Ever wonder what Houston locals do for fun when they’re not stuck in traffic on the 610 loop? Turns out Space City has some hidden gems that go way beyond the usual tourist stops like NASA and the Museum of Fine Arts. As a Houstonian, you probably drive by some of these spots all the time without realizing the adventures that await inside. Get ready to discover a few local favorites that will make you fall in love with Houston all over again.
From an art gallery housed in an old church to a tiki bar straight out of the 1950s, these five hidden gems are where Houstonians go to get away from it all without ever really leaving the city. It’s time to get off the beaten path and see what you’ve been missing in your backyard.
Just settling in or considering a move to the Houston area? Explore it through a local lens.
Off the Beaten Path: Houston’s Quirky Art Car Museum
Houston has its quirky side. One of its most off-kilter places is the Art Car Museum. This funky museum is dedicated entirely to art cars, specifically vehicles transformed into rolling sculptures.
Housed in a warehouse in the Heights, the museum has a rotating collection of these mechanical masterpieces. Some are painted in wild colors and patterns, others are covered in found objects, scrap metal, or toys. Each car expresses the unique vision of its creator.
The best time to see the art cars in action is at one of the museum’s parades. The annual Art Car Weekend and the Orange Show Art Car Parade are raucous processions where the cars promenade through the streets to show off their audacious style. You’ll see everything from a vehicle coated in smashed LPs to a giant glowing skull. The parades are wonderfully weird and free.
The museum also hosts art car workshops, film screenings and other events. They’ve even published a book, “Art Cars: How to Build an Art Car,” for aspiring artists. A visit to this offbeat attraction offers an only-in-Houston experience of the city’s counterculture creativity.
A Green Urban Oasis: The Houston Arboretum & Nature Center
The Houston Arboretum & Nature Center is another beloved local gem. This 155-acre urban oasis in Memorial Park offers natural wonders right in the city.
Once you enter the grounds, the sounds of the city fade away. It’s just you, the rustling leaves and the wildlife. Over 200 species of birds have been spotted here, along with turtles, frogs, and the occasional alligator.
Hiking and biking trails wind through the forests and meadows. You never know what you might discover along the paths — a new plant, an interesting insect or a glimpse of a rabbit darting into the brush. The Arboretum has one of the largest collections of native and cultivated plants in the region, with themed areas like the Woodland Garden, Prairie and Wetland Garden.
The Discovery Room offers hands-on nature activities for kids. Out on the trails, you might spot turtles sunbathing on logs in the pond or tadpoles swimming in the creek. The scenic Bray Prairie and Azalea trails are easy enough for strollers and little legs.
Pack a picnic lunch, bring your camera and spend an afternoon getting back to nature right in the city. The Houston Arboretum & Nature Center is a place where you can slow down, unplug from technology and reconnect with the natural world. What could be better than that?
Graffiti Art Meets Nature at the Orange Show
The Orange Show is a folk-art environment and event venue in Houston that highlights the artistic vision of Jeff McKissack. This unique space is a maze of walkways, balconies and platforms made from recycled materials like tiles, wheels, mannequins and tractor seats. At every turn, you’ll discover another whimsical structure or installation.
Originally intended as an ode to the orange fruit, The Orange Show has become a hub for art, music and community events. On the grounds, you’ll spot brightly painted sculptures, murals and mosaics at every turn. The main attraction is the Orange Show Monument, Jeff McKissack’s lifelong work of art made from concrete, brick, and stone. This folk-art wonderland is delightfully quirky and playful.
Each May, The Orange Show hosts an art car parade where artists transform vehicles into moving sculptures, with past entries like a giant fish car, UFO car and camera car. They also put on an annual music and art festival called the Orange Show World Art Car Parade and Music Festival. This eclectic event features live music, interactive art and food from Houston’s diverse culinary scene.
Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth at Common Bond Café and Bakery
Common Bond Café and Bakery is a hidden gem locals love for delicious pastries and desserts. This charming bakery and café has three Houston locations featuring Parisian-style treats, fresh-brewed coffee, and light fare.
For a sweet indulgence, you can’t go wrong with Common Bond’s croissants, macarons, eclairs, or cream puffs. Their buttery croissants come in flavors like almond, chocolate, or cheese. The macarons, those colorful French cookies with buttercream or ganache filling, are a work of art. And their eclairs and cream puffs, filled with rich pastry cream and topped with chocolate or caramel, are simply sublime.
If you need something more substantial, Common Bond offers salads, quiches and sandwiches on homemade bread. For breakfast, enjoy pastries, omelets, frittatas or avocado toast. And of course, they have a variety of coffees, teas and fresh-squeezed juices to complement your meal.
Catch a Show at the Historic Heights Theater
One of the best-hidden gems in Houston is the historic Heights Theater. Opened in 1929, this art deco theater showed movies for decades before being renovated and reopened in 2015 as a live music and events venue.
This theater is iconic for its neon “Heights” sign and for showcasing up-and-coming musicians. With a capacity of just 1,300, you’ll get an intimate experience of seeing your favorite new artists here before they make it big. Some well-known musicians like Leon Bridges, Khalid and Maggie Rogers played shows at the Heights early in their careers.
The venue also hosts comedy shows, film screenings and other community events. No matter what’s on the schedule, the Heights Theater is worth visiting just to see its painstakingly restored interior. From the velvet curtains and seats to the ornamental wall sconces, this place takes you back to the golden age of cinema.
Getting tickets in advance is a must since shows often sell out quickly. The theater’s small size means there isn’t a bad seat in the house, but for the best views of the historic stage opt for orchestra or mezzanine level seats.
Before or after a show, check out the many bars, restaurants and shops along 19th Street and Heights Boulevard. This area has been revitalized in recent years and has a hip, artsy vibe with lots of murals and street art. A few recommendations within walking distance of the theater:
- Harold’s: Upscale Southern fare and craft cocktails in a historic building
- Down House: A casual neighborhood spot for gourmet burgers, brunch and patio drinks
- Casa Tropical: A Colorful cantina featuring Mexican cuisine and margaritas
- Hello Records: An independent record store selling new and used vinyl
While these hidden gems might not make tourist brochures, they’re what give H-town its character. Next time you’ve got visitors in town or just want to rediscover your city, check out one of these low-key local favorites for a glimpse of the real Houston, far from the shiny skyscrapers and oil money. And if you’ve stumbled upon your hidden gem, spread the word — but not too loudly, as Houstonians like to keep some secrets to themselves.
Ready to make a move to Houston? It’s a great time to get a moving quote.
If you’re looking to explore other cities in the Lone Star State, check out our Texas moving guide.