Houston. Buffalo Bayou Park

5 Fun Things To Do In Houston In A Weekend

Known for its contribution for space exploration, Houston is one of America’s largest cities with a cosmopolitan vibe. However, it isn’t a city I normally would consider visiting, except that my daughter moved to Houston for a while, and it was time to visit her.

The first time I was in Houston, I was busy helping her set up, so other than her neighborhood and grocery stores, I haven’t seen much of the city. However, even driving through it, I noticed lots of green areas everywhere I looked. Coming from the desert, this was a big deal.

So, when we finally flew out to visit her over a weekend, I knew I wanted to spend time in the Buffalo Bayou Park, within walking distance from her house. As a family, we wanted to explore the NASA Space Station. During a weekend visit, we didn’t plan on doing more. Still, we ended up exploring a bit more. Here are a few things to do in Houston if you only have a weekend to explore.

1. Wander – and Get Lost – Through A Downtown Neighborhood

Although I believe that “Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost”, sometimes those who wander don’t mind getting lost. I believe it is the best way to get to know a new city, or any new place. Of course, you could say I use this as an excuse; I have a terrible sense of direction, which means I always get lost in a new city. Generally, I don’t mind. I expect it and usually enjoy it. So it was no surprise that I got lost in Houston within the first few hours of being there.

When we first arrived, my daughter and her dad had to take care of a car problem. I stayed behind with her sister at the house. We didn’t mind waiting a few minutes we though it would take hem. But when they didn’t return half hour later, we decided to take a walk. We’d go to the Bayou, to enjoy some green spaces. I assured my daughter I knew where I was going.

However, the only thing I knew about the direction I was heading was that I had to get out to the main road and cross it. I remembered passing it on our way home from the grocery store on my previous visit. Of course I would remember where it was, I thought, but I knew I wouldn’t mind getting lost.

Nothing makes me feel more at home in a new place than being lost and finding my own way through it. So, we walked out and wandered through the neighborhood, marveling at the architecture of the old homes, while my daughter found several cats to play with.

But it was still hot. Not Phoenix-hot, but the added humidity made it uncomfortable. So, after walking for a while and feeling lost, I decided to use my phone GPS.

Neighborhood street in Houston...
Neighborhood street in Houston downtown area

If you follow a GPS, make sure you have it at the right setting

I should’ve known it wasn’t a good idea; I am much worse at reading a map than finding my own way, so we ended up walking in the wrong direction. Finally, after walking a full circle, I decided to trust my instincts. Reluctant, my daughter followed, though after a while she was convinced that we’d never find the Bayou and asked me to start walking back. Just when we were about to turn around, I saw it. All we had to do is walk across the next street.

As I realized after the third street my GPS led me on in the wrong direction, I forgot to set it to walk, instead of drive. And since the narrow streets in the neighborhood were all one-way, it took me around in circles.

Though we walked twice as long as we needed to, we made it, and found some shade to walk under, away from the street noise.

2. Walk Through The Buffalo Bayou Park

One of the largest green areas in Houston Downtown, the Park at Buffalo Bayou offers shaded walking and biking trails along the waterway. The Bayou itself is a 52-mile slow-moving waterway kept in its natural state, so it contains a diverse urban ecosystem supporting dozens of native species of flora and fauna.

During a very hot late August weekend we didn’t have the energy to explore all of it, but our short hike took us along flowering trees and lots of green spaces. We also walked down to the water’s edge to enjoy the late afternoon breeze.

in he Buffalo Bayou Park
Walking in the Buffalo Bayou Park

How did the park get its name?

We were wondering if the bayou got its name because it actually had buffaloes on its banks. After a bit of digging I found out that we guessed right, buffaloes once roamed the area. At least the founding father of Texas thought so.

When Stephen F. Austin established his colony in Texas, he used a Spanish map dated from 1822. On it, the name of the waterway was Rio Cibolo. Cibolo was the word Spanish explorers used for bison. So, when he redrew the map in 1836, he labeled the waterway Buffalo Bayou.

Paleontologists also found plenty of evidence that buffalo roamed the are of present-day Houston for centuries. They found fossils that prove bison were here 35,000 years ago. Their huge herds ranged from northwest Canada down to Mexico, through what is today Texas. But between the 1830s and 1880s, right around the time Texas was established, they were hunted almost to extinction. Which means they were most likely still there in the early days, when settlers arrived into the area.

The bats at the Buffalo Bayou

But these days, the main attraction at the Buffalo Bayou Park are the bats, a spectacle we kept missing, unfortunately. The first night, tired and hungry, we walked back home before sunset. The second night we were out driving, and planned to stop before getting back home. We were there at the right time, but could not find a parking spot, anywhere in the vicinity of the bridge.

Watching the bats take off at dusk is an extremely popular attraction in Houston. Huge crowds gathered near the Waugh bridge waiting for them to emerge. I didn’t mind missing it, since I have an issue with crowds. We saw bats in the area though during our sunset walks in the park, even if we missed the spectacle of them all flying out in a huge group.

If you want to see the spectacle, plan on arriving early, and waiting for them near the bridge.

3. Visit The Downtown Houston Aquarium – And See A Tiger

Our visit to he Downtown Aquarium was a spur-of-the-moment decision. As much as we wanted to spend time outdoors, it was a hot weekend, so we needed things to do indoors. Our choices were he museums, specifically the art museum we wanted to see, or the aquarium. In the end, we chose the aquarium because of its proximity and because my Houston resident daughter hasn’t been there yet. (She visited the art museum and raved about it, but we thought we’d go somewhere new for her, too. )

The Aquarium was more impressive than I expected. The exhibits are set up to give visitors a real feel for the environment.

Passing through the Texas Bayou exhibit, we had a glimpse into the world of he marsh and bayous of the Gulf Coast, where alligators, turtles, and bullfrogs were the highlight.

The shipwreck exhibit showcases the reproduction of a sunken 17th century Spanish galleon, surrounded by living coral reefs created by the aquarium’s biologists.

We walked through a tropical rainforest area, showcasing life inside their rivers, where we saw piranhas and stingrays among other fish species, besides colorful rainforest frogs and an emerald tree boa.

As fans of the Maya civilization, we enjoyed the sunken temple exhibit, where the fish swim around a replica of an ancient Maya temple, and even the walls are pained with Maya images. Besides the fish species, here we saw the largest python I could imagine, a Tiger Reticulated Python.

Sunken Temple exhibit at the Houston Aquarium
The Sunken Temple exhibit at the Houston Aquarium

After passing through the underwater rig exhibit, we arrived to the Maharaja’s Temple.

Tigers and the Houston Aquarium

We were at the White Tigers of the Maharaja’s Temple exhibit. We noticed someone behind the glass, walking around, placing something in different areas of he exhibit. As we laer realized, she was setting up feeding stations for one of the aquarium’s white tigers. As we waited there, we saw the tiger come out, walk all over he exhibit, then sit in front of the maharaja’s statue. Watching this gorgeous animal was the highlight of our aquarium visit.

Tiger at the Houston Aquarium
Tiger at the Houston Aquarium

As it turns out, the aquarium is home to four tigers, as part of their conservation efforts.

4. Walk The Trails At The Arboretum And Spend Time At Memorial Park

Waterlilies at the Houston Arboretum
Waterlilies at the Houston Arboretum

For locals it may not be a big deal, but for us, desert dwellers, the green spaces around town were the places we were drawn to most often. The Houston Arboretum and Nature Center offers plenty of trails in the middle of forested areas. Though I’m sure it’s more pleasant during the shoulder seasons or winter, we still enjoyed a sunset walk and a shorter morning walk in he most shaded areas. We found the Buttonbush and the Inner Loop trails to be the most shaded areas.

Sunset at the Memorial Park
Sunset at the Memorial Park – by the pond

We also spent time at the nearby Memorial Park, enjoying sunset walks along the trails and near the lake. At over 1,400 acres, Memorial Park, officially established in 1924 in memory of WWI soldiers, is one of the largest in the nation. Though extremely popular with locals, the size of the park assures that it never feels crowded. You’ll find miles of walking and hiking trails, sports fields, picnic areas, playgrounds, and a pond.

5. Visit The Houston Space Station

One of Houston’s top attractions, the Official Visitor Center of NASA Johnson Space Center was our must-see destination while in town. So, naturally, we made time for it.

Regardless of how you much of a fan of the space exploration you are, a visit to the Houston Space Station is a fun way to spend a day. It did take us most of the day, because it is a bit out of town, and there is so much to do there!

Also, if you go on a weekend, get there early to beat the crowds. Even though they have timed entry now, you have to reserve/buy tickets online for a certain time of the day, we found it much more crowded when we left. We did go during the first hour they opened, and that made a difference.

Indoor Exhibits and Galleries

Indoor exhibit a the NASA Space Center
Spaceshuttle. Indoor exhibit at the NASA Space Center

The huge indoor area of the Space Station comprises several exhibits, from starship, astronaut and International Space Station galleries to Mars exploration. Besides the exhibits, an area is set up with a stage for demonstrations, lectures, We caught a science demonstration while there.

Walk inside an original shuttle carrier and a shuttle replica

One of the highlights of our visit was exploring inside the original NASA 905 shuttle carrier aircraft and the shuttle replica Independence, mounted on its top.

Look at actual rockets

You can also take several NASA tram tours and the Space Center. We chose the Rocket Park Tour, it sounded most interesting for us. However, depending on your own interests, you can choose the Mission Control Center tour or the Astronaut Training Facility Tour. Or, if you have all day, you can do all three.

The fully built Saturn V Rocket at the NASA Space Center
The fully built Saturn V Rocket at the NASA Space Center

Considering my husband used to build and shoo rockets with the kids when they were younger, we opted to visit the Rocket Park. Along with several other rockets displayed outside, inside an enormous hangar we saw a fully built Saturn V rocket. Used mainly during the Apollo program flying to the Moon, the immense rocket is he most powerful and heaviest ever flown.

More Things To Do In Houston

A weekend is a short time to explore Houston, but it’s enough to get you a good feel for the place. Especially if you walk around with locals. Things that we missed and would return for include several museums and the zoo. According to my resident daughter, the Houston Zoo is worth spending a full day at, but, being outdoors, more enjoyable on cooler days.

Her other favorite place in Houston is the Museum of Fine Arts, featuring an impressive collection of art pieces from around the globe. It was one of the main places she wanted to take us, but we ran out of time. Something to do for next time.

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