I had the delightful experience of visiting Austin for a wedding and decided to tack on a little extra time to see the city. Austin reminded me of Portland, so obviously, I had a great time!
Austin is a relatively compact city, which makes getting around easy if you are staying downtown. I stayed in a hotel which was a 10-minute walk from my first stop, the Texas State Capitol Building. The building itself is an unsettling dichotomy, equal turns beautiful and menacing. The stunning, white stone behemoth clocks in at 14 feet larger than the US Capitol building. It is also crawling with Confederate monuments that make the whole place feel unwelcoming. However, it is clear they are making small concessions to the people who built the state on many levels. Monuments to enslaved Texans, Mexicans, and a woman do make cursory appearances, adding more to the identity construct whiplash than the actual substance of the place. But hey, you gotta start somewhere? (Shrugging black woman emoji.)
I have to say, once I got past the extremely creepy nature of the Confederate walk up to the building, I was blown away. The inside is gorgeous, with the rotunda soaring up several stories, the gallery winks at you with its massive Lone Star eye fixed to the top of the dome. Further, the staff has done a great job curating all kinds of tours, including a self-guided tour with QR codes that let you play a game of trivia with the building. I opted for a self-guided tour and had a blast scanning codes and learning more about the wide array of lawmakers and their achievements, or in some cases the more sordid details of the place.
Pro Tip: You can easily make a day of the capitol and the grounds. Pack a picnic, pick your favorite least oppressive statue and enjoy some sunshine. Food isn’t allowed inside the Texas State Capitol, so eat first if you decide to picnic.
Next, I made my way over to the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum. Y’all, I’d never been to a presidential library, and it was the coolest thing! I am honestly sad I haven’t visited more of them. Start adding these to your list. Just thinking about it makes me smile!
LBJ’s Library is tucked away outside of the main part of town on UT’s campus. The building itself doesn’t look like much, but once inside you are in for a real treat. The collection has been carefully curated to display the amazing artifacts that were generated during his presidency. However, a special effort was also made to put his presidency into a social context. For example, George Foreman’s Heavyweight Championship Title Belt is on display, because Foreman credited the creation of LBJ’s Jobs Corps with getting him into boxing. LBJ’s presidency was arguably one of the most pivotal presidencies in US history, and the museum does a fantastic job of conveying that. Since many of his calls or appearances were recorded, the museum has stations where you can listen to him speak to MLK over the phone, or read his speech after the JFK assassination. The whole thing is so well done that it takes a mammoth period in US history and makes it simple through the use of one man’s life.
Pro Tip: The LBJ Library is a little over a half-hours walk from downtown, but I wouldn’t recommend walking or biking it. Instead, save time and avoid some questionable sidewalks by taking a cab.
My final stop was the Mexic-Arte Museum, a small museum that packs a punch. It has several exhibit spaces, a gift shop and an arts and crafts station for children (big kids like me, and the actual kind!). Even better the museum is free on some Sundays so if you plan ahead you may be able to visit on the cheap!
The highlight of my visit was getting to meet one of the local artists, who was literally just standing in the center of his beautiful exhibit chatting with people. If you happen to be in the area, check out John Patrick Cobbs reimagining of a chapel shrine, it is worth stopping by. His Chapel Shrine is both subversive in its approach Byzantine art and familiar in its approach to human storytelling. Similarly, the block and printmaking exhibit, La Huella Magistral: Homage to Master Printmakers, was particularly thoughtful and placed masterworks among less well-known works dedicated to the artist’s favorite artist, mentor or inspiration.
Pro Tip: Museum entrance isn’t expensive, so don’t let a not-free day put you off. Even better, stop by on Sunday and donate the fee so the museum can continue to do free Sundays!
Austin has a well-deserved reputation for being a fun town. To me, the only truly weird thing about the city is that it is in Texas, but even that isn’t that odd. If you are expecting the naked people of San Francisco or the mimes in Vegas, you can put those fears to bed. The food is great, the people are friendly, ie the perfect weekend getaway.
A few honorable mentions for other places to visit if your schedule allows:
Houndstooth: Good fancy coffee. It’s the kind of place where they ask you if you want Guatemalan or Costa Rican pour over. Omm Nom!
Torchy’s Tacos: Three words. Queso With Guacamole. I’m not a queso fan, but theirs is made by Gandolf or something! (It’s a chain, so if you live in Texas or Colorado, you may be in luck).
Book People: Excellently curated indie bookstore! Lovers of Powells will not be disappointed.
Pro Tip: Rentable scooters are everywhere in Austin, but I loathe those things and won’t recommend them. Just, if you are gonna be That Guy, please, park the thing responsibly. The middle of the sidewalk is an accessibility hazard, and an all-around dick move.