Deborah Jaffe

Once known as the land of big oil fortunes, Houston has emerged as the Gulf Coast’s cultural capital, with a world-class art scene—and a slew of hotels, restaurants, and shops to match.

STAY

The Hotel Icon (220 Main St.; 800/970-4266; www.hotelicon.com; doubles from $235), housed in a landmark 1911 bank downtown, is an intimately scaled grand hotel, and ideally located next to a light rail stop. Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurant Bank (dinner for two $120), in the hotel’s lobby, is a destination in itself. Decked out in nautical blues, greens, and whites, the affordable Hotel Indigo Houston (5160 Hidalgo St.; 866/246-3446 or 713/621-8988; www.hotelindigo.com; doubles from $144) opened in June. What you save on your hotel bill, you can spend at the nearby Galleria complex (see Shop on next page). Also in the area: Hotel Derek (2525 W. Loop S.; 866/292-7100; www.hotelderek.com; doubles from $280), where the vibe is stylish and attractive, and the service gracious and Texasfriendly. Up next: the whimsical Hotel ZaZa opens its doors in January next to the Museum of Fine Arts.

EAT

Everyone—Bill Clinton, beautiful twenty-somethings, and Houston Grand Opera singers—beats a path to Hugo’s (1602 Westheimer Rd.; 713/524-7744; dinner for two $80) for authentic Mexican (not Tex-Mex) dishes such as duck in red mole sauce and braised beef in green tomatillo salsa. French-born Philippe Schmit prepares updated French classics (magrets de canard with spinach flan) at Bistro Moderne (2525 W. Loop S.; 713/297-4383; dinner for two $120), inside the Hotel Derek. The year-old Gravitas (807 Taft St.; 713/522-0995; dinner for two $85), set in an airy former warehouse, is known for rich dishes, including the don’t-miss venison chili with gruyère and crème fraîche, and an extensive wine list. Now in its 26th year, Cafe Annie (1728 Post Oak Blvd.; 713/840-1111; dinner for two $130) is a stalwart of Southwestern cuisine, drawing crowds for its subtle combinations of bold flavors.

SHOP

Big fortunes beget big stores, and the dizzying Galleria (5085 Westheimer Rd.; 713/622-0663)—chockablock with Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Tiffany & Co., and over 370 other shops—is a prime example. On a much smaller scale is the women’s collection at Mix (2707 Colquitt St.; 713/522-0606), which includes clothes from Balenciaga, Alberta Ferretti, and Alexander McQueen, Bruno Frisoni shoes, and Jade Jagger’s gem-heavy jewelry for Garrard. A block away, the Moody Gallery (2815 Colquitt St.; 713/ 526-9911) has been a mainstay for emerging and established Texas artists for more than 31 years. In the Montrose neighborhood, Houston’s original bohemian enclave, the new Peel Gallery Shop (4411 Montrose Blvd.; 713/520-8122) carries the work of artists, artisans, and designers from the city and well beyond its limits. Look for Scrapile tables and trays, which Brooklyn-based designers Carlos Salgado and Bart Bettencourt craft from discarded wood, and an exclusive collection of silk scarves and wraps—along with pearl-and-silk jewelry—by Chinese designer Han Feng.

DO

In a light-filled Renzo Piano building, the renowned Menil Collection (1515 Sul Ross; 713/525-9400; www.menil.org; free admission) houses John and Dominique de Menil’s wide-ranging collection of 20th-century and ancient art, with satellite galleries devoted to Cy Twombly and Dan Flavin, the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum, and the famous Rothko Chapel. The Museum of Fine Arts (1001 Bissonnet St.; 713/639-7300; www.mfah.org), conveniently set along the light rail line, has one of the nation’s great encyclopedic collections. On view until January: the crowd-pleasing "Best in Show: The Dog in Art from the Renaissance to Today" and a provocative sculpture installation by British artist Damien Hirst. The Houston Grand Opera (510 Preston St.; 713/228-6737; www.houstongrandopera.org) is known for commissioning new works and innovative productions. Anthony Freud, the company’s general director, marks his debut season with a December production of Humperdinck’s classic Hansel and Gretel, staged and extravagantly designed by puppeteer Basil Twist.

Destination Houston
How to get there Continental Airlines, based in Houston, has more than 780 flights daily to and from the city.
Getting around Metrorail, Houston’s convenient light rail line, runs from downtown to Reliant Park, where the Texans football team plays, with stops in the museum district and Hermann Park.
Best times to visit Houston has mild winters, with average high temperatures of 65 degrees. For a true Texas experience, go between February and March for the Houston Rodeo, the world’s largest.
Insider Tip Locals flock to the Longhorn Cafe (509 Louisiana St.; 713/225-1015; lunch for two $15) for its Texas specialty: chicken-fried steak with cream gravy

Longhorn Cafe

This venue has closed.

Cafe Annie

This venue has closed.

Houston Grand Opera

Nationally and internationally recognized, the Houston Grand Opera is the only opera company in the world to win a Tony, two Grammy and two Emmy Awards. Committed to commissioning and producing new works, the company has performed more than 40 premieres and six American premieres since 1973. Founded in 1955, HGO is now under the general direction of Anthony Freud and performs six shows a season in the Wortham Theater Center, alongside various special events and educational programs. Past productions include The Little Prince, Madame Butterfly, Cosi fan tutte and Little Women.

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Built in 1958, Mies van der Rohe's glass-and-steel pavilion, a renowned example of the International Style pioneered by the architect, changed the look of American museums—and the ways in which art is exhibited. Taking advantage of its soaring, translucent interiors, the MFAH made international news in the 1960's by displaying African figures and oceanic totems on impossibly tall pedestals that were placed among potted trees, and by suspending billboard-size canvases by Jackson Pollock and other artists from ceiling cables. Works are sometimes still displayed this way. An eerie tunnel of light by the artist James Turrell now connects the Mies building to a monumental stone addition by Rafael Moneo, which opened in 2000 and more than tripled the exhibition space in this encyclopedic museum housing more than 56,000 works. Louvered skylights bathe galleries in natural light, where blockbuster traveling exhibits are displayed. Across the street from the two edifices is the Cullen Sculpture Garden, designed by Isamu Noguchi.

Peel Gallery Shop

Located just beyond Houston's Museum District on Montrose, the Peel Gallery Shop is both an exhibition space and retail store. Established in 2005, this small gallery features rotating exhibits of work by both emerging and established artists and designers from all over the world, including Dror Benshetrit, Mauricio Limon, Iker Ortiz, Geoff McFetridge and Adam Silverman. Owner Steven Hempel hand picks each item on display, and the selection ranges from unique furniture and home décor to lighting to one-of-a-kind jewelry.

Moody Gallery

Opened in 1975, Moody Gallery displays work by contemporary American artists with an emphasis on artists living and working in Texas, as well as those with a strong connection to Texas. Inside the unassuming building, the small gallery is filled with works by nationally and internationally recognized artists as well as emerging ones, including Michael Miller, Roy Fridge, Luis Jimenez, Lamar Briggs, and Ellen Tanner. The pieces range from cast bronze sculptures to gouache on paper to oil paintings.

Mix

This venue has closed.

The women's boutique has an edgy and eclectic mix of clothing, shoes, and accessories.

Galleria

Following its 2003 expansion, The Galleria became the fourth largest mall in the nation with 2.4 million square feet of retail space. Beneath the upscale mall’s glass atriums, shoppers browse the more than 370 retailers, which includes Neiman Marcus, two Macy's stores, Tiffany & Co., Saks Fifth Avenue, Louis Vuitton, and the city’s only Nordstrom. The multi-level center also has sit-down restaurants like The Cheesecake Factory, Rainforest Café, and Oceanaire Seafood Room, as well as an indoor ice rink and two Westin hotels.

Hugo's, Houston

Housed in a 1925 structure built by well-known Houston architect Joseph Finger, Hugo's brings regional Mexican cuisine to the Montrose area. As a Mexican native, executive chef Hugo Ortega has an expert understanding of the country’s earthy, complex flavors. Typical entrees include the callo de hachapan, seared scallops over sweet corn bread, and carne bravawood, grilled skirt steak smothered in rajas. Diners can also sample more unique dishes like cochinita pibil, slow-roasted baby pig cooked in banana leaf, and chapulines, pan sautéed grasshoppers.

Hotel Derek

Just down the street from both the world-renowned Galleria shopping mall and the ritzy, easy-to-stroll River Oaks District shopping center, this boutique hotel offers 312 guestrooms, including spacious suites and business studio rooms. The two 1,200-square feet penthouse suites are appointed with floor-to-ceiling windows and Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams furniture, and all rooms are adorned with white custom-made duvet covers, padded headboards, large glass desks, and contemporary artwork, as well as unusual touches like cowhide rugs and wingback chairs. The hotel has an outdoor pool and terrace with a three-story Splash Wall on which movies are projected, as well as a 24-hour fitness center.

Hotel Indigo, Houston

Spacious rooms at this Uptown district hotel are reminiscent of small beach cottage-style appointments, decorated in shades of blues and violets, with murals of flowers or seascapes and hardwood floors. It’s a look that extends to the lobby as well, which has images of starfish and seashell sconces. Free parking, pet-friendly facilities, refrigerators (in most rooms) and Wi-Fi are added bonuses. The on-site Golden Bean Café and Phi Bar serves an American and international hodgepodge of dishes ranging from red pepper hummus to London broil. 

Gravitas

This venue has closed.

Exposed brick walls and concrete floors create a warehouse feel inside this Midtown restaurant. From the open kitchen, executive chef Fidel Flores serves up American Bistro-style cuisine using fresh, local ingredients. Menu favorites include the venison chili topped with Gruyere cheese, crab cakes with lemon butter glaze, tuna tartare, and smoked pork chops. Frequent diners always save room after dinner for popular desserts like the sticky toffee pudding and butterscotch bread pudding. The restaurant has plenty of wines by the glass, as well as a cocktail list with both classics (dark and stormy) and unique options (ginger girl).

Bistro Moderne

This venue has closed.

Bank

This venue has closed.

Hotel Icon

The 132-room boutique hotel occupies the city's first tall building, the 12-story, neo-classical 1911 Union National Bank, and the original steel and brass vault doors hang imposingly behind the front desk. The size of the lobby is evident in dramatic 30-foot columns that rise to intricately carved ceilings, still pristine. Modern furniture surrounds a central round bar that's lively with the business travelers this downtown hotel attracts during the week. Period touches continue throughout the property, where the average size of the guest rooms is 400 square feet. A pass-through window connects the modern-furnished bedroom and subway-tiled bathroom, and original millwork is evident on the guest room floors. For big spenders, the lavish three-story penthouse suite boasts a 600-square-foot patio.

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