On our last stop in the U.S., we’re heading to the city that’s truly got its finger on the pulse…Austin, Texas, where music, beer, good eats, artists, and hipsters converge. Few others have as much pride as Texans do (heck, they put a picture of their state on T-shirts), but you’ll also find hordes of transplants making their home in the capital city.
We’ve checked out everything from quirky nightlife to hidden natural spots to see what’s off the brochure in Austin.
Austin by Boat (And Bat)
OK, so city tours by boat are nothing new, and dinner cruises are passé…so how about a sunset bat cruise? That’s right, Capital Cruises sets off every night before sunset and sails toward the Congress Avenue Bridge, home to the “largest urban bat colony in North America.”
Up to 1.5 million bats hang out under the bridge in the spring and fall, making for a dramatic exit when they soar out for their nightly flight. (If this experience makes you batty for bats, check out Batfest!, the city’s largest arts and crafts show, coming up September 1 and 2.) Adults $8, kids $5. 208 Barton Springs Road, 512-480-9264, www.capitalcruises.com/bat-watching
Out and About
Got an urge to see tough girls on skates? You might recognize the Lonestar Rollergirls from the A&E series Rollergirls, which made roller derby into a household name. Founded in 2001, Lonestar Rollergirls consists of five teams of edgy women with some serious strength, from the 50s-style hotrod chicks of the Hellcats to the Holy Rollers. Here come the quintessential bad Catholic schoolgirls. Austin’s “favorite daughters” duke out on a banked track inside The Thunderdome—bouts tend to sell out, so buy your tickets early. (Don’t worry: The 2008 schedule doesn’t start until October.) Tickets are $15. 10601 N. Lamar, www.txrd.com
For more on traveling in the American South, click here.
One must-see Austin institution and local favorite is the Alamo Drafthouse. The original downtown location on Colorado Street (there are several other locations), which closed in June 2007 after 10 years, made a name for itself by offering offbeat, quirky films and festivals. The new location is the historic Ritz Theater on 6th Street and will be known as the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema at the Ritz. www.drafthouse.com
Not only will you be able to catch long-running favorites like the Quentin Tarantino Film Festival and the 24-hour Butt-Numb-A-Thon, but you also can order dinner and drinks that are stealthily served to you by waiters. Some signature Drafthouse events, such as Sing-Alongs and Weird Wednesdays, won’t take place at this new venue, but they are continuing in the Alamo South Lamar and Village locations. www.originalalamo.com
You probably know all about Austin’s live music legacy–if not, just make a trip to the annual South by Southwest festival or take a walk down 6th Street where music and crowds spill onto the sidewalk. But, if you’d rather avoid the jam-packed bar scene while getting a taste of the sounds of Austin, check out Blues on the Green. The series of free outdoor concerts takes place every other Wednesday through August 22. Guests are invited to bring blankets and picnics (and even leashed pets) to check out the blues, funk, and R&B. Zilker Park Rock Island (north side of Barton Springs Road). www.kgsr.com
They say that meat and potatoes are the staples of a Texan diet, so you may as well get your hands on what’s known as the best burger in town. Casino El Camino is a hole-in-the-wall dive with three-quarter pound burgers dressed with a Texan flair. Try the Amarillo burger topped with fiery serrano chiles and cilantro mayo, or the “healthy” L.A. burger with sprouts and avocado. Consistently voted as having the “best bar food,” “best burger” and “best kickbox” by the Austin Chronicle, Casino El Camino is a hotspot for locals looking for good food without the hype. 517 E. 6th Street, 512-469-9330, www.casinoelcamino.net
Lest we fall for too many clichés, Austin is also home to haute cuisine that appeals to even the finest palates in the country. Check out Driskill Grill, a quiet, elegant spot where chef David Bull whips out five-star plates with a few Texan twists. Try the tiny quail stuffed with chicken mousse made with poblano peppers, or the prawns with grilled chorizo and corn butter. Make sure to save room for dessert: Pastry chef Mark Chapman has made a name for himself in the culinary world and is known for his creative concoctions using chocolate, chiles, and pepper. 604 Brazos Street, 512-391-7162, www.driskillgrill.com
For more good eats, visit our Culinary Travel section.
Cooling Off, Texas Style
It’s hotter than heck in Austin right now, so why not take the plunge…into Deep Eddy pool? Constructed back in 1916, it is known as the oldest public pool in Texas. It started out as an authentic swimming hole in the Colorado River and grew into a fashionable resort where Texans flocked to cool off. Nowadays the man-made pool is fed by a well—which means that diving in headfirst is probably going to give you a bit of a cold-water shock. Every Saturday in the summertime, the Splash Party movie night lets families doggie paddle in the shallow end while watching kid-friendly flicks like Shrek and Revenge of the Creature From the Black Lagoon. If you’d prefer to stay dry, the pool is surrounded by grass where you can spread a blanket to watch the show. $3 entrance fee. www.deepeddy.org
It’s not exactly a local secret, but it’s probably not one that you’ll find in glossy brochures. The Barton Creek Greenbelt trail is nearly eight miles long and runs all the way through and around downtown Austin. The Greenbelt encompasses more than 800 acres of land, from hiking trails to sheer rock climbing walls. But the real draw this summer is the plentiful swimming holes along the way (it’s like stepping back in time with frolicking kids and starry-eyed couples). Around this time of year, swimming areas like Twin Falls, Sculpture Falls and Campbell’s Hole are filled to the brim, making an inviting destination for locals and visitors who want to cool off for a while. www.ci.austin.tx.us/
If you never thought of Austin as being an artsy destination, think again. The city’s streets are packed with galleries, museums, and even a daily outdoor artist’s market. One of the city’s better-kept secrets is the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum, a garden filled with more than 130 sculptures by Charles Umlauf. The artist, formerly an instructor at the University of Austin, created works ranging from realistic busts to abstract figures. Currently on exhibit is a series entitled “ceramics…on the edge,” featuring sculptures from the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts, including works by Texan artists. And don’t worry about the kids getting bored while you browse—they have hands-on workshops for kids where they can discover their inner Michelangelo ($12 per student). 512-445-5582, www.umlaufsculpture.org
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure…and Vince Hanniman proves it. On the south side of town, a longtime Austin resident has spent two decades creating Cathedral of Junk in his backyard. You would never know it from the front of the house, but in the back stands a soaring cathedral-like sculpture made of more than 60 tons of junk. We’re talking about lawnmower parts, glass bottles, broken bicycles, roadsigns, and tons of other, well, junk. Outside, the cathedral is intertwined with heavy greenery, and inside is an unexpected series of rooms, stairways, and even a “Throne Room” with a junk-created chair. 4422 Lareina Drive, 512-299-7413 (by appointment only)
Don’t miss the rest of our Off the Brochure cities.
By Sarika Chawla for PeterGreenberg.com