Weird and Wonderful Austin

Austin is unlike any other city in Texas, or anywhere else really. The capitol city is famous for it’s music scene and artistic laid-back attitude, but places within a few hours drive have never seemed as exciting to me as going somewhere where you have to board a plane. Consequently, I have always bypassed Austin for greener pastures. When I ended up there this week and decided to give it a closer look. I suddenly realized what a great city I’ve been missing out on. In spite of horrible weather, I found lots of fun things to do, great places to eat and an amazing hotel stay. If you find yourself in the capitol city, try out a few of these things. You’ll be glad you did. 

Gourdough’s Donuts has been a staple in Austin for quite some time. It’s a glorified food retro food truck that serves it’s original creations to passing fans. Mention it to anyone and their eyes will glaze over like most of the items on their menu. I met a woman there who drove from Houston just to have one of their donuts. That’s a long drive for breakfast. Or is it just breakfast? Bacon, bananas and peanut butter can be found on the “Fat Elvis”. The “Mother Clucker” has fried chicken on top. There’s lots of other favorites like “Granny’s Pie”, “Blue Balls”, and The Flying Pig”. Surprisingly, they don’t serve coffee, but that’s not a problem. The coffee shop across the street is happy to let you bring in your gourmet donuts and order one of their hot beverages. Their latte is served with a perfect leaf shape formed in the foam. Gourdoughs has made the top 12 list of best donuts in the US. Not surprisingly, they have a real building location as well as the food truck. It’s menu is full of delightful treats like terribly unhealthy salads that taste wonderful, as well as a full service bar. Don’t fool yourself though. People come for the donuts.

LBJ Museum and Library does not sound like a fun place to go, so I was surprised to see It pop up on so many “to do” lists.  It turns out to be one of the most interesting museums I’ve ever visited. The displays are interactive, unique, and combine state-of-the-art effects to bring President Johnson’s accomplishments (and failures) to light and give you a true understanding of this past national leader. From national parks to Rosa Parks, this museum covers the controversial Vietnam war, equal rights, and makes learning extremely palatable with videos, animatronics, 3D displays and a replica of the Oval Office from the 60s. LBJ’s limo is even parked there. I must admit, I knew very little about LBJ (nor did I care to) when I entered the door and forked over my $8 admission. It was extremely entertaining and I suddenly found myself very interested in this Texas president. The museum is also a great place to get away on a rainy day.

Grafitti Wall on Castle Hill is  the ultimate DIY art display. Tucked away in a side street directly below a strange turreted building in top of the hill (hence the name) is a large slab of concrete jungle.  Rather than let these formerly uninteresting walls go to waste, painters have been encouraged to bring their aerosol cans and create masterpieces. It’s an explosion of self expression and color that’s become one of the symbols of Austin. You can park on the street below and walk around the painted park. It’s free to the public and you’re supposed to get permission to paint there, but that doesn’t seem to stop the wannabe Van Goghs from spraying their works over other artist’s painted pictures.

Congress Street Bridge has the distinction of being the home for the world’s largest urban population of bats. For some unknown reason, thousands of Mexican free tailed bats decided to make this bridge their home during the day. At night, the bats all leave to hunt for food and it’s an amazing sight! About a million bats all taking off simultaneously. You can stand on the bridge and watch them fly out around dusk or get a view from the park below the bridge. If you really want to commit to bat watching, there’s several boats that take tourists right below the bridge and use infrared lights to show them roosting and then flying off in search of bugs.

Ella Hotel– There’s lots of choices of places to stay in Austin from the quirky go-back-to-the-60s Austin motel or the timeless Driskill hotel (if you don’t mind a few ghosts), but this trip we discovered the Ella hotel. This boutique hotel is a beautiful Greek revival style building created by Goodall Wooten, one of the founders of UT, and is a famous historic Austin landmark. The building has an interesting history as it’s changed hands a few times and gone from mansion to drug treatment center to hotel. It’s latest incarnation as the Hotel Ella does not disappoint. The building definitely has a “wow” factor when you first arrive with it’s amazing columns and facade . Inside there’s a cool historic feel without the creaky floors and lack of comfort. It’s restaurant bears Goodall’s name and has some very interesting choices including a charred octopus dish, blackened carrot salad and fresh roasted beets. The bar offers cool updated pre-prohibition style elixirs and calls them appropriately enough, Dr. Wooten’s Prescriptions and Remedies. If the name holds true, I’m pretty sure I cured myself of a lot of future illnesses in one night.

Moonshine Restaurant and Bar– This little eatery is a former Sunday house and the bar was converted from a stable. There hasn’t been any livestock in there in a while so you can order a ginger mule and know that you’re getting a drink and not something else. The staff was nice enough to indulge us with a short tour that included the wine cellar which was formerly a Speak Easy. Not only is the restaurant interesting from a historical perspective, but it’s rated as one of the top 20 restaurants in Austin. The peanut butter mousse pie is reason enough to visit. The two of us couldn’t finish it.

The Texas State Capitol Building was built only a decade before the Wooten house and is an amazing structure taller than it’s counterpoint in Washington DC. as well as the 6th largest in the nation. Visitors can wander around the building until 10 pm, although it’s unlikely you’ll  find any politicians hanging around that late. The building is impressive and many visitors opt for a picture on the state seal in the center of the building or a selfie with the domed ceiling in the background. The outside grounds make for a nice walk as well. The building is well worth an hour or two visit.

Sixth Street is considered by many to be the Bourbon Street of Texas. With so many options near each other,  it’s a great place for those of us with ADD or those who like to change things up a bit. Look, a squirrel!  The bars open after 5 and there are lots of choices with live music, DJs and sports bars. Sixth Street is a great place to wind up your night if you’re not worn out from bat watching and museums.

If you’ve missed the charms of Texas’ capitol city, try out a few of my picks from this list. You won’t be disappointed.

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