There’s a mystique about Austin. Even if you’ve lived for years in this small town turned big city, the reasons why the city functions as it does, and why it seems so different from other U.S. cities, may not be readily apparent.
Austin is an extraordinarily open and welcoming place—a city where you’re not only allowed but expected to be yourself, in all your quirky glory. The people you encounter are likely to be laissez-faire and may even be newcomers themselves (Austin’s population grew 47% during the 1990s, and continues to expand at a healthy pace: 65,800 new residents were added to the Austin-Round Rock metropolitan area from July 2006 to July 2007, according to the U.S. Census Bureau).
It’s not pushing it too much to liken Austin to San Francisco: in the middle of a big state and the golden destination where people who are just a bit different and quite self-directed come to realize their fullest selves. Many who would never consider living anywhere else in Texas have relocated here after dreaming the Austin dream. The city ranks high on many national best-places-to-live lists. If it’s sometimes hard for Austin to live up to its hype (some of it is self-generated), it’s still a place where creativity and maverick thinking are valued.
Such things weren’t on the mind of Mirabeau B. Lamar, president-elect of the Texas Republic, when he set out to hunt buffalo in 1838 but returned home with a much greater catch: a home for the new state capital. He fell in love with a tiny settlement called Waterloo, surrounded by rolling hills and fed by cool springs. Within a year the government had arrived, and the town, renamed Austin (after Stephen F. Austin, the “Father of Texas”), was on its way to becoming a city. About a half a century later, in 1883, the University of Texas at Austin was founded.
Fed by the 1970s salad days of the “outlaw country” movement popularized by Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and others, through the growing viewership of Austin City Limits, a showcase for bands that began taping for a local PBS station in 1976, Austin’s reputation as a music center has grown to the point that the city now bills itself as the Live Music Capital of the World. This is especially true every March, when the city hosts the South by Southwest Conferences and Festivals (widely known as SXSW), which draws people from throughout the world: bands, record-company executives, filmmakers, Internet celebrities, and, of course, legions of fans.
Today Austin is in the midst of reinventing itself yet again. High-tech industries have migrated to the area, making it Texas’s answer to Silicon Valley. The city has also become an important filmmaking center. For the moment, Austin retains a few vestiges of a small-town atmosphere—but a quick scan of its fast-growing downtown skyline will tell you that its days as a sleepy college town are long gone.
Despite all the changes that have occurred (and are occurring) in this capital city, Austin is still a town whose roots are planted firmly in the past—a past the city is proud to preserve and show off to visitors.
Austin lies in Central Texas, about 163 mi southeast of the state’s true center, Eden. On Austin’s western border is the Hill Country, its eastern border the much flatter Blackland Prairie. Dallas is about 190 mi to the north, Houston 160 mi to the east.
The logical place to begin an exploration of the city is downtown, where the pink-granite Texas State Capitol, built in 1888, is the most visible manmade attraction. The Colorado River, which slices through Austin, was once an unpredictable waterway, but it’s been tamed into a series of lakes, including two within the city limits. Twenty-two-mile-long Lake Austin, in the western part of the city, flows into Lady Bird Lake (formerly Town Lake), a narrow stretch of water that meanders for 5 mi through the center of downtown.
The sprawling University of Texas, one of the largest universities in the United States, flanks the capitol’s north end. Among other things, it is home to both the Blanton Museum of Art and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum. UT’s northwestern border is flanked by Guadalupe Street, which for these blocks is known as The Drag, a fun and funky student-centered commercial strip.
The downtown’s Warehouse District and Second Street District, which run from west of Congress to roughly Nueces Street, and north from the lake to 6th Street, are where you’ll find some of Austin’s liveliest (and newest) restaurants, bistros, and pubs, along with hip boutiques and other shops.
In the late afternoon hours, locals grab their sneakers and head to Zilker Park, just west and a bit south of downtown, for a jog or a leisurely walk. When the sun sets on summer days, everyone’s attention turns to the lake’s Congress Avenue Bridge, under which the country’s largest urban colony of Mexican free-tailed bats hangs out (literally). The bats make their exodus after sunset to feed on insects in the surrounding Hill Country, putting on quite a show in the process.
Finally, no visit to Austin is complete without venturing south of the river to savor the unique creative vibe of South Congress, with its colorful antiques shops and oh-so-cool clubs and eateries, and the laid-back charms down South First and many side streets. (Note that Congress Avenue is known as South Congress—SoCo for short—below the river. North of the river, in downtown Austin, it’s generally called simply Congress Avenue.)
If it’s your first time in Austin, your first stop should be the Austin Visitor Center (209 E. 6th St., between Brazos and San Jacinto) for brochures galore and friendly dispensing of advice.
Austin Restaurant Reviews
Apart from on tourist- and student-heavy 6th Street, Austin’s restaurant scene is geared to local tastes and is arguably more diverse than the celebrated music scene, which is concentrated within a few narrowly defined genres. Though Mexican, Tex-Mex, and barbecue are the default cuisines, everything from Brazilian to Pacific Rim fusion has made headway here, and there are strong vegetarian and natural-food followers. Austinites, in fact, have some of the most adventurous and educated palates in Texas.
To find the best barbecue, local consensus tends to be that you’ve got to head out of town to Lockhart, Luling, or Llano, in the Hill Country. Nevertheless, there are several fine options within the city limits, the bulk of them simple places where your meat is sliced and placed unceremoniously on the plate (or even on wax paper), with pickles, onions, and jalapeño slices, and you eat at picnic tables, using paper towels off the roll as napkins.
In some places the music and food share nearly equal billing, like Threadgill’s, whose massive chicken-fried steak is as much of a draw as the well-known blues and rock acts on stage, and Stubb’s Bar-B-Q, which hosts a popular gospel brunch on Sundays and is a major player on the club scene.
Finer dining has exploded in Austin, and upscale Continental—especially Central European (the area was settled by Germans and Czechs)—and New American establishments offer traditional fare and inventive dishes with Southwestern touches. Some of the best restaurants in town are in well-heeled hotels like the Driskill and the Four Seasons.
Austin is a casual city, and the dress code is almost always “come as you are”; a few restaurants require a jacket for men. Tips are generally 15% to 20%. Smoking is prohibited in most restaurants and bars within Travis County, which includes Austin.
Deals & Discounts
Around mid-year, many of Austin’s best restaurants participate in Restaurant Week, when prix-fixe menus are offered for a low price, with some of the proceeds earmarked for charity.
Dining with Kids
Austin has plenty of families with young children and plenty of restaurants that work well for them. Luby’s is a Texas-based chain with five Austin locations serving affordable Southern food. The staff sees that young children (and their parents) are taken care of and kids eat free with the purchase of an adult meal Wednesday evenings and all day Saturday. Chuy’s, Serranos Café & Cantina, and Romano’s Macaroni Grill, chains with several Austin locations, are well-attuned to children’s needs. Restaurants in this chapter that are especially good for kids are marked with duckies.
Austin Hotel Reviews
Finding a place to stay in Austin isn’t hard. Finding a place with personality is harder. Downtown, ample brand-name high-rises offer anonymous luxury, but despite Austin’s history and capital status there are only a few stately, historic hotels. The I-35 corridor is a logjam of chain motels ranging from pleasant to horrid, catering largely to travelers with limited expectations. In the tech-centered Northwest, it’s hard to drive any distance without passing an all-suites executive lodging.
Fortunately, things are improving. A good number of the hotels we list have benefited from extensive renovations between 2006 and 2008, and Austin is such a competitive market that many managers feel compelled to provide the latest and greatest, whether it’s flat-screen TVs, radios with iPod docking stations, or ultra-comfy beds. This being Austin, free, public Wi-Fi is near-ubiquitous.
Downtown, the Driskill and the Intercontinental Stephen F. Austin are two grandes dames that still shine. A couple of old motor courts on South Congress have been rediscovered and refitted, capturing Austin’s bohemian charms. In the business district, there are plans to build a 1,000-room Marriott convention-center hotel (to be completed in 2011), ruffling a few local feathers in the process. On the other end of the spectrum are several well-run bed-and-breakfasts in historic homes.
Conventions and university events can pack the city at any time, but you’ll especially need to plan ahead during a University of Texas football home game, South by Southwest in March, the Austin City Limits festival in September, or legislative sessions (held in odd-numbered years). At slower times many hotels have deep discounts. Keep in mind that parking at downtown hotels can add over $20 a day to your bill. In general, only hotels near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport have free airport shuttles.
Even when Austin was a backwater burg, it enjoyed a modicum of culture thanks to the University of Texas. The city’s current culture vultures are still indebted to the construction-crazed university for its state-of-the-art concert halls like the Bass, which can accommodate grand symphonic, operatic, and theatrical performances. But in a town as creatively charged as Austin, the venues are virtually limitless, from hillsides in parks to the pavement of the Congress Avenue Bridge and from dark, smoky clubs to Victorian Gothic cathedrals.
Numerous traveling and homegrown bands play nightly in the city’s music venues, many of which are clustered around downtown’s 6th Street, between Red River Street and Congress Avenue. While not as famous as Bourbon Street in New Orleans, 6th Street has an entertaining mix of comedy clubs, blues bars, electronica, and dance clubs. It’s also the site of two “Old Pecan Street” outdoor fairs, held in May and September, with live bands, food vendors, and craftspeople.
College students are a large presence on 6th, but the Warehouse District around 4th Street and the newer 2nd Street District (which runs between San Antonio Street and Congress Avenue for two blocks north of the river) cater to a more mature crowd looking for good food and great drinks. South Congress also has a lively scene, especially on the first Thursday of each month, when vendors set up booths with art, jewelry, and a variety of other creations all along the street. The shops stay open late, and bands perform live along the streets. (Warning: parking during “First Thursdays” is a challenge. Expect to park many blocks back and walk.)
Austin’s cultural scene is getting a facelift with the opening of three major arts-related venues. The $14.7-million renovation of the Bass Concert Hall at the University of Texas Performing Arts Center (UT PAC) is set to be completed by late 2008; it will feature a five-story atrium; new seating, flooring, and lighting; better acoustics; and a restaurant. The first phase of the Mexican-American Cultural Center (MACC) on Lady Bird Lake (formerly, and still frequently referred to by locals as, Town Lake) at River Street, opened in September 2007; the MACC will eventually offer 126,000 square feet for exhibits, performances, private events, and classes. And the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Center for the Performing Arts, also on Lady Bird Lake, opened in March 2008 as part of a 54-acre cultural park.
To find out who’s playing where, pick up the Austin Chronicle (a free alternative weekly) or “XLent,” a Thursday supplement to the Austin American Statesman. Most of the larger venues in Austin sell tickets through Front Gate Tickets (512/389-0315. www.fronttickets.com). But AusTix (512/474-8497. www.austix.com) is a good resource for theater as well as smaller dance and music performances. Meanwhile, GetTix (866/443-8849. www.gettix.net) is a smaller purveyor of advance tickets in Austin, but sells for popular venues such as La Zona Rosa, Austin Music Hall, and Emo’s.
To say Austin’s night scene is dominated by live music is an understatement. In fact, it’s hard to fully distinguish bar from club from live-music venue as they tend to all blend together. Bands will play anywhere people will listen, and that’s pretty much everywhere. It’s one of the reasons the club scene in Austin is fairly small in comparison to music venues and bars. Depending on where you are in town, activity tends to bubble up in two waves: the social and professional, happy hour faction; and the music-loving nightlife crowd. If visiting Austin for a short time, check out some of the classic venues such as Antone’s, The Continental Club, and Stubb’s.
The swank bar above Lamberts fancy barbecue restaurant also features some amazing jazz and blues performers. And be sure to grab a cold brew at Johnny Cash-inspired Mean-Eyed Cat or a martini at the Hollywood-esque Belmont, and sample the delectable cheese plate with a glass of wine on the patio of the San Jose Hotel.
The best way to plumb the depths of any city’s character is to go shopping. And once you start browsing in Austin, you’ll quickly discover that this city is quite the character.
Sure, Austin has the same chain stores that you’ll find anywhere—but the city’s true charm dwells in its independently owned establishments. To see the real Austin, browse the funky shops along revitalized South Congress, gaze at the hip downtown storefronts of the up-and-coming 2nd Street District, and stroll among the high-end galleries, antiques, and home-furnishings emporia of the West End. You can trek to legions of book, computer, and music stores, then peruse the handicrafts of local artisans. Along the way, fuel up on organic foods and fresh-roasted coffee.
Out in Northwest Austin and Round Rock, upscale shopping malls are popping up all over the place. The Domain in North Austin, which opened in 2007, is an ambitious project of mixed-use retail, office, and residential space that’s extending the affluent downtown vibe practically into the suburbs.