Two years ago we were in Austin Texas for the first time.
I’d never been to Texas and had little idea what to expect. My imaginings mainly centred around desert, ten-gallon cowboy hats, guns and other things that can kill you.
While I knew that Austin wasn’t really like the rest of Texas (it’s a pocket of Democrat blue in a Republican red state) I hadn’t been prepared for the city – tall buildings rising, glittering, into a sky shimmering with heat. Bigger than DC, its grid system sprawls for miles beyond the Capitol building in the north and the river just south of the downtown area (everything’s bigger in Texas). Unlike in DC, the grid is unfazed by geographical features, its roads making light work of the sandy creek to the west of downtown and the red river to the east. And the interregional highway cuts through the city, splitting East Austin from the rest of the city and forcing pedestrians into underpasses crowded with panhandlers.
This first time in Austin we hadn’t quite worked out the distances involved in just walking around downtown, so ended up walking miles in the baking hot sun. It was worth it though, as the city has so much to see and experience. Our longest walk was probably out west and north to Graffiti Hill. As we reached residential areas we began to doubt that we were on the right track, and then we found it – a series of graffiti walls leading up to the castle. It’s a strange place, but then Austin is famed for being ‘weird’.
Keeping Austin Weird: experiences
Another bizarre experience was going to see the bats. The South Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin happens to have the world’s largest urban bat colony living under it (I told you – everything’s bigger in Texas). Every evening, just before sunset, all the bats stream out from under the bridge and fly out to enjoy the evening. Every evening, having checked their phones to find out when sunset will be, all the tourists crowd onto the bridge to watch. You can also watch from the river itself by hiring a kayak or similar, or from the bat observatory and the riverside.
It was quite weird. The squeaking as they flew out from under us, the fluttering, whirring, rasping sound of their leathery little wings, but most unexpectedly, the faint smell rising from the cloud – reminiscent of rodents, but not quite the same.
Slightly less weird, but still pretty wild, is Austin’s nightlife. This centres on 6th Street, west of Congress Avenue and down to the highway. Austin is known as the ‘live music capital of the world’, and here on 6th street pretty much every bar will have some form of live music at some point in the evening. Some have a charge to get in; we decided just to hit as many of the ones without cover charges as possible, and we ended up seeing some weird bands! We also ended up in some weird places. One bar, called Nook, once we got in, turned out not to actually have a roof, so we were just drinking in the open air. Another is themed around the mythical creature, the Jacalope, and has at its heart a bucking bronco – except of course it’s a bucking Jacalope.
One of my favourite of Austin’s weird bars was on Brazos Street. Located on the ground floor of a hostel and reached through a secret door disguised as a bookcase, is a really great cocktail bar. I’m not going to tell you exactly where it is – that would spoil the fun – but if you’re ever in Austin, do go and look for it!
Food in Austin
Everywhere there’s good beer, excellent burgers and Mexican food, and good barbecue – though this is more traditionally eaten for breakfast or lunch. I wrote about our experience of Austin’s barbecue joints in my blog post on the difference between barbecue and grilling. Austin has some great outdoor barbecue places with, of course, live music. Here are the places we went to for food:
- La barbecue – outdoor barbecue with live music and picnic tables. There’s a long wait but it’s definitely worth it. Having looked on Google I think this may have moved to East Austin now, further down Cesar Chavez street.
- House Park Bar-B-Q – really old barbecue joint near Graffiti Hill.
- Casino el Camino – great bar with possibly the best burgers in America
- Chuys – a bit of a way out, on Barton Springs Road, and I know it’s a chain, but it’s probably the best Tex Mex I’ve had.
When we visited Austin for the second time (I was at the university on a fellowship – you can read about it here) we got to explore the slightly more chilled and hipster East Austin.
East Austin is more residential, and I was staying with a local couple in an Air B&B in the lovely Swede Hill district. While the residential bit was lovely, the highway just to the west was a bit of an issue. When I arrived, my taxi drove under the highway and I was struck by the fact that I would have to negotiated this underpass on my way to the university every day. Luckily I found an overpass, just a few minutes out of my way, to the south, which gave me far easier access to the main city.
While we didn’t find such good food in east Austin, we did find some quirky places to get really good coffee. The Vintage Heart coffee shop certainly won our hearts with their great coffee and delicious doughnuts. And the Quickie Pickie grocery store had a lovely outside area where you could sit, eat and drink in the calm of the evening. A very different vibe to 6th street!
More Conventional Austin
As I mentioned, the second time we visited Austin I was there for a fellowship at the Harry Ransom Library, based at the University of Texas, Austin (hook ’em horns!)
The university is a great example of one of those big, well-funded state universities with top of the range sports facilities and one of the top college football teams, as well as enviable research facilities. One of the reasons for its financial stability is that in the early twentieth century they found oil on land that belonged to the university, and the rest is history.
As well as the Harry Ransom library, which has regular exhibitions, the university campus also houses the Lyndon B. Johnson museum, which is well worth a visit. It might be one of my favourite museums. I knew very little about LBJ before I visited, but he really did accomplish a huge amount in only one term as president. His work on equal rights should be better known over here – while Kennedy spoke about equal rights, it was Johnson that got through the legislation, and it was his experiences teaching Mexican American students in a segregated school that inspired his mission of social reform. The museum also has a life-sized, animatronic Lyndon B Johnson, which just has to be seen to be believed!
Nearby the University is the Texas State Museum, which is also very much worth your time. Before I went, I knew I should ‘remember the Alamo’, but after my visit I knew why I should remember it, and that I should probably also remember the massacre at Goliad as well.
Right now, from rainy London, where it’s struggling to remain above 20 degrees at the moment, I’ll just enjoy my memories of Austin. We had two great trips and, while I’m not sure I could live in that climate, if I ever get another chance I’ll enjoy ‘keeping it weird’ again in Austin.