Image credit: ACVB
A direct British Airways flight is bringing the Texas capital within easy reach. Awesome news, says Joanna Booth
I’m suspicious of self-proclaimed attributes – they’re so rarely based in reality. You know – those people who say they’re ‘crazy’, and you can only imagine they’ve confused the word with ‘annoying’.
This is not, however, the case when it comes to Austin. The city’s adopted slogan is as truthful as it is surprising. It’s ‘Keep Austin Weird’.
You could be forgiven for thinking that weirdness isn’t a good thing, but Austin’s kind of weird is unusual, individual, and creative – not creepy. The whole city is really, really cool. And because this is America, not the UK, it’s not snobby. It’s simultaneously very cool, but very friendly. I know. That is weird.
It’s also about to get much easier to visit. From March 3 British Airways will start flying direct to Austin from Heathrow five times a week, with plans to operate a daily flight before long. Return fares on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner will start from £727, and the flight is about 10 hours.
Not an inconsiderable time in the air, but without the current hassle of a three-hour drive from Houston, it means a long weekend in Austin will be do-able. And that’s one of the many things that make Austin a little weird – it’s a US city that’s easily walkable, so you don’t necessarily need to hire a car at all.
Though with the lively city of San Antonio, cowboy capital Bandera and the Texas hill country around Fredericksburg all within an easy drive, there are plenty of reasons to extend a stay – Affordable Car Hire’s rates lead-in at £146 for a week.So why else is Austin weird? In one of America’s most conservative states, it’s staunchly liberal. In one of America’s fattest states, slender people are forever jogging past you in lycra.
And in America, land of the brand, it’s packed full of independent businesses, from coffee shops and restaurants to bars and boutiques. If you like things individual, Austin is for you.
10.00: Get your bearings – and any number of personal recommendations for what to do later – by taking Austin Overtures’ 90-minute tour ($25). Small minibuses leave from the Austin Visitor Center slap-bang in the middle of Downtown, zoom around the city and out to the hills.
The tour gives a handy overview of the city, plus some great vistas from outside it – a particular bonus if you don’t want to hire a car and drive to the viewpoints later – and a swift dose of insider knowledge.
Our guide Chris not only gave us the lowdown on the city’s best barbecue joints – Franklin’s may be famous, but as a result you’ll queue for three hours, so try John Mueller Meat Co instead – but could also point out the districts where you might spot a celebrity, from Austin-born Sandra Bullock to fellow Texans Matthew McConaughey, Dennis Quaid and Tommy Lee Jones.
11.30: Wander a block west from the visitor centre and turn right on to Congress Avenue, the main north to south artery cutting through the centre of the city. Stop off at the city-centre home of The Contemporary Austin, a sleek white box that houses works by modern artists. It’s small, but well-curated; great for a quick hit of art right at the cutting-edge.
12.30: From cutting-edge to classical. At the top of Congress stands the Texas State Capitol, an imposing structure in ‘sunset red’ granite – to a Londoner like me it looks like a pink St Paul’s Cathedral.
Unsurprisingly, it’s a little taller than the US Capitol in Washington – “everything’s bigger in Texas” – and though leaflets are on offer, it’s worth joining one of the free guided half-hour tours that leave regularly.
There’s some potted state history, and they’ll point out the almost subliminal marks of state pride built into the fabric of the building – everything from the hinges of the doors to the lights in the ceiling spell ‘Texas’.
13.30: Lunch on something truly traditional at the Texas Chili Parlor, a spit-and-sawdust joint on Lavaca just behind the Capitol. They’ve been serving chilli made the Lone Star way since 1976 – no beans, just beef, and that’s in chunks rather than minced. Though it’s popular with locals too, it’s great for tourists as not only can you choose the size of your bowl – a blessing in this land of farcically large portions – there’s also the option of three levels of heat, with triple XXX only for the brave. Drink local too – choose a Shiner Bock beer, brewed in Texas.
14.30: Follow the bottle. No, I’m not suggesting you keep drinking. Head north towards the vast University of Texas Campus, where the central tower is said to be shaped like a beer bottle.
Walk through the campus and you’ll find the wonderfully-named Darrell K Royal – Texas Memorial Stadium, where the orange-clad Longhorns clash with other college football teams.
Depending on your interests, head for the Bullock Texas State History Museum, the Blanton Museum of Art – yet another fantastic collection of modern works – or, to discover more about one of the state’s most famous historical figures, keep going until you reach the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum.
15.30: One of 13 Presidential Libraries, the building houses 45 million pages of historical documents from the time of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s term in office as president of the US.
It’s also home to an exhibition charting his life and career – truly fascinating for anyone who, like me, was only really aware of Johnson via his part in the Vietnam War.
17.00: Head back to the hotel to prepare for Austin’s nightlife. If you’re peckish, be seduced on the way by one of the city’s food trucks – there are more than 1,000 – that park up by the roadside serving everything from pizza and tacos to ice cream sandwiches.
19.00: Austin certainly isn’t short of great places to eat, with a world of cuisines on offer. It would be criminal not to try a barbecue at least once in the Lone Star state, and Lamberts is conveniently central on 2nd. Start with crispy wild boar ribs before moving on to the oak smoked meats.
20.30: It’s time to sample some of Austin’s famous nightlife. Cross over Cesar Chavez and head for Rainey Street, one of the city’s newest hotspots. Many of the houses on this street have been transformed into bars, with former living rooms hosting performances by new bands.
We bar-hopped from laid-back Blackbeard to livelier Bungalow, listening to a couple of sets from local musicians, before heading to shabby-chic Lustre Pearl to sip cocktails beneath a disco ball.
22.00: Austin’s up-and-coming East Side is the spot for late-night music. Find country at The White Horse on Comal Street and rock at Gypsy Lounge on East 6th. Shake your thing on Red River Street where there’s 80s at Elysium and disco at Barbarella.
11.00: After a lie in, walk your hangover to Austin’s West End and feed its face at Whole Foods Market. I know, going to a supermarket on holiday sounds weird, but this is the world headquarters and is more culinary theme park than anything else.
At 80,000sq ft it’s bigger than the White House, and has 14 in-store eateries, so after browsing the aisles you can tuck in. Afterwards, music lovers can head over the road to independent megastore Waterloo Records – which just so happens to be next door to Amy’s Ice Creams, which has more than 350 flavours. Just saying.
13.30: Fortified, it’s time for fresh air. That water might look like a river, but it’s actually Lady Bird Lake, formed in 1960 by damming the Colorado River. There are 10 miles of waterside trails, but for a short stroll cross over Lamar Boulevard Bridge and wander east down the south bank.
Don’t miss the statue of legendary Austin bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan, and if you’re visiting between March and October, keep an eye out for bats when you reach Congress Avenue Bridge. The largest urban bat colony in North America summers under there – 1.5 million Mexican free-tails.
15.00: Turn south down Congress and walk for half a mile. SoCo is one of the city’s nicest places to mooch, with independent boutiques selling everything from vintage finds – try Uncommon Objects – to local designers at Parts & Labour. Browse, buy or people-watch from one of the many cool cafes.
17.00: Stick around SoCo and have an early dinner – grab a burger at Hopdoddy, Tex-Mex at Guero’s or, after yesterday’s meat feast, go for sushi at cute and friendly Lucky Robot, where fresh, healthy, zingy savouries can be followed with a sinful cake.
19.00: Head back towards Lady Bird Lake and take in a performance at one of the two venues on the south shore.Zach Theatre hosts more than 500 performances a year, with everything from Broadway hits and musicals to family-friendly productions.
Next door at The Long Center for the Performing Arts, there’s ballet, opera, classical music, comedy and theatrical productions, with more than 80% of performances by local artists. Or, hop over the river to the Moody Theatre. It’s where they film Austin City Limits, America’s longest-running music series. You can get tickets for filmings; otherwise just book to see a band play the state-of-the-art venue.
22.30: Two late nights in a row? You are in Austin, live music capital of the world! Head back to the centre of SoCo to the legendary Continental Club for some live jazz, blues, or soul. TW
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