The People’s Republic of Austin. The Hole in the Bible Belt. Weird City. Live Music Capital of the World. Austin possesses a whole posse of aliases — and a distinctly different take on Texas compared to the rest of the Lone Star State.
No longer a secret, the progressive, laid-back city of 1.8 million has much more than a little something for everyone. Whether you want a hot restaurant scene, cutting-edge culture, incredible live music on tap, excellent shopping, easy access to outdoor activities or an excess of offbeat character, Austin offers it up by the 10 gallon. Add to that the facts that Austin happens to be surrounded by increasingly prolific wine country and that it hosts a couple of legendary LGBT beach parties each year, and this quirky, colourful character of a city becomes downright irresistible.
If you coincide with them, a few annual events will hugely influence your trip: SXSW, the Austin City Limits music festival and summer. While the first two see the city swarmed by film, music and interactive-media types, the last will fry the cajones off as temperatures bob into the high 30s Celsius and beyond.
Austin lives and breathes live music. Explore Red River and Sixth Street music districts or head straight for the best of country at The White Horse tavern, eclectic sounds at The Sahara Lounge and big-name acts at the Paramount Theatre.
For restaurants, South 1st Street is the tastiest place to start; there are a slew of currently hot places and plates within a fork’s throw, including Thai temple Sway, French-Vietnamese venue Elizabeth Street and Tejano favourite La Barbecue. The city also boasts one of the continent’s hottest food-truck scenes; keep your eyes peeled for the East Side King trucks, which rustle up Asian-influenced street food, from tongue buns to chicken karaage for the late-night crowd. For barbecue — it’s Texas: you’ve got to indulge in something smothered in whisky-saturated barbecue sauce — Franklin Barbecue in East Austin is the Holy Grail.
For something a little more highbrow, Austin offers a clutch of excellent museums and performance companies, including The Contemporary Austin and the world-class Ballet Austin. The hottest shopping opportunities are found at The Domain, a 65,000-square-metre spree sensation, and in the independent boutiques of the Second Street District.
If you’re on your second trip to town, you have a bit longer to spend, or you’re just too hot, Lake Travis, situated beyond the western brim of the city, is the perfect place to swim or kayak. Head for queer-popular Hippie Hollow, the site of Memorial and Labour Day weekends’ clothing-optional First and Last Splash parties. The park offers more than 100 swimming holes. The gay beach is a 15-minute walk left from the car park.
To really see why everyone’s talking about Austin, make for the trend-central trio of neighbourhoods: quirky South Congress (South Austin’s main drag), slightly more grown-up Travis Heights and diverse East Austin. All three are a little overrun with recently arrived 20-something hipsters, although the honour of hosting this oft-maligned tribe has mostly percolated over to East Austin. This gentrifying area has relatively recently wrestled the title of hippest ’hood from South Congress and Travis Heights — if you measure these things by dive bars, taco trucks, farmers’ markets, folks with ironic facial hair on single-speed bikes and a triple-the-national-average percentage of the population in the creative professions. But it’s not all fixies and bird-friendly caffeine fixes; the three areas also offer excellent bars, incredible music venues, captivating coffee spots and enticing eateries, plus all are very LGBT-friendly. Downtown and Clarksville are other queer-adored neighbourhoods.
Like a certain West Coast city that also tries to keep it weird, Austin is definitely quirky, compared to the concrete canyons of Houston, conservative Dallas or, well, just about anywhere else in the state. Bumper stickers proudly declare “Keep Austin Weird,” and it seems Austinites really do. Some of the city’s weirder bits include the Cathedral of Junk, a 60-ton multilevel, vaulted vegetation and junk-castle creation in a South Austin backyard; Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon in Allandale, home of the weekly Chicken Shit Bingo; or the nearby Lala’s Little Nugget, an emphatically anti-Grinch bar where it’s always Christmas. Another oddity is the achingly hip Bananarchy frozen banana stand, a must for Arrested Development fans. And there’s Ms P’s Electric Cock fried-chicken stand. And mustache-themed HandleBar. And . . . and . . . it’s Austin: the list of offbeat attractions just goes on and on.
Sports and dance bar Oilcan Harry’s always has something happening, from drag shows, to karaoke, to Texas Hold ’Em, while bingo and ’80s nights star at Rain. Girls should check out Lipstick 24, a bar/venue/club that packs them in six nights a week.
The opulent 189-room Driskill has been Austin’s grand address since its cattle-baron owner opened its doors in 1886. The Kimber Modern offers luxury in a more up-to-date fashion, within walking distance of South Congress. Hotel San Jose, also in SoCo, is a minimalist, LGBT-welcoming stay that’s popular with the artistic crowd.
For more information on Austin, visist Austin Tourism.