The Texas town’s unofficial motto “Keep Austin Weird” appears on everything from T-shirts to car bumper stickers, and it’s a mantra enthusiastically embraced by the population of one million.
Here, in this liberal and progressive enclave of one of America’s most conservative states, every degree of eccentricity is celebrated. Independent cafes, restaurants and bars champion boring chains with a punch, while bold entrepreneurs are encouraged to think differently and change the world.
So what awaits us?
All the wonderfully familiar Texan cliches abound in its laid-back state capital: cowboys and ranches, heartfelt Southern hospitality, the aroma of barbecue wafting down the boulevards, and the sound of live music at almost every street corners.
But there are also surprises. Dissected by the Colorado River, Austin is a place of hot springs and islands that could pass for the Caribbean.
Here are some of the best ways to experience the city…
Take a pleasant bus ride
To see all the main sights and escape the intense Texas sun (temperatures have been known to exceed 40°C in August), book a guided (and air-conditioned) bus tour with AO Tours.
An itinerary focused on the downtown district includes the dark but beautiful Texas State Cemetery (the final resting place of generals, governors, and members of Congress) and the magnificent 92-meter-tall State Capitol Building – taller than its iconic counterpart in the nation’s capital.
Stop to pose in front of the famous ‘Greetings from Austin’ mural, the city’s most famous piece of street art, at the corner of 1st Street. A 2.5-hour scenic tour costs from $51.
Kayak with micro bats
For something more unusual, take a kayaking trip along the Colorado River. Paddle leisurely under the Congress Avenue Bridge, also nicknamed the Bat Bridge, in reference to the 1.5 million tiny Mexican free-tailed bats that live below. Every evening between March and November, the bats emerge to feed, creating a spectacle in the sky. A two-hour tour costs from $59.
Learn the ropes on a ranch
Sweeping thick blonde locks under her Stetson, Miss Tina is a tireless taskmaster when it comes to training cowgirls and novice cowboys at her Lone Star Ranch.
John Wayne wannabes can try their hand at roping, tomahawk throwing and archery, all under the watchful eye of Miss T – or go horseback riding along the trails that criss-cross the 600 acres ravines, meandering creeks and open ranch plains. The working livestock farm is open to the public by appointment only. A class of two and a half cows costs $150.
Savor the oversized dishes
You won’t go hungry in Austin, where the flavors are as big as the portions. Texas BBQ is almost a religion in these regions, and there is no shortage of exceptional places to taste grilled and smoked meats.
Patient diners should head to Franklin, the no-frills streetside eatery where people line up until three for a pulled pork sandwich and a slice of pecan pie. Located in the historic East Side, it’s only open until everything is sold out (usually around 2pm). The verdict? Well worth the (very long) wait. Pay around $14 for a sandwich.
Sharing a border with Mexico inevitably means the city’s food scene is heavily influenced by its neighbor to the south. One of the best places to grab a bite on the go is Torchy’s (torchystacos.com), food trucks known for their lip-shivering tacos. Try the trailer park taco with fried chicken, green chiles, pico de gallo salsa and poblano sauce. Pay about $7 for a taco.
Tap your feet to great tunes
Austin could easily rival New Orleans or Nashville as America’s live music capital: there are around 250 venues, with up to 100 shows often taking place in a single night.
Broken Spoke is one of the most famous ‘honky-tonk’ country music bars and was even home to legend Dolly Parton. It also offers two-step dance lessons for those who want to blend in with the local crowd.
Meanwhile, Antone’s has been playing the blues since 1975. Back then, everyone from BB King to local hero Willie Nelson took the mic here. Whether known or promising, the quality of the musicians is always there.
Stock up on boots and Stetsons
A cowboy hat is an essential wardrobe item in these regions. Between the hip, minimalist boutiques of South Congress Avenue, Allens Boots is a local institution (just look for the giant red boot outside).
The aisles are lined with authentic cowboy boots, hats and chunky buckle belts, each handmade and authentic. The friendly staff will have you outfitted and looking at every square inch of the Texan in no time.