Austin, the beautiful capital of Texas, is a conundrum because it is not easily classified. It is the political home of the staid state of Texas but it’s known for its non-conformity. It is a high-tech centre of cutting-edge development and a bastion of traditional architecture. Oh, and did I mention that this capital of one of the most conservative red states in the USA has a nude park where clothing is optional?!
The area of Austin was first settled around 9,200 BCE by the mysterious Clovis Culture peoples, originally immigrants from Asia who crossed the Bering Strait during the Ice Age. These clever people understood the importance and convenience of Austin’s site on the Colorado River. More or less continuously inhabited until the arrival of Europeans in the early 1700s, the site was turned into a central mission by the Spanish in 1730. When Texas won its independence from the Spanish in 1836, its capital was Houston but soon moved to “Waterloo” which was renamed “Austin” after Stephen F. Austin, the “father of Texas” and the first Secretary of State of the Republic. In 1845, Texas voluntarily entered the United States of America with the proviso that it could exit anytime it wished – the only state of the USA with that right since Texas was never conquered.
Austin is startingly cool!
The city is accessible via the Austin–Bergstrom International Airport and is served by all the major US airlines. Located less than 16 km (10 miles) southeast of downtown, you can transfer by taxi or public transport. The Route 20 (Capital Metro) bus is operated 24/7 and the journey takes 35 minutes for a fee of $1.25 (£0.90). SuperShuttle provides alternative connections at a slightly higher cost. Taxis take 14 minutes and cost approximately $33 (£24) to reach downtown. Ride shares are widely available and inexpensive. Once you’re in the city walking is easy and convenient.
There is so much happening all of the time in Austin that it is hard to narrow down the must-sees. Here are some of my favourites though:
- Austin City Limits Festival (ACL)– this annual music festival straddles two consecutive weekends in October during 2021 and is one of the coolest concert programs in the world! Headliners include varied acts like George Strait, Miley Cyrus, Billie Eilish, Rufus Du Sol, Dababy, Stevie Nicks and Erykah Badu!
- “Hippy Hollow” – located on the shore of Lake Travis in northwest Austin, this area of limestone rocks is a haven for nude sunbathers and skinny-dippers. It is the only “clothing optional” park in Texas and one of the only in the entire USA.
- Lady Bird Lake & Barton Springs– as one of the principal US rivers, the Colorado River provides lots of leisure options. You can take a dip or hire a kayak in Barton Springs or try stand-up paddle-boarding in Lady Bird Lake. If you’re not prepared to be soaked, you can hire a bike and cycle the surrounding trails instead.
There’s a technical term for this activity: it’s called “getting wet”
- Austin Craft Beer and Brewery Tour– Austin is a centre for craft beer production in the USA. The city offers a multi-brewery tour that is very popular; especially on hot summer days.
- LBJ Presidential Library– this presidential library and museum celebrates the life and times of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th US President and a proud resident of Austin. A highlight is the replica Oval Office, practically identical to the original in Washington, DC.
- Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center – founded by Claudia Alta, “Lady Bird” Johnson, the former First Lady, this is an oasis of native wildflowers that is a treat for the eyes and the soul.
- South by Southwest (SXSW) – Affectionately known to Austinites as “South by”, this media, film, music and technology festival is held for ten days during March each year. Events include conferences, performances, exhibitions and fantastic food.
You’d be dome to miss the Texas state capital!
- Texas Capitol – This is the largest state capitol in the country and it’s free to visit. If you want to understand more about US politics I recommend splashing out on a guided tour, which is packed with details.
- The USA Grand Prix– Austin is the site of the only Formula 1 race in the USA and it is super fun with lots of parties and events.
Here’s another pro-tip: Austin residents share their city with around 1.5 million bats. March until November is ‘bat season’ when the waterfront around Congress Avenue Bridge sees the skies come to life each evening at dusk.
Being such a vibrant place, Austin has a mighty food scene. Traditional barbecue and Tex-Mex venues mix with wholefood and vegan options. Here are some of my favourite restaurants in Austin:
- Terry Black’s Barbecue– this unassuming hut is in fact legendary for its grilled Texan barbecue. Meats vary from pork ribs to turkey and sliced brisket. You buy your side dishes by the gallon.
- Vic & Al’s– Cajun cooking and craft cocktails give this restaurant a spicey difference! If you’re not familiar with Cajun cooking, try anything blackened – it may sound iffy, but it tastes great!
- Flower Child – this health-oriented restaurant specialises in wholefood bowls packed with nutrients, fresh greens and quality protein. A gastronomic gem for carnivores, vegetarians and vegans alike.
Brown, it’s cooking, Blackened, it’s done!
Here’s another pro-tip: There’s no shortage of restaurants in Austin but you’ll also see that the city is awash with food trucks and trailers. Track down DEE DEE for Thai cuisine, Patrizi’s for old-school Italian, and El Primo for breakfast tacos. Many of the entrepreneurs behind these grills expand to have their own restaurants.
With so much happening year-round, Austin is famed for its nightlife. The Red River Cultural District is the beating heart of the party, bringing together live-music haunts, sleek rooftop bars and late-night clubs. Roam around and let your ears pick out the best beats or venture further afield to one of my other recommendations:
- The White Horse– Feel the full honky-tonk experience at this bar which hosts live country music and dancing. Beer is inexpensive and there is a taco truck waiting for you when you stumble outside.
- Donn’s Depot– trailblazing the upcycling movement, you’ll find this piano bar inside repurposed train carriages at a former rail depot. It’s on the snug side, so arrive early to secure a spot before the music starts.
- P6 at the LINE– atop the LINE Hotel, this rooftop bar overlooks the river and is a prime spot for watching the bats dive at dusk. There is something special about watching millions of bats over the rim of a martini!
Austin has an ample selection of places where you can catch up on your sleep between sights, bites, and nights. I usually stay in one of the independently owned hotels which support the local economy, such as the following:
- Hotel Ella– when the newly married Ella Newsome moved into the historic Goodall Wooten House with her new husband, he asked her if she would rather renovate the house or take a trip around the world. Commissioning the Swiss craftsman, Peter Mansbendel, she chose both. Now you can stay in this lovely property.
- Hotel ZaZa– located in downtown Austin’s Warehouse District, this hotel offers guest rooms and suites. The 7th floor outdoor pool and cabana bar provides terrific views over the city.
Nothing says ‘Austin’ quite like smoked meat!
- The Carpenter – with a spartan vibe, this industrial-chic hotel is one of the hippest places in town and a hangout for high-tech visitors. Each room has a terrace, the majority of which overlook the pool. This is a cool place to stay in the city!
Austin is a conundrum because it offers so many contradictions. It is a high-tech centre in a mostly rural part of the USA. It is a liberal bastion in the capital city of one of the most conservative states. Most of all, though, Austin is a super-cool, friendly and welcoming city that everyone should visit!