My kind of place: The beating cultural heart of the Lone Star State, Austin is proudly unlike any other city in Texas, writes David Whitley.
The south by south best of Austin, Texas
It instantly feels like no other southern US city. University students are scooting around on bikes, live music is blaring from every doorway and window, and people are walking between impromptu gig venues with an unquenchable curiosity. Cars are ditched, conservative reserve is conspicuously absent and youthful, creative energy oozes into the night. Austin may be the capital of Texas, but it’s a ferocious backlash against all the state represents in easy reference, sound bite form. You’ll still see the odd wide-brimmed hat and pair of cowboy boots, but Austin’s soul is not at home on the range. This is the fastest-growing city in the US, and the people making it tick are those who want to be a part of a galloping urban culture rather than bedroom community dreariness. Visitors tend to develop fierce, instantaneous loves for the place, and with justification.
A comfortable bed
The W (www.whotelaustin.com, 001 512 542 3600) marries location and attitude – it’s downtown and eagerly embraces the city’s energetic spirit. Rock-star photos adorn the walls, bright feature walls perk the rooms up and the outdoor pool area is made for afternoon lounging. Rooms start at US$330 (Dh1,213).
More laid-back and with plenty of old-style southern charm, the Hotel Ella (www.hotelella.com, 001 512 495 1800) is a gracefully converted mansion with wonderfully comfy beds at the University of Texas end of downtown. Doubles start at $309 (Dh1,136).
The nearby Austin Folk House (www.austinfolkhouse.com, 001 866 472 6700) offers a homely B&B option, with childlike art on the walls, antique furniture and rug-covered wooden floors. Rooms cost from $109 (Dh400).
Find your feet
This is very much a city of going with the flow rather than specific sightseeing obligations, but starting on South Congress Avenue for a nosy walk past its weird-embracing shops and people-watching cafes is a good start. Head north through the city to the striking red granite Texas State Capitol building (www.tspb.state.tx.us, 001 512 463 5495). In typical Texan style, they made it slightly taller than the national Capitol in Washington. The free tours inside are worth taking – they give an insight into how such a huge building was designed for a hot climate before the days of air conditioning.
Nearby is the Bullock State History Museum (www.thestoryoftexas.com, 001 512 936 8746), which charts the turbulent Spanish, French, Mexican and independent republic eras of Texas before it reached statehood, and the effect of the rancher lifestyle and oil boom afterwards.
The most gripping history lesson, however, comes after walking past the University of Texas’s gigantic football stadium and into the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library (www.lbjlibrary.org, 001 512 721 0200). It tells the story not just of one native Texan who became president in the most unfortunate circumstances following the Kennedy assassination, but of a tumultuous and transformative era for both the country and the world.
Meet the locals
The stalwart of Austin’s exceptional music scene is Austin City Limits – the longest-running music TV show in the US. Free tickets for recordings at the Moody Theatre (www.acl-live.com, 001 512 225 7999) are given out via an online lottery.
Book a table
To plump for fine dining here is to thunderously miss the point. Going casual reaps the greatest rewards.
Austin does succumb to its Texas roots when it comes to barbecued meats. The best tend to be found at scruffy, egalitarian joints, but Downtown’s happy medium of quality and class comes at Lambert’s (www.lambertsaustin.com, 001 512 494 1500). At lunch, two meats – try the brown-sugar-and-coffee-rubbed brisket plus achiote-and-lime-rubbed chicken – plus two sides cost $16 (Dh59). Z’Tejas (www.ztejas.com, 001 512 388 7772) offers a wondrous introduction to south-western cuisine – the $21.95 (Dh81) “voo doo” tuna with spicy soy mustard and pickled ginger is an inventive diversion from the region’s taco and burrito norm.
Austin’s individuality shines through in its shopping. Forget the malls and head down the glorious cavalcade of weirdness that is South Congress Avenue. Uncommon Objects (www.uncommonobjects.com; 001 512 442 4000) is a mind-blowing procession of addictively browsable uselessness, but everything in this pseudo-antiques shop is a discussion starter. Why not buy an Abraham Lincoln bust, pig skull, set of vintage Scrabble tiles or stuffed mink?
A few doors down, the delightfully engrossing Tesoros Trading Company (www.tesoros.com; 001 512 447 7500 vigorously globetrots, selling everything from Vietnamese twisted silk scarves to loveably garish Colombian bags.
What to avoid
Austin’s rise to the zenith of cool has largely come on the back of its festival scene. The South by Southwest music, arts and technology festival (www.sxsw.com) in March is the biggest driver, while the Austin City Limits festival, over two weekends in October, is coming up on the rails. If you’re not coming for a festival, however, check the dates of such events – accommodation prices can inflate to horrendous levels.
Anywhere aiming for the title of best urban swimming pool in the world has to top the 1.21-hectare Barton Springs Pool (www.austintexas.gov/department/barton-springs-pool, 001 512 867 3080). It has drop dead-gorgeous city views, a diving board monopolised by peacock-strutting students and a constant, spring-fed, 20-degree temperature.
Emirates (www.emirates.com; 600 55 55 55) flies direct to Dallas from Dubai, with economy class return flights costing from Dh5,595. Austin is around three hours’ drive south of Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.
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