Summer in the City – Cool Ways to Beat the Houston Heat
Summer in Houston means high temperatures, but in the city described as the “most air-conditioned place on earth,” cool fun awaits you underground.
A hidden treasure few Houstonians have explored awaits 20 feet below downtown Houston in the form of climate-controlled, underground pedestrian tunnels covering almost 7 miles beneath the fourth largest city in the U.S. If tunnels call to mind the thought of dark, damp dungeons, you’ll rejoice in the waxed floors, marble walls, bright illumination and upscale ambience you’ll find three stories beneath the city streets.
Unknown to most Houstonians, within these tunnels lie hundreds of shops and unique fast food restaurants. The tunnels, first built in 1935 to connect two downtown office buildings, are often referred to as one of Houston’s best kept secrets and has grown to cover over 95 city blocks, connecting 77 buildings. Visitors can easily navigate the tunnels with well-placed maps posted at every turn. Each above-ground skyscraper and historic building is marked with below-ground signage detailing the rich architectural history of the landmark building above. Over 80 entrances to the tunnel exist, yet most are not identified from the outside. The tunnels can be accessed directly from street level through the Wells Fargo Plaza on Main Street which are only open on weekdays, 6:00 am to 6:00 pm. Don’t worry about getting lost in the maze of tunnels; all you need to do is pop up to street level like a groundhog to get your bearings!
Did you know this interesting Houston tunnel fact? Submarine-type doors with inflatable rubber airtight seals can be deployed to prevent flooding in the tunnels during storms.
Still looking for something even more unusual below the streets of downtown Houston? The Cistern is one of downtown Houston’s most unique underground spaces, originally built in 1926 as the city’s first drinking-water reservoir. After decades of operation, the 15-million gallon reservoir was drained and closed in the mid-1970s due to an irreparable leak. Rediscovered by accident in 2010 during development of Buffalo Bayou city park overhead, its historical and architectural significance was recognized. Restored and repurposed into an awe-inspiring 87,500 sqft2 public space with 221, 25-foot tall support columns spanning its length and breadth. The windowless cavern’s interior size is equal to one and a half football fields with a floor covered in 2 inches of water. Originally only accessible via small hatches in the ground that opened to 14-foot ladders, the recently opened public space now provides ground-level entry and ADA compliant walkways with guardrails around the perimeter of the underground space. For those who do not want to venture underground, check out the Down Periscope art installation sitting atop the Cistern allowing visitors the ability to peer into the expanse below from street-level.
Be sure to test out the echo…it’s an amazing 17-seconds!
Hungry and thirsty from your subterranean tours? Check out the Conservatory, a unique dining experience located below ground level in downtown Houston’s historic Market Square district. Originally built in 1912 as the Isis Theater, one of Houston’s first silent film houses, the underground space has been repurposed and shares the former theater space with Prohibition Supper Club, located next door. Unobtrusive and barely noticeable from street-level, entry doors open to ornate Art Deco-styled stairs flanked by living wall gardens, leading down below street level into an expansive food hall and beer garden unlike any others. With seating for 250 and a wall filled with 60 beer taps, visitors can enjoy fun and food until late night or early morning, every night of the week.
If you venture next door to the Prohibition bar sharing the old Isis Theater space with Conservatory, order the Remember the Alamo – Prohibition’s house cocktail. The main ingredient? Tequila, of course!
If your interests run more toward the fine arts, hop on the METRORail light rail on Main Street and take a quick ride to the Museum District for more underground fun. Beneath the Museum of Fine Arts, one of the largest museums in America, you’ll find an exhibit unlike any other. A tunnel links the two main museum buildings and the tunnel itself is the art! Artist James Turrell created The Light Inside, an immersive light environment in the tunnel. Its constantly changing lights and easy walkability allow you to become a part of the art exhibit. It’s time to go into the light!
Photo Tip: The lone guard in the tunnel creates the perfect focal point for photos. Stand at the tunnel opening and snap away…each shot will be a different brilliant color due to the tunnel’s ever-changing lighting. Or, walk through tunnel and snap photos all along the way…it’s a perfect selfie spot.
No matter if you’re visiting Houston in the summer or winter, Houston’s underground always has the perfect climate for exploring. Wear your walking shoes and bring your camera – you’ll be happy to have both on this Houston adventure!