All photos by Luis Carlos Rodriguez

Houston, the largest city in Texas, balances metropolitan flair and ethereal natural surroundings. Its convenient location lets you easily take a road trip north to Austin or south to the Gulf of Mexico. My adventurous family did both, visiting 9 cities in 12 days.

Houston

Houston, the largest city in Texas, balances metropolitan flair and ethereal natural surroundings. Known as the Bayou City, Houston is an international economic hub, with the Port of Houston ranking first in U.S. imports.

My first pit stop was Houston’s top tourist attraction–the Houston Galleria. It’s the fourth largest mall in the country, with more than 24 million visitors a year–that’s three times the number of annual visitors to Navy Pier. Touted as a “city within a city,” the Galleria has 375 stores and restaurants, an ice skating rink, two hotels, three office towers, and regular live entertainment. It’s a shopping lover’s wet dream; the rest of us are impressed by its massive size, sleek interior design, and warm glass skylights.

When it comes to the performing arts, Houston holds its own. Its renowned Theater District houses more than a dozen performing arts organizations in four venues. Opera lovers, theater enthusiasts, and the like can enjoy a year-round schedule of performances. With its striking architecture and sculptures, even walking through the district is entertaining. When hunger beckons, enjoy lunch in front of 200 species of fish at the nearby Downtown Aquarium.

I spent more time outside of Houston than in it. My brief stint left me wanting to return to see what I missed–NASA, a famous Museum District, and gorgeous parks. But one of the best things about Houston is its convenient location. You can easily take a road trip north to Austin or south to the Gulf of Mexico. My adventurous family did both, visiting 9 cities in 12 days. Let’s head south next–to Sugar Land!

Sugar Land

In Texas you would expect to find a city named “Sugar Land.” Is it a Willy Wonka fantasy come true? Nope, no chocolate rivers here. Think Ann Taylor and luxury steakhouses. Lying just south of Houston, Sugar Land is one of the fastest growing cities in Texas. Its population has more than tripled since 1990. To keep up with it, the town gave itself an extreme makeover, turning its downtown area into a cozy, posh oasis. It reminded me of The Glen, but with an urban edge and the refreshing diversity of Rogers Park. High-end stores sit next to the mall, and fine dining options share the same block with cheap eats, including the oh-so-delicious Smash Burger (which is finally coming to Illinois). At night, Sugar Land City Hall turns into a concrete Ravinia, with folks sipping wine and grooving to live entertainment. If you’re staying outside of Houston, Sugar Land is a convenient stop for checking out a concert or grabbing a bite to eat.

Kemah Boardwalk

About 45 minutes southwest of Houston is Kemah Boardwalk. It’s like Six Flags and Navy Pier rolled into one smaller, not-as-sophisticated coastal amusement park. This family-oriented extravaganza of rides, games, shops, boat rides, and restaurants includes another Aquarium restaurant with floor-to-ceiling tanks that will make you feel like you’re dining in a tropical reef. With a large group in tow, we opted for the Lighthouse Buffet, and while I try to avoid all-you-can-eat joints, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality and variety of fresh seafood and classic Texas fare. Overall, Kemah offers about two hours of fun; then it’s time to move on.

Galveston

No offense to any Galvestonians, but with water as clear as mud, I suggest skipping the beach and checking out the breathtaking Historical District instead. It’s one of the largest collections of 19th-century structures in the nation. Take a stroll or drive through the district and the historic downtown area. Bishop’s Palace, a Victorian castle finished in 1892, is a must-see!

Souvenirs abound at the historic Murdoch’s Bathhouse, which originally rented out bathing suits to swimmers in the early 1900s. Hurricanes have destroyed Murdoch’s multiple times in the last century, but this little engine that could keeps popping up right back again, most recently in 2009 after Hurricane Ike. It’s the best souvenir shop I’ve ever been to, with a bar and two spacious stores connected by a deck that peers out onto the gulf. After some shopping, take a free ferry to Galveston Island; if you’re lucky, you’ll catch sight of a few dolphins!

Corpus Christi

After seeing Galveston, I had low expectations of the beaches in Corpus Christi. Luckily, Corpus has Palm Beach beauty, with pristine beaches lined with flowing palm trees. The four-hour drive from Houston was worth it!


The U.S.S. Lexington, the famous World War II naval aircraft carrier, is now a floating museum in Corpus Christi Bay. The museum has a flight simulator, large theater, and virtual “battle stations.” Die-hard Chicago Air & Water Show fanatics will notice the 1950s Blue Angels, now retired at the museum.


Of course, we’re huge Selena fans, so we were eager to do the Selena tour now that we were in her hometown. The Selena Museum was unfortunately closed that day, but we did visit the Selena Memorial and paid our respects at her grave site.

You can’t go to Corpus Christi without taking a short drive south to the Padre Island National Seashore, a flawless 67-mile strip with 130,000 acres of beaches, dunes, and grasslands. Swim, get a tan, go windsurfing (or shark hunting!), or explore the more remote areas of the strip. Wildlife lovers will enjoy watching the sea turtles, seabirds, and the tiny, almost translucent crabs that blend in with the sandy white beaches.

San Jacinto Battleground

Let’s head back north and hop a ferry (there are tons in this here part of Texas). We’re heading to LaPorte, home of the San Jacinto Battleground and San Jacinto Monument and Museum of History. The Battle of San Jacinto was one of the most important battles in U.S. and Mexican history. It was here where Sam Houston, shouting “Remember the Alamo,” led his outnumbered army in a surprise attack, defeating General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s army in 18 minutes. 700 Mexican soldiers lay dead; 9 Texan soldiers perished. The decisive battle led to Texas’s independence from Mexico and set off a tragic chain of events in Mexico’s tumultuous history, where Mexico lost half of its territory in the Mexican-American War. The San Jacinto Monument, dedicated to the heroes of the Texas Revolution, is taller than the Washington Monument and is the tallest memorial structure in the world.

The San Jacinto Battleground is also home to the impressive Battleship TEXAS, which participated in both world wars. Stretching 573 feet, the battleship was once the most powerful weapons in the world.

Blue Bell

Heading northwest on our way to Austin, the 100-year-old Blue Bell Creamery in Brenham was a necessary pitstop, of course. Unless you grew up in the South, you probably have never heard of Blue Bell ice cream. Only 1/3 of the nation gets to lick it, yet it is one of the three best-selling ice creams in the country! It’s so wildly successful, with a top-secret recipe and ice-cream-making process, that pictures are prohibited inside. So, all I can show you is this classic delivery truck.

Austin

Of all the places I visited during this trip and in my prior trips to Texas, Austin stole my heart hands-down. It’s one of those places you visit where you instantly gush, “I can live here!” Rich with history and a diverse downtown area that feels like a mini-New York, it’s easy to see why Austin is one of the country’s top tourist destinations. After a three-hour drive in from Houston, we first took in a little history by visiting the State Capitol and the Capitol Visitors Center.

Just three years old, the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican-American Cultural Center offers cultural and educational programming in Mexican-American art and culture. Visitors can enjoy often-free events and exhibits on dance, visual arts, multimedia, and film as well as classes in various arts. The plaza of the immense center is now the site of the annual Grito de Lares in Austin.

The day we visited, the center had the exhibit “El Pueblo de las Nubes” by photographer Diego Huerta. Huerta spent a summer photographing the indigenous Huichol (Wirrarika) culture in the sierra in Jalisco, Mexico. Huerta’s stunning collection captures the life very much still pulsating in this resilient culture. Vibrant colors of the traditional clothing contrast the cloudy backdrop where these Aztec descendants have lived for hundreds of years. The beauty and knowledge shared through this exhibit elevated the excitement I already felt about the importance of such a cultural center. More centers like these are needed across the country.

You can’t leave Austin without chowing down on some ribs. Iron Works BBQ is one of Austin’s best rib joints. If you think these ribs are massive, this is the “Junior” order. Yep, everything is bigger in Texas.

You definitely need more than a day (or even a weekend) to visit Austin. It coins itself the “Live Music Capital of the World,” which I caught a glimpse of while checking out bustling 6th Street. Austin was also rated the second “Best Big City to Live In” and one of the “Greenest Cities” in the U.S. Its slogan “Keep Austin Weird” speaks to the city embracing its intellectual, eclectic, independent, and diverse culture. My next trip to Texas will definitely be to Austin!

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