Many people complain that downtown is largely a business district, mostly a ghost town after 5pm. It is not the excitement of Manhattan or Paris, yet in recent years’ revitalization has improved the downtown atmosphere. There are many things to do here, & it is a nice place to stay if you are visiting from out of town. There are excellent accommodations here; the Sam Houston Hotel, the Magnolia & the Lancaster are some of the best in town. Many restaurants, pubs & clubs are downtown for nightlife. On the weekends part of Main St. is closed to traffic, many places set up tables outside & vendors sell snacks & refreshments & frequently a stage is set up for live music performances. The Houston Theater District is located downtown & has some of the best facilities & performances for the arts in the world. Bayou Place has several bars, clubs & restaurants, including the Hard Rock Cafe, a cinema & the Verizon Theater for events & music concerts. Minute Maid Park & Toyota Center are located here for sporting events. There are a few historical buildings here to visit, but unfortunately much of Houston's physical history has been demolished due to bad civic planning in the past. Besides the permanent sites & events, there are excellent festivals held here. The Houston International Festival is put on for two weekends every spring showcasing Houston's multicultural population. But if all of this doesn't do it for you, downtown is one of the few locations in town served by the Metro Lightrail, which can take you to the Museum District & Hermann Park if you are looking for other things to do outside of downtown.
The Downtown Aquarium, part of Landry's Restaurants, Inc., is popular attraction here in town for it's entertainment & exhibits of underwater life, as well as it's restaurant. But it's popularity and somewhat interesting showcases for the most part do not make up for it's prices & brief rides. First off, I will say that the Downtown Aquarium definately stands out at night. Bright neon lights illuminate the surrounding area, & even attract attention if you are driving overhead on I-45. But the establishment seems to be more geared towards getting people to come here, see some quick sites, & then eat at the seafood restaurant, which is basically an overpriced version of Joe's Crabshack, another Landry's restaurant. The main aquarium exhibit has quite a few different tropical fish to view, while interesting, is nothing that drops your jaw in awe. The rainforest exhibit has a few exotic birds & frogs, & a boa constrictor snake. I did enjoy seeing the white tigers, & there are stands set up to sit & watch them. But the price for this short 20 minute venture is $7.50 per person, a little much for the amount of sites you see here. You can also pay an additional $5 to see the shark exhibit, which I enjoyed. A train takes you through a tunnel in which the sharks, along with stingrays & a few oher exotic fish are swimming overhead. The also have a couple of rides here, but of course, for an additional price. There is a large ferris wheel & a drop ride, as well as a small carousel for kids. But again, all this appears to be centered around the restaurant, which I have not eaten at, as I have heard it is highly overpriced for mediocre seafood. I have to admit some of the sights here are worth seeing, especially the tigers as I mentioned. But the price & the short amount of time you have to see these things can make it not worth your while. I think it would be a good place to take the kids, & if you want to eat at the restaurant, a family could make a decent evening of it.
Houston's Visitor Center is amazing! You can get enough pamphlets on what Houston offers you to last a year and I actually LIVE here!
It is inside the historic City Hall (NOT the annex) in Downtown. Once you walk in you will see two guards. I just asked them for the Visitors Center. They didn't check my purse or anything. In most Houston buildings you will go through a metal detector and have your purse/bag checked. Once inside the center is on the left. There is also a side entrance. When you walk in you'll inevitably notice the statue of....Sam Houston!
Inside you will see small versions of many of the main sights. You'll see the replicas of the Toyota Center, George R. Brown Convention Center and many other buildings that we're proud to have constructed.
I'm sure you'll be greeted right away by one of the volunteers. I just wanted to look around but she was bound and determined to help me find something to look at. After telling her I was a teacher I got every museum pamplet there was :)
I also watched the 10-minute video in a small theater setting about Houston and all his has to offer with commentary by George Forman, native Houstonian. It was really good I thought.
There are also wonderful souvenirs if you're here on a visit!
My favorite part? The cardboard, real-life size replica of Yao Ming. Great photo opportunity!
City Hall is a wonderful building with a great park behind it. There you'll find many park benches and a reflecting pond. It's very peaceful. However, I believe there were a few homeless people sleeping on the benches and that always kinda....makes me nervous as a single girl walking alone. (Sorry, I watch way too much CSI and Law and Order Special Victims.)
Across the street is Jones Hall and a beautiful water fountain. That's a great place to have lunch and there are often musicians playing here.
It's a great place to read a book, take a break from work, and take a beautiful picture of Houston. Hear all the buzzing about during the work week as well.
It's caddie-corner from Hobby Center so you might show up early and see it for yourself.
Now for the history! (Taken from the website below)
"Two brothers, J.K. and A.C. Allen, founded Houston on August 30, 1836 just a few months after the end of the Texas War for Independence. They named the new settlement for the hero of that war, General Sam Houston.
From 1841 to 1939, Houston municipal government was headquartered at Old Market Square, on a site donated to the City by Houston's founder, the Allen brothers. The City Hall on Market Square was destroyed by fire in the 1870's, and again in 1901, and rebuilt each time.
Construction [of the current building] began on March 7, 1938. The cornerstone was laid on October 1, 1938. A time capsule was placed in the cornerstone, containing a Bible, copies of the City charter, Houston's three daily newspapers and the City Auditor's report for 1937. The construction job took 20 months. Work was finished in July 1939. The work was done by 100% A.F. of L. union labor. Wages on the job site ranged from 40 cents an hour to 1.85 an hour. An estimated 800,000 hours of labor were expended on the job.
The Mayor and City Commissioners moved from the old City Hall to the new one on December 3, 1939. The old building was converted to a bus terminal. It was destroyed by fire in 1960.
Total cost of the new City Hall, including landscaping and furniture, was estimated at $1,670,000. Forty-five percent of the cost was covered by the W.P.A. grant. Landscaping was done by the Japanese Nursery, 7200 Lawndale. The $28,000 electrical fixtures contract went to Livers Lighting and Bronze Company, Kansas City, Missouri. $80,000 worth of furniture and office equipment was purchased from the Thomas Watson Company, Jamestown, N.Y. An additional $17,000 in office equipment was purchased from the Willhide Equipment Company. Basement offices, originally used for a tobacco stand and coffee shop, were built by Brown Construction Company.
The doors to the building are of a specially cast aluminum. In the grillwork above the main entrances are aluminum medallions of the "great lawgivers" from ancient times to the founding of America: Akhenaten, Julius Caesar, Moses, Charlemagne, King John and Thomas Jefferson. The lobby is walled with lightly veined marble. The entrances to the Tax Department are inlaid with bronze, nickel and silver. All elevator lobbies are treated with marble base, walls and wainscoting. Wood trim and wood doors are of figured gum, a Texas product.
City Hall also was one of the first totally air-conditioned office buildings in Houston.
Houston's City Government has over 500 buildings utilized by the over 23,000 City employees. The core of this local government is located in the downtown Civic Center. This includes City Hall and the Annex, the Central Public Library, the Hobby Center, Jones Hall, the Wortham Theater, George R. Brown Convention Center, Tranquillity Park, Sam Houston Park, and Hermann Plaza. Located north of Interstate 45 from the Hobby Center site is the Police Station with the Municipal Courts Building next door."
JPMorgan Chase Tower offers the highest public view of Houston from the Sky Lobby on the 60th floor. This floor serves as an observation floor as well as a transfer point to shuttle tenants to floors 49-59 and 61-75. The Sky Lobby is open to the public during the working hours of 8:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. Monday-Friday. Entrance is free.
JPMorgan Chase Tower is the tallest composite building in the world. In addition to the ground floor lobby, there is another lobby sixty stories above the plaza level. This sky lobby acts as a transfer point for persons traveling to the upper floors. The view on this lobby is enhanced through the use of wide glass spans and thirteen-foot ceilings. A fascinating aspect of the Tower is its "fifth side", designed to be free of columns to enjoy an uninterrupted 20-mile vista of Houston.
JPMorgan Chase Tower has a total of 50 elevators. Six of those are express elevators to the Sky Lobby, which travel at a speed of 1,000 feet per minute, taking approx. 60 seconds from floor 1 to 60. The height of the Tower is just shy of three and one half-football fields, standing at 1,049 feet from ground level. The tower has 1.98 million square feet of gross building space.
The Downtown Theatre District and surrounding area:
Houston's Theatre District is the second largest in the country after New York's Broadway. It houses Houston's award-winning organizations -- symphony, opera, theatre, and ballet companies.
This area also houses Bayou Place, a building with several restaurants, Angelika movie theater, a pool hall, a popular bar, and a concert venue. The restaurants in Bayou Place include the Hard Rock Cafe.
What many people probably don't know is that Houston's downtown nightlife scene is quite good. And unlike a college town such as Austin or a tourist town such as New Orleans, the scene is sophisticated, yet still grounded. This is a fairly recent development resulting from a large and still ongoing downtown revitalization plan. Most of the bars and clubs of interest are situated on or around Main Street in downtown, within a few blocks of the Theatre District.
Dining & drinking:
Just outside of the theatre district to the south and on or around Main Street are several clubs, bars, and restaurants. Some of the better ones include Mercury Room, Sambuca, Artista, Mia Bella, Zula, and Bossa.
The new Downtown Aquarium is just north of the theater district and has a seafood restaurant and the tallest fish tank in North America.
Minute Maid Park (formerly Enron Field): On the southeast side of downtown is where you will find the home of the Houston Astros. But the ballpark itself is an attraction. Finished in 2000, it has a retractable roof and a natural grass playing surface. The look of the stadium is retro early 20th century.
The Rockets have a new home in downtown as well. Though I've yet to visit, the Toyota Center is supposed to be one of the better venues for basketball.
Underground Downtown Tunnels:
There's a whole other world down there, filled with shops and restaurants.
Sam Houston park is the oldest park in Houston, having opened in 1899. It is located downtown (NW part of it) right next to the skyscrapers. Beside being a pleasant park to stroll though, have lunch and relax, it is the location of a wonderful outdoor museum. The Heritage Society of Houston had several old Texan buildings from the region brought here for preservation, restauration and display. There are about 8 houses (and still more being brought in!) ranging from 1823 (a wood cabin of the pioneers) to 1905 ("Staiti House"). Little signs by each house detail the different styles of houses built in the pioneer days of Texas.
The picture shows you the little St John's church, built by german immigrants in 1891, dwarfed by the downtown skyscrapers.
Visit is free, and the houses and the associated museum are opened Mon-Sat 10 am-4 pm. Sun 1pm-5 pm. Hourly guided tours are available for a fee by the Heritage Society of Houston.
Park in the Heritage Society's lot between Clay street and Allen Parkway (best entrance is heading East on Allen parkway, turn right right after going under I45). On week-ends, yu can also park for free in the streets of downtown.
Downtown Houston has lots of amazing buildings and sky-scrapers to please the fan of american architecture. For the pleasure of the eye on sleek and modern lines, it is worth taking a stroll in the area. Especially if you went to the Sam Houston Park, you can easily walk to one of the most pleasant area of downtown (where the picture on the left was taken). It comprises this beautiful modern fountain (Tranquility Park), some of the most beautiful buildings (personal opinion) of the city and the Theater District (home to Houston Performing Art Society, Houston Grand Opera, Houston Symphony and Houston Ballet). Also in this area is the Houston official Visitor Center located in the City Hall (opened daily from 9 am to 4 pm) where you can find numerous free brochures on Houston and Texas, and buy souvenirs.
Besides the architectural interest, I cannot say that downton Houston is warm and inviting. There are no shops, no restaurants really visible, no atmosphere; the streets are lined with ugly parking garage entrances. It seems the people working here go to the "Houston's tunnels", a maze of shops, restaurants and corridors below street level (click here for a map of the tunnels). There is actually a recent attempt to give a soul to the Theater District with Bayou Place which is a big complex of restaurants, stage and movie theaters (at 560 Texas Avenue). Plus the inauguration in January 2004 of the tramway line on Main street seems to have revitalized that street, especially when it is blocked to traffic on week-end evenings. I sincerely hope Houston will finally have a city feeling to it!!
You can see 5 different artists. It is really hot and humid outside, so you need to come prepared with a blanket, fan, light clothing. I don't think they let you bring in your own drinks because they sell it out there. Earth Day is hosted by the KRBE radio station. In the picture here, you can see Jewel onstage. In 2003 the concert was held end of May. It was $13 per person or only $10 if you have a "KRBE 104 card".
Map of Downtown:
Heritage Park & Historical Homes:
At the beginning of December each year(last year Dec. 12-15) they have the Candlelight Tour of Homes at Heritage Park. It is just wonderful with all of the decorations and the historic homes. They have community choirs singing throughout the park and you can buy refreshments.
The JP Morgan Chase Tower is the tallest building in the United States outside of New York and Chicago. There is an observation area open weekdays. Construction on the 75 floor, 305.4 meter concrete and steel building began in 1978 and was completed in 1982.
The buildings Downtown are great to look at and there is also a park area with a small lake, church and examples of different styles of historic buildings from the Houston area. It's a very walkable area and well worth an afternoon. Given time you can visit: Sam Houston Park; Bayou Place; The Theatre District; The Aquarium; Tranquility Park; Sesquicentennial Park and Jones Plaza.
The downtown has continued to grow and it has many great architecturally significant office complexes. It also has the main thoroughfares going right through the middle of the city, making it convenient to get into the main sector of the city.
It is funny to notice these huge buildings start to become a touristic destination, people know their name and quite often what they are...
If you are in the area at a time when the office should be closed, I'd recommend a small drive to downtown... I've done it during Thanksgiving, it was surrealistic to see the deserted buildings and the empty streets and imagine how busy they can be on a weekday...
We were staying way out in Richmond. But it was worth the trip into town to see what it was all about. We went early on a Saturday so there were few crowds, and the buildings were closed so we couldn't get up to the the top viewing floors. But I felt it was a very intimate and walkable town with lots to recommend it. We saw the Sam Houston park and Heritage park (which was free and open when we were there- though the homes were closed), the City Hall, the Sesquicentennial Park, the monument to the first George Bush, Tranquility Plaza, and shopped at Macy's. We parked near Herman Park and took the Metrorail in and it was very efficient and clean. It took us most of the morning to ride in, walk around and head back out. It was a good idea to have my bottle of water though as the August heat index was about 109 degrees.