The bats might be the first clue that Austin is not your typical, run-of-the-mill Texas town. The city is home to the largest urban bat colony in North America with more than a million Mexican free tailed bats in residence. Every spring, they migrate North from Mexico to Austin, where they give birth and then stay through the summer and into early fall.
Their favorite hangout is under the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge in the city’s downtown sector. Its narrow, but deep openings make an ideal roost for these creatures. Around sunset, the bats emerge like a black cloud from the bridge’s crevices and head off in search of food. They blanket the sky, creating one of the most spectacular and unusual tourist attractions in Texas.
Folks congregate at various points on the bridge or along the banks of the river in order to get the best views of this phenomenon. Some join boat tours that provide narration and an up-close and personal experience from under the bridge. It’s a truly unique event that even lifelong residents continue to regard as special no matter how many times they’ve witnessed it.
Austin is known as the liberal bastion in the heart of Texas and the city prides itself on being a vibrant and eclectic creative mecca, with a reputation for embracing all that’s unique and different. Nothing is as it seems here. Many of the streets, for example, have two names with one referencing a noted local icon or celebrity. The lakes that meander through and around the area are really rivers, and the highway loops don’t actually go in circles. Visitors are also amazed to find hills around Austin - something that is an oddity in the mostly flat Lone Star State. They’re commonly referred to as “Silicon Hills,” because the high tech industry has become a big economic driver in this region – another surprise discovery for many first-time tourists.
And then there’s the music scene. As the “Live Music Capital of the World,” Austin is well known for its music venues, musicians and numerous music festivals. Until you actually visit the city, however, you can’t grasp the magnitude of the role music plays in this town. It’s everywhere and encompasses all genres, from Austin-style blues and rock to hip hop, gospel, country and folk. Sixth Street is the town’s mecca for music and at night, the clubs and watering holes are packed with enthusiastic revelers. The sounds of live music spill out on the street, creating a very festive and party-like atmosphere that’s akin to the French Quarter in New Orleans.
If you’re looking for some serious boot-stomping tunes, however, you’ll need to head just outside of town to the Broken Spoke, “the last true Texas dance hall.” Two-steppers young and old take to the floor to strut their stuff while venerable bands and big name country musicians grace the stage of this well-known honky tonk. Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Tex Ritter, George Strait and others have all performed here, along with some of the very best local talent such as Alvin Crow, The Derailers, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Jerry Jeff Walker. It’s a legendary spot – a Texas treasure and Austin tradition that has been featured numerous times on “Austin City Limits,” the famed T.V. show on PBS.
Food is another surprise to visitors, who come expecting the typical Tex-Mex and barbecue to dominate the culinary scene. They soon discover that the palette of the average Austinite has developed over the years and today practically every type of food can be found, from Asian fusion to traditional Italian, classic German, nouveau French cuisine and more.
For restaurant recommendations, ask the locals. There’s a good chance they’ll suggest one of their favorites, the ever-popular Moonshine Patio Bar & Grill. With its innovative take on classic American comfort food and southern/soul style cooking, this eatery satisfies even big city tastes. Specialties include Buffalo Meatloaf, Pecan Crusted Catfish, Texas Flat Iron Steak, Green Chile Macaroni, Southern Fried Chicken and Waffles and Broiled Rainbow Trout with Cornbread Stuffing. Make sure to order the Signature Skillet Apple Pie with Maple Ice Cream for dessert, but know that you’ll need some friends to help you polish off this finger-licking treat. True to Texas form, everything, even the size of the food, is bigger!
Locals will also steer you in the direction of Austin’s food trailers. The city has a well-established mobile food vendor scene that offers options galore at prices that are easy on the wallet. Austin’s variety of cultural attractions is as diverse as its culinary offerings. History buffs and art lovers will enjoy the many museums around town such as the Bullock Texas State History Museum, Blanton Museum of Art, AMOA-Arthouse, Harry Ransom Center and Umlauf Sculpture Garden.
There are also a number of pieces of public art scattered throughout the city, including Dale Whistler’s famed abstract swooping bat sculpture near the Congress Avenue Bridge. Make sure not to miss a visit to the Texas State Capitol. This sunset red edifice is the largest of America’s 50 capitol buildings and stands fourteen feet taller than the U.S. Capitol. Upon entrance, you’ll be greeted by life-sized marble statues of Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston. Further in, you’ll come to the rotunda with the Great Seal surrounded by the six seals of the countries whose flags have flown over Texas (Spain, France, Mexico, Republic of Texas, the Confederacy and the U.S.). Portraits of the Presidents of the Republic and Governors of the State circle the four public levels of the magnificent rotunda. The star in the dome, approximately 218 feet above, measures eight feet from point to point. It’s an impressive sight, as are the Senate and House of Representatives Chambers, and the Governor’s public reception room with its antique furnishings and artwork.
Another noteworthy attraction is the University of Texas campus, home to over 50,000 rabid Longhorn fans. And if you’re seeking outdoor recreation, head to Lady Bird Lake, where you can hike or bike on the trail that winds around the lake for ten miles in the heart of downtown. The lake is also ideal for kayaking and canoeing, with the added bonus of a great view of the skyline. You’ll learn quickly that Austin as a destination has it all. And as for its quirks, well, they only make this fiercely soulful and homegrown town more endearing and interesting.
If you go:
For all things Austin, contact the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau at: 512-478-0098, or visit www.austintexas.org
Austin Overtures Sightseeing Tours: 512-659-9478 or www.austinovertures.com
Ideal overview tours of Austin and its surroundings for first time visitors, with background information, some history and current facts/details, significant sights and more.