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Why go now?
Cutting-edge science, fine art and a warm welcome await in the biggest Texan city. Fall is the ideal time to explore Houston, as the summer heat abates and the pace of life picks up. And with good deals for weekend stays and plenty of free attractions, the city is excellent value.
George Bush international airport, 20 miles north, is the main gateway. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and United (0845 844 4777; united.com) fly non-stop from Heathrow. A taxi to Downtown costs $52.50 (£33), or the meter fare if that is lower. Metro Bus 102 picks up half-hourly on the south side of Terminal C and serves Pierce and Main (1) in Downtown – journey time 75 minutes, fare $1.25 (£0.80).
On American Airlines or Delta via their hubs in Dallas and Atlanta respectively, you can touch down at Hobby airport, only eight miles south-west of Downtown. A taxi costs a maximum of $26 to Downtown; bus No 88 departs half-hourly, taking 31 minutes to Pierce and Main (1).
At Hobby, make time to see the original Art Deco 1940 Air Terminal (001 713 454 1940; 1940; airterminal.org), now an aviation museum: it tells of an age when flying was the preserve of the rich and glamorous (10am-5pm, except Monday; Sunday from 1pm; $5/£3).
Get your bearings
Interstate 45 wraps around the western side of Downtown Houston; Highway 59 marks the south-eastern edge of the central area; and the Buffalo Bayou forms the northern boundary. Main Street meets this waterway close to Allen’s Landing (2), where the city was founded in 1836.
The Visitors’ Center (001 713 437 5200; visit houstontexas.com; 9am-4pm daily except Sundays) occupies part of the magnificent Art Deco City Hall (3) on Hermann Square; glance up at the star on the elaborate ceiling of the main lobby, and the legend: “O great city of vision – beautiful, strong and alert.”
Houston spilled beyond its downtown confines long ago, and many of the attractions lie some distance away. The Museum District is a couple of miles south-west along Main Street; the western suburb of Montrose is the unlikely venue for two of America’s great cultural treasures; and to the south-east is a lively Hispanic district.
The Texan love affair with the car is being tempered by Houston’s improving public transport system. The flagship is Light Rail, a seven-mile tram line running along Main Street with services every few minutes (flat fare $1.25 / £0.80). Two great initiatives: a free bus service, the Greenlink bus, circulates around Downtown every seven minutes on weekdays, while taxi rides in the central area cost a flat $6 (£4) (plus a customary dollar tip); see houstontx.gov/downtowncab.
Hotels in Houston can be excellent value, especially at weekends when business guests dwindle. Rates include 17 per cent tax and, as is usual in the US, exclude breakfast. One element of the resurgence of Houston’s core is Embassy Suites Downtown (4) at 1515 Dallas Street (001 713 739 9100; bit.ly/EmSuHo). Suites are available for as little as $149 (£93) per night for an advance purchase weekend stay, including Wi-Fi and a happy-hour reception.
In the heart of Houston’s Museum District, the Hotel ZaZa (5) resurrects the 1926 Warwick Hotel at 5701 Main Street (001 713 526 1991; hotelzaza.com) and provides a theatrical take on Texas. Each suite is individually decorated, such as the space-themed Houston We Have A Problem. Doubles are typically $400 (£250), including Wi-Fi. The hotel’s “Magic Carpet” limousine service provides free transport within five miles.
Take a view
The JPMorgan Chase Tower (6) is the tallest building in Texas. Visit the observation gallery on the 60th floor for free – simply walk in and take the elevator to the “Sky Lobby”. This viewpoint opens only 8am-5pm from Monday to Friday. At weekends, content yourself with viewing the large Joan Miró sculpture outside.
Take a hike...
… through the Downtown Historic District with a Houston Greeter (001 713 473 3837; houstongreeters.org). These volunteers steer a fascinating course through the heart of Houston. Tours usually start at City Hall (3), and explore the Theater District. The waterside path on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou leads to Allen’s Landing (2), where the trading history of Houston is documented; this inland city is America’s leading international port. The upper part of Main Street has barely changed since the 1960s. Turn left for one block on Texas Street and you reach the entrance to Christ Church Cathedral (7) – a surprisingly dainty place of worship for so muscular a city (001 713 222 2593; christchurchcathedral.org).
Lunch on the run
The Great Hall of the cathedral (7) serves excellent lunches from Monday to Friday. A seven-day-a-week alternative is accessible by taking the Light Rail to Museum District station. Cross to the Museum of Fine Arts (8) at 1001 Bissonnet Street (001 713 639 7300; mfah.org) and walk beyond it to the Cullen Sculpture Garden (9am-10pm daily; free) on the corner of Montrose Avenue and Bissonet Street. Every day from 11am to 3pm a different food truck serves cheap, tasty and nutritious meals.
Take your purchase into the garden to share with Matisse and Rodin. The museum itself opens daily except Monday; hours vary, admission $10 (£6.60); free on Thursdays.
Houston was home to the world’s first air-conditioned mall, and the genre has reached its ultimate at the vast Galleria, north-west of the centre. For a more modest retail outlet try The Heights, along 19th Street between North Shepherd and Heights Boulevard. Among the distinctive stores is the cornucopia of unusual gifts at Bliss on 19th (9) at 235 (001 832 673 0099; blisson19th.com) and the adjacent Vinal Edge Records (001 281 537 2575; vinaledge.com), where random 78s are sold by weight.
The Onion Creek Café (10) at 3106 White Oak (001 713 880 0706; onioncreekcafe.com) marks its 10th birthday, but this rambling barn of a tavern feels like it’s been here since 1950. Sip a local craft beer such as St Arnold’s Amber; linger for a burger ($12/£7.50 with a beer), or cross town for a Tex-Mex.
Dining with the locals
Even in surprising Houston, the Original Ninfa’s (11) at 2704 Navigation Boulevard (001 713 228 1175; ninfas.com) is a one-off: a former tortilla factory where Tex-Mex meets modern American under chef Alex Padilla. The signature dish remains as it has since the Seventies: beef and chicken fajitas, medium (half-pound, $17.95/£11) or large (1lb, $32.95/£20). Conclude with a peppery mole ice cream and one of the dozen varieties of tequila.
Sunday morning: go to church
The Rothko Chapel (12) at 3900 Yupon Street (001 713 524 9839; rothkochapel.org; 10am–6pm daily) was created by John and Dominique de Menil as “a sacred place open to all people, every day”. The Russian-born artist, Mark Rothko, filled it with 14 dark, monumental canvasses.
What Dominique de Menil did next stands next door, in the elegant shape of the first US building by Renzo Piano: the Menil Collection (13), home to one of the world’s leading private art collections (001 713 525 9400; menil.org; 11am-7pm Wednesday to Sunday, free). Ancient engravings meet Andy Warhol.
Out to brunch
Many Texans consider the barbecue a work of art. The old masters reside at Goode Co BBQ (14) at 5109 Kirby Drive (001 713 522 2530; goodecompany.com; 11am-10pm daily). Pork ribs and beef brisket ($10.95/£7 for either) are grilled over mesquite wood.
A walk in the park
Discovery Green (15) was created from two car parks on the edge of Downtown. Indulge in yoga, zumba and open-air movies, though not at the same time. In winter the pond is transformed into an ice rink ( discoverygreen.com).
Take a ride
Make a journey to the Moon and beyond at Space Center Houston (001 281 244 2100; spacecenter.org 10am-5pm daily, later at weekends; $22.95/£14). It explains the story of space exploration, with samples such as a piece of Moon rock that you can touch. Then, board a “tram tour” (included in price) to explore the Johnson Space Center, from which the Apollo missions were controlled. Finally, visit Rocket Park – including a real Saturn V rocket. And remember the late Neil Armstrong’s momentous words: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”