For an easy getaway to the best of all worlds, consider a weekend jaunt to Austin, Texas. The laid-back capital of the Lone Star State is a progressive, cosmopolitan city where New Age meets Old West in unhurried harmony. The University of Texas complements this Sun Belt-sophistication with concerts, lectures and fine museums. Outdoor activities such as hiking, canoeing and horseback riding are easily accessible by day, while nightfall offers one of America’s most diverse and vibrant live-music scenes. Great food abounds, from cutting-edge cuisine to local traditions including barbecue and burritos.
This city of 650,000 is easy to navigate, suburban sprawl aside, and is safer than New Orleans. Austin’s hilly terrain makes a pleasant contrast with south Louisiana’s relentless flatness. Many residential neighborhoods have a small-town feel, with huge yards and ample green space.
There are no non-stop flights between New Orleans and Austin, unfortunately, but Southwest’s presence in the market ensures that fares stay relatively low. Driving to Austin takes eight hours non-stop, but those who like to amble there are many unhurried routes through western Louisiana’s Cajun-Creole country and the fabled Big Thicket of East Texas. Once in Austin, the beautiful Hill Country beckons just southwest of town.
Lodging is the first order of business. For a centrally-located splurge, settle in at the historic Driskill Hotel—an ornate relic from 1886 with a cutting-edge gourmet restaurant—or the plush Four Seasons, just across the Colorado River from downtown. The Lazy Oak B&B, also just south of the river, comes highly recommended. So does the economical Austin Motel, on the hip strip along South Congress Avenue. Taking a nod from the lower Manhattan arts district called SoHo, this neighborhood is now known as SoCo. Its diverse establishments present a microcosm of Austin’s eclectic charm: the Continental Club, a jumping little music venue; Guero’s Taco Bar (the name belies its extensive menu); Yard Dog, an acclaimed gallery of Southern folk art; the Uncommon Objects Antique Mall; and a late-night thrift shop known as New Bohemia Retro Resale. A bit further out on South Congress are El Gallo, a great mom-and-pop Mexican restaurant, and the Magnolia Café South, a 24-hour joint with burgers and vegetarian fare alike.
But SoCo is only one of Austin’s must-see neighborhoods. En route to many others on the north side of the river, stop for a moment beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge. Why? Because it’s the nesting place for 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats that roost there from March through November. As daylight fades these nocturnal hunters emerge en masse to feed on insects, and their nightly exodus is the best free show in town. Check it out from the observation deck provided by the daily newspaper, The Austin American Statesman.
Downtown, the Sixth Street area and nearby Warehouse District are home to many live music venues, including Stubb’s (also revered for barbecue); the mellow jazz confines of Cedar Street; La Zona Rosa (equally famous for creative Tex-Mex cuisine and its art collection); and one location of the famous blues club Antone’s. Since the mid-1970s Austin has enjoyed deserved renown as a creative crucible of American music—a town where the boundaries between genres dissolve into innovative hybrids, as personified by the likes of Willie Nelson. This organic process continues to evolve today, as evidenced by Austin’s wealth of talent and broad selection of music—blues, R&B, rock, country, jazz, Tex-Mex, and variants of all the above—performed nightly.
Live music thrives outside downtown, too, and one of Austin’s most legendary nightclubs is a dance-hall called The Broken Spoke. A classic honky-tonk and country-music time capsule, The Broken Spoke was built in 1964 but looks much older, suggesting a scene from a Walker Evans photo. Another revered music spot is Threadgill’s, in business since 1934 and an important site in Austin’s “cosmic cowboy” movement of the 1970s. This cultural phenomenon spawned “Austin City Limits,” the acclaimed TV show that’s been broadcasting for 30 years. Lucky visitors just might score tickets for a taping, and the show is augmented by an annual festival.
Sixth Street’s clubs are quiet by day, which is a fine time to take in Austin’s active visual arts scene. The Wally Workman Gallery, for instance, features the work of such notables as painter Gordon Fowler and photographer Burton Wilson. Nearby, the O. Henry Museum honors one of America’s best short-story writers. O. Henry was the nom de plume for writer William Sidney Porter, best known for the perennial favorite the “Gift of the Magi.” When Porter lived in Austin in the late 19th century, he published a humor magazine called The Rolling Stone. In that spirit the museum presents the annual O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships, attracting competitive punsters from around the globe.
North of downtown, the Texas capitol building soars taller than its counterpart in Washington. The domed structure is open for tours, as is the adjacent Governor’s Mansion. North of the legislative complex lies the vast University of Texas, with its 48,000 students. Take time to visit the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. The latter is a vast archive devoted to the life and times of America’s 36th president.
But you can’t stay indoors too long in such glorious environs. In town, Zilker Park offers swimming in Barton Springs, canoeing on Town Lake, and hiking on the Barton Creek Green Trail. Further afield are such gorgeous Hill Country sites as Hamilton Pool, with its 45-foot waterfall; the dramatic view atop Enchanted Rock; canoe trails on the Guadalupe River; and horseback riding at a number of ranches. The Hill Country is also home to Gruene Hall, a vintage country-music shrine, as well as some of America’s very best barbecue. Come springtime the countryside grows even prettier when the bluebonnets burst into bloom—and that’s just one more reason to spend a weekend in Austin.
Built in 1896, the Driskill Hotel also has a cutting-edge restaurant.
Zilker Park offers a number of things to do, including swimming, canoeing and hiking.