We’ve all heard about “Keeping Austin Weird,” and the news-making SXSW event that takes place in the city every year is the stuff of legend. Austin does indeed exist in its own little bubble, one made up of food trucks and live music, but also of outdoor adventures and fun experiences. I was excited to visit Austin for the first time to see for myself what makes it tick, what makes it wonderfully weird and whether or not I’d even like it at all.
Yes, Austin is a little odd
Traveling with my friend Brendan Van Son, he wondered if I’d like Austin. He’d been before and knew of its quirkiness, and he wasn’t so sure that I’d enjoy it. In truth, being weird just for the sake of being weird does annoy me, but that’s not Austin. Sure, the city probably has more hipsters per square capita than is advisable for public safety, but it’s not contrived. It’s just how the city is. Over time, the city has developed on its own and in its own very particular way. It’s a little bit Texas, but it’s also a little bit of everything else that makes the country so great. To enjoy Austin is to embrace this unique personality and instead of rebelling against it, learning to appreciate it on its own. But don’t misunderstand me, Austin weirdness is not like it is in some other cities. It’s not elitist or off-putting. You can, in fact, be in Austin without drinking a cold brew coffee or donning a Fedora ironically. Instead of using the word weird, I’d say instead that it is wonderfully accepting. Everyone is welcome, no matter their ilk, and it’s that outlook on life that some other folks may call weird, but is in fact just a wonderful way to live life. That outlook is infectious and, like it or not, forms the basis of any visit to the city, as it did for me.
I love history, so as soon as I checked into the incredibly well located JW Marriott, I wandered up Congress Street to learn more about the city. The JW Marriott is just a couple of blocks from the city’s famous South Congress Avenue Bridge, making it the ideal spot to explore the city. It’s also one of the nicest JW Marriott hotels that I’ve had the pleasure to patronize. Everything is new and modern, the service incredible and the luxurious surroundings comfortable and relaxing. From the food to the staff and even the executive lounge, the hotel checks all the boxes and is now my go-to hotel in the city. Since it’s on Congress Avenue, it made my first stop in the city easy to reach on foot, the Texas State Capitol. This impressive building is one of the most photographed state capitol buildings in the country, and with good reason. Not only is it massive, as one would expect, but the red granite used in its construction creates a look I’ve never seen before in a state capitol. Free tours are offered throughout the day, and to my surprise inside the building was just as beautiful as its façade. I personally think it’s one of those most-do experiences in the city, whether you love history and politics as much as I do or not.
Another notable downtown activity though is Austin’s most famous residents, the bats. The South Congress Avenue Bridge is home to more than a million Mexico free-tailed bats and their nocturnal wanderings have made the city famous. Every night they leave the bridge in search of insects towards the coast, but the process of departure is what attracts all of the attention. Departing simultaneously, the resulting patterns and shapes of the murmuration of bats is nothing short of mesmerizing. I never thought I’d find bats flying to be so beautiful and interesting, but the experience took my breath away.
Food and music
Talking with friends before my visit, I quickly learned the real reason why many folks visit – to have fun. Austin is home to some of the best restaurants and bars in the state, as well as a decades old tradition of live music. Some of the music world’s most notable names have played the small clubs and bars throughout the city, sparking a creative spirit that still runs throughout Austin today. To experience this firsthand, I spent some time at the Continental Club, a classic Austin institution. I’m fairly sure the band I heard won’t be the next big thing, but they were good, the evening was fun and I understood why people love visiting these small clubs so very much. When you visit Austin though you also need to expand your belt a few notches, because this is a food-lovers paradise. Everything you could imagine is here, from traditional BBQ to new and innovative food trucks serving up incredible cuisine. My BBQ experience took place at Terry Black’s, famous for their brisket and downhome friendliness. The culinary star of my trip though was a little different, a truck called Gordough’s. Using doughnuts as their base, the creative chefs here have created an incredible menu of both sweet and savory dishes, just don’t visit if you’re on a diet.
I don’t think of Austin as one specific tourist site or even one experience. No, instead I view it as an amalgamation of the many delightfully quirky things to do in and around the city. Eating tacos from a food truck, clapping along with a live band and wandering the halls of the capitol were all fun, but the outdoor experiences are what perhaps surprised me the most. I always love being on the water, so one activity I made sure to try was spending the morning on Lady Bird Lake. This river-called-lake runs through downtown Austin and connects it with the city’s many parks, from Zilker to Barton Springs and beyond. For just $20 (they should probably charge more) I paddled along as the guide explained more about the history of the city, from the Congress Avenue Bridge all the way to Barton Springs Park. It was also a great way to escape the heat for a little while. The tour wasn’t just informative, it was a lot of fun.
My only regret visiting Austin was that I didn’t have enough time. The food alone could keep me occupied for weeks, not to mention all of the cultural experiences I simply didn’t have time to enjoy. That’s all right with me though, it just means there are more reasons for me to pull on my boots and head back down to wander the streets of the Capital of Cool.
This post was created in partnership with Marriott International, but all thoughts and opinions are entirely my own.