Houston is the largest city in Texas and the fourth largest in the United States. It is huge, both in population and in land area. "Urban sprawl" is a term tailor-made for this city, due to Houston being the largest unzoned city in the country. Houston is a multicultural city home to some of the nation's largest Asian, Arab and Latin American populations. But its culture is not limited to diverse population — it also boasts a world class symphony and theater district that includes a full-time ballet company and opera.
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.
What this means to visitors is that Houston covers a larger land area with less population than might otherwise be expected. The city is primarily built on the energy industry and nearly everyone owns a car and drives everywhere they go. However, the city is becoming more dense and walkable, particularly in the Midtown/Montrose areas. With a few exceptions, almost everything to see or do is in Houston's urban core inside the 610 Loop and more specifically in between downtown, the Galleria, and the Texas Medical Center.
Houston's climate generally ranges from a hot summer to a cool winter. The months of October to April make for fantastic times to visit to avoid the heat.
The city has a number of districts. Historically, these districts were called "wards" and they tended to have distinct populations. Redevelopment has rendered most of those distinctions meaningless, but the modern version of Houston still has districts.
Houston is served by two major commercial airports and two smaller regional airports.
The large airports are:
The smaller airports are:
Houston's major freeways include:
Approximate distance to nearby cities (in miles):
There are many private bus companies in Houston that exclusively serve Mexico.
Houston has a number of major highways that make getting around Houston fairly easy. (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 4 PM and can last more than 2 hours. Morning rush hour is between 7 and 9 AM. During rush hour, traffic on the highways can come to a halt. The strip of the West Loop near the Galleria, between US-59 and IH-10, is an area you should definitely avoid during rush hour if possible.
Some of the freeways have an H.O.V. (High-Occupancy Vehicle) lane, which are limited-access lanes located in the median strip of the highway. The HOV lanes are operational Monday - Friday in the morning hours (5AM - 11AM) in the inbound direction and in the outbound direction in the afternoon and evening (from 2PM - 8PM). The HOV lanes are restricted to cars with 2 or more passengers, however some HOV lanes require 3 or more passengers during peak travel periods (6:45-8:00AM and 5-6PM, for IH-10 west; 6:45-8AM only for US-290). The HOV lanes are marked with signs bearing a white diamond on a black background. Highways with HOV lanes are: IH-45 North, IH-45 South, US-59 North, US-59 South, IH-10 West (Katy Freeway), and US-290. In addition to its usual Monday through Friday hours, the Katy Freeway HOV lane also runs on Saturday in the outbound direction and on Sunday in the inbound direction.
By public transportation
METRORail is a seven and a half mile light rail line that runs between downtown, midtown, the museum district, the Medical Center, Reliant Park, and the Fannin South Park & Ride (which is a handy place to park and is located near the 610 loop). It costs $1.25 for a one-way ticket. (Also see the stay safe section.)
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 perseverence, 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 most city buses have easy to use racks in the front that can get traveler and bicycle near to a final destination.
The city of Houston has 290 miles of marked bike routes, plus another 80 miles of hike and bike trails in city parks, with concrete plans for even more expansion. For more information on the Houston Bikeway program, including a complete map of all marked bike paths, visit the City of Houston Bikeway Program website .
Houston, like many 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. Knowing some Spanish may help in certain neighborhoods, but most people will speak English.
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.
Events & Festivals
Houstonians like theater and the community supports many types of performing arts companies. Most professional theater is centered in the Theater District, but other companies are located in different districts around town. The lively culture of Houston also includes numerous community theater organizations and several well regarded university programs.
Houston is home to one of the top universities in the country, Rice University. Its beautifully wooded campus is ideal for an afternoon stroll or jog.
Many of the shopping malls are concentrated to the west of downtown in Uptown.
In general, prices in Houston are lower than in other major US cities.
Houston has outstanding dining options, and is widely considered the most restaurant-oriented city in the United States, with a thriving community of ethnic restaurants, superb Tex-Mex, classic Texas steakhouses and Gulf Coast seafood, as well as chain restaurants. Houston's fine dining scene has exploded in recent years, with Downtown, Montrose, Midtown, and the Heights (including the Washington Corridor) as the epicenter of what's hot-and-happening now.
Although high-quality, authentic Mexican food can be found just about anywhere in the city (for some of the best surprises, stop by any nondescript taqueria and order nearly anything at random), the best ethnic dining is generally found in West Houston - in particular the area west of Highway 59 and south of I-10, with everything from Middle Eastern to Ethiopian to Bosnian. The bustling Mahatma Gandhi District around Hillcroft St. is the place to go for top-notch Indian and Pakistani cuisine. In years past, you'd go east of Downtown or to Midtown for your Chinese or Vietnamese fix (respectively); nowadays the new Chinatown (or sometimes "Asiatown") is the new one-stop shop for your cravings. Lying just north of I-10, Long Point Drive and North Gessner sport crowded Korean joints, fantastic taco trucks, and hidden Thai gems.
With hometown stars such as Monica Pope (T'afia) and Bryan Caswell (Reef, Little Big's, El Real) making their debut on TV shows such as Top Chef and on the Food Network, and more and more chefs and restaurants getting name-checked in media (like GQ's Best Of lists, or Bon Appetit's recent declaration of Houston as the best food city in Texas) and earning award nominations (Randy Rucker's Bootsie's Heritage Cafe was up for the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant - the "Oscars of the restaurant world"), Houston's dining scene seems slowly but surely to be staking out room on the national stage.
Houston has multiple telephone area codes and mandatory 10-digit dialing. For any number, even within your own area code, you need to dial areacode + number. For local calls, you do not dial a 1+ or a 0+ before the number. Some calls within Houston are considered long distance, and for those you need to dial 1 + areacode + number.
Houston's area codes are: 713, 281, and 832.
Like most large US cities, Houston has its share of crime. Residents of Texas are allowed to carry concealed firearms after completing training and a thorough background check. Almost all people who possess a firearm do so responsibly, and crime among this group is practically nonexistent. Like many other US cities, certain areas of Houston are considerably less safe including the area within Loop 610 on the east side and some areas in Southwest Houston near Beltway 8 (Sam Houston Tollway).
Travelers to Houston should follow common safety procedures such as staying away from deserted areas in the middle of the night, keeping their valuables in sight, keeping purses/wallets in a secure location, and always put valuables in a car trunk. For emergency assistance, travelers can contact Houston Police Department by dialing 911. In addition, travelers should dial 911 to report most crimes in progress. For non-emergency assistance and for crimes not in progress such as minor assault, car theft, home invasion, property damage, and theft, dial 713-884-3131 and request police assistance. The Houston Police Department also allows citizens to file online reports for minor property damage and theft if they are under $5,000 in damages.
Houston is like much of the Gulf Coast in that it is very vulnerable to hurricanes in the summer and fall. If a hurricane is forecast to make landfall anywhere near Houston, listen to officials and heed mandatory evacuation orders if one is ordered. The last major hurricane to hit Houston was Hurricane Ike on September 13, 2008.
Houston is very hot and humid in the summer, with temperatures around 31°C-38°C (87°F-100°F), and summer climate in Houston is easily comparable to the average climates in tropical cities like Manila or Panama City during the summer. However, in the winter, Houston can be mild with temperatures ranging from -1°C-18°C (30°F-64°F), and winter climate is usually comparable to winters in the rest of the Southern United States or Southern California.
METRO Rail is the starter line of an expanding system which starts at UofH Downtown, through downtown proper, into Midtown, the Museum district, the Texas Medical Center, and the Reliant Complex near the south side. Houston natives have a tendency to park along the rail line or the south side lot to go into downtown or medical center as it is easier to get in and out of those areas with the train without the hassle of parking and traffic.
Please be careful when coming near the METRO Rail track, especially at intersections.
Follow the signs since the trains move very quickly and run at almost all hours of the day and night. It runs almost silently. At many streets, left turns are not permitted. Also watch the signs and signals, because some will change as trains approach. Do not drive on the tracks as there are large raised white domes that separate the roadway and the rail line. In some areas signs may indicate driving (or walking) on the tracks is permitted (currently only in the Texas Medical Center) but make sure it is safe to do so.
Drive across the tracks only when you are sure it is safe to do so, especially at night as the train's whistle is quiet and is often not heard by a driver inside a car.
If that isn't your thing. try the simple thing most Houstonians do when they need to release tensions of big ciy madness: take a walk in the beautiful parks or go walking and shopping downtown. If you know someone who lives in Houston, you can have a lunch on a gorgeous spring day outside. Sometimes the most relaxing and peaceful things don't always involve money.