Petrochem capital of the Americas, sprawl capital of the universe: Houston can seem like a city you can't escape fast enough. That's because you don't really know it. Start your crash course with a visit to sculptor David Adickes' studio—actually to his studio's parking lot, jammed with 18-foot busts of all 43 U.S. Presidents. The giant heads of state were intended for a $600 million suburban redevelopment project that tanked with the economy; in April, Adickes repossessed the busts he'd already delivered. Reunited, the heady crew embodies Houston itself: oversized, earnest, subject to wild financial swings, and peculiar as all get-out. If the Lone Star spirit carries you away, Texan POTUSes Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush are available for $50,000 apiece.
From Adickes' studio, drive about 10 minutes to leafy Memorial Park and relax with a two-and-a-half-hour guided kayak glide down Buffalo Bayou, the city's mother waterway. The Houston Skyline tour wends east through the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, meanders past the biggest backyards in the fabled Old South-meets-new-money neighborhood known as River Oaks, and ends at the western edge of downtown. That pair of glassy blueish high rises seemingly jutting straight out of swampland? They're the buildings formerly known as Enron: relics from 2001, a gentler era when a $63 billion bankruptcy seemed too large to fathom. (Chevron (CVX) now occupies both buildings.)
Finish the day by driving 20 minutes west to possibly the most astounding agglomeration of strip malls on the planet. Houston's biggest Chinatown is six square miles of gleeful pan-Asian capitalism stretched along Bellaire Boulevard. Yes, you should order a bucket of crawfish at Cajun Corner, one of a slew of Asian-Cajun restaurants.
Roughly 15,000 Vietnamese immigrants living in Louisiana and Mississippi fled to Houston after Hurricane Katrina. Today they serve up the kind of oysters and étouffée you'd expect in New Orleans. For dessert, drive down the street to the Gelato Cup, a Chinatalian spot where a scoop of Euro-style almond ice cream can be dressed with lychee syrup and sweet red beans. The whacked-out combos make a strange sense once you try them.
1. Cajun Corner, 11526 Bellaire Blvd., (281) 530-3474. Crawfish season ends in late May. Just down the street is Gelato Cup, at 9889 Bellaire.
2. Buffalo Bayou Shuttle Service, (713) 538-7433, (bayoushuttle.com) Summer tour schedule starts May Guided tour includes kayak rental and a ride back to Memorial Park.
3. The Beer Can House, 222 Malone St., (713) 926-6368 for information. In 1968, John Milkovisch began covering his family's bungalow with the debris from his drinking. The results—flattened-beer-can siding, bottle fences that act like stained glass, pull-tab wind chimes—are surprisingly elegant. Open weekends, noon-5.
4. The David Adickes studio, 2500 Summer St., (713) 880-2279. Giant Presidential heads, available for purchase.
5. The Breakfast Klub, 3711 Travis St., (713) 528-8561. "Katfish & Grits" make a fine breakfast, even if the kutesy K's make you kringe. Favorite spot of sharply dressed African-American power brokers.
6. Texas Junk Co., 215 Welch St., (713) 524-6257. The place to buy Houston's coolest Texas souvenirs: old road maps, kitschy cowboy mugs, and a warehouse wall's worth of vintage boots.