Houston sometimes gets a bad rap. It's sprawling. It's humid. It's full of mosquitoes. Sometimes, traffic is terrible. But look past all that, and you'll see a city that is diverse, that is multi-faceted and unpredictable, that has a laid-back, uniquely Texas charm that any design lover could love.
• The Menil Collection: This Renzo Piano-designed building houses one of the nation's finest collections of surrealist art. Open Wednesday-Sunday; admission is free. Also located in the neighborhood are Mark Rothko's Rothko Chapel, the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, and the Cy Twombly Gallery.
• Williams Tower Waterwall: One of Houston's most recognizable sights is this enormous water feature, just south of the mall and the Williams tower in Houston's Galleria area.
• Miller Outdoor Theater (pictured above): Located in Houston's Hermann park, near the Zoo, the Houston Museum of Fine Art, and the Natural History Museum, is this outdoor amphitheater, which hosts various performances throughout the year, including Shakespeare in the park, a summer movie series, and an annual July 4th celebration by the Houston symphony. Come, sit on the lawn, have a drink, and enjoy a muggy Houston evening.
• Underground Houston: If you happen to be downtown on a weekday, especially around lunchtime, you might wonder why the streets seem unusually deserted. Where is everyone? Answer: they're all underground! Underneath downtown Houston is a vast network of tunnels connecting all of downtown's largest buildings. The tunnels contain hundreds of shops and restaurants, catering mostly to the business crowd, and are open from around 6 am – 6:30 pm Monday through Friday. Find a map of the tunnels here.
• Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens: The former home of Houston civic leader and philanthropist Ima Hogg (really) is home to an extensive collection of early American antiques and more than worth a visit.
• Sam Houston Park (pictured): Sam Houston Park, located on the edge of downtown Houston, is home to 10 historic structures, including a church and a log cabin, dating to 1823, that is one of the oldest existing homes in Texas. A museum on the property teaches visitors about Houston's history. One of the coolest things about visiting Sam Houston park is seeing the contrast of new and old — historic structures against a backdrop of modern office buildings.
• Local Breweries: Experience Houston's budding craft beer scene with a visit to local breweries like St. Arnold's, Southern Star, or Karbach.
• There are lots of great antique shops (many specializing in mid-century furniture) in Montrose, one of Houston's most vibrant neighborhoods. Start at the intersection of Westheimer and Dunlavy; go west and you'll come across a cadre of furniture stores, as well as independent bookseller Domy Books; go east and you'll find funky second-hand clothing stores like Buffalo Exchange and Taxi Taxi. If all that shopping is wearing you out, stop for a coffee at Cafe Brasil, or grab a coffee or delicious local beer at Agora.
• 19th Street: 19th Street, in Houston's Heights neighborhood, especially between Yale and Ashland, is a bit of a shopping mecca. Park near the intersection of 19th street and Rutland and check out various antique shops, as well as Retropolis, one of my very favorite vintage shops. Afterwards, grab a bite at Shade.
• Kuhl-Linscomb (pictured): This homewares store, with five showrooms, in separate buildings, all on one site, has an extensive collection of modern furniture and home decor.
• Bubba's Texas Burger Shack (pictured): Delicious buffalo burgers, served from a trailer under highway 59. It doesn't get any better than this.
• Tex-Mex: Houston is known for its Tex-Mex. Partake of the delicious fajitas and notoriously strong, regret-inducing margaritas at local favorite El Tiempo, or have some fajitas at the restaurant that invented fajitas, the original Ninfa's on Navigation. My personal favorite is Teotihuacan — delicious, authentic Tex-Mex at a reasonable price.
• The Breakfast Klub: There may be a line that stretches around the block, but this soul food eatery's chicken and waffles are more than worth the wait.
• T'afia: Local celebrity chef Monica Pope's midtown eatery features a diverse menu crafted with locally sourced ingredients.
• Beaver's Icehouse: Another Monica Pope offering, this low-key joint offers up delicious barbecue and a surprisingly impressive cocktail menu. Try the pit boss chickwich.
• Anvil Bar & Refuge (pictured): If you're craving a cocktail, this is THE Houston cocktail bar. Laid-back, with lots of classics, a few new classics, and even a great beer selection.
• Grand Prize Bar: Formerly Ernie's, a divey, laid-back little neighborhood bar, this place has been transformed by its owners into Grand Prize, a divey, laid-back little cocktail bar. Delicious, well-crafted cocktails at reasonable prices. Also quite close to the museum district, if you get tired of art and need a drink.
• West Alabama Ice House: Outdoor seating, a diverse crowd, and the coldest beer you'll ever have in your life. Need I say more?
• Blanco's: Blanco's is the real deal. Even in the heart of Houston, it has a dirt parking lot, live music, and even a little dance floor where you can spot a few real live cowboys.
• La Carafe: Houston's oldest bar is located in one of Houston's oldest buildings (rumor has it that Sam Houston once slept here). It's dark and vintagey, romantic but laid back; the bar only serves beer and wine, and they only take cash. If you find yourself hungry for a bite, local favorite Frank's Pizza is nearby; the interior is decorated with movie posters from films that were shot in Houston. If you're craving something a little fancier, one of my favorites, the Hearsay Gastro Lounge, is right around the corner.
• Hotel Icon (pictured above): Luxury and style in Houston's downtown.
• Hotel Derek: A sleek boutique hotel located right across the street (the 'street' being Houston's loop 610) from the bustling shops of the Galleria.
• Hotel Zaza: A stylish hotel close to museums and Hermann park.
• La Colombe D'or: Five suites and seven villas make up this boutique hotel, located in a 1923 mansion in Montrose.
• Hotel Sorella: This brand-new hotel is at the heart of City Centre, a mixed-use development of offices, shops and restaurants on Houston's west side.
Also worth checking out: the Orange Show and the Beer Can House. What did we miss? Add your suggestions for Houston in the comments below!
(Images: 1. Flickr user 2. MikeRastiello, licensed for use under Creative Commons, 2. Flickr user JWSherman, licensed for use under Creative Commons, 3. postmoderngirl on Flickr, licensed for use under Creative Commons, 4. Nicole Macaluso, 5. Bubba's Texas Burger Shack on Facebook, 6. Nancy Mitchell via The Backyard Bartender, 7. Hotel Icon)