Vanderbilt will play Baylor in the Academy Sports + Outdoors Texas Bowl in Houston later this month. I’ve been a resident of Houston for five years, and my wife has been a Houstonian for a lot longer than that. So, we present to you the guide to everything Houston for your bowl trip.
Houston is large. Really large. Entire states can fit inside of the greater Houston area. We measure distances in time, because two miles might take you 20 minutes at the wrong time of day.
If you’re flying, Houston has two airports. Most — though not all — flights come into the George Bush Intercontinental (don’t call it “International”) Airport, located about 30 minutes north of downtown. If you’re flying Southwest, you’re going to arrive at Hobby AIrport, the older and smaller airport located closer to downtown inside of 610 (frequently referred to as just “The Loop” in these parts; it separates the oldest part of Houston from the vast suburban expanse beyond.)
If you’re driving, well, that’s about a 12-hour drive. Google Maps will tell you to go through Arkansas and down US-59 from Texarkana to Houston; I personally don’t recommend this route as you’ll spend most of the trip stuck behind two 18-wheelers attempting to pass one another. Instead, you’re better off driving I-55 from Memphis into Louisiana and then driving west on I-10; it usually ends up taking about the same amount of time.
Where to Stay
You may be tempted to stay in the area around NRG Stadium, where the games are being played, or possibly near the airport (whichever one you flew into.) In a word: don’t. There’s not a ton to do immediately around NRG Stadium, and both airports are located in areas of town that are best described as “rough.” And Bush, in particular, is located pretty far away from anything you’d want to do, including the game. We also don’t recommend staying in the suburbs; while traffic should be a bit lighter than usual (since, you know, nobody here is actually from here and thus everybody’s out of town for the holidays), I can’t guarantee that it won’t take you 45 minutes to drive anywhere from the suburbs.
Staying downtown will give you easy access to the Metro light rail red line, which will drop you off right at NRG Stadium (and costs $1.25 to ride one-way.) The Marriott Marquis (1777 Walker Street) is expensive but totally worth it; it also has a lazy river in the shape of Texas and Craig Biggio’s sports bar downstairs. If you don’t want to stay downtown, a recommendation is Hotel ZaZa (5701 Main St), a small boutique hotel located in Houston’s Museum District close to Rice and the Texas Medical Center, which also has easy light-rail access.
Alternatively, you can stay in one of the many hotels near Houston’s Galleria, including the Westin Galleria (5060 W Alabama St), which is attached to the mall itself (and also is, reportedly, where the team is staying.) There are plenty of hotels in Houston but as long as you stay inside of 610 (and west of downtown) you should be within easy distance of the stadium. We also recommend taking Uber to and from the stadium if you’re not taking the light rail, because Houston traffic is a bitch (and also because, as a Vanderbilt football fan, you are probably drinking heavily.)
Also, avoid 290 like the plague.
Houston has several parks with good running trails, including Buffalo Bayou, which has great views of downtown, though you may want to hold your nose while running underneath the bat bridge under Waugh Street. If you’re looking for a running trail with less relief and a gravel trail rather than asphalt, there’s Memorial Park and Hermann Park. Both of those also have a golf course (and yes, there’s a decent chance the weather will be warm enough to play golf even in late December), and Hermann Park is also home to the Houston Zoo.
If you want to be cultured
Try the Museum of Fine Arts (1001 Bissonet St), the Museum of Natural Science (5555 Hermann Park Dr), or the Children’s Museum of Houston (1500 Binz St) — all located in the appropriately-named Museum District. And yes, the Space Center (1601 NASA Parkway) is still here, too. You can take a tram tour through NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
If you don’t want to be cultured
Go to Buffalo Bayou Brewing Co (5301 Nolda St), a local microbrewery that will let you sample their brews on-site. So, too, will Saint Arnold Brewing Company (2000 Lyons St) and 8th Wonder Brewery (2202 Dallas St.) You’re welcome. (Karbach Brewing Company would have made this list as well, until they sold out to Anheuser-Busch.)
Where to Eat
We’re mostly going to skip the usual recommendations that you can find on various travel sites on the internet, because you can find those pretty easily anywhere, and if you’re down for spending $250 on dinner for two at Brennan’s of Houston (3300 Smith St)... well, I’m not really going to argue with you because it is really good.
Local Foods (2555 Kirby Dr, plus four other locations) is a casual restaurant that we usually go to once a week, which has a selection of sandwiches and salads and also has some dinner specials. As the name implies, their food is sourced locally as much as practical. Rebekah recommends that you get the crunchy chicken sandwich with the chips as one of your sides, or she’ll root for Baylor to win. (Ed. note: as a Methodist preacher’s daughter and Texas Tech grad, she is not going to root for Baylor, regardless of how much she claims “Texas nationalism” is a thing.) I personally haven’t eaten the crunchy chicken sandwich, though, so I can’t speak for the accuracy of this recommendation.
If you’re wanting breakfast, try Snooze A.M. Eatery (3217 Montrose Blvd., among other locations), but if you get there after about 8 AM you’re probably going to be waiting for a table (but they do have free coffee while you wait). It’s sort of a modern breakfast joint, with your classic breakfast items along with some more creative entrees. Oh yeah, and they also will serve you booze with breakfast, which is what you really came here for.
For Mexican food, there’s the original Ninfa’s on Navigation (2704 Navigation Blvd), located east of downtown. For Mexican-ish, we like Velvet Taco (907 Westheimer Rd or 4819 Washington Ave), which has a more... creative selection of tacos, like the Cuban Pig taco (#7, Tom’s personal favorite) or the Picnic Chicken Taco (#3.5, Rebekah’s favorite.) They’ll also have the “WTF” (Weekly Taco Feature) which is usually worth a try. Basically if you ever wanted to answer the question “what would it be like if you put shrimp and grits on a taco?” then this place is for you.
If you want barbecue (WARNING: you will not find pork on the menu; this is Texas) and you don’t mind a bit of a drive, try Killen’s (3613 E. Broadway, Pearland.) If you do mind a drive, go to The Pit Room (1201 Richmond Ave) — but be forewarned that parking is tight, and if you go too late they might have run out of barbecue (this has actually happened to us before.)
Quote from Rebekah about barbecue (that I do not endorse): “I don’t know what that stuff is all you other people call BBQ, but in Texas, we eat beef. Get the brisket, but don’t slather it in sauce until you try it first. True BBQ needs no sauce.”
For pizza, try Bollo Woodfired Pizza (2202 W Alabama St) and get the Diavolo pizza. Or something else, but if you don’t listen to my recommendations, why do you read this blog?
Houston also has the usual selection of chain restaurants if that’s your thing. I’m not going to write any recommendations for them because you’ve probably already eaten them before.
Where to Drink
I recommend Christian’s Tailgate (multiple locations), which has a wide selection of beer, good chicken wings (and also burgers, tacos, and nachos), and lots of TV’s. Rebekah recommends Eloise Nichols (2400 Mid Ln), which has, uh, cocktails. Or, as she puts it, “a more elevated experience.” She also says that they make a “killer margarita.” There is also Sonoma Wine Bar (2720 Richmond Ave), which, as the name suggests, is a wine bar. Most of you reading this are probably going with the first recommendation.
There is also our local neighborhood watering hole, Piggy’s Kitchen & Bar (3412 W Lamar St), which has great drink specials and a better than average menu for bar food, but which does not seem to have much pork on the menu in spite of the name.
It sucks. Unless you’re tailgating, don’t bother parking at NRG Stadium, and instead either take the light rail from downtown or Uber. There are plenty of parking lots located near the downtown light rail stops if you’re not staying downtown, and it’s probably cheaper than the parking at the stadium.
Also note that Houston restaurants have an obnoxious tendency to have valet parking, even at restaurants that you would not think should have valet parking, so you may want to carry cash.
290, The Woodlands, parking in and around NRG Stadium, and large chain restaurants in general.