I have visited Austin about 10 times over the past 3 years and I’m still a bit befuddled on how to describe this 4th largest city in Texas: scrappy, unpretentious, small town, up-scale, scruffy, hip, university town, music town, high tech town. Nothing and everything seems to fit.
I do feel that the gutsy decision to do a major revitalization of downtown Austin has turned out remarkably well. I haven’t been back for about a year and was pleasantly surprised on my recent visit to see that the 2nd Street renovations have been pretty much completed. A new “W” hotel – (wow – I haven’t seen the rooms but its bars, restaurants, sitting areas, fireplace lounge, etc. etc. are very cool and cosmopolitan like all W hotels but still in keeping with the hip Texas western vibe), the new music studio and theatre for Austin City Limits (home of the long running PBS series by the same name) and numerous luxury high-rise residences, trendy restaurants and boutique shops are complete and open for business.
Downtown Austin fortunately still continues to feel like a small town even though it is: home to the University of Texas (50,000 students in Austin alone), the self-described “music capital of the world” (and it’s 6th Street is probably the coolest place for checking out live whatever is the current music trend), the capital of this the 2nd most populous state in the country, the site of the now famous annual South by Southwest music, film and high tech festival (you might remember hearing about the “start-up buses”–heading from major cities to SXSW), and the site of the Republic of Texas Biker Rally (and it’s a big one – I have been in town when this is going on – beautiful motorcycles and very!...! interesting people).
Growing up in the era of Dallas, the oil boom, and John Wayne movies, I have always been a bit in awe of Texas and its history but even more so after visiting the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, which I highly recommend, and even more in awe after touring the State Capital. It is an impressive building. It is the largest (of course - this is Texas), state capital in the country, and while not larger square footage wise, it is a smidgen taller than the US capital in DC. The guide on my tour seemed to indicate that this was done to make a not so subtle statement about states’ rights.
Texas is a big state and has a big history. Settlers from the US and from Mexico carved out a life in this inhospitable territory and became first and foremost Texans. Wanting independence from Mexico, Texans organized to win their independence, and after many bloody battles (the Alamo one of the most famous), the Republic of Texas was declared in 1836 and was an independent nation until it chose to join the United States in 1845. I must say I understand the little bit of arrogance and streak of independence that continues to permeate the Texas mystique. I think it has earned the right.
A food aside: I suppose beef has fed the growth of this bigger than life state. Austin is known for its beef barbecue and there are plenty of barbecue restaurants and dives and hangouts at which to gorge oneself. But this town also fosters top-notch Mexican food and I did find the second best fish tacos I’ve ever had right downtown in Austin. First place still has to go to Firewood Pizza in Murphy, California. But Cantina Laredo on 3rd St. in Austin has “Tacos de Pescado”, made with mahi mahi, queso fresco, marinated vegetables and a chipotle aioli, served with fresh homemade tortillas.