Friday, September 30, 2016

5 Things to Do in Austin other than Austin City Limits or SXSW

The often photographed mural on the side of a building of West Annie Street at South 1st Street 

Hordes of festival goers descend upon Austin, Texas this week to attend the Austin City Limits Festival. Locals like me have two choices — either join the crowds to enjoy one live music concert after another or else studiously avoid the entire area until the festival is over. Personally, I like exploring Austin when there's less people around. This is getting harder and harder since the population has doubled since I moved here a few decades ago.

Before I moved to Austin, I knew four things about the city.
  • It was where my then fiance, now husband, lived.
  • It's the State Capital.
  • It's home to the sprawling University of Texas where I spent an amazing month one summer in high school.
  • And it is known as the "Live Music Capital of the World."

Willy Nelson statue and historical marker honoring Austin City Limits

I'm pretty sure that the "Live Music Capital of the World" is a self-awarded appellation, but it's an appropriate one if you believe the claim that Austin has more live music venues per person than anywhere else in the USA. In a chicken-or-the-egg question, I'm not sure which came first, the Austin City Limits show which has run on PBS since 1974 or the many musicians which call the city home. 

So many different parking rules on Sixth Street

When I first moved to Austin more than two decades ago, it was known for being the offbeat setting and inspiration for the Richard Linklater films Slacker which the Library of Congress declared "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and Dazed and Confused starring a young Matthew McConaughey and Ben Affleck. As the town boomed with the influx of tech workers and gradually became more hipsterish, independent businesses sought to hold on to Austin's quirky nature by promoting the slogan "Keep Austin Weird." (Psssst, Portland! We came up with the "Keep ____ Weird" slogan first.)

Stevie Ray Vaughn statue with a very different looking downtown skyline from 14 years ago.

Now that I'm married to a tech guy and the mom of three kids, we no longer live in the cool part of town where our house would be in demand as an AirBnB. We live in the outskirts of suburbia better known as Anytown, USA with its big box chain stores. But if a friend comes into town, I would happily take them to some of my favorite weird places around town... as long as ACL Fest and SXSW were not in session. In that case, I might very well just direct them to this blog post for sightseeing recommendations and kindly suggest that I'll meet them afterwards at a restaurant far, far away from the epicenter of activities. 

Official Austin City Limits PBS store on West 2nd Street

Explore the 2ND Street District

If you're in town for the music, you'll probably end up at a taping of the Austin City Limits Live show at the Moody Theatre on West 2nd Street. The 2ND Street District is a great place to squeeze in some retail therapy or grab a meal. My brother-in-law is a regular at Taverna which specializes in risotto and other Italian fare. He's selective, so I have no qualms recommending it. For your caffeine fix, Jo's Coffee is a local favorite. Pick up some rocker chic wear at Austin Rocks which is an official Austin City Limits PBS store, buy some high end bling at Eliza Page jewelers and definitely make time to browse the shelves at quirky Toy Joy.

Quirky toy shop on West 2nd Street with kid-friendly merchandise even adults would like.

Stroll South Congress

From downtown, cross the river to the South Congress area, a.k.a. "SoCo." Turn back around and look up at the street to the State Capitol looming in the distance. This area captures Austin's weird, independent and quirky nature. It's like the Portland of the South. I can't imagine Austin without SoCo. 

New York style pizza at Home Slice.

If you're hungry and are looking for some cheap eats, head to Home Slice Pizza for New York style pizza. Their sit down restaurant and a take-out location are next door to each other. As proof of the popularity of Jo's Coffee, there's another location on South Congress. Or try Guero's Taco Bar, one of my favorite Mexican restaurants in town. Numerous food trailers also park around this area. 

What I like most about SoCo is browsing through all the stores. If your visit to Texas isn't complete without purchasing cowboy boots, Allen's Boots is the best place in Austin to pick some out. Both Ten Thousand Villages and Uncommon Objects will keep you enthralled with their unusual merchandise. 

You don't need to wait for Halloween to visit this costume shop.

Even if you have no intention of buying or renting a costume while you're in town, be sure to take a look around Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds. You will not believe the racks and racks of costumes, shoes and hats they have in there. They even have full body costumes like the type mascots wear. Maybe you can be the Pokemon everyone catches this Halloween. Or maybe you'll be inspired to buy a suit for your next fancy occasion.

Doesn't every man need a PacMan suit in his wardrobe?

No visit to SoCo is complete for me without a stop at Big Top Candy whether I fill my bag with novelty candy or scoops from the bulk bins.  

Vintage cigarette vending machine filled with "Candy Sticks" as they are now called.

Big Top Candy also has an ice cream and soda fountain which is the perfect pick-me-up if you're visiting on one of Austin's blistering hot summer days.

Big Top Candy offers more than just sugary sweets. 

Look for Street Art

Like in many other hipster outposts, street art is popping up all over Austin. One of the most photographed pieces is the Greetings from Austin mural (see first photo in post) at the corner of West Annie Street at South First Street. Many people consider the graffiti park at HOPE Outdoor Gallery (1101 Baylor Street) a Must See. Read my writeup on it here for my own opinion.  I'll save more of my Street Art picks for next week's followup blog post. 

The ever changing graffiti at Hope Outdoor Gallery

Cool off in Barton Springs Pool

Austinites have been swimming in Barton Springs for centuries. Fed by natural springs emanating from an underground aquifer, it stays between 68F to 70F year round. In the 1920s, the city took over from the private owner and dammed the springs to make a three acre swimming pool with a concrete deck, lifeguard stands and a bathhouse. It's located within Zilker Park near many of the concert stages erected during music festivals. 

Barton Springs, Austin's most popular swimming hole

Spend a Half Day at Hamilton Pool

If you're in Austin for something longer than a weekend visit, take the time for a half day visit to Hamilton Pool located 45 minutes from downtown. Hike down through a shallow canyon to a collapsed grotto with a waterfall spilling over the top. If the water quality level is safe, swimming in this natural water hole is allowed. See full details at this blog post.

The natural beauty of Hamilton Pool

I hope you come and visit Austin, Texas some day. But please don't move here. There are enough people as it is.

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  1. Austin looks to be an interesting city. "Live Music Capitol" sounds good to me.

  2. I've seen photos (maybe yours) of Hamilton Pool and am blown away by it's beauty. Damning the spring to make pools is interesting, I wonder how they do that?

  3. Not sure if the visitors boom is a good thing for the city. Hope it keep being as always. I think I told you I spent a summer there about 15 years ago. I am sure it has changed a lot since that time. I really want to go back and I will follow your off the beaten path things to do for sure.

  4. My youngest daughter did a 3 week road trip with college friends this summer and they did many of the things on your list. She loved Austin - in fact, it was her favorite city they visited!

  5. I'm so glad to hear that she enjoyed her time in Austin.

  6. These aren't really off the beaten path suggestions. I like visiting them on weekday mornings when they aren't so busy.

  7. I think there's just a concrete wall and then a spillway for the overflow to continue down river. I honestly thought it was a manmade pool the first time I visited Barton Springs.

  8. I may be biased, but I think it's one of the most interesting cities in Texas.

  9. It has been a few years, but I was there for a conference and absolutely loved our time in Austin! Wish I'd have had this post back then as there are several things I missed. Hope to return one day for a visit - if I do, I'll be referring to this!

  10. Lyn - A Hole in my ShoeOctober 2, 2016 at 12:32 AM

    This looks like such a fun place, looks like a lot to see and do.

  11. David and I are planning a trip to Texas in 2017. The more local information we can gather the better - thanks.

  12. Until I read your article, my knowledge of Austin was exactly what yours was when you moved there. Now, thanks to this article, I know it a little better.

  13. I've done quite a bit of travel around Texas, yet I've never been to Austin. I hear so much about it, too. I've got to go. It looks lively and fun, my kind of place.

  14. I haven't been in Texas yet, believe it or not. I've heard a lot of good things about Austin and from you are describing there seems to be quite fun visiting this city.

  15. Don't worry, I have no plans of moving there but I wouldn't mind visiting. Seems like a fun city to live in.

  16. I'm headed there this weekend so thanks for all of the tips!!


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