With its plethora of kid-friendly activities, especially in the realms of science and technology, and plenty of green spaces and hands-on fun, Houston is the perfect destination for a weekend family getaway. And according to Brenda Bazan, president and CEO of Houston First Corp., the majority of Houston has bounced back quicker than many anticipated from the impact of last year’s Hurricane Harvey, the inspiration for the hashtag, #HoustonStrong. So pack the car, grab the family, and get ready to explore this great Texas town!
Houston, we have lift off—with those words, Houston became synonymous with space exploration, making the Johnson Space Center and Visitors Center one of the most popular attractions in Houston.
The Space Center is best for kids ages 5 and up, and even then, skip the 90-minute tram tour with kids under 8—it’s slow and quiet, and parents are encouraged not to enter Mission Control with small children who are making noise—an impossible task. Instead, you can see the highlights simply by following our tour hack: go out the side door and straight to the shuttle mounted on a full-size airplane, the only place in the world you can walk through both. Then check out the rocket that fills an entire airplane hangar. Indoors, watch the short space movie to give your kids an overview of why Houston is important to the space program. Then watch a Stellar Science Show and visit the displays where you can touch a moon rock and see a real astronaut suit. (Admission: Adults, $30; kids 4 to 11, $25)
Tip: If you’re planning on visiting the Space Center as well as any of the other attractions in this itinerary, it pays to purchase a Houston CityPASS (adults, $59; kids 3 to 11, $49). It provides admission to the Space Center and all the other stops on this itinerary, and will save you 49% off the combined admissions (you can purchase it in advance or at any included attraction after you arrive).
Make a pit stop for a true Houston specialty: Real Texas barbecue cooked over mesquite at Goode Co. BBQ, a local tradition for four decades. Order at the counter and grab a table outside. There’s no children’s menu, but an order of ribs will easily feed two children, and there are heaping sides including coleslaw, jambalaya rice, and potato salad.
Head to the Museum District for an afternoon of hands-on fun at the innovative Children’s Museum. Highlights here include a kid’s banking system—every guest receives a credit card pre-loaded with Kids Cash, that they can spend at spots like the grocery store or restaurant, and then can earn more with jobs as a vet, banker, or other services in a pint-size town. Warning: You may have trouble leaving this bustling area! Downstairs, explore more of the STEM inspiration from the morning’s visit to the space center with plenty of interactive science experiments Kids 8 and up can also work in the high-tech Maker’s Space, where projects range from creating solar-powered cars to 3D printing, all of which are included in entrance fees (a $5 charge may apply to occasional reserved space workshops). (Ages 8 and up, $12; kids 1 to 7, $11)
Round out the day at Discovery Green, a pint-size park that prides itself on catering to families, with kayaking on a small pond, a large playground, water sprinkler fun, and specialty programs ranging from Toddler Tuesdays to goat yoga.
Get outside for fresh air fun and explore animal life past and present prehistoric.
Get a good breakfast for a full day’s fun at The Breakfast Klub—this is a Houston tradition and the breakfasts are Texas size, which is to say huge. Waffles and plate size pancakes (you only need to order one pancake per kid) are specialties, as are fried catfish and chicken and waffles.
Start the day at this lush green oasis when the animals are at their most active before the Houston heat sets in. Insider tip: Head straight to the Asian elephants that can be seen getting a bath every day at 10 a.m. Other highlights include feeding giraffes, spying on gorillas and primates in the Great Ape House, and following the wooden boardwalk through the Children’s Zoo, which gets kids close up to porcupine and mongoose enclosures, and includes small slides and crawling options near the river otters, who provide plenty of inspiration. One unusual option in the kid’s area: The Trading Post. Here junior collectors can bring their found nature items, such as shells, rocks, and flowers to trade in for new natural wonders, including gems and minerals and even skulls and bones (sorry squeamish parents). Lunch it up at the zoo’s on-property food trucks that serve everything from Asian to barbecue food to eat on the go. (Ages 12 and up, $19; kids 2 to 11, $15).
Tip: Leave your car parked at the zoo and hop on the train around Hermann Park. The zoo is set along the rolling green lawns of Hermann Park Conservancy where a pint-sized locomotive ($3.50) circles and has several hop-on, hop-off options, including at our next stop, the Natural History Museum. The park also features pedal boats and an extensive all-access children’s playground with water play area.
This may be the greatest museum you’ve never heard of—until now. The largest collection of dinosaurs and fossils in North America are displayed in cavernous space where there’s plenty of room for the museum to create memorable dioramas: Museum curators are quick to point out that the skeletons “chasing, eating, and escaping as they struggle for life” are based on real-life possibilities. There are three (!) T-Rex skeletons here as well—your budding paleontologists will want to spend the whole day (if your kids want to get the inside scoop on all things dinosaur, book a guided tour with Jurassic James, $30 per person with admission, the head tour guide and family favorite). For kids with an interest in Ancient Egypt, the vast range of crypts and tombs and mummies here will both delight and possibly scare. Notable are the elaborate displays crafted to feel like you’re walking through an Egyptian temple, with music to match the mood. In fact, the whole museum has musical accompaniment for each area, as well as unique lighting and theming. Another favorite stop is the Cabinet of Curiosities, a display that looks like a Victorian Library filled with old globes, furs, skeletons, shells, and more. Drawers open, there’s no glass in the cabinets, and you can touch and feel everything. (This is great for kids with sensory issues.) The third floor Energy Hall is hands-on fun and a look at Texas’ Oil history. (Ages 12 and up, $25; ages 3 to 11, $15)
El Real for Tex Mex served in a converted movie theater with soaring ceilings and plenty of space for families to spread out. Everything here is made from scratch, including the tortillas that are fried up for puffy tacos filled with ground beef. The children’s menu of tacos and quesadillas, and the movies—think Westerns and travel videos of the Grand Canyon – playing on a back wall, make this a kid pleaser.
Marriott Marquis Houston Hotel—One of the newest properties in Houston is also one of the top choices for families due to its massive pool deck with a Texas-shaped lazy river pool (it’s seriously cool), you’ll be hard pressed to get your kids out of. Across the street is Discovery Green Park and it’s also walking distance to Minute Maid Field, home to the World Series Champion Astros.
Magnolia Hotel—Three words: Bedtime. Cookie. Buffet. Every night, an unlimited assortment of cookies and milk are set out for nighttime treats here. There’s also a rooftop pool and well-priced rooms.
Best Western Plus Downtown Inn & Suites—You can’t get more bang for your buck than this centrally located chain which offers free breakfast, free WiFi, free parking, and a free shuttle to area highlights, as well as full suites with kitchens and an outdoor pool all in a convenient downtown location.