HOUSTON — In the sprawling expanse of the nation’s fourth-largest city, you don’t need a bank account as big as Houston native Beyonce’s to have a good time. There’s a lot of Texas-size fun to be had for less than $20.
Before you go, there are two things to know:
Rent a car — it’s the only logical way to navigate a metropolitan area that’s larger than Rhode Island.
Pack your shorts to tolerate the 90-degree-plus summer temperatures and stifling humidity.
Museum choices abound here, and it’s easy to jump from place to place in the city’s museum district, home to 15 museums within walking distance of one another.
Drop in at the Houston Museum of Natural Science — www.hmns.org after 2 p.m. Tuesdays, when admission is free. (It’s still a bargain on other days, at $6, $3.50 for children 3 to 11.)
Check out the “Lord of the Rings” exhibit (through Aug. 28), which has 650 pieces of memorabilia from the movie, including costumes worn by the trilogy’s main characters.
Before you leave, drop in at the Cockrell Butterfly Center, a three-story glass-enclosed structure that houses more than 2,000 of the world’s largest and most colorful butterflies.
Watch rambunctious children morph into living statues as they stand motionless, hoping to entice a butterfly to land on them. If you’re looking for a reprieve from the sweltering humidity, move on, because the rain-forest atmosphere inside can be just as bad.
Baseball fans will love the “Baseball as America” exhibit, featuring items from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, through Aug. 14 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (www.mfah.org). See it on a Thursday, and you can marvel for free over a plethora of memorabilia that includes a section on Lone Star State baseball greats.
Finish your day at the Children’s Museum of Houston — www.cmhouston.org — free from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursdays. The fun-filled spot gives youngsters plenty of chances to learn while doing, and no trip there is complete without a stop at the paint-your-own-face station on the way out.
Home to more than 3,000 animals, the Houston Zoo — www.houstonzoo.org — is $8.50 for adults and $4 for children, and it’s free on holidays. Don’t miss the Asian elephants and a crowd-pleasing sea lion show.
After a long day of museum-hopping, take a seat at the nearby — and free — Miller Outdoor Theatre, www.milleroutdoortheatre.com. The venue features a wide assortment of plays, live music, dance and movies. Some performances require tickets for the covered seating area, so check the Web site before you go to get the best seats.
Houston’s acclaimed Theatre Under the Stars — www.tuts.com — hosts an annual free show. This summer’s show, “The Music Man,” closes tonight.
More theater action can be found at the Alley Theatre — www.alleytheatre.org — where select tickets to shows on Sunday and Tuesday evenings are just $19. This summer’s performances include “Deathtrap” and “Spider’s Web.”
Jazz aficionados shouldn’t miss Scott Gertner’s Skybar on the penthouse level of 3400 Montrose Blvd., which often features live music from international jazz musicians in a sophisticated atmosphere with killer views of the Houston skyline. You can dance under the stars on its 3,000-square-foot terrace, where women often pay no cover and men typically are charged $10.
Make sure to go downtown. It’s the site of a recent revitalization project, and clubs and bars are plentiful. You can find a spot for almost any musical taste, and cover charges are almost universally reasonable.
Jump on a 95-foot-long boat at the Port of Houston and enjoy a free 90-minute cruise along the Houston Ship Channel. Watch the international cargo ships travel through one of the nation’s busiest ports. Morning and afternoon tours are offered each day except Monday, but make reservations online at https://boattours.poha.com/boattour to ensure a spot.
Catch some sun at Memorial Park, called the largest urban park in the state. The park — almost 1,500 acres in the middle of the city — includes a three-mile running course, a golf course, tennis courts and swimming pools.
See native plants, animals and insects at the Houston Arboretum & Nature Center — www.houstonnaturecenter.org — which is always free.
About 20 miles east of downtown Houston is the San Jacinto Museum of History — www.sanjacinto-museum.org — which commemorates the battle in which Texas won its freedom from Mexico.
The monument there is reminiscent of the Washington Monument, but at almost 570 feet tall, it’s more than 12 feet higher. On the same grounds is the century-old Battleship Texas, the only remaining battleship that survived World Wars I and II.
Check out the beautiful Williams Tower (formerly known as the Transco Tower) on Post Oak Boulevard near the enormous Galleria shopping mall. The 64-story glass building is said to be one of the tallest buildings in the world outside of a central business district. Don’t miss the 64-foot Waterwall just south of the building, where thousands of gallons of water pump through both sides of the structure.
Take the Interstate 610 loop south from there to see what once was called “the eighth wonder of the world,” but don’t be surprised if you miss the aging Astrodome at first glance, as it sits sadly in the shadow of the sparkling $449 million Reliant Stadium, home of the NFL’s Houston Texans.
If a peek at the world’s first indoor stadium gets you in the mood for sports, head downtown to Minute Maid Park to catch a Houston Astros game — houston.astros.mlb.com — for less than the cost of a movie ticket. Adult tickets in the outfield upper deck are $5, with $1 tickets for children 3 to 14. Be sure to bring your binoculars.
Check out the shops on Harwin for cheap clothing and accessories from around the world. For more finds, make the trek to Traders Village — www.tradersvillage.com — a 100-plus-acre flea market that is home to more than 1,000 vendors. Open Saturday and Sunday from 7 a.m. to dusk, it’s the place to find everything from crafts to tires and from antiques to electronics.
Get a breakfast burrito for about $2 at one of the hundreds of taco stands that dot the city.
Try Drexler’s World Famous BBQ & Grill, on Pierce Street near Dowling Street, for tender ribs or a sliced-beef plate, both $8.
Owned by the family of NBA great and Houston native Clyde Drexler, the restaurant houses some of the star’s trophies, NBA All-Star Game rings and lots of other goodies.
Go to the Montrose area for tasty Greek food at Niko Niko’s (www.nikonikos.com). It has more than a dozen plates priced at less than $10, including keftedes (Greek meatballs), dolmathes (stuffed olive leaves) and pastichio (Greek lasagna), accompanied by Greek salad and oven-roasted potatoes.
For late dining, go to Mai’s Restaurant for outstanding Vietnamese food. Cha gio (Vietnamese egg rolls) are a must at $6.25, and canh chua ga (Vietnamese chicken soup) for $9.25 is delicious.
There are more than 58,000 hotel rooms in Houston, so finding affordable lodging shouldn’t be a problem. In fact, with all the money you’ll save on cheap entertainment, you could stay in the swanky four-star Hotel Derek — www.hotelderek.com — for less than $150 a night.
Or try the spacious Magnolia Hotel — www.magnoliahotelhouston.com — for about $125 a night and be near Minute Maid Park and the Toyota Center, home to the Houston Rockets and Comets basketball teams.
For help in planning a trip to Houston, contact the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau at www.visithoustontexas.com or 800/446-8786. Pick up the Space City Savings Book, which includes discount coupons and two-for-one tickets to various attractions, at the visitors center on the first floor of City Hall, 901 Bagby St., or print out electronic coupons from the Web site.