Travel


Awestruck in Austin


Austin has excellent places to eat and listen to live music. And springtime in Texas has never been so accessible

Austin has excellent places to eat and listen to live music. And springtime in Texas has never been so accessible

The state capitol marks the northern end of Congress Avenue, which runs south through Downtown to the Ann W Richards Bridge over Lady Bird Lake — which is actually a broadening of the Colorado River. South of the lake, the SoCo ("South Congress") district comprises a strip of distinctive restaurants and stores. North of the capitol, the university sprawls to accommodate 60,000 students.

When the Driskill Hotel opened at Christmas 1886, it was by far the fanciest hotel in Texas. Aesthetically, the property at 604 Brazos Street (driskillhotel.com) still is. The exterior is lavish, the interior extravagantly Texan. An enormous horned beast watches over the marble and wood-panelling below. It is predictably expensive — though like many government towns, Austin has a surfeit of rooms at weekends. On a Friday, Saturday or Sunday night, rooms cost as little as $206 (£137), excluding breakfast.

Take a hike
Start walking north along Congress Avenue from Fourth Street, location for Frost Tower whose top is decorated with what looks like shards of ice.
Keep going north along the main drag to Sixth Street and wander through the ground floor of the Driskill Hotel for Texan braggadocio.

Emerge on Brazos Street and go north to Seventh Street. You may conclude that Downtown is a curious mix of elegant 19th-century low-rises punctuated by modern office blocks and disfigured by multi-storey car parks. But go four blocks west, on Seventh Street, and you discover a pocket of pure 19th-century indulgence — as if you have strayed into an Antebellum colony.

Some of the elaborate mansions of Bremond Block have been converted into lawyers' offices but all remain in excellent condition. A block north, the Moonlight Tower is one of 17 structures built in 1895 to illuminate the city reaching 165ft above ground. The well-guarded Governor's Mansion is accessible only by advance booking. Beyond it, the Old Bakery dates from 1876 and has been preserved as a museum (weekdays only). Finish at the capitol, which you can explore at leisure; the visitor centre on the ground floor provides self-guide maps, or join one of the regular tours.

Lunch on the run
Walk five blocks north to Martin Luther King Boulevard and head west for a couple of blocks, where Pho Thaison (phothaison.com) at 1908 Guadalupe serves Vietnamese noodle soup. Or seek out one of the city's many food trucks.
Converted school buses and chrome-plated trailers serve up cuisine from around the world. The car park behind the University Co-op at 2246 Guadalupe Street is a nourishing location.

Take a view
For an elevated view, take a tour to the top of the University Tower, which was completed in 1937. Tours (price $6/£4) run hourly, 2pm to 6pm at weekends.
Book ahead, but if you can't there's still a chance if you ask at the Union Building's Hospitality Desk.

Window shopping
University Co-op is the place for Texas Longhorns merchandise (the local football team are minor deities). On the east side of Downtown, Whole Earth Foods  was born in Austin in 1980. Its tofu-to-T-shirts flagship store (wholeearthprovision.com) occupies the block bounded by Lamar, Bowie, Fifth and Sixth Streets. Diagonally opposite, Waterloo Records at 600A Lamar is an independent purveyor of vinyl and CDs to this city of music. It even has a branch at the airport.

Dining with the locals
At the South Congress Café you can linger for duck burgers or jalapeño venison meatloaf, while Güero's has El Presidente – a mountain of chicken and beef tacos, served with guacamole, beans and rice, for just $11.79 (£8).

Go to church
The Cathedral of St Mary (smcaustin.org), on the corner of 10th and Brazos Streets, is a late 19th-century Gothic pile with European stained-glass and a rich interior. Above the altar, a star-spangled dome represents heaven; it was designed by Irish immigrant, Nicholas Clayton and opens 8am-6pm on Sundays.

Out to brunch
The 24 Diner at 600 N Lamar (24diner.com) serves Texan classics at any hour of the day or night, with an added Austin twist of impeccably sourced ingredients. The $10.95 (£7) breakfast platter includes local eggs, salami, potatoes and toast, with a fruit salad on the side for just 95 cents more.

Take a ride
"B-cycle" is Austin's rent-a-bike-here, leave-it-there system (austin.bcycle.com). Starting this weekend, the scheme has expanded, with 26 "stables" of bikes. A credit card buys a one-day pass ($8/£5.50), which entitles you to take a bicycle and return it to any other location. The first half-hour's use is free; every additional 30 minutes costs $4. Steer south-west via Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge to Zilker Park where two of the new B-cycle stables are located.

A walk in the park
Austin's southern fringes comprise parkland where the trees are blossoming. Zilker Park has a botanical garden, a sculpture garden, kayaks for rent and a statue of the great Texan musician Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Cultural afternoon
The Bullock Texas State History Museum at 1800 Congress (thestoryoftexas.com; noon-6pm on Sundays, 9am-6pm other days; $12) runs from Spanish missionaries to the oil boom and space race. Still more compelling is the LBJ Presidential Library (lbjlibrary.org; 9am-5pm daily; $8). Lyndon Baines Johnson became president upon JFK's assassination in 1963. During his presidency, the US became hopelessly entangled in the Vietnam War. Yet at home, LBJ proved to be one of America's greatest 20th-century social reformers.

Icing on the cake
The "Live Music Capital of the World" has rock, country and jazz in abundance. Sixth Street east of Brazos is the main musical drag, but it's touristy. Instead, head for the Continental Club at 1315 South Congress(www.continentalclub.com) for country or rock in an intimate venue.

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