Houston is a city whose very existence has always depended on wild speculation and boom-and-bust excess. Founded on a muddy mire in 1837 by two real estate-booster brothers from New York – their dream was to establish it as the capital of the new Republic of Texas – Houston was soon superseded by the more promising site of Austin, even while somehow establishing itself as a commercial center. Oil, discovered in 1901, became the foundation, along with cotton and real estate, of vast private fortunes, and over the next century wildly wealthy philanthropists poured cash into swanky galleries and showpiece skyscrapers. That colossal self-confidence helped Houston weather devastating oil crises in the 1980s, and more recently it has endured the Enron corporate scandal and, in September 2008, Hurricane Ike, which pounded the city and sucked windows out of downtown skyscrapers.
Houston has also developed a small but growing workforce eager to bring alternative energy to scale, while several megachurches headquartered downtown – with celebrity pastors like the non-denominational Joel Olsteen – have become powerful social, cultural, and, in some cases, political forces. Some churches draw as many as 16,000 people to their Sunday services, which are open to the public. There are also several highly regarded medical centers in the city.
The fourth-largest city in the United States, Houston is an ungainly beast of a place, choked with successive rings of highways and high on humidity. Despite this, its sheer energy, its relentless Texas pride, and above all, its refusal to take itself totally seriously, lends it no small appeal. For visitors, its well-endowed museums, highly regarded performing arts scene, and decent nightlife mean there is always something to do.
Welcome to the Bayou City! Houston is famous for offering a vast range of opportunities and cultural experiences to its 5.5 million residents. Often described as a "sprawling Texas town", the greater Houston area covers more ground than any other major city in America. This creates a sense of living in a medium-sized town—one that just happens to offer big-city convenience and opportunity.
During the day, the downtown skyscrapers are alive with activity and the sidewalks are filled with bustling executives in designer suits. Do not let the daytime business atmosphere fool you, however. This city cares about much more than business, and it is out to prove it. When the sun goes down, the downtown area comes alive with an entirely different personality.
Catch a performance in Houston's renowned Theater District, which spans 17 blocks. Houston is one of a few U.S. cities with permanent, professional resident companies in opera ( Houston Grand Opera ), ballet ( Houston Ballet ), music ( Houston Symphony ) and theater ( Alley Theatre ).
Bayou Place , which features restaurants, nightclubs, theaters, and concert houses all under one roof, is an asset to the downtown entertainment scene. You can catch an art film at the Angelika Film Center .
If all of this is not enough to impress you, then give the underground tunnels and some shopping a try. A trip through this "city under the city" is an interesting experience that should not be missed by anyone—tourist or resident.
The prestige and glamour of the Galleria area is undeniable. Office space in one of the nearby skyscrapers is expensive, and the shopping consists primarily of exclusive shops offering designer merchandise. If money is no object, put a trip to The Galleria on your list of things to do. This glamorous shopping center showcases the best names in American and European design, with more than 375 shops and restaurants in residence. If your shopping expenditures tend to be a bit more low-key, this outing still offers a world of fun in the form of window-shopping. The ice skating rink on the bottom floor is also a popular attraction, especially at Christmas, when a lavishly decorated, three-story tree is erected in the middle of the ice.
Restaurants and clubs, like most things in the area, tend to be fairly sophisticated and cosmopolitan. Cafe Annie , Arcodoro Ristorante Italiano , Morton's The Steakhouse and Capital Grille are all outstanding options for fine cuisine. Uptown's fashionable evening scene includes Bar Annie at Cafe Annie and Post Oak Grill .
Developed in 1911, Montrose covers approximately four square miles, bordered by Buffalo Bayou's Allen Parkway on the north, the Museum District and Highway 59 on the south, Bagby and the revitalized Midtown on the east and Upper Kirby District and Shepherd Drive on the west. Find some quiet time at the Menil Collection and neighboring Rothko Chapel , the artistic vision of John and Dominique de Menil. Enjoy the walk to the nearby Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum , embracing the architecture that houses the rescued 13th century works of art. Stop for lunch at the Black Labrador , with its traditional English fish 'n' chips. Mark's American Cuisine , located in a small 1920s Gothic church, has long been at the top of Houston's culinary scene. Sitting side-by-side around an Italian-inspired piazza, Nino's Restaurant and Vincent's Rotisserie Italian restaurants have been a Houston tradition since 1977. Nino's is the older, and more formal classic spot, while Vincent's, with its wide-open rooms, is more casual and a tad more trendy. And when the day is done, rest assured you'll find peaceful sleep at one of several Montrose B&Bs. Victorian charm and soft featherbeds await you at the 116-year-old Robin's Nest Inn . Lovett Inn , home to former Mayor Joseph Hutcheson, Jr., offers traditional southern charm in a beautifully renovated mansion. Perhaps the ultimate hidden gem of Montrose is La Colombe d'Or Mansion & Le Grand Salon . With six stunning suites and nine opulent villas, it is the smallest luxury hotel in the world. Its award-winning restaurant specializes in modern cuisine from the French Riviera.
21st century Houston is a thriving art nexus, the home of world-class museums, acclaimed art galleries and a huge community of talented artists. At the heart of it all: The Houston Museum District, whose 15 museums and 50-acre zoological park—all within walking distance of one another and accessible by METRO Rail—form one of the largest cultural districts in the country, with more than half a million square feet of exhibition space. It's also one of the most vital in the nation, drawing six million visitors annually. The Museum of Fine Arts and the Contemporary Art Museum house some of the finest masterpieces in the world. If your interest in museums leans toward the historical, do not miss the Holocaust Museum Houston . It is recognized worldwide as a leading source of information about the horrifying events of the Holocaust.
Hermann Park Running alongside the Texas Medical Center , in what can only be described as an odd blend of technology and nature, lies Hermann Park . Or perhaps the blend is not as odd as it might seem. When striving to maintain a position as a leader in the healthcare industry, a peaceful view of a nearby park might be just what the doctor ordered for stress relief.
Besides providing a peaceful view and getaway for the local medical workforce, the park offers a variety of fun options to tourists and residents. Sports enthusiasts can commune with nature while exploring the bike and jogging trails or hit the golf course for the afternoon. Families can enjoy spending the afternoon riding the train around the park and exploring the water on paddle boats. For a little cultural enhancement, Miller Outdoor Theatre offers exceptional evening performances during the warmest ten months of the Houston year. Grab your cooler and arrive early, because the grounds are usually packed with fans.
If you enjoy learning a thing or two while having a good time, visit the Houston Zoo and the Houston Museum of Natural Science . But do not try to do both in one day! The museum features three levels of amazing sights that will keep you busy for hours, and it also houses Burke Baker Planetarium and the Cockrell Butterfly Center . Combined, they definitely represent an all-day adventure. The zoo also features an assortment of exhibits that require a full afternoon to experience them all. The white Bengal tiger habitat is just one of the many popular exhibits.
If you head south past the Loop on I-45, you will run into the Clear Lake/Kemah area. Unless you are the boat-loving outdoors type, the greatest attraction in this area is Space Center Houston , Houston's famous home of NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). Tours through various NASA buildings—including the original Mission Control room—and other exhibits provide a whole day of fun and enlightening activities.
If you happen to prefer the "splashier" side of life, you will undoubtedly love this area for its water sports and boating activities. Both Clear Lake and Galveston Bay offer ample opportunities to get your feet wet. In fact, this area has been labeled "the nation's third coast for boating" and contains one of the largest concentrations of pleasure boats in the country.
Of course, an area with ocean access has to provide delectable seafood offerings, or it simply would not be worth its weight in salt. The Kemah Boardwalk excels in this respect. The Aquarium and Bay Brewery are among the many restaurants that showcase fabulous culinary delights along this extended stretch of beach and wood.
East Houston/San Jacinto
A visit to San Jacinto State Historical Park is a must for history buffs. The park encompasses the actual fields where General Santa Anna's troops were defeated by the troops of Sam Houston and other Texas patriots at the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836. Those who have watched the movies or read the history books and "remember the Alamo" will definitely appreciate the 570-foot monument that stands as a reminder of Texas' hard-won independence from Mexico. The history of Texas and its prominent leaders, both before and after this battle, is fully captured in the Museum of Texas History , located in the base of the monument.
The park's Battleship Texas is from a different era, but is equally impressive. Docked on a branch of the Houston Ship Channel that runs adjacent to the park, it stands as a proud reminder of its wartime service. The ship was commissioned in 1914 and is both the last of the World War I era dreadnoughts and the only surviving combat ship to have served in both World Wars—an impressive accomplishment to say the least. Tours are self-guided, and guests are free to roam most areas of the ship.
Traveling through the area also offers a chance to see the famous Houston Ship Channel. While it is not necessarily as scenic, the sight is certainly splendorous in its own way. Depending on the route taken, you can cross the channel via a toll bridge or a ferry. Naturally, the ferry is recommended for the best view.
As the newest section of the city, the west side has the distinction of being fresh and modern. There are not a lot of tourist attractions on this side of town, but you will find excellent restaurants and shopping centers. Town & Country Center, a modern, three-story shopping mall, offers the perfect blend of traditional mall retailers and unique specialty stores. The Center's newest neighbor, Town & Country Center, is a sprawling shopping center that has wisely followed the same pattern. Many designer and specialty stores stand next to the more recognizable names.
Katy Mills Mall hums with both shoppers ever since it opened. It is a sight to behold. The mall is home to the first Bass Pro Shop in the Houston area. And if you have the kids along, be sure to grab a bite to eat at Rainforest Cafe . The wait can be long, but the mechanical jungle animals, steamy waterfalls and simulated thunderstorms create a dining atmosphere that is worth the wait.
While contemporary restaurants still tend to gravitate to the downtown and Galleria areas, the west side holds its own when it comes to a juicy cut of steak or spicy Tex-Mex fare. Lynn's Steakhouse and Taste of Texas are two of the highest rated steakhouses in the city, while Little Pappasito's and Ninfa's fare equally well in the world of Tex-Mex. This side of town is also home to Wild West, an immensely popular Country & Western dance club.
Although a few other businesses have managed to squeeze into the crevices here and there, the number of restaurants, bars and nightclubs lining this strip is phenomenal. The western portion of Richmond Avenue is fairly tame and civilized, but once you cross Hillcroft on your way downtown, the fun and games begin.
With so many choices available, it is hard to nail down the most popular spots in the area, but City Streets would no doubt qualify. This vast nightclub houses seven distinctly different clubs, including a 1970s Pop Disco, a piano bar and a huge Country & Western dance hall. If you enjoy perfecting your gaming skills with the latest in high-tech virtual reality and video game equipment, head to Dave & Busters . It also features a full-service restaurant, numerous pool tables and both a karaoke and a traditional bar.
Restaurants along the strip are both diverse and impressive. The Outback , for one, is a popular bar/restaurant hangout with the twenty-something and thirty-something crowd. One word of caution—most of the strip's establishments focus heavily on boisterous fun. The atmosphere gets a little classier at a few select spots— Ruth's Chris Steak House is a prime example—but for those truly in search of peace, quiet and luxury, sample the choices in The Galleria and downtown areas instead.
As long as glitz and glamor are not on your agenda, the strip offers the perfect solution for a night out. Head there and you will inevitably stumble across the perfect spot.
The diverse industrial focus of Houston has inspired people from numerous countries to settle here. With so many cultures represented, it is no great surprise that the city's dining opportunities reflect their influences. If you are homesick, there is a good chance you will be able to find a restaurant that specializes in your native cuisine. If you are simply adventurous and like to sample the flavors of the world, you will have a lot of chances to do so while visiting. In fact, you would have to live here a very long time to exhaust the possibilities.
Beyond the realm of traditional Texan, the possibilities are equally impressive. The close proximity to the Gulf of Mexico has inspired a love of seafood, which has, in turn, inspired the birth of a large number of seafood restaurants across the city. The downtown area boasts the expertise of Massa's Seafood Grill and McCormick & Schmick's . A variety of Asian food types are popular in Houston. If you like Japanese sushi in an upscale atmosphere, try the Sake Lounge . In addition to the tasty Tex-Mex offerings, the city also boasts a number of restaurants that specialize in traditional Mexican fare. Irma's Restaurant has been a famous Houston mainstay for years. Irma herself will come out of the kitchen and treat you like one of the family at her homey establishment.
Steaks are considered to be a strong runner-up as a Texas tradition, and some of the finest steakhouses in the state are located in Houston. Morton's The Steakhouse is yet another former President Bush-approved restaurant. It is classy and elegant, as is Capital Grille . Copeland's of New Orleans is an example of a New Orleans' original that has made a mark on the spicy side of the Houston dining scene.
Not to be outdone by the Big Apple, Houston also has its share of restaurants that specialize in contemporary, cutting-edge cuisine. Anthony's Restaurant is owned and operated by heralded restaurateur Tony Vallone. The elegance and sophistication of the decor and European/American menu are hard to beat. Rudi Lechner's Restaurant pays tribute to German and Austrian cuisine. Pizzerias are essentially Italian, of course, but the concept has been Americanized to a large extent. Fun-loving diners are drawn to the boisterous atmosphere of New York Pizzeria, while out-of-the-ordinary options, like barbecue pizza, attract a full house at California Pizza Kitchen .
When it comes to Tex-Mex, the city's restaurants offer a variety of atmospheres to suit every mood. You can enjoy the best at a place called Little Pappasito's . The decor is eclectic Mexican, complete with roaming mariachis, but the menu offers some sophisticated twists in addition to traditional Tex-Mex. Otto's Bar-B-Q has been around for over 50 years and has earned former President George Bush's seal of approval. Not to be outdone, Goode Company Barbecue is famous across the city for the sweet-spicy-smoky barbecue sauce they slather on a variety of meats. Brennan's of Houston specializes in Cajun and Creole creations, while Baroque offers the best in French dining with a romantic, elegant theme. You have the option of dining lavishly, and if you choose to do so, there is no better place to splurge than Aldo's .
You will be comfortable dressing up or down for your meal at Mark's American Cuisine , but don't let the name fool you. There are a lot of interesting global twists on the menu. For spicy Thai and a view of some interesting murals, visit Nit Noi. Another interesting mural, this one of Saigon, can be found at Miss Saigon Cafe . Traditional Greek cuisine is the focus at Nikos Nikos . Thanks in part to Houston's influence in the oil and energy fields, the city has a sizeable number of Middle Eastern residents and quite a few restaurants that specialize in the region's cuisine; try Istanbul Grill , the famed Turkish restaurant. If you care more about good food than elegant surroundings, try Yildizlar in the Montrose area. It's not much to look at, but the food will certainly satisfy.
Casual diners might prefer Taste of Texas , which offers the more traditional "rustic cowboy" atmosphere to go along with that excellent cut of beef. Bistro Provence heada up the city's list of elegant and impressive bistros. The family-friendly Otilia's Mexican Restaurant is built in an old drive-in restaurant. Houston is also kind to health-conscious diners. If your concept of healthy food revolves primarily around low-fat, grilled meat, you will find a large number of restaurants to accommodate you. If you prefer total vegetarian dining, A Moveable Feast is a fantastic option.
Houston is a city with a lot of popular attractions and a plethora of things to do. Even many of the locals have never managed to see and do everything, and most of them have spent a lifetime here.
Downtown Astrodome , or the "Eighth Wonder of the World," is a must-see. Be sure to browse the museum as well. Try down home cooking at Irma's Restaurant . If you are a shopaholic or simply a lover of the unique, you will want to experience the Tunnel Walk , an amazing modern tunnel system lies under many of the most prominent buildings in the downtown area. Classical music fans will enjoy the Houston Symphony , while the Sam Houston Park is a haven from the hustle and bustle.
Montrose/Museum District The Montrose District is also known as the Museum District for its dozens of world-class galleries and art collections. The Contemporary Arts Museum has exhibits that reflect modern art styles, while the Houston Museum of Natural Science contains interactive displays such as a live butterfly exhibit. The nearby River Cafe is a great place to stop and grab a bite to eat. Other important museums include the Houston Holocaust Museum and the Children's Museum of Houston , which is dedicated to enriching the lives of youngsters.
Clear Lake/Kemah The area around the Kemah Boardwalk is filled with things to do. The Boardwalk itself has many interesting shops, cafes and restaurants that keep visitors busy for hours. If you'd like to go antiquing, check out Almeda Antique Mall . Dine at Bonnie's Beef & Seafood . Space technology junkies, especially those who experienced first-hand the wonder and thrill of America's first moon landing, will definitely want to visit Johnson Space Center . The renowned Comedy Showcase , where many famous comics got their start, is also nearby.
West Houston Ima Hogg is the famous philanthropist responsible for creating the Houston Symphony in the early 1900s. Her magnificent estate, Bayou Bend , is a 28-room mansion that contains over 4800 pieces of American art that represent various styles from colonial times to the mid-1900s. A wander through the nearby Buffalo Bayou Park and Memorial Park is also a nice way to break up the day. Dine at Lynn's Steakhouse .
Galveston McFaddin-Ward House is the historic home of Texas oil and cattle pioneers Perry and Ida McFaddin. Have lunch at the Reef Seafood House . If you don't mind a short drive, Galveston offers two historical wonders that shouldn't be missed if you enjoy palatial homes. Ashton Villa was built in 1859 and features Italian architecture with carved moldings and exquisite antique furnishings. The Bishop's Palace has been ranked in the nation's Top 100 Homes for its stunning architecture.
Many sights in the city can be discovered on self-guided tours, but professional tour companies offer many unique ways to see the city; from boat tours to tours of historic homes. Historic Homes Tours Heritage Society Museum & Tour ( +1 713 655 1912/ http://www.heritagesociety.org )
Helicopter Tours Paradigm Helicopter Tours ( +1 877 345 8687/ http://www.paradigmhelicopters.com )
Boat Tours Sam Houston Boat Tour ( +1 713 670 2416/ http://portofhouston.com/samhou/samhou.html ) Colonel Cruise ( +1 409 744 4673/ +1 888 740 7797/ http://www.galveston.com/colonel )
Factory Tours Imperial Sugar Company ( +1 281 490 9555/ http://www.imperialholly.com ) Blue Bell Creamery ( +1 800 327 8135/ http://www.bluebell.com ) Spoetzel Brewery ( +1 361 594 3383/ http://www.shiner.com )
Marine Tours Sea Turtle Tours ( +1 409 766 3500/ http://galveston.ssp.nmfs.gov/ ) Dolphin Watch ( +1 409 765 1700 ) Sea Center Texas ( +1 409 292 0100 )
Nature Tours Bayou Wildlife Park ( +1 281 337 6376/ http://www.bayouwildlifepark.com/index.html )
Train Tours Treasure Isle Tour Train ( +1 409 765 9564/ http://www.galveston.com/treasureisletourtrain )