As the fourth-largest city in the United States, Houston is undeniably huge. But when you consider its population of more than 2 million takes up an area half the size of Rhode Island and twice as vast as Chicago, and its skyline is the fourth-largest in the country, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. (Factor in the additional 4 million people of greater Houston, and it’s even bigger—the sixth-largest metro area in the country.) Even though Houston’s western spirit and entrepreneurial thinking—not to mention lack of formal zoning regulations—has fed its immense growth, the city’s attributes make it worth getting to know.
At the core of it all, downtown Houston handsomely melds modern office towers with early 20th-century structures, including old office buildings transformed into hotels. If the streets seem relatively quiet, it’s the effect of seven miles of pedestrian tunnels 20 feet below the city streets that link office buildings with hotels and shopping areas. The scene gets livelier come nightfall at downtown’s Theater District.
Most of what Houston offers lies beyond downtown, yet still within easy reach. A light-rail line connects to the Museum District, where you’ll find the biggest (and many would say the best) museum in Texas—the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The bulk of its exhibits are showcased in airy Mies van der Rohe and Renzo Piano structures. Close by, find the Houston Museum of Natural Science, where amazing touring exhibitions help make it the third-most-visited museum in the United States. outside of Smithsonian museums. Restaurants, bars and shops in the arty Montrose neighborhood and increasingly popular Heights neighborhood are a quick drive from here.
But many would say the most travelled—and telling—district lies on the city’s west side. Six miles from downtown, Uptown Houston is instead often called “the Galleria” after its center-of-activity shopping mall. Indeed, the Galleria is a hotbed for the lavish quality often associated with Houston, with Neiman Marcus, Chanel, Tiffany & Co. and the like. And it’s also huge: With 3 million square feet, the Galleria was once the fourth-largest in the country (it’s now the seventh-largest), and this doesn’t count the retail and restaurant development that spreads beyond the mall in every direction. That practically endless quality is part of what makes Houston Houston—and, at the very least, why Forbes magazine calls it the best city for shopping in the United States.