Houston's "wow" factor hits visitors almost instantly -- they drive over a crest, and its buildings magically appear like the Emerald City in Oz. That the landscape sparkles isn't a surprise -- new structures fill the city, the hallmark of a metropolis that likes to reinvent itself. Visitors reap the rewards of this growth, with opportunities for splashy and state-of-the-art fun around every corner -- watch the Astros or the Rockets in their gleaming new arenas; play make-believe in the astonishingly beautiful, built-from-the-ground-up Children's Museum; or sail toy boats in the freshly landscaped urban oasis, Discovery Green. Houston's got a quirky side, too, thanks to its longstanding tradition of having no zoning laws -- art is everywhere and on anything. Keep an eye out for the weird and wonderful, like one man's ode to all things citrus at his Orange Show and the oversize busts of four familiar presidents along the I-10 freeway (lovingly dubbed "Mount Rush Hour"). All that plus the legendary Texan hospitality -- locals will be happy to show you around if you ask -- makes Houston an exceptionally fun and unique city to visit with kids.
Go to Houston in August, and even locals will chuckle. "Why would you come here in summer?" they'll ask. It's hot, but there's plenty of air conditioning, making empty hotel rooms and low rates (both directly related to the summer swelter) a visitor's bonanza. Head about an hour south during the same period, on the other hand, and the tempo (not to mention the room rates) pick up, with Texans seeking refuge from the summer heat at waterside Galveston and Kemah. The rest of the year is a different story -- crowds stream in steadily to Houston, taking advantage of its temperate climate during fall, winter, and spring, which are perfect compliments to major events like the Houston Rodeo, the quirky Art Car Parade, and even the lighting of the city Christmas tree. No matter when you come, Houston is a fairly affordable city, with many prices -- from restaurants to hotels to attractions -- pleasant surprises to visitors used to the sticker shock of other metropolises.
Houston is notorious for its summers, when high temperatures are exacerbated by high humidity that makes the air feel much hotter than the 90-plus reported average, leading most folks to seek refuge in air conditioning. Locals have the last laugh in January, though, when winter temperatures bottom out only in the 40s (and top out in the comfortable 60s), while much of the country shivers from the cold. Shoulder seasons in spring and fall remain moderate, with comfortable highs in the 70s and 80s and lows in the 60s.
There have been only 14 snowfalls in Houston since 1939, but rain is another story. Wet weather peaks in May and June, but the unpredictable hurricane season can make late summer and fall even wetter. No matter when it arrives, rain comes down with a flourish -- Texas-sized drops that often appear in fierce (albeit short) bursts that can soak the landscape in a hurry and catch drivers off guard.
Air travelers into Houston have two choices: The William P. Hobby Airport (HOU) and George Bush Intercontinental, known to locals as IAH. Once in town, visitors can travel from IAH to the plaza near the Downtown Transit Center on the METRO bus for $15. From Hobby, opt for either the shared-ride Super Shuttle or private taxis, both available outside baggage claim. Less expensive (albeit less convenient) are the METRO buses that depart from Hobby's transportation center at Curbzone 13 to various downtown locations. Rental car agencies are plentiful at both airports, but car rentals are expensive, particularly at IAH, where city and state taxes, plus a charge of more than $4 per day to support buses to the central rental facility, can tack as much as $100 onto the cost of a weekly rental. For those traveling to Houston by rail, Amtrakoffers the Sunset Limited, with stops in Texas on the route between New Orleans and Los Angeles. The Houston Amtrak station is located at 902 Washington Avenue.
Public transportation is gaining ground in Houston, but for now the family car still rules. City roads are easily manageable thanks to metropolitan areas laid out in easy-to-follow grids. Even better, those used to the exorbitant parking rates in other major metropolises will find parking lots here are readily available and affordable. One word of caution, however: Be mindful of METRO trains that share the road and run so quietly you may not realize they're in the lane next you. Outside the city, highways are a little tricky. The average Houston interchange looks like something concocted by an abstract artist, and ramps come and go in a hurry -- a good navigation device is highly recommended. Highway travelers will also have to deal with significant traffic during the traditional rush hour periods, weekdays roughly 7 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m.
For those willing to make the effort, sleek, ultra-quiet METRORail trains and METRO buses are great, economical transportation options. They travel to myriad inner- and outer-city locations, touching on tourist attractions like the Museum District and Minute Maid Park. METRO's visitor page provides detailed instructions and helpful information. Purchase single tickets and multi-ride cards at station vending machines or pay cash on board.
The Houston Visitors Center (901 Bagby; 713-437-5200) is a great place to start your visit and collect all the information you'll need to plan your stay; their website also offers a great deal of information. Galveston's tourism-focused website and visitor center (2027 61st Street, not far from Moody Gardens; 888-425-4753) are also quite helpful.
The Greater Houston Convention and Visitor Bureau's website offers money saving deals and discounts in the Special Offers area of the site. CityPass, a multi-attraction ticket, garners purchasers admission to six of eight of the area's most popular attractions for about half of what they would cost if purchased a la carte. Check local publications and tourist-brochure kiosks for additional coupons and money-saving offers; some museum websites also detail discounts and packages associated with local hotels.
At more than two million people, the city of Houston has a larger population than the entire state of Nevada.
In land mass, the city of Houston is nearly 1,000 square miles larger than the state of Massachusetts.
Famous Houstonians include Hillary and Haylie Duff and Beyonce.