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City Life: Austin

Welcome to the Texan capital — a youthful beacon of progressive thought with a pervading youthful presence. It’s a place to party, wander without purpose and embrace the weird

City Life: Austin
Austin’s Sixth Street at dusk. Image: Alamy

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Guttural roars escape from the death metal club across the road. The barman hands out beer cans to people who want to drink them in the street. Two guys with beards caked in pizza they’ve brought in from the food truck next door discuss whether to go and see ZZ Top tomorrow night. Queues mount outside the barbecue joint, responding to rumours of a secret gig by a big name band that would usually be playing on a much larger stage.

Wednesday night Austin feels woozily alive. Staggering slightly, but brimming with confidence and invention. Music oozes from its sweaty pores, genre an irrelevance as long as it’s live. It’s the fuel powering the city’s energy and its yelping eagerness to teeter on the edge of irresponsibility. It’s Margaritaville with a few cans of Red Bull chucked in, easy-going good times laced with youthful adrenalin.

The fastest growing city in the US may be the capital of Texas, but it feels like it’s in a constant state of a rebellion against all that surrounds it. Austin’s electric liberalism and determined individuality kicks and screams against the cowboy conservatism of Texan typecasting. The city’s subversive streak brings to mind Tyler Durden in Fight Club, hell-bent on shaking up the perceived droneworld it sees itself in. Keep Austin Weird has become a semi-official slogan; Don’t Dallas My Austin is a T-shirt and bumper-sticker clarion call against the sprawling big business neighbour to the north.

It hasn’t always been this way. The transformation from cowtown to capital of cool arguably began in 1987, when the South By Southwest festival was first set up here. Part creative industries trade show, part gig epidemic taking over most of the town, it has spurred Austin’s terrifyingly phenomenal festival calendar to balloon.

The University of Texas has always ensured a youthful presence, but the city has become considerably more fresh-faced with an influx of enthusiastic musicians, artists and would-be tech pioneers. This acceleration has been particularly noticeable over the past five years.

It isn’t a place for rigid itineraries or working through checklists. It’s somewhere for acting on overheard tip-offs, for following instincts and whims. Punts should override planning.

Yet, once the sun comes up and the haze subsides, a pervading dressed-down relaxedness shows the charm to counterbalance the charge. Off-leash dogs loll from park to lake, dragonfly-swatting canoeists glide past, and “y’alls” pepper conversations in a betrayal of the valiant fight against Texan roots. Alive can take more than one form… 


Sights

South Congress Avenue: If one street captures the Keep Austin Weird vibe, this is it. Just about every building flanking South Congress rewards the inquisitive. Shop signs are cartoonish artworks, cafes and food trucks provide prime earwigging opportunities, and fashion statements ranging from confidently individual to thoroughly absurd strut along the pavement.

Barton Springs Pool: Surrounded by the parkland abutting Lady Bird Lake, this is one of the greatest urban swimming venues on Earth. Its three acres of spring-fed waters are a constant 20C all year round, with the odd fish or salamander to tickle your feet. Watching students try to impress each other with increasingly elaborate leaps from the diving board is half the fun. austintexas.gov/department/barton-springs-pool

The Congress Avenue Bridge: Up to 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats live under the bridge spanning Lady Bird Lake. During the summer months, they go insect-hunting around sunset, creating a sky-filling speckled black cloud.

Texas State Capitol: The shape mimics that of the US Capitol in Washington DC, but typical Texan oneupmanship ensures theirs was built 15ft taller. Crafted from photogenic red granite, the free tours are frequently punctuated with quirky details about the building’s history and design. tspb.state.tx.us

Bullock Texas State History Museum: Just north of the Capitol, this museum gives a handy run-down of why Texas is what it is. Epic independence battles against the Mexicans, the birth of ranching and the impact of the discovery of oil are all covered. thestoryoftexas.com

Harry Ransom Center: Part of the giant University of Texas campus, this treasure trove of old documents and artefacts has two big-hitters — an original Gutenberg Bible and, remarkably, the first photograph ever taken. hrc.utexas.edu

LBJ Presidential Library: Few presidents ushered through as many social reforms as native Texan Lyndon Baines Johnson, although he’s usually remembered for the Vietnam War. His presidential library offers an engrossing look into his life, work and character — but also a snapshot of a transformative period in recent history. lbjlibrary.org

Alamo Drafthouse: Cinema, Austin-style. This Sixth Street institution is notorious for its gloriously silly special screenings, such as The Big Lebowski and Wayne’s World quote-a-longs, complete with comedy props. drafthouse.com/austin

Buy

Whole Foods Market: The healthy eating behemoth started in Austin, and its headquarters store is pretty much a social gathering space as well as somewhere to pick up picnic supplies. wholefoodsmarket.com

Waterloo Records: It’s what all record stores should be — with a genre-spanning collection, regular live performances and post-pub-friendly opening hours. waterloorecords.com

Uncommon Objects: Antiques, conversation pieces, miniature art displays — this warren of much-loved old junk is a joy to wander through. uncommonobjects.com

Allens Boots: It’s not so much a whiff of leather upon entering as a full-on nasal assault. Allens is western wear browsing with a wow factor. allensboots.com

Like a local

Ton up for a buck: Most people drive in Texas, but smart cookies coming from the airport hop on the 100 bus which handily does drop offs in downtown and around the University of Texas campus. It leaves every half hour and costs $1.

Check out the Chronicle: The Austin American-Statesman is the main local paper, but the weekly Austin Chronicle has a much steadier finger on the pulse. It’s worth picking up for new food truck openings and a general idea of what’s going on, and is especially good for tapping into the music scene. austinchronicle.com

Festival finances: Austin’s crammed calendar has a downside — accommodation prices, which don’t tend to be too budget-friendly in the first place, skyrocket when big festivals are on, so you’ll need to book months in advance for a good deal.

Sleep

Unless you want to spend a lot on taxis, aim for digs reasonably close to the action Downtown, on South Congress Avenue or near the University of Texas.

£   Austin Motel: The somewhat phallic neon sign outside proclaims this motel to be ‘So close, yet so far out’. The rooms have a Central America meets Mediterranean flavour, and free parking is a big bonus. austinmotel.com

££  The Hotel San Jose: A favourite with visiting bands, the rainbow bathrobes and cowskin rugs help you forgive the occasional lapse into too-cool-for-school minimalism. sanjosehotel.com

£££ W Austin Hotel: This property has rock star swagger, why-didn’t-I-think-of-that multi-purpose bedside chargers and rentable poolside cabanas. whotelaustin.com

Eat

Stiff-collared fine dining is an option in Austin, but it misses the point — this is a sociable barbecue, burger or burrito kinda town.

£   Torchy’s Tacos: A bricks and mortar child of the food truck scene, Torchy’s Tacos combines inventive ideas with fresh ingredients and full-on tastebud impact. torchystacos.com

££  Lamberts: Offers a classier bistro-style take on the ubiquitous barbecued meats, and boy does it do a good job, with wonderfully complex flavours and live music upstairs most nights. lambertsaustin.com

£££ Vespaio: This is the best bet for classy Italian food, yet the atmosphere manages to remain in harmony with the go-your-own-way vibe of its South Congress Avenue surrounds. austinvespaio.com 

After hours

Sixth Street is the famous bar crawl strip, but it attracts a young, student crowd that uses ‘party’ as a verb. Head elsewhere.

Bangers: Rainey Street — where new bars pop up inside old houses seemingly every week — is infinitely more loveable. Banger’s, with its egalitarian Bavarian beer hall-style benches and 101 tap craft beers, is an excellent starting point. bangersaustin.com 

Stubb’s: A few blocks north of Rainey Street, the Red River District has a bar/club hosting live music for pretty much every conceivable taste. Stubb’s is the daddy — the guys behind the Austin City Limits music festival book the bands here and can pull in some surprisingly big names. stubbsaustin.com

Speakeasy: Multi-stage, multi-bar Speakeasy is a reliable and central safe bet — whether you want to catch an up-and-coming math rock band or chill with an expertly-mixed cocktail over the back room pool table. speakeasyaustin.com
Did you know? Austin has a habit of giving things counter-intuitive names. The ‘Loop’ roads aren’t loops, Lake Austin and Lady Bird Lake are lightly dammed tracts of the Colorado River. And the river is entirely contained within Texas — it has no connection to Colorado or the better known Colorado River that runs through the Grand Canyon.

ESSENTIALS

Getting there
British Airways launched direct flights from Heathrow to Austin on 3 March — the route becomes daily on 5 May. Less convenient one-stop routes are available from London and Manchester with the likes of United and Delta. ba.com   united.com   delta.com
Average flight time: 8h. 

Getting around
It’s not a city specifically designed for walking, but the key areas are walkable. Whether you want to try it in the heat is another matter. Buses plough down main thoroughfares such as Congress Avenue too, costing $1 a ride.

When to go
Summer heat — particularly in July and August — can be hideous. This is also prime time for storms. Winters are virtually non-existent, but March to May and late September to mid-November are arguably the most comfortable months to aim for. The key festivals are South By Southwest (music, film and technology) which runs for 10 days in mid-March, and Austin City Limits (music) which runs over two weekends in mid-October.

Need to know
Visas: UK citizens can travel under a visa waiver scheme, but have to fill in ESTA forms online in advance for $14 (£8.39). esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta
Currency: US dollar ($). £1 = $1.67.
International dial code: 00 1 512.
Time difference: GMT-6.

More info
austintexas.org
Lonely Planet Texas. RRP: £15.99. 

How to do it
Expedia offers seven nights at the W Austin Hotel, including economy class return flights with British Airways from Heathrow, from £1,567 per person. expedia.co.uk

Published in the April 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)