It’s best to know going in that Austin is a state of mind – or more specifically, a playlist.
Austin first won my heart with the Outlaw movement, when musical compadres Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings fled Nashville to create their Hill Country hippie/country hybrid sound with hits like “Luckenbach, Texas” and “Bob Wills Is Still the King.”
Before I ever set foot on South Congress Avenue or dipped a toe in Barton Springs, I knew the place through the homespun, heartfelt music of Texas rebels like Doug Sahm (“Mendocino”), Guy Clark (“L.A. Freeway”), Jerry Jeff Walker (“Hill Country Rain”), Townes Van Zandt (“Pancho and Lefty”), Asleep at the Wheel (‘Boogie Back to Texas”), Bruce Robison (“12 Bar Blues”) and Stevie Ray Vaughn (“Cold Shot”).
I’d suggest you Google any or all of these amazing songs before you deplane at Austin-Bergstrom International (ABIA), just to acclimate yourself to the local vibe. It will help explain the bumper stickers that serve as the town’s official motto: Keep Austin Weird.
You’ll have little trouble entertaining yourself whichever way you wander in what’s known politically as “the blueberry in the tomato soup” that is Texas. Having spent a couple recent years living there, I can highly recommend these 10 journeys into the heart of Austin.
The Broken Spoke: This revered Texas dancehall on South Lamar is Austin personified; friendly, funny and filled with two-steppin’ mischief every night.
Lady Bird Lake hike-and-bike trail: You’ll probably return several times to enjoy the turtles, herons, hikers, bikers, the famous Stevie Ray Vaughn statue and those wonderful views of downtown from across the lake.
Sunset at the Oasis on Lake Travis: The state’s largest outdoor restaurant earns its nickname “The Sunset Capital of Texas” nightly from its perch 450 feet above Lake Travis west of town. The 30,000-square-foot Oasis can accommodate groups up to 2,500.
University of Texas/Blanton Museum of Art: Cap off a campus stroll with an equally eye-catching swing through the Blanton, where visiting collections run a wide gamut.
Comal Tubes, New Braunfuls: The easily-accessible, spring-fed Comal River is crystal clear and 72 degrees year-round. Spend an hour or two gently floating down the lazy river on an oversize plastic tube, then hop the free shuttle back and repeat until relaxed.
6th Street: Austin’s legendary, college-centric downtown nightclub district can be intoxicating. Literally. Best to leave the rental and walk this stretch. While you’re there, stop into…
The Driskill: If you see no other building in Austin, be sure to step inside this 1886 showplace hotel, where President Lyndon Johnson courted Lady Bird and state legislators installed a special hidden staircase for amorous callers (I think it’s been repurposed).
Threadgill’s: This south side music joint has been keeping Austin weird since 1933. See the best in local and touring alt-rock and Americana bands. Special treat: Sunday mornings feature live gospel music.
Nutty Brown Café: If you like your alt-country served with a side of Tex-Mex, get thee to this landmark outdoor bar, restaurant and concert venue on the way to Dripping Springs. BTW, the frito pie is killer.
The Congress Avenue bats: OK, bear with me here. Beneath the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge lies an upside-down colony of roughly 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats. On summer nights beginning around sunset, the bats take flight, and it’s quite a tourist sight. For a most memorable happy hour, visit one of the outdoor hotel lounges near the bridge. (Hint: you’ll be glad you’re on the north side of the bridge. You’re welcome.)
Photo credits: Shutterstock. Star and 6th St. sign by Alfie Photography / Shutterstock.com