10 Things No One Tells You About... Houston
Forget what you've seen in the movies. Houston might be in Texas, but there's more to it than oil-drilling cowboys, road rage and Tex-Mex. Its rich diversity, booming culinary scene and great outdoor spaces are some of the best-kept secrets of the South — unless, of course, you live here. Here are 10 things you need to know to experience the Bayou City like a local.
1. It’s One of the Most Diverse Cities in the US
According to a study by Rice University, Houston has the most even distribution of the country's predominant races and ethnicities of any major US city. In fact, it doesn’t even come close to having a single race or ethnicity that can lay claim to being the majority. Whites and Hispanics each make up only a little over one-third of the population, followed by smaller percentages of African Americans and Asians. Not even famously diverse cities like New York City, Los Angeles or Washington, D.C. come close to the percentage breakdown found in Houston.
2. The Tex-Mex Is Great, but Wait Til You Try the Vietnamese Food
Make no mistake, Houston’s Tex-Mex is amazing, but the Vietnamese food here is some of the best in the country. That’s because it's home to the largest Vietnamese-American population outside of California, with tens of thousands of Vietnamese Americans calling the city home. For the tastiest and most authentic Vietnamese cuisine in Houston, locals go to Midtown — home to Little Saigon — or Chinatown.
3. Most Houstonians Drive... But You Don’t Need a Car to Get Around
It’s no secret that this city is huge, both in terms of population and geography. Roughly six million people live in the Houston metro, spread across an area larger than the state of New Jersey. But while the sprawl has made driving the norm for most Houstonians, alternative transit is gaining in popularity.
The METRORail light-rail system has expanded to include three lines that run north and southwest of downtown, including through high-traffic neighborhoods like Houston’s theater and museum districts and the Texas Medical Center. Taxis and Uber cars are everywhere — especially inside the Loop. And even the city’s bike-share program, Bcycle, is gaining traction, with more than 30 stations located throughout the neighborhoods in and around downtown.
4. The Coolest Neighborhoods Are Really Walkable
Drive if you want to, but some of the best neighborhoods in Houston are easily explored on foot. The Heights, Montrose and Midtown, for example, are home to some of the city's best restaurants, coolest shopping areas and trendiest bars. Yet despite their proximity to downtown, these areas are surprisingly pedestrian-friendly. That said...
5. Everything Is Further Away Than You Think It Will Be
Houston’s sprawl is no joke, yet guides for the city make it sound like hopping from one place to another is a breeze. But with the exception of the Museum District — which is home to roughly 20 museums and other tourist sites all within walking distance — attractions are often miles apart. NASA’s Johnson Space Center, for example, is a good 45-minute drive from downtown, and you need to budget a full day if you want to see the Gulf of Mexico.
6. There Are No Zoning Laws
Or more specifically, there’s no formal zoning code. While there are certain land-use restrictions — brothels aren’t built next to churches, for example — zoning laws aren’t on the books like in other major US cities. The result is that most neighborhoods are a mix of residential and commercial, providing a lot of options for those looking to stay in the middle of the action.
7. Houston Has Multiple Skylines, Not Just Downtown
While most major cities have their skyscrapers clustered in one central downtown district, Houston is laid out a little differently. The city’s signature downtown skyline consists mostly of offices and corporate headquarters. But jump five miles down the road, and the Texas Medical Center — the largest medical complex in the world — has nearly as many high-rises. The Galleria/Uptown area and the Energy Corridor also have clusters of tall buildings, though not nearly as many. For those flying over this metropolis, the spaced-apart groupings give the impression that passengers are soaring over multiple cities, but it’s all Houston.
8. There Are a Surprising Number of Green Spaces
Don’t let the multiple skylines and massive highways fool you, Houston isn’t all concrete and glass. It’s also home to roughly 375 parks and more than 160 miles of hiking and bike trails. While most of the parks are small neighborhood spaces, there are several large parks within Houston’s Inner Loop. Discovery Green, for example, is a 13-acre park in the heart of downtown. Not far away in the Museum District is Hermann Park: 445 acres of green space and home to a zoo, golf course, gardens, a reflecting pool and outdoor theater. Houston’s Memorial Park is roughly 1,500 acres — nearly twice the size of Central Park in New York City — and it isn’t even the largest park inside city limits; George Bush Park, located on the outskirts of town, is a shocking 7,800 acres.
9. The Airports Aren’t Created Equal
Houston’s two major airports might serve similar functions, but locals often have fierce loyalties, often rearranging travel plans to fly in or out of one or the other, and it's partly because of size preferences. George Bush Intercontinental (IAH) is by far the bigger of the two. It services more airlines, and has more flights in and out every day, giving passengers a greater number of options. But its five terminals and seemingly endless stretches of gates also make it time-consuming and annoying to navigate. In contrast, William P. Hobby (HOU) is much smaller. It services fewer airlines and doesn't have as many food options, but getting through security is a breeze even during busy travel times, and pick-up and drop-off arrangements are much less tedious. For those preferring to fly Southwest, it’s also the only option.
10. March Is the Best Time to Visit
In March, not only is the weather amazing, but the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo comes to town. The event isn't just bull riding — it consists of weeks of concerts by superstar musicians of all genres, a county-fair-sized carnival, the largest rodeo show in the country and — of course — plenty of cowboy boots and Stetsons.
What are your favorite things to do in Houston? Tell us about them, below.