Road Trip Fun: Dinos, Sharks, NASA, and More in Houston

If you’re looking for a quick getaway, head east on I-10 and cruise to Houston. A ton of fun awaits for kiddos (and adults). What’s that you say? Houston’s large, confusing, and traffic, traffic, traffic? Get past that and jump in. It’s a great, short getaway that will leave everyone smiling.

You can explore Houston in a long weekend, or even in multiple day trips. Visit Houston offers suggestions for trips and itineraries, as well as info on what to do, where to stay, and more. We’ve enjoyed three day visits, fitting in about as much as we can in that time.

Houston’s Hermann Park, the home of the Houston Zoo and much more.

Every family has different hotel preferences (or these days, Airbnb), but we like simple suites where we have enough space to sleep well, maybe someplace with a mini-kitchen and free breakfast because this makes it easier to start our day. We always stay near downtown, but to see everything there is to see, you will end up driving. Houston isn’t hard to navigate, though, so don’t let the driving stop you and stay where it works for you.

A view of the ferris wheel at the Downtown Aquarium.

No matter where you stay, you’ll be able to fill your time and everyone will have fun. My son begs to go to Houston a couple of times a year. I still haven’t gotten to see all I want to, but his favorites are great, so I can’t complain.

Houston is like San Antonio: there’s a ton to do and you can’t do it all in a quick trip. So what shouldn’t you miss? That depends on your family. Of course, there are baseball games at Minute Maid Park where you can catch the 2017 World Series Champions, the Houston Astros. Or if football is your thing, you can enjoy a Houston Texans game. We have friends who enjoy both; however, that’s not my kiddo’s cup of tea.

Dinosaurs at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Thanks to our dino lover, we usually start at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The hall of paleontology is fabulous, with more than 60 dinosaurs on display. But there’s also a terrific hall of gems and minerals, a hall of Texas wildlife—and one on African wildlife—and so much more. The museum includes a butterfly center, planetarium, and theater (separate fees for each in addition to your museum admission). We’ve seen terrific traveling exhibitions on sharks, Fabergé eggs, nature photography, and one where we walked with penguins and polar bears (virtual reality, but it was still cool).  

Some of the sea creatures at the Houston Natural Science Museum

The museum is part of the Houston Museum District, 19 museums that are zoned in different groups. In addition to the Natural Science Museum, the district includes the Houston Zoo, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Children’s Museum of Houston, and more. More than half of the museums are always free, and thanks to their proximity to each other, it’s easy to find them/explore. You can even leave your car behind to walk between many of them. Pro tip: You have to pay to park pretty much anywhere in the district, so we often just park in a private lot versus paying the rates at the Museum of Natural Science garage, which can fill quickly on a busy weekend.

Going back to the fact that Houston is huge/has a million suburbs/towns around it, there’s a satellite science museum, HMNS at Sugar Land, located in Sugar Land. Since it has dinos, it’s on a future visit list, because all things dinosaur pretty much keep our future paleontologist occupied.

The grounds of the Houston Zoo are gorgeous.

Back to the Museum District, the Houston Zoo is a favorite stop. It’s located in Hermann Park, which is gorgeous and includes sights to see itself (a railroad and pedal boats, beautiful gardens, and more). The zoo’s grounds are filled with lovely trees, a lot of shade, and fantastic animals. We appreciate the signage providing education on endangered species and what we can do to help protect them, and of course, we love seeing the animals. The zoo includes a small but great aquarium that our fish lover enjoys, as well as sea lions, something you don’t always see at a zoo.

Meeting gorillas at the Houston Zoo.
Yes, pay phones were real, and part of a cool display at the Children’s Museum of Houston.

We also enjoy the Children’s Museum of Houston. The museum has a variety of areas covering fun for true littles (its “Tot Spot”) all the way up to budding engineers and spies (“Invention Convention,” “Matter Factory,” and more). There’s a café on site, outdoor water fun, and enough to keep everyone busy. We’ve also caught visits by Star Wars characters, launched asteroids, and explained what rotary phones were. Pro tip: If you’re a member of San Antonio’s beloved Witte Museum, you can enjoy the Children’s Museum of Houston for free through the science and technology center membership reciprocity program, another reason to love the Witte and why I like memberships in general. Another Houston museum included in the reciprocity program is The Health Museum of Houston. It’s on the list to check out on our next visit.

One of the sharks that might swim above you at the Downtown Aquarium.

 

Away from the Museum District, we usually visit the Downtown Aquarium. With a variety of aquarium displays, a manta ray touch tank, a train ride through an aquarium tunnel that includes sharks swimming over your head, and amusement park rides, it’s a fun stop and a must for our fish lover. The Aquarium Restaurant is also good and offers dining entertainment via huge aquariums that will delight any kid (or adult).

We came across the Downtown Aquarium on one of our first Houston trips, thanks to City Pass Houston. You can visit five attractions for a price you can’t beat, and all of the attractions are top-notch. At the aquarium, passholders get unlimited rides, so enjoy the Ferris wheel view of downtown Houston as much as you’d like.

Some of the rides at the Downtown Aquarium.

By the way, I ran the numbers to see if City Pass was really worth it, and it is. The savings is substantial—if you go to all of the attractions. If you’re not going to make all of them, you need to compare the admission fees to see if City Pass makes sense. One of the attractions included is the Children’s Museum of Houston, but since our Witte membership gets us in free there, we go to Kemah instead. Once you get the pass, you can redeem it at any location, and the pass allows you to bypass the ticket lines at some attractions. We love Houston’s City Pass so much that we always check City Pass for deals in other cities we visit.

Space Center Houston

Houston is home to Space Center Houston, a dream for NASA fans and anyone who is interested in space, science, or engineering. The center is actually in Webster, south of Houston, but definitely worth the drive. Seeing the shuttle replica Independence mounted to a Boeing 747 in the parking lot, leaves mouths gaping. You can tour the shuttle and take tram tours of NASA Johnson Space Center, including a tour of Mission Control. A visit to the Space Center is probably best for those five and up, but that’s just my opinion. Pro tip: Sign up for tram tours when you arrive, as well as a time for the shuttle tour. We’ve never had a problem, but I’ve heard that it can get very busy/crowded later in the day.

A replica space shuttle, the Independence, on a Boeing 747.

Also south of Houston is Kemah Boardwalk, about 20 miles from downtown. There are a ton of restaurants, shops, and rides, but we most enjoy sitting and watching the water, especially from the Ferris wheel. I’ll be honest, we probably wouldn’t have gone out of our way to visit Kemah without the City Pass, but we’ve had a blast and paired the visit with the Space Center to make a full day (Space Center in the morning, Kemah in the afternoon/evening). City Pass includes many of the rides at Kemah, so it’s a fun trip.

Since I know we’ll be headed back to Houston, if you have other favorites you’ve enjoyed, please share them. I’d love to hear what you and your family enjoy so we can add them to our list.

Dawn
An Army brat who came to Texas for college and ultimately managed to make the Lone Star State her permanent home, Dawn became a mom “AMA” (advanced maternal age), giving her the opportunity to use a stroller vs. a walker as she navigates the world of motherhood. Her six-year-old native Texan loves all things Star Wars, Legos, Cars, dinosaurs and keeping his parents on their toes. When she’s not busy parenting the original strong-willed child, Dawn works in public relations and dreams of listening to something other than the “pew, pew, pew” of Star Wars/dino/Lego battles coming from her backseat. She’s also a contributing writer for San Antonio Woman and Rio Magazine. Dawn and her happy little family enjoy exploring all that San Antonio has to offer, going on adventures and playing tourist together as much as possible.