Things to do in Houston, USA: The three-minute guide

WHY

Many people are surprised to discover Houston is the US's fourth largest city. And while it's true it doesn't have the profile of LA, New York or Chicago, it's certainly not short of attractions. Space Centre Houston deservedly gets a lot of the glory but you'll find 18 other cultural heavyweights in the city's Museum District plus America's second largest downtown theatre district.

The city's previously neglected downtown is being spruced up in time for the 2017 Super Bowl with a rush of new hotels, bars and restaurants. And since December 2015, access has been easier than ever thanks to Air New Zealand's direct flight from Auckland.

VISIT

There's something for everyone in the Museum District, a cultural cauldron six kilometres from downtown that's accessed by an efficient light rail service. Highlights include the Museum of Natural Science (hmns.org), with its IMAX theatre, butterfly centre and planetarium, and the Museum of Fine Arts (mfah.org), which is home to more than 56,000 artworks. Houston might not be an obvious choice for the performing arts but it's one of only five US cities with resident professional ballet, opera, symphony and theatre companies. The 13,000-seat Theatre District stages everything from Broadway hits to one-person shows and there's free alfresco entertainment at the Miller Outdoor Theatre. See milleroutdoortheatre.com

EAT

Texas barbecue is the region's culinary superstar and you'll find no shortage of places to sample it. Which is the best? Who knows but you won't go far wrong at Jackson Street BBQ (jacksonstbbqhouston.com) where the brisket is marinated for 18 hours before being smoked over pecan and oak woodchips. Steak is another stalwart and at Pappas Bros Steakhouse (pappasbros.com) they dry-age their cuts in-house for 28 days. For an insight into the city's more creative offerings, sign up for a chef-led culinary tour. See visithoustontexas.com/culinary-tours

LOOK

Thanks to a $US22million renewal program, the Buffalo Bayou, a river that winds its way through the city centre, is now lined with cafes, hiking and biking trails. Art-lovers should check out the free Cullen Sculpture Garden opposite the Museum of Fine Arts while sports fans are spoilt for choice given Houston has four professional sports teams. A night cheering on the Astros baseball team at Minute Maid Park downtown is a good intro for first-timers. See houston.astros.mlb.com

MUST

The new Independence Plaza at Space Centre Houston is the only place in the world where you can explore a shuttle replica mounted on an original Boeing shuttle carrier aircraft. The rest of the complex is equally compelling with 400 exhibits including the original Apollo 11 mission control centre and a piece of moon rock that visitors can touch. See spacecenter.org

SLEEP

Housed in a grand building that was once the corporate headquarters of Shell Oil Company, the Magnolia Hotel is a stylish boutique property in the heart of downtown. Welcome extras include complimentary breakfast, Wi-Fi, evening drinks and bedtime cookies. See magnoliahotels.com

TIP

Bemused by the lack of shops on the streets downtown? They're all underground. The city has 10 kilometres of climate-controlled underground tunnels accessed via escalators and office building basements. The only downside: they're closed at weekends.

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visithoustontexas.com

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Rob McFarland travelled as a guest of Visit Houston and Air New Zealand.

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