czech immigrants in Texas understandably tends to focus on the hill country, but the community still has a foothold in Houston that deserves recognition. Czech Center Museum Houston also serves as a cultural center with language lessons, regular happy hours, and an oral history project collecting the stories of Czech families in the city. Movie nights here are always free, and they host art shows from Czech and Slovak artists as well as exhibitions examining immigrant experiences from other nations, most recently Mexico.
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