Best of Houstonia

100 Things Every Houstonian Must Do

Presenting your local bucket list: 100 things that simply must be done if you’re to experience the unique seductiveness that is Houston.

By Houstonia Staff October 29, 2014 Published in the November 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Sure, there are lots of things yoU might do, an almost infinite number actually. But which of them are foundational? Which must be done if you’re to experience the unique seductiveness that is Houston? Which will ensure your graceful survival in this wild, still untamed land? Which can take our city to even greater heights? Bucket lists are nice, but we wanted something more, a psychographic, time-bending roadmap of sorts, one guaranteed to transform even the most reluctant Houstonian from pundit into patriot. Needless to say, our list is a more challenging one, equal parts soul-searching and celebratory, packed with lots of things you’ll love to do and not a few you’d rather not. But which you must. You simply must. (Editor's Note: Now updated for 2017.)

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The Katy Tigers

Image: Todd Spoth

Crash A Homecoming

Really. As mum-pinned sophomores everywhere will tell you, there’s nothing quite like Friday night under the lights. Still, Houston high schools take homecoming to a whole new level, their multimedia spectacles combining nostalgia, school spirit, and big-time football into one unforgettable package (typically). And there’s no place like home (coming), either. Each campus’s unique personality comes through on such evenings, from The Woodlands’s swankiness to Conroe’s aw-shucks affair to Katy High’s approach, precise and serious as a heart attack.

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Image: Sam Washburn

Learn To Hurricane

California has earthquakes. The Midwest has tornados. We have tropical cyclones. And whenever one such ominous mass comes spiraling our way, you’d better do what’s required, by which we mean load up on more plywood, water, gas, and duct tape than one household could possibly require. More important, you’d better do the lingo—knowing what it means to hunker down isn’t enough. Houstonians can parse storm surge and storm tide, can tell a hurricane watch (turn on the Weather Channel) from a hurricane warning (get out now), and can brandish terms like vortex with ease.

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Make Your Own Damn Tamales

Tamales 101, Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen

You’ve succumbed to them late at night when the tamale lady sweeps through the bar, splitting your foil-wrapped bounty with friends and hogging the fiery green salsa. You’ve ordered them a thousand times at your neighborhood Tex-Mex spot. And you’ve cadged a dozen from your friend’s abuela or that secret place on Navigation come Christmastime, having somehow appropriated the traditions of Harlingen and San Antonio. If you can do all that, well…

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Sport Native Dress

There are Rice Village boutiques by Chloe Dao and Elaine Turner. There are designers like Jonathan Blake, David Peck, or Amir Taghi, three up-and-coming names who continue to redefine Houston’s sense of style. And then there are the streets of Manhattan, where more and more of the foregoing’s work can be seen these days. Don’t let New Yorkers co-opt our emerging garment district. Buy local!

Be Nice, At Least To Their Face

Let there be no confusion. It is clear to us beyond a shadow of a doubt that the haircut you got was not good. In fact, we loathe it. But telling you this—contrary to the opinion of New Yorkers and such, who seem to believe that the only alternative to brutal honesty is a tumor—would serve no purpose. It would only drive us apart. Lying about another’s haircut is a vote for society, for the belief that everyone deserves a modicum of dignified treatment, coif be damned. So say it—"I love your haircut." You can always gossip about it later.

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Image: Shutterstock

Play Bingo

Originally known as beano (players covered numbers with beans) and quickly co-opted by the Catholic Church as a more lucrative revenue stream than tithing, bingo now enjoys a popularity that belies its humble beginnings as a pill for gas relief. Heh. Anyway, no one plays the game with the zeal and tenacity, the Grand Guignol brutality, of Houston’s bingorati, whose intolerance of pantywaists is matched only by their ability to run 30 cards while being hooked up to an oxygen tank. Fun/fascinating? Absolutely. Just don’t shout BINGO! unless you’re prepared for a deafening chorus of boos and a roomful of stink-eye. Try these local favorite bingo parlors to start: Big Tex Bingo, SPJST Lodge 88, Family Bingo Center.

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Image: Sam Washburn

Get Polyglot

Sure, you can hear more than 100 languages spoken in Houston on any given day, but how many of them can be heard in your home? We thought so. Why not put your money where your diversity-loving mouth is, and master a foreign tongue? Do it for fun (Japanese at the Japan-America Society? Why not?), do it before taking that trip abroad (FS Language Services will be glad to help), or do it for your job (ditto the Texas School of Languages). Just do it. Or rather, simplement fais-le.

Stop Crowing About How Great This Place Is

It’s one thing when we hear recent émigrés gush with relief that this city isn’t the province of vapid swamp creatures, that our torpor is not intellectual, only climatological, that Houston isn’t so bad after all. Such things we can meet with pleasant, if strained, smiles. But what we cannot condone, by either old-timers or arrivistes, is the reckless broadcast of this message beyond our borders. Don’t get us wrong. We are not isolationists; newcomers are our lifeblood. We just prefer that they come in dribs and drabs, preferably after their houses are built and the freeways sufficiently widened.

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Image: Shutterstock

Survive a Chili Cook-Off

It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how well Tammy decorates your booth and the commemorative koozies Steve ordered this year. It’s about long evenings spent hovering over crock-pots in your friends’ kitchens, perfecting recipes (habaneros this year or no?). It’s about bantering with adjacent booths and endless debates over beans. Winning is good, and raising money for a worthy charity even better. But best of all is the quality time you get to spend with your buddies, that and the trial by fire that comes with it.

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Image: Sam Washburn

Get Soul

This is a city where Catholics can hear Mass in no fewer than nine languages, where Orthodox Christians have seven rites from which to choose. Muslims have their pick of dozens of area mosques, and synagogues exist for both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews. You can perform a puja or hear a dharma-talk in Hindu or Buddhist temples, stop in at a strip-mall Pentecostal chapel or submit to the prosperity preaching and old-school sermons of our arena-size mega-churches. Not unlike our vaunted dining scene, Houstonia is nothing short of a multilingual smorgasbord of the soul.

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Image: Peter Molick

Rediscover Downtown

A hurricane can get our arts district down, yes, but not out. All of our venerable downtown arts organizations, including the opera, should be back in their respective home bases in time for the fall season. If you haven’t been—go. Downtown food and drink options are more numerous than ever, too.

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Image: Four Seasons

Have a Line on a Pool

Surviving our hotter-than-Hades summers means having food, water, shelter, clothing—and a place to swim. You don’t need a pool of your own, mind you, just close relations with someone who does—namely your friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s aunt—or the local Y. And if you do have a pool? Please be advised that every Houstonian is expected to share the apartment gate code when asked and/or take it in stride when you come home to find a friend or two in your backyard, relaxing on a floatie. No exceptions. 

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Top Golf

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Few cities offer the possibility of year-round golf, fewer still have over a hundred area courses, and in none do you have fewer excuses for not swinging a club. The fairest of our fairways is the Rees Jones/David Toms–designed Golf Club of Houston, home to the city’s yearly PGA Tour stop, but there are more public courses here than not, including Memorial Park’s muni, one of America’s best, and Humble’s Tour 18, where duffers hack away at replicas of Augusta’s Amen Corner and Pebble Beach’s 14th hole. And then there are the driving ranges, chief among them the triple-decker, air-conditioned, pickled-fried-chicken-serving Top Golf.

Turn Heads at a Gala

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Image: Shutterstock

If mixing and mingling with the smart set is your thing, there’s no better place to nouveau with the riche than one of the many charity galas on the Houston social calendar. From the Asia Society’s Tiger Ball to the American Cancer Society’s Western-themed Cattle Baron’s Ball, there’s a glittering gala for every gal and guy, all of them way more fun than those society photos in the Chronicle would lead you to believe. Yes, cynics might wonder about the money spent on such lavish affairs, which...Hey, wait, there’s Dominique Sachse and Lynn Wyatt!

Notice an Empty Lot and Ask That Question

You’re in the car with your [spouse, mom, coworker, friend], gabbing about [where to eat dinner, the sunset, the bastard who just cut you off], when you look up and see…nothing. Hold on. That lot wasn’t empty yesterday, was it? You’re sure it wasn’t. You squint. You scour your memory bank. Wasn’t it a [convenience store, house, gas station, church]? Still confused, and amazed yet again by our city’s constantly shifting terrain, you turn to your companion and ask: “Wait, what used to be there?” 

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A vendor at Trader's Village

Act Bazaar

Houstonians love to shop, and small wonder given the plethora of mega-markets like the upscale Kuhl-Linscomb, the many old-school, dirt-floored affairs like Airline’s Sunny Flea Market, and the one-of-a-kind swap-meet-on-steroids known as Traders Village—to say nothing, of course, of the bazaar that started it all: The Galleria. At our super-sized shopping spectacles, there’s virtually nothing you can’t find—though the finding (and the requisite hours spent combing the aisles, stumbling upon oddities and eccentricities as varied as Houston itself) is half the fun.

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Plant an Azalea

Houston may never have a fall season like Vermont’s, with its equinoctial profusion of reds, oranges, and golds, but then Vermont will never have a spring like ours, dominated as it is by pinks, salmons, whites, and corals. Whereas trees author the profusion elsewhere, here it’s a shrub, specifically the azalea, which, while not native to the area—they come from Asia—has captured the imagination of Houstonians like no other. Maybe it’s the low maintenance. Azaleas are as comfortable in the flowerbeds of public housing as the sumptuous gardens of Bayou Bend, as friendly, democratic, and unfussy as the city they adorn.

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Five Films Every Houstonian Must See

  1. Rushmore
  2. Brewster McCloud
  3. Reality Bites
  4. Boyhood
  5. Local Hero

Be Politic

As an educated, savvy (and handsome!) Houstonia reader, you’re the sort of person who lives for exploring our fine city. What you probably don’t live for is voting in local elections. No matter your politics (Houston’s city elections are nonpartisan), City Hall’s directives—on fixing roads, maintaining parks, regulating our food trucks, etc.—affect you. Yet in last year’s elections, only 10.5 percent of those eligible to vote did so. As our beloved city comes into its own, it demands more engaged, civic-minded citizens. And if you really love Houston, you’ll be up for the challenge.

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Go to a Gun Show

You’re a citizen of Houstonia. You probably hail from a county with more licensed gun holders per capita than anywhere else in the state. You may well harbor an interest in weaponry. We get it. And no worries, because hardly a week passes without somebody putting on a gun show somewhere. Among the most popular are the ones at the George R. Brown Convention Center, where they often take up several city block–sized halls. Expect to see guns both old and new, knives, ammo, shooting supplies, and militaria—the variety of offerings rivaled only by that of the patrons themselves. 

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Image: Sam Washburn

Wear Shorts on Christmas

’Twas the night before Christmas, and Ma left the house
Attired in gym shorts and light cotton blouse.
The anklets were hung from the buffet’s top drawer,
St. Nicholas only need walk through the door.

His moustache was itchy, his suit made him schvitz,
Perhaps he regretted his Polyblend knits.
“At least,” he said panting, unpacking his sleigh,
“The bikes these kids get won’t go unused till May.”

It might have been something from Currier and Ives,
With jet skis for ice skates and Santa with hives.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight—
“Next year, someone remind me to come dressed in all-white!”

Open Your Doors and Heart

There are perhaps a million stray dogs and cats roaming Houston’s streets at present, and that number only continues to grow, thanks to our size, equable climate (i.e., year-round breeding season), and bayous (i.e., havens for the homeless). On a typical day, the Bureau of Animal Regulation and Control gets 400 calls, and local rescue organizations are in a constant state of crisis. Still, as we’ve proved over and over throughout our history, Houston is that rarest of cities: big and sophisticated, yet small-town-like in its willingness to welcome strangers in need. Can we not do it again?

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Image: Sam Washburn

Be One With the Yellow Light

To drive in the Bayou City is to acquire a skill set both nuanced and deep. You must be alert, nimble, quick on your feet, decisive. How else will you manage to swerve around a mattress that suddenly falls off a truck on Highway 59 and live to tell about it? How else will you avoid mowing down our legion of frozen-in-fear squirrels? How else will you run so many yellow lights, um, successfully? Here’s how: by knowing the difference between deft and reckless. (Unlike that guy behind you, who clearly ran the red light. What was that nut thinking?!)

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Following years of pent-up desire for sizzling meat and al fresco beers (the Oilers had banned the practice) Texans fans are now taking their place among the NFL’s pre-game party elite. But theirs is not the only ’gate in town. Rice, very Rice-ingly, hosts theirs in a family-friendly zone called Tailgate Owley. Houston Baptist allows (dry) festivities in Sharpstown. The Houston Cougars party outside their new TDECU Stadium, while diehard Dynamo-ites such as El Batallon and the Texian Army assemble to sing, guzzle, and chant in parking lots, not to mention the cavernous bars that ring BBVA Compass.

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Image: Peter Molick

Experience a Bayou Epiphany

For the longest time, bayous were just one thing to you: ew. Which is to say they’re green, slimy, teeming with dangerous characters, disease, and secrets—secrets contained in dumped garbage, old cars, the occasional human torso. Then one day, you wake up and for some inexplicable reason they’ve become awesome. Suddenly, generations of conservation and beautification efforts have come to fruition. Bayous aren’t just marvelous repositories of native flora and fauna, they’re lovely in their way, the perfect spot for a run, bike ride, or—you never thought you’d say this—kayak trip.

Live in a Place That Looks Nothing Like Your Neighbor’s

Is it that we can’t appreciate the unity of purpose in a row of brownstones in Brooklyn? The belongingness that a Queen Anne Victorian feels on a street in Pacific Heights or a Federal mansion in Beacon Hill? Of course not. Those are all fine neighborhoods, we say, if you’re a house. But if neighborhoods are for people, and your city owes its success to a populace with a diversity of dreams, then streets like ours—where French provincial meets Georgian meets Spanish Revival—are something of a syllogistic inevitability. Our creed is a peaceable cohabitation of people at cross-purposes. Why shouldn’t it be our aesthetic too?

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Image: Peter Holley

Slab It

What is a slab, you ask? Houston’s very own automotive art form—a classic, low-to-the-ground auto dripping with color, styling on glossy rims, and sporting a fifth wheel on the back (often). To see them, wait for the weekend and drop by Sunnyside’s Cloverland Park, a popular gathering place for slab enthusiasts looking to show off their tricked-out whips. Or check out the permanent slab display outside the Burlington Coat Factory in PlazAmericas (aka the old Sharpstown Mall). And if all else fails, just cruise down Highway 288 just south of 610. You’re bound to come across one of these uniquely and unapologetically Houston rides eventually.

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Eat a Really, Really, Great Steak

What does it mean to live in a state with the world’s largest ranches, a metro area of 6.2 million that somehow finds room for 158,000 head of cattle, a county (Harris) that ranks in the top 20 percent for beef production? It means you’ve got no excuse for eating a bad steak, that’s what. Make friends with a great local butcher with a line on ribeyes, buy Angus steaks online from the Hill Country’s 44 Farms, or take the easy way out and dine at one of our city’s many fine steakhouses (we like the strip at Tilman Fertitta's new Mastro's Steakhouse  at the Post Oak Hotel, right). Throw caution and cholesterol counts to the wind.

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Adore Oysters

A shiver runs down our collective spine when oyster season hits each year, and not only because it generally follows the first cold snap. After all, we’ve typically been counting the days till our beloved Gulf bivalves are big and juicy enough to eat, dreamt of prying them from their shells and marveling as their plump bodies yielded two—sometimes three—bites each. We’ve longed to eat them raw, to slurp their liquor straight from the shell, to roast them, fry them, broil them. We’ve made do with the puny, overly-salty West and East Coast versions, but just barely.

Master Dun Huang Plaza

If you had to condense Houston’s sprawling six-square-mile Chinatown into one block, Dun Huang Plaza would be it. A sort of Cliff’s Notes version of Bellaire Boulevard’s diversity of cultures and businesses, the sprawling marketplace houses everything from foot massage parlors to karaoke joints, hair salons to doctors offices. Where else can you go grocery shopping, grab a bowl of ramen, hit a dollar store, buy fresh croissants, drink a beer, and file your taxes? And don’t even get us started on the food: Japanese, Korean, Malaysian, Vietnamese, Chinese of every variety…

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Worship at an Ice House

In its Platonic ideal, the ice house has a sliding garage door and serves only longnecks and wine. It opens early. You can’t tell whether you’re inside or out. There are backyard games and grilled meats or boiled crawfish, and probably a taco truck nearby. And most importantly, the edifice persists even as trends come and go (hello, craft cocktail scene). Stalk living history at the West Alabama, the Catty Corner, Jimmy’s, Park Grocery, the C&F, He’s Not Here, and others. See how your ancestors beat the heat. Revel in the eternity that is Plato’s beer joint. 

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Grab a Toll Tag

The unadventurous Houstonian looks upon the city’s 575 miles of freeways and sees an impediment. For a select few, however, those whose mettle was forged in the winding line of an EZ TAG store, the city’s roadways are a passport to exotic locales, by which we mean Cypress, Sugar Land, Pasadena, and the like. Once provinces and satellites of Houstonia, they’re centers of their own universes now, and the traffic long ago stopped going in just one direction. There are whole civilizations just waiting to be explored out there, providing you get your little plastic tag, that is. 

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Image: Shutterstock

Five Artists Every Houstonian Must Hear

  1. Arcade Fire
  2. Beyoncé
  3. Lightnin’ Hopkins
  4. Lyle Lovett
  5. UGK
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Crawfish crawl, anyone?

Image: Kate LeSueur

Try a Food Crawl

Go ahead, find yourself a spare afternoon, jump in the car, and eat your way across the city like James escaping the giant peach. Make it a thematic endeavor and hunt for, say, the city’s best burgers or spiciest crawfish. Master the Mahatma Gandhi district, Koreatown, and Little Nigeria, or just crawl your way through chaat and curry, burrow through bibimbap and bulgogi, feast on fufu. The only rule? Don’t let your conceit box you in. One of our favorite food crawls takes us from oysters at San Leon’s Gilhooley’s to burgers at Stomp’s in Bacliff, to Belgian waffles at the Seabrook Waffle Company. (What? We were hungry.)

Spot Dolphins

During the 18-minute ferry ride from Galveston through the Bolivar Roads Channel—one of the world’s busiest waterways—you’ll see giant ships from exotic ports-of-call, a World War II submarine, the wreck of a ship made of concrete (an experiment which clearly failed), brown pelicans gliding past, and kids tossing Cheetos to laughing gulls hovering off the bow. But nothing beats the dolphins, which can almost always be found frolicking in a ferry’s wake. Pro tip: at busy times, skip the line, ditch your car, and walk aboard. Thrills don’t come any cheaper.

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Image: Peter Molick

Savor a Sunset

Call it pollution’s silver lining or whatever you will, the colors of Houston sunsets are incomparably gorgeous and vibrant. And thankfully, there’s no shortage of great viewing spots from which to see them: from the Rooftop Bar at Galveston’s Tremont House Hotel, to Minute Maid Park, to The Grove at Discovery Green, to the James Turrell Skyspace, if you like your sunsets interactive. These near-daily spectacles may be something of a mixed blessing, but they sure are pretty.

Appreciate the Secret Power of a City Where No One Looks Like Anyone Else

Where once we captured hearts and imaginations by putting a man on the moon, today we’re taking our fellow earthlings on a trip to what is truly the final frontier—a place where you needn’t share your neighbor’s ethnicity or religion or persuasion in order to live on the same street. All you need share is a belief in the unity of opposites and the possibilities that lie therein. Life here is far from Arcadia, of course. Still, each day it inches a bit closer to that idyll—and a destination that once seemed as unlikely as a lunar landing.

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Perform a Passably Good Two-Step

Your status as a Houstonian will always be provisional otherwise. After all, country-western’s autochthonous dance is in the city’s founding decree, or so we’re told (and if not it should be). Get a refresher at SSQQ Dance Studio (as in slow, slow, quick, quick), which offers two-step classes three days a week, and then hit one of the city’s country clubs—we recommend Wild West Houston and Stampede—where the dance floors are solid oak and boots are a given. 

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Roll Down Hermann Park Hill

It’s been a fixture of the city for exactly a century, and Houstonians—desperate to escape our pancake-flat terrain—have been flinging themselves headlong down it for just as long, skipping and chasing and tumbling and laughing their hearts out. Yes, there are now 38,000 acres of green space in the greater Houston area—Sam Houston National Forest near Conroe, the newly-renovated bayou paths near Eleanor Tinsley Park, and George Bush Park along Westheimer’s west end, and more. No matter. Taking a Hermann header remains an essential rite of passage for inner- and outer-loopers alike. 

Five Books Every Houstonian Must Read

  1. Blood and Money, Thomas Thompson
  2. Sig Byrd’s Houston, Sigman Byrd
  3. Isaac’s Storm, Erik Larson
  4. Moving On, Larry McMurtry
  5. Rush, Kim Wozencraft
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The downtown courthouse

Keep What’s Good

Houston has always been a city of the future, a place willing to raze buildings, city blocks, or even entire neighborhoods in the name of civic progress. But we’re increasingly a city of the past too, championing endangered historic landmarks against overzealous developers, whose efforts to destroy quaint bungalows and old strip malls alike are being met by mounting resistance. The city’s biggest preservationist groups may be Houston Mod, Preservation Houston, and Historic Houston, but if you want to be on the front lines of the battle, join your local neighborhood association—there are dozens of great ones across the city. 

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Buy Art

Sure, we all love museums. But you can only view so much art before the urge to take some home kicks in. Fortunately, Houston’s vibrant art market offers something for collectors of all stripes and budgets, from works by blue-chip locals like Dario Robleto and Katrina Moorhead at the Inman Gallery to more affordable pieces by lesser-known local and regional artists at the biannual Bayou City Art Festival or the First Saturday Arts Market in the Heights. And what better way to support the Houston art scene than by patronizing a local artist? Sure, there is probably a Gulf Coast Maecenas or two ahead of you, but we can always use a few more.

More Houstonian Must-Dos:

Curse Highway 290 and the day it was paved. Rent a B-Cycle for the day. Read a Donald Barthelme short story. Commune with alligators at Brazos Bend State Park. Order off the secret menu at Stanton’s City Bites. Learn to say y’all un-self-consciously. Actually care about air quality. Lower your expectations of professional sports teams. Walk barefoot through dewy grass. Have a three-margarita night and still make it to work the next day. Drive to Galveston with your feet on the dashboard. Light sparklers on the beach at night. Drive back home and pretend that the twinkling lights from Texas City’s refineries denote a fairyland. Marvel at the size, intricacy, and price of a homecoming mum. Call them doodlebugs, NOT roly-polys. Hit a Korean karaoke bar on Long Point. Have an opinion about which skyscrapers are genius and which are abominations—defend it vehemently. Have an opinion about which burger joints are genius and which are abominations—defend it vehemently. Take a picture at one of Houston's many color walls. Learn how to kill a roach. Watch the ostrich- and camel-racing at Sam Houston Race Park. Attend an art opening at—no, not there. At the Galleria. Ice skate at—no, not there. At Discovery Green. Play frisbee golf at TC Jester Park. Spend a Saturday night dancing to zydeco at a church hall. Play on the cowboy-themed monkey bars at Fleming Park. Have Antone’s make your po-boy fresh and ask for extra chow-chow. Spend the night at the zoo. Never get too attached to a building more than 20 years old. Know how to avoid West Loop South at all times. Announce your intention to play mahjong at Hong Kong City Mall and pray someone lets you in. See how little you can get away with wearing to Free Press Summer Fest. Have an epiphany at the Cy Twombly Gallery. Curse the Downtown Aquarium for detracting from the skyline. Pontificate on such matters as hunkering down, sheltering in place, and cones of uncertainty. Know that the Hardy Toll Road is the only road to IAH. Don’t even think about driving through floodwaters. Your car is not magic. Drive by the Sunbeam Bread—Schott's Bakery at dawn, roll down your window, take a deep breath. Go on AIA’s walking tour of the Medical Center. Become an AIA docent and give your own damn walking tours. Do Clear Lake on a jet ski. Attend Mariachi Mass at St. Joseph’s in the Sixth Ward. Love/fear the bayou. Drink in the history of River Oaks Theatre, where a million Rocky Horrors will never be enough. Get in your car and just drive. Get out of your car and just walk.