Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Walking Tour of Houston

Monument au Fantome.
NOTE: Photos were added several days after the original blog posting.

One of the things I was most looking forward to while visiting Houston this week for business was taking one of the audio tours I downloaded to my MP3 player from the Houston Tourism website. There are three tours: one is only 0.6 miles and takes 30 mins; the other two are about 2 miles each and take about 2 hrs each. I opted for the Ultimate Downtown Tour, narrated by Dan Workman, owner of Sugar Hill Studios.

The tour starts at a giant multi-piece fiberglass sculpture on the edge of Discovery Green, a new park downtown. The sculpture, called Monument au Fantome, is across from the Convention Center.

Though there were a few instructions I did not follow, like walking into a bar to look at the ceiling, overall I enjoyed the tour.

The tour took me to Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros. There I learned the history of the park as the city's original Union Station for train travel to the city. I loved looking in the window from Crawford Street to see left field of the stadium. I wish there had been a home game!

Outside Minute Maid Park.
Buffalo Bayou is reached about halfway through the tour. In the middle of Houston, it is a beautiful “wilderness” area with walking paths and sculptures along the river. At the top of one section is a larger-than-life statue of the first President Bush. I enjoyed being an “insider” for a few minutes on the bridge over the bayou and near the Seven Wonders. I was told to push the unmarked red button which causes the “art” called the Bayou Bubble to be activated – letting loose a large bubble of air in the middle of the river, making the pedestrians on the bridge look and wonder what it was.

The tour even included a short ride on the light rail train. Though I went just a couple of blocks, it was a pretty nice transportation option. The kiosk I used to buy a ticket did not work properly, and the person I asked wasn't helpful, but otherwise, it was a relatively easy thing to figure out.

The two biggest things I learned about the city:

1) There are parks all over the city, several with fenced in dog runs. One small park about halfway through the tour was a park just for dogs. The parks are attractive, well maintained and well landscaped. Several also had creative fountains.

A fountain in the park across the street from my hotel.
2) There is art everywhere – in every park, on the street, fountains on buildings, modern sculptures in courtyards – it is wonderful!

Dan did a great job as narrator, describing everything on the tour. The tour was very well organized. It was nice how in some areas, everything on one side of the street was described, then we would cross the street and go back. My only complaint was the fact it ended so far away from the start. Luckily I had a map of the city with me to find my way back.

Safety was also addressed well. Every time crossing a street was required, I was instructed to pause the audio and be careful. The narration would pick back up on the other side of the intersection. He also did a great job of warning about busy driveways to parking garages and shops.

One other thing I thought was pretty neat about this tour – it was set up for someone walking at my pace! Each time Dan would say something like walk to the corner or the bridge, etc., as soon as I arrived at that location, he would give the next instruction. Well, done!

So, if you are planning a trip to Houston and want to walk around the city, I recommend trying one of these audio tours. It was a lot of fun and it guaranteed that I got to see some of the best parts of the city. Left to my own devices, who knows where I would end up.

PS: I hope other cities offer similar audio tours! Photos to come.

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