Houston is located about an hour north of the Gulf of Mexico and is absolutely flat. Houstonians call it the “Bayou-City”, due to the many bayous, rivers and creeks flowing through the area on their way south to the Gulf. The largest and most popular is Buffalo Bayou, which flows in from the west, accompanied by a stretch of parks in between two major parkways, Memorial Parkway and Allen Parkway which lead into the city, providing a breathtaking view of the skyline. The few apartments and condominiums in that area are, as a result, quite expensive. Buffalo Bayou then leaves downtown by boarding the north and east side, allowing for a scenic entrance into the city from the east.
The Bayou City, with its low sea level, is prone to flooding and areas are evaluated by assigned flood zones. The closer to the Gulf, the more the risk of flooding due to a hurricane but even many areas in and around downtown are at high risk if they border a bayou, creek or river. One will notice that Houston has many retention and detention ponds as well as man-made creeks to redirect water in high risk areas. Understandably, houses do not have cellars and the underground garages and walkways of downtown, as well as the lowered freeway sections, are specifically constructed against flooding and are equipped with pumps.
The greater Houston area includes the city of Houston and many small towns which can be located within the city limits but are not incorporated and are fully independent. The city of Houston has no zoning regulations (restriction to type of buildings in specific areas) and the first impression of most expatriates is that the huge city is spread out and without a car, it is impossible to get around.
Houston is definitely a freeway city. Freeway’s have been given nicknames by Houstonians and listening to the radio’s or TV’s traffic news requires knowledge of such nicknames.
- Loop 610: The Loop
- Beltway 8: Sam Houston Tollway
- I-10W: West or Katy Freeway
- I-10E: East Freeway
- I-45N: North Freeway
- I-45S: Gulf Freeway
- I-45 at Downtown: Pierce Elevated
- 59 North: Eastex Freeway
- 59 South: Southwest Freeway
- 290: Northwest Freeway
- 249: Tomball Parkway
- 288: South Freeway or Nolan Ryan Expressway
- 255: La Porte Freeway
The structure of Houston is defined by many districts and the major freeways going north/south (I-45), east/west (I-10) and two loops, the Inner Loop 610 and the Outer Loop Beltway 8. When speaking of locations in Houston, Houstonians usually differentiate between inside the Loop or outside the Loop, referring to the Inner Loop 610 and to the west or east of I-45 which goes right through Downtown.
Downtown, with its historic district and beautiful skyline, is located east inside the Inner Loop and is home to all the sport stadiums, major hotels, the Theatre District, many clubs and bars, corporate skyscrapers and the Convention Center.
To the east of Downtown and I-45 are the original wards and large industrial districts. The port of Houston attaches farther on the east side. The southeast is mainly characterized by structures related to the oil and gas industry, such as refineries.
The western part of Houston near downtown is the metropolitan area of Houston and consists of many popular districts.
To the northwest are the Heights, to the south and southwest the Universities, the Medical Center, Midtown, the Museum District, Montrose and West University. Further west is the River Oaks area and just outside the Loop, the Galleria area. The Galleria area is also often called the ‘other downtown’. The Galleria Mall is the center of the Galleria area accompanied by many bars, clubs, restaurants, hotels and high income shopping opportunities.
Another major area is the Katy Corridor which goes alongside the Katy Freeway and is home to many large businesses located off the freeway and bordered by small towns. Many small to larger sized towns and cities are located within the Houston area and even within the Houston city limits but are fully independent. They have been surrounded by Houston as it grew further out and the only way to recognize them may be a city limit sign. Many towns were also incorporated as suburbs, such as Spring, which still has its own flair with a charming main street. Residents live mostly in privately owned homes in such towns.
Another characteristic of Houston on the west side is Westheimer Road. Houstonians often joke that all directions start with ‘go down Westheimer’. Westheimer Road starts just southwest of Downtown, leads through the Galleria area and ends at West Oaks Mall at the edge of the west Houston. It is filled all the way with shops and restaurants. At West Oaks Mall, Westheimer turns into FM1093 (Farm Road 1093) leading to towns farther outside of Houston.
The two major airports, George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) and Houston William Hobby Airport (HOU) are located on the north and south side of the greater Houston area. IAH lies north of the city near the suburbs of Humble and Spring. Hobby lies to the southeast in the less attractive area of town.
The Woodlands is just further north of the IAH airport, off I-45 North, and is still considered within the greater Houston area. It borders the Sam Houston National Park and is characterized by large pine trees spreading throughout the area, often hiding complete shopping centers from the roads. It is one of the nicest places to live within the Houston area in terms of exclusivity, privacy, flair and shopping.