Travel

Free things to do, space attractions and more

Christopher Elliott, Special to USA TODAY
Published 6:42 p.m. ET Sept. 11, 2019 | Updated 7:30 p.m. ET Sept. 11, 2019

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Buzz60’s Elizabeth Keatinge tells us about some beautiful historic places to visit.

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Houston with kids, in the middle of the summer. If those aren’t the perfect ingredients for a family adventure, then I don’t know what are.

A lot of Houstonians flee to the mountains during the hottest months, seeking relief from the 90-degree temperatures and oppressive humidity. 

We went the other way. My kids had a big school project that required their presence for a few weeks.

Turns out there’s a lot to keep the whole gang entertained in H-Town — and then some.

  • Space Center Houston is the must-see attraction, even if you’re not into rockets. 
  • You can experience Houston with kids by visiting its kid-friendly museums. There are almost too many to fit into one story.
  • Houston also has public events that are great for the whole family.

While many of these attractions don’t cost anything or have “free” days, I learned one secret for cutting our entertainment costs. CityPASS ($62 for adults and $52 for children ages 3 to 11) can offer savings of up to 47% on major attractions such as the Downtown Aquarium, Houston Zoo or Space Center Houston.

Check out Space Center Houston 

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We happened to be in Houston during the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. Johnson Space Centerhosted a series of events, including an outdoor concert and festival, Apollo 11-themed pop-up science labs, mission briefings and a special NASA tram tour featuring a just-reopened historic mission control.

Moon landing reading list: 7 new out-of-this-world moon books

And a film list, too: 5 great moon movies to celebrate humanity’s great achievement

My kids have probably been to too many museums. But Space Center Houston, the official visitors center for NASA’s Johnson Space Center, is no ordinary museum. You can walk through a retrofitted Boeing 747 that carried the space shuttle or touch a real moon rock. That kind of show-don’t-tell philosophy is pretty engaging — even for the most jaded teenager. That kept the eye-rolls and “Dad, I’m hungry!” comments to a minimum.

Be sure to set aside time for a Level 9 Tour, which takes you behind the scenes at Johnson Space Center. You’ll see spaceships, astronauts in training and the control center for the International Space Station. Our guide took us into an old building that used to serve as a command center for shuttle missions. I felt as if we were walking through a part of history.

The space center tends to get crowded on weekends and during holiday periods. But if you arrive early, you can have the place to yourself, even if it’s just for a short while. It’s one of the best opportunities in America to learn about the history of spaceflight.

See Houston’s museums and more

When it comes to seeing Houston with kids, there’s more than space. 

Houston ZooThis zoo is considered one of the best in the country — and with good reason. This is home to every kind of exotic animal you know, and a few you don’t. We spent a lot of time checking out the birds, especially the flamingos. We wish we’d had time to come back for an animal encounter; I think my daughter would have loved the reptile one.

Houston Museum of Natural Science: I admit, when I told my teenagers we were visiting the museum, they protested. “Can’t we do … something else?” But after a few minutes at the natural science museum, they grew strangely quiet. That’s because this museum has it all, from a paleontology hall with enormous dinosaur skeletons, to an exhibition of naturally crystallized tourmalines. Don’t miss Death by Natural Causes, an exhibit of things that will kill you. Literally.

Downtown AquariumThe aquarium is a perfect excuse to come downtown and grab a bite to eat. It’s a combination of a world-class aquarium and restaurant. Exhibits include a Ferris wheel, an aquatic carousel and a white tiger exhibit. A warning — finding parking downtown isn’t always easy. If you’re staying in a hotel, take mass transit or rideshare to the aquarium.

The kids also enjoyed Houston’s restaurants, conveniently located near these museums. One of our favorites: Kenny & Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen. It’s an authentic deli that serves classics like lox and bagels or corned beef sandwich. They even have fairly unusual dishes, at least for an American deli, like Hungarian goulash. The kids also had a great time at The Classic, which serves terrific breakfast sandwiches and burgers.

Free things to do in Houston

But some of the best things to do in Houston with kids are free.

Both of my sons were enrolled in a music appreciation class for community college. One of the class assignments: Go to a concert and write a report. That’s when we found out about the Houston Symphony’s free summer concerts.

We attended a tribute concert to Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. My sons do not listen to either. The Houston Symphony is a class act, and they were seriously impressed by the artistry. Oh yeah, and they got As on their assignments, too. We wanted to attend more of these shows but had to leave town. Maybe we can come back for the Symphonic Spooktacular in October — just in time for Halloween?

I know what you’re thinking. Houston sounds so perfect, why would anyone want to leave in the summer?

Let’s be honest: It’s hotter than a firecracker. Add the humidity of the bayou, and you really feel like locking the door to your vacation rental and turning the AC down to 60 degrees.

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But there’s too much to do in Houston with kids to stay indoors, even during the summer. The kids might not feel like it, but get out there and experience this city. They’ll thank you for it later.

Maybe not in a month, or even a year. But they will someday. Trust me on that.

Christopher Elliott’s latest book is “How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler.” He edits the family adventure travel blog Away is Home. You can follow his adventures on Twitter or Facebook.

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