I spent a pretty full three days in HOU recently - and seeing Houston on a budget wasn't what I would call easy. My general plan when going on these weekend trips is to have a list of things I'd like to do, but not plan too stringently, as I feel like that can be limiting. Houston was not a good place to fly by the seat of my pants. With the limited public transit and the size of the city, Houston can be mighty difficult and/or expensive to get from point A to point B. I wound up doing loads of wandering and self-mapped walking tours; so I do feel that I saw a good amount of the city even though I didn't wander too far.
Hostel. Obviously. If you've read my other city guides, you'll know that I almost exclusively stay in hostels. They just make the most sense to me: budget-friendly, local non-bullshitty staff that tell you what you should see or skip. So, I stayed true-to-form when picking my accommodations.. I stayed in Montrose, which is pretty central to the things I wanted to see.
For 3 nights, I spent: $97.50
(Includes 17% taxes:: state, city, and 2 different county taxes)
Houston's public transit is pretty terrible given the size of the city. For me to get to/from either IAH or HOU would have been roughly 1 hour and 30 minutes via bus (excluding the wait and transfer times). 90% of the time I'll opt for the cheaper/longer option, but I wasn't in the right head-space to handle an extended trip on a bus.
For the most part, I walked between sites. I got myself a bus pass for a quick trip to the Galleria area and the trip to the Space Center (another mighty long journey, but worth it).
- Uber: [HOU -> Montrose] : $18.23
- Bus pass: $5
- Uber: [Johnson Space Center -> HOU] : $25
Transportation TOTAL: $48.23
Let's talk food first...
Katz's Deli was nearby the hostel and an easy spot to grab a 9:00pm dinner. The food was fine, but nothing to go out or your way for. The bar guy was really nice and changed one of the TVs to a Red Sox game for me 🙂
Christy's Donut Kolaches was something special for sure. I walked in and asked, "What are you known for?" They guy pointed me to the blueberry cake donut- they only had one left, so I went with that (mind you, I'm a pretty exclusive yeast donut kinda gal-- but I figured they had sold so many, they must be awesome). I caught a glimpse of the word "jalepeño" out of the corner of my eye. Poor little sausage, cheese, and jalepeño kolache- didn't last long. It was SO GOOD. The best part? I paid $3-- including a 97¢ tip. I went back the next day and got 3 kolaches and a donut ($7), and being the lady I am, ate 1 and took the rest to go. NOT. I unhinged my jaw, snake-style, and devoured all 4 items in the span of maybe 10 minutes. Ladylike, no; badass, heck yes.
The *best* dinner I had in town was hands-down at The Burger Joint. If you're travelling solo, absolutely opt for their bar-seating... this lets you skip the huge line! I seemingly went unnoticed by the bar staff, but one fantastic server noticed my confused look and dashed over to help. I asked what menu item, if any, is his staple choice; and without hesitation he pointed me to the bacon parmesan fries. I ordered those, a Kimchi burger, and a Wasatch apricot cider and it was the perfect meal. The burger was cooked perfectly and the fries were delicious. I should have gone back again the next night! (#regret)
I stopped in to grab dessert at a couple different places during my trip. The first was at Niko Niko's for some baklava that I had seen on the hostel's Instagram the week before my trip. It was so decadent I couldn't finish it in one sitting, so I had the second half for breakfast. The next day, as a reward for walking nearly 11 miles, I went to Fluff Bake Bar. I got two cup cakes (not a cupcake, its like a layer cake in a small cup):: strawberry & lemon and birthday cake. The former I ate immediately and the latter I saved for the plane. Both were excellent, but the strawberry just barely edges out the birthday cake as my favorite.
The Hay Merchant is known for two things: their impressive tap and the Cease & Desist burger. Given the impressive burger experience I had the night prior, I had high hopes for such a well-regarded menu item. I started with a Stone Saison ( ? ), and eagerly awaited the arrival of the legendary burger. It was placed in front of me and I didn't hesitate to take my first bite. I was underwhelmed. The burger from The Burger Joint was just.... better (so were the fries). I finished off with a Finn Pear Cider, which was actually the real redeemer of the visit. The staff was only ok, the bar guys were a bit... something. Curmudgeonly? Too cool? Generally disinterested? If you're in it for beer... this place will be an excellent choice; if you're looking to chill and have a solo dinner, maybe look elsewhere.
Lastly, the night that I arrived, I walked over to the local Kroger grocery store to grab a few snacky/brekky items. I snagged 2 apples, 2 yogurts, and a small salad bar salad for just under $4. Sale-hunter extraordinaire, right here. The hostel had free breakfast, but my digestive system can only handle so much toast, so I needed something to supplement.
And of course I packed snacks for the trip. And to answer your question: Why yes, I do eat a lot. Thanks for noticing! Check out my Snack Packing 101 for my top picks!
Boston has great coffee and loads of options, so I was a little thrown when I went on the hunt the next morning and there weren't a million options within a 10 minute walking radius. After my first visit to Christy's, I stopped into Blacksmith for a latte. The line was long, so I assumed I was in for a treat. Again, an underwhelming experience. The coffee was fine. People seemed really happy with the breakfasts and the decor was cool, so I could see how disappointing coffee might not make it onto reviews if everything else is stellar.
The real tragedy of this trip is that it took me so long to wander into Mercantile Montrose-- right around the corner form the hostel. This truly is a hidden gem. I went back two mornings in a row, and got an almond milk latte both days. They were both perfect. Almond milk can be tricky to foam, but both lattes were nice and frothy.
One lucky spot I happened upon was 8th Wonder Brewery. It was on one of my walking routes. OMG go. This place is so cool. It works on a token system, which makes the wait for the bar go so much faster. The interior is very industrial (which works with the area) and they have a fun outdoor space and... get this... small wooden shelves in the bathroom stalls to stow your drink (for the ladies who don't want to leave drinks unattended). I got the Haterade and the Hopston.
Over the 3 days, I consumed a lot.....
- Katz's Deli = $14 (with tip)
- Christy's Donuts Kolaches (2 trips)= $10 (with tip)
- Blacksmith = almond milk latte = $5 (with tip)
- The Burger Joint = Kimchi burger, bacon parmesan fries, cider = $22.38
- Niko Niko's = $4.25
- Mercantile Montrose (2 trips) = almond milk latte $9 (with tip)
- 8th Wonder Brewery = $15 = 3 tokens and a glass
- Fluff Bake Bar = $9 fo
- The Hay Merchant = $27.06 = burger/2 drinks
- Kroeger = $3.74
Food/Drink TOTAL: $119.43
While there are a few things to do in Houston on a budget, its not quite as jam-packed with activities and landmarks as other cities. I did manage to get a few good days in.
FREE: Exploring Montrose
Before I even left the hostel, I checked out their daily activity board and noticed that there was something happening at 1:00pm, so I put my name on the list. I walked around the Montrose area and checked out all the beautiful residential streets. We were very close to one of the popular murals, so I looked around for that. I stopped into Christy's, caffeinated at Blacksmith, and headed back to the hostel for the event.
FREE: Art Car Parade
I had no idea what I had signed up for. The Art Car Parade wasn't something I had ever heard of, though apparently it has been a longstanding Houston tradition. It was cool to see all the interestingly decorated cars. I liked that they were all parked and lined up before the start of the parade so you could walk around and see all of the art up close.
FREE: Hunting for Houston's murals
I had learned about Houston's murals through this blog post from Houston Mom's Blog that had been shared with me. When I dug a little deeper, I found this AMAZING Houston Mural GoogleMap on Reddit! I plotted out a walking course to maximize the number of murals I could see (and walk myself past Christy's so I could eat my weight in carbs). The whole walk took me almost all day (stopped at Mercantile, Christy's, 8th Wonder --beer for lunch-- and Fluff).
Johnson Space Center/NASA
Entry Ticket = $25 / Bag Storage = $7
This was SO worth the bust trip! It took, with traffic, a little over an hour in a coach bus. The bus even had USB outlets so I could charge up all my electronics (essential because I was flying in the evening). I had to bring my 42L with me and though they have lockers, I just went to the customer service office (just to the right of the ticket booths). The best part-- I paid for both the storage AND entry ticket and was completely able to skip the long line in the normal ticketing booths! The entry fee is all-inclusive, so take advantage of all the offerings without having to worry about shelling out more money inside. I did the tram tour to Mission Control and both Blast Off! Theater productions (Mars Rover and International Space Station).
Activities TOTAL: $32
TRIP TOTAL = $297.16
Opinion: My overall opinion is that while Houston may not be what I would consider a "must-see" location, there are things to do. If I had it all to do over, I would have picked a different city. Or perhaps at the very least I would have made more meals in the hostel, as the food overall wasn't anything to get too excited about. I wound up spending too much money trying to reverse the mediocre time I was having. Seeing Houston on a budget is definitely possible, but make sure you set a plan in advance!
- Public transit to Johnson Space Center is not available on weekends and an UBER will be pricey.
- If within your means, renting a car would be a great idea and allow for much more flexibility.
- PLAN. Houston is not a destination that is good for "fly by the seat of your pants" travel. Look into locations, operating hours, and blackout dates. I went to the Water Wall.... and there was, um... no water. And the day I had planned to go on a tour of the Houston Astros' Minute Maid Park.... was one of two blackout days for the month. Whoops!
- If you're from a 'foodie city' maybe pick one or two things you'd like to eat or places you'd like to try, and just prep the rest of your own meals at your accommodation. Houston isn't known for their food and the stuff I ate wasn't anything super special (except for the kolaches/donuts at Christy's, the coffee at Mercantile, and the burgers at The Burger Joint). You'll be helping your budget and not missing much by skipping out on a few restaurant meals.
- What other Texan cities should I try?
- Are there any items you hunt out when in a new city?
- Did I miss out on any Houston must-dos/must-sees?
- Do you have any tips for seeing Houston on a budget?