What is it about Austin? Simply put, this ‘weird’ Texas city has it all

"Greetings From Austin" is one of Austin's most iconic murals. (Courtesy of Visit Austin/TNS)

Cheer Up Charlies is one of literally hundreds of live music venues in Austin. (Courtesy of Visit Austin/TNS)

The Austin skyline from Lady Bird Lake. Ten miles of hiking/biking trails line the lake. (Christopher V. Sherman/Visit Austin/TNS)

For a whale-watching cruise there’s Boston, for a dolphin-watching cruise, Miami, but for a bat-watching cruise, go to Austin, Texas.

From late spring to early fall, 1.5 million freetail Mexican bats take off nightly from their hangout (literally) under the Congress Avenue Bridge in search of food.


Onlookers line the bridge spanning Lady Bird Lake, but cruise boats dedicated to bat watching will get you closer to the action — too close and you may even leave with an unwanted souvenir in the form of bat poop.

Weird? Maybe, but so is Austin. It has officially been so since 2000 when a local businessman called an Austin radio station to promote one-of-a-kind businesses.

What resulted was an obsession with all things local and a slogan, “Keep Austin Weird.” (For those touting Portland as the slogan’s originator, that city’s claim to weirdness came in 2003. But it gets credit for knowing a good idea when it heard one.)

Austin is on everyone’s radar these days. A diaspora of dissatisfied folks from other parts of the country are moving to Texas’ capital city at the rate of 150 a day.

But if you’re just visiting, you’re in good company. According to Visit Austin, the city’s tourism arm, in 2022, some 30 million travelers spent $8.2 billion in the city.

Just what is it about Austin?

For starters, it’s about the music, and not just mega festivals Austin City Limits and SXSW. Dubbed America’s live music capital, Austin has its own toe-tapping, finger-snapping, heart-thumping, adrenalin-pumping soundtrack.

Go to Sixth Street and make your first stop Antone’s, where Stevie Ray Vaughan first sang the blues. Or head to the Broken Spoke on South Lamar, a true Texas dance hall, or for country/western, the Little Longhorn Saloon, original home of Chicken Sh—Bingo, has been Austin’s favorite honky-tonk for nearly half a century.

People come for the music, but also for the casual, outdoors-oriented lifestyle. Kayaking and paddle-boarding provide a view of the skyline from Lady Bird Lake, which in true Austin fashion is not really a lake but a river.

The lake was created from a dammed portion of the Colorado River, which once flowed unimpeded through the city.

With daily temps running above 100 degrees on my most recent visit, I bypassed the 10-mile hiking and biking trail along the lake, seeking instead alternate forms of (air-conditioned) entertainment.

I had no trouble finding them. A visit to the state capitol building is a must. The red granite Italian Renaissance style building is modeled after — but taller than — the U.S. Capitol.

On a self-guided tour, check out the rotunda with its impressive dome and whispering gallery, the painting in the south foyer depicting Mexican general Santa Anna’s surrender at San Jacinto, and a sculpture of Sam Houston, the Republic of Texas’ first president.

Not on the capitol grounds but a few blocks away on Congress Avenue is a sculpture of a woman lighting a cannon. She’s Angelina Eberly, and without her Texas’ capital would be Houston.

In 1842, President Houston dispatched a regiment of Texas Rangers to appropriate the state archives and bring them to his namesake city where a new capital was to be established. Outraged at their audacity, Eberly fired off a six-pound cannon, in the process blowing a hole in the Land Office building.

For once, the Texas Rangers didn’t get their (wo)man — or even their archives. Hearing the cannon blast, residents chased the Rangers and retrieved the archives, thus ensuring Austin would remain the capital.

A perfect post-Capitol lunch stop is the Driskill Hotel. When wealthy cattleman Jesse Driskill opened it in 1886, it came with a price tag equal to $92 million in today’s currency.

Take a guided hotel tour and see sights such as the elegant Grill, where Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson had their first date, and the Maximillian Suite (now a meeting and event space) named for Emperor Maximillian of Mexico. It still has all eight mirrors (estimated value $9 million) he purchased as a wedding gift for his bride, Carlotta.

Austin’s artsy scene

You won’t find a more “artsy” city in the United States. Colorful murals are found throughout the city, from Wonder Woman on the side of the Line Austin Hotel to Rhapsody, a masterpiece of mosaic tiles commemorating the city’s jazz roots.

Visitors flock to murals such as “Spaceman With Floating Pizza,” “Love from Austin,” and the most Instagrammable of all, “Greetings from Austin,” painted in the style of a vintage postcard.

If you want to stick to one art venue, make it the Blanton Museum of Art on the University of Texas campus.

It makes sense that a university that has counted novelist James Michener, U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan and actor Matthew McConaughey among its faculty, would be equally invested in its art museum.

With more than 21,000 works, the Blanton is recognized as one of the finest university art museums in America. Widely known for its modern and contemporary art collection and Latin American collection, it also boasts one of Andy Warhol’s iconic celebrity prints – his pop princess being University of Texas alum Farrah Fawcett.

Austin’s moveable feast

When it comes to eating, many visitors opt for Texas staples, brisket and Tex-Mex. For the brisket, stand in line at Franklin Barbecue (everyone does, even former President Barack Obama), and for the latter, try Habanero Café.

But Austin’s food scene goes way beyond the standards. As might be expected in the headquarters of Whole Foods, there’s a lot of emphasis on local and organic.

Luminaire, in the Hyatt Centric Hotel next to the historic Paramount Theater, is the second restaurant for Steve McHugh, chef at San Antonio’s acclaimed Cured. The white gazpacho and shrimp and whipped hominy with smoked Tasso ham were epic.

Dinner was followed by a nightcap on the hotel’s 5th floor terrace bar, La Bis, with its view of the Capitol dome.

Another fantastic view (of Lady Bird Lake and its surrounding parkland) comes with a table in the bar at Nido in the Loren Hotel. My roast chicken with pickled tomatillo and chili aioli exemplified Nido’s culinary philosophy: start with the purest ingredients, use a pure oil to accentuate, age to bring out flavor and choose herbs to highlight the season.

Hill Country beauty

Another thing about Austin is the beauty of the Texas Hill Country surrounding it. You don’t have to leave the city center to feel a part of it. I went for dinner one evening at Lutie’s Restaurant at the elegant Commodore Perry Estate and felt like I was in another world, instead of a stone’s throw from the UT campus. Strolling around the landscaped gardens with their fountains, I might have been on a grand English estate.

Continuing the European theme, Hotel Viata, atop a hill on the city’s outskirts, is where “Tuscany meets Texas.” Resembling a Florentine palace, it has a spectacular pool, an even more spectacular spa, and a restaurant, Laurel, offering the finest Italian fare. The chicken and goat cheese ravioli paired with a Caesar salad made for an inspired dining experience.

For more inspiration, start the evening on the hotel’s expansive outdoor terrace at sunset, and you’ll see why Austin is referred to as “the City of the Violet Crown” for the purple glow that envelops the hills as the sun goes down.

There really is something about Austin, perhaps best expressed by local icon Willie Nelson: “There’s a freedom you begin to feel the closer you get to Austin.”

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