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Houston Downtown Walking Tour (Self Guided), Houston

Clean, shiny, new, and impressive, Downtown Houston rises above the dusty plains and swamplands – a true metropolis. Like the other major Texan city of Dallas, Houston has been described as concrete jungle (or a spaghetti bowl) of endless freeways, yet it somehow manages to tower over the stream of engines, with a glittering uber-American presence. There is much to discover in and around Downtown Houston, and perhaps best of all, the thrilling, inspiring skyline is visible for 50 miles from every direction because of how flat the lands are. For this view alone, as well as for the remarkable buildings, parks, theaters and other attractions, it is worth taking this self-guided walk.
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Houston Downtown Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Houston Downtown Walking Tour
Guide Location: USA » Houston (See other walking tours in Houston)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 10
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.3 Km or 1.4 Miles
Author: doris
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Historic Market Square
  • Alley Theatre
  • Bayou Place
  • Wortham Theater Center
  • Sesquicentennial Park
  • Downtown Aquarium
  • Hobby Center for the Performing Arts
  • Houston City Hall
  • Julia Ideson Building
  • Sam Houston Park
1
Historic Market Square

1) Historic Market Square

Together with surrounding buildings, this square forms the centerpiece of The Market Square District since the arrival of the city's founders, the Allen brothers, in 1836. Early city landmarks included the briefly-used Texas Capitol and White House, in addition to several City Halls that rose and fell, each destroyed by fire. Today the historic square is bordered by 19th-century architecture housing a variety of businesses, entertainment venues, nightclubs and dining establishments.

Yet the Market Square Park is relatively new; a nice, calm space to sit and just enjoy the city sights and sounds. They do hold events here like small concerts and you can always have a picnic using the wooden benches. James Surd's sculpture, “Points of View”, is a must-see in the park, or you could stop by the memorial to Lauren Grandcolas, who was on the ill-fated United Airlines Flight #93 on September 11, 2001.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 6am–11pm
2
Alley Theatre

2) Alley Theatre

Not only is the Alley Theater one of the oldest, but also one of Houston's biggest such facilities, boasting two auditoriums – one seating 800+ and the other 300+. The theater hosts productions year round, including plays of all tastes – from modern historical events to different versions of Sherlock Holmes or even fantastical re-interpretations of characters like Don Quixote (check out the full list of productions and their dates at the official website).

Located conveniently downtown, this venue is always in tip-top shape, with friendly and accommodating staff. Acoustics and views are good throughout, and you don't have to buy the most expensive tickets to enjoy a play. The theatre will do all kinds of set design to push the boundary of storytelling and to make sure each viewer sees the action on stage. There's also a small snack & drink bar open before plays, as well as restaurants within walking distance.

Box offices remains open until the start of the performance, and you can feel comfortable dressing however you chose.

Tip:
Pre-order your drinks for intermission (if the play has one) before the show starts or bring water otherwise.

Opening Hours:
[Box Offices] Daily: 12–6pm
3
Bayou Place

3) Bayou Place

Although Bayou Place has gone through different owners and has had several different businesses come and go, it's still a good place to hang out with friends, get food, watch a movie and/or enjoy great music. Once Houston's Convention Center, it has many dining options, including The Hard Rock Café, seafood, Italian cuisine and more.

The site also offers two theaters: one features specialized film programming not available in other theaters, while the other can be transformed into numerous different layouts for different concerts, including a mosh pit or a more private setting. Ticket prices for most shows are usually reasonable, and the online purchasing process is super easy – so even if the Revention Music Center is not the best venue you'll go to, it's worth the price of the ticket to see a concert/event/performer that you know you'll enjoy.

This complex is located in downtown Houston among many other tourist sites, including the Houston Ballet, the Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, the Downtown Aquarium, Minute Maid Park, and several parks that usually have something going on like live music, family events, and other fun-filled adventures.

Tip:
Make sure to get tickets in advance if you're coming to Sundance, as seating is reserved.

Opening Hours:
Sun-Thu: 11am–10pm; Fri-Sat: 11am–12am
4
Wortham Theater Center

4) Wortham Theater Center

The Wortham Theater Center has seen much since its grand opening in 1987 as a privately-funded home for the arts. At the time, it was the first opera house built in the U.S. in over 25 years, owing much of that to to the efforts of thousands of private donors who wrote checks for $100 or less despite economic struggles in the midst of a hard-hitting oil bust.

The inaugural performance, “Tango Argentino”, was performed in the Brown Theatre, while “The Knee Plays”, written by Robert Wilson and lead singer David Byrne of The Talking Heads, was presented by the Society for the Performing Arts in the Cullen Theater. The Houston Ballet began its residency a few months later with Janie Parker and Li Cunxin starring in the world premiere of Ben Stevenson's production of “Romeo and Juliet”. This was followed by Houston Grand Opera's first season, with Plácido Domingo and Mirella Freni in a production of Verdi's “Aida”.

A unique acoustic feature of the theater is its “frying pan” pods, which enable the music to flow into sections of the opera hall that is traditionally not considered a good listening area. Among other features are the grand staircase (actually a bank of escalators) surrounded by a site-specific illuminated installation by renowned New York sculptor Albert Paley, as well as the Helen Hayes Chandelier hanging in the Green Room, which was originally installed in 1911 at New York City's Fulton Theater and purchased by Houstonians Billy and Janie Lisa Price during that theater's demolition.

Parts of the city-owned structure flooded after Hurricane Harvey hit in August 2017 and rain swamped areas of Houston. According to official estimates, 270 million gallons (1022.03 million liters) of water filled Wortham's underground garages and a tunnel. Repairs to the facility took until September 2018, and the theater was ready to take on the next 30 years “hopefully without any more hurricanes.”

Why You Should Visit:
Whether going to the opera or ballet, this theater is well managed, comfortable and reasonable in price.
The whole building just seems grand and offers great views of the stage no matter where you're sitting.

Tip:
Second-level seats are the best, allowing to see the orchestra and the stage.
Be sure to arrive early, as the crowds increase wait times for the elevators.
5
Sesquicentennial Park

5) Sesquicentennial Park

Set along the banks of Buffalo Bayou in the Theater District of Downtown, this place was developed to commemorate Houston and Texas's 150th birthday. It may not be the biggest or best-known of the parks downtown, but packs a lot in a rather small space. The trails alone are worth the visit, but the campground is equally fantastic!

Another prominent feature here is the set of seven metal poles, called the Seven Wonders, featuring a collage of drawings by children all born in the sesquicentennial year, 1986. Each pillar represents a theme: agriculture, energy, manufacturing, medicine, philanthropy, technology, and transportation. You'll be stuck just looking at the metal squares at the bottom of each seventy-foot tall pillar.

At the far end of the park is the Baker Common, a large sloping grassy circle with a bronze statue of James Baker III, plus some interesting facts about him and his predecessors inscribed in stone for all visitors to see. If you look closely in the direction he is gazing, you can see President George Bush on the other side of the Bayou looking back. At the bottom is where you can take up the walking trail along the Bayou or just come down for lunch and have a peaceful time away from the sounds of the city. It's fascinating to have these trails travel along the water's winding path and underneath bridges that fill with downtown Houston's traffic.

The only bad thing about Sesquicentennial Park is that there are no bathrooms!

Opening Hours:
Daily: 9am–7pm
6
Downtown Aquarium

6) Downtown Aquarium (must see)

While not a proper city- or state-run aquarium (Houston doesn't have one such), this place has quite a few things to offer. You can play with stingrays, ride a train into a shark tank, see white tigers, check out some pretty cool-looking fish and corals, and have a fun time. It's a tourist attraction, equipped with a full-service restaurant, an upscale bar, a fully equipped ballroom, a gift shop, a fountain/splash pad area, amusement rides, plus a variety of games with prizes to win.

The view of the fish tanks while dining is among the best parts of the attraction. It seems like every table has a nice view of a nice tank with really big fish and other sea life. You're not just paying for the food, but for the overall experience, so it's going to cost some extra. There is also a small patio outside from the bar area if you prefer outdoor seating.

Tip:
It's a better value deal to get the all-day wristbands if you want to make the most of your experience.

Opening Hours:
[Exhibit/Ride] Sun-Thu: 10am–8pm; Fri, Sat: 10am–9pm
[Restaurant] Sun-Thu: 11am–8pm; Fri, Sat: 11am–9pm
7
Hobby Center for the Performing Arts

7) Hobby Center for the Performing Arts

Located downtown on the edge of the Theater District, The Hobby Center opened to the public in 2002, featuring 60-foot-high glass walls with views of Houston's skyscrapers, Tranquility Park, and City Hall. The center is named for former Texas lieutenant governor and Houston businessman, William P. Hobby, Jr., whose family foundation donated the naming gift.

A new addition to the already significant cultural district, the Hobby houses two theaters: one of 2,650 seats (Sarofim Hall), home to the two resident companies, Theatre Under the Stars and Broadway in Houston; the other of 500 seats (Zilkha Hall), home to Uniquely Houston – an innovative, community-based program, featuring the area's rich-in-talent, emerging, nonprofit performing arts organizations. Attendees report that both halls are excellent performance spaces, with some remarking that the building's overall architectural style looks like it is out of the 1950s. Whatever the merits of this comment, it's still a first-class setting in which to enjoy theatrical performances and special events.

Why You Should Visit:
Broadway plays, symphonies, musicals and many other delightful evenings of entertainment here!

Tip:
Arrive early and order your drinks before the performance starts. It will give you more time to enjoy the intermission.
The only bad seating is in the boxes. Due to the architectural design, they are angled so you can't comfortably view the stage. If you must get the box seating, the ones highest up and farthest from the stage afford a better view.

Opening Hours:
Mon-Fri: 10am–6pm; Sat-Sun: 11am–4pm
8
Houston City Hall

8) Houston City Hall

Houston's center of government oozes Texas with a fossilized limestone facing and multiple friezes depicting Texas themes. Flanked by Tranquility Park and the Houston Public Library, it stands in wonderful contrast to some of the newer metal-and-glass skyscrapers that now loom over it. The builders used aluminum at a time (1938-39) when it was still a fairly new material; appropriately, too, it was one of the first major downtown office buildings to have air-conditioning.

Politicians and bureaucrats spent 15 years haggling over the building's design. While, eventually, the exterior was done in a stripped classical style, inside the Hall was fitted with a private elevator for the mayor (which may still be in use), as well as private showers for each of the city council members. By contrast, the lobby floor is themed around the government's protective role; e.g., a sculpture above the doors depicts two men taming a horse, which is meant to symbolize a community coming together to tame the world around them. Elsewhere, such as in the grillwork above the main entrances, are medallions of "great lawgivers" from ancient times to the founding of America, including Thomas Jefferson, Charlemagne, Julius Caesar and Moses, as well as an outdated city seal that adorns the interior doorknobs.

Why You Should Visit:
Definitely worth a walk through, including the grassy grounds, the reflection pool, and the beautiful city council chambers.

Tip:
Be sure to walk the City Hall grounds in springtime, when the multicolored azaleas are blooming.

Opening Hours:
Mon-Fri: 9am–5pm
9
Julia Ideson Building

9) Julia Ideson Building

First opened in 1926, this stunning building – the original location for the Houston Public Library – has an urban legend as being haunted by the ghost of its former groundskeeper and that of Petey, his dog. In the evenings, Cramer, who lived in the basement, would go up to the third floor and play his violin, accompanied by the German Shepherd. In November of 1936, the 79-year-old was found dead by the librarians, and not much is known about the dog's ulterior fate.

Sitting right next to City Hall, the three-story Spanish-Renaissance style building has since been named after Julia Ideson, who served in her role as the city's first Head Librarian for forty years. Following a multi-million dollar restoration project, it currently houses the Metropolitan Research Center that holds a massive collection of millions of historic photographs, thousands of volumes of rare children's books, a 1520 edition of The Odyssey, and a 1615 edition of Don Quixote.

If you're looking for a repose downtown and actually enjoy reading, go to the second-floor reading room, or just climb to the third floor (now occupied by the Tudor Gallery) and check out the view, which has to be seen to be believed.
10
Sam Houston Park

10) Sam Houston Park

A tranquil green oasis in the thick of Downtown, this is Houston's oldest park, surrounded by old, beautiful oak trees and housing numerous monuments and historic buildings. For tourists and locals alike, it's an excellent place to get a better understanding of how the city looked like during the early years while at the same time absorbing the exceptional panorama of its stunning modern skyline. This clash of old & new is outstanding from a photographer's viewpoint.

The park is friendly and there are organized events hosted by the Heritage Society, the organization that here operates ten historic structures (dating from 1823 to 1905), all destined for destruction as a more modern Houston was evolving. The result is now a treasure trove of several different styles of older housing that would have otherwise been lost forever – including a rustic log cabin (The Old Place, 1823), Houston's oldest brick dwelling (Kellum-Noble House, 1847), the first house in town built with an attached kitchen (Pillot House, 1868), and the first to have electric lights (Staiti House, 1905).

St. John's Church, is still a functioning ministry right in the heart of the park, and from its door the city's skyscrapers are in full view. Other historic buildings now relocated to the park include the Greek Revival-style Nichols-Rice-Cherry House (1850), the Yates House (1870), and the Fourth Ward Cottage, which may predate 1858.

Most people have experienced this park before/after a race or for a beer/wine fest but you should make the most of a gorgeous day and just head on your own for a self-guided walking tour or a picnic – yes, a picnic, while enjoying the sites and the sun, or the occasional tunes and performances. The Heritage Society also has a small museum on the site, which, apart from telling the story of the city's development, operates a "general store" with plenty of things to look at and touch.

Tip:
Make sure to come during the day, as the park does close down after dusk. Entry is free and you can either walk around the outside of the buildings or pay a fee for the museum and tours.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 7am–7pm

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