Houston is a fast-moving, thriving city of commerce, but it’s also steeped in history, art, and culture. H-Town is home to such a collection of unique, fascinating museums that it really ought to be on your wish list. Read on for your guide to the 10 best museums in Houston.
A holiday to America’s Space City just isn’t complete without a visit to the NASA Johnson Space Center, one of Houston’s best museums. The center’s exhibitions are jam-packed with flown spacecraft and scientific artifacts, including the largest collection of space suits in the world.
Here, you can discover 50 years of space exploration through immersive experiences and extensive collections. There are plenty of things to do at the center, from practicing your space flying in the replica Space Shuttle to experiencing life onboard the International Space Station. There’s even an opportunity to join the Mars Mission, where you can touch Mars rock and experience a virtual Martian sunset! There’s no better place to find out about humankind’s quest to explore the Red Planet.
Have you ever been on a tour of a working NASA facility? Hop onto the tram for a behind-the-scenes peek at the NASA Johnson Space Center. You’ll see the astronauts’ training facility as well as the Saturn V rocket that launched the successful Moon mission in 1969.
Don’t miss the chance to carry out your own countdown to lift-off at the Apollo Mission Control Center. Just make sure you book in advance to secure your slot.
The Menil Collection – Your Free Pass to a World of Art
The Menil Collection is a treasure trove of art from almost every epoch. From medieval masterpieces and Byzantine brilliance to modern and contemporary works, as well as indigenous and non-Western art, this is a cultural stash to dive into with enthusiasm and an open mind. There’s also one of the most important collections of Surrealist art in the world to wrap your head around. And the best part of all? It’s completely free!
When collectors John and Dominique Menil gifted their eclectic cornucopia to the city of Houston, they did so with one condition: that entry must always be free. And so it is that one of Houston’s best museums is also its best free museum.
There are highlights for every era, locality, and artform at the Menil Collection; so much that it’s difficult to pick favorites. Trail-blazing architect Renzo Piano designed the building for Cy Twombly’s works. Max Ernst and the Surrealist Collection is another must-visit, and don’t miss Magritte’s thought-provoking The Treachery of Images, better known as Ceci ce n’est pas un pipe.
Don’t be mistaken in thinking that free means you don’t have to book; booking is essential. And remember that the Menil is open Wednesday to Sunday only.
Don’t miss the Rothko Chapel with its 14 Rothko paintings, which are so large they had to be lowered into the chapel through its skylight.
It’s hard to convey just how much there is to see at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. It’s one of Houston’s best museums, boasting 17 permanent exhibitions spanning five floors. You could easily spend an entire day here so planning your visit is essential if you want to see the top picks.
Little ones will love the dinosaurs, including the monstrous sea crocodile. Beauty lovers should check out the miniatures in the McFerrin Faberge Collection; the aquamarine and diamond Grand Duchess Tiara dates back to 1904.
Wildlife from Africa to Texas also get their moment in the spotlight in dioramas and interactive displays.
Don’t miss the chance to get up close and personal with a bison – you wouldn’t want to do this in the wild!
Children’s Museum Houston – Big Fun for Little Minds
Fun learning doesn’t come much cooler than the Children’s Museum Houston. The exhibits are all designed with innovative, child-centered learning in mind – and that translates to a great day out for kids.
Youngsters will love exploring and learning through interactive games and adventures. There’s a wide variety of enthralling activities, and enquiring minds will love the Inventors’ Workshop, while creative imaginations run free in the Maker Annex. The Kids’ Hall with its art and culture exhibitions will be a big hit with budding travellers.
Bear in mind that this is one of Houston’s top museums, so it can get busy. Try going early or late to beat the crowds. And grab a break with a visit to the Fresh Cafe where you’ll find plenty of healthy options along with the usual fast favorites.
Don’t miss a visit to Cyberspace! Enter via a space portal and join the Cybersquad as you solve puzzles to save the world.
Aquariums have changed a lot in the last few years. The Downtown Aquarium Houston is very far from the dark, dank spaces of yesteryear; this is no run-of-the-mill traditional aquarium. Here, the fish and marine creatures live in authentic environments. Alligators prowl the Texas Bayou, red-bellied piranha and venomous stingrays plunge through rainforest rivers, and comical clownfish weave around a 17th-century shipwreck.
Sunken temples and shipwrecks add extra color to the blue depths. There’s even an offshore rig where you can see the aquarium’s own divers.
Don’t miss the train ride through the 200,000-gallon shark tank. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to come face to face with a shark, here’s your chance to find out.
The National Museum of Funerary History – Dignifying the Dead
You might well be thinking that visiting the National Museum of Funerary History isn’t a very holiday-ish thing to do. And let’s be honest, it certainly isn’t the place for a riotous day out. Yet we all understand the importance of funerals in honoring the dead, and this fascinating history museum in Houston brings that to, well, life.
The museum’s extensive collection of funeral service items includes hearses, coffins, and caskets. The brightly painted Ghanaian coffins are especially interesting. Designed to capture the essence of the departed, the coffins on display range from a leopard to a KLM airliner. There’s even one in the shape of a shallot. For a chef, perhaps?
Special exhibits examine the particular funeral cultures of China and Japan – and New Orleans with its distinctive jazz funerals. Authentic 19th-century mourning clothing illustrates how private grief became public mourning, and historical news reports take you back to the time of presidential funerals.
If you’re keen to see a joyous celebration of life, look no further than the colorful displays of The Day of the Dead. Full-scale models of a Mexican home and a graveyard decorated for the Dia de los Muertos show this Meso-American tradition in its multi-colored glory. This is a totally unique space, and one of the best museums in Houston.
Don’t miss the multimedia, immersive Papal funerals exhibit – the museum worked with the Vatican for more than three years to produce this authentic display.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston – Antiquities, Art, and Sculpture Galore
Art collections don’t come much bigger than this. Around 70,000 works spanning 6,000 years of history from six continents make up the collection of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFA). From antiquities and American paintings to film and photography, it all adds up to the 12th-largest art museum in the world, and unquestionably one of Houston’s best museums.
The European painting highlights read like a roll-call of iconic Western artists: Rembrandt, Goya, Monet, Matisse, Picasso. Happily, the museum also gives overdue attention to fine art and sculpture from Africa, Asia, and the Islamic World. The acclaimed post-World War II Latin American collection benefits from recent acquisitions.
Museum regulars and casual visitors alike may feel overwhelmed by choice, so do your research and design your own visit. Focus on three or four particular collections or take in a few highlights – as long as you don’t mind a long walk; the collection spans several buildings.
Don’t forget to delve into the arty items at the MFA Shop. One of the top museums in Houston has one of the coolest museum shops, and it’s free to visit in case you want to return to do some extra souvenir shopping later.
Don’t miss the collection of Indigenous North American Art, which includes ceramics, sculptures, textiles, masks, and silver jewelry dating as far back as 2000 BC.
The Health Museum – Home of the Bicycling Skeleton
Health and medical science come to life through innovative exhibits at Houston’s Health Museum. Biology, human anatomy, viruses, and epidemics are all showcased here. There’s never been a better time to visit Outbreak: Epidemics In A Connected World. Here you can explore connections between human, animal, and environmental health. Could you have spotted Covid-19? Check your newfound knowledge with games and see if you can identify and contain the emerging outbreak.
Worth the small extra charge, the DeBakey Cell Lab is a child’s scientific paradise. Dressing up in full lab gear, little ones can visit lab stations, see experiments and learn about cellular biology. There’s loads more interesting learning in short films at the McGovern Theatre too. But check the listings first: 30 minutes of brain dissection isn’t everyone’s idea of fun.
Over at The Amazing Body Gallery, the secrets of the human body are revealed in huge detail. There aren’t many places you can see a 22-foot backbone and a 12-foot-tall beating heart.
Don’t miss the bicycling skeleton; part educational, part weird, and totally hilarious.
Buffalo Soldier National Museum: The African-American Military Experience
If your only knowledge of Buffalo Soldiers is the Bob Marley song – and even if it isn’t – this is the museum for you. The Buffalo Soldiers were the first Black professional soldiers to serve in the US army. They included former slaves and Civil War veterans serving in six dedicated all-African-American units created in 1866. This museum honors and celebrates their amazing contribution to American military history.
The collection traces African-American military history from the Civil War in 1770 to the Gulf War in 2000. The variety of displays provides an insight into a buffalo soldier’s life, from the everyday tools in the ‘Technology Wall’ to historical uniforms showing the dress development over the years. And clever curation reveals the hidden history of the first female buffalo soldier, Cathay Williams, a cook who served for two years under the name William Cathay.
This is one of Houston’s top history museums and one of the best Black history museums in the United States, providing an unparalleled insight into the African-American military experience. In the age of BLM, honoring the contribution of African-Americans to the defense of the nation has never felt more important.
Don’t miss the modern-day Buffalo Soldiers exhibit honoring NASA, recognized because they too are pioneering and “charting the unknown”.
The Lone Star Flight Museum – Your Boarding Pass to Aviation History
Historically significant aircraft and aerospace artifacts make this a great visit for flying enthusiasts. Flying machines from biplanes to a Soviet MiG-17 provide an insight into the history of flight. You’ll see a host of WWII-era planes, including the Republic P-47D Thunderbolt fighter bomber and the Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress. These vintage warbirds were crucial to the success of the Allies.
What makes this one of the best museums in Houston is that many of these planes are flightworthy, and can be booked ahead. For a ground-level adrenaline rush, visit on a Saturday and enjoy a virtual trip in a flight simulator in The Flight Academy, where 27 hands-on exhibits introduce visitors to the foundations of flight and aircraft design. For those wary of the real thing, the two hang-glider simulators provide an immersive experience.
Don’t miss the Douglas A-1 Skyraider; these single-seater attack aircraft were in service from 1946 to the early 1980s.