The outside perception of Houston might be all concrete jungle and corporate headquarters. But if that’s all you think it is, the artistic side of Texas’ largest city will surprise you. Here you can peruse world-class art museums and private collections one day, then funk out by ogling art cars and a Beer Can House the next.

Add a host of smaller private museums, a vibrant nonprofit scene and innumerable artist studios, and you have an overlooked-but-stellar art city, one well worth adding to any US art-loving traveler’s list. Here are our favorites. (Note that many art sites are open on limited weekly schedules.)

Museum visitors walk among large abstract paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston © Lisa Dunford / Lonely Planet
The Beck Building gallery is part of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston © Lisa Dunford / Lonely Planet

Museum District

Got a long weekend to spare in Texas? You could easily spend all of it in Houston’s leafy Museum District, one of the handful of walkable areas in the city.

Museum of Fine Arts

Start at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, which is spread over two buildings. In the Beck Building you’ll find a noteworthy collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings – think Cezanne and Degas – in addition to a survey of European art.

The Weiss Law Building contains world-quality traveling exhibits and an impressive array of 20th-century art. Works from Jackson Pollack and Franz Kline to Andy Warhol and Donald Judd hold pride of place in a pavilion designed by Mies van der Rohe. Look also for ancient works from Asia, Mesoamerica and Oceana, and an impressive array of Sub-Saharan Africa gold artifacts.

Across the street, the area around the Lillie & Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden will remain partially under construction for a museum campus extension until 2020, but the new Cloud Column is already freely accessible. The 32ft-tall polished steel sphere is the sister sculpture to Chicago’s renowned ‘Bean,’ also by Anish Kapoor.

Contemporary Arts Museum Houston

Since the 1980s, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston has hosted cutting-edge exhibits from the artists of our time. The museum keeps current with tons of interactive programs, including concerts, performances and drop-in family activities.

Asia Society Texas Center

A number of smaller institutions in the Museum District focus on special interests such as contemporary craft and Buffalo Soldiers. Among these, the Asia Society of Texas is worth a visit for its contemporary architecture and infinity pool, as well as its excellent temporary exhibits showcasing modern and traditional arts from Japan to Tibet.

The exterior of a gray museum, with a white trellis, is shown in front of a brilliant blue sky. © Lisa Dunford / Lonely Planet
The main museum building at the Menil Collection is by Renzo Piano © Lisa Dunford / Lonely Planet

Menil Collection campus

No art-oriented Houston excursion would be complete without a visit to the Menil Collection campus. This 30-acre neighborhood with museums, galleries and chapels all originated from the private collection of two of the city’s greatest patrons, John and Dominique de Menil.

Menil Collection

The modernist main museum building of the Menil Collection has undergone a major update aimed at displaying more of the eclectic, 17,000-piece collection. Contemporary artists, post-war European pieces and Byzantine icons are particularly well represented here, but you can find everything from ancient Egyptian artifacts to European tapestries. Temporary exhibits often highlight individual artists.

Several adjacent art spaces are also associated with the Menil. The Rothko Chapel is a spartan, contemplative space constructed around the monumental canvases of Mark Rothko. The Cy Twombly Gallery dedicates space to the eponymous artist’s abstract paintings and elemental three-dimensional pieces. And the Byzantine Fresco Chapel hosts a series of long-term, contemporary installations.

If you’re an art book-lover, don’t miss the Menil Bookstore, crammed floor-to-ceiling with gorgeous tomes.

Houston Center for Photography

The ever-changing exhibits of the Houston Center for Photography display works by both emerging artists and some of most lauded photographers of this century. Join one of the more than 300 workshops run each year by the learning center.

A column of stylized letters spelling 'Art' stands in front of a cloudy gray sky and colorful mural © Lisa Dunford / Lonely Planet
The letters A, R and T form a decorative column by David Adickes at Sawyer Yards © Lisa Dunford / Lonely Planet

Buffalo Bayou

Several eclectic art sites spread out near the Buffalo Bayou corridor into the First Ward, west of downtown. Parks and greenbelts in the area make for pleasant stops along the way.

Beer Can House

Ripley’s Believe it or Not counted more than 50,000 crushed and cut aluminum cans decorating the Beer Can House, constructed by railroad worker John Milkovisch in the late 1960s. An on-site video details how it was done.

Art Car Museum

Some of the best fun-and-funky art in the city is on view during the Houston Art Car Parade, a 30-plus year tradition held every April. If you miss the festivities, stop by the Art Car Museum to see five or six past top-prize winners. The vehicles – whether sculpted to resemble a gremlin or plastered with flea market finds – are all street legal.

Sawyer Yards

Once an active rail yard, the warehouses of Sawyer Yards now provide atmospheric homes for artist studios, trendy eateries and a craft brewery.  More than 100 artist workshops are accessible to the public at The Silos. During the monthly Second Saturday Open House, the Sabine, Summer, Spring, Silver and Winter Streets studios also open their doors, along with an evening craft market.

A line of identical small white-painted houses, with a sidewalk in front, is framed by a sign that reads 'Project Row Houses' © Lisa Dunford / Lonely Planet
Project Row Houses is a base for community-enriching initiatives in Houston © Lisa Dunford / Lonely Planet

Get creative in Southeast Houston

From the historic African American community of the Third Ward and beyond, the southeastern side of the city has a couple of artsy sites worth exploring.

Project Row Houses

Back in the 1990s, a team of forward-thinking artists and activists turned derelict row houses into ‘a model for art and social engagement.’ Today many of the 39 buildings at Project Row Houses contain offices for community organizations, but seven are retained for visiting and resident artists invited to create installations that ‘live’ in the house.

Orange Show Center for Visionary Art

Visit one man’s junk-art tribute to his favorite fruit at The Orange Show. Local postman Jeff McKissack transformed his home and yard into a riot of colorful metalwork and found art from 1958 to 1980. Today the Orange Show is also the namesake of the public nonprofit that supports most of the eclectic art in the city.

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