BIT World Travel Service
Escorted Tour - Houston Overview

Houston Overview

Energy capital, rodeo town, biotech and medical research center, aerospace innovator, international arts destination: America’s fourth-largest city is many things to many, many people—2.2 million in the greater metropolitan area. Like Texas itself, Houston transcends its own clichés and stereotypes and is increasingly impossible to pin down. In a city untamed by zoning laws, these multiple personalities exist side-by-side and the sheer randomness of the place is sometimes appealing, sometimes appalling, yet always exhilarating. Three separate skylines jagged with audacious towers—by the likes of I. M. Pei, Cesar Pelli, and Philip Johnson—tower over prim, leafy residential neighborhoods. Exquisite museums, fine restaurants, and fashionable shops lie just off the pristine avenues of downtown. You never know what waits around the next corner, but therein lies the appeal of this unpredictable and in comparable city.

Black gold and Texas tea are what put Houston on the map and made it the fourth most populous city in the United States. But if you have decided to travel to Houston, you aren't going to look at oil derricks; instead it's the cultural riches that followed the oil, including some world-class museums, and the laid-back Southern atmosphere that are likely the draws. The city is sprawling—its 2 million residents share an area twice the size of New York City—so while an excellent public transportation system does exist, a car will make it easier to get the most out of a Houston visit.

Renowned Houston Tourist Attractions

Following its 2003 expansion, The Galleria became the fourth largest mall in the nation with 2.4 million square feet of retail space. Beneath the upscale mall’s glass atriums, shoppers browse the more than 370 retailers, which include Neiman Marcus, two Macy's stores, Tiffany & Co., Saks Fifth Avenue, Louis Vuitton, and the city’s only Nordstrom. The multi-level center also has sit-down restaurants like The Cheesecake Factory, Rainforest Café, and Oceanaire Seafood Room, as well as an indoor ice rink and two Westin hotels.

Contemporary Arts Museum Houston

CAMH is an innovative, world-class institution founded to document the role of art in modern life. Since 1972 it’s been housed in an architecturally-significant, parallelogram-shaped steel edifice and spotlights emerging artists through exhibitions and educational programs. As a non-collecting institution, CAMH has been able to facilitate a steady showcase of exhibitions showcasing art through multiple medium. Digital media and sculpture, still life and performance art, architecture and abstracts have all been shared and celebrated at CAMH.

Rothko Chapel

Part of the Menil Collection, the seminal Rothko Chapel, a masterpiece of religious modern art, represents the culmination of collaboration between famed American artist Mark Rothko and his patrons, Dominique and John de Menil. Rothko's hand is obvious in every facet of the octagonal structure, as the artist was uniquely involved in all aspects of the Chapel's inception, design, and architecture. Fourteen monumental plum canvases and black-form paintings by Rothko cover every wall, commissioned by the de Menils to create a cool, quiet, meditative ecumenical space. In addition to its function as a non-denominational house of worship, the Chapel serves as a museum and a forum. Open 365 days a year at no charge, the Chapel has tackled many crucial social issues with a particular emphasis on human rights. Jonas Salk, Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama are just a few of the leaders, thinkers, and heroes who have visited or lectured here.

The James TurrellSkyspace

No, a UFO hasn't landed on Houston's Rice University campus—it's the latest Skyspace from artist James Turrell. Named the Suzanne Deal Booth Centennial Pavilion (for a Rice alumna and Turrell's former assistant), the ethereal installation frames the sky through an aperture in a thin steel roof; at dawn and dusk, colored lights transform the structure, creating a mesmerizing effect. The space also hosts concerts—fitting, since the renowned Shepherd School of Music is next door.

The Menil Collection

The internationally renowned Menil Collection is perhaps the city's ultimate hidden jewel, with a main building that's tucked away on a residential cul-de-sac. Opened in 1987, the long, low-slung gray clapboard building was the first U.S. commission by the Italian architect Renzo Piano, and rotating displays of art, in galleries bathed in soft natural light, range from the prehistoric to the present day. Piano's second U.S. commission was the adjacent Cy Twombly Gallery, another building set on the 30-acre tree-shaded campus of art installations, sculpture parks, a bistro and the art-filled Rothko Chapel that are integrated into the surrounding neighborhood. Other satellite buildings include one that is aglow with site-specific works in fluorescent light by the minimalist pioneer Dan Flavin and the Byzantine Fresco Chapel— now a venue for long-term installations by contemporary artists. Dotting the campus, among many massive magnolia and live oak trees, are outdoor sculptures by Michael Heizer, Tony Smith, and Mark di Suvero.

The Museum of Fine Arts

Built in 1958 and extended in 1974, Mies van der Rohe's glass-and-steel pavilion, a renowned example of the International Style pioneered by the architect, changed the look of American museums—and the ways in which art is exhibited. Taking advantage of its soaring, translucent interiors, the MFAH made international news in the 1960's by displaying African figures and oceanic totems on impossibly tall pedestals that were placed among potted trees, and by suspending billboard-size canvases by Jackson Pollock and other artists from ceiling cables. Works are sometimes still displayed this way. An eerie tunnel of light by the artist James Turrell connects the Mies building to a monumental stone addition by Rafael Moneo and the encyclopedic museum now houses more than 65,000 works. Louvered skylights bathe galleries in the Moneobuilding in natural light, where blockbuster traveling exhibits are displayed. Across the street from the two edifices is the Cullen Sculpture Garden, designed by Isamu Noguchi. The museum recently unveiled a new cafe and gift shop. Entry is free on Thursday evenings.

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