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Five Days in Austin, Texas: Eat like a Zagat; Explore like a Baedeker

From under the Congress Avenue Bridge, a view to old and new Austin, the lake, and the spirit of this vibrant city.
From under the Congress Avenue Bridge, a view to old and new Austin, the lake, and the spirit of this vibrant city.
© 2014 Karen Rubin/

Places typically fall into two categories: those you would like to visit but not want to live, and those where you would like to live but not visit; only a handful are places where you would be happy to both visit and live. Austin, Texas, is one of these special places.

Seeing the 1.5 million bats fly out from under the Congress Avenue Bridge is one of Austin's unique attractions. Austin is home to the largest urban bat population in North America.
© 2014 Karen Rubin/

Happily, with so many young professionals migrating there to join Google, Dell and a score of others, on top of the tens of thousands of students attending University of Texas-Austin, it is we parents who are flocking there to visit. And while our progeny are at work, we get to explore and discover the many treasures and delights of this place in the earnest ways that tourists do (and locals do not), coming together again after work or class to visit the special haunts that only locals know. That's the best of both worlds.

Indeed, few Austin "locals" are natives; most have come from other places, and just as most transplants, they bring an incredible enthusiasm for their adopted, if only temporary, home.

That makes for the fabulous vibe that permeates Austin - there is an energy, creativity, youthful exuberance (the average age here is 29), a pulsing sense of possibility and excitement.

This is despite the fact that Austin is Texas' state capital, and dominated by the likes of Governor Rick Perry and his ilk. I must confess, after being there just a day and seeing all the wonderful green initiatives (plastic bags banned! LEED buildings! mass transit! bike lanes! fitness mania!) I absolutely delight in the realization of how Perry must squirm to live among open-minded, globally oriented, out-of-the-box creative thinkers, with their progressive politics. (Perry doesn't even live at the Governor's mansion, I am told, after it was hit with a Molotov cocktail.)

What makes the city most dynamic - and different from the rest of Texas which elevates obstinance and intolerance to noble traits - is that like Atlanta and Nashville, which in their own way are also an oasis in a desert, Austin draws people from all over the country. (But at the Bullock Texas State Museum, I discover the basis for those traits.) Indeed, if Texas is famous for the individualism of its cowboys, Austin's individualism comes from its creativity.

The city is not just youthful in its demographics and orientation, it is completely revitalized. There is a building boom here that reflects the city's growth in population, booming economy, employing all those wonderful progressive urban design strategies.

And how could the economy not grow? It has become a second Silicon Valley with outposts of Google and headquarters of Dell Computer (in fact, the flight between Silicon Valley in California and Austin is known as the "nerd bird" and Austinites are proud of it). It has the University of Texas, with 50,000 students and another 24,000 faculty and staff (think of all those college parents and families of hopeful high schoolers coming each year to visit, let alone one of the largest football stadiums, seating 100,000). Austin is the aforementioned seat of Texas government (think lobbyists and money flowing in and out). And tourism is booming - people who don't come for business or to visit family, come for an amazing array of festivals, food and music.

Austin has developed a reputation as being the Live Music Capital of the World - with Austin City Limits, the longest-running television show in history (aired by PBS, take that rightwingers!), and some 250 live venues that keep this city hopping until the wee hours (they claim to surpass Nashville which boasts being Music City).

And then there is South by Southwest (SXSW), one of the largest and most fascinating festivals in the world, which begins with a fashion show of new tech (that's where Google unveiled their goggles), and then opens up to music and film festival (2000 performances in just four days!). The whole city becomes a venue that encompasses locals and out-of-towners alike (book your room now!).

Austin has become the epicenter for everything new in culture and technology. Move over Los Angeles!

The city has also become a mecca for foodies, with the most interesting phenomenon of food trucks - about 1000 of them - some that are mobile, and some that are in fixed locations, that serve up gourmet fare you would find in the finest restaurants. (Here's where visiting with a local pays off most immediately - finding the best food trucks and the neighborhood bars and live music venues). (Did I mention Austin is the world headquarters of Whole Foods?)

And bats! Austin is home to the largest urban population of bats in North America, and they put on a nightly display from the Congress Avenue Bridge, which harbors about 1.5 million of them. In season, hundreds of people flock each night above and below the bridge to be thrilled at the phenomenon of the bats eject in a mad, massive flurry, making a massive black cloud, as the light quickly fades.

We join the flow of parents flocking to visit their young professional who migrated to Austin.

Such a visit includes kvelling over your child's apartment - ours shares with two roommates in South Austin, a short walk over the Congress Avenue bridge and walking distance from downtown, to a hip, happening neighborhood known as "South Congress."

South Congress reminds me of Greenwich Village, the way it used to be when I was my son's age - the distinctive, good-humored wit, unique and quirky shops, entertainment venues, and the most Austin-of all, the food trucks, where our son took us to his favorite, Hey...You Gonna Eat or What? (that's the name) for gourmet sandwiches that are out of this world. I am in foodie heaven with Chef Eric's specialty, the Shiner Bock beer-battered Monte Cristo – hickory-smoked cheddar, mesquite smoked turkey that Chef Eric smokes himself, black truffle brie, and homemade cherry & fig jelly (512-296-3547,

We eat while sitting pleasantly at picnic tables under lights and Chef Eric comes over and tells us his story. We are surprised to learn he isn't a trained chef - but he spent more than 20 years in restaurant management, toiling away as general manager of fine dining steakhouses from Florida to Texas - even earning AAA's prestigious Four Diamond rating while opening and running BR Prime on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Then he struck out on his own. And here he is.

It is here where I see my first sign, "Keep Austin Weird" - a loving expression which means keep this place uniquely Austin.

On another evening, he takes us to his favorite taco truck (though this one is connected to a wonderful log cabin-looking structure where there is a TV and pool table): Torchy’s where I have the "Democrat"—beef, cilantro, avocado, lime. (1311 S 1st St, Austin, TX 78704, 512-366-0537,

So much of Austin is pure serendipity.

On our first afternoon in Austin, we stroll along Congress Avenue (the main street) until it is time for us to go to the Moody Theater for the "Yes" concert. We come upon an event at the city's modern art museum - they are celebrating the arrival of a new director. It seems that all the movers and shakers of Austin society, or at least the cultural elite, are here.

We return to the Moody theater on the street renamed for country music icon Willie Nelson. This is the extraordinary concert venue -actually the whole theater is a gigantic recording studio - where the famous Austin City Limits is taped (tickets to tapings can be obtained by lottery). ((Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater is located at 310 W. Willie Nelson Blvd., Austin, TX, 78701. To find out more about the television show and how to be part of the audience, go to To tour the venue or see a concert at Austin City Limits Live at The Moody Theater, go to

(See: Moody Theater, new home for Austin City Limits, is 'must see' Austin attraction and slideshow).

On the weekend, we come upon a huge Doggie Fest (they set two Guinness World Records that day, with official witnesses and everything!) which took over a massive doggie park on the waterfront where the dogs have free rein - they even go swimming in the lake (actually, part of the Colorado River, but in one of the quirky aspects of Austin, which includes streets that have dual names, it is Town Lake, now called Lady Bird Lake). Austin is very much a pet-friendly town. In fact, it is a very friendly town.

The park sits along a bike path that goes along both sides of the lake - where you can also rent kayaks (as we did one morning). It's also a running path (and we actually get a fleeting glimpse of Lance Armstrong running by). There is an air of festivity and vitality.

Austin's nightlife is amazing and famous - how could it not be with some 250 live music venues, amazing restaurants - from the ridiculously popular Franklin's for BBQ (people actually pay other people to wait in line from 11 am in the morning), to Sandra Bullock's restaurant, Bess's, named for her mother.

6th Street which is more like Bourbon Street in New Orleans than Nashville's Honky Tonk district, and draws all the tourists. Our son resists, but I insist on going over there one evening.

All around, Austin is undergoing the most stunning revitalization.

Austin's skyline - rising before your eyes - offers really pleasing architecture even the modern structures (one of the most striking buildings is reminiscent of the "Batman" building in Nashville, but here, it is most appropriate, as we soon learn). But there are spots of historic architecture as well.

The Driskill Hotel, the Capitol, and whole neighborhoods (like Rainey Street), much of it being revitalized, repurposed in most wondrous ways. A grand hotel rising here, a light rail station opening there.

Left to our own devices while our son was at work, we explore its attractions - the LBJ Presidential Library, Hotel Driskill, the Bullock Texas State Museum, the Blanton Museum of Art, an Austin Adventures city tour which proves valuable in terms of giving us a background, taking us to a wide region, and also giving us ideas for museums and sites to explore on our own.

Meanwhile, our son introduces us to what the locals enjoy: the amazing food trucks (the most per capita anywhere), Rainey Street, a new entertainment district, South Congress, and best of all, BATS.

Here's how we arranged out itinerary.

Day 2: LBJ, Hotel Driskill, Bullock Texas State HistoryMuseum

The University of Texas - a sprawling campus that occupies nearly 400 acres - is the cultural hub of Austin. What isn't on the campus is adjacent to it, and frankly, you get the sense not just of Austin but of Texas.

The LBJ Presidential Library on the UT campus is an absolute must to visit, especially as we mark the 50th anniversary of Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Medicare. I learned so much - and had to be reminded - of LBJ's domestic legacy in face of the stain of Vietnam - and so much that is absolutely relevant to today's struggles. Four presidents, including President Obama, are marking the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the opening of a special exhibit, "Cornerstones of Civil Rights," on view only through April 30 (the events of a Civil Rights summit are being live streamed and many of the Library's collection can be accessed online; see more at:

The LBJ Presidential Library is the most visited of all the Presidential Libraries. The best part is being able to eavesdrop on telephone conversations between LBJ and such notable figures as Martin Luther King, Jr., Washington Post Publisher Katherine Graham, Sen. Everett Dirksen (LBJ warns him that Nixon's people are committing treason by interfering with the Vietnam peace accord he had negotiated) and scores of others. It is like being the fly on the wall when important history happens. (See: LBJ Presidential Library Austin affirms Johnson's legacy as civil rights hero and slideshow).

There is free parking at the LBJ Presidential Library; open 9 am to 5 pm. Admission Prices.

LBJ Presidential Library, 2313 Red River St., Austin, TX 78705, 512-721-0200,,

Hotel Driskill

From the LBJ Presidential Library, we visit the Hotel Driskill, which actually continues the LBJ story since so much of LBJ's life and career was connected to the Hotel Driskill (it was where he had his first date with Lady Bird, proposed to her, watched the election returns come in). But the Hotel Driskill is equally inextricably connected to Austin's history and heritage - in fact, the oldest continuously operating hotel in the city. This grand, historic hotel, built in the Romanesque style in 1886 by cattle baron Jesse Lincoln Driskill (he made his fortune selling beef to the Confederacy) is not to be missed - there are actually walking tours through the hotel. The lobby, with an exquisite glass dome, breathtaking historical murals, majestic staircase, is a marvel.

The Driskill offers absolutely lovely places to dine. We had lunch at the 1886 Café & Bakery, which serves the most terrific (and imaginative) burgers (Hangover Burger – huge, with bacon and sunnyside-up egg; Reuben burger -unbelievably good and so unexpected, it’s a Reuben sandwich with corned beef, but onions instead of saurkraut, on a burger, with marbled rye bread, and grilled). Known as "Austin's Original Socializing Parlor" Chef Brian Contreras serves a fascinating menu of contemporary Texan cuisine for breakfast, lunch, dinner and late-night meals, along with full bar service (Zagat rated it Austin's Best New American Cuisine). This is also the place to come for happy hour.

The Driskill Grill, where in 1934, LBJ took Lady Bird on their first date, is as fabulous today as it was then, and captures the whole spirit of Texas (The Grill has been included in Zagat's Top 25 Hotel Restaurants).

Just sitting in the Driskill's lobby transports you back into Austin's history, with these most magnificent murals and even the original bank safe. We would have loved to stay here but they were booked up during our visit. Next time!

Hotel Driskill, 604 Brazos St. Austin, Texas 78701, 512-391-7039 & 800-233-1234 HOTEL: 512-439-1234;

Our day exploring Austin continues at the Bullock Texas State History Museum.

For more information on visiting Austin: Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau, 301 Congress, Suite 200, Austin, TX 78701, 512-583-7210,

See more: 5 Days in Austin, Texas: Explore like a Traveler, Eat like a Local and slideshow

See also:

LBJ Presidential Library Austin affirms Johnson's legacy as civil rights hero and slideshow

Moody Theater, new home for Austin City Limits, is 'must see' Austin attraction and slideshow

Karen Rubin, National Eclectic Travel Examiner


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