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 the 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 Houston Space Center is attached to NASA's mission control, the headquarters which guided pioneering astronauts and directed the space shuttle project. Houston's most popular tourist attraction, the center is located on Clear Lake off the Gulf Freeway I-45. Visitors will encounter wonders that both entertain and educate, including hundreds of hands-on displays, an Imax theatre and even a rare chance of seeing astronauts train. Guests can get 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.
The Museum District in Houston features 19 museums and galleries, set within a 1.5 mile (2.4 km) of the striking Mecom Fountain. The Museum of Fine Art and the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston are great spots to start, as is the Rothko Chapel which itself is part of the famed Menil Collection. This is perhaps best followed by the Children's Museum to lighten the mood, while kids and adults alike will love the Museum of Natural Science, the Health Museum and the Houston Zoo. There is also the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum and the Houston Museum of African American Culture, among many others.
For a touch of the bizarre visit The Orange Show, a lot where a postman's obsession with his favourite fruit became a treasured local art space. Its labyrinth of orange passages and staircases has inspired Houston movements like the popular Art Car Parade and the Beer Can House, while the mosaics of Smither Park followed its quirky aesthetics and philosophies. The park is billed as Houston's first folk-inspired green space, even hosting personal ceremonies such as weddings. Public performances and shows are also regular occurrences.
The 19 acres of Sam Houston Park provides visitors with a larger than life look into the area's history. It features seven of the oldest buildings, now fully restored and relocated to this convenient central location. A small log cabin named the Old Place dates all the way back to 1823 while others were built throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Many of the buildings entrance travellers with the weight of time and history, while others are simply wonderful structures such as the St John Church and the Pilot House. The park itself was bought by the mayor in 1900 and landscaped into a gorgeous Victorian garden, with several permanent sculptures and memorials.
The magnificent pink mansion in the marshy elbow of Buffalo Bayou in Houston's River Oaks area was the home of Miss Ima Hogg. 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, she left her home and gardens as a legacy for the city. The gardens were the first 100 percent organic gardens in the state of Texas, with dedicated teams working to preserve and enhance them. 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.
At Barren Springs in Houston is an unusual private museum dedicated to funeral memorabilia, perhaps the biggest of its kind in the world. Customs, rituals, and traditions associated with burial from ancient Egypt to the present day are represented, with some highlights of the collection being 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 famous figures like Elvis Presley, John F. Kennedy and Rudolph Valentino. Permanent exhibits focus on embalming, presidential funerals, mourning customs, Ghanaian and Japanese funerals, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and other intriguing displays.
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 excellent Children's Museum of Houston is an interactive and fun experience for children and adults alike. Exhibits include EcoStation, Constructioneering and How Does It Work.
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.
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 newcomers to Houston is probably to try its barbecue and Tex-Mex offerings. Served 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 senses. 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 spending powers.
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.
The Houston Livestock and Rodeo Show is considered the southwest's premier entertainment event. Boasting the largest livestock show and auction on top of the world's richest rodeo competition, it's hard not to see why. Along with the 35,000 strong exhibition of cattle and horses, big stars such as John Mayer, Justin Bieber and Black Eyed Peas have graced its stages while there is a huge array of food and culinary competitions on the go.
One of the biggest children's events in America, the Houston Children's Festival is a massive hit with the little ones. The weekend-long party includes 14 family adventure zones, all offering rides, games, activities, crafts, exhibits, and sports. Kids will even be able to meet their heroes like Spongebob, the Ninja Turtles and Clifford the Big Red Dog. There's a fun science zone as well as a petting zoo. 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 Downtown near Montrose, the Midtown area, 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 megaclubs 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 online publication with full listings of who's playing and what's hot in the city.
In Houston, the malls and credit card bills are supersized 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.
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, an affluent 16-block shopping zone with plenty of boutiques, galleries and spas. 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. Visitors should get hold of the Houston CityPass, which is valid for nine days and allows free admission to seven of the city's attractions.
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.
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