People who have lived in the city for more than 15 years or so often decry the loss of the "old Austin"—a place of low prices and little traffic. Happily, Austin retains its famous combination of southern friendliness and new-age optimism despite its growth and related traffic problems. More importantly, it is still a center for great music and big-time events such as the Austin City Limits Music Festival and South by Southwest (SXSW) Music, Film and Interactive Conference.
Even its newfound, caffeinated business savvy has emerged as one of its charms. Austin is a place where people still take things at their own pace; the food and drink are surprisingly good for what remains a small city; and the live-oak-covered hills are a fine place for walking, jogging or bicycling (at least until the broiling summer heat arrives).
Step into the right bar on the right night, and you'll find long-haired college students and cowboy-hatters grooving to the same band, just as in the days of old, as well as the computer professionals who have come to be accepted as a part of the social fabric in Austin. To this day, the city defines itself in iconoclastic terms—across town on bumper stickers and T-shirts you'll see the community's unofficial motto: "Keep Austin Weird."
Most things in Austin are located by their relationship to Interstate 35 and the Colorado River (not the same Colorado that runs through the Grand Canyon). The river, somewhat confusingly known as Lady Bird Lake (formerly Town Lake) in the downtown area and Lake Austin farther west because of damming, divides the north and south sides of town; I-35 divides east and west. Most attractions of interest to visitors are west of I-35 and within 3 mi/5 km of either side of the river.
Downtown sits on the north shore of the river immediately west of I-35. The university area begins north of downtown and the Capitol District. The West End is immediately west of downtown, on the far side of Lamar Boulevard. Austinites used to use the term "South Austin" to refer to any place south of the river, but with the city's growth, much of old South Austin is now pretty central. Regardless, central Austin attractions are generally found between the MoPac Expressway (Loop 1) and I-35. Likewise, East Austin can mean anything east of I-35, but the areas of most interest to visitors are the growing, increasingly gentrified neighborhoods adjacent to downtown and the university.
A note on the city's numbered streets: Most are on the north side of the river and run east-west. The numbers get higher as you move north, away from the river, and the east and west designations indicate where the roads are in relation to Congress Avenue (the street running through the center of downtown to the Capitol). There are, however, a few numbered streets south of the river. They run north-south and are all designated as south. South First Street is one example.
Before it became the capital of Texas, Austin wasn't Austin—it was the settlement of Waterloo and little more than a small group of log cabins. Mirabeau B. Lamar, vice president of the newly independent Republic of Texas, visited Waterloo the year it was founded (1838). The site apparently made an impression, for after becoming president of the republic the following year, Lamar established the modest settlement as the capital and renamed it in honor of the recently deceased Stephen F. Austin, who had led Anglo settlers into Texas.
The city remained the capital after Texas became part of the U.S. in 1845. During the Civil War, Austin saw no battles except for a brief pillaging of the state treasury by some rowdy Texas Confederates. Many in the Austin area were opposed to the state's secession from the U.S., an early indication of the liberal tendencies that the city continues to maintain. In 1883, when the University of Texas opened, the city assumed the role of college town.
During the first half of the 1900s, Austin was a quiet and fairly small southern town, although prominent political leaders made their mark, among them Lyndon Johnson. The future president of the U.S. entered politics as a state legislator in Austin in the 1950s. In the 2000s, Austin saw both benefits and fallout from the rise and fall of the national Republican legislature under former Texas governor President George W. Bush, and his nearby home in Midland kept the city in the news.
The 1970s and '80s saw Austin's music scene explode into prominence, led by Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughan. The city mushroomed in other ways in the 1990s. As the home of computer-related companies since the 1960s, it was well-placed to capitalize on the technology boom. However, when the boom went bust in 2000, Austin's technology growth slowed dramatically. Today, homegrown Dell Computers remains one of the area's largest employers, but the city credits its ongoing recovery to new jobs in the service and health industries.
Meanwhile, the Austin-born natural-foods grocery chain Whole Foods has gained a national profile and engendered local competition from the specialty supermarket Central Market. Local hero Lance Armstrong survived cancer and won a record seven Tour de France championships before admitting to taking performance-enhancing drugs in 2013.
As many young people, attracted to Austin's economic opportunities and liberal politics, have flooded the city in recent years, the city has emerged as a leader in sustainable building and smart growth, though housing prices have increased dramatically, especially in Austin's central corridor. With the addition of the Frost Bank Tower in 2004 and the start of a skyscraper construction boom in 2007, more high rises and condominium projects have been built, continually altering Austin's skyline.
Many of Austin's most interesting sights are fairly close to the city center, and you could hit a lot of them in a day or two of dedicated touring. Begin at the Texas State Capitol, downtown. Take a tour of the building, and then spend some time appreciating the pink-granite landmark from the outside. If you don't have time during the day, try after dinner. It's open late and is quite striking all lit up at night.
While downtown, you should head south on Congress Avenue to East Sixth Street (known locally only as Sixth Street). If nothing else, stop at the Driskill Hotel for a look around the historic building, perhaps pausing for a drink in its upscale, western-themed bar.
The University of Texas campus lies north of the Capitol. If you have a big appetite for museums, you could fill a day there. Stop by the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum to see how this Texas-sized politician shaped—and was shaped by—the turbulent era during which he served as U.S. president. Try to take one of the tours that ascend to the observation deck of the University of Texas Tower. You'll get a great view of the city. The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, just south of the university, is a good place to get acquainted with the state.
Do keep in mind that numerous museums are closed on Monday and Tuesday. As exhibits, events and other programming often change with some frequency, it is best to check online or call before planning your visit to find out what is available. Many of Austin's museums also participate in the Blue Star Museum program that provides free admission to all active-duty military personnel and their families from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
But much of the city's allure isn't captured in museums or landmarks. Zilker Park is a good place to experience Austin's odd combination of laid-back attitude and frenetic exertion. Do a little exercising of your own by walking along the Barton Creek Greenbelt that leads south, out of the park. It will give you a taste of the scenic Texas Hill Country that stretches to the west of Austin. If you plan to spend a good bit of time visiting and exploring the region's state parks, consider purchasing an annual pass. State park passes are US$70 and cover unlimited admission for you and your guests to all 90 Texas state parks and entitle you to discounts on other park amenities such as camp sites, merchandise and even equipment rentals. http://tpwd.state.tx.us/spdest/parkinfo/passes.
Wine connoisseurs will also want to take at least a day trip to visit some of Texas's finest wineries in Hill Country west of Austin. Beer nuts will be delighted by the numerous breweries right in town, including Austin Beerworks, South Austin Brewing Co. and Draught House Pub and Brewery. Don't miss the chance to visit Black Star Co-Op Pub and Brewery, the first member-owned brewery of its kind in the U.S.
No matter how you spend your days, reserve an hour or so at dusk to see the bats emerge from beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge (mid-March to early November). Seen either from atop the eastern side of the bridge or from the lawn below, it's probably the city's most distinctive sightseeing attraction. Just remember, keep your mouth closed when looking up at the bats.
The music scene sets Austin apart. Is it really the "Live Music Capital of the World," as the city's public-relations department claims? Probably not, but Austin offers a wide selection of national and international touring acts, locally based veterans and young guns looking to make their mark. Country-tinged music has always been a big part of Austin's scene, a legacy begun by Willie Nelson and other cosmic cowboys in the 1970s.
But country isn't the only game in town. There's plenty of rock, dance music, electronica, jazz and more. Notably, a few guitar-powered blues performers continue to carry the torch passed from Stevie Ray Vaughan, including his brother Jimmie, and there are a number of Latin American musicians playing Tejano, conjunto and salsa.
The area surrounding Sixth Street downtown, east of Congress Avenue, is generally considered the heart of Austin nightlife. On Friday and Saturday nights it's packed with the young and the rowdy, who jam the vast assortment of dance clubs, music venues and bars. Everyone should pay at least a brief visit, but be ready to party if you plan to stick around. Otherwise, the district's frenetic and slightly tawdry character can get old quickly.
Also downtown is the Warehouse District (Third to Fifth streets, west of Congress Avenue), and more and more places are popping up on Sixth Street, west of Congress. With few exceptions, this area is more about upscale bars and dance clubs than live music. It tends to attract an older and more affluent crowd than Sixth Street. Many of our favorite music clubs (Continental Club, the Broken Spoke, Cactus Cafe) are outside the downtown core and are rather spread out. Several of them lie south of the Colorado River.
Things have also picked up on Red River Street, perpendicular to East Sixth on the edge of downtown. There's basically a bar there for everyone, many offering live bands—big-name acts go to Stubb's (where the Sunday Gospel Brunch has become something of a local institution), dance music from the gothic, industrial, synth-pop and electronica dominate the soundwaves at Elysium, and there are good punk and alternative rock joints, as well. Weekends, of course, are most crowded, but weeknights also usually offer something to do.
Although the music scene is busy year-round, things hit fever pitch during the South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival in mid-March. In addition to the officially sanctioned SXSW showcases, almost every nightclub, gallery, restaurant and shop (even bare parking lots) has live music performances that week. The Austin City Limits Music Festival (ACL Fest) has also been a success. An extension of the popular musical showcase broadcast on public television, ACL Fest turns the shores of Lady Bird Lake into a Woodstock-like gathering for one weekend in late September.
Eating out in Austin can be a wonderful experience. The city's steady growth over the past few decades spurred similar expansion in the number and variety of excellent restaurants. Upscale Italian, French and Asian food—and the inevitable fusion of these cuisines—can be found throughout the city.
Although the surge in fancy food places has broadened the city's tastes (and raised prices), it hasn't stolen Austin's heart. Austin's culinary roots are decidedly Mexican, Tex-Mex and barbecue. Many establishments are in their second generation of family ownership, and they still rule the city. Nearly everyone in town has a different favorite place for these "cuisines" (never use that word in a barbecue joint), and you'll rarely go wrong following the advice of locals on this subject.
A few things to know: In Texas, barbecue is beef (although pork ribs are widely available, and you'll sometimes find pulled pork), and the favored cut is brisket. As with other southern barbecue, the meat is smoked, not grilled. You should also be aware of the difference between Tex-Mex and interior Mexican food, both of which can be found in Austin. Tex-Mex is a borderland creation and includes nachos, burritos and other dishes familiar throughout the U.S. If you want to delve deeper into Mexican cuisine, order interior specialties such as Yucatan pork (cochinita pibil) at Curra's, anything topped with mole at Fonda San Miguel or the cabrito (grilled goat) available at many Mexican restaurants.
Breakfast in Austin is likely to mean breakfast tacos. You can find them everywhere, served from the windows at food trailers, at a small chain called Taco Shack or at any number of Mexican restaurants that are open for breakfast. Popular alternatives to breakfast tacos include migas (scrambled eggs with tortilla chips, cheese, jalapenos, onion and tomatoes) and chilaquilas (tortilla strips with cheese), and either rojos (spicy red salsa) or verdes (green tomatillo sauce).
Chicken-fried steak remains a Texas tradition. Although it doesn't receive top billing on the menus at Austin's trendier restaurants, it's still served—sometimes with a twist. At Shady Grove Cafe, you can clog your arteries with the typical country gravy or you can smother your steak in Hatch green chili sauce and Monterey Jack cheese.
If you're on a budget and still want to eat some seriously good food, plan some of your meals at Austin's numerous food trucks. There are many throughout SoCo and East Austin, and many bars, clubs and even shops are beginning to have permanently parked locations of such favorite eateries as The East Side King right on their premises (most common in East Austin, where large backyard patios are more of the norm). The trucks have become so popular, in fact, that sampling tours are now available.
The farm-to-table movement has become deeply ingrained in the Austin culinary scene, in a large part because of its mild climate and ability to have a fair selection of seasonal growing year round. We predict you'll discover within a meal or two the amazing difference in flavor and overall yumminess that results from the high quality of the food used in many of Austin's eateries, from cheap eats to fine dining.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$12; $$ = US$12-$25; $$$ = US$26-$50; $$$$ = more than US$50.
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