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Houston: Have a Blast

Houston Skyline
The Houston Skyline at Dusk

Often associated with oil and cattle, Houston has much more to offer visitors. In fact, it can be downright out of this world. Chock full of attractions and activities, visitors are often heard to exclaim, "Houston, we have lift off."

As many know, Houston is home to NASA a fact that makes many Houstonians proud. But how does a city that is best known for its oil and cattle industries become the site of a prestigious space program? Looking at the city's history reveals that Houston is deeply rooted in the fearless exploration of new frontiers, which began when the area was first settled.

HISTORY AND ECONOMY

What is known today as Houston was first called Harrisburg in 1826, in an area that was then under Mexican rule. Ten years later, a war ensued between Mexico and Texas over the land. Texas lost and Harrisburg was destroyed. But a week later, General Sam Houston returned with Texan troops to win independence at the Battle of San Jacinto.

Sam Houston Monument
Monument of Sam Houston

That same year, two brothers, Augustus and John Allen, started a new settlement near the remains of Harrisburg. The brothers named the area Houston, after Sam Houston who had also just been named the first president of the Republic of Texas.

The main industry at this time was rice and cotton until 1901 when Houston's first gusher burst onto the scene, skyrocketing the city's economy. As the oil industry can be volatile, the boom turned to bust in 1986. Learning its lesson, the city diversified its economy including that which really put Houston on the map the space program at NASA.

As Houston's main industries have diversified even more in recent years to medical research and high tech, the city's population make up has also diversified over the years. Since 1865, when the word reached Texas that slavery was abolished, the city's diversity has exploded with many immigrants from all over the world. Today, over 90 languages are spoken throughout the city and an innumerable amount of cultures have intertwined. This ethnic diversity contributes to a vibrant culture that offers an eclectic array of restaurants, attractions and cultural events.

Not only are most Houstonians accepting of other cultures, they are among the most educated people in the country with more adult residents having completed four years of college than any other city in the United States. Currently, there are more than 240,000 students enrolled in Houston's many prominent post-secondary educational institutions: Rice University, which first opened for classes in 1891, the University of Houston (1927), Texas Southern University (1947), University of Saint Thomas (1947) and Houston Baptist University (1960). Also, both Baylor and the University of Texas have prominent medical schools in the Texas Medical Center.

Because of Houston's dynamic atmosphere, it has been considered one of the most livable cities in the United States. If not yet a top visitor destination, it soon will be with a plethora of attractions to meet interests that are as diverse as its people.

ORIENTATION

Just like everything in Texas, Houston is large. In fact, it happens to be the fourth largest city in the United States. An inland city in Texas' southeastern corner, Houston is only 50 miles (80 kilometers) northwest of the Gulf of Mexico. Dallas is 240 mi (385 km) to its north. To its east are San Antonio, 197 mi (317 km), and New Orleans, Louisiana, 350 mi (563 km).

Greater Houston sprawls to envelop around 8,778 square mi (square km) of suburbs and towns, while Houston proper covers 617 square mi (14,127 square km). Most of Houston's attractions are found in the downtown core. While mostly concrete, the core comes alive with an array of restaurants, shops and entertainment. The Theater District and the Museum District are also located downtown. With all this action, downtown Houston can appear surprisingly quiet. This is because there is an underground, air-conditioned walkway, complete with shops, that is used by most people that work downtown so that they may avoid the extreme heat.

Month Average daily temperature Average Rainfall
Min Max
Jan
4.3C (39.7F)
16.1C (61F)
83 mm
Feb
5.9C (42.6F)
18.5C ( 65.3F)
75 mm
Mar
10C (50F)
21.7C (71.1F)
74.2mm
Apr
14.5C (58.1F)
25.8C (78.4F)
82 mm
May
18C (64.4F)
29.2C (84.6F)
133 mm
Jun
21.4C (70.5F)
32.3C (90.1F)
126 mm
Jul
22.4C (72.3F)
33.7C (92.7F)
91 mm
Aug
22.2C (72F)
33.6C (92.5F)
89 mm
Sep
19.9C (67.8F)
31.3C (88.3F)
124 mm
Oct
14.2C (57.6F)
27.6C (81.7F)
109 mm
Nov
9.8C (49.6F)
22.4C (72.3F)
96 mm
Dec
5.7C (42.3F)
18.2C ( 64.8F)
88 mm
Climate data from the National Weather Service

CLIMATE

Houston's weather can best be summarized as hot and humid very humid. Sunglasses, sunscreen and hats are recommended; however, it is also wise to bring a sweater when sightseeing indoors due to the cold extremes in air-conditioning.

In terms of climate, the best times to visit Houston are spring (April and May) and early summer (June and July) as the days are warm with little rain and less humidity. October experiences the highest humidity, reaching extremes of 93%.

TRANSPORTATION

Getting to Houston is easy from any corner of the world with two international airports that serve most major airlines: the Bush Intercontinental (renamed in 1997 after former president, George Bush, senior), and William P. Hobby Airport (renamed in 1967 after Houston's former governor).

For getting around the city, taxis are available and booking in advance is recommended. However, visitors should bear in the mind that, when traveling across the city, traffic jams and urban sprawl could cause fares to skyrocket, making journeys very expensive.

A Houston Freeway
A Freeway Against the Backdrop of Houston's Downtown

The car is a popular option with many major car rental companies found throughout the city, including outlets at both airports. Houston and area has a comprehensive freeway system making car travel possible; however, visitors may have difficulty navigating through a somewhat confusing one-way system. Drivers are advised to pack water, a sandwich and reading material as traffic jams can crop up unexpectedly and frequently.

For those daunted by driving, Houston does have a comprehensive public transportation system called the Metro with over 120 bus routes throughout the city. The main bus terminal is located downtown near the Museum District, which also serves as the drop-off point for other national coach lines, such as Greyhound.

Visitors can also travel to Houston via Amtrak, the national train company.

FEATURED ATTRACTIONS

Apollo Moon Rocket
The Apollo Moon Rocket at the Houston Space Center

Houstonians main attractions can be seen in a day or two, but there are plenty of more unusual attractions, as well as a bounty of entertainment pursuits, that can keep visitors busy for much longer. Obvious attractions that visitors should not miss are: the Space Center Houston, with a description of the space program, and; the Chase Tower, formally known as the Texas Commerce Tower, standing 1002 feet (305 meters) with spectacular views from its free observation deck on the 60th floor.

While Houston does have a popular Livestock Show and Rodeo, the city is also much more cosmopolitan and cultural in nature.

Museum District

With such a long history, it is perhaps no surprise that Houston is home to 16 museums. While visiting all of the museums may seem daunting, the task may not be as difficult as one may suspect as they are all situated within a few blocks of each other. Referred to as the Museum District, the area extends north of Hermann Park to St Thomas University, with the bulk of the museums found just northeast of the Sam Houston Monument, directly off Main Street.

For visitors that simply do not have time or the inclination to see them all, there are a few that stand apart. Recently expanded, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts is the largest arts museum in Texas and the sixth largest in the country. And, with more than 2.5 million visitors a year, it is also one of the most popular. Visiting exhibits change regularly, and the permanent collection of 45,000 artworks, which ranges from the ancient to the contemporary, is impressive.

Rather than being bemused by the powers of human artistic creativity, visitors to the Houston Museum of Natural Science can revel in the awesome powers of nature and science, from dinosaurs to space travel. A variety of interactive discovery attractions include an IMAX cinema, a planetarium and a butterfly center.

Theater District

For the couth, Houston is a cultural hub with a Theater District that encompasses 17 blocks in the downtown core. Within its borders are permanent professional resident companies in all the major disciplines: ballet, opera, theater and music. Houston is only one of five cities nationwide to hold this honor. The Houston Grand Opera is a treasure having won a Tony, two Grammy awards and two Emmy awards.

Along with five main theaters, the Theater District is also home to Bayou Place, a 130,000 square foot (square meters) entertainment centre complete with movie theaters, restaurants and parks.

Sports and Recreation

Houston is a balanced city. Not only does it have all the main artistic disciplines, but it also has sport teams in all the major professional sport divisions: the National Basketball Association (NBA) Houston Rockets, who are two time World Champions; the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) Houston Comets, who are four-time World Champions; Major League Baseball (MLB) Houston Astros, who are four time Central Division Champions; the National Football League (NFL) Houston Texans; and the American Hockey League (AML) Houston Aeros.

The Invention of Astroturf
When the Astrodome was first built in 1965, it had real grass that grew by the natural light that the clear domed ceiling tiles permitted. However, this light-colored backdrop made it difficult to see flying baseballs. Thus, the tiles were painted in a dark checkered pattern. It was not long before the natural grass died off. The solution was Astroturf, a durable, synthetic material that looks like real grass. Today, Astroturf is used as a popular alternative to real grass in many sports, from tennis to football.

Houston may also be responsible for changing the face of baseball. The city's famous Astrodome, constructed in 1965 was the world's first covered baseball field. It was also at the Astrodome where Astroturf was invented. Although baseball is no longer played here, it is still open for tours. Even for those not interested in sports, the Astrodome is a marvel in architecture and is large enough that an 18-storey building would fit under its roof.

It is a fair bet that golfing is a popular sport in the city, with more than 165 public and private golf courses in the greater Houston area. The Houston Golf Association (HGA) has had a hand in the popularity by bringing PGA Tour golf to the city since 1946. Today, the Shell Houston Open hosts a tournament that operates in conjunction with the PGA.

While there are many outdoor recreational pursuits a short drive from Houstonsuch as Lake Conroethe city itself has many green and blue spaces with 42,000 acres (hectares) of land and 12,000 acres (hectares) of water designated for county parks and playgrounds.

Houston also has Texan-sized amusement parks. Six Flags Astroworld and Waterworld is an entertainment complex with 33 rides, nine of which are roller coasters. The water park offers a variety of slippery slopes of raft rides and waterslides.

Restaurants and Shopping

Downtown Houston
Towering Buildings in Houston's Downtown

There isn't a problem finding a good place to eat in Houston with over 4,200 restaurants. Houston's large cultural diversity ensures that visitors can find a wide variety of cuisines with more than 35 countries represented. As well, there is a variety of price ranges from which to choose.

For serious shopping enthusiasts, a trip to the Galleria in Houston's Uptown is mandatory. Featuring over 300 luxury stores and restaurants,the shopping centre is an attraction in itself with magnificent glass atriums and skylights and suspended glass balconies, complemented with building materials that include nine types of stones, three types of wood and leather. There is even an ice rink and two Westin hotels. Of course, the shopping is only the best with such stores as Ralph Lauren, Saks Fifth Avenue, Gucci, Macy's, Tiffany & Co and more.

For Something Completely Different

As with most cities in the United States, Houston has a quirky side. The Orange Show could be the city's quirkiest. What began as one man's tribute to the orange in 1954, has now escalated into a foundation that preserves a house full of unusual sculptures, made-up folk sayings, observation decks, and much moreall painted in orange. Recently purchased by The Orange Show Foundation is The Beer Can House, a house that gleams in the landscape with over 50,000 aluminum beer cans in a variety of uses, from a fence to streamers made from beer can tabs.

Far from macabre is The National Museum of Funeral History. Through an array of artifacts, the museum investigates cultural traditions surrounding funeral rituals and reveals that we can learn much about a culture's way of life through its relationship with the deceased.

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