Our guide on a bicycle tour of the capital city had recorded an album and actively wrote songs. Her experience as a singer/songwriter came through. As she led us along the picture-perfect Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail on electric bicycles and then diverted us through downtown streets, she peppered her get-to-know-Austin tour with an insider’s knowledge of the historic and current music scene.
We heard about the city past and present as we took in the skyline from the south shore of Lady Bird Lake, a reservoir on the Colorado River. The trail, locally called Lady Bird Lake Trail or the Town Lake Trail, makes a 14.5-mile loop around the lake. One of my favorite sections was 1.3 miles of boardwalk, where the railings included an art installation. Belting It Out is a collection of 36 cast bronze, western-style belts decorated with song lyrics from well-known Texas singers and songwriters, including “She needs wide open spaces” from The Chicks and “Watching the bubbles in my beer” from Willie Nelson.
The boardwalk, including a series of bridges directly over the water on the trail’s south side, connects the east and west halves of the trail. As we traveled the loop, we passed some of Austin’s famous landmarks, from the memorial statue for blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, who was an Austin resident when he died in 1990, to Barton Springs Pool, a three-acre, 68-degree spring-fed pool inside the 351-acre Zilker Metropolitan Park, which was preparing to host the two-weekend Austin City Limits Music Festival.
We also cycled past neighborhoods, skyscrapers, and our hotel. Austin is a city that felt easier to navigate without a car. The population of the Austin-Round Rock metro area topped 2.2 million in 2019. Just choose a hotel in one of the downtown or near south districts.
We stayed on the south shore of the lake and could walk or hire a rideshare to reach everything we wanted to do.
We were a five-minute walk to the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge, best known as the bat bridge, where most nights from March to November you can see the largest urban bat colony in North America fly out from beneath the bridge. The first few bats start to emerge around sunset and then shortly after hundreds to thousands fly en masse. If this is something on your must-see list, be sure to try it early in your stay and give yourself a few nights to catch it. The one night we were able to get there at sunset, the bats didn’t emerge. Also, be careful where you choose to stand to avoid the chance of bat guano.
South Congress Avenue is another experience you shouldn’t miss. You’ll understand the “Keep Austin Weird” tagline after some time here, stopping at a few of the shops—ranging from Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds, which peddles costumes and vintage wear, to the classic Allens Boots—and taking photos in front of murals proclaiming “Willie Nelson For President” and “I Love You So Much.” The SoCo district is also home to live music, bars, and restaurants—including several that combine all three.Walking
The food scene in Austin rivals its fantastic assortment of music venues. If you’re a meat-eater, you can’t come to Texas without sampling the barbecue. You’ll have a tough time deciding which to try: Austin has seven restaurants that were named to Texas Monthly’s highly regarded list of 50 best barbecue joints in the state. Franklin Barbecue is the trendiest place to stand in line, reportedly up to three hours, thanks to Aaron Franklin becoming the first pitmaster to win a James Beard award for best chef in the region. We went to Terry Black’s Barbecue, just south of downtown, and while it’s a known fact that brisket is king in Texas we had to try the beef rib. It passed the test: It was so flavorful our table of Kansas City barbecue-eaters didn’t want to add any sauce.
There’s much to try beyond barbecue, though. Guero’s Taco Bar in the SoCo district plays live Americana and blues music on Wednesdays and weekends in the Oak Garden, and they serve interior Mexican food with a hint of Tex-Mex. We also had some of the best pizza we’ve ever tasted, though it was imported. Via 313 has several restaurants and food trailers throughout the city to serve its Detroit Style Pizza. The pizza is rectangular, and the sauce is spread on top. The best part might be the caramelized cheese crust.
You’ll find the 250 music venues that make Austin the self-proclaimed “Live Music Capital of the World” throughout the city, but head downtown to find the highest concentration of iconic spots, from Antone’s Nightclub to the 1915-built Paramount Theatre and Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater.
Austin City Limits is taped at ACL Live, and it’s the longest running music series in U.S. television history (on the air since 1976). Nelson was on the 1974 pilot for the series being pitched to focus on original Texas music, and there’s a bronze statue of him out front. Born in Texas, Nelson moved to Austin in 1971 after finding success in Nashville. He is credited with helping to give traction to the Austin music scene through contacts he had established in the industry.
Nelson, who owns a home and land about 45 minutes outside Austin in Texas Hill Country, holds an event most years adjacent to the South by Southwest Conference and Festivals, commonly called South By or SXSW.
Started in 1987 with 700 attendees, SXSW has grown to 10 days and more than 280,000 people. The March event now includes parallel music, film, and interactive festivals along with a conference featuring 22 tracks and exhibitions that connect creatives across all industries.
Austin has events throughout the year, with October being a month to catch four of the city’s larger annual events: Circuit of the Americas Grand Prix, Austin Film Festival, Texas Book Festival, and Austin City Limits Music Festival.
No matter what time of year you go, Austin is going to be interesting, if not a little weird.