Things to do in Houston

Houston's Hidden Gems: 9 of Our Favorite Secret Places in Houston

Find Houston's hidden gems, loved by locals and waiting for visitors looking for surprising experiences.

In the unique atmosphere of the Texas Triangle, Houston captivates with its rich history and natural wonders. The city's array of things to do promises endless discoveries, ensuring that even when you think you've seen it all, there's always something new to uncover.

We know a few must-see attractions and famous landmarks you won’t want to pass up. Find out about our favorite hidden gems in the vibrant city of Houston.

1. Hobbit Cafe

When the Hobbit Cafe opened in 1972, embodying Tolkien’s vision of the Shire, it became one of the many unique things to do in Houston, offering a whimsical escape not far from the heart of downtown.

Food lovers of that era could make the pilgrimage to Montrose to dine on vegetarian fare for breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, or any of the other seven meals hobbits eat in a day. As the cafe evolved, it grew out of the confines of the culinary scene of Middle-earth and added meat dishes and a wine list. 

Take your repose with friends, human, hobbit, or elf, on the vast wooden deck under an oak tree worthy of Laurelin itself. The breezy shade at this, one of the most delightfully whimsical hidden gems in Houston, beats indoor air conditioning on the hot, humid days, and a wine or beer under its boughs is a fair rival to the Ring of Power.

2. National Museum of Funeral History

While this list is all about feeling alive, we’re all going to pass away someday. To cope with this, humanity has developed some intricate rituals that bring us together in somber recognition of what we’re all facing as a team. 

The National Museum of Funeral History is a shrine to that unity, and it does its work well. Here, we can peruse the stunning collection of artifacts and funerary rites of peoples long gone and distantly separated. There's an ancient Egyptian tomb relief and a Chinese statuary garden. Look toward the middle of the floor space, and you’ll see a carriage that could have served Cinderella for her funeral, while more modern hearses tend to be Cadillacs with dark curtains. 

The self-guided tour through this museum is surprisingly lighthearted and fun, where you might have expected stillness and grief. Tap into the mindset of Corteo the clown, and let loose on your morbid curiosity. 

Photographer: Strauss Western

3. Smither Park

You can get lost in the Houston art scene, where the art galleries in Houston, along with art schools and exhibition events, showcase the glory and grandeur of professional artists' creativity and vision.

The late Stephanie Smither was in love with a vision of art as something people did, and to honor her husband after his passing she set about telling the world about her own vision. Working with local artist Dan Phillips and The Orange Show Center for Visionary Art, known for its quirky maze of walkways, she put together Smither Park, an experience you didn’t come to Houston to see. While not as large as Memorial Park or as historic as Market Square Park, you can’t leave without experiencing this bit of secret Houston.

Here, over 300 self-taught artists have contributed installations of recycled material and fresh ideas to the world of artistic expression. Exuberant multicolor towers sprout like mushrooms after a rain shower with oddball expressions and messages to the world written on them. Elaborately decorated gateways to nowhere speak of the way art interacts with our mundane lives, while the ground itself is littered with small and easy to miss tokens of a passing artist’s fancy.

4. Waugh Drive Bat Colony

Bats are the living embodiment of everything we fear about the dark. They come out at night, speaking a language only they can hear, and swoop low through the air mere inches over our heads on missions we can only guess at. They're small and furry. They fly in a way that's unlike the birds we’re used to, and they have twitchy little noses that are always moving.

This physical trait unconsciously sets us wondering what they’re sensing that we aren’t. Texas is home to the world’s largest colony of bats, and while not quite in Houston, a quick trip to Bracken Cave takes you to one of the world’s best places to see them.

When Brazilian free-tailed bats were first discovered under the Congress Avenue Bridge in the late 1900s, the city’s first reaction was to call an exterminator. Those plans froze in place, as bat advocates spread the news that these are not disease carriers or dangerous animals, but helpful to have around. What’s more, the bats were in their home range, and this camp happened to be a splinter from the enormous San Antonio colony of 20 million bats, which eats around 250 tons of insects annually.

That was all the ranchers needed to hear. Laws were passed and the bats were protected. The state adopted them as an official flying mammal in 1995, and the Waugh Bridge has been their home in Houston ever since.

These days, you can stand on the bridge at dusk and imagine the wind pulsing under their leathery, flapping wings as they clear the area on a nightly hunt. If you listen very closely, you might hear metal signs on the bridge rattling, as the bats’ hypersonic shrieks, unheard by humans, shake exposed pieces of metal all around.

Photographer: Clément Falize

5. Cypress Trails Ranch

For thousands of years, riding horses was the sort of thing only the richest landowners could expect to do. Even today, horses are demanding to own and to ride. The special relationship between a rider and a horse can still be had in hourly blocks at Cypress Trails Ranch, about 25 minutes outside of urban Houston. 

When your heart turns away from the urban jungle of the highrises and overpasses and toward the trails and brush that’s still the native landscape of Texas, Cypress Trails is where you'll meet your equine partner for the ride. Arrive at the gate and park, and walk to the lodge for a brief familiarization for new riders. Then, head out to the stable to find a mount and get started down the trail.

Group and private lessons are available, and rides last from 1-4 hours. Experienced tour guides watch out for you the whole way up the route, which runs from Cypress to Spring Creek. Children too small for the trail can stay at the ranch for pony rides, pony parties, and other special events.

The hot, dry landscape around Houston is a place of dreams and adventures, where bandits once haunted the horse trails and the Old West lives on. This land stretches south into Mexico, which is the setting for our performance of LUZIA, a tale set in the fictional land south of the Rio Grande. Smoke and dust mingle with the urban Mexican cityscapes on stage, alongside dashing acrobats and amazing spectacles. 

Photographer: Chema Photo

6. Houston Maritime Center & Museum

Houston is a port city at heart, and the wind and the waves have called many a boy from his mother’s house here to the rolling blue far from home. The sea is oddly absent from most of the city. You can live your life in Houston and rarely or never see the waves crashing, since the actual surf is upwards of 45 miles away. There’s a protected bay, a few coastal settlements on the swampy islands, and the ship canal that runs past the Boardwalk and Mission Control and into the heart of Buffalo Bayou, the artery that feeds the whole city.

Words can’t express how important this link has been. Even today, the Houston Ship Channel is responsible for nearly 20% of the entire GDP of Texas, as barges full of bulk produce drift down it, heavy machinery moves across it, and critical pieces of oil infrastructure push up it. The Houston Maritime Center, located in Houston’s East End, is the place where Houston goes to remember this benefactor, and its curators make sure you learn a lot about what the city owes the sea.

This isn’t just a local museum though. You'll learn more than you ever thought you could about the 100,000 vessels that dock here each year, but there’s much more at the museum about ocean travel. Starting with the ancient Greek navies, there are exhibits from around the world that roll through the Age of Discovery, the Age of Sail, early steamships, and the most recent advances in globalized maritime traffic. By the time you leave this hidden gem of a history museum, you’ll have a new appreciation of where Houston fits in with the global trade network and how important the sea has been to the current world order.

Photographer: Matthew1975

7. Art in the Park

Hermann Park became a place for rest and recreation in Houston in 1914, on the eve of the First World War. In a world full of troubles, this park was a place of repose and freedom for all who came to enjoy it. This broad, grassy field is dotted with trees the perfect distance apart. Come with the family, and lay out a blanket in the shade. Walk the dog, and play catch with the kids all afternoon long. 

Starting in 2014, the park underwent a landscape revolution, as a series of contemporary art installations has been installed all over the 445-acre site. While it’s not The Museum of Fine Arts, which is one of the largest art museums in the country also located in Houston, these are interactive and totally accessible works, engineered to survive for decades in a park full of children and teenagers.

You can stroll around the grounds and gawk at the monumental scale of some, such as Trenton Doyle Hancock’s Destination Mound Town, or gaze in wonder as you try to decipher the intent behind Sharon Engelstein’s Dillidiidae. This is an effort to bring art to the masses in the most literal way possible, by having you walk over it on your way around Houston’s premiere public park.

Photographer: Trac Vu

8. 1940 Air Terminal Museum

Houston was an early pioneer in air travel, and NASA Mission Control is still headquartered here, which is how it got its nickname, the Space City. The 1940 Air Terminal Museum catches a moment between those two times, from the first flight to the final frontier. Hobby Airport was once just a local airfield, where mail carriers and local cropdusters could rest, relax, and refuel. It grew with the war years and shrank when larger terminals opened elsewhere. Today, it's an unforgettable experience in how humans once took to the sky, and how we managed things in the days of props.

9. Rothko Chapel

From Sul Ross Street, you’d never notice it. Or rather, you’d see it, but you wouldn’t know what it is. There's nothing here but a blank brick wall. It's stark and flat and featureless, unfriendly even, and there’s no hint at all to what you’re looking at. Even walking around the green, you might perceive that the building is laid out in the shape of an Orthodox cross, but even that’s not obvious from street level. 

What is it, and why is this mass of St. Louis brick important enough to have a place on the National Register of Historic Places? This location hosts over 80,000 people a year, who seek healing and redemption.

Believe it or not, you have found a place of worship. But it isn’t just another church. The Rothko Chapel is an interfaith house of prayer, which is a sacred site not consecrated to any specific religion in the world. Nobody seems to have ever done this before, and when artist Mark Rothko was approached in 1964 to try his hand at the project, he jumped on the opportunity.

Inside, this chapel reflects the essence of Mark Rothko’s visual style. The artist became famous for his use of two-tone blank canvases and absolute minimalist depictions of mood and emotion. He has decorated his chapel with dark and somber panels of his own making. The pews are hard and the ornament is all but missing. This is not a luxury spa; this is a place where you may pray next to others of every faith imaginable.

The Rothko Chapel is a personal place, where you have no mandated beliefs or required rituals. The experience is open to all, and you may take from it what you will. 

Unearthing the Hidden Heart of Houston: A Journey Beyond the Obvious

Houston is such a rich and vibrant place, where we always find something amazing to explore and new friends to share it with. Come and see us in person, bring your family, and revel in the joy of the most unforgettable performances from our amazing performers at our shows in Houston this season.

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