HOUSTON (Reuters) - Houston is known for its energy companies, urban sprawl, humidity and NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
But lately the Bayou City has been gaining accolades for a robust cultural scene. From the performing and visual arts to food and festivals, the nation’s fourth-largest city is gaining recognition as a sophisticated and multi-cultural center.
Art permeates the city, with major exhibits throughout the year at venues such as the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and the Menil Collection, with its low-slung, modern Renzo Piano-designed building. In July, ArtHouston takes over the city with a sprawling art walk, featuring exhibits in more than 30 galleries.
Houstonians are adventuresome foodies, enjoying the culinary explorations of world-class local chefs, like superstar Bryan Caswell whose restaurants include the Tex-Mex haven El Real and dives like Lankford Grocery & Market.
Visitors to Houston are advised to wear comfortable shoes and bring loose clothing, especially in the steamy summer.
5 p.m. - Houston has a variety of hotels. The hip Hotel Za Za, which is within walking distance of Hermann Park and Houston Zoo and is near the Museum District. It is famous for its brunch and sleek pool. Other lodging options include the Magnolia Hotel Houston and the Hotel ICON.
7 p.m. - Cocktail hour in Houston doesn’t require a jacket, but local bartenders will take you back to a time when it did with their classic mixes and new brews. Anvil Bar & Refuge in the heart of Houston’s arty Montrose neighborhood is a sure bet, or venture off the beaten path to the Poison Girl, which has a back patio and tremendous selection of bourbon.
9:30 p.m. - For dinner, head over to Oxheart, a 31-seat restaurant in a warehouse-infused neighborhood but make reservations first. In the loft-like interior, flatware and linens are neatly nestled into small drawers in the tables and patrons can watch the action in the kitchen. Try the $49 seasonal four-course meals which feature items such as warm sunflower seed soup with burnt onion and black tea or American blue rabbit with garlic ash and turnips.
11:30 p.m. - Check out the live music at the Continental Club in Midtown on Main. The vast back patio with its tiki bar and neon “Elvis” sign on the back wall is the perfect place to kick back with a cold bottle of Lone Star.
1 a.m. - For late-night dining try pho or Vietnamese spring rolls at Mai’s Restaurant on Milam.
10 a.m. - Even if you don’t make it early to Blacksmith Coffee Bar on Westheimer, the hot, homemade biscuits will still be on the menu. Enjoy them with locally roasted Greenway Coffee.
11:30 - Antique and thrift stores plus boutiques abound on Westheimer in Montrose, so spend time shopping and strolling after breakfast. Space Montrose on Dunlavy features a selection of gifts and artwork, much of it by local and regional artists.
1 p.m. - Head to Houston’s charming Historic Heights neighborhood and enjoy locally sourced meats, cheeses and desserts at Revival Market on Heights Boulevard. For a Texas barbecue fix, visit Gatlin’s Barbecue, but only if you’re not in a hurry.
2:30 p.m. - A stroll down 19th Street is a treat with bistros, boutiques, antiques, art galleries and Boomtown Coffee, which roasts its own beans. Don’t miss the chance to discover the esoteric selection of punk, rock and techno records at Vinal Edge.
6 p.m. - After freshening up at your hotel, slip into something fabulous and head downtown for craft beers and cocktails at OKRA Charity Saloon on Congress, where proceeds benefit a new charity each month. The interior of the 19th-Century building features an exposed brick room with a curved-beam ceiling reminiscent of the hull of a grand ship. Eat here or head next door to Batanga for tapas on the patio.
7:30 p.m. - Get ready for an evening of world-class opera, ballet, symphony or musical theater in Houston’s Theater District. Whether your tastes lean toward La Boheme, Blue Man Group or Spamalot, there is something for everyone.
11 p.m. - Enjoy a lively discussion of the evening’s culture over drinks and snacks at Hay Merchant on Westheimer, which has a fantastic reverse happy hour starting at 11 p.m.
11 a.m. - Visit Hugo’s on Westheimer for a $29-per-person Sunday buffet of upscale Mexican cuisine and live music. Brunch at Brasserie Max & Julie on Montrose is decidedly French and a far quieter affair. Order crepes filled with Nutella or the duck confit and wild mushroom gaufres (waffles).
2 p.m. - A modernist oasis awaits at the Menil Collection and nearby Rothko Chapel, a peaceful meditation space featuring large purple tonal paintings by Mark Rothko. Enjoy a post-brunch siesta at Menil Park after viewing the paintings.
Editing by Corrie MacLaggan, Patricia Reaney and Cynthia Osterman