Houston is the fourth largest city in the U.S. and one of the most diverse cities in the nation. Where better to cop some culture and learn something new? The Museum District in Houston is ready to serve, with 19 sites spread around four walkable zones. While the district includes attractions like the Houston Zoo and the iconic Rothko Chapel, its real stars are the museums.
Judging which museums are best is an impossible task, and everyone’s list will look different based on personal interests. However, a list of 10 of the best museums in Houston is a helpful place to start. Here they are, in no particular order.
1. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Located in the heart of the Houston Museum District, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) is one of the largest art museums in the U.S., and possibly the best art museum in Houston. In addition to its main exhibition spaces, the campus also includes an art school, a rooftop garden, a sculpture garden, and two separate decorative arts museums.
The museum’s encyclopedic collection boasts nearly 700,000 works, including antiquities, photography, drawings, and films, as well as paintings and sculptures from around the world. A campus redevelopment project, begun in 2012 and completed in 2020, added new landscaping, a conservation center, and a school and gallery building. The new gallery houses the museum’s collection of modern and contemporary art.
The Museum of Fine Arts also has a steady schedule of acclaimed traveling exhibitions, so there’s always something new to see. Taken together, all of these features make it the definitive fine arts museum in Houston.
Keep in mind that every Thursday features extended hours as well as free general admission.
2. Children’s Museum of Houston
Opened in 1992, the Children’s Museum of Houston serves more than one million children and families every year through its museum campus and outreach programs. Consistently rated one of the best children’s museums in the U.S., this nonprofit institution seeks to fulfill six primary community needs, including reducing the effects of poverty on learning and supporting parents’ engagement with their children’s learning.
The museum offers a variety of age-targeted educational exhibits. Nature lovers will enjoy the EcoStation exhibit, which is a certified wildlife habitat. The Challenge Course and PowerPlay exhibits test children’s stamina and teach them how their bodies react to physical activity. The Kidtropolis area mimics a real city where kids can earn money, shop, and vote. Other exhibits focus on math, inventions, art, science, and more.
Visitors can save on admission by taking advantage of Free Family Night every Thursday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
3. The Menil Collection
Dominique and John de Menil believed in the spiritual power of art and the importance of making art accessible to the public. The de Menils relocated to Houston from France in the midst of World War II, and their new home soon amassed a large and impressive art collection. John died in 1973, but Dominique remained dedicated to sharing her family’s collection and passion for art with her Houston community for the rest of her life.
Spread out over 30 acres, The Menil Collection is a neighborhood of art that encompasses two galleries, a drawing institute, a park, a bookstore, and a permanent site-specific installation. The main gallery — the most popular building — opened in 1987 and houses rotating exhibitions featuring works that span from the prehistoric era all the way to the present day, including African art, Byzantine art, and surrealist works.
In keeping with the de Menils’ belief that art is for everyone, admission is free to all exhibits in their collection.
4. Houston Museum of Natural Science
Founded in 1909, the Houston Museum of Natural Science (HMNS) campus has been expanded and diversified over the last 100 years. The museum’s mission is to enhance public knowledge of and delight in natural science, and attendance numbers prove that its efforts have been successful. It is among the top 15 most-visited museums in the U.S.
The museum features 17 permanent exhibits that range in focus from Texas wildlife to ancient Egyptian artifacts to a Cabinet of Curiosities. Fan favorites include the Morian Hall of Paleontology, which boasts more than 60 skeleton mounts in action poses, and the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals, with more than 450 stunning mineral specimens.
In addition to the museum’s permanent and special temporary exhibitions, the campus has a planetarium, an observatory, and a butterfly center. Enjoy free admission to the permanent exhibits every Thursday from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.
5. Holocaust Museum Houston
The origins of the Holocaust Museum Houston date back to a 1981 meeting of Holocaust survivors in Israel. After attending this international gathering, Siegi Izakson returned to Houston, determined that the city needed a Holocaust education center so that the stories and memories of survivors would live on. On March 3, 1996, the museum officially opened, In the words of Izakson himself: “This means the Holocaust story will not go away.”
A $34 million expansion was completed in June 2019, resulting in a 57,000-square-foot campus with permanent exhibitions in English and Spanish. Among the museum’s most notable artifacts are a Danish rescue boat from the 1940s and a World War II-era railcar.
Admission is free on certain holidays, such as International Holocaust Remembrance Day and Human Rights Day. You can also visit the museum for free every Thursday between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m.
6. Houston Museum of African American Culture
In 1999, Houston’s first African American mayor, Lee P. Brown, appointed a committee to lay the foundation for what would become the Houston Museum of African American Culture (HMAAC). More than 20 years later, the museum is the most-visited African American cultural institution in the city.
The museum invites visitors of all races and backgrounds to explore and discuss its exhibits, whose goal is to conserve and display the culture and experiences of African Americans and Africans in Houston and beyond.
Named after an important figure in the Houston arts community who passed away in 2013, the Bert Long Jr. Gallery annually features the work of four visual artists from the greater Houston area. In addition to art exhibits, the museum offers educational lectures and film screenings. In order to help all audiences learn about African American culture, admission to the museum is always free.
7. The Health Museum
Officially named the John P. McGovern Museum of Health & Medical Science, this interactive and innovative museum in Houston has been fueling families’ curiosity about health and science since it opened in 1996.
Among the museum’s permanent exhibits is the popular Amazing Body Gallery, where visitors are surrounded by larger-than-life representations of organs and body parts, such as a 22-foot-tall backbone and rib cage, a 12-foot-tall beating heart, and a 10-foot-tall brain in which guests can play memory games. Other attractions include a theater and the DeBakey Cell Lab, an interactive lab experience available in English and Spanish.
The Health Museum’s focus on education has produced a number of programs and classes, which range from homeschool programs and discovery camps to the Global Teen Medical Summit. Free Family Thursdays allow families to enjoy the museum’s exhibits at no cost from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m.
8. Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
Located across the street from the Museum of Fine Arts, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH) is instantly recognizable thanks to its stunning stainless steel building, opened in 1972 and designed by architect Gunnar Birkerts. The institution itself was founded in 1948, and today the gallery space showcases six to eight exhibitions every year. One gallery is dedicated to established artists at the forefront of the contemporary art world, while the second gallery highlights work by emerging artists.
The museum takes a multidisciplinary approach to its exhibits by offering various programs that complement or are inspired by the artwork on display. Past programs have included concert presentations, walking meditations, themed art classes, film screenings, and discussions with experts.
These programs help make art accessible to everyone, much like the museum’s always-free admission policy.
9. Buffalo Soldiers National Museum
“Buffalo Soldier” was the nickname thought to have been given by Native Americans to the African American cavalry regiments who served in the United States Army from 1867 to 1896. Buffalo Soldiers were the first Black professional soldiers to serve in the U.S. Army during peacetime, and their numbers were made up of free men, former slaves, and veterans of the Civil War.
The exhibits of the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum chronicle the contributions of African American soldiers to the U.S. military, from the Civil War to Vietnam. A reenactment program allows visitors to immerse themselves in the past, thanks to the storytelling skills of two professional actors.
The museum offers a number of programs for the purpose of educating and bettering the community. Some, like the Outdoor Exploration Program, are designed for children, while others, such as Mindfulness & Meditation and Paint Your History, are suitable for adults and youths alike.
10. Czech Center Museum Houston
The Czech Center Museum Houston (CCMH) is dedicated to portraying the experiences of Czechs, Slovaks, and members of other communities who left their home countries to seek a more liberated life in America. The museum’s collection of Czech and Slovak artwork is updated continually and divided into three categories: crystal, porcelain, and pottery; paintings and posters; and folk art.
A main exhibit space explores the culture of immigration through the work of an emerging muralist and first-generation Mexican American. The eye-catching and interactive exhibit combines murals and fashion to create an immersive storytelling space.
The museum encourages further learning through educational programs such as a creative activism workshop and an oral history project. In addition, the museum’s Czech and Slovak Library has both modern and historic volumes about Europe’s history and culture. Visitors can enjoy the museum for free on the last Monday of every month.
So there you have it—10 of the best museums Houston has to offer. Be sure to check out the rest of the Houston Museum District for other fulfilling artistic and cultural venues, and keep in mind that a quick internet search will reward you with even more museums in Houston that are located outside of the designated district.