Folks on planes sometimes ask us: “Where do you live?” “Austin, Texas,” we say. Nine times out of ten the questioner smiles, sighs, and says, “Lucky you.”
Austin gets good press. In the past two decades, the city has been touted as a top place to live by numerous magazines. Perhaps the most overused adjective in all this positive coverage is “laid-back.” But it fits. After all, this is a city where you can get by with one or two pairs of pantyhose a year or keep your tie rack in the back of the closet.
As former Mayor Kirk Watson once described Austin to us in an interview, “Austin is a city of boots and suits, hippies and nerds, all in the same boardroom . . . a city that allows almost ironic contradictions—at the same time we boast that we are the Live Music Capital of the World, we also boast we are Silicon Hills.”
Laid-back, but on the high-tech cutting edge; cherishing the past, but charting the future. That dichotomy makes Austin an exciting, sometimes challenging place to live. We are embracing the future, yet looking longingly at the past, and, as the former mayor told us, so far each new wave of Austinites thinks they got here just in time to enjoy the real Austin.
Austin is a mecca for musicians and moviemakers, software engineers and hardware wizards, entrepreneurs and investors, artists and artisans, intellectuals and teachers, political activists and environmentalists, and lots of hardworking, everyday Texans who labor to make this city flourish. More than a million people call themselves Austinites these days, but there is still a neighborly feel about Austin and a notion that much of what goes on here is authentic.
As Austin has grown in both population and acreage, the pivotal question has been “How can Austin stay Austin, yet flourish?” The answer, so far, has come from within. Homegrown is the key here—whether it is homegrown businesses such as Dell Computer and Whole Foods Market or homegrown restaurants such as Threadgill’s and Jeffrey’s, Austin’s creative juices flow from the ground up. Franchise and chain operations, national corporations, and international businesses are represented in Austin, and they are growing in number; but, for the most part, they opt to adapt an Austin face, and often are overshadowed when viewed side by side with Austin originals.
This makes Austin a great place to live and to visit. Despite all its attributes, Austin has avoided being labeled a tourist town. Visitors are drawn to Austin not by a single, large attraction, a Disney World or a Fisherman’s Wharf, but by the ambience of Austin. Consequently, we also are relatively free of touristy bric-a-brac, restaurants, and other sites that attract only out-of-towners. So whether you’re visiting Sixth Street or stopping in for some spicy Tex-Mex food or barbecue, you will find yourself among the locals.
The percentage of adults with college degrees stands at 40 percent and two-thirds of the city’s residents have some college education. The median income in Austin in 2000 was $42,689, and according to the 2000 census, only 4.5 percent of households received public assistance, ranking 72nd out of those 77 cities. In 2005 the median income was $68,600.
One startling statistic is that the Austin labor force increased 44 percent in the decade from 1980 to 1990, and as the 21st century got under way unemployment rates stood at less than 3 percent, dipping to 1.9 percent in mid-2001 and climbing to just under 6 percent in mid-2003. By the spring of 2008, the rate had dipped again to 3.6 percent. But as the recession hit the country Austin was not immune, although the numbers never climbed as high as outside Texas. In September of 2010, the Austin unemployment rate stood at 7.1 percent. Austin residents are predominantly young, diverse, dynamic, and hardworking; perhaps that is why the Austin lifestyle is characterized by a love for the outdoors and a lively interest in the latest music and art. But there is also a fondness for old Texas traditions; witness the abundance of annual events dedicated to cultural traditions.
While the past is celebrated, cultural diversity is unfolding at a furious pace in Austin. Restaurants and shops reflecting diverse cultural origins are growing in number. In a city where 25 years ago the choice of restaurants was relatively limited and dominated by Tex-Mex, barbecue, and homestyle cooking, residents and visitors can now choose from a wide variety of cuisines, often presented as “fusion” cuisine by one of the city’s hot young chefs. There is a palpable sense of exploration in the air as the city adopts and absorbs a multitude of influences, translating them into an authentic Austin experience.
First, a word of appreciation to our sponsor: Nature. It is, after all, our greatest attraction. The bluebonnets in springtime; the sparkle of sunlight on the lakes; the limestone cliffs and green rolling hills; the crisp, rushing creeks; the fresh air; the fauna; the fault and the foliage. Austin’s natural beauty and bounty attracted our first visitors, drew our first settlers, and continue to entice our newest arrivals. Nature was Austin’s greatest artist, perhaps an inspiration to the others who came to create some of the phenomena that give Austin its individuality. So while you’re busy enjoying the production that is Austin, take a moment to acknowledge the set design.
While some of the sites below come to us courtesy of Nature, we’ve devoted much of this chapter to giving you a tour of the landscape of invention, the visual sensations contributed by the ingenuity of Austin’s own people over the past 150 years or so. Here you’ll find attractions to tickle your fancy, tease your brain, touch your heart, and, perhaps, stir your own imagination. Among these curiosities, historic treasures, and modern marvels you’ll discover a provocative portion of Austin’s story.
We’ve also pointed out some of our most interesting pieces of public art. Here, you’ll receive an introduction to a few of the sculptures, statues, paintings, murals, and fountains that are on view for all to appreciate. These artistic creations enhance Austin’s natural beauty and provide a window into the city itself. For some excellent guided tours of Austin and the surrounding area, don’t miss the Touring Greater Austin section at the end of this chapter.
Of course, Austin wouldn’t be Austin without the many spots dedicated to celebrating our unique natural habitat. So for more outdoor attractions, don’t miss the chapter on Parks & Recreation, where we’ve introduced you to Lake Travis, Lady Bird Lake, and many, many other alfresco wonderlands. If you still yearn for more things to see and do, check out the chapters on The Arts, Kidstuff, The Music Scene, Nightlife, and Spectator Sports. Come to think of it, much of this book is dedicated to Austin attractions, in one form or another. Note: Because of the high concentration of Attractions in Central Austin, we’ve divided this section into three smaller parts to make it easier for you: Downtown, The University of Texas, and Central.
One of the first things you’ll notice when you visit Austin is our abundance of trees and flowering plants. From our magnificent urban forest to the scores of species that adorn our private gardens and lawns, it’s clear that Austin both values and nurtures its greenery. We love our trees so much that in 2007 the city created Austin’s Tree of the Year Award, so far recognizing an outstanding Bald Cypress as well as Texas Persimmons, and Escarpment Live Oaks. While we don’t have an Austin Child of the Year Award (hmmm?), we do tend to lavish our kids with care and attention so they, like our trees, will grow upright, strong, and resilient. Creative Austin entrepreneurs and community leaders have put a great deal of energy into providing recreational, educational, cultural, and downright fun activities for youth of all ages. The greater Central Texas area provides even more diversion, including that guaranteed kid-pleaser, the giant amusement park. So whether yours is a little sprout, a precocious sapling, or a young tree whose branches are reaching for the sky, Austin offers plenty of sunshine, water, and fertilizer for all.
If you want your sprouts to enjoy their trip to Austin, be sure to visit some of the places listed here. We’ve provided six categories designed to direct you to Central Texas’s most appealing attractions for “growing” children.
Fertilize Well: While this list includes those attractions designed to stimulate the mind, there’s plenty of fun to be found, too.
Just Add Water: What would Central Texas be without diversions designed to get you nice and wet?
Supply Sunshine: These are a few of Austin’s outdoor delights that appeal to children.
Let ’em Grow Crazy: For when the kids just need to let loose and have fun.
A Garden of Delights: Check this out for relaxing and entertaining spots that are sure to please.
Don’t Eat the Daisies: Sure, Austin has all the fast-food chains that appeal to children, but here are a few local favorites, both homegrown and outside imports. See the Restaurants chapter for even more places to feed yourself and the kids.
Please see the Parks & Recreation chapter for information on many more activities that are practically guaranteed to delight kids of all ages. The chapters on Attractions, Spectator Sports, and The Arts offer locales and events for the young and young at heart. The Attractions chapter also lists some guided tours, several via fun modes of transportation that might help get the kids out the door. The Literary Scene chapter provides information about our libraries and bookstores, which all have story times or other activities designed especially for kids. You’ll also find some comic bookstores listed!
Covering 267,339 square miles and boasting hundreds of miles of seashore, soaring mountains, plunging valleys, vast plains and prairies, pine forests, deserts, islands, lakes of all sizes and shapes, giant metropolises, small towns, and wide-open spaces galore, Texas is much more than a state—“It’s a Whole Other Country,” as Austin’s boosters like to say. At the very heart of it all, in spirit if not precise geographic center, is Austin. It’s no wonder, then, that when Central Texans plan a vacation we often look no farther than their own great big bountiful backyard. In fact, for trips covered in this chapter, we can’t even include all the fascinating sights Texas has to offer. Some are just too far away to make even a weekend trip feasible. You’ll soon find, however, that there are plenty of places to escape to right here in Central Texas.
One journey takes you to Johnson City, boyhood home of America’s 36th president. We’ll also introduce you to LBJ’s beloved ranch, the “Texas White House” during the Johnson Administration, and the place where the elder statesman came home to retire following a lifetime of public service. Both of these areas make up the LBJ National Historic Park.
Not to overlook Texas’s other US presidents, we’ll present Bryan/College Station, home of the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, site of sprawling Texas A&M University, and domicile of UT’s archrival, the A&M Aggies. Of course #41, as the Bush family calls the first former President Bush, has a completed library, while #43 (our former governor), President George W. Bush, is building his library on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
We’ll tell you about Gruene, a former ghost town that emerged from ruin to become a thriving community, especially on weekends when the chicken-fried steak disappears faster than the time it takes to pronounce the city’s name correctly. This is one place Austinites visit regularly to shop for antiques or to crowd into the historic Gruene Hall for an evening of first-class live music.
We had to include Round Top and Winedale, two communities east of Austin renowned as meccas of classical music and theater. One of the state’s oldest communities, Round Top is home to the International Festival Institute, founded by a concert pianist. Winedale hosts the annual Shakespeare at Winedale festival. Austinites flock to these cities throughout the year to partake of their great annual events and to step back in time.
The little town of Salado, just a stone’s throw from Austin, could have been a contender. An up-and-coming town in the 1880s, Salado was bypassed when the railroad finally came to Central Texas. While railroad towns thrived, Salado slipped into obscurity. Discovered by artists in the second half of the 20th century, Salado is now back on track, so to speak, and a popular day trip or weekend getaway from Austin.
Of course, we couldn’t forget Fredericksburg, one of Austin’s favorite weekend getaways and a prime example of Hill Country living. This quaint town, founded by German immigrants in 1846, boasts a Main Street that has earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. Main Street shops offering antiques, apparel, and arts and crafts do a bustling business on weekends as visitors pour in from all over the region. This is one great place to spot a movie star or two, or perhaps just enjoy an authentic German meal.
Considering the important German influences on the culture and development of Central Texas over the past 150 years, it wouldn’t do to mention just one German-infused town. New Braunfels, too, retains much of its German flavor, literally. From the great German restaurants to the annual Wurstfest sausage festival, New Braunfels is a delight for the taste buds. We’ll give you two other reasons this town attracts Central Texans year-round.
Appropriately, the Highland Lakes come last. After you’ve spent even a little time trying to see all the sights Central Texas has to offer, you may need to just get away from it all and relax for a while on a boat or on a beach. Any one of the four lakes we describe in this section will do the trick.
Before you head out, check the Annual Events & Festivals chapter for events in these day trip destinations. Also have a look at our Texas Pronunciation Guide in the Area Overview chapter so that you’ll sound like an Insider when you get there.
Whether you decide to head north, south, east, or west to major cities, small towns, or a place of quiet solitude, you’re sure to find a spot that is Texas through and through.