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Houston, We Have a Weekend. A Stellar 2-Day Trip in “Space City”

What comes to mind when you hear "Houston"? John Travolta and Debra Winger two-stepping to Western music in Urban Cowboy? The heart-stopping phrase, "Houston, we have a problem," uttered by the crew of Apollo 13 during its historic 1970 mission to the moon? Mouthwatering barbecue? Tex-Mex and oil wells?

While Houston is all that, it's also a contemporary, cosmopolitan destination and the fourth-largest city in the United States. That Texas-sized sprawl can make navigating "Space City" a bit daunting. But, no worries, we've got some tips to help you hit the highlights.


Things to See & Do

Space Center Houston

A short drive outside the city center is Space Center Houston. You'll want to arrive early and plan to stay for several hours. There's a lot to see, including two films, live shows, several artifact galleries and the NASA Tram Tour, which takes visitors to see the state-of-the-art working facilities where astronauts prepare and train for missions. Touch one of the few moon rocks on earth available to the public inside the Lunar Vault; stand alongside multiple flown spacecraft, including Gemini V, Faith 7 and Apollo 17; and explore a comprehensive spacesuit collection, including astronaut Pete Conrad's spacesuit, which was worn on the moon. Tram tip: The NASA Tram Tour fills up fast and is available on a first-come, first-served basis. So, reserve your tram time as soon as you arrive.

Downtown Aquarium

Get your fish fix at the Downtown Aquarium. The aquarium is home to 400 species of marine life from around the globe. Check out the Aquarium Adventure exhibit, a 500,000-gallon aquatic wonderland; the famous white tigers in the Maharaja's Temple; and Shipwreck, where you'll step inside the sunken hull of a 17th century Spanish galleon and glimpse the beautiful diversity of species the ocean world has to offer.

Hop aboard the aquarium's C.P. Huntington train and take a ride through the center of a 200,000-gallon tank for an up-close view of a variety of shark species. Or, weather permitting, head outdoors to enjoy the Ferris wheel, the aquatic-themed carousel and other rides. Most Instagrammable activity: Feeding the friendly live stingrays (prepare to be splashed a bit) in Stingray Reef. Available all day.

Houston Museum of Natural Science

One of the most popular draws is the dinosaur display in the museum's Morian Hall of Paleontology, where the ancient skeletons of 60 prehistoric beasts are posed in action tableaus. Predators and prey are grouped together—chasing, easting and escaping in an epic struggle for life.

The museum's dynamic dinos represent just one of the many exhibit areas that flow over four floors and allow visitors to explore the vast timeline of fossils, gems and minerals, African wildlife, Texan fauna, and more. Learn about the Americas' indigenous peoples, delve into astronomy and space science, and discover the wonders of Ancient Egypt. Don't miss: The Cockrell Butterfly Center, a stunning living exhibit that showcases hundreds of live butterflies in a naturalistic rainforest setting.

Houston Zoo

Ready, set, explore. Stop by one of the zoo's newest additions: Gorillas in the African Forest habitat. Their power is legendary. Their movements, majestic. Their presence, simply awesome. You can also watch young elephants splash around in their 80,000-gallon pool, or walk down a winding boardwalk to see a variety of endangered primates, including lemurs, mandrills, howler monkeys and more. Families with younger children should visit the John P. McGovern Children's Zoo, built especially for kids. Bucket list activity: Feeding the giraffes (11am. and 2pm daily) at the Giraffe Feeding Platform near Twiga Café. You haven't lived until you've had giraffe drool running down your arm.


Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

At the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, you can find tranquility in the Cullen Sculpture Garden, an oasis of art and nature showcasing masterworks by such artists as Henri Matisse and Auguste Rodin. View exquisite objects created in the Near East, Egypt, Greece and the Roman Empire. Get a lively overview of the story of art in the United States from the 19th and early 20th centuries in the American art galleries. Best time to visit: Tuesdays and Wednesdays are least busy. Thursdays are free days, so the museum may be more crowded.

Kemah Boardwalk

This Texas Gulf Coast theme park is just minutes from Space Center Houston. The 60-acre site offers amusement rides, nine waterfront restaurants, shopping (souvenirs, anyone?) midway games, live entertainment and weekend festivals. Brave the Boardwalk Bullet roller coaster, ride the train and Ferris wheel, and plunge—if you dare—140 feet on the Drop Zone.

Once your stomach settles, there are lots of Kemah Boardwalk dining options. Adults sans kids will enjoy classic seafood dishes and panoramic waterfront views at Landry's Seafood House. The Pizza Oven is a good choice for families. Most decadent dessert: The boardwalk's Funnel Cakes & More booth has an Oreo-stuffed funnel cake that will put a very sweet bow on your time in Houston.

Children's Museum of Houston

Designed for children age 0-12 and consistently rated as one of America's top children's museums by Parents magazine, the Children's Museum of Houston is a playground for the mind. Kids can harness the power of water as FlowWorks unleashes a tsunami of wet, wild fun; run an entire city in Kidtropolis; leap, jump, crawl and climb up PowerPlay; and create, concoct and invent their own gadgets in the Invention Convention exhibit area. Don't miss: Tot*Spot (perfect for babies and toddlers); SECRET Spy Game (a code-cracking, clue-finding experience for older kids).

"Twilight Epiphany" Skyspace

One of the coolest experiences in Houston is the James Turrell "Twilight Epiphany" Skyspace installation at Rice University. Free for the public to enjoy, this 40-minute "light performance" is stunning. Constructed of grass, concrete, stone and composite steel, Twilight Epiphany's physical structure is equipped with an LED light sequence that projects onto the ceiling and through an aperture in the 72-foot knife-edge roof twice daily: just before sunrise and at sunset. How to visit: Go to http://skyspace.rice.edu/cms/visit-skyspace/ for viewing times for the sunrise and sunset light sequences, along with reservation (they're free) and logistical details.

Savings Tip: A Houston CityPASS ticket offers prepaid—and deeply discounted—admission to many of the attractions listed above. Get the scoop here.


Places to Eat

Breakfast

Snooze, An A.M. Eatery (Montrose location) is the place to fuel up with a delicious and ethically sourced breakfast. Ingredients must be "Snooze Approved" (i.e., come from companies that respect both animals and humans, have a strong ethical code, etc.). Signature dishes include a "Pancake Flight" of pineapple upside-down, blueberry Danish and sweet potato pancakes; hash made with dry-rubbed corned beef and topped with two cage-free eggs cooked your style; and the Snooze breakfast burrito. What to order: It's all good.

The Breakfast Klub is a soulful eatery combining Southern hospitality with Southern comfort food. What better place for breakfast? Signature dishes include catfish (spelled with a "k" on the menu) and grits, chicken and waffles, and biscuits and gravy. The omelets are H-U-G-E, the grits are smooth, and the service is warm and welcoming. Beat the crowd: The restaurant doesn't take reservations, so there's usually a line out the door by mid-morning. Arrive at or just before opening time to get in quickly.

Lankford Grocery & Market is a third-generation family-run business known for its hearty breakfasts and myriad burger options (just in case you sleep in and don't make it there until lunchtime). This kitschy, casual diner has been featured on The Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives (2010) and is a fan favorite with locals. Choose from a comfy, homey booth indoors or a shady picnic table outside. Weekend special: The restaurant's yummy biscuits with sausage and gravy are only available on Saturday.

Lunch

Goode Company BBQ on Kirby is a Houston institution. It's a tradition that has stood the test of time. One thing you'll never find at Goode Company is a gas or electric grill. That's because founder Jim Goode was raised on food cooked over mesquite—that hardy little tree that covers most of south Texas. This distinct smoky flavor has been Goode Company's carnivorous calling card for years. What to order: Go for the combo plate, which allows you to choose two or three different kinds of meat and comes with yummy jalapeño-cheese bread. Dessert? Hands down, you gotta try the pecan pie.

The Zero-G Diner at Space Center Houston is a great place for lunch. It offers several food stations and cuisine styles, none of which are freeze-dried, thankfully. Budget tip: Enjoy free unlimited drink refills by purchasing a 3-D souvenir cup. The cup commemorates the first and last crewed lunar landings with a 3-D image of the historic Apollo 11 and Apollo 17 spacecraft.

The menu at the Houston Zoo's Cypress Circle Café ranges from kid-friendly peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches to elegant Parmesan truffle fries (ooh-la-la) and a whole lot in-between (pizza, burgers, salads and sandwiches). The restaurant is green-certified and uses fresh, locally sourced ingredients. We should point out that the staff has let the café's ultra-sustainable rep go to their heads—literally. Their uniform hats are made from yarn spun from recycled plastic bottles. What to order: Those Parmesan truffle fries, obviously.


Dinner

Hungry's Café is located in Houston's Rice Village neighborhood, within walking distance of the "Twilight Epiphany" Skyspace installation at Rice University. The restaurant's upscale yet casual feel and expansive menu make it a nice dinner stop for both adult diners and families with picky kids. Hungry's theme of "positive eating, positive living" is reflected in the many options for vegans and vegetarians. What to order: Penne Rustica with shrimp (penne pasta, spinach, portobello mushrooms and shrimp tossed in a roasted tomato cream sauce) or the vegetarian-friendly Organic Tricolor Quinoa Salad.

BB's Tex-Orleans, a favorite Houston haunt, serves traditional southern Louisiana-style cooking with a Texas twist. It's a casual, fun (yes, you can eat with your hands) place for dinner. Most Instagrammable menu item: A massive bowl of BB's bright-red, Cajun-style crawfish. Dig in!

Jus' Mac is perfect for a family with fussy eaters in tow. Jus' Mac's menu offers 18 variations on macaroni-and-cheese—from the kid-friendly "All American" (just cheese) to the more adventurous "Armadillo" (bacon, cream cheese sauce and jalapeños) to the super-swanky "Truffle" (white truffle oil, mushrooms and chives). While the restaurant also has wings, sandwiches and other items on its menu, mac is king and this comfort food takes center stage. Most "mac-able" appetizer: The fried mac balls (mac and cheese rolled in panko and then deep fried to golden perfection).