There’s an interesting little village worth visiting in the Houston area, but it’s pretty hard to find it on your traditional Google maps. A lot of people visit every day, but the population is tiny. Lots of the locals know about it, but they rarely talk about it to outsiders. And unless you’re looking for it, it’s easy to miss.
I’m talking about the seven mile system of underground tunnels and skyways that connect almost a hundred city blocks and many of the tall buildings in Houston’s sprawling downtown. From Bayou Place to Discovery Green, hundreds of thousands of Houstonians can avoid the heat and the traffic of the downtown streets, using the tunnels to pass between towering skyscrapers. And all throughout, the system is lined with retail and restaurant space catering to the downtown office worker. I’m fascinated with these tunnels because it’s such a useful and practical idea, but also because I don’t get to see them every day. Oh, and because so much of the tunnel system is devoted to food.
The tunnels come alive as soon as they open, with early-bird workers searching for coffee or baked goods or a more substantial breakfast before they climb into the elevators that take them to their offices. Traffic in the tunnel corridors thins out a bit in the lull before lunch, but by noon there are lines out the doors of some establishments. Diners can find options such as Treebeard’s and Post Oak Grill; or local favorites like Ragin’ Cajun, Miller’s Cafe, or Ninfa’s Express. Beck’s Prime, Potbelly, and Salata also have locations underground, along with a good variety of vegetarian restaurants, smoothie stores, grills, and delis.
The options for different cuisines are impressive, from Italian and Thai, to barbecue and Mediterranean. It would take quite a few visits to try food from all the places available. There are even fast food chains like Wendy’s, Chick-fil-A, Subway, McDonald’s, and (of course) Whataburger in the tunnels. And once I heard there was a Sonic, I searched everywhere until I found it.
What’s also interesting is the number of non-food establishments ‘down under.’ Hair salons sit next to gift shops and chiropractors. Barber shops and banks and credit unions have a presence in the tunnels too. You’ll find shoe-shine stands, cell phone repair, boutiques, florists, a print shop, and even a photography studio. One building offers membership to a gym on a higher floor. And my favorite practical underground establishment of all in the tunnels: a cleaners and alterations store. What could be more convenient for downtown workers than businesses that help them handle chores like that during their work day?
There is one glaring problem with visiting the tunnels as a tourist: the lack of public bathrooms. I’m not sure exactly why there aren’t easily accessible public restrooms, but every one I’ve ever tried to enter has been locked. That isn’t an insurmountable challenge, though. If you study a map of the tunnel system, you’ll find several hotels in downtown are connected to the tunnels, and those buildings are sure to have public restrooms available.
In fact, if a visitor wanted to get in a good day of exploring the tunnels, checking into one of these hotels would be a good idea. Rates are usually somewhat reasonable for downtown hotels during the week, and that’s when you want to see the tunnels – when everything is open. Look into a stay at the Hyatt Regency Downtown, the J. W. Marriott, the Doubletree, or the Courtyard by Marriott for easy access to the wonders underground.
Navigating the tunnels is supposed to be getting easier, too, with an app for iPhones available now, and an Android app coming soon. The app helps navigate the 150+ shops and restaurants in the tunnel system, find your location, and filter the businesses so you can easily find what you’re looking for.
Another couple of caveats: seven miles of tunnels means a LOT of walking, much of it through corridors filled with other people. You’ll want to wear very comfortable shoes, and if you bring children along, keep all that walking in mind.
As with anything in downtown Houston, parking is an expensive concern. One of the most affordable options is to park along the red line of the Metro rail and take the train to Main Street Square, where you can enjoy the fountains before descending into the tunnels at McKinney Place. The train ride into downtown takes just a few minutes, and saves time trying to find parking or remembering to feed meters. But if you like the idea of exploring Underground Downtown, it’s definitely a day trip worth taking.
Get Directions to the Downtown Houston Tunnel System:
Buildings with entries to Houston’s underground tunnel system include:
- 1001 McKinney
- 1600 Smith
- 1400 Smith
- 1100 Louisiana
- 1500 Louisiana
- Esperson – 808 Travis/815 Walker
- Commerce Towers
- Calpine Center
- JPMorgan Chase Tower
- Bank of America Center
- Pennzoil Place
- One Shell Plaza
- The Esperson buildings
- Wells Fargo Bank Plaza
- Centerpoint Energy Plaza
- Kinder Morgan Building
- Total Plaza
- One Houston Center
- First City Tower
- One Allen Center
- Wedge International Tower
- BG Group Place