Houston, the destination for Super Bowl 51 on Feb. 5, 2017, is also a major cultural capital as well as an oil, space, medical and food capital. The Bayou City boasts world-class opera, ballet, symphony and theater companies. Plus, Houston's Museum District alone has 19 different museums within several blocks, ranging from fine and contemporary arts to surrealism, science, African American culture and the Holocaust. Public art also abounds in Houston's many parks.
So, if you're planning to visit Houston with a Super Bowl fan but you aren't a football aficionado, you can still enjoy an abundance of can't-miss cultural attractions. Here's your definitive guide to the city's must-see hot spots and experiences, from flourishing arts and food scenes to pro sports arenas and beyond.
Houston Grand Opera
The world-renowned Houston Grand Opera is the only opera company that has won three of the top awards -- a Tony, plus two Grammys and two Emmys. It's one of America's few opera companies that commissions and produces new works, including some 60 world premieres. In December, the Houston Grand Opera presented an operatic version of the 1946 classic "It's a Wonderful Life," the company's third commission for top American composer Jake Heggie. In March 2017, the Houston Grand Opera is set to present the world premiere of "Some Light Emerges" by another major American composer, Laura Kaminsky, inspired by Houston's Rothko Chapel. The company's Tony and one of its Grammys was for its production of George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess."
The Houston Ballet, like the Houston Grand Opera, is another inventive company. It has created ballets based on classics such as "Dracula" and "Cleopatra." The troupe has been heralded as "one of the nation's best ballet companies" by The New York Times. In true Texas style, the Houston Ballet is housed in America's largest professional dance facility, the Houston Ballet Center for Dance, in the heart of the city's Theater District.
The Alley Theatre
The Alley Theatre, named for the little alley where it began 70 years ago, now has two stages and a massive 75,000-square-foot Alley Theatre Production Center downtown. The Center, one of the country's largest such facilities, recently completed a major $46.5 million renovation. Visit the center from Feb. 2-12, while in town for the Super Bowl, and enjoy the free "Alley All New Festival." It features fascinating new works, including Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega in her musical "Lover, Beloved," about renowned Southern writer Carson McCullers. Such innovative programs show that The Alley is continuing its long record of excellence, recognized by winning the Tony Award for outstanding regional theatre in 1996.
The Houston Symphony also has a reputation for innovation. In 2016, it concluded the world premiere of its three-part "HD Odyssey," with the films "The Earth," "The Planets" and "The Cosmos" set to Dvorak's "Symphony No. 9," better-known as the "New World Symphony." The orchestra, led by music director Andrés Orozco-Estrada, also has a "Classic Rock Weekend" as well as classical works like Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf," narrated by Oscar-winning actor Ben Kingsley that opened the 2016-2017 season. On Super Bowl eve, superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma returns to play with the celebrated orchestra.
Houston has an entire Museum District, encompassing 19 museums within just 17 square blocks. Highlights of the district's arts offerings are the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and one of the world's finest displays of surrealism works at the Menil Collection that also includes the Rothko Chapel. The small but moving Holocaust Museum Houston and the Houston Museum of African American Culture are just two examples of the many diverse offerings within this district. In the Houston Museum of Natural Science, you can stroll through a tropical rainforest amid 60 species of fluttering butterflies in the Butterfly Center, and roam beneath behemoth skeletons of a Tyrannosaurus rex and fellow Quetzalcoatlus dinosaur in the Paleontology Hall. And at The Health Museum of the world-renowned Texas Medical Center, take a hands-on walk-through of the human body.
Unique, Under-the-Radar Museums
Venture outside the district and see some of Houston's more unusual museums. Only about 3 miles from the district is The Heritage Society, where you can tour 10 original historic structures dating from 1823 to 1905. They range from an 1823 frontier cedar log cabin to elegant mid-18th-century mansions and a cottage that had been in Freedmen's Town Historic District, the hub of black culture post-Emancipation. Learn more about early Houston life in its museum gallery. Other unique spots are the "Garage Mahal," the Art Car Museum and the National Museum of Funeral History, with a "Celebrating the Lives and Deaths of Popes" exhibit.
Meanwhile, the American Cowboy Museum focuses on the concept of "Cowboys and Indians." Some "cowboys" were women and some were even Native Americans, as well as African Americans, Hispanics and other minorities. Learn how they all contributed to developing America's western heritage. The co-founders are African-American mother-daughter "cowboys," Mollie Stevenson, Sr. and Mollie Stevenson, Jr.
Space Center Houston
If you don't consider yourself to be a culture vulture or a football fanatic, consider tapping into space exploration. At Space Center Houston, you can take a tram tour of the NASA Johnson Space Center and get a behind-the-scenes look at what gave Houston its "Space City" nickname. You can meet a real astronaut and even watch them train. The Space Center's new Independence Plaza exhibit complex is the only place in the world where you can enter a space shuttle replica resting on top of the giant, original NASA shuttle carrier aircraft. Experience what it's like to live aboard the International Space Station.
With all these cultural attractions and far more, Houston sure does deserve its nickname as the Capital of the Sunbelt.
Marsha Dubrow is a freelance writer and editor specializing in travel and the arts. She has contributed to U.S. News Travel since 2015. She has been a Correspondent for Reuters, Life, People and other U.S. and British media. She edits for the National Archives and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. She earned her M.F.A. in Writing and Literature at Bennington College, which published her book "Single Blessedness." She is writing a book about her experiences as a woman breaking into journalism in 1968. Follow her on Twitter @MarshaDubrow.