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.

Skip Downtown, Head to the Water For a break from the downtown hubbub, consider spending a few hours on the water. All Points of Sail Sailing School will charter one of its vessels for a three-hour sunset sail – just for two or for up to 12 – through the waters of Clear Lake. Just bring your favorite food and drink on board. You can precede your intimate cruise with a kayak or paddleboard rental and spot wildlife at the Armand Bayou Nature Center. Sailing classes and even boat sleepovers are available. All Points is based in Seabrook, about 30 minutes from downtown Houston.

Skip the Museum, Visit the Orange Show The Orange Show Center for Visionary Art is American folk art at its finest. It was formed in the early 1980s, mainly to preserve the site’s main attraction, the Orange Show Monument. The 3000-square-foot maze-like monument was built by hand over 20-plus years by late postman (and big fan of the orange fruit) Jefferson Davis McKissack. It’s made from steel, brick, concrete and a bevy of random objects, like tractor seats, tiles and mannequins. In 2001, the Center also acquired the Beer Can House, a labor of love by retired upholsterer John Milkovisch, who started it in the late 1960s and used no less than 50,000 recycled aluminum beer cans. Admission to each is $5 and kids under 12 are free.

Skip the Park, Visit the Cemetery A gravesite may not be your typical tourist attraction, but Glenwood Cemetery has been known to draw visitors with famous headstones that are a link to Houston history. Famous aviator Howard Hughes is buried here, as well as many of the city’s former politicians and business moguls. The pretty grounds, on more than 80 acres, can make for a lovely stroll, and the hilltop views of the skyline can be stunning.

Follow the Buzz, Bond with Bees With hives located throughout Central Texas, Round Rock Honey is well known for producing some of the state’s finest wildflower honey. They also like to share their appreciation for bees with the public, offering monthly hands-on classes in Porter, about a half-hour drive north of downtown Houston. A three-hour introduction to basic beekeeping class starts with an hour-long classroom course on bee biology and beehive management. Then, you step into a full bee suit and head over to the on-site apiary to learn how to circle beehives, light a smoker to calm the bees and lay honey in the hives. Kids 7 and up can do this, too. Sweet!

Gabe Saglie is Senior Editor for Travelzoo, which features a bevy of Houston travel specials, as well as local deals at www.travelzoo.com/local-deals/Houston/deals.

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