Award-winning travel writer Jonathan Thompson moved from London to Texas in 2016. Here he shares his insider tips on Austin – the free-spirited capital of the Lone Star State.
When you mention Texas, most people’s thoughts turn to cowboy boots and cattle ranches; big cars, big hats and big attitude. Everything’s bigger in Texas, they say. Everything, that is, except the state capital: Austin.
Dwarfed by Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, Austin is – in many ways – an oddity. A bohemian bubble within the arch-conservative Lone Star State, it’s also a place where locals party hard (this is the ‘live music capital of the world’ after all), but are up early to hit the running and biking trails every morning. A place so committed to healthy eating that it gave the world Whole Foods, but where Texan BBQ is still celebrated – and devoured – in gargantuan fashion. This is the fastest growing city in America, yet it somehow maintains a welcoming small-town feel. In a nutshell, as every third bumper sticker here will tell you, Austin is ‘weird’ – and the locals want to keep it that way.
What you choose to do here, of course, depends on your preferred flavour of ‘weird’. There are bars for every taste, from quirky speakeasies like Red Headed Stepchild (hidden behind Floppy Disk Repair Co on E. 5th Street), where you can sit on swings while sipping drinks, to the more established venues of the infamous ‘Dirty Sixth’ Street (the best bets here are craft cocktail lounges Midnight Cowboy and The Jackalope, or beloved classic dive bar Maggie Mae’s).
Of late, the hippest of hipster city have been flocking out of downtown, to up-and-coming East Austin. Here, mezcal is the drink of choice in shabby chic joints like Whisler’s and Las Perlas, while there’s live music to catch at venues like The White Horse and Stay Gold, and a permanent poolside party to join at the deliciously kitsch Kitty Cohen’s. Meanwhile, if beer is your vibe, hop in an Uber and head to the outstanding Jester King brewery, on a working ranch in the picturesque Hill Country above the city.
Austin is, quite rightly, famed for its barbecue – and there are multiple places to get your teeth into its juicy delights. The most famous is Franklin – a frequent winner of national and international awards – but the queue for the ‘cue here can be monstrous. Instead, follow those in the know to one of Austin’s hottest newcomers, La Barbecue, where the melt-in-your-mouth pulled pork with chipotle ‘slaw is a must order, and celebrity fans include Beyoncé and Jay-Z.
Music, of course, is a big deal here too. The Texan capital hosts two of the biggest music festivals in the US – South by Southwest (or SXSW) every March, and Austin City Limits (or ACL) each October. If your visit doesn’t coincide with either of these, don’t worry: Austin is home to more than 250 live music venues, with every conceivable style and genre covered – and the city has produced a handy guide to navigating them.Thanks in part to the near permanent sunshine here, Austinites love the great outdoors. Grab your swimming costume and join them: on paddleboards at Lady Bird Lake or taking the plunge at Barton Springs – a popular natural water hole where locals go to soak and swim away the stresses of the day. Friendly, colourful, eclectic and creative, Austin is frequently voted the best place to live in America, it’s easy to see why. If this is Weird City, you can keep normal.