Weird and Wonderful Austin

This creative Texas capital lets the good times roll with its dazzling arts community, famous live music scene, Tex-Mex cuisine and celebrity bat residents.

Grooving with an eclectic mix of hippies, musicians, business professionals and filmmakers, Austin, Texas has evolved from a small university town into a growing cultural mecca over the past few decades. A long list of publications has targeted Austin as one of the best places to live, because of its high-tech innovation, alternative culture and liberal politics.

The city’s increased popularity has spurred a large influx of young adults since 2000, which in turn has impacted Austin’s skyline with an increasing number of condominiums in the downtown and surrounding areas. An array of trendy, new eateries, coffee houses and shopping venues have piggybacked on the expansion, making it difficult for a newcomer to go hungry or barefoot.

Musical and Wild West Roots

Once a small town with a lot of character, Austin earned its reputation as a musician’s refuge in the 1970s, when talented songwriters and musical artists who were disenchanted with Nashville’s corporate grip on the music industry migrated to the capital of Texas. The list of icons who sought an alternative musical environment and participated in Austin’s growing music scene includes Willie Nelson, Janis Joplin and Austin’s beloved Stevie Ray Vaughan.

However, long before the 1976 premiere of the PBS program Austin City Limits, central Texas was inhabited by nomadic Native American tribes. Europeans established the first settlement in 1835, and a few years later, the little village of Waterloo was chosen as the capital of the Republic of Texas. Austin was renamed in honor of Stephen F. Austin, “the father of Texas.”

Austin Downtown Venues

With a motto like “Keep Austin Weird,” you know there is a lot of creative energy flowing through its veins, not to mention at least 200 live music venues and world-renowned festivals.

Historic Capitol Building

Since Austin’s history revolves around government and politics, a sightseeing outing should include a tour of the capitol building. Completed in 1888, this Renaissance Revival pink granite and limestone architectural treasure experienced a major renovation and extension between 1993 and 1997. History buffs can enjoy an exhibit and film detailing the restoration. Afterward, take a free Historic Walking Tour to view a mix of modern skyscrapers with Victorian-era architecture. 201 E. 14th St. Tel. 512-463-5495. Tours are free and last 45 minutes. Hours: Mon. to Fri. 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Sat. 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Sun. 12 to 3:30 p.m.

Sixth Street/Red River/Warehouse Districts

Hungry? Thirsty? Explore some of the eateries and live music venues on the legendary Sixth Street. A few choice tattoo clubs and tarot-card-reading folks can be found amidst the sliced pizza and cigar shops. And you won’t want to miss out on the magical, musical revue of the artful Esther’s Follies comedy troupe, before heading down Red River for additional live music venues such as Stubb’s (801 Red River, tel. 512-480-8341) and Emo’s (603 Red River, tel. 512-505-8541).

More mature, affluent visitors will prefer walking a few blocks west of Congress Avenue to dine at one of the upscale restaurants and pop into a number of martini clubs in the Warehouse District. Don’t resist a stop at Antone’s, “Home of the Blues.” This celebrated establishment helped launch the careers of several notable artists since 1975, including Stevie Ray Vaughan and Los Lonely Boys. Antone’s, 213 W. 5th St. Tel. 512-320-8324.

[Read our Austin Live Music and Nightlife article for more entertainment ideas.]

Next: Austin Neighborhood Haunts

Austin Neighborhood Haunts

There are a number of Congress Avenue art galleries to enjoy. Be sure to peruse the Wild About Music gift gallery. You’ll also pass the historical Paramount and State theaters. Originally a vaudeville venue, the Paramount Theatre is a 1915 landmark, and produces significant concerts and plays annually. Continue strolling to the famous Congress Avenue Bridge where about 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats emerge at dusk and munch on up to 30,000 pounds of insects every night—which is greatly appreciated by Austin residents—during their migration seasons in the spring and fall.

South Congress (SoCo)

As you continue down the path and cross Lady Bird Lake, you will enter a relaxed, funky world of antique shops, vintage clothing stores, trendy restaurants and folk art galleries. Every First Thursday of the month, SoCo merchants and street vendors entertain patrons until 10 p.m. Be sure to drop into the Continental Club (1315 S. Congress Ave., tel. 512-441-2444), which has been “rockin’ South Austin since 1957” and the ultra-colorful Güero’s Taco Bar (1412 S. Congress Ave., tel. 512-447-7688), which resides in the renovated old Central Feed and Seed.

South Lamar District

After cruising the aisles of edibles at the 80,000-square-foot flagship Whole Foods Market on Sixth and Lamar, head south on Lamar Avenue for a variety of Tex-Mex restaurant options, as well as the casual and beloved Artz Rib House (2330 S. Lamar), where Lyle Lovett stops by for a rack and side of music. Another well-established club known for great music is the Saxon Pub (1320 S. Lamar Blvd., tel. 512-448-2552) up the street.

Take note that you haven’t truly experienced the uniqueness that is South Austin until you've ordered an inexpensive meal at Maria’s Taco Xpress (2529 S. Lamar Blvd., tel. 512-444-0261). Having grown from a small taco trailer into a South Austin institution, this little taqueria is filled with folk-art sculptures, intriguing junkyard finds and rustic charm. It also has live music and a regular following for its Sunday Gospel Brunch, affectionately called “Hippie Church” by the locals. Be sure to order a cup of steaming Cuban-style coffee from the cute little cabana behind the parking lot. And, you can’t leave Austin without tipping your hat and two-stepping at the Broken Spoke (3201 S. Lamar Blvd., tel. 512-442-6189), Austin’s famous South Lamar honky-tonk dance hall.

East Side

There is a charming restaurant row on the east side of Interstate 35, near the University of Texas, which attracts an eclectic crowd. Eastside Café (2113 Manor Road, tel. 512-476-5858) recently celebrated 20 years of serving delicious gourmet meals in a charming, classy old home with a beautiful vegetable garden. Its neighbor, Vivo (2015 Manor Ave., tel. 512-482-0300), offers trendy Tex-Mex fare, strong margaritas and a rose for every female customer, amidst gorgeous artwork and a lovely outdoor patio.

Hyde Park

Enjoy a leisurely stroll through Hyde Park, one of Austin’s oldest central neighborhoods, to view beautiful historic homes. When you reach Duval Street, stop in for a wonderful vegetarian meal at Mother’s Café & Garden (4215 Duval St., tel. 512-451-3994) or a glass of wine and a great meal across the street at the Hyde Park Bar & Grill (4206 Duval St., tel. 512-458-3168). As one of the city’s first planned suburbs, it boasts its own neighborhood grocer and a charming playhouse appropriately titled the Hyde Park Theatre (411 W. 43rd St., tel. 512-479-7529), a small space dedicated to developing theater professionals from the Austin community. You can also enjoy a cappuccino at the nearby coffee house as well as sweet Italian ice at Dolce Vita Gelato and Expresso Bar (4222 Duval St., tel. 512-323-2686). [Read our Austin Coffee Shops article for more places to get your caffeine buzz.]

The Drag

After a healthy jaunt around the University of Texas campus, to admire its historic architecture, you might want to stop in one of the restaurants on The Drag, which comprises a strip of businesses along Guadalupe Street, including a small outdoor market with vendors selling home-spun jewelry, clothing and even tie-dye T-shirts.

Next: Austin Festivals, Concerts and Seasonal Events

Austin Festivals, Concerts and Seasonal Events

Austin is renowned for its amazing festivals. Every March, thousands of visitors blaze though the city to experience South by Southwest (SXSW). The first SXSW Music Conference and Festival enjoyed 700 registrants when it was launched in 1987. Over the years, this event has evolved into a 10-day, three-tier program, which includes interactive media and film, attracting more than 12,000 participants from around the world.

One of the most popular music festivals in the country attracts tens of thousands of music lovers to Zilker Park. The three-day Austin City Limits Music Festival, which will take place Oct. 2 to 4, 2009, features world-class musicians on eight separate stages (tel. 888-512-7469, Free summer concerts, such as Blues on the Green are also well attended.

The bi-annual Old Pecan Street Festival has been presenting arts and crafts to Austinites for more than 30 years. 2009 dates: May 2 and 3. Tel. 512-469-6060.

The annual Armadillo Christmas Bazaar is a beloved holiday tradition offering artistic gifts and incredible music every year since 1976. Held at the Austin Convention Center, E. 2nd and Trinity streets. Tel. 512-447-1605. 2009 dates: Dec. 11 to 24.

The annual FronteraFest is a must-see in January and February. Produced by the Hyde Park Theatre in collaboration with Austin Script Works, the event supports local playwrights and new dramatic work. Hyde Park Theatre. 511 W. 43rd St.

Next: Austin Attractions and Hotels

Austin Museums, Outdoor Attractions and Performing Arts

Bring a camera and hiking boots to start the 10-mile Lady Bird Lake Hike and Bike Trail (formerly called Town Lake). You will want to capture a shot of the Stevie Ray Vaughan statue and multi-million dollar pedestrian bridge. Then hit Zilker Park, featuring 351 acres of greenery, the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum, Zilker Botanical Garden and beloved 68-degree Barton Springs Pool.

Don’t miss an opportunity to check out the new Blanton Museum of Art and Long Center for Performing Arts, which enjoyed its grand opening in March 2008. Austin’s growing theater community is another impressive development. In addition to Zachary Scott Theatre’s Broadway-style musicals, an innovative improv and underground comedy scene has taken hold here. Find time to drop into the Salvage Vanguard or ColdTowne theaters for a few laughs. [Read our Austin Museums and Attractions article for more to add to your itinerary.]

Where to Hang Your Cowboy Hat

If you’re interested in staying in an upscale downtown hotel, you have three choices: the luxurious Four Seasons Austin (98 San Jacinto Blvd., tel. 512-478-4500; rates start at $375 per night), the InterContinental Stephen F. Austin Hotel (701 Congress Ave., tel. 888-424-6835; rates start at $182 per night) and the Driskill Hotel—Austin’s first premier hotel, which initially opened its doors in 1886 (604 Brazos St., tel. 800-252-9367; rates start at $188 per night). The InterContinental offers martini and wine lovers the opportunity to toast the town from its outdoor second-story cocktail lounge balcony.

For a taste of hip, consider the San Jose Hotel on South Congress Avenue, which is located next to Jo’s Coffee, a favorite outdoor java joint that welcomes four-legged patrons with open arms. San Jose Hotel, 1316 S. Congress Ave. Tel. 512-444-7322. Rates start at $95 per night for weekday stays.

For a romantic environment and private indoor spa, reserve a room at the quaint Bed and Breakfast Spa on a quiet Tarrytown neighborhood street; it’s a short taxi ride away from the hustle and bustle of the entertainment districts. 1309 Meriden Lane. Tel. 512-499-0081. Rates start at $150 per night for the Moon River Room.

Getting Around

Car rentals, taxi cabs and riding the ‘Dillo are the primary transportation choices. What are ‘Dillos you ask? They are public transportation in the form of trolleys-on-wheels and small buses. The city of Austin is looking forward to the completion of the Capital Metro Transit MetroRail system, which is slated for a launch date at the end of March 2009. Visit to plan a route.

Destinations: Austin

Themes: Art and Museums, Urban Endeavors

Activities: Arts and Entertainment, Sightseeing, Pubs and Bars

User Comments

great guide I've printed this article to take in the car with me as I tour Austin for three days.

comprehensive I have a B&B and many guests ask for this kind of info. I'm happy to have it so concise and up to the minute to give to them. Thank you Ms. Goldstein, you seem to really know Austin well.