There are a lot of things bigger in Texas—the highways, the rodeo, the commutes—but few are as impressive as Houston’s green spaces. The city’s park system is made up of more than 38,000 acres of wildlife and recreation that are a mix of quaint neighborhood parks and sprawling oases. Here are some of the best.
Who says parks all have to be green? Smither Park is decked out in a wild mix of colorful mosaic, making it easily one of the coolest and most Instagrammable places in Houston. Everything—from play areas (including a bench swing and marble roll) to performance stages to covered spaces—is decorated with designs made with repurposed materials like bottle caps, seashells, and broken ceramic. The park’s signature feature is the Memory Wall. At roughly 400 feet, the wall spans with entirely length of the park and includes more than 60 different mosaic panels that are perfect backdrops for colorful photoshoots.
Levy Park isn’t just one of the city’s newest urban parks; it’s also one of its most popular. The Upper Kirby space puts every square inch of the park to good use. The unique children’s area isn't like traditional playgrounds: it has a giant stone slide instead of several plastic ones, a spherical jungle gym in lieu of monkey bars. There are large tunnels and grassy mounds to crawl over and through that offer a natural-feeling alternative to a metal playset. The play space, however, is only a fraction of the fun. The park also features an activity cart, library, dog run, packed events calendar, and a rotating selection of food trucks that make it easy to stay all day (and come back the next).
This Heights-area park is one of the few neighborhood playgrounds in Houston that was actually built by the neighborhood itself. In fall of 1996, families in the Heights pitched in to build the all-wooden playsets. It took just five days and has been a favorite gathering place for area families ever since. While the kids play, grown-ups can hang out at benches and tables or under one of the tall trees for shade. In addition to all the fun stuff inside, one of the best features of Donovan Park is its location. The park sits on Heights Boulevard, near the intersection of two busy biking and jogging trails and within walking distance to some of the neighborhood’s best restaurants.
There are a lot of great things to see and do in Houston’s Museum District (also called Museum Park), but Hermann Park tops the list. The space is home to some of the city’s favorite attractions—including the Houston Zoo and Miller Outdoor Theatre—as well as splash pads, a golf course, playgrounds, and a jogging trail. Both the Japanese gardens and the McGovern Centennial Gardens are a favorite place for family outings and photoshoots, and kids love to ride the Hermann Park Railroad or fly kites on the hill behind Miller.
Pro tip: Parking can be tricky on busy weekends, but the park’s METRORail stop and multiple BCycle stations provide nice alternatives to circling the grounds to find a space.
Located out in the western suburb of Katy, Exploration Park is a bit of a hike from Houston’s downtown, but it’s well worth the drive if you have kids in tow. The children’s play area structures are versatile—there’s no one right way to use the equipment—making it a particularly popular hangout for families with a wide range of ages. Exploration Park is big on conservation; signage and an interactive water feature in the park help educate visitors about the water cycle.
Pro tip: Exploration Park is a great place for a birthday shindig, but it doesn’t take reservations. If you want to host a party, come early to snag a space in the pavilion.
At over 1,400 acres, Memorial Park is Houston’s largest park inside the Inner Loop, and a good bet for those looking for a more traditional park experience. It houses a golf course, community pool, tennis courts, soccer fields, hike and bike trails, countless picnic tables, a classic playground, and lots and lots of trees. Memorial Park is located near the intersection of I-10 and 610 (two of Houston’s busiest freeways), but it’s easy to forget how central it is. There are spots in the park, especially within the Houston Nature Center and Arboretum, that feel like you’re miles from the city—despite being right inside it.
Buffalo Bayou isn’t just the park’s namesake; it’s its most prominent feature. The park is narrow but long, filling in the thin stretch of land on either side of the waterway between Allen Parkway and Memorial Drive. The entire length of the park goes from Shepherd Drive into downtown. Along the way, you’ll see lush landscaping, paved bike trails, sculptures, dog parks, skate parks, kayakers, and play areas. Perhaps the coolest inclusion, however, is the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern. The underground space used to be a part of the city’s water system before being decommissioned and renovated for public tours and art installations.
After Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, black communities across the country began celebrating its anniversary: Juneteenth. In Houston, local minister and former slave, Reverend Jack Yates, led the efforts in 1872 to purchase a 10-acre plot where they could celebrate the occasion. They named it Emancipation Park.
Emancipation Park is rumored to be the oldest public park in Texas, and for a while, it was the only park open to black people in Houston. Its long and rich history alone make it one of the most important public spaces in the city, but it’s also a great park. With amenities like a rec center, swimming pool, splash pad, walking trails, and playgrounds, the park has continued to serve as a meeting place for the community and hosts the area’s annual Juneteenth celebration.
Like many green spaces in Houston, this 100-acre East End park is dual-purpose: recreation and flood control. Roughly 3.5 acres of the park have been converted into wetlands, where ponds host plants and wildlife while at the same time protecting the nearby streets and homes from flooding after heavy rains. It’s also a neighborhood activity center, with sports fields and courts, a swimming pool, jogging trail, exercise stations, and a community center. Taken together, the two pieces create a fun, activity-filled space that’s surrounded by natural beauty.
Houston’s downtown might be known for its concrete skyscrapers, god-awful traffic, and ubiquitous parking garages, but it’s also home to one of the best parks in the city. Discovery Green offers a natural reprieve right in the heart of downtown. The 12-acre plot houses a lot of the things that make up a great park—a large green lawn, a small lake, and children’s playground equipment—but adds its own sophisticated urban flare. Interactive sculptures and frequent art installations provide a touch of culture, while performance spaces and a jam-packed events calendar ensure there’s always something fun going on.
Pro tip: Be sure to visit during the holidays when the park turns into a winter wonderland complete with an outdoor ice rink.