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Houston is the largest city in Texas and the fourth largest in the United States. It is huge, both in population and in land area. "Urban sprawl" is a term tailor-made for this city. Houston is an international city home to among the nation's largest Asian, Arab and Latin American populations. Houston's culture is not limited to diverse population - it boasts a world class symphony and theatre district that includes a full-time ballet company and opera.
Houston is the largest city in the United States without any appreciable zoning. While there is some small measure of zoning in the form of ordinances and land use regulations, real estate development in Houston is only constrained by the will and the pocketbook of real estate developers. Traditionally, Houston politics and law are strongly influenced by real estate developers; at times, the majority of city council seats have been held by developers. Development of the city, then, has reflected what makes life easy on developers instead of visitors or residents.
What this means to visitors is that Houston covers a larger land area with less population than might otherwise be expected. Everything is spread out. No matter where you are, almost nothing will be within walking distance. The entire city is built on the assumption that nearly everyone owns and drives a car virtually everywhere they go.
The city has a number of districts. Historically, these districts were called "wards" and they tended to have distinct populations. Redevelopment has rendered most of those distinctions meaningless, but the modern version of Houston still has districts.
Houston has three areas that look like a typical downtown in a big city with high-rise buildings and, at street level, concessions to pedestrians that include shops and eating establishments.
Downtown center of the city, still the home of high finance and big business.
The second area is south of the city center, the Texas Medical Center (or just "the med center"). Some of the best hospitals in the world are there.
The third area, west of the city center, is called Uptown or The Galleria Area and is knownfor its namesake, a huge high-end shopping mall complex. It also has the tallest building in the United States outside of a main downtown area, the Williams tower.
Situated elsewhere in town, between these three pillars of development and surrounding them, are a dozen or more distinct districts that define the more-accessible heart of the people and the city.
Warehouse District - Just north of the original downtown and formerly the site of warehouses and industry. (A short-lived attempt to market the area as NoHo - NOrth of HOuston, get it? - died a well-deserved death and no good, short, snappy name has yet to fully permeate the collective consciousness of Houston, so you might run into more than a few locals who don't recognize the name.) Loft conversions and trendy residents are the rule in this area, nowadays, but there's still some good eats and nightlife to be found.
Montrose - Both a street name and a neighborhood, Montrose is Houston's longtime home to a large portion of its gay and lesbian community, as well as host to the city's museums. An area that was once affordable and appealing for its 1920's bungalows, it has now given way to gentrification and high property taxes. Of note in the Montrose is the Menil Collection, a private family collection of 20th Century modern masterpieces, open to the public Wednesday through Sunday from 11-7. It boasts a large group of surrealist works and includes a special room devoted to the objects that the Surrealists themselves collected, which inspired many of the works on view. Montrose is one of the few places in the city where walking just might be feasible one day, but with an August average afternoon high temperature of 92 with 54% humidity, it is unlikely that Houstonians will ever surrender their cars.
Clear Lake - A large sheltered bay and the area around it is a local recreation center. The area is home to NASA's Johnson Space Center, a smaller medical center, and seafood vendors. The area's boating opportunities are considered second only to those of Miami. Fishing, swimming, hiking, and history are also popular activities in the area.
River Oaks - Long known as Houston's most exclusive neighborhood, River Oaks is home to a large collection of eye-popping mansions. Another attraction of the neighborhood is the River Oaks Shopping Center, one of America's first suburban shopping districts and a great display of Art Deco architecture.
Post Oak / Galleria - Centered about the Galleria.
Midtown - The area between Downtown and the medical center.
The Heights - Houston's first suburb, built around a streetcar line, The Heights today is centrally located compared to the far flung modern suburbs. It is a large district of gingerbread Victorian homes as well as early 20th Century bungalows.
Southwest Houston - Center of much of the city's suburban development from the 1940s throught the 1970s, today it is one of its most diverse quarters. A plethora of rundown apartment complexes has given the overall area a reputation for crime, but it is also home to some of the city's most desirable neighborhoods, including Meyerland and the charming City of Bellaire.
New Chinatown - AKA Little Saigon located southwest of the center is the largest Chinatown in the world, areawise, though the term Chinatown is misleading due to the fact that the majority of the shops and restaurants cater to Houstons large Vietnamese population. Hong Kong City Mall is a very large grocery store/shopping center in this area. This is actually the second Chinatown, the first being a now warehouse district on the northeast side of downtown. There is also a significant (though much smaller) concentration of Asian, especially Vietnamese, influence on the far southeast edge of the city in the Sagemont area.
Houston is served by two airports:
George Bush Intercontinental Airport , (IATA: IAH) . The larger of the two airports and is located 23 miles north of downtown near Beltway 8, between IH-45 North and US-59 North. It is a hub for Continental Airlines and serves 24 domestic and international airlines.
William P. Hobby Airport, (IATA: HOU) . Located 7 miles south of downtown and is located off of I-45 South. It is convenient if you're travelling downtown or south of the city, such as to Galveston. Its main carrier is Southwest Airlines, and it also served by Delta Airlines, American Airlines, and AirTran.
Amtrak, 902 Washington Ave, . Amtrak's Sunset Limited line is the only passenger train route with a stop in Houston.
Houston's major freeways include:
IH-45 North ("North Freeway"): To Dallas
IH-45 South ("Gulf Freeway"): To Galveston
IH-10 West ("Katy Freeway"): To San Antonio
IH-10 East: ("Baytown/East Freeway", not to be confused with "Eastex freeway") to Beaumont
IH-610 ("The Loop"): Loop around downtown
US-59 South ("Southwest Freeway"): to Victoria
US-59 North ("Eastex Freeway"): to Lufkin
US-290 West ("Northwest Freeway"): to Austin
SH-288 South ("South Freeway"): to Freeport
SH-225 East ("Pasadena Freeway"): to La Porte
BW-8 ("The Beltway"): Loop about twice as far out as IH-610.
Approximate mileage to nearby cities (in miles):
Baton Rouge, LA: 270