It’s kind of hard to explore all the cool things Houston has to offer these days. Hard, but not impossible. Enter this fresh take on our “Actually Cool” lineup, which zips through seasonal activities and al fresco opportunities you can partake in from a safe social distance (because Houston’s never really that cold), virtual and at-home experiences (brunch from bed, anyone?), and other fun things that will at the very least keep you distracted while we all get through this:
$-$$$ Montrose Fireside s’mores, Irish coffees, and plates from spiced frites to chicken liver mousse are all a part of the après ski-style experience at patio pop-up The Chalet at Rosie Cannonball. So is the Donna Meagle Special, which takes a bottle o’ Krug and pairs it with a dozen beautiful oysters. The space operates on a walk-in basis (but they will accept socially distanced large party reservations of up to 12 people or full buyouts of the space).
$ Downtown … or your lack of ice skating skills. Either way, The Ice at Discovery Green is back for another season now through the end of January. This year, you’ll need to secure a specified time slot in advance of hitting the rink. Check out Friday DJ nights, Cheap Skate Mondays, and Skating with Santa.
Cheers the holidays at a pop-up cocktail bar
$-$$$ Heights & Downtown The halls are decked at two holiday-inspired pop-up cocktail bars this year. In the Heights, Miracle at Johnny’s has taken over Johnny’s Gold Brick with kitschy decor and serious cocktails (reserve a time slot online). And the Jingled Up experience will be open in Downtown through the end of December in old BirdDog Saint (buy tickets online).
Get back into the patio groove
$-$$ Houston Seems like it’s at least kind of okay to be socializing outdoors now, with proper distancing of course. So there’s no time like the present to remember why we all love living in Houston so much: its plethora of patios (most of which are now heated). Some of our current favorites include spunky Mexican-American haunt Monkey’s Tail, super chill craft beer garden Axelrad, even chiller old school spot West Alabama Ice House, Truck Yard, a bonafide adult playground that rocks a ferris wheel you may be able to ride again one sweet day, and King’s BierHaus, which is has that glühwein we speak of.
Snag hyper seasonal produce at a local farmers market
$-$$ Houston Urban Harvest’s legendary Saturday farmers market is a really, really good place to start, but so is urban farm Finca Tres Robles, where you can drive through and get a “plow” produce basket, pastured eggs, ground sausage and beef, raw honey, and pint of ice cream (we’re sure you can Chopped yourself a dinner out of that, right?). Or the Hope Farms market, which runs on Saturday mornings and has goods from rainbow beets and seasonal squash to locally made fresh egg pasta (it’s operating as a drive-thru and has an order ahead option, too).
Have no shame in your Holiday beer game
$-$$ Houston Since we all have some extra time on our hands these days, it’s the perfect opportunity to track seasonal releases and hunt down some local favorites, including Saint Arnold Christmas Ale, Eureka Heights Holly Jolly Jorts, Buff Brew’s Gingerbread Stout, and Karbach’s Yule Shoot Your Eye Out.
Free Memorial Park Memorial Park’s freshest green space is ready and waiting for you. Located in the southeast pocket, the Clay Family Eastern Glades has reclaimed 100 acres of previously inaccessible parkland. Now, you’ll find serene trails, wetlands with sunset views, native tree-lined nooks and crannies, and a grassy central lawn that makes a choice spot for naps and picnics.
Free Montrose This local jewel reopened to the public in the fall, with reservations open for free timed entry. Hit the art museum for one of the best collections in town, complete with new exhibitions and Insta-worthy standbys like the Dan Flavin Installation and the spiritual Rothko Chapel (because we can all use a little zen right now); and if you’re hanging out in its greenspace, be sure to park yourself at least 6 feet away from others. Though it’s free, donations are welcomed, too.
Free-$ Shady Acres Every Wednesday, King’s BierHaus offers guests a complimentary glass of its famous wintry drink, glühwein, a blend of red wine, brandy, cinnamon, and cloves served hot. Try that, or go for other boozy seasonals like spiced hot chocolate, Berlin eggnog, and we are actually in Houston and not Vienna, the pomegranate citrus margarita.
Reserve a seat for an intimate cocktail experience
$$-$$$ Montrose High-class cocktailery Tongue-Cut Sparrow can’t currently operate out of its tiny space Downtown, so it moved shop and reimagined the formal drinking experience in the old Penny Quarter space off Westheimer. Reservations are live on Resy, and walk-ins are welcome if space is open. Also just opened is MARCH, the fine dining concept from Goodnight Hospitality, which was supposed to open just as the pandemic hit. Though the restaurant portion isn’t open quite just yet, its lounge is here for an epic tasting of drinks, snacks, and sweets for a $48 ticket reservation (available via Resy).
$$-$$$ Greenway (& pop-up locations) Pork ribs by the rack. Five-pound briskets. Smoked, pulled chicken. Links on links of sausage. It’s all chilled, vacuum sealed, ready-to-heat, and available for preorder from one of Houston’s finest BBQ joints (and there are quarts of braised collards, sweet potato-banana mash, and loaded potato salad, too). For the time being, Feges BBQ will be dishing out the bulk BBQ at its Greenway Plaza location on weekdays (in addition to its limited lunch menu) and at its weekend pop-ups at the Urban Harvest Farmers Market on Saturdays and Heights Mercantile Farmers Market on the second and fourth Sundays.
$$ EaDo Ending its run at the Sawyer Yards pop-up drive-in, Rooftop Cinema Club is now taking its retro movie experience over to EaDo, set in the former Space City Shows space. Look out for hits from the Home Alone and Love Actually to Spider-Man: Far from Home. Cost is $28-$35 per vehicle, regardless of occupancy, and you can tack on concessions, food, and beverages from Rooftop Cinema Club or local food trucks The Burger Joint and El Patio.
Nama-stay away from others with a sunrise yoga sesh
Free Buffalo Bayou Park Imagine this: It’s early morning, before the sun and your fellow Houstonians rise. You wipe off your wine mouth from last night’s driveway happy hour and get your bottom over to Buffalo Bayou Park, where you can set your yoga mat down for a responsible, socially distant yoga sesh under the Houston skyline. If you need guidance, several Houston workout studios have online workout classes available for streaming, including Black Swan Yoga, DEFINE Body & Mind, and BIG Power Yoga.
$-$$$ At-home One of the reasons Houston is so cool is its culinary community, and the open, collaborative nature of our local chefs is a huge part of that. While we’re all doing our best to stay home, a bunch of top chefs are sharing recipes that will take you on a culinary tour of Houston from your kitchen. Visit Houston has curated a fantastic list, providing the instructions to make a pretty rockstar dinner out of dishes like chef Hugo Ortega’s flautas de pollo, Coltivare chef Ryan Pera’s Gulf snapper, and Fluff Bake Bar sugar fair and pastry chef Rebecca Masson’s strawberry pie. Need more inspiration? Brisket U‘s got virtual classes that’ll get your pitmaster game goin; Underbelly Hospitality has been putting out a series of fun virtual events; and you can also work your way through mastermind and ace chef Chris Shepherd’s cookbook, Cook Like A Local (which was nominated for a James Beard Award earlier this year, NBD).
Pull off a brewery Triple Crown, by taking out or dining in
$-$$ Houston Have some extra time on your hands these days? Spend it wisely by embarking on a takeout taco crawl. Start with chorizo y huevo-loaded breakfast tacos one day, then move onto chicharron, al pastor, and carne asada kissed numbers via the most important tacos in Houston. By the end, you’ll finally be able to proclaim your H-town taco allegiances.
$$-$$$ Houston Second only to inviting yourself over to the home of literally anyone you know with a pool, a Houstonian’s favorite leisurely weekend activity is brunch. While you shouldn’t exactly be brunching with your usual crew of 10+ of your rowdiest friends, you can still do brunch justice by dining in with a smaller crowd or ordering it to-go. Don’t know where to start? We got you covered with a lineup of all things boozy and benny, available for pickup, delivery, and responsible dine-in.
Explore Chinatown’s to-go and dine-in options
$$ Chinatown The entire restaurant industry is hurting right now, including Houston’s Chinatown which started seeing steep declines in business super early on in the crisis. Now’s a great time to continue showing your support to the community by dining in or calling in to-go orders at your go-to dumpling spot, noodle purveyor, vegetarian joint, ramen bar, crawfish stop, and pho shop.
Free Montrose True story: when the Waugh Bridge was built, no one realized it was the perfect structure to host a whole bunch of Mexican free-tailed bats. Well, apparently it was, because locals started noticing a bat colony around ‘99. Before Hurricane Harvey, the bridge hosted about 300,000 of the little guys, and though some didn’t make it through the devastating storm, the colony remains. Today, you’ll find the bats hanging tight until they spiral out from the bridge’s crevices on warm nights around sunset. Head to the viewing platform and you may just catch a bat show, which never fails to both fascinate and creep the hell out of anyone you bring along.
Pretend you’re out in wine country
$-$$$ Houston It might not be Napa, or even Fredericksburg, but Houston’s got some solid options for the wine-obsessed. You won’t miss the inhouse sipping when you order curbside and delivery from spots like Montrose Cheese & Wine (which also offers fine cheeses and charcuteries that make for the perfect picnic opportunity, too) and Light Years Natural Wine Shop and Bar in Montrose, and micro-winery Houston Winery and the stellar Mutiny Wine Room over in the Heights.
$ Houston One of the best ways to get to know a city is by biking it, and if you don’t have a bike of your own, you can hit up one of B-cycle’s 80+ (and counting) stations to rent a bike. It’ll run you $3 per 30 minutes, or you can go full-on Tour de Houston and sign up for the $13 monthly membership, which will unlock unlimited 60-minute trips for the entire month (or more like the entire weekend for your visitors). All in-use bike stations have posted signs reminding riders to wash hands before and after riding and wear gloves if they can, and strict disinfecting and sanitizing protocols are in place.
Go big on seafood
$$$ Houston One of the reasons Houston totally rocks is its proximity to the Gulf Coast, which in turn means we have some pretty badass local seafood. Over at Brennan’s of Houston, the Gulf Fish Pontchartrain comes with a blanket of crispy Louisiana oysters, jumbo lump crab, shrimp, and Creole butter; and the Texas shrimp & grits are pretty much legendary. 1751 Sea and Bar serves its goods raw, smoked, preserved, cured, wood-grilled, and covered in butter; Caracol is where you want to go for coastal Mexican and char-grilled oysters; and local darling Goode Company Seafood has Gulf oysters, campechana, seafood gumbo and po-boys, and grilled red snapper, all available for dine-in or carryout.
Free Downtown Stretching from Shepherd to Sabine between Allen Parkway and Memorial, Buffalo Bayou Park is the Crown Jewel of Houston’s greenspaces. Take a walk along the winding hike and bike paths and you’ll find grassy plateaus framed by trees, bike, and kayak rentals, a giant dog park and skate park (that are currently closed, but you can still walk by ‘em), picnic spots and pavilions, and plenty of cool art installations — from the Dandelion fountain to the six 4-foot-tall “Monumental Moments” sculptures along the Kinder Footpath. Just be sure to respect the 6-feet-away rule.
$$-$$$ Houston Our JBA-winning chefs and restaurants continue to prove their worth even in the current dining climate. Over at his game-changing new American bistro, Theodore Rex, Justin Yu has reopened the dining room at limited capacity and continued the popular to-go service; and his partnership in neighborhood spot Squable might have something to do with the reason it’s one of the best restaurants in town at this very moment. Chef Hugo Ortega has reopened all three of his popular Mexican stunners, Hugo’s, Caracol, and Xochi. Chef Chris Shepherd’s upscale, diverse riff on classic comfort foods are showcased through Underbelly Hospitality’s various offerings. Irma Galvan’s namesake spot fresh, homestyle Mexican haunt Irma’s continues to be an American classic; and Robert Del Grande, who won in 1992, continues to impress with dine-in and takeout at The Annie Cafe and Bar.Sign up here for our daily Houston email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in town.
Brooke Viggiano is a Houston-based writer who is stoked to get actually outside this fall since she’s been A/C hopping since spring. Follow her al fresco voyage on IG @brookiefafa or on Twitter @BrookeViggiano.
Phoenix is pretty great. There’s the burgeoning culinary scene, the diverse culture, the arts, of course, the sports, the great outdoors, and don’t forget about the more than 300 days of annual sunshine. We could really go on, and on, about how great this place is, but all of that greatness can blind you to all the excellence just outside it. The suburbs across The Valley are not to be missed. To encourage you to actually explore them, here’s what the best of ‘em have to offer.
Notably, Tempe is recognized as home to one of the largest universities in the country, Arizona State. But this Phoenix suburb is so much more than a college town, although it does add to its undeniable magic. Downtown Tempe plays hosts to epic arts festivals, dragon boat races, marathons and triathlons, and dozens of other events that all take place a short-distance from Tempe Town Lake, a two-mile long perennial reservoir and urban park that attracts cylicts, rowers, and active types. Break a sweat with a hike to the top of A Mountain and take in a panoramic sunset view. Or, just belly-up to the bar at one of Tempe’s innumerable craft breweries. Both are solid choices. And both can get you acquainted with this laidback Phoenix suburb.
Nearly half of Scottsdale’s land area is dedicated to open spaces and untamed desert. Outdoor activities like mountain biking, hiking, road cycling, horseback riding, and kayaking reign supreme here, and the city certainly leans toward an active, wellness-centered lifestyle. And while there’s no shortage of desert to explore, Scottsdale also claims some of the best spas in the world, award-winning restaurants, world-class golf courses, it’s the center stage for major events like luxury car auctions and sporting events, and it’s even got a bustling arts scene. This Phoenix suburb checks all of the boxes, really.
Not too long ago Gilbert was a sort of sleepy, far-away farm town. That’s certainly not the case anymore. Gilbert has grown exponentially, but its agricultural roots are still readily present in its personality and charm. Downtown Gilbert is home to dozens of restaurants and bars, most of which have a local, farm-to-table approach, naturally. And then there’s Agritopia, a friendly neighborhood with its very own shared garden and community spaces that include Epicenter and BARNONE, where you can order a wood-fired pizza, a can of experimental natural wine, and camp out under a canopy of trees in the open-air. It’s practically a utopia.
A gateway to Horseshoe and Bartlett Lakes, Cave Creek’s position on the outskirts of Tonto National Forest makes it a primo spot for outdoor activities like biking and hiking and adventure by way of air balloon or horseback. Modern cowboys and gals can mosey over to The Buffalo Chip Saloon where bull riding and swing dancing are just part of a typical day. Additionally, Cave Creek has its own botanical garden, raptor rescue, and a gallery packed with person-sized crystals. And it’s all yours to discover.
Point your GPS east and you’ll arrive in Mesa, Arizona’s third largest city. Whether you’re after outdoor adventure, looking to explore the arts and culture scene, or searching for locally made ciders and craft beer, Mesa has it all. There’s a hip, growing downtown area lined with storefronts, restaurants, theaters, and tasting rooms. And if you’re game for a little outdoor recreation, Mesa is your jumping-off point to scenic Sonoran Desert trails including Usery Mountain Regional Park, Lost Dutchman State Park, and San Tan Regional Park. Mesa is also just a short distance from The Salt River where you can cruise by wild horses and native wildlife via paddle board and Saguaro Lake is just up the road.
At the center of this Phoenix suburb is an expansive urban park and monumental water fountain that tops out at 560-feet. The fountain in Fountain Hills is larger than the Washington Monument, and it’s three times as high as Old Faithful. Pack a picnic and spread out in the park for an afternoon where you can traverse the walkable paths, cycle around the waterway, or play a competitive bout of frisbee golf. If you swing more towards traditional golf, there’s a shortlist of premier golf courses to tee-off at. And like many of the Phoenix suburbs here, Fountain Hills is surrounded by wide-open desert and scenic vistas just waiting to be explored.
Arizona sports teams including the Coyotes and Cardinals have home turf advantage in Glendale. Over the years Glendale has hosted three Super Bowl bouts and will host another in 2023. But Glendale’s not just a sports mecca for fans of professional football and hockey. This Phoenix suburb is homebase to Camelback Ranch, a modern ballpark with all the amenities where the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers take the field each season as part of Cactus League Spring Training. Take your time in Glendale into extra innings and visit Historic Old Town Glendale. Here you’ll encounter eclectic antique and vintage stores, restaurants, candy shops, and coffee houses.
Museums, urban parks, art galleries, and growing neighborhoods like Uptown Chandler and Downtown Chandler give this Phoenix suburb lots of appeal. Rows of palm trees line the Downtown area where you can start your day with a locally roasted coffee and organic breakfast bowl. Downtown Chandler regularly hosts community-focused events and it’s a popular hangout for craft beer drinkers. SanTan Brewery, Pedal Haus, and The Perch, with 40 beers on tap and tropical birds at every turn, all call this Phoenix suburb home.
Lauren Topor Reichert is a Phoenix-based multimedia storyteller, photographer, and content creator. Her work has been featured in travel guides, national publications, and the social feeds of some stellar local restaurants. Follow her around Arizona, and beyond, on Instagram @hungryinphoenix.