Cutting-edge science, fine art and a warm welcome await in the biggest Texan city. This is the ideal time to explore Houston, as the summer heat abates and the pace of life picks up. And with good deals for weekend stays and plenty of free attractions, the city is excellent value. Interstate 45 wraps around the western side of Downtown Houston; Highway 59 marks the south-eastern edge of the central area; and the Buffalo Bayou forms the northern boundary.
Main Street meets this waterway close to Allen's Landing, where the city was founded in 1836. The Visitors' Centre (visit houstontexas.com; 9am-4pm daily except Sundays) occupies part of the magnificent Art Deco City Hall on Hermann Square; glance up at the star on the elaborate ceiling of the main lobby, and the legend: "O great city of vision – beautiful, strong and alert.
Houston spilled beyond its downtown confines long ago, and many of the attractions lie some distance away. The Museum District is a couple of miles south-west along Main Street; the western suburb of Montrose is the unlikely venue for two of America's great cultural treasures; and to the south-east is a lively Hispanic district.
The Texan love affair with the car is being tempered by Houston's improving public transport system. The flagship is Light Rail, a seven-mile tram line running along Main Street with services every few minutes (flat fare $1.25 / £0.80).
Take a view
The JPMorgan Chase Tower is the tallest building in Texas. Visit the observation gallery on the 60th floor for free – simply walk in and take the elevator to the 'Sky Lobby'. This viewpoint opens only 8am-5pm from Monday to Friday. At weekends, content yourself with viewing the large Joan Miró sculpture outside.
Take a hike...
… through the Downtown Historic District with a Houston Greeter. These volunteers steer a fascinating course through the heart of Houston. Tours usually start at City Hall, and explore the Theatre District. The waterside path on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou leads to Allen's Landing, where the trading history of Houston is documented; this inland city is America's leading international port. The upper part of Main Street has barely changed since the 1960s. Turn left for one block on Texas Street and you reach the entrance to Christ Church Cathedral.
Lunch on the run
The Great Hall of the cathedral serves excellent lunches from Monday to Friday. A seven-day-a-week alternative is accessible by taking the Light Rail to Museum District station. Cross to the Museum of Fine Arts at 1001 Bissonnet Street and walk beyond it to the Cullen Sculpture Garden (9am-10pm daily; free) on the corner of Montrose Avenue and Bissonet Street. Every day from 11am to 3pm a different food truck serves cheap, tasty and nutritious meals.
Houston was home to the world's first air-conditioned mall, and the genre has reached its ultimate at the vast Galleria, north-west of the centre. For a more modest retail outlet try The Heights, along 19th Street between North Shepherd and Heights Boulevard.
Go to church
The Rothko Chapel at 3900 Yupon Street was created by John and Dominique de Menil as a sacred place open to all people, every day. The Russian-born artist, Mark Rothko, filled it with 14 dark, monumental canvasses.
What Dominique de Menil did next stands next door, in the elegant shape of the first US building by Renzo Piano: the Menil Collection, home to one of the world's leading private art collections. Ancient engravings meet Andy Warhol.
A walk in the park
Discovery Green was created from two car parks on the edge of Downtown. Indulge in yoga, zumba and open-air movies, though not at the same time. In winter the pond is transformed into an ice rink (discoverygreen.com).
Take a ride
Make a journey to the Moon and beyond at Space Centre Houston. It explains the story of space explorati