3 Ways to Explore
Houston at a Glance
Getting to Know the Bayou City
As the fourth largest city in the United States, there’s a lot to know about Houston and the 10-county region that surrounds it. In this chapter, you’ll learn about the local geography, its strategic location and port, the city’s founding brothers and highlights that cover recreation, family entertainment, dining and shopping. Find out all the reasons why Houston is the best city in which to live, work and play.

The famous expression “everything is bigger in Texas” really applies to Houston and the region. Consider its size—Houston’s Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) covers 10,062 square miles, which is an area slightly smaller than Maryland but larger than Massachusetts (9,241 square miles). But don’t let the region’s size overwhelm you. As with all world-class cities, Houston and the region comprises many thousands of distinctive neighborhoods that reflect specific personalities and character.

Often described as welcoming and friendly, Houston was founded in 1836 by two brothers and real estate brokers, John and Augustus Allen. They purchased 6,642 acres of land near Buffalo Bayou for $1.40 per acre to develop the “great interior commercial emporium of Texas.” The city was incorporated in 1837 and named after the president of the Republic of Texas at the time, former General Sam Houston. General Houston had commanded at the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836, which took place 25 miles east of the city’s establishment.

According to the third-quarter 2011 ACCRA Cost of Living Index, the price of housing, groceries, utilities, transportation, and health care in Houston are all below the national average. Based on an index of 100 percent, Houston is at 80.9 percent when it comes to housing. For many relocating from other parts of the country, they’re amazed at the choice of neighborhoods and quality of homes from which to select. Unemployment is well below the national average, and wages are high relative to income. Master-planned communities abound that offer families a total package of great amenities, including community centers with swimming pools, walking paths, excellent schools and more.

With an ideal location and moderate year-round temperatures, the region has a lot to offer to the whole family in the way of outdoor activities, including boating, fishing, golfing, tennis, jogging, walking and biking. The New York Times said of the city, “Maybe that’s what makes Houston such an unusual and wonderful place—there are so many different Houstons to see.” As you explore and get to know your neighborhood and beyond, the variety and depth of activities will keep you and the family busy all year long. Whether your interest is in sports, the arts, shopping or gardening, the region has a lot to offer.

Recently, the Houston MSA was recognized by the national media and others. Some of these rankings include the following:
  • Among the most affordable metropolitan housing markets – 8th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey: 2012
  • Named “City of the Year” among Fastest Cities – FastCompany, May 2, 2011
  • Named in Top 6 for America’s Favorite Cities in barbecue, luxury stores, hamburgers, winter and affordability – Travel + Leisure, 2011
  • Hosts 9 of the 100 Best Companies to Work for in America – Fortune magazine, 2011
  • Home of 23 companies among the 500 Largest Corporations in America – Fortune magazine, 2011
  • No. 1 Fastest Growing Wages in U.S. Cities – Business Insiders, January 12, 2012
  • No. 1 Top Technology Job Growth City – Houston Business Journal, January 11, 2012
  • No. 1 Best City for Manufacturing – Forbes magazine, December 15, 2011
  • No. 1 Best-Performing City Among Top 10 Largest U.S. MSAs – Milken Institute, December 2011
  • No. 1 Top Local Government Green Power Purchaser – Environmental Protection Agency, October 5, 2011

More than 25 Christian denominations canbe found in the Houston region. According to the website, www.usachurches.org, Baptist churches dominate with more than 830, followed by Methodist churches, Church of Christ, Church of God and nondenominational churches. Other popular denominations include Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopal and Pentecostal.

With the region’s diverse population, many different religious denominations flourish here. There are Taoist and Buddhist temples in the region as well as the third largest Hindu temple in North America: the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Stafford, just outside of Houston. The Houston masjid of Al-Islam is the oldest masjid, or mosque, in the Houston area. For practicing Catholics, the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston carries the status of a Metropolitan Archdiocese and is the largest private school network in the state of Texas. Today more than 1.1 million Catholics live within archdiocesan boundaries, making the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston the largest in Texas and the 11th largest in the United States.

Perhaps one of Houston’s most noted churches is Lakewood Church, under the leadership of Pastor Joel Osteen. Today, Lakewood’s commitment to community outreach continues to increase, and its international media broadcast has expanded into more than 200 million households in the United States.

As you begin to explore all that Houston has to offer, you’ll see that it is a city that embraces all newcomers and prides itself on being extremely tolerant of all cultures and religions.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Houston’s population is 2.1 million and is among the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the U.S. The area grew 7.5 percent between the 2000 and 2010 censuses—adding almost 146,000 people—while the nation’s population increased 20.6 percent in the same period. From 2000 to 2007, the area grew by 912,994 people. From 2000 to 2030, the metropolitan area is projected by Woods & Poole Economics to rank fifth in the nation in population.

Houston is part of a 10-county region consisting of Harris County, the nation’s third-most populous, and nine other counties, including Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Liberty, Montgomery, San Jacinto and Waller. Based on the 2010 U.S. Census estimate, Houston–Sugar Land–Baytown is the sixth-largest metropolitan statistical area (MSA) in the United States with a population of nearly 6 million. Within the MSA, Houston is the area’s center of economic and cultural activity.

Houston is located in the state of Texas and encompasses 600 square miles. The Houston MSA covers more than 10,000 square miles and is almost the midpoint between the nation’s two coasts, making it an excellent distribution point for businesses. The region represents a wide range of vegetation, from the piney woods of The Woodlands and Lake Conroe to the north, to the prairie grasslands of Katy to the west, to the sandy coastal environment of Galveston and Clear Lake to the south. The official altitude of the city of Houston is 50 feet above sea level, but elevations in the MSA range from below sea level to 125 feet above sea level.

Nicknamed the “Bayou City,” Houston is known for its intricate system of bayous that run through the city and serve as part of Houston’s extensive drainage system. While they may be considered vital to the drainage of Houston’s relatively flat landscape, in many areas these bayous create a dramatic and beautiful backdrop for homes and businesses.

Practically all year, the area’s residents can enjoy an outdoor lifestyle. Houston averages only 18 days per year with temperatures of 32oF or less and 98 days with high temperatures of 90oF or more. Houston’s growing season averages 300 days. The normal frost-free period extends from February 14 to December 11, and the city only has had measurable snowfall about a dozen times since 1939.

While there is no personal income tax in Texas, there are property taxes, also called ad valorem taxes, which are locally assessed. Your county appraisal district appraises property located in the county while local taxing units set tax rates and collect property taxes based on those values. Property taxes provide more tax dollars for local services in Texas than any other source; they help pay for public schools, city streets, county roads, police, fire protection and many other services.

In Houston, the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector and Voter Registrar collect, record and disburse property taxes. The tax office maintains approximately 1.44 million tax accounts and collects property taxes for more than 60 taxing entities, including Harris County. For the 2010 tax year, the tax office expects to collect taxes on $4 billion worth of property.

State sales-and-use tax is imposed on all retail sales, leases and rentals of most goods as well as taxable services. Texas cities, counties, transit authorities and special-purpose districts have the option of imposing an additional local sales tax for a combined total of state and local taxes of 8.25 percent.

In Texas, the law requires drivers and front-seat passengers in all vehicles to be secured by a safety belt. Children under 17 years old must be secured with a safety belt or in a child safety seat, whether they are sitting in the front or back seat. A child less than 8 years old and less than 57 inches tall must ride in a child safety or booster seat. A safety-belt violation can result in fines ranging from $25 to $250, plus court costs.

— Safety Seat Guidelines
Safety belts are designed for adults, not children. Use a booster seat to lift your child up to prevent severe injuries in a crash. If necessary, view an informational video, called Secure Our Future at www.dshs.state.tx.us/saferiders/seats/, which is about the proper use of child safety seats or call Safe Riders at (800) 252-8255.

While in a school zone, unless stopped or on a hands-free device, cell phone usage is illegal. Otherwise, cell phone usage is allowed if you have a driver’s license with full privileges. Novice drivers in the beginning and intermediate phases of the graduated learning process cannot use cell phones while behind the wheel. Also, school bus drivers must avoid cell phone use while passengers are aboard.

In Texas, 21 years old is the minimum age to buy or consume liquor. You can buy alcoholic beverages in a liquor store Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; liquor stores are closed on Sunday. There are no sales of liquor on Christmas Day, New Year’s Day or Thanksgiving Day. In the event that Christmas Day or New Year’s Day is on a Sunday, stores are closed the following Monday. Beer and wine can be sold in supermarkets and convenience stores from 7 a.m. to midnight on Monday through Friday, on Saturday from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. and on Sunday from noon until midnight.

Texas also has a zero-tolerance law regarding the consumption of alcohol while driving, and driving while intoxicated (DWI) laws are strictly enforced by Texas police officers. The legal limit for intoxication in Texas is .08 blood alcohol concentration (BAC); however, drivers can be stopped and cited for impaired driving due to alcohol or other drugs regardless of BAC. A first offense carries up to a $2,000 fine, 72 hours to 180 days in jail and driver’s license suspension of 90 days to one year.

The Houston region offers one of the Southwest’s most extensive freeway and toll road systems. In the Houston region, 742 miles of freeways and expressways are available—61 percent of the planned 1,217-mile freeway/expressway system. For starters, Houston has more miles of high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes than any other city in the nation. HOV lanes are only one piece of the puzzle. In the past several years, billions of dollars have been spent to build or improve toll roads, arterial streets and transit ways and to rebuild and widen every major freeway in Houston. Six freeway corridors contain HOV lanes. The region’s HOV system covers 112.9 lane miles.

Houston is the crossroads for Interstates 10 and 45. Other major highways serving Houston are Loop 610, U.S. 59, U.S. 290, U.S. 90, Texas 288, Texas 225, Hardy Toll Road, Sam Houston Tollway and the Grand Parkway (Texas 99). Houston also lies along the route of the proposed I-69 NAFTA superhighway that will link Canada, the U.S. industrial Midwest, Texas and Mexico.

— Toll Roads
Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA) is a division of the Harris County Public Infrastructure Department and oversees three toll roads designed to increase mobility. The Harris County Toll Road system covers approximately 120 miles of roadway in the Houston/Harris County area. There are currently three major toll roads. For information about using the toll roads, other links and buying an EZ TAG, visit www.hctra.org.

Sam Houston Tollway
Beltway 8, the Sam Houston Parkway, along with the Sam Houston Tollway, is a beltway around the city of Houston, lying entirely within Harris County. Beltway 8, a state highway, runs mostly along the frontage roads, only using the main lanes where they are free (mostly on the north side of Houston). The main lanes elsewhere are the Sam Houston Tollway, a toll road owned and operated by HC-TRA. East of Houston, the tollway crosses the Houston Ship Channel on the Jesse H. Jones Memorial Bridge, a toll bridge; this forms a gap in Beltway 8 between Interstate Highway 10 (Baytown-East Freeway) and State Highway 225 (La Porte Freeway).

Westpark Tollway
Opened in 2004, the Westpark Tollway spans a total of 19 miles from Katy to the Galleria District, through Harris and Fort Bend Counties. Harris County’s segment of the Westpark Tollway (14 miles) begins at I-610 on the east and extends to the county line near FM 1464. The Westpark offers an alternative east-west corridor for West Houston residents with access to U.S. 59 and the Galleria, the Sam Houston Tollway (Beltway 8) and The Grand Parkway. Drivers must have an EZ TAG to use the Westpark Tollway.

Hardy Toll Road
The Hardy Toll Road runs from Interstate 45, north of Houston just below the Harris County line, to Interstate 610, near central Houston. The road generally parallels Interstate 45. The portion from I-610 to Crosstimbers Road is known as Spur 548, although it displays no signage. The toll road runs 21 miles and costs $3.00 to drive its full length ($1.50 north of Beltway 8 and $1.50 south of Beltway 8). A four-mile connecting road to the George Bush Intercontinental Airport requires $1.00 toll. At each toll plaza, a 25-cent discount applies to electronic EZ TAG users. The road is named for nearby Hardy Street, which in some areas makes up the frontage roads for the toll road.

— Public Transportation
METRO opened for business in January 1979 and services the cities of Houston, Bellaire, Bunker Hill Village, El Lago, Hedwig Village, Hilshire Village, Humble, Hunters Creek, Katy, Missouri City, Piney Point, Southside Place, Spring Valley, Taylor Lake Village and West University Place. Major portions of unincorporated Harris County also are included.

Bus Service
With a fleet of 1,230 buses, METRO operates an extensive network of bus routes and convenient Park & Ride facilities helping to ease rush-hour commutes. It’s also paving the way for a cleaner Houston with 443 transit diesel-hybrid buses currently in operation with plans to add 52 commuter buses as well as 48 additional transit buses and 10 Signature Service buses.

2004 marked the introduction of the METRORail Red Line, a 7.5-mile light rail service running from the University of Houston-Downtown to south of Reliant Park along the streets of Main, Fannin and San Jacinto. There are 16 conveniently located stations with a total of 18 vehicles that provide access to many of the city’s major employment, cultural and entertainment, education and medical centers. Major METRORail destinations include downtown, Midtown, the Museum District, Hermann Park/Houston Zoo, Texas Medical Center and Reliant Park.

HOV Lanes
High-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes are open to buses, vanpools/carpools and motorcycles. The lanes, which are accessed via freeway or facility ramps, are reversible to accommodate commuters during peak periods of traffic flow. Users must observe the occupancy requirements, rules of the road and hours of operation. Freeways that utilize HOV lanes include the Northwest, Gulf, North, Eastex and Southwest freeways.

Park & Ride Lots
METRO operates 29 Park & Ride lots with about 33,300 available parking spaces. Direct nonstop service to downtown, the Texas Medical Center or other major employment centers in the METRO service area is available from all Park & Ride lots and local service. Park & Ride facilities also serve as staging areas for vanpools and carpools.

Transit Centers
Transit centers are sheltered waiting areas located where several bus routes and/or METRORail converge. METRO’s 20 transit centers serve as efficient “hubs” to allow bus and/or METRORail riders from various locations to assemble at a central point to take advantage of express trips or other route-to-route transfers.

— Rail System
AMTRAK provides passenger service on the Sunset Limited, which serves the Orlando-Houston-Los Angeles route. Service from New Orleans to Orlando was suspended after Hurricane Katrina, but the lines have been repaired.

— Houston Airport System
In 2011, the Houston Airport System (HAS) served more than 70 million travelers. It is the fourth largest multiairport system in the nation in terms of passenger volume, the sixth largest in the world and the eighth largest international passenger gateway in the United States. George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) on the north side, William P. Hobby Airport (HOU) on the south side and Ellington Field near NASA’s Johnson Space Center constitute one of the world’s most accessible airport systems. Detailed information on the Houston Airport System, including lists of passenger-carrying airlines and contact information on cargo airlines is available at www.fly2houston.com.

— Port of Houston
As another example of region’s “can do” spirit, a few visionary Houstonians embarked on a plan to create a port out of a city more than 50 miles inland. Work began on the port in 1905, and with a combination of federal and local dollars, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged the lower reaches of the Buffalo Bayou to create the Houston Ship Channel. Now, more than a century later, the Port of Houston ranks first among U.S. ports in volume of foreign tonnage and imports, second in the United States in total tonnage and 10th in the world in total tonnage. The Houston Ship Channel is a 52-mile inland waterway that connects Houston with markets throughout the world. In 2010, more than 7,850 vessels carrying nearly 229 million tons of cargo moved through the Houston Ship Channel.

— Port of Galveston
Located at the mouth of beautiful Galveston Bay, just 30 minutes from the open sea, Port of Galveston serves as the primary point of embarkation for cruises to the western Caribbean. The Port of Galveston is only 45 minutes from Downtown Houston and 30 minutes from the Gulf of Mexico by water, making it ideally accessible for business and Galveston Island enjoyment.

Houston represents the 10th largest media market, Houston Designated Market (DMA), in the U.S as defined by Nielsen Media. The DMA has a population of 22 million and includes 19 counties. Due to its size, area residents have access to an extremely diverse media market. There are more than 325 different media outlets catering to niche and general interest needs as well as Hispanic television stations and Houston’s largest daily newspaper, the Houston Chronicle.

— Newspapers
Houston has more than 100 daily and nondaily newspapers based in the city along with 22 university newspapers. Houston’s largest newspaper is the Houston Chronicle, with a daily circulation of 587,984, making it the 12th largest in the United States. Galveston County’s The Daily News is the oldest newspaper in Texas and was first published in 1842. Many U.S. and global news outlets maintain bureau offices in Houston, particularly to cover the energy markets. Among them, include the Associated Press, Bloomberg Business News, Dallas Morning News, Dow Jones Newswire, Forbes, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, Platts Gas Daily, Reuters News Service and the San Antonio Express News.

— Television
Houston embraced television early when KLEE-TV (now KPRC-TV) broadcast the first Houston commercial TV program 60 years ago. Shortly thereafter, KUHT-TV debuted as the nation’s first public broadcast TV station from its facility at the University of Houston. In 1995, KHOU (11), the CBS affiliate, became the nation’s first all-digital station. TV viewers have a wide range of broadcast options in the Houston area, including national network programming, home shopping, religious programming and three Spanish network channels.

— Radio
There are more than 60 radio stations on both AM and FM dials, offering all music genres, including gospel, classical, soul, pop, Christian, Tejano, rhythm and blues, country, hip hop, oldies, Top 40 and hard rock. News, sports and talk-radio options are also available.

The Houston Public Library system serves the city’s culturally diverse community by offering a broad program of free educational, informational and recreational activities through a central complex and neighborhood branch libraries.

The library system comprises a Central Library Complex, including the Houston Metropolitan Research Center and Clayton Center for Genealogical Research, and 36 branch libraries providing a network of materials, services and programs to Houston’s diverse neighborhoods. For more information about the library and its rich history, visit www.houstonlibrary.org.

For many in the region, it’s all about sports. In this category, Houston excels and has a team for every major sport. After all, this is home to the Astrodome, ”the eighth wonder of the world!”

— Baseball
The Houston Astros led their city to National League Wild Card victories in 2004 and 2005 and continued on to the World Series after becoming 2005 National League Champions. Minute Maid Park, completed in 2000, is the Houston Astros’ downtown home. Minute Maid Park’s retractable-roof technology brought open-air baseball to Houston for the first time in 35 years, and the natural-grass surface and classic architecture provided Minute Maid Park the atmosphere of the great ballparks of baseball’s Golden age.

— Football
The Houston Texans have been Houston’s professional football team since 2002. The 2011–12 season earned the Texans their first playoff game ever at home for a 20-19 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. Reliant Stadium was the NFL’s first indoor/outdoor retractable-roof, natural-grass stadium. With 200 suites and 71,500 seats, Reliant Stadium is considered one of the finest stadiums in the country.

— Basketball
The Houston Rockets were the winners of back-to-back NBA championships in 1994 and 1995, and they continue to be top competitors in the Western Conference of the NBA. Current superstar players include Luis Scola, Kyle Lowery and Kevin Martin. The team plays in downtown’s Toyota Center, a 750,000-square-foot arena that offers 18,300 seats for basketball, 17,800 for hockey and up to 19,000 for concerts.

— Hockey
The Houston Aeros, now a member of the American Hockey League (AHL), brought the International Hockey League’s Turner Cup home to Houston in 1999 and claimed the AHL’s Calder Cup in 2003. The Aeros are the primary AHL affiliate of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild and the secondary affiliate of the Dallas Stars.

— Soccer
The Houston Dynamo, a member of the American AEG and Major League Soccer, was formed when the AEG-operated San Jose Earthquakes MLS franchise relocated to Houston and played their first game in 2006. Houston Dynamo won the MLS Cup in 2006 and 2007 and made the finals in 2011.

Houston offers more than 100 miles of trails within its 18,000 acres of green space for hiking and running. Memorial Park is home to one of Houston’s most popular trails, the Seymour Lieberman Exer-Trail, which includes a 2.9-mile jogging trail and six miles of mountain and recreational bike trails. Also within Memorial Park are the Memorial Park Golf Course, rated among the top municipal golf courses in the nation, and the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center.

Houston residents are less than 50 miles away from Galveston Bay and there are several freshwater lakes throughout the area for water sports and fishing. Clear Lake is recognized by the state as the “Boating Capital of Texas” with more than 7,000 slips and 19 marinas offering access to Clear Lake and the Gulf of Mexico. Hunting is also popular along the gulf coast in addition to the deer, quail, turkey and rabbit that hunters seek further inland. As for golfing, there are plenty of courses throughout the region, including seven municipal 18-hole golf courses and more than 126 private and public golf courses.

As part of the Parks and Recreation Department, Houston has 366 developed parks and more than 200 open spaces that are maintained.

Learn about early Texas history with a visit to the San Jacinto Museum of History in La Porte, Texas, within an hour’s drive from downtown. The museum’s collection spans more than four centuries of early Texas history, from the beginnings of European activity in the New World through Texas’ inclusion as a state in the United States. Head south to Space Center Houston to experience space from its dramatic history and exciting present to its compelling future. Space Center Houston is the only place where visitors can experience the space environment, touch a real moon rock, land a shuttle and take a behind-the-scenes tour of NASA. The exhibits, attractions, special presentations and hands-on activities tell the story of NASA’s manned space flight program.

An exciting live animal adventure set in a 55-acre tropical landscape, the Houston Zoo adds adventure and animal magnetism to the Museum District. A popular feature, the Wildlife Carousel, has 64 hand-carved animals representing endangered species. Make sure to experience the adventure of The African Forest, a 6.5-acre wooded area full of chimpanzees, rhinos and giraffes. One of nature’s more unusual spectacles is visible from the Waugh Bridge Bat Observation Deck at Buffalo Bayou/Eleanor Tinsley Park. Every night at dusk, thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats take off from their home beneath the bridge to hunt for mosquitoes. Many residents come out at the corner of Waugh Drive and Allen Parkway to watch this daily occurrence.

Like its people, the Houston food scene is diverse and plentiful. Professionals who relocate far and wide are pleasantly surprised to find that the authentic dishes they loved back home can be found right here in Houston. If fact, Houston continues to gain national recognition as a food destination akin to New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Of course, barbeque fare is not to be overlooked as a staple of Houston comfort food and as an art form for novices and professionals alike. Houston’s proximity to the gulf coast also has an influence on meals that are commonly consumed. Seasonal crawfish boils and fish fries are Cajun traditions that have crossed the Louisiana border to Houston and are now part of the Bayou City’s dining fabric.

Support of the arts is important to residents of the region. Since the city’s early days, philanthropy has been part of the culture, and that spirit is maintained today. Private as well as public support of the arts in the Houston community continues to solidify the city’s position as an international arts center. All of this is enhanced by the tremendous support from Houstonians and visitors to the many city and regional venues. The campuses of Rice University, the University of Houston and Texas Southern University, each have their own galleries: Rice University Art Gallery, the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Gallery at the University of Houston and the Texas Southern University Museum feature local and touring shows.

— Museums
The heart of the art scene in Houston is its Museum District, which houses 17 museums and a 50-acre zoological park. They’re all within walking distance of one another and accessible by METRORail, forming one of the largest cultural districts in the country, with more than 500,000 square feet of exhibition space. It’s also one of the most vital art districts in the nation, drawing 9 million visitors annually. Here are the gems in the region’s collection to explore and discover.

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) is the oldest museum in Texas as well as the most prominent. The opening of the $83 million Audrey Jones Beck Building in March 2000 made MFAH the largest museum in the Southwest. The dramatic expansion continued most recently with the Lora Jean Killroy Visitor and Education Center, opened in 2010, making the museum able to increase the number of blockbusters, including major exhibitions featuring works from the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Children’s Museum of Houston (CMH) is a hands-on educational and entertaining family-oriented destination. Adults and kids alike will go crazy about the playful building (designed by renowned architect Robert Venturi) and wondrous and ever-changing exhibits of CMH. The John P. McGovern Museum of Health & Medical Science, also known as The Health Museum, is Houston’s most interactive science learning center and a member institution of the world-renowned Texas Medical Center. The museum’s main event is the Jim Hickox Amazing Body Pavilion, a larger-than-life walking tour through the human body.

The art of nature takes center stage at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, with family-friendly programming that attracts all ages. Traveling exhibitions are insightful and intriguing, ranging from Discovering the Civil War to the new Terra Cotta Warriors Exhibit opening in 2012. Exciting permanent features, such as the Wortham IMAX Theatre, Burke Baker Planetarium, Cockrell Butterfly Center and the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals (the top gemological collection in the world) make this the third most attended museum in the United States. More than 500,000 school children visit the Houston Museum of Natural Science annually.

For less traditional and more off-beat displays, visit the Lone Star Flight Museum, Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig & Museum, Houston Fire Museum, Houston Police Department Museum, National Museum of Funeral History, The John C. Freeman Weather Museum and the Museum of Printing History.

In true Houston style, there are a multitude of high-quality performing arts venues from which to select. Houston is one of only a few U.S. cities with permanent professional resident companies in opera, ballet, music and theater, which are all located in Houston’s downtown Theater District that spans 17 blocks. The Theater District, with its five major performing arts venues, is home to these companies as well as four other internationally recognized performing arts presenters. The area also features numerous restaurants and clubs where one can sip on a pre-theater cocktail while listening to live music or enjoy a leisurely dinner after the show.

Outside of the skyscrapers of downtown, a diverse array of smaller companies call Houston home, offering a unique blend of cutting-edge performing arts and well- known classics in a variety of intimate settings. The latest figures show that more than 4 million people experience the magic of live theater in Houston annually.

— Houston Ballet
Performing in the spectacular 2,500-seat Wortham Theater Center, Houston Ballet is America’s fifth largest ballet company, producing numerous contemporary works and full-length world premiers, such as Dracula, The Snow Maieden and Cleopatra. Australian choreographer Stanton Welch assumed the helm of Houston Ballet in 2003, which, since 1976, had been led by Englishman Ben Stevenson. More than 40 years old, Houston Ballet is the city’s youngest resident professional company.

— Houston Grand Opera
Houston Grand Opera (HGO) has long been known for its innovative works and imaginative presentations of traditional masterpieces. HGO’s numerous world premieres have included Florencia en el Amazonas (the first Spanish opera by a Mexican composer to be commissioned by a major U.S. opera company) and Nixon in China, which garnered an Emmy and a Grammy.

— Houston Symphony
Fonded in 1913, the Houston Symphony is the oldest performing arts organization in the city. This season, the Houston Symphony performs in the largest (more than 2,900 seats) and arguably most impressive space in the theater district, Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts. Currently under the leadership of Hans Graf, the Houston Symphony’s impressive list of conductors has included Leopold Stokowski, Andre Previn and Christoph Eschenbach. From Brahms and Beethoven to pop concerts with special guests, such as Debbie Reynolds and Shirley Maclaine, the Houston Symphony offers something for every musical taste.

Performing approximately some 170 concerts a year at Jones Hall, Miller Outdoor Theatre and the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, the Houston Symphony also tours internationally. The symphony also sponsors more than 300 separate educational and community service performances each season. Its concerts for schoolchildren, a 50-year-old tradition, have introduced more than 1 million students to live performances of symphonic music.

— More Venues
Not unlike New York’s Off-Broadway, tickets to productions at Houston’s numerous theaters outside of downtown often come at a considerably lower price than their Theater District counterparts, and the groups boast legions of loyal patrons from throughout the surrounding areas. Be sure to check out the Fresh Arts Coalition, a collective organization of Houston’s many fascinating performing and visual arts companies outside of downtown. Dominic Walsh Dance Theater, Main Street Theater and Stages Repertory Theatre are some of the thriving, lesser-known companies.

Located in The Woodlands, the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion is a concert amphitheatre catering to both the performing arts and contemporary artists. It is also the regional summer home for the Houston Symphony. Damage from Hurricane Ike in 2008 resulted in a $9.5 million renovation providing a total capacity of 16,040 with a new state-of-the-art sound system to provide a better quality of sound to lawn guests. Miller Outdoor Theatre is located on approximately 7.5 acres of land in Hermann Park, is also the site of the Houston Zoo, the Garden Center and the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Seating is provided for 1,582 patrons and 27 wheelchair spaces plus an 80,000-square-foot sloping lawn that accommodates about 4,500 more. Unique in the United States, the theater offers quality and professional entertainment that is free to the public.

“Take me to the Houston Galleria” is a request often repeated in Houston. When it first opened in 1970, it set the standard for high-end shopping and remains Houston’s No. 1 shopping and tourist destination. The venerated shopping mall solidly has established the city as one of the best destinations to get a stylish new wardrobe. Retailers include Neiman Marcus, Cartier, Gucci, two Macy’s stores, Tiffany & Co., Saks Fifth Avenue, Ralph Lauren Collection, Louis Vuitton and Houston’s only Nordstrom. A city within a city, there’s also an ice skating rink and many exclusive boutiques, including Kate Spade, Michael Kors, Giorgio Armani and Christian Dior.

Undoubtedly, the mecca of Houston shopping, with a reputation countrywide, is the Houston Galleria. However, the Greater Houston area as a whole offers many types of shopping experiences at many locations in the city and suburban areas. To make these excursions easy to navigate, shopping centers located throughout the region usually are situated near major highways for convenient access. Below is a sampling of major shopping areas listed by general geographic location.

— Popular Shopping Districts
The Montrose District is an area bordered by Allen Parkway, U.S. 59, Bagby Street and Shepherd Drive. Here the theme is eclectic, bordering on funky. Secondhand stores with unique offerings are a draw. Near Rice University, the Texas Medical Center and the Museum District is Rice Village, one of Houston’s oldest shopping districts. Within 12 city blocks, you’ll find more than 325 boutiques, family-owned businesses and big-name stores. New to downtown is Houston Pavilions, a $170 million mixed-use development with retail shops for clothing, books, accessories and a variety of dining options. Along Kirby Drive and Westheimer Road, you’ll find the Upper Kirby District that offers a tasteful selection of restaurants, bookstores and shops. A few miles from downtown is the River Oaks Shopping Center, considered the oldest shopping center in Texas and the second oldest in the nation. The entire, multi-block center is original Art Deco style and still maintains its elegance.

Situated in a cluster not far from the Galleria are several interesting shopping stops. There is the Post Oak Shopping District along Post Oak Boulevard between Westheimer Road and Loop 610. There’s also the Centre at Post Oak on the corner of Westheimer Road and Post Oak Boulevard. Across from the Centre is a shopping center anchored by The Container Store and other retail stores in between. At 1800 Post Oak Boulevard is The Pavilion on Post Oak, which features more than 20 of Houston’s most elegant shops, such as Hermès of Paris and Esther Wolf. South of the Galleria on Westheimer Road is the very popular Highland Village Shopping Center, another of Houston’s oldest places to shop until you drop. Here you’ll find many trendy chains, including Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn and Williams Sonoma. With the feel of Tuscany, UptownPark at the corner of Post Oak Boulevard and Loop 610 offers upscale shops, boutiques and cafés.

— Regional Hotspots
CITYCENTRE is a thoughtfully planned and meticulously executed self-contained community of sophisticated retail, elegant dining, penthouse residences, luxurious brownstones and lofts, upscale apartments and the 244-room Hotel Sorella, a world-class hospitality and conference facility. Located in West Houston and surrounded by European-style open-air plazas, CITYCENTRE is home to Life Time Athletic, a state-of-the-art urban fitness facility and spa, and Studio Movie Grill, a nine-screen premier cinema. Thirty miles north of Houston is the master-planned community of The Woodlands, home to great shopping in the area, including The Woodlands Mall, which that features Macy’s, Dillard’s and Sears along with many boutiques including Sephora, Forever 21 and Ann Taylor. Twenty miles north of Houston, which is only minutes from the center of town, is Old Town Spring, a must-visit locale if you love antiques and old-world charm. Located near the original railyards built in the 1900s by Great Northern Railroad, the more than 150 Victorian-style shops offer antiques, collectibles, clothing and accessories for home and gifts. Southeast of Houston and on the way to Galveston is Kemah, once a sleepy fishing village that now boasts a 30-acre waterfront theme-park site devoted to waterfront dining, attractions and shopping. The specialty shops include Christmas at Kemah (with Christmas ornaments, gifts and home decor), Kemah Outfitters and The Toy Crossing, a children’s store.

— Outlet Shopping
Houston Premium Outlets is located approximately 30 miles northwest of downtown off of US 290. It’s guaranteed to attract many who seek chic looks at a discount. Among the 145 stores include Hurley, Banana Republic, Burberry, BCBG Max Azria and Calvin Klein. Katy Mills Mall, located 25 miles west of downtown on Interstate 10, is a 1.3-million-square-foot shopping and entertainment complex housing more than 200 of the best names in manufacturer and retail outlets, off-price retailers and unique specialty stores. In addition, Conroe Outlet Center, north of Houston on Interstate 45, has 60 top-name and designer stores, unique one-of-a-kind shops and special seasonal outlet stores. Factory Stores of America, between Houston and Galveston on Interstate 45, offers more than 40 outlet stores.

— Flea Markets
Shopping flea markets is a popular weekend activity, and not all of them are outdoors. For example, Trading Fair II near Reliant Stadium is an indoor flea market open each Friday, Saturday and Sunday with 400 dealers. Traders Village Houston takes up 105 acres in northwest Houston at 7979 North Eldridge Parkway, making it the largest flea market on the Texas Gulf Coast. The Houston Flea Market, located at 6116 Southwest Freeway at Westpark Drive, sits on 14 acres and is another notable and popular flea market in the area.

Houston is truly a multicultural metropolitan city bursting with amenities to offer and diversions to explore.
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