The massive metropolis of Houston is almost twice the size of the entire state of Rhode Island. Even with this heavy urban concentration, Houston is green and lush, situated at the end of a belt of forest coming down from the North and characterized by marshlands and bayous lined with cypress trees in the southern reaches.
Houston, named after former Republic of Texas president Sam Houston, is hot and humid. To make life more bearable in the close-packed downtown area, much activity has gone underground. The city centre sports an air-conditioned seven-mile pedestrian tunnel system full of restaurants and shops. Unlike most cities, downtown Houston is the hub of residential development, so it remains busy and bustling long after dark.
Texas' largest city is not generally a sought after tourist destination, being concerned more with business than pleasure and leisure. Computer manufacture, gas and oil, and a huge concentration of medical institutions account for most of the economic activity, but all those hard-working citizens have to play sometimes, and there are some good attractions like excellent museums, the amazing Astrodome sports pavilion, some wonderful theatres, and, thanks to the cosmopolitan mix of its residents, some ethnically diverse cuisine on offer in its many restaurants. For visitors, the absolute "must-see" in Houston is the famed Space Center, mission control for the US space program.
The visitor's Space Center is attached to the headquarters of America's manned space programme, Nasa's 'Mission Control' that directs the space shuttle project and guided the pioneering astronauts. The Space Center, Houston's most popular tourist attraction, is located at Clear Lake, 20 miles (32km) southeast of downtown, off the Gulf freeway I-45.
There are numerous wonders to behold at this facility, which both entertains and educates, from a mock-up of a space shuttle to an Imax theatre and hundreds of hands-on exhibits. Visitors are taken through the NASA Johnson Space Center where engineers are at work, and some lucky visitors might even get to see astronauts training and preparing for a mission.
The Feel of Space exhibit gives visitors an idea of what it's like to carry out everyday tasks in a low-gravity environment, and there is even an opportunity for visitors to practice some basic astronaut skills on simulators, such as landing the orbiter. Tram tours run every half hour taking in the highlights, including Rocket Park where retired spacecraft come to rest, Mission Control and even astronauts in training.
Set within a scenic part of central Houston is the city's Museum District, featuring 19 varied institutions and numerous restaurants set among some lovely green spaces like Hermann Park, all within a 1.5 mile radius of the Mecom Fountain. One of the highlights in the area is the Byzantine Fresco Chapel on the corner of Branard and Yupon Streets, containing 13th-century frescoes from Cyprus. There is also a children's museum, contemporary arts museum, and the Houston Holocaust Museum.
One of the most interesting museums in the district is the Museum of Health and Medical Science, which features a walk-through re-creation of the human body. The Menil Museum has a collection of contemporary, surrealistic, and 20th century art in an interesting building at Sul Ross. In Hermann Park is the comprehensive Museum of Natural Science and Planetarium, the Houston Zoo and a Japanese Garden.
Further museums included in the district are the Asia Society, Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, Czech Center Museum Houston, Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, Houston Center for Photography, the John C. Freeman Weather Museum, the Jung Center of Houston, Lawndale Art Center, Museum of African-American Culture, the Rice University Art Gallery, and the Rothko Chapel.
For a touch of the bizarre call at the Orange Show to see how obsession can become art. A former postman spent 26 years of his life assembling a collection of weird and wonderful objects and meshing them together into a labyrinth of passages and staircases, almost all of it orange. The result is a quirky curiosity, which is billed as 'folk art', and has spawned the popular Art Car Parade, a city-wide parade of cars decorated in weird and wonderful ways.
Several other sites are included in the Orange show, such as the Beer Can House - a house covered entirely in so-called siding made from beer cans, and decorated with garlands made from beer cans. the house was covered i beer cans by a retired upholsterer, for fun. There is also currently another park under construction, called Smither Park, that will follow the aesthetics and philosophy of the Orange Show. The park is billed as Houston's first folk-inspired green space and will play host to city-dwellers' leisure time as well as personal ceremonies such as weddings. Public performances and shows are also planned for the space.
The Sam Houston Historical Park near the city's visitor centre in Bagby Street provides visitors with a large as life look at Houston history. The 19-acre park features seven of the city's oldest buildings that have been restored and relocated here.
The oldest building is a small 1823 cabin that originally stood at Clear Lake, while one of the more recent is the 17-room home built in 1905 for oil field pioneer Henry T. Staiti. Some of the other buildings located in the park are the 1847 Kellum-Noble House, the 1850 Nichols-Rice-Cherry House, the 1868 San Felipe House, the 1868 Pillot house, the 1891 St. John Church, the 1870 Yates House and the 4th Ward Cottage. Each building has been renovated and furnished to appear exactly as it would have when it was first erected.
The park itself was bough by a mayour of the city in 1900, and was carefully landscaped into a beautiful Victorian garden. Several sculptures and memorials are displayed permanently in the park, such as the Neuhaus Fountain, the Alexander Hodge Memorial, the World War I Memorial and the spirit of the Confederacy sculpture. Visitors to the park today can explore each of the houses as well as the garden
The magnificent pink mansion in the marshy elbow of Buffalo Bayou in Houston's River Oaks area was the home of Miss Ima Hogg, a woman much loved in the community until her death in 1975, at the age of 93. Miss Hogg and her two brothers bought the woodlands estate in 1925 and for two years, Miss Hogg worked on the gardens. At her death, Miss Hogg left her home and the gardens surrounding it as a legacy for the city.
The house contains a remarkable collection of Americana dating from 1620 to 1870 and is regarded as a cultural treasure, with several thousand objects displayed in 28 period room settings in the mansion. Miss Hogg designed the gardens as outdoor living rooms, fed by bayou waters, and today they continue to provide a peaceful oasis in the middle of the metropolis planted with indigenous species. Dedicated teams work on the gardens to preserve and enhance them. Amongst the improvements made is the garden's conversion into an entirely organic space. The gardens were the first 100 percent organic gardens in the state of Texas.
At Barren Springs near Houston's International Airport is an unusual private museum run by a major funeral company in the United States, dedicated to funeral memorabilia. It is the largest museum dedicated to funerary practices in the Unites States, and probably the world.
Customs, rituals, and traditions associated with burial from ancient Egypt to the present day are represented in this institution. Highlights of the collection are restored horse-drawn and vintage automobile hearses, and a unique 1916 Packard funeral bus. The museum also features a gallery devoted to the funerals of the famous, containing memorabilia from the funerals of Elvis Presley, John F. Kennedy, and Rudolph Valentino.
Some of the permanent exhibits that can be viewed at the museum are Celebrating the Lives and Deaths of the Popes, a History of Embalming, 19th Century Mourning Customs, Presidential Funerals, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Reflections on the Wall, Coffins and Caskets of the Past, Ghana and Fantasy Coffins and Japanese Funerals. The museum sponsors an annual golf tournament in May, as well as an annual Halloween Classic Car Show.
Houston is a very kid-friendly city, making this a perfect destination for a family holiday. Very few children aren't excited by the idea of space travel, so launch your visit with a trip to Space Centre Houston, the visitor base for NASA's Johnson Space Center. The Orange Show is one of the quirkiest, most popular attractions in Texas. Created over 24 years by Jeff McKissack, a retired mailman, this is an architectural wonder of walkways, arenas, and sculptures using recycled objects and decorated with mosaics. Children invariably have a strong connection with this unique artwork. The Houston Zoo is a 50 acre facility on the grounds of Herman Park. It has a children's zoo that aims to teach and delight in equal measure. Old MacDonald Farm on the edge of town is a petting zoo on a truly Texan scale with 12 different petting environments for the children to get up close and personal with the animals. The excellent Children's Museum of Houston is an interactive and fun experience for children of all ages - and adults too! Exhibits like Kid-TV give youngsters a hands-on feel for what it's like to put on a TV show. Finally, head to Six Flags AstroWorld for a day of roller-coaster rides, carnivals and shows that will get young and old screaming for more.
Houston has a humid subtropical climate, with prevailing winds bringing in the heat from the deserts of Mexico and moisture from the Gulf of Mexico during most of the year. Summers are swelteringly hot and humid, making air conditioning a necessity rather than a luxury. In summer (June to August) temperatures average between 73°F (23°C) and 94°F (35°C), and in winter (December to February) temperatures average between 43°F (6°C) and 66°F (19°C). Summers are characterised by afternoon thunderstorms, which bring rain most days, and sometimes tornadoes. Winters, by contrast, are cool and temperate, with no snow but some rain.
The ample girth of the average Texan testifies to the good eating on offer in the Lone Star state. Known as the dining capital of the United States, Houston just about edges out Dallas in the battle for best regional dining scene and is home to some truly excellent restaurants.
The best advice for new-comers to Houston is probably to try the two great indigenous cuisines, Tex-Mex and Barbecue. Offered at places such as Vic & Anthony's steakhouse and El Tiempo Cantina, these two flavours keep visitors returning for more. El Tiempo Cantina, a lively restaurant that has been serving Houston locals and visitors with fajitas and margaritas since 1997 is an obvious favourite for many.
For those looking for something a little different, Houston's best Indian eatery Indika, known for its unique combinations, will satisfy all the sense. If a little European fare is what visitors are after, then Chez Nous is also a great option, serving authentic French country cuisine.
Visitors rarely go hungry when in Houston. There is generally something for everyone; a city with lots of cuisines catering to many tastes and varied pocket sizes too.
This temple to Tex-Mex is hugely popular with locals, as much for its excellent food as its fun and lively vibe. Prepare yourself for Tex -Mex legends like crabmeat quesadillas and superb fajitas. The margaritas are an irresistible accompaniment.
If you're looking for barbequed meat done just the way you like it, accompanied by a choice of award-winning wines, head to fun and friendly Vic & Anthony's. This restaurant has a comfortable, tasteful dining room to host its clientele of carnivores, most of which are regulars.
By some margin Houston's best Indian eatery, Indika earns rave reviews for its unique combinations of Texas ingredients and Indian spices. Great desserts too. Don't miss the duck tandoori and order some naan bread to accompany just about every dish you order.
Serving authentic French country cuisine, such as escargot and shrimp Provencal, and tournedos Rossini, Chez Nous is the place to go for a memorable meal or a celebration. The airy, tasteful décor complements this venue, a former Pentecostal church. Book well ahead and dress in your best.
Houston's raunchy rodeo is the largest in the world, and its accompanying livestock fair second in size only to the State Fair of Texas in Dallas. This three-week spectacular not only includes the world-beater rodeo competition and about 35,000 livestock entered in different categories, but it also offers hundreds of other agricultural-related activities from pig races to pony rides, and premier concert entertainment. The livestock show includes auctioning off the animals, the public is invited to watch the fast-paced and exciting auctioning process. There is also a horse show, similar to the livestock show.
A wide variety of food is available to visitors, including, of course, lots of barbecue. Prizes are handed out to food vendors in several categories: best breakfast food, best value food, best food-on-a-stick, classic fair food, most creative food, best fried food, best new flavour, and best dessert. It is the world's largest livestock exhibition, the world's richest regular-season rodeao, and is described as the Southwest's premier entertainment event. Justin Bieber, Mary J. Blige, the Black Eyed Peas, Faith Hill, Enrique Iglesias, and John Mayer are only a few of the big names that have performed here over the years.
This major family fun event has become one of the biggest children's events in America, designed to bring out the child in everyone. Over 50,000 people attend the festival over the week and the festival continues to grow in popularity.
The weekend-long festival includes 14 family adventure zones, all offering themed rides, games, activities, crafts, exhibits, and sports. There are also several music stages pumping out ongoing entertainment, from health and fitness demonstrations to techno and karaoke.
Circus Town features circus acts like trapeze artists and juggling. A superior Science Stage features fascinating science demonstrations while the Barnyard lets children see and interact with farm animals.
Coupons are sold at the entrance gates and can be used for food, beverages, and games, but marketplace vendors selling crafts, toys, and the like do not accept coupons. The Festival is organised by Child Advocates Incorporated and is in aid of abused children.
Houston's nightlife is focused on the Midtown area, downtown near Montrose, and in the Uptown area around the Galleria. It is one of the very few American cities to have resident performance companies in symphony, ballet, opera, and theatre. The main downtown venues are Jones Hall, the Alley Theatre, and the Wortham Theater Center. In terms of modern music, Houston does have venues for live gigs but doesn't attract the cachet of musicians that nearby Austin does. The best venues are The Big Easy, which has a great blues lineup, and McGonigel's Mucky Duck for acoustic performers.
Houston has plenty of mega-clubs in the city centre, great places to enjoy some Latin and hip hop music. Clubs and bars generally have a smarter dress code than many are used to so it's worth dressing up before a big night on the town. For details of nightlife options check out The Houston Press, published every Thursday with full listings of who's playing and what's hot in the city.
In Houston, the malls and credit card bills are super-sized - so be careful when embarking on a shopping spree. Houston's most famous shopping zone is undoubtedly the Galleria, the fifth largest retail complex in the USA. It hosts high-end stores and all the big names in fashion along Millionaire's Mile.
At Uptown Park visitors can enjoy the atmosphere of a quaint European village as they stroll from store to store. In Kirby District you can find The Village, a 16-block shopping zone with plenty of boutiques, galleries, and spas aimed at the more affluent shopper. On weekends don't miss the Trader's Village, an enormous flea market with everything from jewellery and clothing to tools and old Texas number plates. A great place to find a really unique memento of your visit to Houston. An ideal souvenir of your Houston visit is some Western gear - look no further than Pinto Ranch which stocks belt buckles, boots, saddles, and even ten gallon hats. If cowboy gear isn't your thing, bring home a bottle of Texas' finest barbecue sauce.
Visitors to Houston are well advised to hire a car, which is relatively inexpensive and provides the quickest and most convenient way to navigate the spread-out city. There are plenty of car parks and a well-managed road system. To hire a car (for up to 90 days), a full national driver's license is required and drivers must be at least 25 years old (some companies hire cars to those aged 21 to 24 with surcharges).
Those opting for public transport will find that the METRO has it well covered with an efficient and extensive bus service, as well as a light rail line which links Downtown, Midtown, the Museum District, Hermann Park, the Texas Medical Center, and Reliant Park. Correct change is required for on-board bus fare boxes, or purchase tokens or a day pass in advance from local stores sporting the Metro sign. Taxis are a rather expensive option, though readily available downtown.
The largest city in Texas offers visitors plenty to see and do, making it the perfect destination for a short holiday or weekend away.
Culture lovers will enjoy the Museum District, which features 19 varied and interesting museums as well as numerous restaurants in this leafy green area. And while in the area, visit the Miller Outdoor Theater to see what's on, check out the animals at the Houston Zoo, or play a round of golf on the Hermann Park Golf Course. For something completely unique, check out the quirky Orange Show, a celebration of folk art. Science lovers can make a pilgrimage to the Lyndon B Johnson Space Center in Clear Lake to view the actual Apollo and Mercury launch vehicles and even check out the space flight simulators.
Visitors should get hold of the Houston CityPass, which is valid for nine days and allows free admission to six of the city's attractions.