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Everyone knows what Texas means to outsiders -- it's big and brash. In contrast to that image of over-confidence, visitors might be surprised to learn that Houston is one of only five US cities with year-round resident companies in all major performing arts. Here you will find the Houston Symphony, the Houston Grand Opera, the venerable Alley Theatre and the Houston Ballet. The Opera says it is the only opera company in the world with Grammy, Emmy and Tony awards. The Ballet is the fifth largest company in the country, eclipsed only by are New York, Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco.

There are also the biggest and best accolades every city is fond of citing. For Houston, these include the world's largest medical center, a bike-riding mayor and the self-styled Cowboy Capital of the World (the latter at least every February and March, when the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo holds sway). With over 2,000,000 residents, itÂ?s America's fourth largest city, trailing only New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Highlights

The Museum District here is one of the largest cultural complexes in the country, with 18 institutions within walking distance of one another.

Check out the Museum of Fine Arts (1001 Bissonnet; tel. 713/639-7300; www.mfah.org), with one of the country's finest collections, ranging from antiquities to contemporary, some 45,000 works in all. In 2000, they opened a new $83 million building, making it the sixth-largest museum in the country in terms of exhibition space.

Some locals consider the Menil Collection (1515 Sul Ross; tel. 713/525-9400; www.menil.org) to be the city's premier museum, with its fine array of outdoor sculptures and the nearby and marvelous Rothko Chapel, said to be "the only ecumenical center of its kind in the world," functioning as a religious space, a museum and a public forum.The Menil Collection includes some 15,000 paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, photographs and rare books.

The Houston Museum of Natural Science (1 Hermann Circle Drive; tel. 713/639-4629; www.hmns.org) claims to be the third most visited museum in the nation, following only the Smithsonian Institution and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Check out the Planetarium if you have time. Admission is $10.

Dining Out

According to the Zagat, Houstonians dine out more often than residents of any other major cities, on average 4.2 times per week compared to the national average of 3.2 times per week. Here are just a few places I sampled during my last visit:

Armando's (2630 Westheimer; tel. 713/520-1738; www.armandosrestaurant.com) is thought by many locals to be one of Houston's best Tex-Mex restaurants and in its new guise is quite elegant. I was disappointed in one of its specialties, tacos al carbon at $18, finding it far too mild. Their flan, drizzled with rum sauce, was superb, however, at $8.

I adored the shu-mai at Gigi's Asian Bistro & Dumpling Bar (5085 Westheimer, Suite B2515; tel. 713/629-8889). The dumplings are stuffed with steamed crab meat, shrimp and water chestnuts, a plate costing $10. Their Heavenly Beef (with coriander and chili) at $11 is said to be out of this world, too. The owner is Gigi Huang, the executive chef is Junnajet Hurapan.

Go to the trendy Voice (220 Main Street; tel. 832/667-4481; www.voicerestaurant.com) if only for its crab appetizer, one of many specialties dreamed up by executive chef Michael Kramer. Other favorites of his Gulf Coast menu include coffee rubbed filet of beef ($36) and grouper with artichoke puree ($23). The restaurant is in the Hotel Icon.

The executive chef and owner of Kiran's (4100 Westheimer at Mid Lane; b 713/960-8472; www.kiranshouston.com) is Kiran Verma, and her place is famous for its modern Indian cuisine and a high tea, the latter served on the second Saturday of the month. I loved her tandoori rack of lamb at $28, as well as mango mousse and caramel flan desserts. Her awards include Zagat Best New Restaurant 2006, Wine Spectator Award of Excellence 2008 and many more.

Shopping

Houston loves its Galleria (tel. 713/622-0663; www.galleriahouston.com) claims the title of the nation's fourth largest mall, though some may find it like every other big city shopping center. ItÂ?s about a 30-minute drive from downtown, so youÂ?ll either need to drive, take a cab or trust your luck with the infrequent public transportation that is available to get there. On my trip to the Galleria, I discovered that its employees seem to know only their little corner of the vast complex and are unable to direct you accurately, so you should check out the floorplan before diving in. If you're serious enough about shopping, you can stay at one of the two hotels attached to the mall, the Westin Oaks (tel. 713/960-8100) and the Westin Galleria (tel. 713/960-8100). You can book either online at www.starwoodhotels.com.