Austin City Guide
Austin represents various things to different people in and out of Texas – making it the state’s most diverse and unpredictable city.
Within the state, Austin is considered both a central point for government authority and the Texas HQ for Bohemian culture. While the machinery of Red State politics rumbles along up the hill, the rest of Austin flourishes as the state’s premiere university town — making it a young person’s city and the state’s center for art, music and emerging technology.
When you arrive into the city, it won’t take you long to see the town’s favorite slogan, “Keep Austin Weird!” While there’s enough major industry and high-tech development going on in the city to make it a fringe community on the national scene, there’s enough creativity and passion around town to make Austin a unique Texas experience.
Deep in the Heart of Texas
As the Texas State Capitol, the Austin historical identity reaches through the Texas war for Independence, the Civil War and the abolitionist movement. When Texas initially want its freedom from Mexico, Texas became an independent nation, with Austin becoming the “country’s capitol.”
Once Texas became a state, it officially sided with the Union during the Civil War – while many Austin natives chose to head east and fight for the Confederacy. Regardless of its Civil War differences, Texas embraced the end of slavery following the war.
All of these events are recorded in markers installed around the stately domed capitol building — each easily within reach of another during an easy walk. Those history-centric tourists should start their visit to Austin around that capitol.
Herds of Longhorns
The University of Texas calls Austin home, and the school is one of the city’s biggest employers and cultural epicenters. You can exist in Texas without having contact with the university or its students, but you’d be missing some of the city’s youthful atmosphere.
The school also provides more or less all of Austin’s sports action. While the U of T boasts one of the most successful overall athletic programs, football is king. The Texas Longhorns are going through a rebuilding phase currently, but they still enjoy a following rivaled by only old money NCAA football teams. In terms of sheer football revenue, the Longhorns stampede shoulder to shoulder with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish for the country’s most lucrative programs.
While the Longhorns rule the town and that region of Texas, the city’s other sporting offerings are all minor league affairs. The Austin Toros is the city’s NBA Development League franchise, while the Texas Stars skate in the American Hockey League – a sort of baseball AAA on ice.
They are the night!
No matter what element of Austin’s identity you choose to mention, there is one feature no other major American city can match. Sure, other cities have live music, great universities and good restaurants — but only Austin has a million residents who hang upside down all day and eat bugs. The Congress Avenue Bridge (or its underside superstructure) on the edge of downtown Austin is home to about 1.5 million Brazilian Free-Tailed Bats. Every night around sundown, they stream out in a thick, black, fluttering cloud into the evening on the hunt for insects. (No, they don’t bother any of their human visitors.)
Locals and tourists gather on the bridge, along the shoreline and in boats beneath the bridge. The unique spectacle is free and lasts essentially until it’s too dark to see the wide-winged black shapes flap their way out across the cityscape and out into the surrounding countryside. The bats do migrate seasonally, so peak time for bat viewing coincides with the warmest period of Austin weather.
I’ve witnessed it twice, and (…Trust me…) you’ll come to a point when you’ll think it’s all over — only to watch hundreds more late departures fly out from under the girders.
Head for the Hills
In terms of accommodations, Austin boasts its share of major luxury hotel chains. I’ve stayed in and can recommend the W and the Four Seasons. But, for an ambitious alternative, consider getting out of the downtown area and venturing out into the surrounding Hill Country. While Texas is known for its vast, flat expanses of open land, Austin sits within reach of rolling hills and popular lakes where many Austin folk make their more rural, suburban homes.
If you have transportation, get out of downtown Austin and book your stay at Travaasa – a Hill Country resort known for its “Mancations” where guys can enjoy everything from top shelf food to masculine spa treatments to rugged outdoor activities.
Related: SXSW 2015 Live Coverage
Food – Where to Eat
While it’s as close to Berkeley as Texas comes, Austin is still a Lone Star State metropolis. That means you’ll be able to find top shelf steak, barbecue and Mexican food throughout downtown. There are a few key highlights in that restaurant range to keep in mind.
If every city has that one world famous restaurant that every visitor should enjoy, and Eddie V’s is the landmark joint in Austin. Now, you might be screaming, “That’s a chain! You might as well be citing Olive Garden as the town’s best Italian joint!” However, the Austin Eddie V’s was the original incarnation of the national steak and seafood HQ. This dining standby runs to the mid to high price range for Texas, but the helpings are ample.
Otherwise, if you’re in town and a more involved sit-down joint is not to your liking, keep an eye out for the South Congress Cafe, Franklin Barbecue, La Cocina Del Consuelo and Rudy’s Country Store.
Bars – Where to Drink and Unwind
Austin is a big college town, so there’s obviously no shortage of bars, clubs and drinking holes throughout the city. Some are joints for locals. Some are country music halls. Some are college kid beer dives that no grownup man should be caught dead in unless he’s testing the Texas age of consent laws.
A lot of those college bars are centered around Sixth Street, the main drag of Longhorn debauchery throughout the year. You especially want to avoid Sixth on weekends or after football games as maximum teenage douche-baggery unveils itself at those times.
It’s just best to keep your eye out for the most unique drinking holes away from the college crowd. My personal favorite bar in Austin is fairly new but plays to a diverse group of locals. Container Bar claims it’s American’s first drinking establishment forged entirely out of re-purposed shipping containers. The containers rise up around a large central courtyard, guaranteeing a sizable crowd every night. Those in attendance vary in age and interest, making for a buzzing energy every night. If you do visit, try to snag the bar’s front room facing the street. There’s no better place in Austin for people watching.
Apart from that, the classic standby bars in Austin include The Driskill Hotel Bar, The Longbranch Inn and the Cloakroom.
Austin City Unlimited
Austin calls itself the Music Capital of the World. While Nashville is sitting over there in Tennessee bitching about that, Austin remains a powerful source for everything from traditional honky-tonk to outlaw country to earthy rock. It doesn’t take long to sense how seriously Austin takes its music as even the airport is full of original live performers every day. While I always say the Memphis has America’s best airport food, Austin takes the prize for best airport ambiance thanks to its local musicians.
Every music fan (or PBS fan, I suppose) visiting Austin should visit the historical marker for the original Austin City Limits studio. It stands downtown not far from the Congress Avenue Bridge, marked with a status of Austin legend Willie Nelson. In the years since Austin City Limits began airing on PBS, everyone from Johnny Cash and Sheryl Crow to Eric Clapton and Ray Charles – and that’s just the Cs.
The South By Southwest festival doesn’t need any additional hype here. This online news source spends a couple weeks, a lot of money and piles of man hours covering Austin’s alternative festival of music, movies, video games, technologies and counterculture.
Your average tourist should probably steer clear of Austin during SXSW only because the city gets crowded and understandably nuts with thousands of attendees crowding into the Texas capitol. For those venturing into the city specifically to attend the festival, there are few cultural events in America that can match the SXSW lineup and diversity.
Formula for Speed
One of the newer attractions in Austin is the Circuit of the Americas – a multimillion-dollar, elite level race track that currently hosts the only Formula One event in North America. During that F1 race, the world descends on Austin with international high-roller racing fans snagging luxury suites to watch the best open wheel drivers int the world compete.
The track stays open throughout the year for various racing events and public track days, making Austin a new player in the American racing scene.