Intro to Downtown Houston
The center of the city. The oil and gas HQ of the world. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.
As we enter your guide to living in Downtown Houston, I’d like to welcome you to the third largest skyline in the entire nation. Yup, you read that correct. Houston’s skyline ranks just behind NYC and Chicago for skyscrapers measuring at least 300 feet tall. From a distance, this part of town really separates itself from the rest, with the sheer amount of metal springing up from the soil.
Even though The Galleria/Uptown area has a significant amount of office buildings, Downtown is the real business hub in Houston. This area hosts the world headquarters for Chevron, Baker Botts, Total Petro, CenterPoint, and Waste Management and the list goes on. Some of the office buildings have detached parking garages that measure 20 floors high. Imagine driving up and down that each day.
If your daily grind is located in one of the nearby buildings, Downtown might be your best choice for residence out of simple efficiency. Not having to linger in Houston rush hour traffic is reason enough to post up close to work.
Fan of the performing arts? Downtown is home to the Houston Theater District which entails Jones Hall, Wortham Theater Center, Alley Theater, and Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.
Not to mention, the Houston Rockets and Houston Astros both have their stadiums in downtown, on both sides of the George R. Brown Convention Center.
For the glamour and glitz that Downtown shows off in structural heights and ease of daily back-and-forth, it also has more than its share of issues: a vast homeless population, inconvenience, and it’s straight up boring nature.
Let’s dig in.
Covid-19 Note: Downtown is dead. Like dead dead. The majority of restaurants and retail businesses have either indefinitely or permanently shuttered. There’s no one walking around. No traffic. Nothing. Dead. Who knows when it’ll really be back…
Of all the neighborhoods in Houston, downtown’s residential demographic is the easiest to sum up: singles and couples in their 20’s-40’s who have jobs in downtown. That’s it.
You’ll rarely see a family of 3-4 living in an apartment or condo in Downtown Houston. It’s just not convenient for family life. There’s one school in the zip code and it’s a private, performing arts focused institution.
Occasionally, you’ll find a retired couple that have lived in the area since they started working for one of the original boomtown oil companies and never wanted to let go of the short commute to and fro each day; even though, they could easily move into The Heights or Uptown and enjoy their life way more. But hey, what do I know?
But the real downtown residents I want you to keep in mind is the homeless population. Like, its big time. There are entire encampments set up under the highway overpasses that are laden with temporary residence. I kid you not, it is well-known that the borders of Downtown Houston are lovingly called ‘Tent City’, referring to the aforementioned. It’s sad, dangerous, and definitely not a crowd you would look forward to calling your neighbors when you’re paying a minimum of $1,500 for a small one bedroom apartment.
I guess that was the perfect segway into the safety section. IT’S VERY HOMELESS. Not so much in the middle of downtown where the majority of the office buildings are, but every border of the area is obviously home to transients looking for a place to sleep, take a sh*t, or cause some trouble.
They definitely do wander through downtown during the day and when large events are happening, asking people for money or food. You’ll see the same one’s over and over again, always with a new story. It’s a sad-funny when you get to know them, and they don’t remember you and try to give you a completely different version of their circumstances each time. I guess that’s called marketing analysis?
That being said, there are four Houston Police Department stations surrounding the area. If that doesn’t show how necessary patrolling the area is, I don’t know what would.
If you’re not living downtown and have to drive home each evening, I guarantee you that you’ll encounter at least one panhandler coming to your window. You’ll see them before your own family.
One thing I have to concede to Downtown Houston: This ‘neighborhood’ has the best collection of 50 square blocks worth of roadways in the city. Like, it’ll bring a tear to your eye how perfect paved the majority of the streets are. Since much of the tax revenue for the city is earned in this area, they have to keep the people happy! “Work hard and we won’t make you drive over potholes.”
Downtown Houston is solid for walkers, with its wide and plentiful sidewalks/crosswalks. Outside of the homeless encounters, you’ll be able to enjoy a brisk pace around the area. Though, watch out for the summer when the sun will radiate off of the ground and burn you up in quick fashion.
That’s where the Downtown Tunnels come into play. It’s an underground walkway system that connects the majority of the office buildings downtown. Full of quick dining options and a few convenience stores, this tunnel system was created for the downtown workers who needed to get around the area without breaking a sweat during the work day. It closes around 6 p.m., so it’s not a huge amenity after dark.
As for avid bicyclists, Downtown Houston provides level roads and is adding more bike lanes every year. It’s a relatively safe area to jump on your two wheels and get around without supporting the oil company you work for. Especially during the weekend, you’ll likely be one of the few people on the streets, so it’s even more peaceful.
Downtown Houston in Three Words: Convenient, Quiet, Cabin Fever
Let’s be clear, I only listed ‘convenient’ if you’re living AND working in downtown. If you’re living downtown and have to commute to The Galleria/Uptown area each morning, I feel bad for you. That’s a dumb decision. Simply trying to drive your way out of downtown is hell. You’ll be battling traffic twice a day and not getting max value for your money. Just go live near Uptown. Way smarter.
Now, let’s define ‘quiet.’ During the day, downtown is buzzing with activity, but not all over. For the most part, above ground foot traffic is limited to the Central Skyline District (15 square blocks) along Main/Travis. Everyone else is in the tunnels doing the rat race. The vast majority of downtown street level walkways remain empty. And when 5 p.m./weekends roll around, downtown is a relative ghost town. The only two areas that have any amount of people would be Market Square Park (two acres) and Discovery Green which is a solid 12 acre public space.
Could you spend a week living in downtown and not leave the area? Sure, but I don’t know why you would. Personally, cabin fever would set in for me real quick. You’re going to miss you on the best which Houston has to offer. Downtown has it’s perks, but is still coming into its own as a residential destination. At this point, it still seems forced and not like a natural neighborhood vibe. That will take time.
What downtown lacks in authenticity, it makes up for in efficient transport.
You’ll be able to take advantage of the MetroRAIL, which travels through the most busy streets of downtown and through the Avenida Houston Convention District, where the George R. Brown Convention Center is located.
Just like all of Houston, the Metro Bus system has many stops downtown and is the main form of transport for office workers looking to save some gas money.
Additionally, taxi and ride-share services are bountiful and quick, as downtown has a wealth of hotels that are filled with business travelers that are smart enough to not rent a car and park it in a garage for like $20 a day.
As mentioned above, walking and biking is pretty simple in the area, so we’ll leave that as an optional mode of transport because Houston is HOT like 8 months out of the year.
Free Things To Do
I know I haven’t cut downtown a lot of slack, but I’ll say that Discovery Green is the shining star of this neighborhood. Located near the convention center, the city did a fantastic job of turning a wide roadway and parking lot into a true oasis. With a playground for the kids, a dog park, performance stage, tons of greenery (duh), a couple of restaurants, and free events almost daily, Discovery Green is a legit place to escape the hustle of downtown and unwind close to it all. I especially am a fan of their temporary art installations that change every few months and are some of the most extravagant I’ve experienced.
Market Square Park
If you’re living close to the Skyline District, Market Square Park is a solid little amenity to enjoy. It’s definitely not as baller as Discovery Green, but provides a bit of a respite from the daily grind and offers your pup some area to stretch their legs. There are some free events that Downtown District puts on here, like free movie or bingo nights, but not to the scale of some of the larger city parks. This is definitely a neighborhood park and not a destination.
Julia Ideson Library
Named for the first Head Librarian of the Houston Public Library, this building is a true work of art… and is said to be haunted. Apparently, a library caretaker and his dog roam the halls of the institution and I guess unfold the dog-eared pages in the books? Either way, the library has some pretty cool Spanish-style architecture and is a registered historic landmark. A good place to get some (more) peace and quiet in downtown.
Downtown Houston Tunnel System
As I mentioned above, the downtown tunnel system is a welcomed amenity during the hot summer months in Houston. It also connects some of the most historic buildings downtown, such as the JP Morgan Chase building, which was the first public space with air conditioning in the city. The architecture of the bank in the lobby is absolutely stunning and reminds you of an old timey bank like you’ve seen in the movies. But yeah, the tunnels are cool, I guess. There’s a bunch of fast casual and fast food options. Nothing special, but its free to roam. And, one portion of the tunnels is space-themed. Ayyye!
Don’t get it twisted – the great majority of dining options in Downtown Houston are there to serve the office crowd for the busy lunch hour. There are a bunch of chain restaurants, especially in the tunnels and near the GRB (convention center). Though, downtown is home to a few mostly legit food halls that have sprung up since 2019. There are a few bright spots that you should know about:
Frank’s Pizza – $
This article would be incomplete without a mention of downtown’s OG pizza-by-the-slice purveyor. Located just off of Market Square Park, Frank’s is where the lunch and late-night crowd converge. It’s a tiny space with maybe 15 tables, but the vibe is just like out of the lower east side of NYC. The pizza is not the best of your lifetime, but definitely good enough and the service is pretty solid. There’s nothing like leaving franks with a steaming triangle of cheesyness and eating it on the sidewalk outside.
MKT Bar – $$
Located inside downtown’s sole grocery store – Phoenicia – MKT Bar is a solid option for burgers, sandwiches, Mediterranean fare, and several beers on tap. Again, mainly lunch focused like the rest of downtown. Just a block away from Discovery Green, this spot has live music a few times a week, fresh gelato, and is a great place to chill back after overpaying for groceries because you’re too lazy to get in your car and drive to a legit supermarket. The menu options are nothing to write home about, but definitely of fair quality and accessible.
Finn Hall $$
Houston’s food hall scene was definitely a late-bloomer when you compare it to the other large cities in America, and is still developing. The first food hall to open, and probably the most well appointed one, was Finn Hall. With its European vibe and seven diverse restaurants featuring upmarket burgers, pizza, Chinese fare, fried chicken and tacos, this is the by far the busiest of the three food halls in the area. At lunch time, good luck getting a table; though, if you’re going for dinner, you’ll easily find a spot to sit. Why? Because downtown is dead at night! You should know this by now.
Located inside of the Marriott Marquis, you’ll find James Beard winner Hugo Ortega’s fancy feast restaurant, Xochi. This upscale take on traditional foods of Mexico doesn’t take itself too seriously, and has a pretty fair priced lunch menu starting at $12 for an entrée. Dinner gets a bit more pricey and starts around $18. What really gets me excited about this spot is it’s ambiance. It’s not like a typical hotel restaurant and you actually feel like you been transported to Oaxaca. Definitely try out their happy hour, starting at $7 for signature drinks, which is kind of unheard of in downtown.
Looking to blow the budget and feel like you’re summering in Amalfi? Potente is your best option. Opened by Houston Astros owner Jim Crane, this Italian restaurant is located just a block away from Minute Maid Park and has become a crowd favorite for those dining in downtown. Their take on the classic cacio y pepe has been instagrammed like thousands of times, as it’s served in a fried parmesan bowl and topped with a healthy serving of, you guessed it, more parmesan. #ComfortFood. Dinner will run you about $150/couple with drinks, so don’t forget your purse.
As we’ve learned, compared to the surrounding neighborhoods, Downtown is not a place for legit nightlife. First, you have to pay to park anywhere. Second, getting in and out of downtown is only made worse by late-night drivers. Finally, Main Street has like six-seven bars which is the extent of your options, with the exception of one infamous spot I’ll note below.
Probably my favorite spot downtown for drinks, La Carafe is like the one place that didn’t try to go all trendy once the area started becoming more residential. This bar is no-frills, and the prices show it. With beer and wine starting at $6 a glass, you can’t go wrong. But really, the vibe is what sells it. You walk in through a wooden door, to a bar adorning half-burnt candles and dripping wax, historic wooden beams, and cigarette smoke from the 1970’s. It’s the closest thing to a dive bar that you’ll find in downtown and is so not what you would expect. There’s also a concrete patio to the side. Again, no frills. Great prices. Go!
Located right on Main Street, Dean’s has some personality. This pawn shop turned bar is 100% classic Houston and the living room of downtown. With eclectic furniture, a refined wine bar atmosphere, and a long, 20-seat watering hole, you’ll definitely feel right at home. Personally, indoor string lights always garner my favor and the friendly bar staff is the cherry on top. Dean’s Downtown is the place you randomly find someone talking about on Reddit and then you realize that it’s the most comfortable bar in town. This is one of the very few places downtown that I’d pay to park my car to visit. That says something.
Now, for the infamous Spire. Hip-hop concert afterparty? Spire. Sparkly bottle service birthday? Spire. Covid-19? Spire.
Did I just explain it all? Maybe, but I’ll go a little deeper. This place is ratchet. Located in southwest downtown, Spire is right at the edge of Midtown where you’ll find a huge homeless population. So imagine this: girls in short skirts waiting outside of a club in the middle of the night, with homeless dudes walking all about, right next to the most dangerous McDonald’s in the city (see: Murder McDonald’s.) I don’t even know what more to say. They have the craziest parties here and it’s a hotspot for celebrities after a concert at Toyota Center. Enjoy.
Taco Street – Downtown Houston
Let’s just get this out of the way: There is no way you’re gonna find a taco truck in Downtown Houston. Period. Here are some of your top options in the area.
The Best: Tacos A Go-Go
This creative taco spot is located in the tunnels and features the classics and more inventive offerings like the famous Tater Taco. Yes, it’s a taco with tater tots in it. It somehow works really well. My recommendation: one shrimp taco, one tater taco, and then load up on fixings from their self-serve salsa bar. Oh, and they’ve got solid vegetarian options like the Cauliflower Taco. lol, yes. If you don’t want to venture into the tunnels, you can visit their other location in nearby Midtown. It’s right along the MetroRAIL, so pretty easy to get there.
Your Taco Spot: La Calle
Looking for your new neighborhood taco shop? La Calle is the one. Open at 7am and closing at 2am, this colorful little taco spot will be available for most of the hours that you’re awake. Located alongside Market Square Park, take my advice and grab some delish birra tacos, an order of elote, and wash it all down with a glass of horchata as you avoid making eye contact with the homeless dude that always sits on the corner outside. It’s a Houston thing.
Convenient: Lone Star Taco Co.
Hey, don’t blame me when you got to Lone Star Taco Co. and complain when it’s just a basic ass taco. I filed it under ‘convenient’ for a reason. Since it’s located right on Main Street, in the thick of the office buildings, its nothing more than some ingredients quickly wrapped in a store bought tortilla and sprinkled with some sauce – I can’t even call it salsa. Half the time, the cheese in the breakfast tacos isn’t even melted. They also have nachos. Try it if you want… if you dare. It’s close by.
A Day in the Life
Downtown is weird. It’s very convenient in some ways, but they totally missed the mark on some essential services that any resident of the area would need.
Let’s start with groceries. I kid you not, the only options in all of downtown is a CVS, a Walgreens and one okay-sized grocery store, Phoenicia. Phoenicia is cool because they have a ton of ready made foods and a shawarma counter, but their fresh fruits and vegetable selection is quite limited. They also stock a huge selection of beers, wines, and Mediterranean goods, but their frozen section is like a half-empty two door cooler. Really, your best option of groceries is to travel a mile east to the nearest Randalls in Midtown. It’s a bit homeless on the way, so I wouldn’t recommend walking there.
Looking for something farm fresh? The only farmers market downtown takes place weekly on Wednesdays and it’s only at lunch time, at Hermann Square outside of City Hall.
The footprint is big, but it’s mostly ready made items that you can eat for lunch. Not actual produce. And, if it’s raining or there’s a pandemic? No farmers market for you, baby.
As we proceed, there are like two dry cleaners, no self-serve laundromat, one gas station which is barely even in downtown, and one gym that isn’t inside of an office building.
Looking to do something in your leisure time? Discovery Green is pretty cool, but once you walk a block away in any direction, it can get choppy safety wise – especially at night. Pretty creepy.
Want to do a Sunday Funday? You’re in luck – Main Street has some people till like 3 p.m., and then it dies down. You’re better off going to Montrose or Midtown to celebrate the pre-monday festivities.
The Verdict on Downtown
Close to work (if applicable)
METRO Rail Access
Close to performing arts and sports venues
Traffic during the day
No cohesive dining scene
Weekends/evenings are desolate
When it comes down to it, Downtown Houston is and will remain the primary business district of Houston. With more office buildings on the rise, you can expect a few more residential buildings coming in to support the growing demand for a place to call home close to work; though, don’t expect them to be the most amazing apartments in the city. Downtown Houston is about efficiency, not glamour.
Working long hours at your downtown office? Move downtown. Want to live close to one of the most acclaimed theater districts in the US? Move downtown. Love chain steakhouses for a power lunch and for dinner, too? Move downtown. Season ticket holder of the Astros/Rockets? Move downtown.
Want a holistic Houston experience? Don’t move downtown. You have better options just just 1-2 miles away in Montrose, The Heights, and Washington Corridor.
On the fence about this area still? I was saving one little tidbit for situations just like this – Buffalo Bayou Park and Trails. This 160 acre park is located along the eastern edge of Downtown Houston and has some of Houston’s most frolic-worthy greenspaces as well as a 2+ mile trail for jogging and biking. With picturesque views of the skyline around every corner, BBP is home to two of Houston’s most unique annual events: the Art Car Parade and Buffalo Bayou Regatta – both are a must-do in my books.
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