City guide: keeping it weird in the Texan boom town of Austin

One of the fastest-growing cities in the USA, the lively Texan capital is today as much a magnet for its kayaking, hiking, festivals and food trucks as it is for its honky-tonks, barbecue and warm Southern hospitality.Monday, 14 October 2019

By Josephine Price
Photographs By John Davidson
Street art, Native Hostels.
Street art, Native Hostels.
photo by John Davidson

“Tacos,” Luiz, my taxi driver, declares when I ask him what to eat. “Oh, you’ve gotta have breakfast tacos in Austin,” he exclaims. I tell him it’ll be my first time — both in the city and trying tacos for breakfast — and he cackles with excitement. He can’t stop. One hand has left the steering wheel and is holding his mouth as if not to expel too much envy at my initiation into Austin’s taco scene. But Luiz’s energy is infectious. I press him for his favoured spots and as he pontificates, a sign above us on the highway from the airport flashes: ‘Drive carefully. Tacos down, heads up.’ If one sign could sum up Austin, it’s this — the Mexican influence married with the city’s self-proclaimed ‘weird’ streak. I’ve only just left the airport and I can already see what kind of city lies ahead. 

Luiz Rodriguez has been in Austin for 13 years. He came from Puerto Rico in search of a better life for his wife and daughter. And he’s not alone. Within 24 hours, I meet people from California, DC, New York, Vancouver, Seattle. Sadie, at Terry Black’s BBQ, chose Austin for the weather and the friendly people. “Two things you don’t get in Seattle,” she smirks. It seems everyone wants to be in Austin. It’s among the USA’s fastest-growing cities and the energy is palpable. And it transcends tacos. Barbecue, burgers, Tex-Mex, Mexican, Japanese — each cuisine has a dedicated scene to tempt even the most feeble of foodies. 

It’s not just the food — the Texan state capital seems to approach everything with gusto. The annual South by Southwest festival, for example, was originally set up in 1987 to showcase local musical talent. In the ensuing years, it’s blossomed into a sprawling, multidisciplinary ode to the arts. 

This is a place that yields to the talent that flocks to it — and it’s constantly up for a good time. Yes, the state’s flagship university and the towering Texas State Capitol may be based here but that’s where the formalities end. Any city that starts its day with tacos and ends it with live music — Austin’s official motto is the ‘Live Music Capital of the World’ — is going to find it hard to take itself too seriously in the hours that fall between, if you ask me. 

This is a place that’s full of life, in every sense. The green city — home to close to a million people and over 33 million trees — confounds traditional Texan dustbowl expectations. You’ll find terrapins bobbing in the waterways, flocks of bats swooping at sunset and birds chattering incessantly in the canopies of this increasingly high-rise city. Liberal and lively, Austin is playfully rewriting Southern stereotypes.

Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail.
Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail.
photo by John Davidson

See & do

Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail: Snake along the 10-mile route flanking Lady Bird Lake — a dammed section of the Colorado River — to see the city at its greenest. Trees line the path, wildflower meadows sit alongside, and rowing clubs, public swimming holes and standup paddleboard hire companies lure you into the water.  

Congress Avenue Bridge: At sunset each day from March to October, crowds flock to this bridge and surrounding spaces to watch the nightly migration of Austin’s 1.5-million-strong Mexican free-tailed bat colony. 

Congress Kayaks: In spring and summer, Lady Bird Lake is populated with kayaks and paddleboards. Take to the waters from Congress Kayak’s central spot, at Waller Creek Boathouse, and discover an alternative view of the city. 

Blanton Museum of Art: American artist Ellsworth Kelly’s Temple for Light installation — a white, chapel-like building with coloured-glass windows — is worth the trip alone to this art museum at the University of Texas at Austin campus. 

Your Biker Gang: Cruise the city on fat-tyred electric minibikes. A range of guided tours take in everything from murals and graffiti to bats at sunset, landmarks and food trucks. 

Chicken Shit Bingo: ‘Keep Austin Weird’ is an unofficial city slogan that’s proved catchy enough for other ‘alternative’ US cities to adopt it too. Austin has stayed true to its word — if you want proof, head to The Little Longhorn Saloon. On Sunday evenings, this classic Texan honky-tonk dive bar hosts a unique, feathered parlour game involving a hen and a large, numbered plywood grid. If it poops on your digit... bingo! 

Bullock Texas State History Museum: Austin may feel a million miles away from stereotypical Texas, but it sits in a region bursting with Lone Star stories. Take a walk through the state’s history at this eclectic museum, where the emphasis is on informative, hands-on fun. Current exhibitions include displays on the Civil Rights Movement and the US-Mexico border region. 

Parts & Labour.
Parts & Labour.
photo by John Davidson

Like a local

Find your groove: Online events website Do512 (named after Austin’s telephone area code) has the inside track on the local entertainment scene, including which bands are playing at any of the city’s 250-plus live music venues. 

Develop a sixth sense: Home to Austin’s entertainment district, nine-block Sixth Street has three sections. Head to East for cool haunts, to West for upmarket hangouts, and try Dirty with caution — pedestrianised on weekend nights, its bars and clubs attract crowds of boisterous revellers.

Keep your cool: The mercury hovers around the mid-30Cs in summer. Add humidity into the mix and you’ll be forced to do as the locals do and head for the nearest wild swimming hole. The most popular, Barton Springs Pool, is central, Hamilton Pool is 23 miles to the west, while 18 miles north west is Hippie Hollow Park — Texas’s only clothing-optional park, on the banks of Lake Travis.

Hot sauces, Tears of Joy.
Hot sauces, Tears of Joy.
photo by John Davidson

Buy

Parts & Labour: Austin’s independent spirit extends to its retail scene — big chains get the cold shoulder in favour of independent brands. Parts & Labour perfectly embodies this — a craft store in the trendy SoCo district that sells the creations of over 100 Texas-based jewellers, screenprinters, designers and tailors. 

Tears of Joy: The owners of this Sixth Street hot sauce shop, mother-and-son team Joy Burleson and Brian Rush, will point out their awards and talk you through the hundreds of locally produced bottles of sauces, salsas and rubs. Recommended: August in Austin, a bottled-on-site, award-winning hot sauce that captures the soaring temperatures the city endures in the height of summer. 

South Congress Books: Anyone with a love of literature will find it difficult not to fall for this independent SoCo store. Seek out collectibles, postcards, first editions and posters in an endearing spot that smells of old books. 

South Congress Books.
South Congress Books.
photo by John Davidson

Eat

VeraCruz all natural: Local heads will nod in approval if you tell them you visited this Mexican food truck — one of the city’s best-loved, with five locations in and around Austin. Start the day at its original spot on East Cesar Chavez, where aguas frescas — fruit juices with cane sugar — accompany the breakfast tacos, made with homemade corn tortillas and myriad fillings. The queues are testament to the flavour.

Terry Black’s BBQ: Twin brothers Michael and Mark Black have been firing up the pits here since 2014, carrying on a family tradition dating back four generations to 1932, when the Original Black’s Barbecue opened in the neighbouring city of Lockhart, the unofficial state capital of barbecue. The giant beef ribs set this spot apart from other joints in town.

Carpenters Hall: More neighbourhood hangout than hotel restaurant, this spot at The Carpenter Hotel is decked out with effortlessly hip decor that perfectly complements the inventive, ever-changing menu. There’s caviar served up with a packet of crisps, campfire ice cream, and supersized chicken schnitzel. More refined dishes include amberjack ceviche, barbecued mackerel, and mole salami.  

Sleep

Native hostels: Housed in a stone house bedecked with street art, Native Hostels delivers great-value East Austin cool. Beds are spread across two wings: one communal, the other offering private rooms with en suites. Linking them is a shared kitchen and a bar with a timetable of events, from tarot readings and Game of Thrones screenings to album release parties and yoga sessions. Ranch Hand food truck sits in the backyard, serving up organic grain bowls with Texas meats. 

The Line Austin: Set on the tree-lined north bank of the Colorado River, The Line Austin is a destination in itself. Guests and locals converge for the eclectic fare at Dean’s One Trick Pony restaurant, to watch the bats at sunset, or chill out at rooftop bar P6. There are 428 stylish rooms and suites adorned with local artworks, plus a saltwater infinity pool overlooking Lady Bird Lake. The hotel even stages gigs and theatre performances. 

Fairmont Austin: A gargantuan addition to pint-sized Austin, the luxurious, 37-storey Fairmont sits in the east of Downtown, offering 1,048 guest rooms, an impressive pool area with private cabanas and a generously appointed spa. There are five restaurants and a bar offering live music every evening. 

Terrace at Licha’s Cantina.
Terrace at Licha’s Cantina.
photo by John Davidson

After hours

Broken Spoke: One of the last of Austin’s historic honky-tonks, Broken Spoke has a neon-lit dancehall overlooked by a giant sign. ‘Please do not stand on the dancefloor’, it reads — advice that’s eagerly obeyed by crowd of two-stepping Texans most nights. The Southern hospitality vibe also extends to chequered tablecloths and photos of past performers: Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and George Strait. 

Licha’s Cantina: This fun Mexican spot is set in a white clapboard house with a veranda on East Sixth. Pull up at the bar, find a space in the garden, or sit out on the patio and settle down for some punchy cocktails. These focus on way more than just tequila. Mezcal, bacanora and sotol are all in the mix too. On the patio, chefs create huaraches — white cornmeal flatbreads with a range of tasty toppings — and carve home-marinated meats. 

Continental Club: The iconic neon sign might lure you into this legendary Soco club — one of Austin’s oldest, dating back to 1955 — but you’ll stay for the talent. Everyone from local acts like blues/soul outfit The Peterson Brothers to global stars like Stevie Ray Vaughan have graced the stage here. 

ESSENTIALS

Getting there & around
Norwegian flies direct to Austin Bergstrom three times a week from Gatwick; British Airways flies there direct five times a week from Heathrow.   

Average flight time: 10h5m.

SuperShuttle provides airport shuttle services from $15 (£12) or the number 20 bus takes you straight into the city centre every 15 minutes. Both take around 35 minutes. Metrorail connects Austin with a 32-mile line that serves nine city-wide stations. Day passes cost $7 (£5.60).    

When to go
Austin can be hot and humid in July and August, regularly hitting 35C. Expect highs of 20-25C in the shoulder seasons. Winters are mild, averaging around 10C.

Austin plays host to some major music festivals, notably South by Southwest (16-22 March 2020) and  Austin City Limits (usually October, 2020 dates TBC). 

More info
Lonely Planet Texas. RRP: £14.99

austintexas.org

visittheusa.co.uk

do512.com

How to do it
America As You Like It has 13 nights in Texas from £1,263 per person, including return flights, accommodation and car hire. The itinerary includes two nights in Austin. 

Published in the November 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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