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Houston, Texas is the fourth most-populated city in the U.S. and its large size offers travelers many exciting things to do. Performing arts, shopping and live music and just some of the things visitors can enjoy in this southern Texas city.
Houston’s Museum District is considered by many to be the city’s cultural center. It’s comprised of 19 museums, 11 of which are free to visit all the time. There’s the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, The Children’s Museum of Houston, the Health Museum and the Houston Museum of African American Culture, among many others. For even more cultural experiences, travelers are often encouraged to visit the downtown theatre districts which spans 17 blocks and is home to the Houston Grand Opera, Bayou City Performing Arts, Broadway at the Hobby Center and many other performing arts companies.
Another big draw for travelers to Houston is the music scene. Houston is a music city and has top-notch live music performances year-round. The Toyota Center is a large arena that hosts many big concerts and is also where the Houston Rockets basketball team plays. Visitors interested in smaller acts have many options too, like the House of Blues and many other performance halls, parks and bars.
Attending performances or sports events at a big arena may seem a big expense for a vacation, but Houston has plenty of free activities that travelers can take advantage of. From March to October, the Miller Outdoor Theatre hosts many different performances like classical music, dance, film and Shakespeare plays. The 12-acre Discovery Park in downtown Houston has happy hour music and a small market in the warmer months and ice skating in the winter. The Houston Arboretum and Nature Center is a 155-acre nature sanctuary with five miles of trails and interactive exhibits. This is just a sampling – there are many other opportunities to experience Houston for free.
Other Houston highlights include the NASA Space Center Houston in Clear Lake and Galveston Island, both about a 45-minute drive from the city but definitely worth a visit. The Upper Kirby and River Oaks neighborhoods have plenty of upscale shopping and dining. And, speaking of shopping, all shopping is tax-free, so shoppers can get a bit more with their money. The types of stores range from Texas-centric cowboy boots to off-the-runway trends to locally-produced artisan items and beyond. For travelers wanting to get outside, the Sam Houston National Forest is about 50 miles north of the city. The 128-mile Lone Star Hiking Trail winds through the forest and has some primitive campsites along it.
When Houston, Texas, dubbed itself Space City, it was referring to its connection to the stars (via nearby NASA's Johnson Space Center, built in 1961). But the nickname could just as well refer to the enormous amount of earthbound space the town occupies within the city limits, much less the metro area's sprawl. The Houston Metro area is bigger than the state of New Jersey, so don't plan on seeing it all in one trip.
Houston's attractions and immense size also bring a certain magnificence: The city is headquarters to 22 companies on the Fortune 500 list and its port is ranked first in foreign tonnage and second in the U.S. in total tonnage.
Oil money and corporate largesse enable Houston to have professional resident companies in all four areas of the performing arts: ballet, opera, theater and symphony. Additionally, more than 200 institutions are dedicated to the arts, history and science, and Houston is also home to professional sports teams for five major-league sports—the Houston Astros (baseball), the Houston Rockets (basketball), the Houston Texans (football), the Houston Dynamo (men's soccer) and the Houston Dash (women's soccer).
One surprise for most Houston visitors is how green the city is. The subtropical climate (it's approximately the same latitude as northern Florida) causes lush growth in grass, trees and plants, and the mild winters leave plenty of greenery untouched.
Houston's cultural diversity (more than 90 languages are spoken there) and its low cost of living also have made it one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the U.S. Houston is home to more than 90 foreign consulates.
Sights—Skyscraping downtown architecture; NASA's Johnson Space Center; the Williams Tower and WaterWall at the Galleria; historic Sam Houston Park; Discovery Green.
Museums—The Museum of Fine Arts (and its Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden); the Houston Museum of Natural Science; Bayou Bend; the Menil Collection; the Rothko Chapel.
Memorable Meals—Smoked rack of lamb and sweet tres leches desserts at Americas; pepper crabs and garlic butter shrimp at Kim Son; churros stuffed with dulce de leche, Mexican hot chocolate and housemade chocolate at Hugo's.
Late Night—Enjoying an IPA on the porch of The Gingerman pub in Rice Village; visiting downtown's pulsing nightspots on Main Street.
Walks—Houston Arboretum & Nature Center; the Heights Boulevard walking trail; Buffalo Bayou Park walking trails; Hermann Park; Memorial Park.
Especially for Kids—Interactive exhibits and special activities at the Children's Museum of Houston; the space shuttle simulator at Space Center Houston; miles/kilometers of beaches for making sandcastles on Galveston Island.
Houston is situated on the gulf coastal plains of southeast Texas, about 55 mi/90 km from the Gulf of Mexico and about 120 mi/195 km from the border with Louisiana. The city is connected to Galveston Bay, which opens into the Gulf of Mexico to the southeast by the Ship Channel.
Houston's extensive freeway system is shaped much like a wagon wheel and is dispersed across the city's sprawl. Two concentric rings circle the city—Loop 610 and Beltway 8 (Sam Houston Tollway). Farther west, Highway 6 makes a half-circle, and beyond, Highway 99 circles from the far southwest to the northeast. Interstate 10 runs east-west and cuts the city in half, and I-45 and U.S. I-69/Highway 59 intersect each other in the center, like wheel spokes, and run more or less north-south. The Hardy Toll Road also runs north and is the fastest route to the Bush Intercontinental Airport from downtown. State Highway 290 goes only northwest, and State Highway 288 shoots directly south of the city. The latter is the main route to the Texas Medical Center.
Mass transit can be problematic, consisting mostly of buses crisscrossing the city, except for METRORail's 23-mi/37 km light-rail through downtown, the Texas Medical Center and the Museum District. The most dependable way to get around the city and surrounding areas is by car with a GPS or good map.
Most areas are referred to as being inside or outside the 610 loop. The area enclosed by the loop, though still a large area, is often referred to as the "inner loop" or "inner city." There you will find such major areas as the Theater District downtown; the Museum District and the Texas Medical Center south of downtown; Greenway Plaza, an office and retail complex west of downtown; and the Port of Houston east of downtown. Inner-loop neighborhoods include Montrose (artsy and bohemian, with a significant LGBTQ population); Rice Village and Upper Kirby (hip centers for restaurants and small retail shops); River Oaks and West University (the city's two most affluent neighborhoods); and Houston Heights (Victorian homes and antiques shops).
Just outside the loop to the west are the Galleria and Post Oak areas, renowned centers for shopping and international commerce. Southwest of downtown, on the southern perimeter of the loop, is NRG Park, which includes NRG Stadium and the now abandoned Astrodome. Between the loop and Beltway 8, south of downtown, is William P. Hobby Airport. Outside Beltway 8 to the north is George Bush Intercontinental Airport.
And keep in mind that Houston is only about a 50-minute drive away from Galveston Island on the Gulf of Mexico, a popular tourist destination with historic, turn-of-the-century homes and miles/kilometers of sandy beaches, although they're sometimes awash with tarry globs of oil from the rigs offshore and pesky beds of seaweed. Then there are the hurricanes, which threaten the area annually during August and September, the hottest and stickiest time of year to visit.
Houston was founded in 1836 by two brothers from New York, John and Augustus Allen. For US$1.40 an acre/US$3.46 a hectare, they bought 7,000 acres/3,000 hectares at the confluence of Buffalo Bayou and the San Jacinto River—hence another of the metropolis' nicknames, the Bayou City. Flamboyant promoters, the Allens created a small trading post in spite of mud, mosquitoes, alligators and natives who weren't eager to give up their land. They named the new town after their friend Sam Houston, president of the young Republic of Texas, and boasted it would become the next New Orleans.
Serving twice as the capital of the Republic of Texas, Houston flourished for a while because of cattle and cotton. After Texas became a U.S. state in 1845, the city languished until the arrival of the railroads in the late 1880s. Then two very different events conspired to change its course: The Great Storm, the 1900 hurricane, destroyed its neighbor Galveston, a thriving island port and major banking center on the Gulf of Mexico. A year later, the discovery of oil at Spindletop, 100 mi/160 km to the east of Houston, brought a wave of entrepreneurs to Houston in search of quick riches. With its new prosperity, the city widened Buffalo Bayou, creating the Ship Channel, and Houston replaced Galveston as a leading port.
World War II transformed Houston into a major center for shipbuilding and steel manufacturing, in addition to oil refining. It became the headquarters of several U.S. oil companies in the 1970s when oil prices rose to historic heights (known locally as the oil boom) and the industry flourished. But the local economy suffered when oil prices collapsed worldwide in the 1980s. A concerted effort to diversify into health care, aeronautics, international banking and high technology revived the city. Houston remains resilient in all economies.
The city attracts major corporations to headquarter there and is home to the world's largest medical center, which continues to expand. Houston's local economy is somewhat impacted by the ups and downs of the oil and gas industries, but has continued to grow with a major push into the high-tech field, especially related to energy, medical and software industries, and expansion into fledgling, leading-edge industries such as nanotechnology.
Once a place for legendary cowboys and oil wildcatters, this Texas town has evolved into a sprawling, diverse melting pot of industry and cultures. Houston accounted for the largest growth in the Hispanic population in the last U.S. Census, and there are also growing Asian and Middle Eastern populations. There are places of worship for every major religion and restaurants representing almost every ethnicity. In fact, Houston is noted as the most diverse major American city.
"Houston" was the first word spoken from the moon when NASA astronauts landed there 20 July 1969 on the day of Neil Armstrong's famous lunar stroll.
The Houston area is home to more than 10,000 restaurants and more than 700 food trucks, and is considered to have one of the country's best bevy of restaurant choices, with options ranging from world-renowned chefs' institutions to authentic taquerias and noodle-houses.
The Houston metropolitan area is more than 90 mi/145 km wide in any direction, so everything is spread out. Residents think nothing of driving 20 minutes to the nearest post office or grocery store.
With a history of wildcatters and eccentrics such as the legendary philanthropist Howard Hughes, Houston's quirky spirit lives today through many art icons, such as the Orange Show, a monument to the fruit; the Beer Can House, which gives new meaning to home improvement; the Flower Man House, an unbelievable collection of art and greenery; and the Art Car Museum and Parade, which showcases cars transformed into myriad four-wheeled wonders.
If you can't find an address, it may be because you are on the wrong section of a street. Many streets end abruptly because a missing section was never built. Check your map: You may find the next section starts a few blocks away. This frustrates the locals as well, so you're not alone. Other streets, such as Westheimer Road and Memorial Drive, are about 20 mi/30 km in length, so make sure you are in the right area of town.
Don't let the heat (or humidity) get to you: Houston is one of the most air-conditioned cities on the planet.
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