(The first in an irregular series of travel articles. Among us, we’ve been to dozens of countries and have many favorite spots, so be patient. We’re open to sponsorship.)
The diversity of Texas might be surprising to some who only notice this state (with the tourist motto “It’s like a whole other country.”) when some politician makes another stupid statement, or, more sadly, when someone is about to be executed. But this fast-growing state of over 26 million people should and does resist easy categorizations or stereotypes. There’s a blood-soaked history (and present), but Texas is perhaps the most ethnically diverse state in the Union. Its capital, Austin, is above all, a fun place to be.
Weird or Not?
There’s no shortage of tacky tourist souvenirs saying, “Keep Austin Weird”. But, to residents of other possibly-weird cities, Austin does not really rate too highly on the weirdness ladder. Yes, there is Thong Man (he bicycles many miles per day dressed in–guess), and there are a fair number of hippies and hipsters, and lots of iconoclasts. I have said that Austin is like Portland, except it is in Texas, but that’s not really accurate either (but a little bit so). However, it is a city where municipal trash workers participate in garbage truck ballet:
(Art space with mural)
Find the Culture
- Austinist – a somewhat irreverent alternative weekly paper with Austin news and Austin events.
- Austin Chronicle – a weekly paper, not exactly staid, and with lots and lots of varied event listings
- HalfPastNow – a website that congregates Austin event listings, and you can personalize and buy tickets from it. I met the founder at a coffee-shop, and he explained his vision of his startup to me. It looks quite thorough, but don’t rely on any single source.
What can you do in Austin? Well, just about anything, although Austin is best-known for its high concentration of musicians. Willie Nelson and the Armadillo World Headquarters had something to do with that, but Texas has an enduring and variegated music and songwriting tradition that predates Nelson by far. See The History of Texas Music.
In case you are wondering, Austin is not in any way restricted to country music. I have no idea how to classify musicians by genre, and many work in multiple genres, but there are all sorts of creative mixtures and fusions and reinterpretations and probably new genres being spawned on a weekly basis.
OK, so where should you go to hear interesting music? This is a tough question to answer. Shows pop up all the time, as with tens (hundreds? of thousands of musicians on the loose, they take advantage of any spare coffee shop or pub corner at various odd times of the day and night. Very nice venues have unfortunately disappeared, although good ones also spring up regularly too. Your best bet is to start asking (Austinites are generally very friendly, and you can get good information from just about anyone).
In the course of 2 or 3 years of visiting, I have observed that Austin is gentrifying. As with many neighborhoods in transition throughout North America, East Austin was the home of thriving African-American and Latino communities, and it still is. In 1928, the city fathers imposed a segregation order on the city that divided the city along color lines, with African-Americans required to live east of what is now I-35 (finding out that I-35 extends way down to Texas was interesting for me, as I knew it first in Minneapolis). Latino families also moved to the area. After legal segregation was disallowed, the old color divisions remained largely in place. But in the past decade or more, artists without much money moved into East Austin, and the predictable gentrification cycle started happening. Austin has a burgeoning technology scene. The gentrification arguments are not much different than from Vancouver, Brooklyn, or San Francisco. Austin does have more space than any of those cities, but densified housing has not really taken hold, and there are water issues (as is generally the case in Texas).
(Old houses in a gentrifying neighborhood)
Startups and Technology
Austin technology is probably best-known for Dell, which is located in Round Rock. But there are numerous midsize companies here, and eBay, Apple, IBM, and other large corporations all have beachheads here. Many startups such as HomeAway and lesser-known ones like Volusion started in Austin. The godfather of Austin startup businesses, most would agree, is Joshua Baer, who made his fortune after starting at Trilogy and has since gone on to form and sponsor many other startups. I have heard Josh speak, and he is inspirational if you are into software development (I am). He might be viewed as an enemy by some, as he is very vocal in his encouragement to get people and companies to move to Austin. He wants you to start a startup in Austin (no matter where you may be at the moment), and if you have a startup, he wants you to bring it to Austin. Baer compared Austin to New York and San Francisco, calling Austin the “be-yourself” city (I can’t remember what the characterizations of the other two cities were). He said that the only choices were for the city to either grow or shrink–staying the same was not an option, and he for sure preferred growth.
Sign up for Startup Digest if interested.
If you want to hear or possibly meet Josh, check out his startup incubator and co-working space, Capital Factory.
There are numerous areas in East Austin that (even if they could be called hipsterfied) are very enjoyable to visit. The area around the combination bookstore/boutique Domy Books and adjacent food trailer Shhmaltz(which is actually vegetarian, mostly vegan) is great. I know the New York Times has written about this area, but I discovered it before they did.
South Congress, which has the very famous Magnolia Café (open 8 days a week, 24 hours per day), has vintage shops, the renowned Allan Boot Shop, bookstores, coffee-shops, and is just sort of fun. South First has great places for food especially.
The Manor Road area of East Austin has the Thunderbird Coffee Shop, Chilitos (excellent Mexican food, and I think I am qualified to judge given how many trips to Mexico I have made), in.gredients (a food store with no packaged foods–bring your own containers), Salvage Vanguard Theatre (count on this place for avant-garde of different sorts), and some crummy-looking apartment buildings too. It’s probably a textbook case of gentrification, but it’s fun.
The University area has, as you might guess, the University of Texas at Austin, a large and beautiful campus on the edge of downtown. This is a place where lots of cultural events happen as well. The Blanton Museum (art, and occasional experimental music), the Harry Ransom Center, music halls, theatres, lecture halls, libraries, and more. The area around the university has cheap and good food places, and Caffe Medina is a nice coffee-shop.
Hyde Park and North Loop are just pleasant places, and with cool spots like Pharas Lebanese Restaurant.
(There are so many places–just Google if I didn’t link it.)
Lakeway Mozart’s Roasters is a coffee-shop directly situated on a lake. You can sit on the patio almost at lakeside. Other than for the fact that it’s hard to plug in your laptop, it’s easy to sit there all day. Next to Mozart’s is another restaurant (name escapes me) that also has great lakeside views and patio seating.
Leaving this area one day, I saw a deer scamper across the road. Bad for drivers, but an amazing sight.
Speaking of which, Austin has a bus and light rail system, which are moderately useful in some cases, but you will be restricted without a car. Car2Go might be an option. Lots of people cycle everywhere, even in the hottest days of the summer. The hot, direct sun means that even in April you should be well-prepared with water if you set out on a walk.
One consequence of a rather low-density city is that there are many single-family homes with beautiful yards. Or there are just open spaces with plants. So in the right neighborhood, walking around can be very enjoyable.
Walking, jogging, cycling along both the north and south shores of Lady Bird Lake is great. Getting to Zilker Park means that you have a very large green space to enjoy, with a miniature train that will take you around the park. This is the site of Austin City Limits, which plays for two weekends in October.
One gorgeous spot to visit in South Austin is the Lady Bird Wildflower Center. If you are too young or not-American enough to know, Lady Bird Johnson, the wife of president Lyndon Johnson (the guy who took over after Kennedy was shot), led campaigns to beautify the nation’s highways. This center is a fitting tribute to her work (“Where flowers bloom, so does hope”). The various wildflowers are interspersed with Texas botany and history, and there are beautiful trails to walk.
- Domy Books
- BookPeople–I liked it, although I have read it’s a pretentious hipster hangout (can’t say I noticed with all the books, and they have interesting authors like Daniel Handler coming to read).
- Half-Price Books–Like you might expect.
- Brave New Books–OK, this is not exactly a recommendation, but if you have a strong hankering to visit a libertarian bookstore, here you go. Based on the posters and the book selection, I think this is a fair characterization. Does anyone notice that adjacent conspiracy books contradict each other (because if Conspiracy1 is true, as that book swears, then there’s no way Conspiracy2 could be true too)?
All the Alamo theaters are great (well, I haven’t been to all of them), and you can order dinner and drink alcoholic beverages while watching the films. And they have very funny trailers about turning off your cellphones.
Violet Crown Theater is similar.
Museums and Favorite Places
- The Blanton Museum at the University of Austin
- The Mexic-Arte Museum
- Harry Ransom Center–This is an amazing place. My impression is that the University of Texas at Austin, for whatever reason, is a well-funded place, and this center must be also (it was endowed by its namesake). They have archives and collections and artifacts from all over the world, most of which have no relationship to Texas. Dorothea Lang’s photographs, the Dylan Thomas collection, a Gutenberg Bible–these are just a few of the things that the Harry Ransom Center houses. And, unbelievably, the staff assured me that these collections are accessible by the public for the most part. So, double-check, but look up some of their incredibly rich offerings, and see if that alone is not enough to make you want to visit. The Harry Ransom Center does periodic exhibitions of some of their artifacts, and these are free to the public, with scheduled guided tours if desired.
- Bob Bullock Museum–History of Texas
- Mozart Roasters
- Dominican Joe
- Caffe Medici
- Fair Bean
- Epoch Coffee
Oh yes, see the bats. Or take a bat cruise on the lake at sunset (I didn’t do this, but it seems a more efficient use of time). Take a boat cruise on the lake during the day. Go to SXSW Eco in October (three days of really smart, geeky people informing you about ecological science and policy); this is not the regular SXSW, but a smaller conference run by the same company. For sure, I’d go to the standard March SXSW anytime if I got free tickets; even if it has become so commercialized, there are always speakers I’d love to hear. Go to Tantra Coffeehouse in San Marcos. See the “Hi, how are you” frog by Daniel Johnston (and Google him if you don’t know who he is).
I think people walking around neighborhoods might be considered a bit odd. I have been offered rides (and not, I don’t think, by would-be criminals) regularly when I have done this, once even by a woman police officer.
OK, these guys are weird, and just as weird if you see them in person. But, be yourself, right? And I’m glad I saw them.