Cosmopolitan, Diverse, Booming


By Monica Hortobagyi Siniff, Special for USA TODAY 11:10 a.m. EST February 20, 2015

HOUSTON — If you set out to visit the nation’s most diverse city — one with world-class dining, a flourishing arts scene, top-tier academic institutions and an influx of job-hungry college graduates — you’d be forgiven for setting your sights on New York City.

You’d also be mistaken.

But Houston, the city in question, would forgive you. That’s just the kind of place she is.

Over the past decade, the USA’s fourth-largest city has quietly become not just a powerhouse of intellect and culture in Texas, but a major player on the world stage. The Bayou City’s economic boom and urban renaissance have made Houston not just a magnet for travelers, but a permanent residence for many casual visitors.

Houstonians know what you’ve been thinking: urban sprawl, traffic woes, Big Oil and NASA. And though the city’s 2.3 million residents do have to navigate a swath of land roughly the size of New York City, Washington, D.C., Boston and Miami combined, they’ll gently tell you that you’re living in the past.

“The city’s more than steaks and potatoes, and ‘Houston, we have a problem’ references,” says Taylor Byrne Dodge, creative director and associate publisher of My Table, a Houston dining magazine. “We’re not just gas and oil. We’re medicine. We’re arts. We’re really big on the arts.”

Indeed, only New York has a greater concentration of theater seats. Houston is also one of the rare U.S. cities to have resident professional companies in each of the performing arts’ genres: ballet, theater, symphony and opera, the latter of which has won Emmy, Grammy and Tony awards.

Often overshadowed by Austin — the state capital that’s synonymous with live music, tech firms and South by Southwest — Houstonians simply want to set the record straight. The city’s brag list includes:

• An ever-expanding world-class arts scene, including a $450 million redevelopment of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (the largest museum of its kind in the Southwest), a walkable Museum District comprised of 20 institutions, and a 17-block Theater District.

• A staggering culinary stage, with more than 10,000 restaurants representing 70-plus countries and American regions. Food & Wine magazine recently crowned Houston “America’s newest capital of great food,” and the James Beard Foundation awarded Underbelly’s Chris Shepherd “Best Chef Southwest” last year.

• More park acreage than any of the other 10 most populous U.S. cities.

• A brimming blend of cultures, with more than 90 languages spoken

At the heart of Houston’s renewal are scores of ethnic communities that bring their flavors, work ethic and skills to a city that prides itself on its inclusive spirit.

The diversity includes a thriving LGBT community, a fact underscored by the thrice-elected mayor Annise Parker.

“Everybody in the world wanted to know how the heck Houston elected a lesbian mayor,” Parker says while sitting in her airy office sipping iced tea. “To which I said, ‘You shouldn’t have been surprised if you knew Houston.’ “

One in five Houstonians is foreign-born, and that count continues to rise as the city weaves more multinational industries into its economic fabric. Street signs in Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean dot the landscape.

“We have no ethnic majority here,” says Holly Clapham, of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau. “You’re able to find a little slice of everything.”

Despite the city’s tremendous economic growth, travelers will find big-city bargains — whether it be the reasonable parking fees or dining prices. A late-February weekend rate at an assortment of four-star hotels can easily be had for less than $200.

And for travelers who follow their stomachs, Houston calls.

Houstonians eat out four times a week, and it’s easy to taste why. From smoky, fall-off-the-bone barbecue to the endless combinations found in Asian-Mexican fusion (short-rib vindaloo taco, anyone?), “you could spend a year in Houston and not hit all the restaurants,” Parker says. And that three-course meal for two at a mid-range restaurant arrives at a reasonable $60.

Among Houston’s brightest stars: The Pass & Provisions, a dual-restaurant concept delivering innovative New American cuisine; Underbelly, chef Chris Shepherd’s culinary love letter to Houston’s diversity; and Oxheart, Justin Yu’s take on Texas-sourced ingredients. These and others have become regulars on the nation’s “Top Restaurant” lists, prompting The New York Times to declare Houston “one of the country’s most exciting places to eat.”

A (really) warm city

Beyond the hot dining scene is the warmth: weather and people. Whereas visitors during the summer might wither in the infamous heat and humidity, Houstonians count on air conditioning like the sun rising and prefer to tout their 300-day growing season.

But that other kind of warmth — a simple kindness that might make a Northerner wonder what you’re angling for — is unmistakable.

“The one stereotype that Houston does possess is Southern hospitality and charm,” says Clapham, of the Visitors Bureau. “Maybe not on the freeway,” she quips.

If you go

• Getting there: Fly into either George Bush Intercontinental Airport or William P. Hobby Airport. If driving, Houston is roughly 3 hours from San Antonio, 2.5 hours from Austin and 3.5 to 4 hours from Dallas.

• Where to stay: For those who want to be in the heart of the action, consider staying Downtown (for theater-goers, The Lancaster Hotel; for history buffs, the 1911 bank-turned-hotel Hotel ICON); in Montrose — a vibrant hub of dining, art galleries and coffee shops that borders the Museum District — the luxury boutique mansion-turned-hotel La Colombe D’Or has five suites and nine villas; and just north of Downtown in The Heights — a historic neighborhood known for its Victorian-style homes, antique shops and eclectic coffeehouses — Sara’s Inn on the Boulevard charms with its cozy elegance. Residents appreciate that The Heights is a more walkable area than other parts of Houston, but visitors should note that the area is being gentrified and still has patchier spots.

For a total escape, The Houstonian’s lush surroundings, lodge-like decor and luxurious spa can make you forget you’re in a city at all, and with its Galleria-area location, the best of the city is easily accessible.

• Where to eat: For a romantic fine-dining experience (or a splurge on yourself), Da Marco Cucina E Vino offers exquisitely prepared fresh ingredients with excellent service. (Dinner entrees from $19-45+; One of Houston’s very best.

Caracol, the newest addition to the dining empire of husband-wife team — chef Hugo Ortega and restaurateur Tracy Vaught — takes diners on a culinary tour of Mexican Coastal cuisine. Packed even on a recent Sunday night, the small dishes at this trendy spot shine. Try the Chicharrón de Calamar, Costillas a las Brazas, and the Bocadillos de Langosta.

You’ll feel like family at Georges Bistro, while savoring traditional French countryside fare prepared by Georges himself and served by his wife Monique. The flavors sing and the cozy ambience will have you convinced you’re in the south of France.

Don’t leave town without sampling some barbecue. Goode Co. BBQ on Kirby is a tried-and-true local institution that’s worth a stop. Now in its fifth year, family-owned Gatlin’s BBQ in The Heights has garnered acclaim and built up a loyal following for their smoky meats, tasty sides and warm personal touch. For those who’d prefer to skip the grittier location, look for a collaboration with celebrity chef Bryan Caswell to open downtown in the early part of this year.

• Upcoming events: The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, March 3-22, 2015. Join 2.5 million other people who turn out for the events, including bareback riding, calf roping, steer wrestling and bull riding. Grab a bite at the World’s Championship Bar-B-Q Contest (the HLSR is the world’s largest, after all) and stick around for evening concerts (tickets required) by the music industry’s biggest names: Tim McGraw, Brad Paisley, Ariana Grande and Pitbull, among others.

The 28th Annual Art Car Parade, April 11, 2015. The city’s embrace of quirky creativity is on full display as 250+ cars from the U.S., Canada and Mexico surprise and amuse. Nearly 300,000 people turn out, making it one of Houston’s largest free events.