Story and photos by Kelli Barnes and Amy Holzworth
Surprise! There are six miles of tunnels covering 95 city blocks, 20 feet below the skyscrapers in downtown Houston. The 168,600 employees working downtown can beat the heat, rain, and traffic each weekday by going underground. The offices covering 51 million square feet of space have been somewhat abandoned due to COVID 19.*
Anyone can descend to enjoy a brisk walk in a climate-controlled, safe environment. The atmosphere is a cross between a large airport and a large hospital. It is open 6 a.m. - 6:30 p.m. during the five weekdays. Access to the tunnels is available by traveling downtown via Metro transportation to two major entrance points — Wells Fargo Plaza and McKinney Garage on Main. Metered parking on the street is available for $3, and there are open parking lots and parking garages available. Several stairs and escalators provide channels down into the tunnels in various spots downtown. For close parking to a tunnel entrance, use McKinney Place garage and plan to spend between $8 for an hour or up to $20 for the day. There are parking coupons for $3 off available in some places. The Wells Fargo parking garage is cost-prohibitive for most visitors and is used primarily for banking customers and employees based on the pricing.
The best time to visit would be 10 a.m. - 2 p.m. when most shops and restaurants are guaranteed to be open for business. Some establishments are shut down before and after the lunch rush. Those hours would be best for walking and enjoying the tunnels.
A wide variety of food choices from chain restaurants to individually owned, specialty-food eateries are available. Here are a few locally owned recommendations:
- Star Chef Dumpling: pan seared or steamed pork, chicken or veggie-filled options
- Simit & Poacha Bakery: has amazing Tiramisu and Polka pastry to name just two
- Amilles Coffee Shop: for an espresso or lavender and honey latte. They also have traditional coffee favorites.
When thinking of shopping options, imagine places one would go during a lunch hour in addition to food: dry cleaners, barber shops and shoe shining, hair and nail spas, chiropractors, print shops, pharmacies, convenience stores, jewelry repair, and even doctor and dentist offices. The COVID shutdown is coming to an end, and businesses are opening again to service the thousands of employees returning to the office.
The hustle and bustle felt in the tunnels is infectious. Texans have so many special things to see and do, and this is a good one. The history of this particular attraction starts in the early 1930s.
Ross Sterling, who also served as the 31st governor of Texas, wanted to build a tunnel under the city to connect two downtown movie theaters. He was inspired by the tunnels under the Rockefeller Center in New York City.
Will Horwitz later connected three of his vaudeville and movie theaters to save on air conditioning. In the construction boom beginning in the 1950s and continuing through the 1970s, more buildings went up and their owners linked tunnels to the previous passageways.
Expansion in the area continues with additional buildings and tunnels in the planning stages.* When visiting, the tunnels are random with no particular rhyme or reason. Color-coded maps are located throughout and prove both useful and necessary.
Downtown Houston has a new motto: “The coffee is brewed. The taps are tapped and the grill ignited. The doors are open and the tables set. We are moving forward, but we need you to join us.”
*statistics and historical facts from: 365thingsinhouston.com
The tunnels in downtown Houston were started in the 1930's and have been added to over the years. Since each tunnel was individually built and paid for by different business owners in different decades, you will see hints of the time period on the structures and decor choices. (Above) Signage lines the checkerboard hallway in this tunnel, marking different business services available. (Left) Think "The Jetson's" when enjoying art lined hall in this tunnel area.