With around 150 people a day moving to Austin, it’s one of the fastest growing cities in America. I can see why – it’s fun, creative and, as the slogan says, residents like to “Keep Austin Weird.” The skyline is scattered with cranes, overshadowing a landscape of bars, restaurants and food trucks, which are full to overflowing.
The vibe is a mix of old hippies, musos, new tech geeks and frat boys. As one local said to me, “I’m a Lone Star beer drinkin’, music lovin’, greasy Mexican food eater.” That kind of says it all. Everyone seems to have a tattoo and the buildings are heavily painted and decorated with graffiti. The entire place is like a giant colouring book – and no one seems to be colouring within the lines.
The headquarters of the healthy supermarket chain, Whole Foods, and Dell computers, it’s this combination of different cultures, life experiences and thinking that makes Austin hum.
Patrick Terry, owner of Austin’s fast food institution, P.Terry’s Burger Stand, says Austin is a special place. “The restaurant industry in this town is fantastic and I’ve never seen anything change so quickly. People care what they eat and that’s the wonderful thing.”
Walking around the 7400-square-metre Whole Foods flagship store in downtown Austin, the space feels more like a massive restaurant than a supermarket – food shopping here is like nothing I’ve ever experienced.
Launched in Austin in 1980, Whole Foods is a national “lifestyle” brand with stores across the United States. The brand has been credited with changing up the food offerings in America. “We see more demand than ever for healthy, high-quality foods that are value priced,” says co-founder John Mackey. At lunchtime or happy hour the store transforms to a fully-fledged bar and restaurant scene. “It’s the highest-volume restaurant in Texas, or certainly in Austin,” Mackey adds.
Austin has a distinctive food culture, with a blend of Tex-Mex and barbecue. It also boasts the Texan farmer’s market emporium, Central Market – breakfast taco anyone? They are delicious and highly addictive.
Meanwhile, downtown Austin offers a wealth of entertainment and is easy to navigate on foot. On 6th Street, aka “Dirty Sixth”, you’ll find amusement from theater to sing-alongs. At the various bars and hotels you can dance to ’80s and ’90s cover bands. The district offers every live band and bar combination you can possibly imagine; these places are perfect for some stellar people watching.
I’m staying at the newly opened Westin Austin Downtown Hotel, just steps from 6th Street and all that nightlife. The Westin’s 366 rooms range from the “Traditional” to a one-bedroom suite, while the heated rooftop pool has the best city views and the bar and lounge host live music nightly.
Lights, music & art
You haven’t truly experienced Austin if you haven’t wandered up neon-heavy South Congress Avenue, with landmarks such as the 1938 Austin Motel and the 1957 Continental Club cementing this bustling strip’s reputation as the neon capital of Texas.
Austin claims to be the “Live Music Capital of the World,” thanks in part to the prevalence of live music venues and the number of up-and-coming musicians flocking to the region.
You don’t have to go far to see the range of music clubs, hipster band members or someone hawking playbills for an open-mic night. Venues such as the Broken Spoke started out as a honky-tonk and eventually hosted acts such as Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. Not to mention the once-tiny music festival South by Southwest, which has become one of the country’s largest.
Music, food, film and technology: Austin does these well, but what about a high-quality fine arts scene?
When Louis Grachos left his directorship at the 150-year-old Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, to lead the newly established Contemporary Austin, he knew he had his work cut out for him. Fine arts has been slower to gel in this thrift-store-loving, rockabilly-blaring city, despite the best efforts of long-running organisations such as the Texas Fine Arts Association.
The challenge of building an arts scene from the ground up is exactly what attracted Grachos to the Contemporary Austin, a fusion of two art centres: the Austin Museum of Art and Arthouse (formerly the Jones Center for Contemporary Art).
In 2013, the Contemporary took over the Jones Center space on Congress Avenue as well as a lakefront property called Laguna Gloria. The property is shaded by juniper, oak and cottonwood trees and watched over by a Tuscan-style villa, the former home of the late Austin art benefactor Clara Driscoll.
“One of the things I learned early about Austin is that the university culture compounded by the state government creates a very interesting demographic,” Grachos says.
But he also noticed an infectious energy spurred by such local residents as the inventive restaurateur Larry McGuire and the art-conscious hotel developer Liz Lambert (of Hotel San José and Hotel Saint Cecilia) as well as big Austin music festivals like Austin City Limits; such events attract tens of thousands of people every year.
“People who have been to Austin want to come back and those who haven’t been are interested in what’s happening,” Grachos says. “The influx of new ideas is wonderful. It’s not a city rooted in deep traditions or ways of doing things.”
Another thing Grachos noticed was an enthusiasm for nature and the organic way open-air places such as the Hope Outdoor Gallery of murals and street art grow and change. This mindset has resulted in the Contemporary Austin’s Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park at Laguna Gloria, an expanding network of sculptures connected by trails.
The most recent acquisition, in a collection that currently includes 11 pieces, is Looking Up – a 10-metre-tall humanoid fashioned from crushed baking dishes cast in steel – by conceptualist Tom Friedman. The long-legged giant peers up at the clouds and invites onlookers to do the same.
“We want to connect exciting artists and curatorial projects to this growing artist community and this young collecting community,” Grachos says. “We’d like to be an arm into the global art world that respectfully works in the community but also pushes outside of it.”
The West Campus neighbourhood offers a rich source for culture right in the heart of the state university suburb. As housing has changed in the area, a non-collegiate crowd has moved in, resulting in many new buildings and tree-lined streets, with a mix of cheap eats, cool restaurants and ethnic cafes.
True to its university roots the coffee culture is alive and well in this neighbourhood. Caffeine addicts should head to Caffe Medici on Guadalupe Street; or if it’s fair-trade and organic you’re after, try Monkey Nest Coffee on West 24th Street where you’ll also find live music at night.
If you are even more eco-conscious, Barley Bean, on Rio Grande Street, whips up hemp-milk smoothies and almond milk lattes. For afternoon tea, the Cow Tipping Creamery, also on Rio Grande Street, creates sundae-stacks in flavours like Gimme S’more and Makin’ Bacon.
While on Rio Grande Street head to the cream-puff experts at Cream Whiskers and try their signature flavours: matcha green tea and mango. If you love pie head to Royers Pie Haven on Guadalupe Street, which sells more than a dozen pies by the slice, from key lime to strawberry and rhubarb.
Close by, the pink-granite building at the centre of downtown Austin is the Texas State Capitol building. It’s the oldest surviving state office structure and a great place to learn about Texas history and the Texas legislature. Free guided tours are held daily. This is well worth visiting as the building itself is very impressive, with a four-level extension that’s entirely underground. Also worth a visit is the historic Paramount Theatre, with many of the Art Nouveau touches still in place. The theatre is now home to red-carpet movie premieres, plays, live music, ballet and stand-up comedy.
Concern for the environment seems to be in the community’s DNA; several companies in Austin have decided to focus on harnessing one of their greatest resources, sunshine, and make solar power accessible and affordable for all.
The city of Austin passed its landmark Austin Climate Protection Plan in 2007, which calls for 35 per cent of Austin Energy’s electricity generation to come from renewable sources by 2020.
The great outdoors is important to the locals, evidenced by the popularity of the Greenbelt, one of the most popular green spaces in the city, with over seven miles of trails that you can hike, run, or bike.
Another notable – and unexpected – attraction is the Congress Avenue Bridge, which plays host to the world’s largest urban bat colony. About 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats call the Congress Bridge home from spring to early autumn as they migrate north.
Each night around dusk the bats start their evening flight, and it’s bizarre to see hundreds of people line the bridge, waiting for this incredible sight. It normally starts with a single bat leaving the bridge and quickly turns into a steady flow of countless bats in search of food. There are also cruises offering bat-watching tours from a boat below the bridge.
When those long summer days come around, Lake Austin is where the locals disappear to. Barton Springs Pool, situated in the grounds of Zilker Park, is another popular go-to place in summer. Meanwhile, the oasis-like Hamilton Pool sits in a natural grotto carved out of limestone, with a 15-metre waterfall.
In true Austin style, everywhere you turn, you’re sure to find something that’s keeping Austin weird.
Top Five Austin bars
1. Easy Tiger Bakery by day, beer garden by night, Easy Tiger is a hot spot for craft brews, whiskey and soft pretzels. easytigeraustin.com
2. Lounge at Hotel San José This tranquil garden welcomes a mix of patrons who come for local beers, sangria, DJs and tarot card nights. sanjosehotel.com
3. Midnight Cowboy This brothel-turned-speakeasy mixes some of the best cocktails in town. midnightcowboy modeling.com
4. The Cloak Room Texas’ hospitality and political history make this an Austin legend.
5. Whisler’s A mezcalería and delicious delivery from the Thai-Kun food truck. whislersatx.com
Top Five Food Trucks
1. Gourdough’s Menu items, such as the Fat Elvis (bacon, peanut butter and bananas) redefine the doughnut. gourdoughs.com
2. Hey Cupcake! This food cart beckons Barton Springs swimmers with red velvet, double dose and vanilla dream flavours plus ice creams to match. heycupcake.com
3. La Barbecue La Barbecue serves smoked brisket without a five-hour wait. labarbecue.com
4. Veracruz Veracruz scores points for its gooey breakfast tacos, barely contained in homemade tortillas. veracruztacos.com
5. Via 313 The Detroit-style pizzas are so good Via 313 added a brick-and-mortar outpost. via313.com
MiNDFOOD flew to Texas with Air New Zealand. See airnewzealand.com.au.