A city as big as Houston deserves to be named after a larger-than-life figure: Sam Houston, president of the Republic of Texas who, as general of the Texas army, led the fight for independence from Mexico. Everything about Houston is huge—at nearly five million people, it’s the largest city in Texas and fourth largest in the country.
The Bayou City is notorious for its lack of zoning ordinances and its high humidity, resulting in unmitigated sprawl and unbearably hot summers. But it’s not without its charm—Houston has world-class cultural and medical facilities, and its immense international population contributes to a truly cosmopolitan setting with world-renowned corporations, services, and restaurants.
The city even started out with grand ambitions. In the late 1830s, New York City brothers and entrepreneurs Augustus and John Allen claimed that the town would become the “great interior commercial emporium of Texas,” with ships from New York and New Orleans sailing up Buffalo Bayou to its door.
For most of the late 1800s, Houston was a typical Texas town, fueled by cotton farming and railroad expansion. Unlike other cities, however, Houston received a major financial and identity boom when oil was discovered at nearby Spindletop in 1901. The oil industry changed Houston forever, with major corporations relocating to the city and using its deep ship channel for distribution.
Houston received another identity change and financial surge in the mid-1900s, when it became a headquarters for the aerospace industry. NASA established its Manned Spacecraft Center in 1961, which eventually became the epicenter of the country’s space program with its earth-shattering Gemini and Apollo missions.
With the proliferation of air-conditioning around the same time, Houston’s brutal humidity was no longer a year-round deterrent, resulting in corporations and their associated workers relocating from colder climes. The population boomed even more in the 1970s when the Arab Oil Embargo caused Houston’s petroleum industry to become one of the most vital assets in the country. The world oil economy in the 1980s caused a recession in Houston, and although the city eventually recovered, it received another black eye in the late 1990s as a result of the Enron accounting fraud scandal.
Texans typically don’t consider Houston a viable travel destination, but they should. Most people within the state prefer to visit natural wonders such as Big Bend or South Padre Island, but a dose of cosmopolitan life is good for the soul. Houston’s sense of style is a step ahead of the Lone Star State’s masses, its restaurants often specialize in the regional cuisine of lesser-known countries (offering tantalizing taste bud sensations beyond standard eatery fare), and the city’s public transportation system is surprisingly comprehensive in its coverage. Incidentally, you’ll be able to identify a native by the way they say their city’s name—locals don’t always pronounce the “H” (resulting in “yoo-ston”) for some odd reason.
A drive through Houston’s inner-core neighborhoods reveals what happens when a city doesn’t prioritize zoning regulations. Depending on who you ask, it’s good (Texans in particular don’t like to be told what they can or cannot do with their property) or bad (significant historic neighborhoods and homes are routinely leveled to make room for McMansions). Regardless, it’s part of Houston’s character, even if that means a 150-year-old home sits in the shadow of a monstrous contemporary house across the street from a gargantuan pseudo-historic retail and residential complex.
Houston may never equal San Antonio in visitation numbers, but its distinctive characteristics—a Southern cosmopolitan city with an independent spirit befitting of Texas—make it a worthy destination for more than just business travelers.
Getting to Houston
Houston’s major airport is George Bush Intercontinental Airport (2800 N. Terminal Rd., 281/230-3000, www.fly2houston.com), located just north of town. The city’s old airport, William P. Hobby Airport (8183 Airport Blvd., 713/643-4597, www.fly2houston.com), is now the major hub for Southwest Airlines. SuperShuttle (713/523-8888, www.supershuttle.com) provides shuttle service between both airports and downtown-area hotels.
To arrange for cab pick-up service from within the city, contact one of the following local companies: Liberty Cab Company (713/695-6700), Square Deal Cab Co. (713/659-5105), or United Cab Co. (713/699-0000). To rent a car from the airport, contact the Consolidated Rental Car Facility (281/233-1010, www.iahrac.com). All the major rental car companies are accessible, and they share a shuttle system.
To reach the city by bus, contact Houston Greyhound (2121 Main St., 800/231-2222, www.greyhound.com). Trains arrive and depart at the Houston Amtrak station (902 Washington Ave., 800/872-7245, www.amtrak.com) via Amtrak’s Sunset Limited line.
Houston’s public transportation system, the Metro, also known as the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (713/635-4000, www.ridemetro.org), offers local and commuter bus service. Tickets are available in vending machines located at each station.
© Andy Rhodes from Moon Texas, 6th Edition