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Keep It Weird, Y’all: Austin Then and Now

Throughout the summer and into fall, we’re taking some virtual road trips and exploring the country, courtesy of DCG staffers. Depending on where you live, you’ll travel north, south, east, or west through cyberspace to get inside information on both small towns and larger cities. We hope you learn something new and find inspiration for when you feel comfortable traveling again.

The next blog in our series focuses on the Lone Star State. Deputy Program Manager Hannah Meyer makes the case for keeping Austin weird.

Name: Hannah Meyer
Destination: Austin, Texas

Austin — the epicenter of breakfast tacos, honky-tonks, and bluebonnets in the spring. If you talk to those who aren’t from the city, they’ll tell you Austin is the new “Los Angeles.” I think these people are “all hat and no cattle,” as the saying goes.

The “Austin” many are referring to when they say “Keep Austin Weird” is the one I grew up in, and the city everyone should have a chance to experience.

You Can’t Spell Texas Without B-B-Q

Texas’ food pyramid consists of two main food groups: barbecue and Tex-Mex. It’s more than just food, it’s a culture. You’ll leave with a full heart and a full stomach, so come prepared to eat. While many of the old local favorites have shuttered their doors and have been replaced with a new spin on Texas flavors, a few of the old ‘must-try’ restaurants remain:

Tacos are served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Juan in a Million — a hole in the wall on the east side of Austin — has been in operation since 1980. It’s well worth the journey to the other side of the tracks to get breakfast. The key to this experience is ordering the “Don Juan,” a secretly seasoned loaded pile of scrambled eggs, bacon, cheese, and potatoes served with a side of tortillas.

Second to the taco scene in Austin is the barbecue. There are two things to know about Texas BBQ — 1) beef reigns supreme; 2) put down the sauce. If you’re eating good BBQ, you won’t need it, I promise! I’m sure you’ve all heard of Franklin BBQ. They have rightfully earned their accolades as some of the best BBQ in the country, but if you ask locals, there are a lot of places that beat out Franklin for the title of ‘best in Austin.’ Terry Black’s is some of the tastiest smoked barbecue you can find in the city. A standard spread of mac and cheese, corn bread, coleslaw, fried okra, and creamed corn is available to accompany the fall-off-the-bone brisket and jalapeño cheese sausage.

A Willie Nice Day: One Day in Austin

Austin isn’t all about the food. It’s a place for foodies and outdoor seekers alike. It goes without saying that the Lone Star State isn’t known for its mild weather. If you go between June and September, it’ll be hotter than a wool coat in Marfa.

The best time of year is early April, when you can see fields and fields of bluebonnets blooming. Visiting when Texas wildflowers are at their peak bloom is like visiting DC during Cherry Blossom season. Take a morning hike on Mount Bonnell or visit the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center for a picturesque view of wildflowers in the city.

(Watch out for the rattlesnakes before you sit down for that quintessential Blue Bonnet picture though!)

One of my favorite afternoon activities in Austin is mini golf. It’s no high-tech activity like Top Golf, but you can’t beat the age-old Austin tradition of Peter Pan Golf on Barton Springs. The course is an Austin landmark that has been in operation since 1946.

In fact, my great-grandfather helped paint the statues found around the course. A giant birdhouse he hand-painted can still be found at the 13th hole! The best part? It’s BYOB all day, every day.

If you decided to visit in the summer, you’re probably regretting it by now. To cool off, take a dip in the famous Barton Springs, a refreshing 68º natural spring that feeds right into the center of Zilker Park in downtown Austin.

Once you’re done with breakfast tacos, smelling the wildflowers, a round of mini-golf, and a dip in Barton Springs, there’s only one way to conclude your day exploring Austin! Every evening between late March and August just before sunset, people line the South Congress Avenue bridge to watch the more than 1.5 million native Mexican free-tailed bats fly out from the bridge for their nightly prowl of insects. It may seem batty, but this is a city tradition and a spectacle you can’t miss. After you watch the bats, grab Amy’s Ice Cream to kill some time before the nighttime fun begins.

If “old Austin” knows one thing, it’s a fiddle and steel guitar. Instead of 6th Street for your dancing escapades, head down to the Broken Spoke for a true Texas experience. (No, the mechanical bull at Wild Greg’s on 6th Street is not a “true Texas experience’’). “The Spoke” was opened in 1964 by James White. It’s where my parents grew up dancing in the 60s and where I learned to scoot my boots for the first time. The biggest names in country music, like Willie Nelson and George Strait, have performed in this small wooden shack as people two-stepped around a sawdust floor. It’s an experience you won’t get anywhere else. If you aren’t sure about your boot-scootin’ skills, the Spoke offers free dance lessons at 8:00 pm most nights before the real fun kicks off. Don’t miss the opportunity to see one of the last true honky tonks in the country.

Y’all Come Again, Now

I could write thousands of words on everything that’s available to see and do in Austin, but the truth is what is listed above is a small glimpse of ‘home.’ These are the places my parents grew up all their lives and the places I came to know and love. For Austin natives, the city is not what it used to be. Change is good for everyone, but before these last pieces disappear, I hope you’ll have a chance to visit and see what the original “weird” Austin has to offer.

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