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. Houston 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 more than two dozen companies on the Fortune 500 list, its port is ranked second in the U.S. in total tonnage, and 41 foreign governments maintain trade and commercial offices there.
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 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). Highway 6 makes a half-circle farther west. Interstate 10 runs east-west and cuts the city in half, and I-45 and U.S. 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 goes only through the southwest area. The latter is the main route to the Texas Medical Center. Areas outside Loop 610 are considered suburban. Mass transit is problematic—except in the downtown core along the 7.5-mi/12-km METRORail line—and it is essential to have a car and a good map or GPS to get around the city.
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 gay 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 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 has continued to grow, despite the falling value of the U.S. dollar, with a major push into the high-tech field in the 21st century, 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.
Because Houston's skyline will likely be the first impression you get of the city, downtown is a good place to start your visit. The majority of the city's architectural gems—soaring corporate towers of glass and steel—are there. Witness a downtown renaissance that is bringing sport arenas, entertainment, restaurants, lofts and nightclubs back to that part of town.
The city's art museums are located conveniently near one another in the Museum District (southwest of downtown, in the Montrose area near Hermann Park). One of our favorites is the Menil Collection, with displays that range from pop art to works from ancient cultures. A short walk away is the Rothko Chapel, a meditative space with dark, mysterious paintings by Mark Rothko. Another, more ambitious experience for art lovers is touring the Museum of Fine Arts and the Contemporary Arts Museum next door. It's one of the largest art museums in the nation.
Space Center Houston, part of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Clear Lake, is the Houston area's most visited attraction. Of note is the Space Gallery, where you use shuttle simulators to land the shuttle and retrieve a satellite. Visitors also may take tram tours to the adjacent Mission Control.
For a look at one of Houston's main industries, drive east of downtown and over the Houston Ship Channel on Loop 610. The bridge provides a spectacular nighttime view of the lights of the oil refineries lined up along the channel. During the day, you may be able to see an enormous oil tanker gliding slowly along the waterway, which used to be an alligator-infested bayou.
This is not a pedestrian-friendly city, but there are a few areas—in addition to the downtown district along the revitalized Main Street area with its bars and restaurants, many nice parks and huge shopping areas—that are easily explored on foot. Houston Heights, for example, is filled with Victorian houses and churches, plus funky bars, shops and authentic Tex-Mex eateries.
Houstonians play as hard as they work. Live music, everything from Texas rock to jazz, is a favorite in this town that gave rise to such legends as ZZ Top, Beyonce and Kirk Whalum. As in any other major metropolis, Houston's trendsetters are fickle, and the "in" dance clubs skyrocket in popularity and fall out of favor just as quickly.
Houston's formerly nonexistent downtown nightlife has been brought to life by an extensive urban-renewal drive. Now it surges with energy, fueled by top-notch restaurants, sidewalk cafes and nightclubs. The area from Texas Avenue to Minute Maid Park is a happening place, and you can find a variety of sleek clubs along and around Main Street.
Culturally diverse Montrose has always had its share of interesting places. The Rice (University) Village and Upper Kirby areas attract a yuppie crowd. The Richmond Avenue strip, south and west of the Galleria amid blocks of apartments, caters to a younger crowd. Washington Avenue near Houston Heights is known for dives that feature live music.
Throughout Houston, drinking ends at 2 am, and all clubs strictly enforce it, although you can continue your festivities at a variety of nonalcoholic after-hours clubs.
Houston is easily as cosmopolitan as New York—more than 90 languages are spoken there, and nearly as many cuisines can be sampled at its staggering number of restaurants. Houstonians like to eat out more than any other city in the state. Along with the expected steaks, barbecue and Tex-Mex food, you can find Cajun, Vietnamese, Indonesian, African, Middle Eastern and other ethnic fare. You'll also find Continental dishes and cutting-edge American fusion cuisine. Houston has its collection of long-lived hometown restaurants, but its trendy restaurants tend to have the same lifespan as the fashionable clubs—a restaurant can be the in
place to eat for a while, only to give way to another hot venue (and world-class chef).
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$20; $$$ = US$21-$50; and $$$$ = more than US$50.
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