With its ever-changing landscape, a quirky personality, and a big history that blurs with Texas-sized tall tales, here are 30 reasons we love Downtown Houston.
By Angie Bertinot
1. One man’s swamp is another man’s paradise.
New Yorkers John Kirby Allen and Augustus Chapman Allen founded Houston in 1836 on an unlikely spot – the then-unsightly convergence of White Oak Bayou and Buffalo Bayou. Few real estate tycoons could have envisioned what this pair did, choosing to name their development for the father of Texas and hero in its war for independence, General Sam Houston.
2. Our food scene diversity rivals our diverse population
Foodies rejoice! With imported goods from around the world and homemade prepared foods that showcase the owners’ Middle Eastern roots, Phoenicia Specialty Foods is your one-stop-shop for yummy goodness. More than a grocery store, think of it as a Disneyland for food lovers.
3. Librarians deserve to have buildings named after them too
Named for Houston Public Library’s first librarian, this 1926 masonry building pays homage to the state’s heritage. Not only is the building gorgeous, but it also houses the Houston Metropolitan Research Center, an amazing collection of maps, articles, publications, and other documents chronicling Htown’s history.
4. Because of our bearded brethren
First James Harden, now Dallas Keuchel. Big beards on athletes are nothing special these days, but no city can rock a pair as prominent as Houston. We love our Htown sports franchises and are happy to be home to the Astros, Rockets, Dynamo and Dash… and just a short train-ride away, you can get your football fix.
5. You can take a sunset cruise to watch Texas’ second largest bat colony emerge
Cruise down Buffalo Bayou on a pontoon boat for a must-see excursion to watch the bat colony take flight from their Waugh Bridge home at dusk foraging for dinner. Summertime is the best time because it means the bat pups are just learning how to fly (Cue the “awwwws” and squeals of delight here).
6. We have one of the world’s largest “cradles.”
When the Lee & Joe Jamail Skatepark opened on the edge of Downtown, the 30,000 square-foot, in-ground facility draws skaters of all levels from around the city to the park, where they can work on their kick flips and their ollies.
7. The community rallies to save what is most important
This 1866 church began its life as a place of worship for emancipated slaves. Antioch Baptist Church is the oldest African-American church in Houston and for more than a century, it’s provided worship and missionary services to its Fourth Ward community. The Gothic structure still has the pews from its 1860s incorporation, and you can’t miss the blue “Jesus Saves” sign.
8. Quilters are our biggest annual convention
Each fall, crafters from across the globe descend upon the George R. Brown Convention Center for the International Quilt Festival. The nostalgic pastime has enjoyed a resurgence of late, thanks to the trendiness of the DIY movement. It’s not just your grandmother’s tattered throw anymore!
9. We have a skyscraper the color of money and shaped like a dollar sign
Money talks, especially when it’s 71 stories high. The Wells Fargo Plaza shines like the beacon of capitalism it is. The largest multi-tenant building in the southwestern United States is the color of a crisp greenback and has a footprint of two semicircles to form an abstract dollar sign.
10. A woman built one of Houston’s most beautiful buildings in honor of her sweetheart
Here’s a tribute that’s not moving. Mellie Esperson built and dedicated a skyscraper at the corner of Travis and Rusk to her beloved husband Niels after his death. The 32-story Italian renaissance building was inspired by her travels to Europe and was the tallest building in Texas when it opened in 1927. Her love’s name is etched on the side of the building, and the stunning masterpiece remains a showstopper.
11. We have an amazing public art collection
From sculptures to busts to tile work, Downtown is a public art lover’s dream with more than 65 pieces of public art—and growing. Explosions of color and creativity share space in our busy city, and if you’ve never stopped to notice them, it’s time to slow down your routine.
12. A beloved Cajun restaurant is housed in the cloisters of an Episcopal church
A Downtown Cajun-dining institution, Treebeards serves up a menu of jambalaya and seafood gumbo in Christ Church Cathedral social hall, The Cloister. Devoted members of the flock can also sample Louisiana-influenced specialties in their original location at Historic Market Square and two other smaller grab-n-go locations in the tunnels and Shops at Houston Center.
13. You can travel from one end of Downtown to another without ever seeing the light of day
The more than six-mile network of air-conditioned underground passageways and skywalks spans 95 city blocks, defying Houston’s extreme natural elements while connecting hotels, businesses and entertainment options. Because the tunnel is only open during weekday business hours, many Houstonians have never traveled the other world.
14. We unpaved a parking lot and put up a paradise
Discovery Green, a world-class green space that was once a surface parking lot, proves it. Celebrating its ten-year anniversary, the 12-acre urban oasis has had one of the most significant impacts on Downtown in recent years, spurring development and attracting visitors throughout the greater Houston area and beyond.
15. A man with only a 9th grade education transformed Houston into an international hub of commerce
Armed with nothing but Southern grit and determination and the keys to his late uncle’s offices, scion-in-the-making Jesse Jones moved to Houston in 1898 as a young man to manage his family’s lumberyard. Later, the cowboy of commerce settled into a successful career in banking, during which time he invested in oil, raised money for the Houston ship channel and made other significant impacts on the economy and the philanthropic community.
16. Our favorite (and first!) craft brewery is in the neighborhood
Texas’ oldest craft brewery, Saint Arnold, shipped their first keg of beer in 1994. Saint Arnold pilgrims can savor a variety of beers—some are year round, some are seasonal, and a few are single batch brews. Tours, food and fun abound at their beer hall on the outer edge of Downtown. Cheers!
17. We have the city’s oldest commercial building still in use with (possibly) the oldest bar in Houston as its occupant
No, you’re not tipsy. The building that houses La Carafe, said to be the oldest haunt in Houston, indeed leans due to its age. Dare to step inside, where you’ll need cash for the jukebox (think Miles Davis mixed with old country standards) and reading glasses to study the wine list in the narrow, cozily dim room where local history dots the walls in the form of black-and-white photos.
18. A world class performance arts community
Our little piece of heaven is a 17-block area in the heart of Downtown. Home to Houston’s nine professional performing arts organizations, it’s one of only five cities in the U.S. with permanent professional resident companies in all of the major performing arts disciplines: opera, ballet, music and theater.
19. We have the oldest, largest and best Art Car Parade
Like so many Houston institutions, the Art Car Parade was born Downtown. In 1987, it had 40 entries and 2,000 people. Today, the Art Car Parade now features more than 250 wacky works of moving art, a spectacle that draws at least 250,000 people Downtown annually.
20. We take our food seriously
We love bright, shiny objects, especially trophies, so we celebrate having three James Beard Award-winning chefs Downtown—Hugo Ortega (Xochi), Justin Yu (Theodore Rex) and the founder of modern Southwest cuisine, Robert Del Grande (The Grove). Bon appétit!
21. Houston’s first city park
This century-old, rolling green space features a picturesque gazebo, a lily pond with families of waddling ducks, eight frozen-in-time historic houses and one church. Visit Sam Houston Park and take a tour, relax on a blanket with your love, throw a Frisbee with your friend, or have a picnic with your fam.
22. An underground gem
The Cistern at Buffalo Bayou Park is a former drinking water reservoir built in 1926 for the city. After operating for decades, the reservoir was decommissioned and doomed to be demolished. Fortunately, BBP rediscovered the historical and architectural treasure, and The Cistern is now open to the public with rotating temporary art installations and regular tours throughout the year.
23. From boom to bust to boom again
Located in Houston’s Historic District, Market Square burned through three City Hall buildings, with fires in 1876, 1901 and 1960, when the space finally settled as a parking lot for Houston’s party scene in the mid ‘60s and early ‘70s. Thanks to its most recent transformation, Market Square Park is now the heartbeat of the neighborhood where people from all over Houston come together for fun and frivolity.
24. That’s how we roll
Not familiar with the bike share program? BCycle is designed for short, one-way trips that are 60 minutes or less, although the majority of Htown riders use the bikes to explore our great city.
25. We govern in style
Dating to 1939 and typical of Texas public buildings in those days, the exterior of City Hall is Texas fossilized limestone, and the doors are specially cast aluminum. Inside, the lobby is finished with marble, nickel and relief, evoking its art deco age, and the artwork in the floor is designed to demonstrate the protective role government can play.
26. We have goofy sense of humor
You’d miss it if you weren’t looking for it, which is part of what makes Dean Ruck’s installation so much fun. Crossing over the Preston Street Bridge, you’ll find a big, red button. Press it and you can watch Buffalo Bayou “burp” below you, spewing bubbliness and garnering grins. Sometimes, it’s the simplest of joys that bring the biggest smiles.
27. Because we like to boogie
Main Street Square is built between two light rail stations in the 900 and 1100 blocks of Main Street. Trains zip through the center of the fountain in a light rail configuration like none other in the United States. But our favorite element of this pedestrian plaza isn’t the 13 jumping jets with streams of water arc 40 feet into the air, but the funky, towering, flashing disco lights that line the plaza.
28. BFFs forever
Located at Sesquicentennial Park, a larger than life bronze sculpture of former President George H.W. Bush gazes across the bayou at his good friend, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III.
29. PacMan fever
You won’t find anywhere more original for your next party than this massive, 10,000-square-foot warehouse selling new and refurbished video games, pinball machines and all manner of amusements for you to include in your home or office. The first and last Fridays of the month, Joystix opens the doors for unlimited gameplay.
30. As American as apple pie
If your inner sports fan is screaming “take me out to the ball game,” then Downtown has you covered. Home of the World Series Champion Houston Astros, nothing is more fun than to play hooky on a weekday afternoon. We’re feeling lucky in 2018!