Houston's Must-See Museums

Admittedly, Houston is less a Texas tourist destination than cities like Austin or San Antonio -- but those who do make the trek here will enjoy a cosmopolitan city with incredible culture. Houston is home to a number of excellent museums, including the fascinating Space Center Houston, which gives visitors an inside look at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Art lovers will get lost for hours wandering through the city's Museum of Fine Arts, one of the best collections in the entire nation, while nature buffs will find their bliss at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Here are our picks for Houston's top 5 museums.

Space Center Houston

Space Center Houston
Space Center Houston

Shoot for the stars in Houston at the Space Center, NASA's official Johnson Space Center visitor center and museum. Take the 1 1/2-hour NASA Tram tour that whizzes past actual astronauts in training for the International Space Station as well as exploration vehicles in the process of being developed for space.

Interactive displays and simulations help visitors grasp what it feels like to be in space, including the Feel of Space, which emulates working in a frictionless environment. Another display shows how to land the lunar orbiter. You can even visit the original Apollo Mission Control Center and imagine that historic, "Houston, we've got a problem," moment. Plan to spend 3 to 4 hours here; if you have additional time pay a visit to the Blast Off Theater, the largest IMAX theater in Texas.

Houston Museum of Natural Science

Houston Museum of Natural Science
houston museum of natural science

Houston's Museum of Natural Science offers visitors more than a chance to stroll past stuffed creatures, dinosaur bones and insects specimens (though, yes, it has all that, too). Here, you'll get to wander through the Butterfly Center, an actual rainforest habitat that houses hundreds of butterflies, fluttering around in a recreated version of their natural environment. And you, the visitor, will walk in the midst of them all.

As you enter the center, you'll also pass by the Insect Zoo, home to living specimens of unusual (and unusually large) spiders, beetles and more -- but have no fear, they are in an enclosed area. The museum also has excellent displays of standard natural history museum exhibits: gem and mineral collections, fossils, Texas wildlife displays, exhibits on chemistry, the climate, cultures of the Americas, a planetarium and an IMAX theater.

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Hequals2henry, Wikimedia Commons

Texas's first art museum is also its biggest, and with more than 300,000 square feet of displays, 40,000 pieces of art and a whopping 18 acres of gardens. Interestingly, when the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, opened in the 1920s, it was only the third museum in the South; today it remains one of the nation's largest and most renowned art institutions.

The museum's Impressionist and post-Impressionist collections shine, as do the 19th- and 20th-century art and Baroque and Renaissance collections. Keep an eye out for the excellent array of Picassos and Rembrandts -- the museum houses a number of their major works. Be sure to save energy for exploring the gardens, particularly the Cullen Sculpture Garden, where you'll wander past pieces by Rodin and Matisse.

The Menil Collection

Menil Collection, Houston
kewing, flickr

Tucked into a nondescript corner of Houston lies one of the world's greatest private art collections, the esteemed Menil Collection. A French couple, Jean and Dominique de Menil, arrived in Houston during the 1940s, having escaped the horrors of World War II in their home country, and amassed the art over the course of the next 4 decades both by purchasing and commissioning pieces. Their collection features Byzantine and medieval works, tribal art, 20th- century items and pieces from antiquity, creating a grouping so massive that a mere 1/5th of the collection can be displayed at a time.

The couple literally transformed the arts scene in Houston, both by making their collection public as well as by donating to museums and university art departments throughout the city, such as Rice University. The museum is actually more of a "campus" and includes other noteworthy buildings such as the Rothko Chapel, featuring 14 of the abstract expressionist artist's paintings and the Cy Twombly Gallery.

Children's Museum of Houston

Children's Museum of Houston
imedla, flickr

Hands-down Houston's most playful museum, the Children's Museum of Houston dedicates itself to engaging children up to 12 years old in an array of interactive and bilingual displays. Children can head to the Matter Factory and discover different properties of atoms and molecules, or play the roles of city leader, voter, shopkeeper and more in Kidtropolis, a city created for and run by kids.

Bring children under 3 to TotSpot, where they'll interact with mirrors, play with knobs and doorbells, and discover their physical abilities, and hone motor skills in the ball and pillow pit. Budding Einsteins can let their inner inventor loose in the Invention Convention, where they're free to use their imaginations to create contraptions with an array of materials and gadgets. Looking to save money? Visit on a Thursday night, when the museum is free for families from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.

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