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How to Get Lost at the Galleria



I like to think I am a well-traveled Texan, but until a couple of months ago, I had never been to the Houston Galleria. My previous trips to the Bayou City had revolved around exploring its renowned museums, sampling its globe-spanning cuisines, and soaking up the serenity of its manicured parks. So when I set out on my inaugural visit to the state’s largest mall (and the country’s seventh-largest) this spring, I fully expected to lose my way in its labyrinthine abundance: four shiny-floored levels comprising 2.4 million square feet of shops, offices, restaurants, hotels, an ice rink, and a rooftop tennis club.

What I did not expect was that I’d get lost existentially. The Galleria has something for every taste and every budget, but as I wandered past the highest of the high-end stores and discreetly gawked at their stylish patrons, I wasn’t prepared to be so thoroughly seduced by all the shiny things—or to be struck by the unsettling idea that perhaps I had done life all wrong. 

Neiman Marcus. Photograph by Cedric Angeles

An elevator to Musaafer.
An elevator to Musaafer. Photograph by Cedric Angeles

About seven miles west of downtown, the mall, along with its environs—alternately referred to as Uptown and the Galleria—feels like a world unto itself. In addition to high-end homes and sophisticated condos—and the establishments designed to feed and entertain their inhabitants—Uptown includes 5 million square feet of retail space and 23 million square feet of office space. And the epicenter is the mall, which opened in 1970 and was conceived by local real estate developer Gerald D. Hines. He modeled his airy marketplace after Italy’s oldest shopping mall, Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a nineteenth-century glass-covered shopping arcade.

In preparation for my visit, I relied on my go-to authorities: locals and this magazine’s archive. Writing for Texas Monthly back in 1980, journalist Richard West compared the mall to an archaeological site that, if dug out, “ would reflect only a frozen moment in history,” a notion delightfully borne out by a text I received from a fortysomething friend and Houston native: “The Galleria was pinnacle. . . . Blew my preteen mind,” she wrote, adding: “First place I ever had a fried wonton on a salad!” If the mall were Pompeii’d today, what would be forever memorialized is a modern-day cathedral to comfort in all forms, everything from massage chairs and fast food to $75,000 timepieces and fresh fish flown in from Japan. 

Texas Monthly senior executive editor and Houstonian Mimi Swartz notes that the Galleria has long been “a barometer for Houston’s state of mind as well as its economic state.” By that light, I’m not sure what it means that the two most frequent responses I got when asking various Houstonians what they thought about the mall, which attracts more than thirty million visitors a year, were “It’s not as nice as it used to be” and “It’s too fancy.”

Personally, I was enchanted with the Galleria’s mash-up of Rodeo Drive and Vegas Strip from the moment the automatic doors whooshed open and the mall drew me into its cool, fragrant embrace. Serenaded by gentle piano inside Neiman Marcus, I marveled at the Moët & Chandon vending machine full of mini bottles (you purchase a special coin to use it) and the old-school ladies’ luncheon and fashion show taking place near the Vera Wang and Burberry departments. Out in the mall’s corridors, among the hustle-bustle of happy shoppers, I was exhilarated by the sheer variety of the four hundred or so stores. Chopard or Claire’s? Loro Piana or Forever 21? Or both? 

Security at the Chanel store.
Security at the Chanel store. Photograph by Cedric Angeles

A Möet & Chandon vending machine.
A Möet & Chandon vending machine. Photograph by Cedric Angeles

The people watching is superlative: ice-skaters indifferent to all but the placement of the next step; security guards on Segways; disgruntled children being pushed around in rentable strollers designed to look like miniature Bentleys; errand-running office escapees; and fashion-fixated visitors in sequins and rhinestones, fur and leather, time of day and season be damned. The weather is always fair inside this dreamlike terrarium, where the haves and have plastic can mingle in perfumed harmony. 

My visit reignited an interest in fashion I thought was long gone. Walking past backlit ads featuring such luminaries as Gisele Bündchen and Bradley Cooper, I found myself overcome by a fierce longing to inhabit their rarefied air. Or just look as if I did. I came close to approaching Chanel (or Bottega Veneta or Carolina Herrera—any boutique would do), waiting my turn outside the red-roped stanchions with their black-suited guardians, and then buying whatever sartorial signifier I could afford, no matter how small. And then I came to my senses.

Toward the end of my day at the mall, right about when my watch was telling me I’d taken nearly 12,000 steps and I was feeling as though I had indeed traveled far from my real life, a saleswoman at a kiosk stepped in front of me, waving a sample of skin serum in my face: “I just had to stop you because I love the way you’re walking.” I must have been carrying myself with a newfound confidence. I had circled the mall empty-handed many times over, but now a good-sized Neiman Marcus shopping bag dangled elegantly from my arm. Who could know it contained only a pair of jeans I’d bought there, on sale for 40 percent off? 

The Post Oak Hotel pool.The Post Oak Hotel pool.
The pool at the Post Oak Hotel.Photograph by Cedric Angeles

I’ve done a lot in the service of journalism—paddled with alligators, communed with bats underground, tubed down a river with college students—so I knew I could handle the next stop on my Uptown itinerary: an overnight stay at a hotel with a helipad. And a bespoke automotive boutique. 

For the full Galleria experience (which is to say, the Uptown experience), spend a night at the Post Oak Hotel, conceived by Houston Rockets billionaire owner Tilman Fertitta six years ago and the recipient of many hospitality industry awards. 

The posh, ten-acre property combines 250 guest rooms (including a two-story penthouse suite complete with a regulation-size basketball half-court); a turquoise pool heated to 86 degrees; a salon and spa offering a $1,300 Biohacking Rejuvenation Facial (“Amidst the realm of Biohacking, a remarkable virtue emerges, especially in the realm of grooming”); and a collection of epicurean establishments that range from a patisserie selling what many say are Houston’s best croissants to a 30,000-bottle wine cellar. (Have you been looking everywhere for an 1825 Château Gruaud-Larose?)

I checked in and then sat in the lobby, soaking in the chill house music and gaping at the towering flower arrangements that each cost a modest mortgage payment. As I sipped a fruity pink cocktail poured into a delicate blown-glass flamingo, I wondered if they’d let me test-drive the curaçao-blue Rolls-Royce on display just down the hall. Then I headed to the elevators, dodging a luggage cart stacked to the top with aluminum Rimowa suitcases, and was escorted to my meticulously appointed guest room. 

After a bath in a deep marble soaking tub beneath a wall-mounted TV, I padded over to the bed, trailing a cloud of Acqua di Parma, my way gently illuminated by the motion-sensor light located somewhere alongside the bed frame. As I settled into the five-hundred-thread-count sheets, I tried to diagnose the weird feeling I was having, some odd mix of delight, chagrin, yearning, and melancholy. 

And then my eyes landed on my matte-silver Neiman Marcus paper bag of discount dungarees and a message printed in elegant black type along its inner fold: “It’s what’s inside that counts.”  

Caracol. Photograph by Cedric Angeles

Uptown Park.
Uptown Park. Photograph by Cedric Angeles

The Galleria Area Survival Guide

Where to eat 

You’ll find plenty to sustain you inside the mall, from chain restaurants and the food court to sushi at elegant Nobu and Indian at the stunning Musaafer. But if you need some fresh air, Hugo Ortega’s Caracol is just a third of a mile to the north, on Post Oak Boulevard. Less than a mile to the west, on a stretch of Westheimer Road populated with car washes and tattoo shops (no zoning, no problem) is Artisans, where you’ll find such fine fare as a sumptuous seafood trio of pan-seared scallops, blue crab wontons, and lobster “cappuccino.” 

Where (else) to shop

Check out Uptown Park, an upscale complex of boutiques (I loved the consignment items at the Little Bird and the handmade jewelry at High Gloss), restaurants (the Thai food at Songkran is top-notch), and the only U.S. location of Rocambolesc, a gelateria from Spain’s three-Michelin-starred El Celler de Can Roca.

If you want to shop, drop, and roll into bed 

The Galleria boasts two Westin hotels, ideal for those who want to visit the mall and never step foot off the property. 

If you need some space 

My room at the Tuscan-inspired Hotel Granduca, which features 122 suites and a cabana-lined pool area, was bigger than my apartment. The hotel will get a $30.6 million update this fall.

This article originally appeared in the May 2024 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “It’s a Mall World in Houston.” Subscribe today.

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