CITY LIFE HOUSTON
National Geographic Traveller (UK)|June 2021
With its flourishing urban parks, cultural spaces and rooftop bars, this cosmopolitan city built on oil is on a mission to invest and evolve. Drill down into eclectic neighbourhoods to discover the real Texan treasure
Jonathan Thompson

Paddling slowly west into the blazing bayou sunset, it doesn’t feel like I’m anywhere near the concrete heart of a US city. Indeed, it doesn’t feel like I’m anywhere near the US at all.

“I like to pretend I’m on the Amazon when I’m down here,” says canoeing guide Matt Sandel, who’s expertly navigating our twoman vessel. “The wildlife down here, from the turtles to the baby alligators, is insane. As soon as you get onto the bayou, you feel like you’re a thousand miles away from the real world.”

The real world in this case is Houston, Texas — and we’re a lot less than a thousand miles from its oil-powered skyscrapers. In fact, the glass gave way to grass just a few yards behind us, around the last river bend.

On a late spring afternoon, we’re exploring Buffalo Bayou Park — a sinuous green arm with a watery main artery, reaching west from Downtown as it grasps for the suburbs. The bayou twists and curls in on itself like a Texas rat snake, but Matt, president of the local Hokulele Paddling club, knows these old waterways like the back of his paddle. As we glide into the twilight, runners and rollerbladers high on the banks above seem to flow along with us.

Houston has a reputation as a gargantuan city brimming with oil and cowboy boots, eternally associated with the iconic NASA ‘we have a problem’ quote. But beneath the lazy cliches, it has an entirely different face.

As we continue paddling, Matt points out Montrose, a colourful slice of city with lively nightlife, hipster-friendly bars and one-of-a-kind boutiques. Further on is well-heeled River Oaks, then glitzy Uptown and dozens of other neighbourhoods, spun together in a twinkling urban spiderweb that’s larger than the state of New Jersey.

Inside that entanglement, there’s a huge amount to explore. After all, this is one of the fastest-growing cities in the US — Houston is expected to replace Chicago as the third-largest city in the US in the next two years. Of course, NASA — whose Johnson Space Center is based in the city — and its ongoing mission to conquer the heavens frequently overshadows the city itself. But when you look down the other end of the telescope, you’ll see an incredible food and drink landscape, mountains of world-class museums and a stellar shopping scene — all underpinning one of the most diverse cities in the US.

Infusing it all is an easy, welcoming Southern charm — an effortless cool, no matter how sweltering it gets at the height of summer. This is the Texas of actor Matthew McConaughey; the H-Town of pop superstar Beyoncé. It’s a place of possibilities and potential. Houston… we have no problem at all.

SEE & DO

SPACE CENTER HOUSTON: Nerd out over the world’s largest display of spacesuits and moon rocks, as well as a flown SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. New exhibit Mission Mars details NASA’s current goal to land astronauts on the Red Planet. spacecenter.org

SEISMIQUE: Billing itself as ‘the art experience of tomorrow’, Seismique is part interactive museum, part escape room — and part alternate universe. Situated in a cavernous, 40,000sq ft warehouse on Houston’s west side, its exhibits feature the latest technology — from holograms and augmented reality to light mapping and motion tracking. seismique.com

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