Austin was a tiny community on the verdant banks of the (Texas) Colorado River when Mirabeau B. Lamar, president of the Republic, suggested in 1839 that it would make a better capital than swampy and disease-ridden Houston. Early building had to be done under armed guard, while angry Comanche watched from the surrounding hills, but despite its perilous location, the city thrived.
These days it wears its status as state capital lightly. Since the 1960s, this laid-back and progressive city – an anomaly in Texas – has been a haven for artists, musicians, and writers, and many visitors come specifically for the music. And while a certain complacency has crept in, its "alternative" edge being packaged as just another marketing tool, artists hungry for fame are still attracted to this creative hotbed. Local musicians are renowned for their innovative reworkings of Texas' country, folk, and R&B heritage, using Austin's enthusiastic environment as a springboard to national recognition.
Due to a sizeable tech-fueled population leap, brand-new towering condo complexes have shot up to threaten Austin's small-town ambiance. Still, it remains one of the best cities in the state for cycling (Lance Armstrong lives here), and the presence of the vast and pretty University of Texas campus adds to the pleasant atmosphere. Within the city limits a great park system offers numerous hiking and biking trails and a wonderful spring-fed swimming pool. Looking further afield, Austin makes a fine base for exploring the green Hill Country that rolls away to the west.
Austin is a place where business professionals, artists, musicians, filmmakers and students all bring their passions to life. Even with its population growing rapidly, this city continues to welcome new residents with open arms. Over the past few years, several national magazines have touted Austin as a top place to live.
To experience "The Live Music Capital" of the world, Sixth Street is a good place to start. Often closed to vehicle traffic on the weekends, this street is lined with dance clubs, live music venues, eateries and street musicians, plus several tattoo and piercing shops. Visitors can have their tarot cards read by a gypsy on a street corner, or buy handmade jewelry from artists and hippies. Grab a slice of pizza at Roppolo's when the munchies take over; or, if a Cajun meal is what you're after, Roux & Parish serves up Louisiana cooking and great mixed drinks. Music fills the air in this area every night of the week, and visitors can hear everything from country to hip-hop, blues to noise-pop.
If you venture north on Red River Street, you'll find some of Austin's best live music venues. Emo's, Stubb's and Red Eyed Fly all reside here.
The Capitol Building
Built in 1856 and 1857, the Capitol Complex Visitor Center is the oldest remaining state office building in Texas. In 1997, it underwent an enormous restoration and extension. Inside the Capitol Building , there is an exhibit chronicling the restoration, where visitors can view a 20-minute film narrated by Walter Cronkite, titled Lone Star Legacy: A History of the Capitol. The Capitol is a Renaissance Revival-style building made of Texas pink granite and native limestone, overlooking Congress Avenue . Guided tours are free and provide interesting information and anecdotes for visitors. Make sure to stand in the center of the Rotunda, look up, take notice of the Texas star and enjoy the beautiful architecture.
As you are heading south on Congress Avenue , stop by the Austin Museum of Art and check out their collection of 20th-century artwork. Or, if you are in the mood to shop for unique gifts, visit Tesoros Trading Company , where you will find a large selection of Mexican and Latin American jewelry, folk art, amulets and collectibles. Many locals buy their Day of the Dead supplies here, as well as Peruvian good luck charms and Latin American Christmas ornaments.
As you travel further on South Congress and cross Lake Austin, you'll encounter a whole new environment. Starting with Güero's Taco Bar , you will notice that South Austin has a different kind of energy - relaxed and funky. Here, you will find antique shops, retro resale shops, vintage clothing and folk art. Stop by Terra Toys to check out their collection of tin soldiers and chemistry sets, then head over to Texas French Bread for soup and a sandwich.
Zilker Park is a 400-acre park home to natural, spring-fed Barton Springs Pool , a miniature train that circles the park for children to ride, a giant playscape, picnic grounds, rugby and soccer fields, a disc golf course and canoe and kayak rentals. At Christmas time, one of the city's moonlight towers serves as the trunk for the Zilker Park Christmas Tree. Thousands of colored lights are strung to form the shape, and each year locals and visitors twirl around underneath the enormous structure.
Enjoy a number of musical, dance and theater events at the Zilker Hillside Theatre , where the Austin Shakespeare Festival is held each year. Or, visit the Zilker Botanical Gardens , where visitors spend the better part of a day enjoying the cactus, succulents, roses, butterflies and special gardens - all for free.
Originally an African-American community half a mile outside of the city limits, Clarksville remains a melting pot of art and culture. Houses have increased greatly in price due to the location of the neighborhood and all it has to offer. Jeffrey's resides here, a restaurant for fine dining. You may also enjoy a visit to Nau's Enfield Drug , where you can order an old fashioned malt.
The strip of business along Guadalupe Street, bordering the University of Texas , is lovingly called "The Drag." Many of Austin's coolest shops are here, including the Sound Exchange (CD's, records and tapes). Stop by the outdoor Renaissance Market , where you will find jewelry, clothing and gifts made by Austin artisans. If you're looking for live music any night of the week, head down to the Hole in the Wall . This small dive hosts live music seven nights a week, with free Sunday night shows. The back room is full of pool tables and pinball games, and the crowd features many regular customers. Walk a few more blocks and you'll stumble upon Vulcan Video offering rare cult films and indie classics for rental.
Take a leisurely walk or drive through this Central Austin neighborhood and view its historic homes. You will likely see many residents working in their yards, walking pets or riding bikes. Duval Road runs through the neighborhood and is home to the vegetarian restaurant Mother's Cafe and the popular Hyde Park Grill . This unique area, the city's first planned suburb, has its own small grocery store, and boasts a theatre in its name - Hyde Park Theatre . Stop by Dolce Vita Gelate and Espresso Bar for sweet Italian ice cream or check out Quack's 43rd Street Bakery for a cappuccino and a homemade muffin.
Visitors often think they will only find a plethora of Tex-Mex and barbecue restaurants in Austin. While these abound, you will also find a good selection of Japanese, Middle Eastern, Thai, Italian and vegetarian restaurants. Of course, this is only a sample of the diversity of food this town has to offer.
Austinites love to be comfortable and breathe fresh air; only some of the finer dining establishments enforce a dress code. This is a clean-air city, so most restaurants are completely smoke-free; if there happens to be a smoking section, it is usually outside. When inside the city limits, you will not be asked “smoking or non-smoking?” but if you venture to the outskirts of town, most restaurants do have designated smoking sections.
If you are downtown, try Manuel's for fine Mexican food or Clay Pit for a contemporary Indian dining experience. Hickory Street Bar and Grill is a popular downtown destination, not far from the Capitol on Congress Avenue , known for its outdoor patio dining, extensive salad selection and weekend brunches. Stop by the Elephant Room for drinks and a variety of live jazz music. For a more upscale drinking atmosphere try Speakeasy , which along with live music, offers swing dance lessons and musical standards from the 30s and 40s. Visitors and locals alike seem to enjoy the view of downtown from the rooftop deck.
Not too far from downtown is the Clarksville District , filled with upscale restaurants, vegetarian establishments, bistros, bakeries and more. Castle Hill Cafe offers a rotating menu of worldly gourmet dishes. Jeffrey's is popular among the upscale dinning crowd for its culinary panache. Visit Sweetish Hill Bakery for a variety of sandwiches, homemade soups, salads and pastries. Or, for an old-fashioned drugstore experience, stop by Nau's Enfield Drug for a hamburger and a malt shake. With a booming take-out business, Pok-e-Jo's Smokehouse serves mesquite-smoked and barbecued meats, including pork, beef, sausage, pork loin, ribs, chicken and turkey.
South Austin is home to Barton Springs Road, which houses a row of restaurants spanning several blocks. Romeo's offers Italian cuisine in a casual romantic setting. Indoor and outdoor seating is available at Shady Grove where they serve hamburgers, Frito Pie, chili and Hippie Sandwiches for vegetarians. Chuy's has become somewhat of an Austin institution when it comes to Tex-Mex food. The colorful atmosphere offers an entertaining option for families or out of town guests. On South Congress, Guero's Taco Bar offers a Tex-Mex/Mexican dining experience and an occasional celebrity spotting. Threadgill's offers diner-style entree options such as chicken-fried steak and meatloaf. Jovita's , located on South First Street, has played host to country music's Don Walser and offers tasty Tex-Mex food.
The Warehouse District offers several upscale options, as well as casual, laid-back eateries. Malaga's Wine and Tapas Bar showcases an extensive wine menu and serves tapas with a Spanish flair. Sullivan's serves Hollywood stars and politicos top-quality steak with an air of confidence. Spaghetti Warehouse offers steaks and pasta dishes, and is a good choice for when you're looking for a dinning spot that's a little more casual. If you're looking for an Irish pub, look no further than Fado . You'll often find Gaelic football on the television and a menu filled with Irish-inspired appetizers. For a mellow pub experience, stop by Ghost Room , where you can sip on a beer in the couch-filled bar area. Need a cup of coffee? Head to Ruta Maya Coffee House , Austin's original coffeehouse, brewing coffee produced in Latin America and offering poetry readings and occasional live music. Oilcan Harry's is a large bar and dance floor playing host to Austin's diverse gay community, although the straight set can also often be found dancing the night away.
Not too far from the downtown area lies the neighborhood of Hyde Park , boasting a small cluster of wonderful places to dine, drink and grab your morning cup of coffee. Quack's 43rd Street Bakery offers a good selection of baked goods and a welcoming atmosphere in which to enjoy your cup of tea or coffee. For an exquisite dessert and liquor date indulge in Dolce Vita Gelato and Espresso Bar . Mother's Cafe and Garden offers vegetarian, lowfat and vegan menu items in a casual environment. Sit inside and enjoy the music, or head out to the peaceful patio, with its small fishpond and lush greenery. Hyde Park Bar & Grill is a bit more upscale in decor, but is famous for its Texas take on battered fries served the European way. ASTI Trattoria , with its modern design, is the newest addition to this area of Hyde Park. Specializing in dishes from Northern Italy, it offers delicious and creative desserts and upscale service.
Austin is full of places to see and experiences to be had. Most longtime residents still have yet to see all the beauty Austin has to offer. Whether you are a nature lover, an art lover or a music lover, there is plenty for you to explore.
Texas State Capitol Start with a visit to the Capitol Complex Visitors Center , where you will find information on the Texas State Capitol and all that goes on under its roof. Nearby sits the Greek Revival-style Governor's Mansion where the Governor of Texas has lived since 1856. Once you walk back to Congress Avenue you will find a number of shops, eateries and businesses. Grab a snack at the Old Lundberg Bakery and Emporium or a cup of coffee at Little City .
Paramount Theater Take in an evening performance at the State Theater Company or the historic Paramount Theatre . The Austin Museum of Art and Mexic-Arte Museum offer the chance to view fine national and international artwork in a non-pretentious environment. Grab some great Tex-Mex at Manuel's Downtown .
East Sixth Street The East Sixth Street area is filled with interesting things to see and do. If you're lucky, you may get to stroll along Annual Pecan Street Arts Festival or venture inside the tattoo parlors, boutiques and restaurants, including Roux and Mekong River .
The O. Henry Museum The O. Henry House Museum is located in the cottage where the famous writer himself lived. A good spot to have lunch in this area is Mr. Natural or Azul. Nearby, the Colorado River turns into Town Lake; some will refer to it as Lake Austin, but it is all the same body of water. Capital Cruises offers romantic evening dinner cruises, paddleboat rentals for the family, and canoes and kayaks for rent.
University of Texas To see the University of Texas at Austin head on over to the Visitor's Information Center offers a guided campus tour; you are also welcome to wander around the campus on your own. Parking spots are scarce, so either park your vehicle and walk, ride a bike or take the bus. Lyndon B. Johnson Library houses 45 million historical documents and offers year-round exhibits from the Johnson era. The Drag (Guadalupe Street) borders the university and offers a plethora of shopping and dinning experiences. One of those options include the excellent Ruby's BBQ .
There are many tour companies that operate in Austin. It is always helpful to have an experienced guide to show you around, and there are many different ways to go about seeing the city.
Walking Tours University of Texas Campus Tours ( +1 512 471 1988/ http://www.utexas.edu/student/admissions/services/tours.html ) Austin Promenade Tours ( +1 512 498 4686 ) Austin Steam Trains ( +1 512 477 8468/ http://www.austinsteamtrain.org/ ) Austin Ghost Tours ( +1 512 853 9826/ http://www.austinghosttours.com/ ) University of Texas Tower Tours ( +1 512 475 6633/ http://www.utexas.edu/tower/ )
Boat Tours Capital Cruises ( +1 512 480 9264/ http://www.capitalcruises.com/ ) Town Lake Tours ( +1 512 480 9264 ) Lone Star Riverboat ( +1 512 327 1388/ http://www.lonestarriverboat.com/ )
Carriage Tours Austin Carriage Service ( +1 512 243 0044/ http://www.austincarriage.com/ ) Die Gelbe Rose Carriage Tours ( +1 512 477 8824/ http://www.diegelberosecarriage.net/ )
Historical Tours Austin Promenade Tours ( +1 512 498 4686 )
Diving Tours Clearwater Divers ( +1 512 452 6990/ http://www.io.com/clearwater-divers/?clkd=iwm )
Adventure Tours Austin Duck Adventures ( +1 512 477 5274/ http://www.austinducks.com/ )
Train Tours Hill Country Flyer ( +1 512 477 8468/ http://www.austinsteamtrain.org/ ) Austin Steam Trains ( +1 512 477 8468/ http://www.austinsteamtrain.org/ )
Ghost Tours Austin Ghost Tours ( +1 512 853 9826/ http://www.austinghosttours.com/ )
Segway Tours Austin Segway Tour ( +1 512 495 9250/ http://www.glidingrevolution.com/ )