Kevin EG Perry takes in the Texan capital’s weird and wonderful sights, from urban bats to cultural icons – and, of course, its live music
It’s hard to go more than a few feet in Austin without spotting a sign or bumper sticker imploring you to ‘Keep Austin Weird’. It may be the capital of Texas, but this thriving and diverse city of nearly one million people has dedicated itself to providing an artistic and cultural alternative to the state’s mainstream. Walking around town you’ll spot statues of local heroes such as Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughan, while cult musician Daniel Johnston’s mural of Jeremiah the innocent frog – always asking: ‘Hi, How Are You?’ – has become a local icon. It’s also an easy destination to reach from the UK, with airlines including British Airways, Norwegian and American Airlines all offering direct flights from London, as well as many more options connecting through nearby Dallas-Fort Worth.
The fact that Austin remains the state capital of Texas at all is largely down to the efforts of one woman, Angelina Eberly. Take a stroll through downtown, just a couple of blocks south of the beautiful and historic Texas Capitol Building, which dates from 1885, and you’ll see a bronze statue of Mrs Eberly next to a cannon. Back in 1842 she learned of a secret plan to move the capital to Houston and decided that the best way to raise the alarm was to fire a six-pound cannon into the city’s own General Land Office Building. Her plan worked, sparking the Texas Archive War, which eventually ended with Austin remaining as state capital – and with its reputation as a city of rebellious outlaws ensured.
Live music capital
These days, Austin likes to call itself the ‘live music capital of the world’. Take a walk down Sixth Street most nights of the week and you’ll be hard-pressed to argue with this bold claim. The broad street is lined with bars and every single one of them seems to have a great band playing downstairs and another one playing on the floor above them. The resulting sound is a glorious cacophony that fills the ears and overwhelms the senses.
Incredibly, that’s just the bars. In terms of larger dedicated live music venues you’ll find that haunts around the Sixth Street/Red River area such as Beerland and Stubb’s – renowned for its Gospel Brunch – are just the start of the fun. East of the I-35 there’s a further plethora of great venues, such as the iconic Scoot Inn on East 4th Street and Navasota. These places get particularly busy during March when the annual SXSW festival comes to town, filling the city with yet-to-be-released film screenings and upcoming bands on a mission to prove themselves.
You’ll need to be well-fuelled to keep pace with the city’s bustling nightlife scene, but luckily Austin is also known as one of America’s great food cities. Along with Memphis, Carolina and Kansas City it is one of the four places to have defined its own unique barbecue style, and the city is full of joints serving up top-quality fare for meat-lovers. You’ll find plenty of food trucks offering more experimental culinary fusions, and that adventurousness has influenced Austin’s restaurant scene – check out Chi’Lantro if you feel a hankering for Korean BBQ tacos served with Kimchi fries.
Meet at the swimming hole
This being Texas, the summertime weather can be sweltering. Zilker Park is 358 acres of green oasis in the centre of the city and plays host to the Austin City Limits Music Festival in October. But the very best way to cool off is to go for a dip in the park’s Barton Springs, an open-air swimming hole. Entry is a very reasonable $9 for the whole day.
Follow the Colorado River east for a couple of miles at dusk and you’ll come across one of Austin’s most curious natural attractions. Every night during the summer, hundreds of people gather at sunset on the Congress Avenue Bridge to witness the breathtaking phenomenon of the thousands of bats that live under the bridge taking flight. Austin is home to North America’s largest urban bat population, and the sight of them leaving their perches to soar into the sky, forming a surreal black cloud over the river, is not one to be missed. Told you it was weird.
Where to stay
The Guild in South Lamar is situated close to Barton Springs and Zilker Park and provides apartment-style stays, making it a great option for groups. A one-bedroom suite sleeps four and starts from £95 a night.
Located south of the river in the lively SoCo district, the boutique South Congress Hotel is a good base for experiencing the city’s shopping and entertainment offerings. Prices start from around £150 a night.
The Driskill, Austin’s only hotel on sixth street, was built in 1886 and remains a landmark of legendary Texan hospitality, with elegant lodgings and a compelling history. Prices from £250 a night.