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Houston is the largest city in Texas and the fourth largest in the United States. Apart from its population, it is also huge in terms of square miles. While urban sprawl is synonymous with Houston, the districts closest to Downtown offer visitors a vast array of choices in a relatively small area. Houston is multicultural and diverse, home to some of the nation's largest Latino, African American and Asian American populations. It boasts an eclectic museum and arts scene, vibrant shopping, and has become a burgeoning destination for food lovers.
The city is divided into districts which are outgrowths of the original six wards which defined the city from 1840 to 1900:
Downtown (Skyline District, Theater District, Historic District, Warehouse District)
Center of the city, still the home of high finance and big business. Houston is second only to New York City in corporate headquarters of Fortune 500 companies. Many of them are located downtown including some of the world's largest energy companies. Downtown Houston also boasts the third largest theater district in the United States and the city has world class permanent organizations such as the Houston Symphony, Alley Theatre, Theatre Under the Stars and Houston Ballet. The Houston Pavilions entertainment district opened in October 2008 between Main St. and the Toyota Center.
Neartown (Montrose, Midtown, EaDo-East End)
Ideally bordered by Midtown, Heights, River Oaks, and the Medical Center. Montrose is Houston's longtime home of its LGBT population. Lower Westheimer (Westheimer in between Montrose Blvd. and Shepherd) offers an array of resale fashion shops, eclectic shopping as well as antique stores. The gay nightlife is centered around Pacific St. and surrounding streets. Many Montrose neighborhood pubs attract an eclectic and diverse crowd.
North Loop (The Heights, Washington Corridor)
A large district of gingerbread Victorian homes as well as early 20th Century bungalows. Like its sister neighborhood Montrose, The Heights is home to a diverse population from artists and musicians to wealthy professionals. Parts of the Heights are still dry, fostering a large number of BYOB restaurants ideal for those who enjoy their own selected wine.
South Loop (South Main, Museum District, Med Center)
To the south and east of downtown lie Rice University, the many attractions of Hermann Park, Reliant Stadium, and the Texas Medical Center (or just "the med center"), including some of the world's best hospitals. The Rice Village is a highly concentrated area of restaurants, bars, and shopping.
West Loop (Uptown, River Oaks, Upper Kirby & Greenway, West U)
Uptown or The Galleria Area is known for its namesake, a huge high-end shopping mall complex and has the tallest building in the United States outside of a main downtown area, the Williams tower. Nearby River Oaks is home to Houston's most exclusive and affluent neighborhoods and businesses, home to eye-popping mansions and the River Oaks Shopping Center, one of America's first suburban shopping districts and a great display of Art Deco architecture. This area has many great restaurants, vibrant nightlife, and infamous traffic jams during peak hours.
Outside 610 (West Houston, East Houston, North Houston)
Off-the-beaten-track, these areas have plenty to offer for the patient traveler including NASA/Space Center Houston, nature centers and interesting day trips.
Houston is the largest city in the United States without any appreciable zoning. While there is some small measure of zoning in the form of ordinances, deed restrictions, and land use regulations, real estate development in Houston is only constrained by the will and the pocketbook of real estate developers. Traditionally, Houston politics and law are strongly influenced by real estate developers; at times, the majority of city council seats have been held by developers.
The city is primarily built on the oil industry. What this means to the visitors is that, although the city has several good cultural and tourist destinations due to its population, there aren't as many as expected for a city of over 2 million people. Houston's large population comes partly from the fact that it encompasses a whopping 600 square miles of land area, much larger in land area than New York City (300 square miles), Los Angeles (460 square miles), and Chicago (225 square miles) -the nation's three most populous cities- yet Houston has less population. Another noticeable fact, unlike most major cities around the country, Houston has relatively few suburbs surrounding it. This is because the city government tends to annex any substanial population centers that grow near it, evident in Houston's land area of 600 square miles. Such a spread out low-density city means a car is essential for getting around the area efficiently. However, Houston's concentration of attractions lay, more specifically, in between downtown and the Galleria.
The Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau operates the Houston Visitors Center. The center is located in the heart of downtown Houston at 901 Bagby (corner of Bagby and Walker St.), on the first floor of the historic City Hall. Find information on Houston's history, attractions, restaurants, hotels, directions, maps, purchase Houston merchandise and watch an 11-minute film on Houston. You'll find over 10,000 brochures and magazines to help plan your visit to the Houston area. The center is open Monday - Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Houston's climate generally ranges from a very hot summer to a mild winter. Humidity is high in the summer months and make temperatures feel extremely hot. The city also has a fairly large amount of rainy and cloudy days throughout the year. The months of October to April make for the best time to visit in order to avoid the heat.
Houston is served by two major commercial airports and two smaller regional airports.
The large airports are:
George Bush Intercontinental Airport, (IAH). The larger of the two airports and is located 23 miles north of downtown near Beltway 8, between IH-45 North and US-59 North. It is the largest hub for United Airlines and serves 25 domestic and international airlines.
William P. Hobby Airport, (HOU). Located 7 miles south of downtown and is located off of I-45 South. It is convenient if you're travelling downtown or south of the city, such as to Galveston. Its main carrier is Southwest Airlines, and it also served by Delta Airlines, American Airlines, and JetBlue.
The smaller airports are:
Sugar Land Regional Airport, (SGR). Located 25 miles southwest of downtown on TX 6, just north of U.S. 59. It is a popular choice among the well-heeled corporate aircraft set. Air taxi and air charter companies such as Monarch Air Group, Mercury Jets fly a variety of private charter aircraft and jets, from charter luxury Gulfstream's down to economical piston twins for small groups and individuals.
Ellington Field, (EFD). Located 19 miles southeast of downtown, just off I-45. Formerly an air force base, now used for general aviation, non-passenger commercial traffic, and government aviation (NASA, Texas Air National Guard, U.S. Coast Guard).
Public transport from the airport
Generally speaking given the sprawled out nature of Houston and the lack of public transit, most visitors to Houston rent a car as soon as they arrive at the airport. Regarding public transit at either George Bush Intercontinental Airport or Hobby Airport you basically are stuck with using either a shuttle service, taxis, or the public bus service. To get from George Bush Intercontinental Airport using the local bus system, Metro Bus 102 picks up on the south side of Terminal C street level (baggage claim outside door C-105) and goes directly into Downtown (with a travel time of approximately one hour). To get from Hobby Airport to Downtown Houston take Metro Bus 40 which stops at Curbzone 13 outside of the baggage claim area in the lower level (which also has a travel time of approximately one hour). If you are heading directly from either airport to a cruise ship many companies will also run shuttles directly from either airport to the cruise ship terminals in Galveston or Bayport.
Amtrak, 902 Washington Ave. Amtrak's Sunset Limited line is the only passenger train route with a stop in Houston, although a daily bus provides a direct connection from the Houston Amtrak station to the Texas Eagle at Longview.
Houston's major freeways include:
IH-45 North ("North Freeway"): To Dallas
IH-45 South ("Gulf Freeway"): To Galveston
IH-10 West ("Katy Freeway"): To San Antonio
IH-10 East: ("Baytown/East Freeway", not to be confused with "Eastex freeway") to Beaumont
IH-610 ("The Loop"): Loop around downtown
IH-69/US-59 South ("Southwest Freeway"): to Victoria
IH-69/US-59 North ("Eastex Freeway"): to Lufkin
US-290 West ("Northwest Freeway"): to Austin
SH-249 North ("Tomball Parkway"): to Tomball
SH-288 South ("South Freeway"): to Freeport
SH-225 East ("Pasadena Freeway"): to Deer Park/La Porte
BW-8 ("The Beltway/Sam Houston Tollway"): Loop about twice as far out as IH-610.
Houston has a number of freeways and tollways that make getting around the metro area by car fairly easy. The expressway system is arguably the second-most comprehensive in the nation, after that of Los Angeles (see list of freeways under the "Get in" section.) A number of obstacles, however, can make driving in Houston a less than pleasant experience. One is construction, which seems to be ever-present; and the other is traffic. Evening rush hour in Houston begins as early as 4PM and can last to 7PM. Morning rush hour is between 7AM and 9AM. During rush hour, traffic on the highways can come to a halt. The area near the Galleria, between US-59 and IH-10, is an area you should avoid during rush hour if possible.
One peculiarity about Houston's freeway system is the ubiquity of frontage roads, or, as they're called by the locals, feeders. These are pairs of one-way surface roads which run parallel to several freeways in Houston and its suburbs, similar to what are called service roads in other parts of the country. The most basic thing to remember is that, after you've turned onto a feeder road from a surface street, you'll have to take another ramp to enter the freeway. Rest assured, they're easy to navigate once you get used to it.
By public transportation
The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, better known as METRO, operates local and express bus lines, as well as a very popular light rail system called METRORail. Visitors may be able to get around without a car, especially if they stick close to downtown, but ample free and cheap parking, combined with Houston's suburban sprawl, make public transit an unpopular choice for Houstonians themselves.
All METRO fares can be paid with exact change in coins and $1 bills, or with the recently-implemented reloadable fare smartcard, the Q Card. Q Cards can be obtained for free at METRO's RideStore downtown, and at many local supermarkets, usually at the same service center you'd go to to cash a check or send a wire transfer. Oddly enough, the machines at Park & Ride lots and METRORail stations do not sell Q Cards, so bring exact change or buy your Q Card before boarding. There are four options for re-filling your Q Card:
Credit Vending Machines in Park & Ride lots, which accept credit and debit cards
Ticket Vending Machines at METRORail stations, which accept both cash and credit cards
Bus Reloaders at the back of every local bus. These are a bit counterintuitive to use, but once you get them, they're quite simple. Insert a bill, and then place your card in the slot. These machines take $1, $5, $10, and $20 bills, and will reload only one bill at a time.
Places where cards can be bought: any store that sells Q Cards can also reload the card for you—just ask at the service desk! Most grocery chains and many convenience stores sell Q Cards.
If you're brave enough to see Houston from the back seat of a bus, a Q Card is definitely worth the investment, as it's the only way to obtain transfers from one route to the other. Unlike other systems, which require you to transfer at a central point, or only give you a short amount of time to switch buses, METRO gives you unlimited, free transfers for a full three hours after boarding the first bus. No need to ask the driver for a transfer—just tap your Q Card like you would normally. The computer will make sure you pay the least amount possible. The following bus lines listed below are the ones that most visitors will probably find to be useful.
Traveling via a limousine has become more popular lately. Many Houston limousine companies offer full ground transportation options such as town cars, classic cars, stretch limos and luxury vehicles that can be utilized for special occasions like airport transportation, parties, school dances, business functions and weddings. Consider hiring a limousine service to handle your travel needs.
Houston is so spread out and (most of the time) humid and hot that bicycles are often best used for exercise or to get to somewhere that is closeby. On the other hand, if you have a little bit of stamina and perseverance, Downtown, Midtown, Rice, Uptown and the Medical Center/Hermann Park/Museum District area are within a 30 minute ride. Multi-modal transportation is also possible, since all city buses have easy to use racks in the front or storage compartments that can get traveler and bicycle near to a final destination.
There is a bike sharing service that is available thru B-cycle. There are 29 docking stations located mainly around Downtown, Midtown, Montrose, and the Museum District. Rides of less than 60 minutes incur no fee, while there is a small fee for longer rides.
Houston, like many large American cities, is diverse. As the state's largest city and the nation's fourth largest, Houston is home to more than 100 languages. Signs can be found in Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese, among others, but English is the lingua franca for the majority of the population. Knowing some Spanish may help in certain neighborhoods, but most people will speak English.
What to see
Travelers planning to visit multiple attractions may benefit from Houston CityPASS, which grants admission to 6 Houston attractions within 9 days of first use for a much reduced rate and includes expedited entry in some cases. The included attractions are: Space Center Houston; Downtown Aquarium; Houston Museum of Natural Science; Houston Zoo; Option Ticket One with choice of either Museum of Fine Arts or The Children's Museum of Houston and Option Ticket Two with choice of either George Ranch Historical Park or The Health Museum.
What to do
Memorial Park, 6501 Memorial Dr. 6:00am - 11:00pm. Memorial Park is Houston's premier urban park. The park's 2.88-mile jogging trail is very popular with runners and walkers year-round. The park also has miles of mountain bike trails, several tennis courts, and other options for outdoor recreation. Free.
Hermann Park. Approximately 455 acres (about half the size of Central Park in New York City). George Hermann gave the parkland to the City of Houston in 1914. It is accessible via the MetroRail. Encompasses the Miller Outdoor Theater, the Houston Zoo, the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and the Hermann Park Golf Course.
Events & Festivals
iFest. April. iFest is a contemporary, multi-disciplinary, multi-cultural arts and music festival held annually. The festival features vendors selling local and international foods and crafts. iFest also features six to eight arts markets with more than 400 artists including a juried art market. varies.
Houston Gay Pride Parade. June. Houston's own Gay Pride Parade currently the most attended and largest gay pride event in the Southwest region, held in the Montrose neighborhood. free. edit
Art Car Parade, Runs along Allen Parkway. May. A parade that must be seen to be believed. For example, last year there were cupcake motorcycles, fire breathing chicken cars, and many other spectacular cars. There are vendors nearby selling water, hats, and food as well. It can get very hot! Free.
Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, Reliant Park. Feb-Mar. The world's largest entertainment and livestock exhibition. Concerts, rodeo competitions, livestock shows, BBQ competitions, and a carnival. Houston residents celebrate this event with Go Texan Day, where they dress in western wear the Friday before the rodeo begins. Varies.
Fiestas Patrias, Reliant Park. September. This September 16 festival features a parade, a ball, street music and dance performances in celebration of Mexican Independence Day. Varies.
Houston Shakespeare Festival, Miller Theatre. July. Star-crossed lovers and mistaken identities prevail at the Miller Outdoor Theatre for two weeks beginning in late July. To get a seat reserve free tickets online, or picnic on the lawn. Varies.