The fourth largest city in the United States, HOUSTON is an ungainly beast of a place, choked with successive rings of highways and high on humidity. Despite this, its sheer energy, its relentless Texas pride and, above all, its refusal to take itself totally seriously, lends it no small appeal. For visitors, its well-endowed museums, highly regarded performing arts scene and decent nightlife mean there is always something to do.

If you have just a short time, concentrate on the superb galleries of the Museum District and Hermann Park, which are linked to downtown, some five miles northeast, by tram (trolley). The city’s human face is most evident in the Montrose area, which lies west of downtown and overlaps with the Museum District.

Uptown, also called the Galleria district after its massive upscale mall, is three miles west. Just outside the Loop, the Galleria’s 300 or so shops and restaurants spread north along Post Oak Boulevard; there is little to do around here except shop and eat.

Brief history

The city’s very existence has always depended on wild speculation and boom-and-bust excess. Founded on a muddy mire in 1837 by two real estate-booster brothers from New York – their dream was to establish it as the capital of the new Republic of Texas – Houston was soon superseded by the more promising site of Austin, even while somehow developing itself as a commercial centre.

Oil, discovered in 1901, became the foundation, along with cotton and real estate, of vast private fortunes, and over the next century wildly wealthy philanthropists poured cash into swanky galleries and showpiece skyscrapers. That colossal self-confidence helped Houston weather devastating oil crises in the 1980s, and more recently it endured the Enron corporate scandal. Houston has also developed a growing workforce eager to bring alternative energy to scale. Solar and wind projects offer the most promise in Texas; more than 25 percent of Houston’s energy load, for instance, comes from wind.

Several megachurches headquartered downtown – with smooth-talking celebrity pastors like Joel Olsteen – have become powerful social, cultural and political forces, drawing as many as fifty thousand people to their Sunday services, which are open to the public.

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