48 hours in Houston

This US city is a heady blend of bodacious shopping, cosmic history, and Texas-sized fun.
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The Independent Travel



Only 50 miles away from the Gulf of Mexico, Houston enjoys a more temperate climate than the rest of Texas. You may not find the cactus plants you were dreaming of, but 10-gallon hats and Southern hospitality are in large supply. And, with $1bn a year spent on air-conditioning, even when the temperatures do soar, the city always stays cool.


"Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed." Nowhere else can claim to have received the first words spoken from the Moon and no trip to the city would be quite complete without visiting Space Center Houston (26) (1601 NASA Road One, 00 1 244 2100, www.spacecenter.org), where you can take computer-simulated space shuttle rides and guided tours of the adjacent Johnson Space Center.


Fifty miles south of Houston is Galveston Island (24). This picturesque resort was almost obliterated by a hurricane in 1900 but is now a popular Houstonian beach destination. Hire a car and hop on a free ferry (00 1 409 763 2386) to the Bolivar Peninsula, find out more about Texas's oil heritage on a tour of the state-of-the-art Ocean Star drilling rig (00 1 409 766 7827) or just park yourself on the sand. You can also get there for around £15 by express coach from Hobby Airport (25) (00 1 713 523 8888).


The Brennan family runs several restaurants in New Orleans, and there's no better place to experience a Jazz Brunch than at their Houston restaurant (23) (3300 Smith, 00 1 713 522 9711), where the cuisine is authentically Cajun and delicious.


The Seymour-Lieberman Exer-Trail (20) (Memorial Drive Loop, 00 1 713 845 1034) is a scenic three-mile circuit used chiefly by strollers and joggers. For a gentler walk, wander through Herman Park (00 1 713 520 3292), which encompasses Houston Arboretum (21) (00 1 713 681 8433). Budding Tiger Woodses might prefer to try the Herman Park Golf Course (22) (6201 Golf Course Drive, 00 1 713 526 0077).


British Airways (0845 77 999 77; www.british-airways.com) and Continental (0800 776464, www.continental.com) fly daily non-stops from London Gatwick to Houston. Fares start at £417.50 and £287 respectively. However, lower fares may be available from discount agents if you change planes en route. In August, expect to pay around £400 return; by October, that should fall to around £250. George Bush International airport (1) is 22 miles north of downtown Houston, to where a taxi costs about £20, the express shuttle service about £12 or a bus £1.


As with many American cities, Houston is a sprawling place. The bulk of the city can be broken down into three main districts: downtown, home to most of Houston's glittering futuristic skyscrapers; the historic Rice University district, with lots of museums; and Uptown, mainly a business and shopping zone. To get around downtown, try the free trolley system (00 1 713 635 4000). For more information, visit the Houston Visitors Centre (2) (901 Bagby, 00 1 713 853 8000, www.houston-guide.com).


At Sara's Bed and Breakfast (3) (941 Heights Blvd, 00 1 713 868 1130, www.saras.com), rooms start at a reasonable $75 (£50). As do rooms at the Fairfield Inn Marriott (4) (3131 West Loop South, 00 1 713 675 2711, www.fourseasons.com), if you prefer an uptown location. A more luxurious option downtown is the Four Seasons (5) (1300 Lamar, 00 1 713 650 1300, www.marriott.com). Here, doubles drop to an affordable (just) $155 (£106) at weekends.


Christchurch Cathedral (18) (1107 Chartres, 00 1 713 224 8091) is Houston's oldest Episcopal parish church and visitors can join tours of the building after the 11am service. Less devout types should head instead to Sam Houston Park (19), Houston's oldest park and home to several historical Texan buildings. Most notable of these is the 1847 Kellum-Noble House, built by freed slave Jack Yates, but also look out for the dinkiest wooden church you've ever seen, towered over by the skyscrapers beyond.


Le Tour d'Argent (16) (2011 Ella Blvd, 00 1 713 864 9864) is housed in a romantic log cabin and serves upmarket French cuisine, including plenty of seafood (main courses around £20). For real Texan hospitality, try Brenner's Steakhouse (17) (10911 Katy Freeway, 00 1 713 465 2901). At this authentic Fifties restaurant, the beehived waitresses call you "honey" - and mean it (main courses from around £10).


The Mercury Room (14) (1008 Prairie, 00 1 713 225 6372) is a hip downtown bar offering live Swing, Jazz and R&B as you sip your cocktails in art deco surroundings. La Carafe (15) (813 Congress, 00 1 713 229 9399) is also a popular spot. Apparently, it's housed in the oldest commercial building in the city and the sense of history is enhanced by lots of atmospheric candles.


The only place to go is The Galleria Westheimer (12) on Post Oak. It provides all the retail therapy you could ever need in 300 shops, including Neiman Marcus, Saks, Tiffany and Gucci. But, should you leave there still needing more, The Pavilion (13), a few blocks down on the same street, offers further opportunities to part with your dollars.


The Museum of Fine Arts (9) (1001 Bissonnet, 00 1 713 639 7300), boasts works by Monet, Matisse, Gauguin and Van Gogh, and has just opened a new $83m wing. However, the city's alternative art scene is thriving, too, as a visit to Beer Can House (10) (222 Malone) - yes, it's made entirely from beer cans - or the National Museum of Funeral History (11) (415 Barren Springs, 00 1 713 876 3063), with its "Funerals of the Famous" gallery, will prove.


You should find whatever you fancy at EatZi's Market & Bakery (7) (1702 Post Oak Blvd, 00 1 713 629 6003). It has 400 items on its menu, ranging from delicious sandwiches to delicate cakes, and everything is freshly prepared by the bakery's 70 chefs. Alternatively, head to Irma's (8) (22 M Chenevent, 00 1 713 222 0767). It's only open for breakfast and lunch, but it's where the locals go to get their fix of authentic Mexican tortillas and guacamole.


If you're wondering where all the people are as you stroll around downtown - they are under your feet.The world's largest pedestrian tunnel system (6), 20 feet below street level and seven miles long, is home to over 100 restaurants and everything from bakeries and dry cleaners to hotels and office blocks. Discover Houston (00 1 713 222 9255) runs 90-minute tunnel hikes for $5 (£3.50) per person or simply pick up a free tunnel map from City Hall (2) and do your own subterranean exploring.