Maybe I am a stereotype. I think I am based on the recent BuzzFeed blog about Austin. The pathetic thing is that I am not even able to label myself an Austinite anymore — I am a Houstonian actually. But Austin will always have a special place in my heart. And while I understand some of the complaints about the city too, I still love it very much. And so after our recent trip for the July 4th holiday to Austin, I decided that it was time to analyze the city that I was born in, went to college in, left, returned to live in again for five years, and left again. Somehow I always boomerang back to Austin.
In addition to being the state capital, Austin is not only a popular vacation destination in Texas, but also has had a major residential population upswing to become one of the fastest growing cities in the nation. This influx of visitors and residents has brought in a lot of change and challenged the city’s infrastructure, but the foundation of the city remains the same — largely because of the people which create the culture and vibe.
It is a city of contradictions. As the state capital, it is the home base for largely conservative politicians, while the city’s population is known for liberal culture and attitudes. Technologically forward thinking with operations for large computer and software corporations, the city is also very community driven with a local-business oriented “Keep Austin Weird” motto. Upscale and sexy, yet casual and hippie, the city is a haven to a wide variety of people. One minute you can be downtown in a cocktail bar and the next in the Hill Country waiting for BBQ to be served; it is city mouse meets country mouse. It is gourmet in flop flops, trendy yet vintage, politically charged while culturally rich. Most of all, it’s a place where people like to have a good time.
Located along the Colorado River, Austin is the 11th populous city in the USA. It is a center for government and education (Texas State Capitol and The University of Texas at Austin), and has also emerged as a leader for technology and business with operations for several Fortune 500 companies, including Whole Foods Market, Advanced Micro Devices, Google, 3M and the worldwide headquarters of Dell are located in nearby Round Rock. Certainly there is a lot of rich Texas history ready to be explored too, in fact many tourists visit the State Capitol complex, or adventure to learn more at Texas landmarks such as the LBJ Library and Museum, Texas Governor’s Mansion, Bob Bullock State History Museum, and Texas State Cemetery. In addition to historical tourism, there is a vibrant arts, music and film scene which is evident by art institutions, such as the Umlauf Sculpture Garden, Austin Children’s Museum, Blanton Museum of Art, and the newly branded The Contemporary Austin (formerly the Austin Museum of Art and Arthouse). Festivals such as SXSW, ACL Music, and Austin Film Festival maintain a steady stream of creative professionals into the city and keep itineraries full of options. And of course there are sports too. The University of Texas provides a year-round calendar of sporting events that draw in thousands of visitors each year. Longhorns football games attract a rabid and legendary fan base, as well as notable visiting teams and fans. Furthermore, the city is the new home for Formula One racing, birthplace of flat-track roller derby and was recently named the location for the ESPN X-Games events.
While these are some of the top travel attractions for non-Texans and Texans alike, these are NOT the things that call to me each year. For me, it is the everyday culture and vibe that make the location unique. In fact, aside from work obligations (film for myself and sports for my husband), we actually prefer to visit during the downtime for tourism when the vacation rental prices are affordable and the roads are free of visitors. It is the outdoor lifestyle, the variety of accessible entertainment options, and the casual gourmet food culture that appeal to us.
Austin is known for its healthy lifestyle and, with approximately 300 days of sunshine, it is hard to avoid the great outdoors. The best times to visit Austin are September to November or March to May, when temperatures in the 70s and 80s. Aided by a mild climate, a system of hike and bike trails, water-oriented infrastructure, and rolling hills of natural beauty, the city is known for its green space and outdoor fitness. Most of our favorite adventures revolve around the three man-made lakes that surround the Colorado River. Lady Bird Lake (formerly Town Lake), Lake Austin and Lake Travis were all created through an extensive dam system to prevent flooding. In addition to the pools, swimming holes, streams and scenery that these water controls provide, the city is also home to a very diverse landscape that includes flat lands, limestone rock, wildflower fields and hill country. It is a green oasis that sets the stage for cycling, swimming, rock climbing, paddle boarding, kayaking, canoeing, BMXing, yoga, roller derby, disc golf, and marathons. Austin is one of the nation’s fittest cities. And as a special added bonus for us, it’s known for being dog-friendly, with plenty of dog parks.
In the 1970s, Austin first gained its reputation as the “Live Music Capital of the World” which pays tribute to the many live musicians and music venues that called the city home. Artists such as Willie Nelson, Asleep at the Wheel, and Stevie Ray Vaughan helped cultivate the unique, independent and creative culture that still exists today. Later music festivals, such as SXSW and Austin City Limits (also a PBS TV concert series) helped to solidify this vibe and culture. While I can’t imagine it is easy to live as a musician or artist in Austin today, due the increasing cost of living, the odds are still in your favor to stumble into a live music performance from a band or musician from the moment you step off the plane. Furthermore, there is a very unique film aficionado spirit in Austin thanks to the Original Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and Austin Film Society, as well as other film organizations that bring cult, classic, and avant-garde film offerings to screening venues along with the mainstream blockbusters. There is always something unique and entertaining to do.
While Austin is not necessarily a fancy “food and wine” style destination, there is a vibrant food community in Austin that is unique to the region and has been recognized by major foodie publications, TV shows and culinary awards. Austin is more than just Tex-Mex and BBQ and is fast becoming a destination for gourmands seeking emerging talents and cutting-edge affordable culinary creations. Austin also is home to an unprecedented number of mobile eateries that offer an abundance of choices at affordable prices, from vegan to chicken & waffles to cupcakes.
Many of these same components can be found in other destinations though, so why does Austin have a cult-like following of believers? People who live here are very vocal about their love for Austin and speak positively about their city, including me. I believe it is the townies that make it stand out, and combined with these other attractions, make the city a hard to beat destination.
I remember moving to Los Angeles and having culture shock — mostly from daily interactions with people. There was always an ulterior motive. I felt the same about visits to New York, where I had a mixed bag in terms of the reception among locals, some very kind and others cold. In Austin, I always feel at home. I feel welcome. The “Keep Austin Weird” motto creates a great vibe that celebrates eclectic and liberal lifestyles. It is a mix of tolerant and casual people that accept a quirky cast of characters that include burnt-orange clad UT students, corporate CEOs, struggling musicians, politicians from all backgrounds, hipsters, yuppies, GLBT and more. It is a casual culture where tattoos and piercings, sweaty bicycle shorts, and sandals are worn by all income levels, and many celebrities call home without paparazzi or pomp.
In general, I have found that Austinites are very friendly and much less suspicious of outsider intentions. Weirdness is celebrated and individuality is appreciated. Furthermore, the UT student population keeps the city young and diverse with a large influx every semester of new students, graduating students, returning graduates, and international students. Combine youth with fitness, it is has a very appealing, overall healthy and happy population. I love to dip into the fountain of youth and happiness in Austin and live my weekend without make-up, perfumed with lake water and sweat, smiling all the way. It is refreshing and liberating to create a happy hour plan using bicycle paths along a lake to navigate the city. For Dave and I, Austin will always be home and it makes us happy.
At the same time, sometimes when you live and visit a location as long as I have Austin, you are definitely exposed to the downside as well. There are things about the city that smitten Austinites fail to mention, aspects that naysayers have fiercely pointed out to me when my love for the city shines too bright. It is not all moon towers and bluebonnets in Austin, there are definitely civic issues that can sometimes be glossed over. And there are certainly anti-Austin attitudes that are against the city (especially here in Houston for some reason). The city is not one size fits all, especially as a resident, but I do think that it excels as a vacation destination for travelers like me, which is what I am focused on for the purposes of a travel blog. Still, I would like to paint a full picture and do not want to make it seem totally perfect either.
Austin lacks diversity. It was founded with a very segregated infrastructure that was designed to keep cultures divided and in some ways there is still a lack of cultural integration in the city today. Whites generally stick to their areas, Hispanics and African Americans as well (one possible exception is 6th Street where the entire city converges). Until recently, city government was set up to limit minority input as well. The city council had a long history of at-large representation, which means that some neighborhoods have been without representation in the past — typically the lower income areas without as much means for campaigning, such as the East Side. Recently, Austin voters passed a referendum that will create ten single-member, geographically defined city council districts, with the mayor elected at large. The new scheme will fundamentally change the political landscape in Austin and hopefully create culture and civic priorities that encourages more diversity throughout the city, as well as protect historic businesses and neighborhoods from being bulldozed.
Due to the real estate boom, another issue we see on our visits is development greed. Mass cookie-cutter construction has brought an influx of condos along the lake, as well as to the East Side. This has not only transformed the skyline, but environmental studies have shown the water quality in the lakes has decreased due to construction run-off, views have been blocked by high-rises, and historic homes and businesses with charm have been replaced by tear-down units that bring in high occupation counts without the character of Austin. Typically there are multiple construction cranes in the view of downtown, and have been there for years. I am not a fan of these condo developments that are going viral. At the same time, I cannot blame people for wanting to move to Austin either and economic growth certainly brings stability and positive change for the city as well. It is just a balancing act that I would like to see prioritize the Austin roots and foundation that I love — which does not include high-rise condos.
Compared to larger cities, the public transportation in Austin also leaves much to be desired. There is a bus system, which I used only as a university student years (and years) ago and found it to be unreliable, and a light rail with very limited hours and stations as it is rather new. For a visitor, a rental car or cabs are your best bet at this point. That being said, it is certainly possible to find a central place to stay and plan on walking or renting bikes but you just have to be prepared to sweat. This is our top choice, but it might not be for everyone. Be aware if you rent a car, that traffic can also be a nightmare. Again due to the large population growth, the freeway systems struggle to keep up with the increase in traffic. There are not many routes for going north to south, and visa versa, so I-35 is often heavily congested, especially during rush hour.
Another thing to consider is that culture in Austin is very casual and bar-centric. This might not be for everyone. When packing to visit Austin, there is no need to plan to get too overdone to go anywhere. You’ll spot a good amount of diners wearing shorts and flip flops even in high-end establishments. Attire in Austin usually includes jeans and T-shirts, even activewear, and it’s rare to see well-dressed people out. I like the freedom from formality, but some people find it pedestrian. Personally, I strongly prefer it, especially during the Summer months.
Honestly you can find the good and the bad anywhere. I am sure that there will be people who disagree with me on some of these opinions, and that is absolutely and totally OK. We all have different experiences and different perspectives. I think the main thing that I wanted to provide was a well-rounded picture of the community. It is one that I love very much and plan to visit over and over again — but at the same time I do not want to write unrealistic fan fiction about the city too. The bottom line is that despite some faults, this is a city that I think is one of the best for me and my family. I hope that you consider visiting it soon to see for yourself what you think. I plan to post additional blog entries with some more specific details about restaurants, bars, outdoor activities soon, but in the meantime I totally agree with that silly Buzzfeed article.
Yep, I am a stereotypical Austinite with a Houston zip code.