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The Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau (GHCVB) has an elaborate visitor center located in the city hall building at 901 Bagby St. between Walker and McKinney (tel. 713/437-5556; www.visithoustontexas.com). Enter through the door on Walker. Here you can get lots of brochures, a range of city maps, architectural and historical guides, and answers from the center's staff. Pick up a copy of the Official Guide to Houston magazine; it has a helpful calendar of events. You can also play with the interactive computer stations and see a short introductory film of the city. The center is open daily from 9am to 4pm. If you're driving, park your car at the underground lot that is 1 block north of city hall. To get there, turn onto Walker, drive past city hall, and immediately turn right on Bagby, then right again on Rusk; you'll see a sign that says THEATER DISTRICT PARKING 2. It's free for visitors; just get your parking ticket stamped at the visitor center.

For advance information, try tel. 800/4-HOUSTON (446-8786) or 713/437-5200 or www.visithoustontexas.com. You can request a copy of their Visitors Guide. Other websites you might find helpful are operated by the local newspapers. The Houston Chronicle (www.chron.com) is the daily newspaper, and the Houston Press (www.houstonpress.com) is the free weekly tabloid, which has a large entertainment section.

But It's a Wet Heat -- Hot and humid, Houston has earned the unofficial title of "Air-Conditioning Capital of the World." If you're unaccustomed to high humidity and its consequences (profuse sweating, bad-hair days), you might want to take it easy at first and work on acquiring some degree of philosophical acceptance. (I like to envision the Buddha.) One more thing: Bopping around Houston in summertime means jumping from the frying pan into the freezer (to mangle yet another saying). You'll be repeatedly going from steamy outdoors into superchilled shops, restaurants, and so on. The natives are used to it, but many visitors complain, to deaf ears, I might add.

City Layout

Houston is a difficult city to find your way around in; it was built with no master plan, and most of its streets are jumbled together with little continuity. The suburban areas look alike and have indistinctive street names, usually ending in things like "crest," "wood," and "dale." To make matters worse, the terrain is so flat the only visible points of reference are tall buildings. But for the visitor, things aren't so bad. Most of the main attractions are not far off the freeways or other main arteries. With a basic knowledge of these, you can keep your bearings and get from one place to another.

To understand the layout of Houston's freeways, it's best to picture a spider web with several lines radiating out from the center, which are connected to each other by two concentric circles. The lines that radiate outward are in the following clockwise order: At 1 o'clock is the Eastex Freeway (Tex. 59 north), which usually has signs saying CLEVELAND, a town in East Texas; at 3 o'clock is the East Freeway (I-10 east to Beaumont and New Orleans); between 4 and 5 o'clock is the Gulf Freeway (I-45 south to Galveston); at 6 o'clock is the South Freeway (Tex. 228 to Lake Jackson, Freeport, and Surfside); between 7 and 8 o'clock is the Southwest Freeway (Tex. 59 to Laredo; look for signs that read VICTORIA); at 9 o'clock is the Katy Freeway (I-10 west to San Antonio); at 10 o'clock is the Northwest Freeway (Tex. 290 to Austin); and at 11 o'clock is the North Freeway (I-45 north to Dallas). The first circular freeway is Loop 610 (known as "the Loop"), which has a 4- to 5-mile radius from downtown. The second is known alternately as Sam Houston Parkway or Beltway 8. It has a 10- to 15-mile radius and is mostly a toll road except for the section near the Bush Intercontinental Airport.

In addition to the freeways, there are certain arteries that most newcomers would do well to know. Here are brief descriptions of each.

Main Street bisects downtown and then heads south-southwest, changing its name to South Main. It passes through the Museum District, then along Hermann Park and Rice University before reaching the Texas Medical Center. This stretch of South Main has lots of green space and is lined with oak trees. Beyond the Medical Center, the street passes by the Reliant Park football stadium, an exhibition center, and the old Astrodome.

In the middle of the Museum District is a traffic circle called Mecom Fountain, where South Main intersects Montrose Boulevard. Montrose runs due north from the Mecom Fountain crossing Westheimer Road and Buffalo Bayou. It gives its name to the Montrose area and is lined by several bistros around the Museum District. After it crosses the bayou, Montrose becomes Studemont and then Studewood when it enters a historic neighborhood known as the Heights.

Westheimer Road is the east-west axis around which most of western Houston turns. It begins in the Montrose area and continues for many miles through various urban and suburban landscapes without ever seeming to come to an end. Past the Montrose area, Westheimer crosses Kirby Drive and then passes by River Oaks, a neighborhood for Houston's rich folk. Farther along is Highland Village Shopping Center, then Loop 610, where it enters the popular commercial district known as the Galleria area or Uptown. Farther west, Westheimer passes an endless series of fast-food restaurants, strip malls, and chain retail stores as it runs through suburbia.

Kirby Drive is an important north-south artery. It intersects Westheimer Road by River Oaks and runs due south, skirting the Greenway Plaza and passing under the Southwest Freeway. Once south of the freeway, Kirby enters University Place, a neighborhood that curls around the western borders of the Rice University campus and is the favorite residential area for Houston's doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. Kirby eventually intersects South Main Street in the vicinity of Reliant Stadium.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.