Austin is the capital city of Texas, of the lone star state motto, and our latest travel destination last week. The “keep Austin weird” mantra plus good food and live music lured us unsuspecting San Franciscans into the throws of a hot and humid September, but the beauty of the city, the friendly smiles, amazingly good grub and strains of music filling its air made Austin so much more endearing than just another capital city. We spent a good three days there, driving around (you do need a car if you want to travel cause Austin is definitely not pint sized) and fitted quite a few things in our itinerary. So here is what we did, not in any chronological order, but just crazy enough to show you how varied your options can be. A little bit of nature or a slice of urban life, Austin has it all. Part 1 is a visitors guide to Austin and starts now!
A) Mount Bonnell
Mount Bonnell/Covert Park is generally considered the highest point in the city of Austin (780 feet above sea level) and reveals beautiful views of West Austin, specially Lake Austin. It was designated a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark in 1969. A short flight of stairs will lead you to the very top where you can get your fill of some breathtaking panoramic views of Austin’s greenery and water. Don’t forget to get there early to avoid the crazy joggers and exercise freaks!
B) Pennybacker bridge and Lake Austin
In the neighborhood of Mount Bonnell, lies Pennybacker bridge, going the northern and southern parts of the capital and providing some spectacular views of Lake Austin itself. You can either park at one of the lookout points of the bridge or better still take an exit to get all the way down to the lake itself to catch a quiet moment by the water. We sure did.
C) Mexi-Arte Museum
We are both art lovers and museum people, so if any of this is your jam, then Austin has quite a few to satiate your love of culture. Get your museum antennas buzzing with this tiny, yet beautiful Mexi-Arte museum in downtown Austin where the current exhibit on Borderland symbols and art is extremely relevant, given our political climate. The exhibits talk about the volatile US-Mexcio border through the vibrant lens of art stemming from the Mexican, American and Mexican-American traditions the come together in a rich tapestry of shared heritage at the border. The symbolism of chico beliefs fused with vintage Americana made the exhibit enthralling. As a pacifist and art lover, I felt that there is so much more to the border and people living there that their multidimensionality cannot be boxed in black and white by a single swath of a brush that paints them as hostile, rapists and thiefs, unwelcome in another country and dangerous. There is so much cultural exchange going on where two countries meet and although there are problems and issues and crime, sharing our borders has infused new life in American art via traditional beliefs, colors and motifs of the south. This constant melting pot of different cultures and ideas is what makes America beautiful and I hope it stays that way. People at the borders are humans after all, and they have so much more to offer and share than just be dehumanized as political pawns. This exhibit was a beautiful reminder of how enriched one society and its art can become if it allows the entry of other ideas and societal mores.
D) Blanton Museum of Art
Keeping the museum theme intact, I now move to our second museum outing at the Blanton museum of Art, on the UT Austin campus. Since the second floor was closed for renovation, we could only view the first floor gallery with two exhibits, but both were extremely thought provoking. The first was by the internationally renowned Chinese artist Xu Bing (winner of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation“Genius” award) called “Book From The Sky” which is considered one of the most breakout works of art in the post-Mao era. This installation is simply a book consisting of reams of pages of characters made up by the artist and is somewhat of a fusion between Mandarin and western characters. The method to this madness is that language itself can be twisted and contorted to control the masses and on a more philosophical note, it can also be open to interpretation by the reader. The second exhibit was by the famous Spanish artist Francisco de Goya and was titled Goya: Mad Reason- a collection of sketches borrowed from Yale University Art Gallery’s distinguished Arthur Ross Collection. Goya’s art reflected his torment and disappointment under the oppressive regime of Ferdinand VII, who with his regressive ideology, had wreaked havoc on free speech, satire and art in early 19th century Spain. Goya’s work was a reminder as to how changing political landscapes can influence art and artists in profound ways, similar to what is continuing till this date in so many countries.
E) Bullock Museum/Texas State History Museum
My most entertaining museum visit ever, this is why I finally figured out the origins of Texas and the political affiliations and belief of this state. The exhibits were marvelous and outlined the Texas revolution (freedom of Texas from the Mexican government, its inclusion in the Union to become the 28th state, its secession to join the confederacy and finally the ill-fated civil war on slavery where the south lost). Although I am not a big fan of Texan politics and its pro-slave stance, I couldn’t help admire the guts of the Anglo-settlers who took on the might of the Mexican government (yes, Texas used to be part of Mexico-oh the irony) in the epic battle of Gonzales where a small rag-tag group refused to hand back the loaned cannon to the Mexican Army with a war cry of “Come and Get it!”. There was also another beautiful exhibit on the ill-fates ship La Belle and the famous French explorer La Salle, who sailed to USA hoping to colonize the Mississippi for the French but failed as the ship lost course and landed at Texas. La Belle sank in a storm and was discovered in the 90s and now the ships hull is part of the museum exhibit.
There was also a third exhibit and one that was the most moving disturbing and terrifying at the same time, i.e. the meticulous exhibit on the Nazi Propaganda in Germany at the time of the third Reich via posters, books, images and short film clips from the Third Reich era.The rise and fall of the Nazi party, the extreme and manipulative use of propaganda material to persecute Jews and the brainwashing of an entire nation were painstakingly documented and difficult to stomach. How the repeated use of lies and half truths, stark symbolism to denounce Jews as evil and Aryan manifestos blinding the economically vulnerable with empty promises, all in the name of making Germany great again, can bring utter ruin and destruction was depicted in the exhibit. Photography was prohibited at the request of the exhibitor, who happened to be a holocaust survivor but the images and the propaganda lies will remain forever etched in my mind. With the US elections drawing near and the choice of an extremely divisive candidate by a large section of society tired of being economically downtrodden who have misplaced faith in their messiah, I couldn’t help but draw parallels and shuddered at the thought of the rise of this extreme ideology not only in USA but elsewhere where dictatorship and totalitarian regime aim to divide people and persecute minorities. A very moving exhibit showing a real threat to democracy and common sense, this one was a real find for the history aficionado in me and very disturbing as well, specially the part where little children were made to wear yellow badges to show their faith (Judaism) and the packing of families away to death in concentration camps. I was very shaken by what I saw as I peered into the evil genius of the Fuhrer’s regime and the evil force of propaganda (something continuing to this day and age) to brainwash people. In retrospect, I don’t think I will be able to stomach a visit to Auschwitz, the infamous concentration camp where millions of Jewish people met their death by starvation and in gas chambers. The exhibit continues up until October, so please stop by if you get a chance.
F) O. Henry Museum
No trip to Austin is complete without a quick visit to the O. Henry museum in downtown which is basically his house converted to a museum and maintained by the city. William Sydney Porter lived here for 3 years before he was imprisoned where he took on the pen name O. Henry and churned epic short stories with a cunning twist at the end. One of my absolute favorite American authors, he died nearly penniless in New York but left behind an anthology of 300+ stories for literature lovers to enjoy. His wife died of pneumonia and his daughter died in her 30s of the same disease as well. No survivors of his blood line except his work that will endure for centuries in the hearts of book lovers! The house is well maintained with all his possessions and furniture and gives you a glimpse into the life of the man before he became O. Henry.
G) Zilker Botanical Park/Lady Bird Lake/Umlauf sculpture garden
Zilker botanical park is to Austinites what Central Park is to New Yorkers, a vast expanse of green and an oxygen artery in the chaos of a concrete jungle. Although Austin is nowhere close to being a dense urban sprawl like Manhattan, the park and its many attractions are a big draw to locals and tourists alike. You can canoe on the Lady Bird lake (formerly called Town lake) or catch a glimpse of the city skyline from the Town Lake Metropolitan park. Better still, spend an afternoon in the shady lily grove amidst the beautiful sculptures donated by Charles Umlauf to the city of Austin in the Umlauf sculpture garden, now celebrating 25 years since its opening to the public. A first generation American born to German parents, Umlauf went on to become a world famous sculptor and yet chose Austin as his home. His work is breathtaking and involves all kinds of subjects (the diver boy sculpture is modeled after his own son) ranging from saints to refugees to mother and child (the latter being one of his recurring themes). The details and emotions captured in these sculptures is amazing.
Austin is the state capital and therefore a trip to the Capitol building, taller than that in Washington DC, is a must visit. For daily tours you can go the visitor center (open from 9-5) or do what we did and simply stroll around. Most of the building was under renovation of some kind, but we did manage to get photos of one wing that was intact. War hero, the iconic Texan Cowboy on his steed and “Remember the Alamo” statues were seen everywhere. My favorite though were the statues of Texan kids, the proud women of Texas and the replica of the Statue of Liberty.
I) Grafitti Park
Located in the quiet neighborhood of Clarksville, Graffiti park packs in a punch with a riot of colors, messages, drawings, sketches, tags and socio-political messages scribbled, splashed, painted and sketched on every inch of its decrepit walls. A manna from heaven for all maverick art lovers and mural maniacs, you too can get started by buying a spray can from the friendly artist patrolling this area with his adorable pooch. This is not the only spot to catch murals since Austin has plenty of them scattered all over, and a separate blog post is coming up soon with all of them in one place.
J) Neighborhoods/shopping/live music/streets of Austin
The urban explorer in you can get her/his fill in downtown Austin (2nd street) for live music and shopping, the lively South Congress Avenue for some more local boutique hopping and shopping (their chalk board art is on point) and the hipster neighborhoods of East Austin and Holly for good food and you guessed it, more local shopping! Apart from the Willie Nelson mania (see his statue below on W.N. Boulevard), Austin is crazy about is local music scene and everyplace form dive bars to restaurants to even stores have some form of live music performance or the other in the evening. Congress Ave, the main street of Austin, has tons of good local shopping spots and you must stop by Parts & Labour to pick up mementos from art work by all local Austin or Texas Artists (we picked up some cool Tim Doyle prints for our study). Finally, stop by Solid Gold, a local apparel boutique for cute one of a kind dresses and jewelry curated from independent artists all over in USA.
K) Bat watching
This was perhaps our most interesting experience and something very unique to Austin, home to the largest urban colony of bats! From March to November, these nocturnals emerge religiously from under the South Congress Ave. bridge, at dusk and after and it is indeed a sight to behold. The bridge is the best vantage point to view them and you can get a fantastic view of the city skyscrapers as well as the capitol in the distance, all lit up and shimmering.
This ends my travelogue of Austin. Being so hot and humid, we could not do more outdoorsy things like exploring the botanical garden or the McKinney Falls State Park since the sun was beating down on us mercilessly starting from 9 AM! I hope you enjoyed this post and stay tuned for more! Thanks so much for stopping by and if you wish to travel to Austin, do so in the winter months (Nov-Feb) for cooler weather. Do share your experiences with me and if you have already been there, let me know if there is something else that I need to add to this list. Read my other posts on Austin food guide and the most Instagram worthy murals.