Every cliché you’ve ever heard about Texas rings true: gun-toting cowboys, mammoth-sized meaty meals, and conservative attitudes – but Austin is the exception.
The capital of the Lone Star State and the city that chose ‘Keep Austin Weird’ as its unofficial motto, is a mesmerising mix of music, markets, massive monuments, and a little madness.
Vastly different from its more conservative sisters, Houston and Dallas, a tour with a local guide is one of the best ways to uncover the city. They’ll not only show you the major attractions, but the places that really make this city tick.
First stop is the HOPE outdoor gallery, one of the largest outdoor galleries (read graffiti walls) in Texas. HOPE stands for ‘Helping Other People Everywhere’, and the owners of this vacant lot have allowed it to be used as a sort of inspirational message board. Buy a can of spray paint and add your own mark to the ever-changing canvas.
South Congress, or So-Co, as the locals call it, is where you’ll discover more of Austin’s quirkier side and is the best place to nab an only-in-Austin souvenir. Check out fancy-dress and vintage clothing outlet Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds, where Bob Dylan bought some of his cool retro clothes; and Uncommon Objects, a trove of antiques and vintage treasures. For a more traditional look, Allen’s Boots will get you kitted out and ranch-ready with an incredible range of authentic cowboy boots.
Old School Austin
From the non-conformist to the ultra-conservative, the three-story Texas State Capitol building is a landmark that you literally can’t miss – its pink granite walls and crowning Goddess of Liberty seem to look down on the city from just about everywhere you look.
The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum will leave you with a new appreciation for the USA’s 36th president. His cowboy boots embossed with the presidential seal, replicas of his Oval Office, and taped private conversations with journalists, are details you won’t find in history books. The animatronic LBJ is characteristic of Austin’s weirdness.
Imbibing Austin style
Lunch or dinner at one of Austin’s 2000 colourful and often irreverent food trucks is a great way to join in with the locals and sample some of Austin’s more exotic cuisine. Many change locations daily, posting their whereabouts via Twitter. However, Austin also features plenty of carts always parked in the same spot, serving up everything from Austin’s famous breakfast tacos to cupcakes.
‘Hey! You Gonna Eat or What?’ in the Barton Street food truck park, proudly proclaims its reputation as Austin’s rudest business. My Monte Cristo sandwich constructed with pit-smoked ham and mesquite-smoked turkey, cheddar and provolone cheese with a homemade cherry and fig jelly, dipped in beer batter and deep fried, is obscenely calorie-laden, and I’m reminded that the adage everything is bigger in Texas is true, particularly when it comes to meal sizes.
Texans take their barbecues seriously, and people will queue for up for hours at Franklin Barbecue for its world famous brisket. In South Austin, you’ll find long-running vintage restaurants alongside new eateries by some of the city’s top up-and-coming chefs.
More contemporary fare can be found at The Driskill Grill in the historic Driskill Hotel, with dishes such as butter-poached lobster or purple potato truffled crème fraiche and caviar, overseen by the hotel’s Australian food and beverage manager.
Built in 1886 as the showplace of cattle baron, Colonel Jesse Driskill, The Driskill is one of the Historic Hotels of America. It’s said that the ghost of the Colonel still haunts its halls, making his presence known by the scent of his cigar smoke and the occasional appearance in a guest’s room. Both staff and visitors often report the antics of a paranormal prankster that operates the elevators, moves furniture, pushes guests out of their beds and hides their belongings.
Our guide has tipped us off to a special bar called Midnight Cowboy, a short walk along 6th Street from the Driskill. To get in, you have to know the code from a list of names on the inconspicuous-looking door that leads to this speakeasy under the sign Midnight Cowboy Modeling and Oriental Massage. I’ll let you in on a secret – push the name Harry Craddock, and the oriental massage part is not true.
Cocktail making is an art here, with ingredients made into intoxicating concoctions with a twist. Try ’43 Problemas’ a potent elixir of botanist gin, manzanilla cherry, licor 43 (a golden, Spanish liqueur made from a secret family recipe of Mediterranean citrus fruits, herbs and spices), lime, and flamed lemon. It’s worth ordering just for the performance at your table.
Austin’s 6th Street is the Texas equivalent of New Orleans’s Bourbon Street, and it’s easy to see why the city registered the trademark The Live Music Capital of the World. More than 250 venues across the city feature everything from rock and blues to country and jazz, every night of the week.
Austin surfaced as a magnet for musicians in the 60s and 70s, when Willie Nelson went ‘on the road again’; Janis Joplin waited tables at Threadgill’s; and Stevie Ray Vaughan played at Antone’s. The legendary Continental Club on South Congress, dating back to 1957, is Austin’s oldest music venue; while Austin City Limits is the longest running music series in television history. Take in a live performance at the Moody Theater, which has been honoured by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and spawned the two-week Austin City Limits Music Festival held every October.
But Austin is not a city content to rest on its past. Last year it was named the second-fastest growing city in the US (after Houston, which topped the list) and often ranked in the top 10 places to live in the US. Just a few who call Austin home include cyclist Lance Armstrong; tennis player Andy Roddick; actors Sandra Bullock, Renée Zellweger, Matthew McConaughey, Ethan Hawke and Elijah Wood; and of course, musician Willie Nelson.
Laid back, liberal, and full of life, Austin is a city with no limits. •
Photography by Kris Madden and Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Delta flies to Los Angeles and on to Austin. delta.com
Air New Zealand commences direct flights from Auckland to Houston in December 2015. 132-476; airnewzealand.com.au
Connect to Austin with codeshare partner Southwest Airlines.
• Access ATX offers different in-depth city tours with local guides; +1-512/999-8687; accessatx.com
Where to Eat & Drink
• Hey! You Gonna Eat or What? 1720 Barton Springs Rd; +1-512/296-3547; heyyougonnaeatorwhat.com
• Franklin Barbecue. 900 E. 11th St; +1-512/653-1187; franklinbarbecue.com
• Midnight Cowboy. 313 E 6th St; +1-512/843-2715; midnightcowboymodeling.com
• Threadgill’s. 301 W Riverside Drive; +1-512/472-9304; threadgills.com
• The Continental Club. 1315 South Congress Ave; +1-512/441-2444; continentalclub.com
When to Go
Austin is best in spring (March-April) and autumn (September-October). Summer (June-August) can be hot.
What to Do
• HOPE Outdoor Gallery. 1012 Baylor St; hopecampaign.org
• Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds. 1506 South Congress Ave; +1-512/444-2002; lucyindisguise.com
• Uncommon Objects. 1512 South Congress Ave; +1-512/442-4000; uncommonobjects.com
• Allen’s Boots. 1522 South Congress Ave, Austin, +1-512/447-1413; allensboots.com
• Texas State Capitol. 1100 Congress Ave; +1-512/463-0063; tspb.state.tx.us
• LBJ Presidential Library and Museum. 2313 Red River St; +1-512/721-0200; lbjlibrary.org
• Austin City Limits. 310 Willie Nelson Blvd; +1-512/225-7999; acltv.com
Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau; austintexas.org