Once considered a ghost town after 5 p.m., the emergence of new retail and restaurants downtown is daring people to change their perceptions. As the largest business district in Houston, the area is flooded with people who want more than just a place to work. Downtown’s division into districts makes the sprawling, 1,178-acre space feel more accessible. Each district has a unique flavor and feeling that sets it apart from its neighbor. The vast artistic community in the Warehouse District displays an edgy beauty of the world around us. The Theater District is brimming with professional entertainment spanning all four disciplines of art. The Shopping District makes retail therapy a snap. And the Historic District reminds us of our past. While every district is packed with exciting options, we think you’ll find these four particularly enticing.
A favorite destination for downtowners and visitors alike, the Historic District makes you want to stay awhile. Perched on the outskirts of downtown, you’ll see quaint building facades lining the streets, each one more delightful than the next. With a high concentration of residential buildings such as Bayou Lofts, Franklin Lofts, Hogg Palace, Hermann Lofts and Post Rice Lofts, the Historic District feels like a neighborhood despite the skyscrapers just a few blocks away. The newly renovated Market Square Park serves as a center stone to all the jewels in the district. Local residents love the park for its dog run, green space, live music, movie nights, authentic Greek and American pick-up food stand Niko Niko’s, and the relaxing water feature of Lauren’s Garden. Old collides with new just across the street, where swanky new bistros nestle nicely next to cozy, historic bars – many of which have been quenching our collective thirst since the early 1900s. Keep your eyes peeled for symbols and markings embedded in the sidewalks and walls. This district can tell you its story, if you pay attention.
1. Market Square Park
More than one City Hall has called this recently renovated neighborhood park home over the years. Now home to Houston fave Niko Niko’s. 301 Milam; marketsquarepark.com.
2. Les Givral's Kahve
The savory bahn mi sandwiches start at $2.75, making your taste buds and your wallet jump for joy. 801 Congress, 713.547.0444; lesgivrals.com.
3. La Carafe
Enchanting, historic jewel believed by many to be the oldest bar in Houston – long on charm, ambience and the aroma of incense. 813 Congress, 713.229.9399.
Hidden items and architectural details in the bricks serve as symbols to the past. Look for hearts, clocks and anatomy. Your waiter can tell tales while you enjoy rosemary Parmesan fries that will change your life. 218 Travis, 713.225.8079; hearsayhouston.com.
5. Gallery Two 1 Four
A new, very cool gallery space with rotating exhibits. From March 16-April 21, enjoy Harlow Tighe’s Gunplay. 214 Travis, Suite A, 713.227.1263; gallery214.com.
6. Heritage Texas Properties
Looking to make downtown your home? Call these folks. 214 Travis, 713.227.5406; heritagetexas.com.
7. Kitchen Incubator/Cafe Luz
One part commercial kitchen, one part delicious café with mouthwatering pastries and a gourmet coffee bar. 907 Franklin #150, 713.581.0609; kitchenincubator.com.
8. Brewery Tap
Friendly service, beer on-tap and ghosts lurking in the corners. Bring your proton pack. 717 Franklin, 713.237.1537.
9. Allen’s Landing/Pontoon Boat Rides
Visit the place where Houston began. Historic cruises down the Buffalo Bayou depart several times a week from this spot. 1001 Commerce, 713.752.0314; buffalobayou.org.
10. Line & Lariat at Hotel Icon
Formerly known as VOICE, this lobby restaurant has re-emerged with a modern menu that gives diners a little taste of Texas. 220 Main, 832.667.4470; hotelicon.com.
11. Char Bar
Family-owned and -operated joint where everybody knows your name. Regulars come for their specialty martinis and full tailor shop. 305 Travis, 713.222.8177.
Saloon-style atmosphere with swinging doors and a reputation for serving the stiffest drinks in town. 307 Travis, 713.247.9207.
13. Market Square Bar & Grill
A New Orleans-meets-Texas-style spot founded on the philosophy that,it’s every Texan’s right to hold a burger in one hand and a beer in the other. 311 Travis, 713.224.6133; marketsquaregrill.com.
Enjoy rotating specials of fresh, Southern-style food. Happily, their signature melt-in-your-mouth butter bars are a constant every day of the week. 315 Travis, 713.225.2160; treebeards.com.
15. Frank's Pizza
Home of the late-night slice – open ‘til 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. 417 Travis, 713.225.5656; frankspizza.com.
16. The State Bar
Upscale historic lounge complete with a grand veranda and a killer view of the downtown skyline. 909 Texas, #2A, 713.229.8888; thestatebar.com.
Urban professionals know this is one of the best happy hours in town. Tested and approved: half-priced goat cheese, stuffed artichokes and a Pomtini. 909 Texas, 713.224.5299; sambucarestaurant.com.
18. Minuti Coffee
Biospresso – a frappe-style drink with yogurt instead of milk and a double shot of espresso. Yum. 909 Texas; 713.226.7500.
19. Shay McElroy’s
An authentic Irish pub – lush furniture, witty conversation and a good pint of Guinness. 909 Texas, Suite A, 713.223.2444; mcelroyspub.com.
20. McCoy’s Cigar Shop
A boutique cigar shop carrying hundreds of brands from the commonplace to the hard-to-find. The increasingly rare option of smoking indoors is A-OK in this establishment. 525 Main, 713.222.1700; mccoysfinecigars.com.
21. Georgia's Market
A passionate commitment to sustainability is the heartbeat of this new market and restaurant. Ask about their line of hibiscus-infused products, including fizzy sodas and sweet salad dressings. 420 Main, 713.225.0990; georgiasdowntown.com.
Art is alive and thriving in this funky, eclectic part of downtown. Once purely industrial buildings, converted warehouses now serve as lofts, restaurants, offices, art studios and galleries. It’s not surprising to find every inch of unused space is eventually repurposed to serve a greater artistic good. When m Architects opened their office, they realized the large space exceeded their needs and converted the extra square footage to support local artists in the form of a gallery. Large scale, collaborative art events like ArtCrawl and FotoFest Biennial were born in this district and create a wonderful sense of community throughout. You’ll also find downtown’s original loft living with the Dakota Lofts set amongst artists’ studios.
Art lovers come hither; this district is the place for you.
1. Saint Arnold Brewing Co.
Hop this way for $7 brewery tours Monday through Saturday – admission includes an official Saint Arnold souvenir glass and a guaranteed good time. 2000 Lyons, 713.686.9494; saintarnold.com.
Multi-disciplinary contemporary art gallery and performance space offering financial support to turns artists’ dreams into reality. 1117 East Fwy, 713.223.8346; diverseworks.org.
The FotoFest Biennial is the largest and longest-running photography festival in the United States. The focus of the 2012 fest – contemporary Russian photography. The event runs March 16 - April 29 in locations throughout downtown and beyond. 1113 Vine St., 713.223.5522; fotofest.org.
4. University of Houston’s O’Kane Gallery
Challenging exhibitions and programs encourage a heightened sense of awareness to cultural issues with a goal of keeping the dialogue going long after the viewer leaves the space. 1 Main, 713.221.8042; uhd.edu.
5. m Gallery
Born out of desire to keep the artistic vibe of the neighborhood, m Architects created this gallery space for unknown, up-and-coming local artists to display their work free of fees or commissions. 1206 Nance, 713.227.0070; m-architects.com.
6. Los Muertos Tattoo Studio
Art gallery and tattoo studio where every inked design is custom drawn on the spot by the artists. Come with a vision and they'll bring it to life. 1310 Nance, Unit B, 713.228.3399.
Justin Yu and Karen Man’s highly anticipated new restaurant will be serving up Modern American fare with regional roots. Four- or seven-course menu options changing almost daily. BYOV (bring your own vinyl) to set the soundtrack for your meal. Opening sometime in the spring…we can’t wait! 1302 Nance, 832.978.0352; oxhearthouston.com.
8. Last Concert Café
Mexican café serving up live music nightly, plus Monday’s longest happy hour from 5 p.m. - 2 a.m. Hula-hoops optional. 1403 Nance, 713.226.8563; lastconcert.com.
9. Hardy & Nance Studios
Resident artists invite an audience to watch them paint, sculpt, sew and create every third Saturday of the month. 902 Hardy, 713.225.1806; hardystreetstudios.blogspot.com.
10. Mother Dog Studios
Home base for the annual ArtCrawl – a one-day open house for hundreds of artists to display and sell their masterpieces. 720 Walnut, 713.229.9760; motherdogstudios.com.
Live music junkies and counting-down-the-minutes-to-lunch professionals gravitate to this area for its entertainment venues and vast variety of eateries. There’s a restaurant for everyone in the expansive Houston Pavilions, where even the pickiest of office mates can find a dish that will strike their fancy. Discovery Green offers daily programming ranging from live music lunches to Zumba. Downtown’s largest grocery store and capital of yum, Phoenicia Specialty Foods, sits at the base of luxury high-rise, One Park Place, making grocery shopping a breeze for OPP tenants and other downtown dwellers.
Shopping is it’s first name, but this district has so much more to offer.
1. Shops at Houston Center
Bustling multi-level food court-style lunch hot spot with banking, pharmacy and retail options that turn lunch into a one-stop shopping experience. Sit-down restaurants line street level – Massa’s Seafood Grill, Tejas Grill and Strip House each offer unique dining experiences. 1200 McKinney, 713.759.1442; shopsathc.com.
2. Phoenicia Specialty Foods
This new full-service grocery store offers a scrumptious melting pot of international goods. Or pop through the deli line for their signature chicken shawarma sandwich to go. 1001 Austin, 832.360.2222; phoeniciafoods.com.
3. MKT Bar
Enjoy their can’t beat combo of beers on tap, select wines, tasty menu items, energy-pumping coffees and creamy gelato. Plus live music! 1001 Austin, 832.360.2222; phoeniciafoods.com.
4. Discovery Green
Free live music, exercise classes, kid-friendly workshops and organic farmers markets are just a few of the delights that await you at this urban green space. 1500 McKinney, 713.400.7336; discoverygreen.com.
5. The Grove
Discovery Green’s fine dining eatery with leafy surroundings and fancy fare. 1611 Lamar, 713.337.7321; thegrovehouston.com.
6. Toyota Center
This shape-shifting arena serves as home base to the Houston Rockets and Houston Aeros. You also can catch a variety of touring entertainment acts ranging from Lady Gaga to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. 1510 Polk, 713.758.7200; houstontoyotacenter.com.
7. Root Memorial Square
A public basketball court and supersized ornate lanterns breathed new life into this memorial space in 2005. 1400 Clay, 713.629.3700; houstonfirsttheaters.com.
8. Four Seasons Hotel Spa
Pamper yourself with their 100 percent vegan nail care line. A manicure will only set you back $30 and mention this article for a free paraffin wax treatment upgrade. 1300 Lamar, 713.650.1300; fourseasons.com/houston.
9. Reserve 101
International selection of more than 250 specialty whiskeys. The newly expanded space offers comfy leather chairs perfect for a post-work meeting or happy hour wind down. 1201 Caroline, 713.655.7101; reserve101.com.
10. Dirt Bar
No nonsense rock ‘n’ roll bar, popular with the late-night crowd and touring musicians. Celeb sightings range from hard-core metal bands to pop princesses. 1209 Caroline, 713.651.3988; dirtbar.com.
11. Houston Pavilions
The completion of the Houston Pavilions in 2008 gave fresh meaning to downtown’s Shopping District. This premier dining, entertainment, retail and office space is three levels high and spans three city blocks. Finding a lunch spot is a breeze with restaurant options representing a multitude of genres. Crowd favorites are Guadalajara del Centro, Mia Bella Trattoria, YAO Restaurant, III Forks, McCormick and Schmick’s and more. If you’re in the mood for a little sass, the flamenco dancers performing every Thursday night at Andalucia Tapas Restaurant and Bar never fail to amaze. Notable entertainment stops include House of Blues, Pete’s Dueling Piano Bar and Lucky Strike Lanes. Fashionistas look no further than designer dress and clothing boutique, BCBGMAXAZRIA and hip, budget-friendly, XXI Forever. Want to expand your mind as well as your wardrobe? Head next door to Books-A-Million for two massive levels of books spanning a wide variety of titles and authors. 1201 Fannin, 832.320.1201; houstonpavilions.com.
12. Tipping Point
Hip, sneaker lifestyle store offering the latest in art, accessories and apparel selected to celebrate the creativity and individuality in each of us. 1212 Main, 713.655.0443; thetippingpointstore.com.
Downtown’s largest retail department store saves you a trip to the Galleria. Known for a great woman’s suit department and killer shoe sales. 1110 Main, 713.405.7035; macys.com.
14. Main Street Square
Flanked by two METRORail stations, passers-by enjoy dancing water jet fountains and zipping trains amidst a garden of flowering plants and trees. 1000 Main.
15. Bombay Pizza Co.
Artisan Indian inspired pizzas with a dash of curry and spice. Specialty pies like the Slumdog Millionaire keep this spot lively from open to close. 914 Main, 713.654.4444; bombaypizzaco.com.
Delicious steakhouse and multi-function event space. Office parties, weddings, rehearsal dinners and mitzvahs (both bar and bat) are all regular occurrences. 1001 McKinney, 713.659.3700; mortons.com.
This district is the height of class, sophistication and any other word one would associate with a night at the theater. Downtown’s premier theater venues, Alley Theatre, Jones Hall and Wortham Theater Center, all sit within a block from one another with the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts located just a hop, skip and a jump away. Local favorite, Birraporretti’s, consistently delivers tasty Italian dishes with quick service, leaving you confident you won’t miss the curtain call. An abundance of parks, fountains and bayou trails coaxes passers-by to ditch their high heels (or penny loafers) and strap on some running shoes.
A day of exercise or a night of fancy frivolity can both be achieved here.
1. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts
Home base for Gexa Energy Broadway at the Hobby Center, Theatre Under The Stars and Uniquely Houston. Performances from these groups and many others can be seen on two stages, Sarofim or Zilkha Hall. Fine dining Cordua restaurant, Artista, sits just inside. Lexus drivers valet for free. 800 Bagby, 713.315.2400; thehobbycenter.org.
Their prime location inside Hobby Center makes this a quick, convenient and scrumptious place for pre-theater drinks or dinner. 800 Bagby, 713.278.4782; cordua.com.
3. Sundance Cinemas
Boasts reserved seating with adjoining tables that encourage guests to enjoy bites and brews from the Sundance Bar while viewing their film of choice. 510 Texas, 713.223.3456; sundancecinemas.com.
4. Samba Grille
Centrally perched between downtown’s four major theater venues, this Brazilian-inspired hot spot is perfect for a pre-show cocktail and appetizer. You will die over their complimentary cheesy rolls, we promise you can’t eat just one! 530 Texas, 713.343.1180; sambagrillehouston.com.
5. Live! At Bayou Place
Downtown playground featuring good food, good drinks and overall merriment from establishments including PBR Houston, Lucie's Liquors, Shark Bar and Chapel Spirits. 534 Texas; bayouplace.com.
Serving a variety of inventive Italian dishes, this spot is popular with the lunch crowd and theater crowd alike. Delicioso! 700 Milam, 713.224.2422.
7. Jones Hall
Red velvet seats and grand tier seating let you know you’re in for a majestic night at the theater. View regularly scheduled performances from the Houston Symphony and Society for the Performing Arts, among many others. 615 Louisiana, 713.227.3974; houstonfirsttheaters.com.
8. Lancaster Hotel
Sip your way through five atmospheric bars and hear tales of ghosts, murder and suicide – Houston’s Historic Pub Crawl begins here. 701 Texas, 713.228.9500; thelancaster.com.
9. Alley Theatre
Home to one of the country’s oldest resident theater companies, the Alley houses two stages with productions ranging from the classics to the rediscovered and rarely performed. 615 Texas, 713.220.5700; alleytheatre.org.
10. Wortham Theater Center
A grand lobby and endlessly high ceilings welcome guests to performances on one of two stages. Performances from Da Camera of Houston, Houston Ballet, Houston Grand Opera, Society for the Performing Arts and countless others can be seen here. 501 Texas, 713.237.1439; houstonfirsttheaters.com.
11. Bayou Trails
The beautiful natural setting and paved track make these trails ideal for joggers and bikers who prefer the great outdoors to the gym. 713.752.0314; buffalobayou.org.
12. Downtown Aquarium
Dine under the sea in this 500,000-gallon aquatic restaurant/wonderland. Highlights such as the shark voyage, white tiger exhibit and 100-foot-tall Ferris wheel make this a popular destination for kids and adults. 410 Bagby, 713.223.3474; aquariumrestaurants.com.
13. Sesquicentennial Park/Bush & Baker Monuments
The sculpted, friendly face of George H. W. Bush looks out over this lovely green space created in commemoration of Houston’s 150th birthday. Just across the Bayou stands George’s longtime colleague and friend James A. Baker. 400 Texas, 713.250.3666; sesquicentennialpark.org.
14. Houston Ballet Center for Dance
Pliés and pretty people abound inside the Houston Ballet’s new state-of-the-art dance facility connected via skywalk to the Wortham Theater Center. Whether novice or professional, tap into your inner dancer with adult ballet classes starting at $15 each. 601 Preston, 713.227.2787; houstonballet.org.