7 under-the-radar Houston vacation spots worth visiting

Versie Dortch

The Bayou City is the largest city in Texas and the Southern U.S., covering an expansive 665 square miles. And thanks to its large size, there’s no shortage of activities and entertainment options.

While famous attractions like the Space Center Houston and Minute Maid Park are worth visiting during a Houston vacation, there’s also an endless array of lesser-known, equally entertaining crowd-pleasers. Visitors can float down a Texas-shaped lazy river or tour a European-style castle, all within a 70-mile drive from downtown.

From unique hotels to historic educational sites, keep reading for seven under-the-radar Houston destinations perfect for day or weekend trips.

Texas-shaped lazy river at the Marriot Marquis Houston

Distance from downtown Houston: 1 mile

The downtown Marriott Marquis Houston hotel is home to the world’s largest rooftop lazy river shaped like the Lone Star State. In addition to the lazy river, the hotel’s expansive sixth-floor Altitude Rooftop & Pool is home to an infinity pool and whirlpool lined with lounge chairs and cabanas. It’s also a great sunset spot to sip on a cocktail while enjoying the scenic view of downtown. The best part? The lazy river is open year-round and heated to 80 degrees during the winter months. 

Two boys floating down lazy river.

Two boys floating down lazy river.

kali9/Getty Images

There is also a wide range of poolside programming including live music and Texas Winter Nights, a collection of light and interactive displays with selfie stations along the lazy river that runs from November to early January. While the hotel itself is worth a stay for the amenities alone, day passes are available Monday through Thursday for adults.  

Find it: 1777 Walker St., Houston, TX 77010; 713-654-1777

George Observatory, Brazos Bend State Park

Distance from downtown Houston: 47 miles

This satellite facility of the Houston Museum of Natural Science opened in 1989 and is located in the roughly 5,000-acre Brazos Bend State Park that borders the Brazos River. Every Saturday night, the observatory opens its doors to the public for stargazing. Join their astronomers on the deck for real-time telescope camera feeds and a laser tour of the night sky. Experts are even on hand to guide visitors who bring their own telescope or binoculars.

George Observatory, Brazos Bend State Park

George Observatory, Brazos Bend State Park

Melissa M. via Yelp

The George Observatory has three domed telescopes and is home to one of the largest telescopes in the U.S. that’s open to the public regularly—the 36-inch Gueymard Research Telescope. The facility also hosts a series of special events throughout the year including telescope classes, Family Space Day and Rocket Days, where kids build and launch water rockets. Be sure to book reservations in advance because tickets sell out quickly. And consider elevating your experience by spending the night or the weekend under the stars at one of the state park’s campsites.

Find it: 5555 Hermann Park Drive, Houston, TX77030; 713-639-4629 

Newman’s Castle

Distance from downtown Houston: 69 miles

Bellville is home to a castle complete with a moat and a working 3,200-pound drawbridge. A trip to Europe in his early 20s inspired Mike Newman, the owner of the nearby Newman’s Bakery, to build his own fortress. While the castle is Newman’s home, it is open to the public six days a week for tours that include lunch.

Newman’s Castle

Newman’s Castle

Jake H. via Yelp

One of the most impressive facts about the castle is that Newman built it himself over the course of eight years with only one helper. The structure includes five round corner turrets, a courtyard, a central tower with views of the surrounding landscape and a perimeter wall. Advanced reservations are recommended and all tours meet at the bakery. Be sure to spend some time exploring the town of Bellville after visiting the castle. It’s home to the historic 1896 Austin County Jailhouse, which is also open for tours.  

Find it: 504 E. Main St., Bellville, TX 77418; 979-865-9804

1940 Air Terminal Museum

Distance from downtown Houston: 10 miles

This art deco building once housed the Houston Municipal Airport and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The structure served both airlines and passengers from September 1940 to the spring of 1955. Currently, it operates as a museum with exhibits spread across two wings—the north wing is filled with galleries showcasing Houston’s aviation history and the timeline of commercial airlines such as Braniff Airways and Continental Airlines. The south wing explores early aviation starting with the first flight in Texas to the Women Airforce Service Pilots, who flew military airplanes for training and ferry flights.

1940 Air Terminal Museum

1940 Air Terminal Museum

Melissa M. via yelp

A Hawker 129 business jet is on permanent display on the site of the former international terminal that once served Mexico, Central America and Cuba. The jet was turned into a colorful public art project in 2019 and painted by muralist GONZO247. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday.

Find it: 8325 Travelair St., Houston, Texas 77061; 713-454-1940

Goat yoga and brunch at The Woodlands Resort

Distance from downtown Houston: 32 miles

This tranquil resort in the Texas Piney Woods offers a relaxing weekend getaway from Houston with its Goats & Good Nights package that includes goat yoga and brunch for two guests. The package is usually offered twice per month and includes one night’s accommodation, two goat yoga sessions and a food and beverage credit of $50.  

Goat Yoga 

Goat Yoga 

Steven Harrie/Getty Images/iStockphoto

After brunch, take advantage of the resort’s amenities—their Forest Oasis features a 1,005-foot-long lazy river and waterpark. In addition, there are two pools and three whirlpools. Looking for other ways to keep busy here? Hikers will find over 200 miles of trails on the property and golfers will find a championship course perfect for a day on the links.    

Find it: 2301 North Millbend Drive, The Woodlands, Texas, 77380; 281-367-1100

San Jacinto Battleground bike tour

Distance from downtown Houston: 22 miles

Texas won its independence on this 1,300-acre site in April 1936 when General Sam Houston’s army defeated the forces of General Antonio López de Santa Anna. The site, known as the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site, is now home to the San Jacinto Museum of History and the 567-foot tall San Jacinto Monument, which towers over a reflecting pool, built to celebrate both the victory and sacrifice of the troops.

A bicyclist riding on a trail.

A bicyclist riding on a trail.

FreezeFrames/Getty Images/iStockphoto

One of the most unique ways to visit the birthplace of Texas is with a free guided bike tour offered on the second Saturday of the month during March and April. The paved route is primarily flat with two small hills and suitable for all experience levels. Visitors must bring their own bikes and water. For those who want to bike without a guide, they can take advantage of the Cyclist Saturday events. The site opens two hours early, from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., on the second Saturday of the month for cyclists who want to bike without worrying about cars. Unlike the bike tours, these cyclist events happen every month except for November.

Find it: 3523 Independence Parkway South, La Porte, TX 77571; 281-479-2431

Sheldon Lake State Park

Distance from downtown Houston: 25 miles

Located on the edge of Sheldon Lake, the Sheldon Lake State Park is the site of a series of fish hatchery ponds that have been returned to the wild through sustainable resource management. The park is a prime spot for wildlife watching, from birds to alligators. The 1,200-acre Sheldon Lake is also an excellent fishing spot where people can fish without a license. And two of the park’s fishing ponds are also open for catch and release only.

Sheldon Lake State Park

Sheldon Lake State Park

Sam T. via Yelp

Climb the steps to the top of the 82-foot John Jacob Observation Tower for a photo-worthy view of the lake, restored prairie and the downtown Houston skyline. Check the park’s calendar for a list of ranger-led events including a series of themed guided hikes.

Find it: 14140 Garrett Road, Houston, TX 77044; 281-456-2800

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