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Houston, TX

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Oil wells, longhorn cattle and a bit of Texas swagger may be iconic images long associated with Houston, but equally relevant as a symbol for the modern city is the Johnson Space Center, one of the top attractions in Houston. As NASA’s “Mission Control Center,” the space center symbolizes the technological drive of this fourth-largest U.S. city.

Visitors to the space center come face-to-face with actual spacecraft, such as astronaut Gordon Cooper’s Faith 7 capsule from the Mercury Atlas 9 mission and the Apollo 17 Command Module from the last manned mission to the moon. At the Blast Off Theater, the audience feels the simulated lift-off, and on the NASA Tram Tour, guests get to peek behind the curtain at the latest robotic technologies and astronaut training techniques.

In comparison, the three-week Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, beginning in late February, embodies the excitement of a different (down-to-earth) world. Every year more than a million people attend this event, another of the top attractions in Houston. The livestock show is the largest in the world, but there is also a rodeo and a downtown parade. Country legends George Strait and Martina McBride have performed at the show more than once, but other popular performers, such as Justin Bieber and the Black Eyed Peas, have also appeared.

History buffs find a wealth of Southern historic sites in Houston. The 1,200-acre San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site is a step back in time to the decisive 1836 battle of the Texas War of Independence. On this site Sam Houston, the namesake of the city, commanded the Texas revolutionaries who defeated the Mexican General Santa Anna. A 489-foot obelisk topped by the state’s distinctive “lone star” commemorates the battlefield. An observation deck at the top provides excellent views of the city, harbor and Houston Ship Channel. Not far from the obelisk is the U.S.S. Texas, a battleship built in 1914.

When culture is on the menu, Houston delivers with eight performing arts companies and a bustling theater district. The 17-block portion of downtown offers 12,000 seats and regularly attracts touring companies as well. Among the jewels of the district is the Tony Award-winning Alley Theater, which first opened in the 1940s. The Houston Ballet and Houston Grand Opera also produce critically acclaimed programs.

Bayou Bend, a house museum situated on a 14-acre River Oaks estate, allows visitors to enjoy both the natural splendor of surrounding gardens and the visual art collection inside the home. Another museum well worth the visit is the Menil Collection, which houses an eclectic assortment ranging from antiquity to 20th Century.

Locals and tourists flock to The Galleria, a Houston shopping mall that attracts more than 24 million shoppers each year. It is the largest mall in Texas, and one of the largest in North America. Such notable names as Cartier, Gianni Versace and Tiffany offer an upscale experience, but this Houston shopping mall also has plenty of more standard options. At the other end of the spectrum is Houston’s Harwin Drive, a must-go destination for hard-core bargain hunters. Many of the vendors there are more than happy to haggle with customers.

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