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:
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 is served by two major commercial airports and two smaller regional airports.
The large airports are:
The smaller airports are:
The following companies have locations at George Bush Intercontinental Airport and/or Hobby Airport:
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.
Houston's major freeways include:
Approximate distance to nearby cities (in miles):
You can get to Houston easily from Mexico (from as far as Mexico City and Michoacan) on a bus. In the bus stations of many major cities in Mexico you will see buses advertised to go to Houston.
There are many private bus companies in Houston that exclusively serve Mexico.
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. *Houston Traffic Map 
Some freeways have limited-access lanes located in the median strip of the highway, generally called HOV (High-Occupancy Vehicle) Lanes. These lanes usually can't be entered directly from the feeder roads, so using them usually requires finding a METRO Park-and-Ride. Google Maps doesn't seem to know they exist, but if you can navigate METRO's HOV maps, these traffic-free lanes can save you a lot of time if heading to or from downtown during rush hour. Beware traffic congestion is heavy in the city centre during most hours in the day
The HOV lanes are generally operational Monday - Friday. In the morning morning hours (5AM - 11AM) they run inbound, and in the afternoon and evening (from 2PM - 8PM), outbound. The HOV lanes are generally restricted to cars with 2 or more passengers, but the Northwest freeway's HOV lanes require 3 or more passengers during peak travel periods (6:45-8AM). The HOV lanes can be marked with signs bearing a white diamond on a black background, or, more recently, with signs bearing a green strip saying "Express lane" at the top. Highways with HOV lanes are: I-45 North, I-45 South, US-59 North, US-59 South, I-10 West (Katy Freeway), and US-290.
Recently, The Katy Freeway HOV lanes have been expanded into the Katy Freeway Managed Lanes, a 24-hour multi-lane HOV with paid Single-Occupancy Vehicle access cost-adjusted based on HOV usage. In addition, METRO has announced a program to allow Single-Occupant Vehicles onto HOV lanes with the payment of a toll. More information about these new HOT Lanes can be found at the aptly-named ihatehoustontraffic.com.
Note: The Sam Houston (except for the 13 mile Northeast section) and Hardy Tollways are the only toll-roads that allow cash payment of tolls at toll plazas. All other toll-roads, including managed lanes, require a pre-paid RFID "EZ Tag." Cash toll plazas accept coins from $0.05 up to $20 bills and do not accept credit or debit cards.
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:
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.
METRORail is a 22.7-mile (36.5 km) light rail system that consists of three lines. The Red Line (which is the line that most visitors will find to be useful) runs between Downtown, Midtown, the Museum District, the Medical Center, and Reliant Park. The Purple Line and Green Line primarily serve residential neighborhoods and are not really useful to most visitors (aside from the University of Houston which is served by the Purple Line). 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.
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.
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 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.
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
Houston has four universities whose sports teams play in the top-level NCAA Division I:
Theater and Performing Arts
The lively performing arts culture of Houston includes professional, community and university-based dance, opera, broadway musical, chamber and symphonic music groups, featuring both classical and pops programming. Theater is active in Houston and includes the Tony Award-winning Alley Theatre. Most professional theater is centered in the Theater District , but companies are located in many neartown neighborhoods and suburbs.
Houston is home to Rice University, one of the most highly regarded private universities in the country. The wooded campus is noted for its beautiful architecture and public art, including James Turrell's "Twilight Ephiphany." Houston's largest public university is the University of Houston, home to the Blaffer Museum of Art. The campus of the University of St. Thomas is located near the Menil Collection and Rothko Chapel and was designed by Pritzker Award-winning architect Philip Johnson. The Campus of Texas Southern University is located in Southeast Houston. Baylor College of Medicine and the medical school of the University of Texas are located in the Medical Center.
The Houston unemployment rate is below the national average. Among large metropolitan areas, job creation rates in Houston are among the highest in the nation. In addition because of the oil and gas industry, Houston has the second largest concentration of Fortune 500 companies in the US, second only to New York City. Healthcare is also a growing industry with the Texas Medical Center complex located within the city including 54 medicine-related institutions, including 21 hospitals and eight specialty institutions, eight academic and research institutions, four medical schools, six nursing schools, and schools of dentistry, public health, pharmacy, and other health-related practices.
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.
A very popular place to go shopping in Houston is the Houston Galleria. The Galleria is the largest mall in Texas  and the ninth largest in the United States. They have anything you could ever think of and more. At the Galleria you can find people shopping at high end stores such as, Bebe, Coach, Neiman Marcus, Cartier, Gucci, Macy's, Tiffany & Co., Saks Fifth Avenue, The Sharper Image, Ralph Lauren Collection, Louis Vuitton and Nordstrom. You can also find people ice skating in the ice rink on the bottom floor. Also, you will find nail salons, 375 fine stores and restaurants. And to top it off at the Galleria there are two Westin hotels. The Galleria is widely recognized as the number one shopping and tourist destination in Houston. 
In southwest Houston just beyond the Loop is where the Asian bazaar meets American suburb. This fascinating area is simultaneously adventure shopping and an exploration into the brave new world of postmodern America. First, drive down Harwin Drive between Fondren and Gessner and you will see store after store and strip mall after strip mall selling jewelry, designer clothes, sunglasses, perfumes, furniture, luggage, and handbags. Most stores are run by Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, and Thai shopkeepers, but other cultures are represented, too. Occasionally one will get raided for selling designer knockoffs. Everything is said to be at bargain-basement rates, but buyer beware. Farther out, on Bellaire Boulevard in the middle of a large commercial Chinatown, is an all-Chinese mall, where you can get just about anything Chinese, including tapes and CDs, books, food and cooking items, of course, and wonderful knickknacks.
19th Street in the Heights is a walkable shopping district with a small-town feel. It features several antique and retail clothing shops, a Mexican handi-craft store and a number of boutiques. Several restaurants and coffeeshops nearby make the area a good afternoon destination.
Groceries and other basics
The major supermarket chains in Houston are Kroger, Randall's (which is owned by Safeway), H-E-B, and Fiesta Mart. In addition the nation's largest discount store chain, Walmart, has several stores in Houston most of which are also open 24 hours and most Kroger stores in Houston are also open 24 hours as well. In addition many specialty and organic supermarkets such as Whole Foods Market, Central Market, Sprouts Farmers Market, and Trader Joe's can also be found throughout the area.
Due to its huge expat and immigrant population, Houston also features a large variety of ethnic grocery stores, including Indian, Filipino, Pakistani, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, and of course, Mexican.
Houston is an international city, and one of the most diverse cities not only in the United States, but the world. The ethnic diversity of the city is well represented in the city's food scene. No matter what the ethnic type is, you name it, and Houston has it. For certain ethnic foods, there are ethnic neighborhoods to match the food type. For Chinese food, you can go to Chinatown, or even Old Chinatown which is located near Downtown. For Indian or Pakistani food, Houston's Little India (also known as the Mahatma Gandhi District) is the obvious place for that. For a Korean bite, Houston's Koreatown is located in Northwestern Houston. Vietnamese food has always has a strong presence in Houston, and the Western part of Chinatown is filled with different types of Vietnamese spots. Midtown is also known for Vietnamese food. Meyerland has been the heart of the Houston Jewish community, making Kosher food have its presence there. If you want an exotic Ethiopian or Nigerian treat, Bissonette street in Southwestern Houston will be the place to go.
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" which locate on Bellaire Blvd. at Beltway 8) 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 (Sparrow Bar + Cookshop) 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.
Like any city with a respectable, trendy food scene, Houston's top restaurants seem to be all about what's seasonal and local these days (oh, and Houston is just now getting into gourmet food trucks), as well as becoming increasingly prominent in stores as well. Fresh produce to seek out include tomatoes, sweet "1015" onions (not as sweet as the Hawaiian variety, but pretty impressive), watermelon, strawberries, peaches, corn, carrots, and squash blossoms. Look for Texas cheese from the [Houston Dairymaids] and bread baked daily and shipped to restaurants from the Slow Dough Bakery. Houstonians are just as crazy for crawfish (no "crayfish" down here, Yankee) as Louisianans are, as well as catfish and Gulf seafood such as red snapper, blue crab, and shrimp; gaining in popularity are local species that were previously overlooked, such as blackfin tuna, tilefish, grouper, almaco jack, and black drum. Houston has always had a steady supply of oysters from Galveston Bay, but the program of oyster "appellations" has only recently been revived, meaning high-quality specimens are labeled with their reef of origin, just like the well-known varieties from the east and west coasts - look for varieties such as Ladies Pass and Pepper Grove.
The Urban Harvest Farmers Market, also known as the Eastside market due to its location on Eastside Street in the River Oaks area is a great place to buy local produce and grab breakfast. The market has about 60 vendors ranging from small farms, ranchers, fishmongers, bakers, and chefs making breakfast. The market runs on Saturdays from 8am-12pm at 3000 Richmond Ave.
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, 832 and 346.
Crime in Houston is high and the highest in the state, and has a reputation among Texans as a high crime city. Travelers to Houston should follow common safety procedures such as staying away from deserted areas after dark, keeping purses/wallets in a secure location, and putting valuables out-of-sight in parked vehicles. 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. Residents of Texas are allowed to carry concealed firearms after completing training and a thorough background check.
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, which caused severe damage.
Houston is very hot and humid in the summer with high temperatures of 90°F - 100°F (32°C - 38°C) pretty much every day from late May to late September. In the daytime, one may not be able to stay outdoors for very long without having to seek relief in air conditioning. However, in the winter, Houston can be mild with temperatures ranging from 30°F - 64°F (-1°C - 18°C), albeit with many cloudy or rainy days.
Unlike other large cities in the nation such as Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Dallas, or Los Angeles, Houston doesn't really have a local rail rapid transit network in place. The existing light rail network for the most part is of limited use to visitors aside from the Red Line. That being said Houstonians have a tendency to park along the rail lines to go into downtown or the 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 an oncoming train may not be heard by a driver inside a car.