Sunday, October 13, 2013

Travels to Austin, Texas

Austin is the capital of Texas and the 11th-largest city in the United States. The city grew throughout the 19th century and became a center for government and education with the construction of the Texas State Capitol and the University of Texas at Austin. Austin has come to be known as "The Live Music Capital of the World", a reference to the many musicians and live music venues within the area. In recent years, some Austinites have also adopted the unofficial slogan "Keep Austin Weird". This interpretation of the classic, Texas-style sense of independence refers to the traditional and proudly eclectic, liberal lifestyles of many Austin residents.

View of Austin Skyline
Keith was in Austin for a work conference and I decided to join him for a long weekend so we could explore the city together.  Here are a few things we saw during our stay:

Texas State Capitol Building
The Driskill Hotel built in 1886, once owned by George W. Littlefield, and located at 6th and Brazos streets, was finished just before the construction of the Capitol building. The Driskill, a Romanesque-style building, is the oldest operating hotel in Austin, and one of the best-known hotels in Texas. We had breakfast there one morning before heading out for a full day of sightseeing.

The Texas State Capitol itself is also a major tourist attraction. Located in Downtown Austin, the capitol building contains the chambers of the Texas Legislature and the office of the governor. Originally designed in 1881 by architect Elijah E. Myers, it was constructed from 1882 to 1888 under the direction of civil engineer Reuben Lindsay Walker. A $75 million underground extension was completed in 1993. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1986. The Texas State Capitol is 308 feet tall making it the sixth tallest state capitol and one of several taller than the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

The Bullock Texas State History Museum is located a few blocks north of the Texas State Capitol.  We walked up there to check it out and get some air conditioned respite from the Texas heat.  The museum has three floors of interactive exhibits; the first floor theme is "land," the second floor theme "identity," and the third floor theme "opportunity."  We spent a good 2 hours in the museum and it was interesting to learn about the history of Texas.  They also have an IMAX theater, and would have liked to stay and watch a movie, but it required a separate fee and we didn't have enough time to spare.

For the music lovers, we actually were in town during the three-day annual Austin City Limits Music Festival (ACL), but we didn't have tickets so we enjoyed the vibrant live music scene on 6th Street.  We were able to make it to one of the late night shows as part of ACL that were held at a popular venue called Emo's.  Originating in the punk rock trenches of the Red River Music District in the early 90s, the initial venue brought an authentic personality that helped shape Austin’s thriving live music scene. The new venue now boasts a state-of-the-art sound system, complete with quality lighting and staging capabilities.  With more music venues per capita than any other U.S. city, Austin's music revolves mainly around the many nightclubs on 6th Street and an annual film/music/interactive festival known as South by Southwest (SXSW).  Most of the restaurants and bars are cluttered along this main hub in downtown.

street art

Zilker Metropolitan Park is a recreational area in the heart of south Austin that comprises over 350 acres of publicly owned land. It is named after its benefactor Andrew Jackson Zilker, who donated the land to the city in 1917. It was developed into the park during the Great Depression in the 1930s. The park serves as a hub for many recreational activities and the hike and bike trail around Lady Bird Lake, both of which run next to the park. The park was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on 1997.

Nearby, we visited the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum. This outdoor space represents so much that is quintessentially Austin: superb art casually set in a shady garden of native Texas plants, a natural oasis near Barton Springs and only blocks from the heart of an urban capitol city. It displays dozens of bronze and stone pieces given to the city of Austin by noted 20th century American sculptor Charles Umlauf.

During our walk back to the hotel, we crossed the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge over Lady Bird Lake that had a cool view of the city and a temporary art installation called THIRST that challenges viewers to think about the drought. Symbolizing its destructive power with a single dead tree hovering over the lake, its roots are unable to reach the water creating a haunting image.

Every summer night, hundreds of people gather to see the world's largest urban bat colony emerge from under the Congress Avenue Bridge.  These 1.5 million bats are fun to watch as they emerge to eat 10,000 to 20,000 pounds of insects, including agricultural pests.  I admit I had a little case of vertigo as we stood on the bridge waiting to see the bats come out.  But as soon as it was time, it was weird to hear their little squeaks amongst the fluttering of their wings.  There was just so.many.of.them - it was surreal.

The Alamo Drafthouse Cinema is a fun place to watch a movie and have a meal or drink!  Apparently there are a few franchises across the country, but we visited the one on 6th Street.  We took a break from the hot temperatures and caught the movie Gravity playing as a matinee.  I have never been to a drafthouse before and was fascinated by how you could order food and drinks - not just popcorn and soda, but actual entrees and alcohol - to enjoy as you watch the movie.  Keith had a Burger Royale with smoked bacon, cheddar cheese, red onion, leaf lettuce, tomato, mayo and a side of fries.  His burger was pretty large and quite tasty.  To go with he ordered some local beers.  I ordered a Chopped Chicken Salad made with Romaine hearts, fresh mozzarella, roasted red peppers, kalamata olives, croutons, basil pesto, and balsamic dressing.  My salad was also a generous portion and all the flavors tasted great.  To indulge, I also ordered an 'adult shake', the Mexican Chocolate Shake made with Reposado tequila, chocolate, and cinnamon.  I could taste the spiking, but it was delicious and overall, I was impressed with the food from a movie theater.  It was a little hard to eat in the dark and also concentrate on the movie (I mean, have you seen Gravity yet? There are some major intense scenes, y'all), but it was still a fun and fairly affordable lunch.  I recommend you check it out sometime.

Another cool view of downtown Austin from Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge 
For more Austin eats check out my restaurant reviews.  We had a fun time in Austin, but next time I might rent a car.  Though we were able to walk to all the places we visited, sometimes a cab ride was needed.  Also a car would allow you visit the outskirts of downtown proper and see more parks and sights that Texas has to offer.  Have you visited Austin before? What are some of your favorites things to do and places to eat? Please share in the comments below!

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