Austin is one of the coolest cities in the world. The music scene is insane whether you are into rock, jazz, electronica or honky tonk; the people are chilled out but with that overtly friendly southern sassiness (darlin’) and the food, well, the food is absolutely Tex-mexifantastical- I dream about those taco vans every night.
Though the alterna-energy and good vibes radiating from the hot streets of the city are fed by the massive student population of the University of Texas, Austin is much, much more than a college town. It is a tiny liberal island in a vast conservative sea; a counterculture holdout echoing with the guitar wails of Janis Joplin and Stevie Ray Vaughn; a swirling, colorful home to freaks of all sorts who every day live the city’s motto and KEEP AUSTIN WEIRD.
So you are going to my town? Here’s what to do:
• Spend big bucks and stay in the Driskill Hotel, which was built in 1888 and lost by its original cattle baron owner in a poker game. Its stained glass dome and marble floors are haunted by various vendetta-seeking ghosts and you can practically smell the Texas riches that have passed through the halls; it is the aroma of fine leather, expensive cigars, and lots and lots of oil money. The Driskill is in the middle of downtown; valet your hybrid and head out into the night.
• Of course you will go to Sixth Street on the weekend and experience the firey strip of musical craziness which is often compared to New Orleans’ infamous Bourbon Street. The downtown lane, within walking distance to the University, is always packed with students, locals, travelers, musicians, and artists living it up and having a few drinks. The density of bars and clubs makes it easy to fill your ears with a wide variety of music genres and discover new sounds and bands. Sixth Street goes off each March during the South By Southwest Music Festival and on Halloween, when three to four hundred thousand revelers in outlandish costumes mob the area for a masquerade cavalcade, an open-to-all parade of partyers.
• The Green Belt runs through southern Austin, an eight-mile long creek bed sided with lush green vegetation and tall cliffs of white limestone. There are many ways to access the Belt and secret niches exist all along the water’s path for enjoying the outdoors smack in the middle of the city. Cut out of traffic on South Lamar Street and in just a few minutes you will be hiking around surrounded by green. Bring an inner tube and drift along the slow-moving river like a lazy cowboy, do some freehand rock climbing, or bust out the guitar and get down under the stars.
• Have an espresso at Ruta Maya, a coffeehouse on South Congress which imports organic, shade-grown beans from sustainable farms in Latin America. Enjoy the poetry readings, open-mike music nights, parrot-performers and free yoga classes along with the fact that you are helping create economic viability for neighboring communities south of the border.
• Eeyore’s Birthday Party is Austin’s annual spring festival to celebrate the happy day of the silly donkey from Winnie the Pooh, a pagan fertility party where anything goes. Dress in costume, bring your pet python and one-man-band-get-up, and get ready for all manner of random fun. Have a pretend tea party with your friends, put together a giant puzzle with pieces as big as the Texas flag, dance around a maypole, beat your djembes in the nonstop drum circle, twirl some fire and have your Tarot cards read.
• Pick up a free copy of the Austin Chronicle and read it on the ‘Six-Pack’ at the University of Texas. The big grassy lawn is in the middle of campus and surrounded by six symmetrical halls of study, a.k.a. the Six-Pack. Behind you is the University Tower, whose observation deck was only recently reopened to the public for viewing; in front of you is downtown Austin, the State Capitol Building, and a fountain of bronze horses that is prophecied to come to life just as soon as a virgin student walks by.
• Thousands and thousands of bats fly out from under Congress Bridge in the summertime (March through November; this is Texas) around dusk. The north side of the bridge is the best place to catch the bat-blanket that fills the sky, swooping upward in twisting columns up into the night.
• Go to The Drag and hang out. Otherwise known as Guadalupe (say GWA-duh-loop), this strip of bars, coffeeshops, record stores, funky clothing and vintage boutiques, college bookstores, student travel agencies and smoke shops separates the huge University of Texas campus and “West Campus,” or the Greek area. This is a good side of Austin to wander around if you are looking for a party on Friday night- you’ll find one. Have fun with the drag rats (pierced-up kids from local middle class families, mostly) and keep an eye out for the drive-through beer barn which promises to accept “all of Daddy’s credit cards.”
• The Texas State Capitol is the largest state capitol in the United States and is even taller than the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. after which it was modeled. It is made out of sunset-red granite which glows a warm pink as the light falls on an Austin evening and is the sight of many-a-protest from the progressive urban population of the city.
• Kerbey Lane Cafe serves fresh-as-life wholesome food grown from their own gardens. More a community than a cafe, Kerbey Lane is the city’s morning-after institution and receives raves both vegans and steak-lovers alike: so very, very, Austin.
• Barton Springs keeps Austinites from melting like ice cream cones during those weeks when the temperature hangs out at a hundred every day. The Springs fresh bubbles are a constant 68 degrees, year round. The swimming hole is located in Zilker Park which is the place for a Sunday afternoon game of ultimate Frisbee, hours-long picnics with neo-hippie friends, train rides with the kids, and antics on the playground. Zilker is also home to the legendary Moontower from the cult classic film Dazed and Confused, shot in Austin with local drag rat Wiley Wiggins. Party at the Moontower!
Austin photo by Kumar Appaiah.