In a handy neck of the woods between Houston and the North Barrier Coast, Pasadena (Texas) is close to the big bay-side landmarks like the Johnson Space Center and San Jacinto Battleground, but also a quick ride from Houston’s downtown and museums.
Pasadena is one for people who can see the beauty in heavy industry, as manufacturing, maritime shipping, gas refinement and oil-drilling all drive the city’s economy: You can cruise the monumental Port of Houston, chill on the Gulf of Mexico’s sandy beaches or see the very best of Houston, all within a short trip.
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Pasadena!
1. Space Center Houston
This may be obvious but the Johnson Space Center is the “Houston” that astronauts address in movies, and is only a few minutes from Pasadena.
It’s impossible not to be inspired by the attraction’s hardware, counting capsules, astronaut trainers, a command module and one of the Saturn V rockets that powered the Apollo missions into space from 1966 to 1973.
Don’t miss the Northrop Grumman Theater, showing the mind-blowing large format movies, Inside the Space Station and To Be an Astronaut.
Another artefact or the ages is the very lectern from which JFK declared his ambition for America to land on the moon in 1962.
2. Port of Houston
Reserve in advance to embark on a free tour of one of the world’s largest and busiest container ports, with 7,700 ship calls every year.
The trip on the M/V Houston will take 90 minutes and on the voyage you’ll watch the comings and goings at the Turning Basin Terminal, getting informed commentary from boat’s experienced staff.
The tour boat has been operating since 1958, recently upgraded with hi-tech, low-emission engines.
You can stay in the air-conditioned cabin, or step on deck to marvel at the scale of the operation, including the 50-mile man-made Houston Ship Channel.
3. San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site
Next to the Buffalo Bayou is the site of the pivotal battle of the Texas Revolution when the Texans defeated the Mexican Army, forcing their surrender and retreat.
The San Jacinto monument is more than 100 metres high and you take an elevator to the top for vistas of Houston and Galveston Bay.
The museum here will give you a bit of insight about Texas’ 400 years of history.
Another marquee attraction at the park is USS Texas, a New York-class Battleship commissioned in 1914 and permanently moored at San Jacinto State Park in 1948.
4. Armand Bayou Nature Center
You won’t find a bigger urban nature preserve in the United States, and it’s just a few minutes down from Pasadena.
The ecosystem in the this 2,500 acre park consists of woods and marshland, easily navigable via boardwalks. At regular stops you’ll encounter interpretation signs that inform about the terrain and at one point you’ll enter the grounds of a farm that once stood here in the 1800s.
Wildlife abounds in the park despite the proximity to the city, and 370 animal species make a habitat at Armand Bayou.
On the 2nd and 4th Saturdays of the month you can also hop into a canoe for a guided educational 2.5-mile paddle.
5. Heritage Park & Museum
To get a sense of the location and its past you can pop to this museum with several Victorian-era homes belonging to the wealthy local Pomeroy and Parks families who made their fortune drilling for oil and gas.
You’ll see displays that set out the events leading up to the Battle of San Jacinto and how the area that is now Pasadena had an important role in creating a free Texas.
There’s also a water-drilling rig on display dating back to the early-1900s.
6. Houston Museum of Natural Science
Few American museums get more annual visitors than the HMNS, which was founded as a free attraction for the people of Houston in 1909.
It’s a massive complex with a variety of sub-buildings branching off a central facility four floors-high, full of exhibits recounting the history of Earth and the universe.
If you’re curious about natural science you’ll need as much as a day to get through the extensive permanent and temporary displays, but among the highlights are the dinosaur exhibit, 18-metre-long Foucault pendulum and the Cockrell Sundial, one of the largest in the world.
7. Museum of Fine Arts Houston
Easily one of Houston’s must-see attractions, the collections at Houston’s premier art museum are massive.
There are 64,000 pieces in the collection dating from as early as 3000 BC to the 21st century and curated from all corners of the globe.
A real joy is the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden, in the open air and dominated by works by Matisse, Miro and Alexander Calder.
There’s always some exciting to see in the temporary exhibitions, while on permanent display are paintings by impressionists like Monet, Renoir and the Old Masters Hans Memling and Canaletto.
8. Houston Zoo
Invested in more than a dozen local and international conservation projects, Houston Zoo is an animal attraction with the right values.
This makes it a perfect day out for kids to learn about the natural world and go face-to-face with their favourite animals.
College sports fans may know the cougar, Shasta VI as the University of Houston’s mascot and she’s kept at the zoo. Shasta is joined by 6,000 other animals of 900 different species.
Zones at the zoo include an African Forest, Aquarium, Reptile & Amphibian House as well as a children’s zoo with exhibits geared towards young minds. Best of all here is the petting zoo with docile farmyard animals.
9. Children’s Museum of Houston
To make your kids’ day you could follow up the zoo with a trip to this great museum, also in the city’s Museum District.
It’s an attraction that encourages children to get active, use arithmetic, think logically and be creative, all the while having a whale of a time.
Take Kidtropolis where kids will get to run their own city, filling jobs, voting for a mayor and deciding which laws to pass.
At the Inventors’ Workshop kids will find out how the invention process works and how mishaps can be a big part of creativity.
10. JP Morgan Chase Tower
You can’t ignore the tallest building in the state of Texas, which thanks to its unusual design also happens to be the tallest five-sided building in the world.
If you drop by during business hours you can take elevator up to 60th floor for the best view of the Houston skyline, all for free.
Everything up on the observation deck is set up to give you the best possible panorama; the ceiling is four metres up and the glass panes are extra-wide.
In the lobby downstairs take a moment to admire the Personage with Birds sculpture by the 20th-century artist Joan Miro.
11. Discovery Green
In the middle of Houston’s downtown is Discovery Green, a thoroughly modern city park completed in 2008.
It’s the main outdoor public performance venue in the city and its impact on the streets around is alleviated by the park’s own huge underground car park.
Together with the Discovery Green’s performance stages are an array of gardens and lawns, and a jogging trail under a leafy canopy and a promenade for family walks.
Kinder Lake is a one-acre body of water served by the Lakeside Cafe, while the Gateway Fountain is a large water feature that kids can splash around in on hot days.
12. Houston Galleria
If there’s an item you need or if you want a dose of retail therapy, you can be sure that the Galleria has what you’re after.
The shopping centre a little way west of the Downtown is epic in scale and does roaring trade: The department stores at this mall are busier and make more sales than any other in the city.
There are 375 stores and services spread across four floors, so it won’t be hard to lose track of time here.
The mall is part of a mixed complex with office towers, which means there’s a great choice eateries to serve the professionals that come down every day for lunch.
With the port so close Pasadena has a bit of an industrial atmosphere, so if you feel like some nature and a day at the beach you’ll be pleased to know you won’t need to travel far.
Surfside Beach is a sparsely-developed, small-town resort with a long and gentle arc of soft pale sand.
The beach is washed by low rolling waves and behind the sands are dunes and wetlands that provide a home for an assortment of birds like Great White Egrets.
For a bit of adventure you could hire a canoe and set off on a paddle through the swamps of the nearby Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge.
Closer than Surfside, Kemah has more of a family-friendly resort feel. It’s a favourite getaway for Houston locals who come for some seaside fun and dining.
You could catch the Boardwalk Beast, a high-speed motorboat for a thrilling ride through Galveston Bay or stay on dry land via the road train that trundles along the boardwalk to the delight of toddlers and young children.
The fishing in Kemah is also great and there are stores selling and renting gear. Large numbers of trout, red drum and croakers populate the bay’s waters.
Set on two barrier islands separated from the mainland by the West Bay, Galveston is a self-contained holiday destination bringing together endless beaches, nightlife and amusements.
It’s got some history too, in the form of the Strand National Historic Landmark District, five blocks of quaint shops, bars and restaurants.
No attraction outstrips the Schlitterbahn, a water park full of cutting-edge rides like the Cliffhanger that drops 30 metres, sending you plummeting towards the splash pool at 40 mph, or Guada Loopy, a more serene choice that twists along a 100-metre course.