Did you know that a virtual city exists underneath downtown Houston? Head underground and you’ll find a collection of over 7.5 miles of pedestrian tunnels in the core of the west side and center of downtown. The largest collection of underground tunnels without a subway in the United States, it boasts air-conditioning, waxed floors, marble walls, and virtually no garbage, graffiti or panhandlers. A pleasant, quiet environment awaits you just below the big bustling city.
Home to over 500 businesses and some 10 food courts, the tunnel system employs thousands of people. It is bigger than and generates more money than many small towns. Yet, over 90 percent of people in the greater Houston area have never explored them. Over 83 entrances connect to the tunnels, yet only two entrances are identified from the outside. Entering the tunnels can be a challenge. For many people, they are like the lost city of Atlantis. You’ve heard that they exist, but where? With little consistent color-coding of the tunnel section, north pointing in all four cardinal directions on posted maps in the tunnels and exit signs where no exits exist, it is easy to become disoriented and lost down below. However, with all of the restaurants and cafes, you will never go hungry in your pursuit of exploring, and eventually exiting, this underground maze of a mall.
Houston has been called the most air-conditioned city in the world and for good reason. It is renowned for its three Hs: heat, humidity and hurricanes. Why would anyone want to be outside in roughly 100-degree weather and higher, with the heat index, for four months of the year or withstand the torrential tropical storms the city experiences from June 1 to November 30? The tunnels offer a wonderful alternative for comfort, convenience and speed. Want to cross town in a flash? You can walk from the west to the east side of downtown in 12 minutes through the tunnels.
With Houston’s heat, humidity and car and train traffic, the same walk above ground will take you twice as long. Furthermore, you may be drenched in sweat with your eyes stinging, clothes clinging and hair matted by the time you get there.
Houston’s underground labyrinth is busiest between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., when people venture out of their offices and into the city’s underbelly to grab lunch and power walk. The tunnels are only open weekdays, Monday through Friday, from approximately 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and are closed weekends and holidays. Most businesses close by 3 p.m., especially on Fridays when many employees exit early. These businesses live and die based on the buildings above them that supply most of their patrons. When businesses are closed, the tunnels are closed.
One of Houston’s best-kept secrets, the tunnel system is a model for cities throughout the world to adapt. Most of the tunnels are Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) accessible. However, some buildings built before the ADA was passed by Congress in 1990 do not comply. Thus, those dependent on a wheelchair or walker for mobility might find it difficult to navigate the tunnels.
Houston Historical Tours offers three different 2.5-hour tunnel tours or 3.5-hour tunnel tours when including time for a stop for lunch. They range from about 2 to 4 miles of walking. Tunnel Tour A has the least amount of walking and focuses on going inside historic buildings dating to the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, and two of the most attractive and recognizable buildings from the 1970s and 1980s. Great architecture is great art. If you like history and art, you will want to select this tour. Tunnel Tour B has close to 3 miles of walking with the most variety. It includes skybridges, lots of visual stimuli, and a trip to an observation deck for some groups. Tunnel Tour C has the most walking and goes into hotels and businesses. Prepare to be amazed by what lies just below the surface of downtown Houston. Book a tour and see it for yourself.
Call or write to Houston Historical Tours at 713-392-0867 or [email protected]. Visit houstonhistoricaltours.com for more information. All tours are scheduled by appointment and reserved with a non-refundable deposit of roughly 50 percent.