This is the first post in a three-part series from contributor Dave Zuchowski on his road adventures in the Texas Heartland.
Connect the dots of Austin, Fredericksburg and San Antonio on a Texas map and you end up with a triangle that roughly outlines an area that could be regarded as the Texas Heartland.
It’s a region of scenic beauty, down-home country music, sophistication, a high-tech industry base, pleasant weather, long and deep history, great food, and a trove of interesting museums; the home of one of the 20th century’s most influential presidents, an early German enclave that retains its ethnic culture, and the live music capital of the world; and a place of vibrant Hispanic heritage and the fastest-growing city in the United States.
Making visiting this trio of Texas treats by car a bit easier is the fact that none of the destinations are more than two-hours apart. So instead of spending your time behind the wheel, you’ll be able to dive right into exploring each destination. As I drove along the busy interstates and back country byways, the old 1941 song “Deep in the Heart of Texas” first recorded by Perry Como came to mind. “The stars at night, are big and bright…clap, clap, clap, clap. Deep in the Heart of Texas.”
With this as a theme song for my series of three travel articles on the Lone Star State, I begin with Austin—and seven things to know before you visit:
1. “Keeping Austin Weird” is the city’s unofficial motto
Austinites tend to think with an open mind and sport an air of tolerance. The city’s live-and-let-live spirit allowed the late Leslie Cochran to become what’s believed to be the world’s only homeless transvestite to run for mayor of a major city. While campaigning, Cochran sported boas and thongs, a beard and tiaras, but his attire had been equally as off-center before and after…
A historic plaque dedicated to this fearless star of glam get-up is mounted along a wall on East Sixth Street, where the less-well-heeled come to party in the area loosely billed as Austin’s answer to Bourbon Street. It’s also the home of Voo Doo Donuts, where zany renditions of the sweet doughy treats are taken to an outrageous level of chic. Just down the block, the Museum of the Weird prides itself on displaying freaks of nature such as the Minnesota Ice Man—shown lying in a block of ice—shrunken heads, mummies, medical oddities, cryptozoology, and the Fiji Mermaid. The tour ends with a live one-man show by Capt. Eric Burton, a gent who claims to have broken the Guinness World Record for lifting the most weight (150 pounds) with his beard.
2. It’s a city of firsts
Austin is the birthplace of Whole Foods and the headquarters for Dell. Expert Market just named the city number two for “Best Global Cities for Working in Tech” and U.S. World and News Report ranked Austin as the best place to live in the U.S. in 2017.
Currently, Austin is the fastest-growing city in the U.S, with some 157 new residents (per the Chamber of Commerce) arriving each day. It’s also the birthplace of the fajita, first created in the Hyatt Regency’s Southwest Bistro in 1982 by chef George Weidmann. Legend has it that actor Matthew McConaughey was discovered by casting director Don Phillips while both were nuzzled up to the bar at the Hyatt, and the then-young actor made his debut in his first Hollywood film Dazed and Confused.
3. It’s the live music capital of the world
Many people are already familiar with Austin’s vibrant music scene through Austin City Limits, broadcast over PBS for more than 40 years. Since ACL Live at Moody Theater opened in 2011, it has hosted over 100 shows each year and serves as the studio home for ACL TV’s episode tapings.
Some may not know that the city also has more than 250 live music venues, and that there’s at least one concert taking place every night of the week in a wide range of genres. Must-visit venues include the Broken Spoke, where two-step dance lessons are held from 8 to 9 pm, Wednesday through Saturday, followed by live music seven days a week. Founded in 1964, the club has hosted the likes of Willie Nelson since 1968 and includes a museum titled the Tourist Trap that showcases photos and memorabilia of musicians and celebrities who’ve visited.
Over on South Congress Street, the Continental Club has been staging live music concerts since 1955. With shows every night of the week, the Continental has since become a historic landmark with an additional venue upstairs in the adjacent and intimate gallery. For jazz, the atmospheric Elephant Room is located in the basement of a building at 315 Congress Avenue in downtown Austin. For more than 20 years, the club has hosted two bands a day, and Wynton Marsalis named it one of the top ten jazz clubs in America.
Those into music festivals might like to visit during the South By Southwest festival, held March 13-19 this year, and the Austin City Limits festival, scheduled for October 6-8 and October 13-15 in 2017.
4. It’s the state capital of Texas
The state capitol building dominates the city skyline and is actually 14-feet taller than the US Capitol in Washington, D.C. Thirty-to-40-minute guided tours are offered daily, are free of charge and take in both legislative chambers: the Senate and the House. Be sure to allow time to stroll the lovely 22 acres of grounds in front of the building.
5. The Congress Avenue Bridge is home to more than a million and a half Mexican free-tailed bats
Each evening, March through November, the largest urban bat colony in North America emerges from its roost under the bridge to form a flying cloud. Residents and visitors alike are amazed by this daily experience, which is viewable from a number of locations.
For an up-close view, riverboat bats excursions are offered on Lady Bird Lake, essentially a damed-up section of the Colorado River. On the lake in front of the Hyatt, Todd Kirk docks a flotilla of water bikes that can be rented by the hour. He also offers 90-minute water bike tours Friday-Sunday evenings that include the bat emergence experience. Sharing the lake waterfront at the Hyatt, Capital Cruises schedules lunch, dinner and bat cruises by riverboat and also rents canoes, kayaks, swan pedal boats, and stand-up paddle boards.
6. Austin is a foodie mecca
While in Austin, you should probably try barbecue at least once, be it brisket, ribs or sausage. Some of the best-rated eateries include Franklin, La Barbecue, Micklethwaite, and Stiles. If you’d like to take in some of the more inventive, adventurous culinary hot spots, try Picnik, specializing in Paleo-friendly offerings that are gluten-, corn-, peanut- and soy-free as well as butter coffee, made with grass-fed butter, which sounds awful but is really quite tasty.
Those who relish guacamole and ceviches must stop in at La Condesa at 400 A West Second Street. The guacamole-tasting features the avocado dish four in exciting and novel ways. Old Thousand, a Chinese restaurant at 1000 East 11th Street, serves modern takes on American-Chinese food such as kung po cauliflower, jellyfish salad, honey prawns, and a clay pot full of jasmine rice, confit, mushrooms, bok choy, and pork belly. Be sure to try the Chinese tea service, a selection of three teas of your choice brewed from teas sourced directly from small farms in China.
For an inventive take on tacos, stop in at Torchy’s Tacos at 1822 South Congress for 14 different and unique tacos like you never imagined. February’s special, the “Scallywag” is made with coconut-battered shrimp, bacon, green chiles, shredded cheese, and pickled onions topped with habanero peach jam and cilantro.
7. The suburbs can be beautiful
City tours can be helpful in that they give you a good overview of a destination’s major attractions. One company in Austin, AO Tours, even takes visitors out into the suburbs of West Austin and just into the Texas Hill Country as part of its hour-and-a-half-long guided excursion via compact van.
Besides getting a glimpse of some very tony gated communities and a hilltop house owned by a former CEO of one of the town’s high-tech companies that’s so huge and sprawling that even president Trump might be green with envy, the tour drives by lovely Lake Austin and Mt. Bonnell, at 785-feet above sea level, it’s one of Austin’s highest points. Take the 100-step staircase to the top for some awesome panoramas of the cityscape. The tour also traverses the Loop 360 highway, also known as the “Capital of Texas Highway,” widely considered one of the most scenic urban drives in Texas.
For more: For more information on Austin go to austintexas.org or phone 866-GO-AUSTIN.
All photos credited to Bill Rockwell.