TEN things you must do in Austin Texas
By Helen Wright
Austin Texas is quietly known as being one of the world’s coolest music destinations. The capital of Texas plays host to the seriously hipster-friendly South by Southwest festival in March, and the free-spirited Austin City Limits festival in October. Even if you’re not in town for the events, there’s still a chance to see the next big thing, before they’ve even made it. Almost every bar, coffee shop and street corner has a live band and John Mayer, James Blunt and Hanson were all discovered here. Austin has an eccentric mix of stylish sights, quirky characters and southern-American charm. With flights direct from London, Texas is welcoming a wave of Brit visitors and more of us every year are discovering why this US city is the next big thing in fun.
1. Line Dancing
Okay. Let’s start with the obvious. Yes, there are cowboys in Texas. Yes, they wear the hat. And the boots. And they speak like JR Ewin. But Austin is not the John Wayne, tie-your-horse-up-outside-the-saloon kind of place. The whole town has an edgy, cosmopolitan vibe which is decades away from the dusty Wild West stereotype. That doesn’t mean all the classic traditions have been forgotten. Two Step is still very much the dance to learn and if visitors want to join in the fun, legendary bar ‘The Broken Spoke’ offers line-dancing lessons for hot footed beginners. Group classes start from $8 (£4.50) and you can stay on after to watch the real professionals take to the floor.
The Broken Spoke
3201 S Lamar Blvd, Austin, TX 78704
2. Escape the Heat
It’s hot in Texas. Austin has 229 days of sunshine a year, with temperatures up to the 29’C in July and August. Locals cool off at Lady Bird Lake which is part of the Colorado river that hugs the city. You can swim, paddle or just dip a toe in the lake, but if you’re feeling energetic rent a stand-up paddleboard and test your balancing skills. Paddleboarding is fast becoming one of the most popular watersports with celebrities like Jennifer Aniston and Cameron Diaz often seen boarding in the sun. Plus, it’s a brilliant workout for your core. Once you’ve got the hang of it, staying upright isn’t too bad. Of course, you’ll likely fall in a fair few times while you get the hang of it and in summer you you’ll be grateful of the splash.
Various locations along the river, from $12 (£7.50).
3. Join the Bar-B-Queue
In Texas, the food-du-jour is tender flame-grilled brisket with sweet BBQ sauce coating a light, crunchy skin and a hint of whiskey. Mouth watering yet? It will be once you’ve joined the line at Franklin BBQ. An Austin institution since 2009, hungry locals queue across the car park for up to three hours just to get a taste. It’s so popular that the growing crowds have spawned a string of micro-companies offering up staff members who can line up for you at a price (sometimes up to $80!) There are no exceptions – except one. President Obama was recently in town and he couldn’t leave Austin without lunch so the owners allowed the ravenous Prez to queue jump. Just the once…
900 E 11th St, Austin, TX 78702
4. Hit ‘Dirty Sixth’
Visitors to Austin must have a drink on legendary ‘dirty sixth’. This area of loud and lairy bars that line 6th Street gets a bad rap from locals, but many of them end up there to dance off the night after a few-too-many beers in trendier, Rainey Street. Sixth Street is Austin’s party strip. Most places have a live band, cheap shooters (shots) and plenty of friendly faces to chat to / dance with – even if your shoes do stick to the floor. Further downtown, Rainey Street is slightly more stylish and frequented by local hipsters and tourists in the know. It has trendy bars, late-night food trucks and open-air spaces to hang out in like one big garden party that everybody is invited to. Try Black Heart, Container Bar and Clives for a good place to start. Everywhere is open until 2am.
5. Go to Trash Vegas
It’s not an official attraction but make time for a visit to the Cathedral of Junk, in South Austin . A local artist (and collector of clutter, Vince Hannemann) has built a monument of trash in his own back garden. The structure stands three-stories high and is made of everything from old road signs to doll heads, Rubik’s cubes and scrap metal. The city’s slogan is ‘keep Austin weird’ and Vince should be their poster guy. A lot of the mountain of accumulated stuff comes from random donations now, with submissions from as far away as Japan and Australia – why not take something with you to add to the mix? Vince charges $10 (£6.50) per party to enter but it’s well worth it for the photo opportunities alone.
Contact: The Cathedral of Junk
4422 Lareina Dr, Austin, TX 78798
6. Music by Moonlight
The Lobby Lounge at the Four Seasons Hotel is a local celebrity hot spot with Sandra Bullock, Matthew McConaughey and Keanu Reeves all spotted enjoying a drink there. In the summer months, sit outside in the lush hotel garden which overlooks the river. They have regular live music sessions and a pop-up BBQ serving gourmet pulled-pork sliders. With lanterns twinkling from the trees and a candlelit pathway to the bar, the venue provides the perfect setting for a romantic date. For a more substantial feed, the hotel restaurant, TRIO, serves a Porterhouse for two – also by candlelight – and has a stunning wine list devised by the in-house sommelier, Mark.
Four Seasons Austin Downtown
98 San Jacinto Blvd, Austin, TX 78701
7. Buy a Vintage Dior
Across the bridge from downtown Austin and along South Congress Avenue is a vintage mecca with dollar-price thrift shops, pre-loved clothing and timeless vintage pieces. Unlike trendy thrift shopping in larger cities like New York and Los Angeles, prices here are not hiked up to the max. If you have low dollar and lots of time, head to the Salvation Army Goodwill store for a good root around in the mess. Our bargains included three pairs of sunglasses for $2 (70p) and a prom dress for $8 (£4.50). There is also a great selection of classic T shirts and sports baseball caps. For those who want to spend a little more cash, Co Star is a stylish outlet that carries carefully selected clothing from 1930s to 1990s, laid out in a more refined boutique setting. We spotted vintage Chanel, Dior and Versace in pristine condition with reasonable pricetags, and lower cost items for the everyday shopper. If you just fancy a browse, a few stores down you’ll find Uncommon Objects, a higgledy-piggledy collection of organised chaos, artistically displayed by colour and theme and well worth a visit.
Salvation Army, 4216 S. Congress Ave, TX.
Co Star, 1708 S Congress Ave, Austin, TX 78704
Uncommon Objects 1512 S Congress Ave, Austin, TX 78704
8. Tell someone you love them
In New York, it’s the top of the Empire State Building. For London, the Tate Modern seems a popular choice. But if you’re in Austin, Texas and you want to tell someone you love them, you do it with coffee. Jo’s Coffee to be precise. This cute shop in South Congress has been the scene of many ‘I love yous’ and cool marriage proposals thanks to its simple and romantic wall graffiti. In 2010, musician Amy Cook spray-painted a plain and simple love note to her partner, coffee shop owner, Liz Lambert, and the wall is now part of Austin’s history. In a city as quirky as this, graffiti art is fully supported and there are some beautiful murals to hunt for during your stay (this link might help you…). As for the ‘love’ part, that’s down to you – but there’s something special about saying ‘I love you (so much) over coffee’. Especially here.
1300 S Congress Ave, Austin, TX 78704
9. Get Batty
Nestled under Congress Avenue bridge, quietly sleeping during the hours of daylight are over a million Mexican free-tailed bats. The largest urban bat colony in North America take flight each night at sunset to hunt for insects and pests to eat and provide a spectacle for the nightly crowd who gather to watch. Sounds weird and a bit creepy, but watching the massive swarm take to the skies against the backdrop of a warm, dusk-lit sky is a spectacular sight. Grab a spot anywhere on the bridge or along the river edge to get a good view, or rent a boat for $20 (£14.50) and row into the middle of the lake for your own private vantage point.
10. Shop til’ you drop
It’s not the most authentic activity on the list, but no visit to the USA is complete with a stop at the mall. With the dollar/pound currently in our favour, there are bargains to be had at shops like J Crew (a favourite of Michelle Obama), Gap and Victoria’s Secret. Plus, due to a state-wide shopping incentive in Texas, many shops participate in a tax-free shopping scheme. Out-of-towners can claim 50% of shopping tax back with proof of your flight home. Once you’ve shopped, head the designated booth with your purchases and walk away with actual cash back. You can also do this at the airport but you do need to have your purchases handy to show the rep. The Mall is right next to Barton Creek Pool, a natural local swimming hole where locals go to dive in after a long day of retail therapy. So pack your swimmers.
Simon Mall. Barton Creek, 2901 S Capital of Texas Hwy, Austin, TX 78746
Barton Springs Pool, 2201 Barton Springs Rd, Austin, TX 78746
Where to Stay
Helen stayed at the newly renovated Four Seasons Hotel in Downtown Austin. The hotel, situated on Lady Bird Lake, is a really great base for exploring the city. The waterside garden location comes complete with tree-shaded hammocks, outdoor pool and live music, giving the hotel a relaxed, resort-like feel. Rooms start from £170 per night.
Flights direct to Austin from London Heathrow on British Airways start from £700.
www.ba.com (Flight time is approximately 9.5 hours)