When you first see Houston by air, it looks like there are at least two downtowns with high rise buildings. That's by unintended design: Houston has absolutely no zoning, so anything can be built anywhere.  That being said, there are several distinct neighborhoods. There are two loop highways that ring Houston: Interstate 610, and the Sam Houston Tollway (also known as Beltway 8).  610 is The Loop and 8 is The Beltway . 

Generally speaking, Houstonians consider anything "Inside The Loop" as within the center of the city, anything "Outside The Loop" as farther away from the center, and anything "outside the beltway" is far-away suburbia.

Neighborhoods Inside The Loop

Downtown - Downtown Houston continues to evolve as a bustling business, theater and entertainment district. Downtown is home to four professional sports teams, eight performing arts companies and a wide selection of restaurants and nightlife. With the many dining options that downtown has to offer, it’s no wonder why Houston was recently ranked the sixth Best Restaurant City in America by Forbestraveler.com. Main Street has become Houston’s hub for nightlife offering more than 70 bars and club to choose from.   

Midtown - One of Houston’s trendiest neighborhoods, Midtown sits between downtown Houston and the Museum District. Here, loft-dwellers share vistas of the downtown skyline to the north and a view of the Museum District’s century-old oaks to the south. The urban, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood is home to young professionals that love the high-rise lifestyle and abundance of great food choices. Check out the area’s impressive group of galleries, theater and contemporary craft.

 

Montrose - Montrose is a pocket of eccentricity and diversity where fine restaurants, antique stores, art galleries and some of the city’s top museums can be found. But so can junk shops, tattoo parlors, tarot readers and vintage clothing boutiques. Coffeehouses and sidewalk cafes, a mishmash of architectural styles and large Hispanic and gay populations are also key ingredients or Montrose’s eclectic style.  

River Oaks - This prominent neighborhood is conveniently located between Uptown and Downtown. Spend a day shopping at the River Oaks Shopping Center, the oldest shopping center in Texas and the second oldest in the nation. Nationwide retail stores such as Gap and Ann Taylor sit alongside higher-end shops like Sûr la Table, Events, La Mode Lingerie and Chase’s Closet, an upscale children’s clothing boutique owned by Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins of R&B group TLC. In addition to the 38 stores and 15 restaurants, the center is also home to the legendary River Oaks Movie Theatre, which brings a small town feel to the age of the megaplex.

The Heights - Century-old trees, peaceful walking paths, great shops and dining spots plus a wealth of architectural history comprise the charming Heights neighborhood. This historic district has flourished into a close-knit community with some of the city’s most offbeat offerings, including the Art Car Museum.  

Neighborhoods Outside The Loop  

Uptown - With its trademark stainless steel arches and colorful, lush plantings, coupled with shady live oaks, the Uptown Houston District is Houston’s shining star for shoppers. With more than 5 million square feet of retail space, including The Galleria – the nation’s fourth largest shopping center – Uptown Houston offers discriminating shoppers more than 1,000 retail stores. Upscale shopping, fine dining and fashionable living lend a unique sophistication that makes Uptown one of the city’s greatest urban centers.  

Southwest - This area is made up of smaller unique neighborhoods that reflect the diversity of Houston. It’s home to major shopping, entertainment and educational venues including Rice University, Texas Medical Center, Reliant Park, the Museum District, Rice Village and Chinatown – the second-largest Indochinese community in the United States after Los Angeles . 

Neighborhoods Outside The Beltway

Bay Area - Discover the waterfront paradise of Bay Area Houston, just 20 minutes south of downtown Houston. Encompassing seven distinct cities, Bay Area Houston touches more than 35 miles of waterfront. The area is home to mission control and boasts succulent seafood, exceptional shopping, a booming boating community and an awe-inspiring nature preserves.

Sugar Land  - Drive South on 59 beyond the chain restaurants and malls (and beyond Sugar Land itself) and see some live alligators at the Brazos Bend State Park. The alligators are most visible in the summer, and you'll see them sunning themselves and swimming in the park. It's safe, as long as you keep tabs on your children and don't do anything to provoke them. Talk to the rangers in the visitors center to get a lay of the land before you set on the paths. 

The Woodlands - Master Planned community. Drive north on IH-45 about 10 miles past the Beltway and you will find a neighborhood where building restrictions require a large amount of forestland to be left for the enjoyment of the residents, which include all walks of people and wildlife. The Woodlands is home to the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, a first-rate outdoor ampitheater which plays host to many popular bands, festivals and the Houston Symphony throughout the year.  If you are about shopping and dining, The Woodlands has it with The Woodlands Mall and the newly opened Market Street, featuring numerous shops and restaurants. If you are a golfer, join The Woodlands Country Club, which offers 135 holes of golf, scattered on courses throughout the development.  Homes in The Woodlands range from the 100's to the millions. 

Kingwood - Master Planned community.  Like The Woodlands, Kingwood offers an abundance of trees, shopping and dining.  Drive north on 59 about 15 miles past the Beltway just past Humble to find Kingwood. 

Memorial Area - A suburban area/multi-neighborhood that straddles the outer loop/Sam Houston toll road, due west of downtown Houston.  Tons of restaurants and shopping, Memorial Drive runs from the inner loop/Galleria area all the way out to Highway 6.