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central library in downtown houston

A Local's Guide to the Best of Downtown Houston

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As the nation's fourth-largest city, Houston is both cosmopolitan and culturally diverse, reflecting its people and its history. While it has a reputation for big business and big city living, its appeal lies in far more than its skyscrapers and urban skyline. Downtown Houston is home to a thriving culture embracing theater, the arts, nightlife and outdoor activities galore. Whether you're planning a visit to the city or looking for a special gift for friends who live in the area, check out these 10 things to do in downtown Houston, recommended by local agents who live and play in the city.

In This Article:
  1. Take a Walk With the Central Library
  2. Skate a Really Big Bowl
  3. Step Back in Time
  4. Explore the City's Street Art Scene
  5. Enjoy an Offbeat Theater Experience
  6. Dish the Dirt
  7. Visit the Houston Museum of Natural Science
  8. Enjoy the Sounds Underground at the Cistern
  9. Explore Houston's Underground
  10. Enjoy Nature 

1. Take a Walk With the Central Library

Located in the heart of Downtown, Houston's Central Library is the flagship of the city's public library system. Newly reimagined, the library reopened in October 2021 and offers a huge variety of spaces, services and experiences for residents and visitors of all ages. Check out their weekly Wednesday Walk for a guided walking tour of downtown Houston to soak up some of the city's famous sunshine with a helping of history and interesting information. You can also browse their events calendar for more inspiration and activities.

2. Skate a Really Big Bowl

Designed by premier skatepark designer Grindline, the Lee and Joe Jemail Skatepark provides 30,000 feet of in-ground skating area with a stunning backdrop of the Houston skyline. Voted one of the nation's best skateparks by Best of American Towns in 2016, Houston's first concrete public skatepark features what is thought to be one of the largest cradles in the country. The park caters to skaters of all ages and abilities, though insiders note that adults can skate mostly kid-free before 2 p.m. most weekdays. Helmets are required if you're going to skate, so be sure to bring your own.

3. Step Back in Time

In the shadow of Houston's skyscrapers is a little sliver of the city where time seems to pause. The Heritage Museum, managed by the Heritage Society at Sam Houston Park, is a collection of historic buildings and sites that are part of Houston's history. The buildings here represent the broad and diverse range of the people who shaped the city and its culture. In addition, the Museum Gallery features a selection of permanent and rotating exhibits of historic artifacts and events.

4. Explore the City's Street Art Scene

Houston is home to a vibrant, diverse art scene reflected in an abundance of stunning murals and graffiti art. In our opinion, there's no better way to see it than with an experienced local guide with insider experience. Houston Joyride offers innovative tours of the city via electric carts, including an Instagramable tour of more than 40 of Houston's best murals in Downtown, Midtown and East Downtown. Other tours of interest include a Brewery Tour and a Pokemon Go tour.

5. Enjoy an Offbeat Theater Experience

Housed in an intimate, eclectic 60-seat theater (with a full wine and beer bar), Rec Room Arts is one of the most beloved theater companies in the city. Their mission is to "energize a new generation of audiences for the performing arts." The attached Green Room Bar is open to the public in addition to serving patrons of the theater. Furthermore, it hosts a Writers Group and special events throughout the year. The Houston Chronicle calls Rec Room Arts "one of Houston's finest theater companies" and Downtown Houston has declared it "one of Downtown Houston's best kept secrets," making it a true insider's find. Whether you're a Houston local looking for something different to do or want to gift friends with a unique experience, tickets to the show at Rec Room Arts may be just the ticket.

6. Dish the Dirt

Houston's The Dirt bar is one of the city's hottest rock and roll bars that doesn't host performances. The gritty dive bar, located across the street from the House of Blues and just two blocks from the Toyota Center, has gained a reputation for being the spot to party before and after a show. The music is hardcore rock and heavy metal, and the guests often include famous headliners looking to unwind after a performance. It's the perfect spot to visit with your punk and hardcore rock friends, and easily one of the best things to do in Houston at night.

7. Visit the Houston Museum of Natural Science

Wander through a prehistoric jungle, explore the furthest reaches of outer space and take a trip to the Dark Side of the Moon, all in one afternoon. Located in Hermann Park in the Museum District, the Houston Museum of Natural Science is one of the most visited museums in the nation. It boasts the largest dinosaur hall in the U.S., an extensive collection of gems and minerals and a Cabinet of Curiosities (a unique exhibit of oddities, both manmade and natural). General admission tickets include three hours of access to the 19 permanent exhibit halls. Shows at the Planetarium and other special events and exhibits may incur an additional cost.

8. Enjoy the Sounds Underground at the Cistern

What could possibly be interesting about an abandoned cistern? Check out the Cistern at Buffalo Bayou Park and find out for yourself. The unusual space was once an underground water reservoir that provided drinking water for part of the city. When it developed an irreparable leak in the early 2000s, the city decommissioned it, drained it and scheduled it for demolition in 2010. Around the same time, the Buffalo Bayou Partnership recognized the amazing potential in the huge underground cavern and turned it into one of the most innovative art and event spaces in the country. It now hosts unique art installations and concerts, as well as historical tours of the Cistern and sound healing/meditation sessions.

9. Explore Houston's Underground

Houston is famous for many things, and its extensive downtown underground tunnel system just may be the most unusual. Climb the stairs inside nearly any office building downtown and you'll find yourself in an entire city that exists underground. The nearly eight miles of tunnels weave together nearly 95 blocks of the city, allowing residents and tourists to make their way around the city while avoiding the worst of the often too hot weather on the streets. Over the years, the Tunnels have grown and developed, with retail shops, food courts and cultural activities that reflect Houston's multicultural diversity. You can explore the tunnel system on your own or book a tour to learn the local history of the dozens of buildings connected by the underground passageways.

10. Enjoy Nature 

While Houston is rightly famed for its skyscrapers and urban architecture, it's also one of the most delightfully green cities in the country. Wherever you are downtown, you're never far from a park or green space, all of them offering unique recreational and leisure opportunities. The city's premier greenspace, Discovery Green, includes a children's play area, two dog runs, an amphitheater and a manmade lake, while the waterfront Sabine Promenade features hiking and biking trails and a boat landing. Many of Houston's parks host special events, art installations, music festivals and other activities. Best of all, access to most Houston parks costs nothing, making them some of the best free things to do in Houston.


Planning a move to Houston? Check out our Ultimate Moving Guide to Houston for everything you need to know.

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