It may sound obvious to say it out loud, but Houston is BIG, Texas-sized big. Downtown, the buildings are boxy glass stalactites soaring to the sky; the massive Astrodome was the first domed stadium of its kind in the world, another big statement in a town that’s mad for sports. The sheer size of everything here can make the visitor feel, well, a bit small, especially when they have only 24-hours to conquer it all. But with the following itinerary, you should be able to take in a good share of Houston’s major sights. There’ll likely be more by the time you come back; the city is changing and growing that fast.
9 a.m. - 10 a.m.: Start your day at Houston’s celebrated diner, the . Waffles topped with strawberries, powdered sugar and yes, chicken wings is the unusual signature dish here and though its sound odd, it’s a scrumptious combination. Another favorite are the crisply fried catfish with grits. Get there early--with food this good, there’s always a wait.
10 a.m. - 12:30 p.m. (or later): I’ve allotted just two-and-a-half hours to , NASA’s official visitor center, but truth be told, you could spend an entire day here and not be bored. Along with a guided tour of mission control, there are dozens of nifty interactive exhibits, fascinating for people of all ages, that will allow you to control and land a space shuttle, experience weightlessness, follow the progress of actual NASA flights in real time, and much more. This is the top tourist draw in Houston, and rightfully so.
Morning Alternative: If you’ve already done the Space Center, take a trip into history at the antique-filled home of the daughter of a former Texas-governor, who obviously felt living well was the best revenge. (And who was she taking revenge on? I’d guess her father, who had the bad taste to name her Ima Hogg). Built in the 1920’s the mansion is filled with priceless American furniture, some dating back to Colonial times; an excellent, 90-minute guided tour will give you the complete history of the house and its owner.
12:30 a.m. - 1:30 p.m.: Go Mexican for lunch, with a pilgrimage to the ultra-gourmet . Yes, you’ll have tacos and tostados here, but chef Hugo Ortego fills them with such luxe ingredients as lobster or meltingly tender duck, cooking them following classic Mexico City (not TexMex) recipes. Finish up with the best tres leches you’ve ever tasted.
2 p.m. - 5 p.m.: Head to the , the crown jewel of Texas museums. Beyond the marvelous collections of Impressionist and African tribal art within, its buildings and grounds could serve as a Who’s Who of 20th century architecture. Added on to its 1920’s neo-classical base were two additions (built in the 50’s and 70’s) by the king of Modernism, Mies van der Rohe; the gardens were designed by Isamu Noguchi; and in the 1990’s, the museum’s trustees hired celebrated Spanish architect Rafael Moneo to add yet another spectacular building. Lovers of Modern Art should consider visiting the one of the world’s finest private collections. Here you’ll visit the famous Rothko chapel, hung with 14 works the painter completed just before his death; and a building designed by Renzo Piano brimming with the works of Cy Twombly. The de Menils also collected works of Byzantine, Medieval and Tribal art, all of which somehow fit together quite gracefully in this lovely mansion turned museum.
An Afternoon Alternative: Drive out to the "Orange Show" off the Gulf Freeway, certainly the quirkiest of Houston’s many attractions. Not a show in the traditional sense of the world, it is instead a “folk art environment” that postman Jeff McKisock spent the last 25 years of his life assembling. An artful mishmash of found objects---tractor seats, mannequins, wagon wheels and more—the center contains dozens of mobiles, a small museum (much of which is dedicated to the joys of McKissock’s favorite fruit) assembled in a castle-like house. It’s quite a sight, and worth the trip to Houston’s East End.
5:30 p.m. - 7 p.m. (or later, if you skip the next activity): It may well be a sign of just how cosmopolitan Houston has become that world-renowned chef Jean George Vongerichten has decided to grace it with one of his temples of gastronomy. Called it showcases the Asian fusion cuisine that has already won accolades in New York and Las Vegas. In a grandly colonnaded former bank lobby, you’ll dine on such exotica as duck breasts with carmelized shallots and foie gras; sweet corn stuffed ravioli with a basil fondue; or shaved salmon with chili tapioca.
7 p.m. - 10 p.m.: Go to a game, any game. Houston is obsessed with sports and the , and (baseball, basketball and football respectively) all have their share of die-hard fans. I’d particularly recommend a baseball game if you’re there in summer, for that magic moment when the dome retracts and the sweeping night sky covers the stadiums (it’s also a hoot to watch the train’s celebratory run around the stadium every time the home team scores a home run).
10 p.m. on ... Houston’s a major center for nightlife with dozens of trendy clubs. Right now, the “in” spot is , which is just as elegant as the name suggests with floor to ceiling windows and an Art Deco-ish décor. The music here is hip hop, with a Latin beat thrown in on Fridays.
Hugos, 1602 Westheimer Road at Mandell St.; 713/524-7744; Sun-Thurs 11 a.m. - 10 p.m., Fri-Sat 11 a.m. - midnight
Bank Jean Georges, 220 Main St; 832/667-4470; Mon-Sat 7a.m. - 10:30, 11:30-2:30 and 5:30-10 p.m., Sun 10:30-2 p.m.
Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommer Guidebooks which will be debuting in bookstores this July.