See This, Skip That: Houston

PHOTO: A view of the Houston skyline in Houston, Tex., March 26, 2013.

The country’s fourth-largest city is a buzzing metropolis. Houston has cosmopolitan flair, a thriving food scene and a solid foundation in history and the arts. But in typical Texas style, this city is also expansive – 600 square miles packed with sites and attractions – which means a little bit of planning ahead can make a big difference in maximizing your time here. Here are a few of our favorite alternative things to do on your next trip to Houston.

Skip the Galleria, Shop Harwin For shoppers, it’s hard to ignore the Galleria. But many locals will admit: it can get busy and crowded here. Alternative venues to shop ‘til you drop abound, and we like Harwin Avenue. The scene here is eclectic, and the bargains are well known. Think a bevy of designer knock-offs and retail options that range from perfumes to luggage and furniture to electronics. Harwin Discount Center and Harwin Central Mart are great one-stop-shopping retail malls.

Skip the Street, Go Underground This is how many locals navigate downtown. Located 20 feet beneath the sidewalks and open on weekdays, Houston’s underground tunnels date back to the 1930s. And thanks to clear maps and air conditioning, they’re an easy and fun way to traverse almost 100 city blocks. That means you’re linked to several of the city’s points of interest while passing dozens of retailers – candy shops, salons, newsstands, delis, even a post office. You can get easy access via Well Fargo Plaza.

For a View, Head to the Lobby The antithesis to the underground tunnels is the Chase Tower, at 600 Travis Street. It’s Texas’ tallest building and the tallest five-sided building in the world. So imagine the views! Head to the Sky Lobby on the 60th floor (the Tower has a total of 75), which is open to the public weekdays from 9 a.m to 5 p.m.

Skip the Bar, Go on Campus The best bar prices in town – and a cool story to boot – are on the campus of Rice University, a private research school where Valhalla attracts many bright young minds. That’s the not-for-profit pub in the basement of Keck Hall that’s run by volunteer students, staff and faculty. And that’s what keeps the prices – think under-a-dollar drafts and $3 sandwiches – way low. And the stimulating conversation is always free. Valhalla was intended just for Rice students when it launched in the early 1970s, but the lore alone has made it accessible to the general public, too, with some admittance time restrictions during the week.

Don’t Just Taste It, Make It One of the best places to eat in Houston is Quattro, located inside the Four Seasons Hotel, where the focus is modern Italian and an ingredients-driven menu. But don’t just taste it – here, you can also learn how to make it. During the summer (July through September), Quattro’s chefs offer interactive cooking classes based on his or her own culinary background, from Italian to Moroccan to Portuguese to Latin American. After the lesson, you sit down to a three-course dinner, complete with beverage service, and you leave with recipe booklet in hand to try recreating dishes at home. Classes for adults take place five days a week and are limited to 14 people; there’s also a kids’ class on Saturday afternoons.

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