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.