This installment in my series of insider guides to wonderful places to visit in the United States focuses on Austin, capital of the great State of Texas. The author is my new public diplomacy officer Jessica Rowland, who just arrived in New Zealand last week from Hermosillo, Mexico. (Jessica is relatively new to the State Department, and the Auckland Consulate General is just her second posting.) Born and raised in beautiful Austin, Jessica is a proud Texan and passionate raconteur. I know you’ll enjoy her insights and advice about her unique hometown.
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Welcome to Austin, Y’all! by Jessica Rowland
Texans are known for their state pride, and I am no different. Seven generations on my father’s side of the family have called Texas home, and while Texans are known to boast, I can tell you that there is a good reason that most who decide to come to Texas end up staying for awhile. Texas provides beautiful landscapes, a rich history, cultural diversity, and a laidback lifestyle. In my mind, there is no better place to begin a Texas adventure than its capital, and my hometown, Austin.
Nestled in the beautiful Hill Country of Texas, Austin is a town that will surprise you. The city is hidden gem that has grown from its roots as a quirky university town into a bustling technological capital.
It’s got something for everyone … world-class music festivals, culinary delights, a dynamic art scene, fun nightlife, and a wide variety of sports and outdoor activity. Just like elsewhere in Texas, things here are super-sized and super-charged.
To understand the Texas bravado, you need to know a bit about its history. In the 1820s, Mexico gained its independence from Spain and allowed settlers from the United States to populate the area known today as Texas. In 1836, Texas gained independence from Mexico creating the Republic of Texas. Austin was originally settled as Waterloo in 1837, but it soon was re-named Austin after Stephen F. Austin, considered the father of Texas, and was named the capital of the Republic.
Texas remained an independent nation until 1845, when it entered the United States by treaty. As the only State to enter the United States by treaty, and the only state to have been its own independent Republic, Texas has the only capitol building that is taller than the U.S. Capitol (and in fact is the largest of the 50 statehouses). It is also of note that Texas is the only State that is allowed to fly its flag at the same height as the American Flag.
At its heart, Austin is a college town, home to the highly regarded University of Texas at Austin with more than 38,000 undergraduate students and 12,000 graduate students.
With the largest endowment of any public university in the country, UT’s ample funding has allowed it to excel in nearly every academic area while remaining affordable to students. It is consistently ranked among the top public universities in the United States.
But this college town and its residents are anything but sleepy or sedate. Notable residents have included film directors Wes Anderson and Robert Rodriguez, actresses Sandra Bullock and Renee Zellweger, and cyclist and philanthropist Lance Armstrong. Many movies have been filmed in Austin, but one film that captured part of the special spirit of Austin was Dazed and Confused, a cult comedy which follows a group of teenagers on their last days of high school in Austin. D&C launched the careers of Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, and Parker Posey.
Some historical heavyweights also called Austin home, including 38th President Lyndon Baines Johnson who was responsible for some of the most comprehensive social reforms in U.S. history and successfully advocated for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In Texas, we are very proud of LBJ, and his Presidential library and museum are housed at the University of Texas. Currently under re-design, the library is a powerful resource for historians and fascinating excursion for history buffs.
Today metro Austin is home to approximately 1.7 million people. It’s a high tech capital and is known as “Silicon Hills.” Dell has its headquarters here, as do hundreds of software development firms, major players in social media and digital interactive arts, and many pharmaceutical and biotechnology start-ups. Forbes magazine rated it as the #1 big city for jobs in 2012.
But Austin isn’t just notable for his 21st Century economy. It is consistently ranked at the top of “the best place to live” lists compiled by numerous publications. In fact, Austin’s environmentally sensitive development initiatives, a strict no-smoking ordinance that applies to all public and work places (including restaurants and cafes), the large amount of urban green space, and many miles of bike trails have earned Austin recognition as the “Greenest City in America.” It is no accident the headquarters of Whole Foods, an international grocery chain focused on organic products, is headquartered in Austin.
What makes Austin so special, though, is its people. And don’t just take my word for it. Travel & Leisure magazine ranked Austin #1 on the list of cities with the “best people,” judged on the personalities and attributes of its citizens. I don’t quite know how a magazine can reach such a conclusion, but we’ll take it.
Much of our dynamism comes from our diversity. Austin’s population is 48% non-Latino Caucasian, 29% of Mexican heritage, 6% other Hispanic/Latino, 8% African American, 6% Asian, 1% American Indian, and 2% other. There is a substantial Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community. A significant portion of the population self-identifies as more than one race.
The heart and soul of Austin is in the music, and the city is widely known as the “Live Music Capital of the World.” There are more than 200 live-music venues in town, and rock ‘n roll, blues, jazz, country, and R&B emanate year-round from clubs, music halls, and beer joints housed in Victorian buildings and old warehouses. Hubs of particularly vibrant activity are the Sixth Street and Warehouse Districts.
One of my favorite pastimes in Austin is walking the entertainment districts to discover new local artists, and then seeing them perform. What makes Austin most special to me is this vibrant local music scene where musicians can earn a good living just from playing music. Many of my friends in Austin chose this path, and I love to go home and see them perform. It’s no surprise that this environment launched the the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Willie Nelson, Los Lonely Boys, indie rock favorites like Spoon, and countless others.
Austin also hosts numerous music festivals which draw huge crowds. The famous South by Southwest Music and Media Festival (a.k.a. SXSW) is one of the biggest music showcases anywhere, drawing more than 1,500 musicians from around the world every other March. SXSW also includes a film festival and an interactive media festival which draw leaders in entertainment and the digital arts.
My personal favorite of the music festivals is the 3-day Austin City Limits Music Festival held each September or October. The festival’s six stages provide morning-to-late-night music from headliners like Coldplay and Kayne West to Florence + the Machine to local bluegrass/country-folk acts like the South Austin Jug Band. The festival has its roots in the TV show of the same name, a Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) live music program that has been filmed at an Austin studio since 1976. It’s the only TV show to have been awarded a National Medal of Arts. If you’re in Austin during a show, you should try to get tickets to a studio taping. It’s an experience not to be missed!
Austin entertainment and culture, though, is not just about music. The city has a blizzard of regular festivals and special events year-round that stimulate every interest and taste. There are too many to list, so I’ll mention a few favorites just to give you a sense of the diversity …
… the O’Henry House Museum’s annual O’Henry Pun Off in which competitors do battle with their wit … Carnaval Brasileiro, one of the largest carnaval festivals outside of Brazil … the Austin Reggae Festival (yes, that’s music but also culture) … Eeyore’s birthday, a non-profit fundraiser where guests attend in costume to celebrate the iconic Winnie the Pooh character’s fictional birthday … and the Pandemonious Potted Pork Festival (a.k.a. Spamarama).
We’re proud of the ecclectic environment that all that creativity and diversity creates. And we say it like it is. No pretentious slogans here. Just straight Texas talk. We’re a bit weird, and we intend to stay that way.
The Keep Austin Weird campaign was launched more than a decade ago by the Austin Independent Business Alliance to promote small businesses, and the phrase has been embraced by much of the population. You’ll see the t-shirts, signs, and themed events throughout the city. The phrase has become Austin’s unofficial motto.
One of my favorite keeping-it-weird neighborhoods is South Congress, commonly known as SoCo. Just south of the central business district, the SoCo district is filled with with vintage shops, chic clothing and jewellery boutiques, cafes, coffee shops, and a large number of unique dining options.
I have too many favorites to mention, but Uncommon Objects and several of the eateries are worth note. If you like antiques, non-traditional furniture, old books, and miscellaneous oddities, then you’ll really enjoy UO and its environs.
After an afternoon of power-shopping, you’ll want to check out the tastes of Texas. Be adventurous, don’t confine yourself to white table cloths indoors, and do plan to mix-and-match for maximum pleasure. You can sample everything from fusion delights like Mexi-Korean tacos to gourmet doughnuts (covered with fried chicken and honey butter) to a healthy salad.
Yes, like most cities, Austin contains world-class, upscale restaurants, but locals like me tend to hit the cafes, family-run eateries, and one or more of the nearly 2,000 mobile food sellers. Both the culinary fleet and the outdoor dining options shouldn’t be missed.
True to its roots, you can find amazing authentic Mexican cuisine as well as Tex-Mex offerings in Austin. I would strongly suggest that you devote several of the meals during your visit to exploring the Mexican food landscape.
My own personal favorite place to go is Guero’s Taco Bar in south Austin. The location was originally a feed store in the 1800s, and it was turned into an amazing taqueria in the 1990s. Even if you’re only in town briefly, you need to visit Guero’s (and tell them I sent you). Every dish is outstanding, but they are particularly famous for their tacos al pastor.
I love Guero’s, but when I come home for a visit there is nothing I want more than a heaping plate of Texas BBQ. We’re a cattle State, and we have five distinct styles for barbequing our beef — East Texas (marinated in sweet tomato and cooked slow over hickory wood), Central Texas (rubbed with spices and cooked indirectly over pecan or oakwood), West Texas or cowboy style (cooked directly over mesquite), South Texas (with thick, molassessy sauces), and Deep South Texas or barbacoa style (covered with maguey leaves and cooked in a hole in the ground).
There’s only one place that I want to go, though: The Salt Lick. Located in a beautiful ranch setting in Driftwood, just outside the Austin city limits, The Salt Lick has for years consistently won “best BBQ” awards for its high-quality meat and unique sauce. Most recently it was named the winner of the Today Show’s BBQ Challenge Competition. If you can’t make it out to the restaurant, you can sample Salt Lick BBQ right in the Austin airport.
With all the good food around, you’ll need to get out and burn some calories. Fortunately, Austin enjoys on average more than 300 days of sunshine each year, so you can enjoy outdoor activities whenever you like (or need) it. No excuses.
The city itself is filled with bike trails, beautiful parks, three large lakes perfect for water sports, and natural spring-fed swimming pools. Just outside the city limits are rocky ridges popular with rock climbers, as well as more lakes and wonderfully secluded swimming holes.
With all that open green space comes abundant wildlife. Austin’s wildlife habitats and the surrounding hills are teeming with animals, including white-tailed deer, foxes, coyotes, raccoons, ringtails, opossums, rabbits, squirrels, porcupines, wild turkeys, numerous species of butterflies, and more.
In terms of keeping it weird, the standout among Austin’s fauna is the armadillo, a wonderfully odd little armored mammal (called the turtle-rabbit by the Aztecs). It’s the region’s unofficial mascot, and you’ll see it whimsically represented everywhere … artworks, toys, games, T-shirts, jewelry, and even Austin’s free urban trolleys, known as the ‘Dillo. Unfortunately, you’ll probably see quite a few along the highways as roadkill.
Another Austin standout is the bat. The city is home to the largest urban bat colony in North America, and its Mexican free-tailed bats have become a major tourist attraction. It’s definitely a sight worth seeing, and not one you’ll soon forget.
Every evening from March through late October people gather at dusk on and around the Ann Richards Congress Avenue Bridge to watch a black cloud of more than 1.5 million bats stream out from under the bridge and fly away for their nightly feast of mosquitoes and other insects. You can also view the bats from a boat under the bridge, but you’ll want to wear a poncho if you choose that viewing option.
Austin is the only major city in the United States without a professional sports team, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find action. There are a lot of great spectator options, including home-grown sports entertainments.
For example, Austin is considered the birthplace of all-women’s flat track roller derby. The Texas Roller Girls were formed in 2003, and other cities quickly caught on, leading to a resurgence of the sport made popular in the 1970s. With team names like the “Hotrod Honeys” and “Honky-Tonk Heartbreakers,” you know you will be in for a fun time.
And I can’t write about Texas sports without mentioning football. American football is close to a religion in the State, and you can see high school play that we think matches some pro teams in fierce intensity, passion, and skill.
Of course, Austin’s home team is the University Texas Longhorns. Students, alumni, and other fans gather for games on weekends throughout the fall at the Darrell K. Royal Memorial Stadium, which has a seating capacity of more than 100,000 people. The enthusiasm at the games is inspiring, and that’s one of my favorite memories from my college days.
When the hustle and bustle of the city makes you yearn for the countryside, there are hundreds of daytrips to enjoy outside Austin. You can float down the Guadalupe River in an innertube, visit Texas’ oldest dance hall in Gruene, explore historic sites, or take in what National Geographic has dubbed several “drives of a lifetime” in the hills.
The Texas Hill Country is truly extraordinary, a rugged landscape of colorful hills and fascinating towns and villages. Escaping to the Hill Country is a favorite for Austinites, and it’s where I often went for inspiration. The number of country/western songs that reference the majestic beauty of Hill Country prove that I’m not alone in that opinion.
While I can talk for days about how great my hometown is, the rest of Texas is pretty wonderful too. There’s an enormous amount to see and do in the State, which is why we like to say, “Texas is like a whole other country.”
You can weave Austin into a wide variety of Texas itineraries … the bright lights of Dallas, oil- and culture-rich Houston, hundreds of miles of glorious Gulf coast, the Rio Grande River, Big Bend National Park, historic San Antonio, vast amounts of ranchland in west Texas, herds of longhorns, the immense Texas State Fair, hunting, fishing, deserts, mountains, and so much more.
Yes, just like a whole other country. But getting back to Austin … I’ve only talked about a few of the things that I love about my hometown. There’s a lot more for you to discover for yourself. I hope you’ll visit and see what I mean. I’ll know you’ll have a great time.
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I have been to Texas several times but have not yet had the pleasure of visiting Austin. It’s now on my list. The massive bat colony aside, the city sounds like my kind of place, and I look forward to exploring the various places and activities that Jessica has suggested.
In the meantime, though, I need to double-check a bit of history. My vague recollection from a class long ago is that there were four independent republics that entered the Union after the original 13 colonies united – Vermont, Texas, California, and Hawaii. There may be a definitional nuance that I’m missing. In any event, the California Republic (a.k.a. the Bear Flag Republic) lasted only about 26 days.
But I digress. For more information about the wonderful attractions of greater Austin and about planning a visit, see www.austintexas.org. Or just ask Jessica when you see her around Auckland over the next couple of years. She’ll happily provide more information about her hometown.