Down Home And High-Toned

Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Travel Writer

‘Austin is so much fun,” everybody tells you when you say you’re thinking of visiting. And you know what? They’re right.

Many of us from parts East have a sort of love-hate relationship with the whole idea of Texas. The cowboy stuff seems hokey, but secretly we think line dancing looks like fun. (It is.) The gun stuff scares us, but the Western culture is refreshingly singular amid a vast, anodyne heartland of strip malls and chain stores.

Austin, at once cosmopolitan and distinctively local, might just be the Texas you’re looking for. You’ll find your Western saloons and your live music crowds — and if you go this month, bats galore (more on that later).

In between sets of blues at the local honky-tonk, you may find yourself sharing a beer with the next high-tech sensation — this is, after all, the home of Michael Dell, the Jewish entrepreneur and philanthropist whose hugely successful computer business spawned an entire technology community.

Jews are increasingly among the ambitious professionals who flock to this dynamic Texas city. The Jewish Community Association of Austin estimates that the city’s Jewish population of 18,000 will double within two decades, giving the Jewish scene a youthful vitality and a welcoming, inclusive vibe. If you’re visiting and want to stop at a shul or attend an activity at the Dell Jewish Community Center (funded by and named for you-know-who), check out the online guide Shalom Austin (See Resources box).

Austin promotes itself as the “Live Music Capital of the World,” and indeed, music is ubiquitous here. Singers croon on the streets, guitarists strum in the parks, and music halls dominate the nightlife.

In Austin, you don’t have to wade through websites to find a concert. Put on your boots and hat (authentic versions are on sale everywhere) and wander around Sixth Street, a lively part of downtown, and check out the offerings on any given evening: blues, alt-rock, country-crossover, Cajun, folk, you name it.

Dancing is often involved, and locals are very friendly to newcomers — if you can hold your own in a hora, you’ll have no trouble in a line dance. (And if you get hungry, the flagship store of Austin-based Whole Foods is on Sixth Street as well, with kosher groceries and a vast café section.)

There are also some lively spots along South Congress Avenue, in the trendy district of the same name (frequently referred to as SoCo). In a state known for its sprawl, Austin’s downtown — crowned by a very elegant capitol building and dotted with Texas monuments — is refreshingly compact and fun to walk around. South Congress in particular is a browser’s paradise of Western galleries, quirky little shops, cafés filled with students from the nearby University of Texas, and bars that get rowdy after dark.

Bats get rowdy after dark, too. Through November, the Congress Avenue Bridge over the Colorado River is the prime viewing spot for a uniquely Austin spectacle that draws crowds: the dark, fluttering swarm of bats that reliably swoops by around dusk. People bring snacks, cameras, and friends, camping out along the riverbanks in a sort of nightly Halloweenish block party.

The bats are part of what “keeps Austin weird,” as the bumper sticker exhorts, but there’s plenty here for long-hairs as well. The Long Center for the Performing Arts, just across the bridge to the south, is home to an array of institutions befitting a grand state capital: the Austin Symphony, Ballet, and Lyric Opera. Hailed for its acoustics, the Long Center will host performances as diverse as Willie Nelson and “La Traviata” in November.

Music is undoubtedly more prominent than visual arts here, but from now through New Year’s, a high-profile painting exhibition is generating excitement among culture vultures. “Turner to Monet: Masterpieces from the Walters Art Museum,” on view at the Blanton Museum of Art of the University of Texas, is a chance to see first-rate Impressionist works from the Baltimore collection. The Blanton’s own holdings are particularly strong in Latin American art, with fine collections of European and American masters as well. (Worth knowing: the museum is free on Thursdays.)

But don’t spend all of your time indoors. Austin, just on the cusp of Texas’ verdant Hill County, boasts a particularly pretty natural setting. Besides the river, which flows through the city center, Austin has several popular man-made lakes, whose greenbelts and nearby parks are ideal for jogging or biking.

One way to experience Austin’s natural beauty is to visit the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, just outside the city center to the southwest (and technically part of the University of Texas). The drive out is scenic, and the Center’s inviting year-round gardens, walking paths and hiking trails make for a pleasant afternoon.

In fact, you can thank the former first lady not only for the Center — an effort to preserve and celebrate America’s abundant wildflower heritage — but also for the profusion of blooms that keep all of Austin, if not weird, then certainly colorful.

 

Austin’s skyline as seen from the Colorado River, top. Above, the scene at the Galaxy Room on Sixth Street.

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