Though only six days have passed since I moved from Iowa, I’ve learned darn quick that a stroll down Congress Avenue shows off Austin’s charm and quirks better than any tour guide could.
I meet some new friends on South Congress (called SoCo) for First Thursday, a monthly shindig when shops stay open late and cafes host musicians. A zydeco band parks on a patch of sidewalk, squeeze box wailing and musicians flailing, and a crowd gathers to dance. Not accustomed to people dancing in the street, I stand stiffly and scan the audience, my gaze stopping on a fella holding a dachshund. I wander over and say: “Um, excuse me, sir. May I pet your dog?”
“Oh, hell,” he replies. “How ’bout ya just hold him?” The little dog leaps into my arms and starts to lick my face. The man smiles broadly and with apparent pride says: “This dog’s name is Sam Houston because he belongs to all of Texas.”
“You’re not from ’round here, are ya?” the man asks. (Every Texan worth her twang knows Sam Houston led the Texas army that defeated Mexican General Santa Anna, securing Texas’ independence. I mean, duh.)
“Oh, no,” I say. “I just moved here from Iowa.”
He breaks into a grin and claps me on the shoulder. “Well,” he says, “welcome to Texas!”
Somehow, I feel both out of place and strangely at home. And that mishmash pretty much sums up Austin, which, as I often tell my Midwest friends, is a pretty great place to visit this time of year. Come summer, Austinites hole up inside to escape oppressive heat and humidity. But an average February temp of 55 degrees pulls people outside to enjoy golfing, wildflower walks, strolls around the lake and alfresco dining.
Of course, this government seat definitely can sport a buttoned-up persona. It’s a high-tech hub for Dell Inc. and the home of the University of Texas. But on the loosened-collar side, it’s a music mecca, with nearly 200 places to catch a show (it’s trademarked the “Live Music Capital of the World”). And that doesn’t even include the massive South by Southwest Festival.
Austinites cherish the contradictions, and Congress Avenue displays them best. It starts, suitably, at the capitol, second in size only to the one in D.C. (everything’s bigger in Texas). Its stateliness cheerfully coexists with East Sixth Street, famed bastion of debaucherous college bars. The nearby Warehouse District, which has three blocks of candlelit restaurants and lower-key clubs, is way more my style. It’s even worth putting on high heels, a rarity down here.
By day, I put on running shoes and zip around Lady Bird Lake, which bisects Congress Avenue. Austinites cherish their 300 days of yearly sunshine, so the hike-and-bike trail looping the water usually sees as much foot traffic as any downtown street.
Actually, that may be my fave part of the city. And that’s high praise, considering how I adore South Congress, where hippies live next to hipsters, elegant eateries sit across from Airstream trailers dishing out roadside food, and music clubs share the sidewalk with guys playing guitars. Somehow it all works for them. And nowadays, it all works for me, too.
Click to the next page for a two-day getaway guide.
Breakfast tacos on the patio at Curra’s Mexican Grill (currasgrill.com ) offer a quick fuel-up before you start your Austin orientation at the Bullock Texas State History Museum. There, you’ll find out all about Sam Houston (the man, not the dog) and why Texans are so proud of the Lone Star State. Admission charged (thestoryoftexas.com ).
For lunch, Shady Grove captures that Austin yin and yang. You can choose between healthy (a Hippie Chick sandwich of Thai grilled chicken with a slew of veggies and mozzarella) and heathen (the Frito pie). Either way, you’ll love sitting under the pecan trees (theshadygrove.com ).
Work off lunch with a stroll on the Lady Bird Lake Hike and Bike Trail, which passes patches of wildflowers, a dog playground and popular Zilker Park (austintexas.org ). Consider a round at Avery Ranch Golf Course, known for its reasonable greens fees (averyranchgolf.com ).
You’ll find some of Austin’s finest Mexican cuisine at Fonda San Miguel, known for rellenos (large chile peppers stuffed with meat, cheese, veggies and nuts)—and its collection of Mexican art (fondasanmiguel.com ).
Then swing into the Broken Spoke, the “last of the true Texas dance halls.” Traditional Texas bands play country tunes while throngs of folks in boots two-step. Beginners can take lessons Wednesdays through Saturdays, then cool off with a bottle of Texas’ Shiner Bock (brokenspokeaustintx.com ).
Built in 1886, the renovated Driskill Hotel is an opulent nod to Austin's heritage (driskillhotel.com ).
Salute the sun with a morning yoga class—popular here. YogaYoga has five studios and more than 350 classes a week. Admission charged (yogayoga.com) .
Head to the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum to take in history through the lens of LBJ’s presidency. A life-size figure of the man—wearing a cowboy hat and leaning on a fence—tells five of his famously funny stories (lbjlibrary.org) .
After all that, you’ll be ready to scoot to Moonshine Patio Bar and Grill for Sunday brunch buffet. Pile your plate with migas (eggs scrambled with onions, tomatoes and tortilla chips), green chile cheese grits, white chocolate bread pudding and fresh fruit (moonshinegrill.com ).
Dinner downtown offers a “what are you in the mood for?” choice between upscale barbecue at Lamberts on Second Street (lambertsaustin.com ) or darkly elegant III Forks Steakhouse (iiiforks.com ). End your trip at Antone’s for a rollicking taste of live blues (antonesnightclub.com ).
To plan your trip: Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau (800) 926-2282; austintexas.org 
Sarah’s top 3 insights
Want to feel at home in Austin? Remember these points:
1 The city’s slogan is “Keep Austin Weird,” and residents embrace out-there-ness. A guy tattooed like a lizard and wearing yellow contacts prowls downtown. Austin has a nude beach. And a marching band plays in random locations, then disperses like ghosts. Keep your camera handy.
2 A lot of street names are knowingly mispronounced. Nothing singles out tourists faster than how they say Guadalupe Street. Austinites say, “GWODD-a-loop.” Other mangled road names include Manor (pronounced MAY-nur), Manchaca (MAN-shack) and Loop 1 (pronounced MO-pack because it follows the path of the Missouri-Pacific Railroad).
3 Austinites’ affection for food is evident in the abundance of local restaurants, specialty markets and two expansive grocery stores: Whole Foods World Headquarters and Central Market, both must-visit attractions with in-store eateries.
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® January/February 2010. Prices, dates and other details are subject to change, so please check specifics before making travel plans.)