Austin: what to do and see for a middle aged intellectual European?
October 14, 2017 5:17 AM   Subscribe

I'll be in Austin Tx for a conference. And I'm at a bit of a loss when it comes to what to see and do.

I guess there's not an old citry centre to explore and see. And I dont' think that interesting nature is in a day trips driving distance.

If I understand correctly Austin is a bit more hip, urban, coastal america than the rest of Texas. Unfortunately I'm not into clubs and alternative music.
Of course I'll try to find some bbq (but I'm not that interested in food) but that's about if for my ideas.

Maybe I should look for some very American things. Stuff that's very unlike Europe...
Should I try to find a rodeo to see?
posted by jouke to Travel & Transportation around Austin, TX (26 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I understand where you're coming from but I would gently urge you to not make the mistake of thinking that because Austin is not an old city, it doesn't have a culture worth exploring. Austin has only become hip in the last 15 years and has been there longer than that!

The U.T. campus will be interesting. The Blanton is there and is a museum worth going to. The state capitol building is an iconic example of that very American type. If they are still in residence when you are there, the bats are absolutely unlike any other experience you'll have. (If you're interested, there are Austin Bat Bike Tours too.) Take a walk through The Driskell, too.

Your cup will runneth over with BBQ and Tex Mex options, but if you want to have an experience I associate uniquely with that part of the world, I urge you to go to the Luby's cafeteria downtown. It's not on everyone's list, but it is a dining format you are unlikely to replicate elsewhere. If there is Chicken Fried Steak, EAT IT.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:35 AM on October 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

Not the best time of year but the bats are cool and easy to see, should still be at least a million or so under the bridge. Stroll around the park before or after.

Enchanted rock is fairly nice if you like nature that involves big rocks and scenic vistas, it's under two hours' drive, which is considered quite close by TX standards.

Austin's street art scene is fairly good, there's a dedicated park, a few famous pieces, and also plenty to find on your own in the wild.

If you like to bike, you can rent in many ways and it's a good way to see the city this time of year.

Recall that TX leads the states in highway fatalities, ATX has very bad and non-standard road infrastructure, and there are almost no sidewalks outside of downtown. So be careful and drive/walk/bike defensively.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:01 AM on October 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

You might be interested in the excellent Harry Ransom Center, though I believe you have to do a brief orientation before they issue you your own pair of white gloves.

There are also a few other strange and lovely things around, including the LBJ Presidential Library & Museum (featuring an animatronic LBJ with the latex skin gruesomely falling off the hand he gesticulates with) and the majestic Cathedral of Junk, which is not exactly a hotspot for the local intelligentsia but one of the remaining wonders of Austin.

I'm not savvy about film goings-on in Austin anymore, but I bet there's a decent selection of interesting film in any given week.
posted by tapir-whorf at 6:22 AM on October 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

Also there's an excellent experimental music scene, and decent experimentalish theater (investigate the Rude Mechanicals if you're interested in that).

Many, many charming [if hyper-hipster] cafes, including the gloriously ramshackle Spider House (which will be packed with students and has a quintessential Austin honkey-rasquachismo style) and Cenote down in the lovely not-quite-ruined-by-gentrification-yet neighborhood of East Austin just south of Cesar Chavez.

One thing I would urge you to consider seriously as part of your trip planning is transportation. Will you rent a car (if so, suss out--or ask here--about parking at any central locations you go to)? Will you use taxis or a ride sharing service? (If so, the big ones--Uber and Lyft--have been banned.)

Bus service is frankly awful unless you're staying on a very central route and only want to go places along it. You can rent bicycles, including using the bike sharing service called, IIRC, B-Line. It's great for quick jaunts in central areas, but there aren't docking stations very far outside of the city center and the university area.
posted by tapir-whorf at 6:31 AM on October 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

(N.B. Uber and Lyft were never banned in Austin. They chose to leave after they drafted legislation in their favor, spent a few billion marketing it to the locals, then failed at the ballot box. Then, later, the state of TX made a specific law to prevent cities from making any laws regarding so-called "ride-sharing" companies. Anyway, however you want to frame it, this is relevant because these services are active in Austin again , and OP could in principle use them.)
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:45 AM on October 14, 2017 [5 favorites]

Go have a T-bone at the Hoffbrau on W. 6th. Get the salad.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:57 AM on October 14, 2017

Rodeos are very much a North America cultural event. Most rodeos are held as a seasonal event, i.e. the Austin Rodeo is held in March. The local spot appears to be Rodeo Austin, but it's unclear what event will be running when you are visiting. It won't be a full rodeo.

Rodeos USA has a list of rodeos near Austin. The only current listing is for the Rockdale rodeo October 20-21. Rockdale is roughly one hour away by automobile.
posted by blob at 7:08 AM on October 14, 2017

we have a really phenomenal food scene that goes beyond BBQ and TexMex, really. We have legit fine dining. There have been recent AskMe's about our food so I won't repeat them, spend some time reading up.

It's true we don't have art museums that are anything like Europe or the east coast of the US - the Blaton Museum is small and just barely ok by that standard but does have some unique American works that are worth an hour or two
and while you're near UT go see this
and the Ransom center as already recommended. The LBJ library is also interesting if you're into American history.

parts of the greenbelt that run through the southern half of the city are scenic so you don't need to drive hours for a nature walk. we have a pedestrian bridge and a waterfront boardwalk for strolling/bike rides, and people here are really into kayaking and paddleboarding
and even newer and sometimes more scenic

But if you have a rental car, Pedernales Falls is an hour drive, even closer than Enchanted Rock, and worth while so you can see what "Hill Country" really looks like outside the city
posted by slow graffiti at 7:20 AM on October 14, 2017 [5 favorites]

Do you drink? Try a Shiner Bock beer.
posted by Room 641-A at 7:35 AM on October 14, 2017

Oh the shiner bock reminded me: there is a lot of remnant German and Czech culture in TX, so maybe check out some TX kolaches.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:37 AM on October 14, 2017 [5 favorites]

And I dont' think that interesting nature is in a day trips driving distance.

Nah, the Hill Country is purty and is an easy day trip from Austin.

Maybe I should look for some very American things. Stuff that's very unlike Europe...

I'm sure there must be at least one gun range in Austin where you can rent a full-auto gun. *spits* dunt get more merkin than that.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:41 AM on October 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

Oh! I'm surprised no one has recommended Barton Springs, Austin's year-round brutally freezing crystal clear swimming hole.
posted by tapir-whorf at 7:56 AM on October 14, 2017 [6 favorites]

You might also be interested in the city's (small) collection of house museums.

Neill-Cochran House Museum is a 10 minute walk from UT's campus, probably not worth going to if you're not already in the area but it's a lovely piece of architecture and my tour guide was wonderful. Focus: architecture, history.

The Contemporary Austin, an art museum, has two locations; one of which, the Laguna Gloria, is in a 1916 villa. It's in a really beautiful location right by the Colorado River, lots of sculptures around the grounds. Mayfield Park, which is filled with peacocks, is a very short walk away. Focus: art.

My personal favorite is the Elisabet Ney museum. She was a sculptor and an absolutely fascinating woman who lived a really interesting life. The house itself is also striking. Focus: art, architecture, history, Ney's life.

There are other house museums (notably the Texas Governor's Mansion), but those are the ones I've been to.
posted by perplexion at 9:27 AM on October 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

Lady Bird Lake (I knew it as Town Lake) runs through the heart of Austin and has a nice hike and bike path around it (along with the Congress St. bridge and the bats). Mt. Bonnell has a nice view of the Colorado River. Lake Travis is North of town and is a nice drive.

If you have a full day, I highly recommend Enchanted Rock State Park. It's a lovely drive through the Hill Country and a fun granitic dome to wander around on.

Ya'll have fun, y'here!
posted by jabo at 9:30 AM on October 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Lady Bird Johnson (her given name was Claudia; her nanny called her LB and the nickname stuck)wildflower center is in Austin.

Check roadfood for places to eat. What Texas does best is barbecue brisket, steak, soul food, Mexican and Tex-Mex.
posted by brujita at 9:45 AM on October 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you're already in the area today/tomorrow before 17:30, you might be able to make it to the Sacred Springs Pow Wow in San Marcos, which is about 40 minutes' drive south of Austin. It's certainly something you wouldn't see in Europe.
posted by neushoorn at 11:55 AM on October 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

There is absolutely good nature within driving distance; Austin is just outside the Hill Country. Some of the gems include Colorado Bend State Park, Garner State Park, and Cibolo Nature Center. There are also good swimming holes on offer: Krause Springs, Hamilton Pool, and the Blue Hole.

When will you be there? If it's in the spring, you could also simply drive along the country roads to see wildflowers (especially bluebonnets).
posted by desert outpost at 12:00 PM on October 14, 2017

I was just going to say Hamilton Pool. You have to make a reservation online--they preserve the place by not letting unlimited numbers of people in. Anyway it's a fun, unique Austin thing. I didn't discover it until after I wasn't living there anymore.

There's tons of good food. Breakfast tacos were, apocryphally, invented in Austin and there are a bunch of good places, but as noted above, there's also fine dining, cf: earlier threads. Matt's El Rancho is a very Austin experience though there's often a wait.

Anyway, I left years and years ago and don't have a ton of up to date info. I'm partly just responding because of my uncontainable love of Austin.
posted by Smearcase at 1:47 PM on October 14, 2017

Response by poster: Lots of suggestions! Tx so much.

Btw let's do a do a mefi meet up on next friday or saturday.

Wrt to transport within Austin: is public transport any good? Or should I get a taxi?

As far as bikes go: to be honest I'm a bit afraid of biking in the US.

The bats sound cool. And Enchanted Rock sounds like a great destination for a day trip. Or Pedernales Falls.
Perhaps Fredericksburg would be a very american town to visit.
And Hamilton Pool looks rather spectacular to somebody from a virtually rockless country.

When it comes to eating: would there be an old fashioned american diner somewhere in Austin? Perhaps something from the 1950s.

Hoffbrau steak house sounds very american. As a dutchman I'm a bit intimidated by the size of the smallest steaks. :-)

I know nothing about rasquachismo style so Spider House sounds intrigueing.

Tx so much. This really helps.
posted by jouke at 3:03 AM on October 15, 2017

Wrt to transport within Austin: is public transport any good? Or should I get a taxi?

Compared to the Netherlands, it's hilariously bad. Compared to other small American cities, it's okay. Austin is very sprawling and some of the places people have mentioned (Mt Bonnell, the wildflower center, probably some others) are functionally inaccessible by public transport despite being in Austin proper. Then again, a taxi to those places is going to be quite expensive, too. But if your conference is downtown or at UT, you'll be fine walking or on the bus. Google Maps generally gives adequate transit directions. The transit system website is here.
posted by hoyland at 5:01 AM on October 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Btw any advice on how to get to city centre from the airport? The airport website links to the Airport Flyer bus.
posted by jouke at 9:28 AM on October 15, 2017

The bus is fine and likely will take you near to where you're staying (assuming your conference isn't somewhere unusual for a conference). It does only run on the half hour, which is a bit annoying. You'll want to have the exact fare (or have set the bus app up on your phone, I suppose). There is a taxi rank somewhere at the airport (I'm sure it's obvious, but I never used it). I think it's about $30 to downtown. You can also use a shared van service like SuperShuttle, which is cheaper, but I don't know that it'll save you much time over the bus. (It should be faster, but sometimes you wait quite a while for a van.)
posted by hoyland at 9:52 AM on October 15, 2017

Response by poster: The Super Shuttle also seems a good option. Tx hoyland.
posted by jouke at 9:45 PM on October 15, 2017

if you're still there go to threadgills
posted by brujita at 9:31 PM on October 19, 2017

roadfood recommends huts for burgers and shakes...also don't miss the gingerbread pancake at the magnolia cafe
posted by brujita at 12:08 PM on October 20, 2017

Response by poster: Tx brujita. I still have saturday to explore!
posted by jouke at 2:06 PM on October 20, 2017

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