Capital of Texas, the city of Austin lies almost in the centre of the state, a big city with a small-town feel, young population, casual lifestyle and reputation as a Mecca for live music shows.
Home of the University of Texas campus, Austin life is closely entwined with the energy and enthusiasm of its students, but this city that has been a state capital since 1838 does not ignore its history. Young people are drawn here too by the array of live concerts that are held frequently around the shores of Town Lake. Most famous of these events is the annual South by Southwest music festival-conference held every March. Visitors wanting to tune in to Austin's live musical repertoire, which spans everything from blues and country to reggae, simply have to drift down the famous Sixth Street strip of pubs and clubs any night of the week.
Austin's laid-back attitude lends itself to the great outdoors, and the city has miles of hiking and biking trails linking parks, preserves and greenbelts adding to the ambience of its leafy streets.
Austin's impressive pink granite capitol building is rivalled only by that of the US Capitol in Washington, DC. Encircled by its original wrought-iron fence topped with gold Lone Stars and standing proudly in a hectare (three acres) of ground, the domed building was constructed in 1882 out of granite quarried from Granite Mountain 75 miles (121km) away.
The design used the Renaissance Revival style and is an excellent example of late 19th century public architecture. The building was expanded with an added wing in 1993, and throughout the 1990's both the building and its park-like grounds were given extensive renovations and restoration work.
Events and exhibits are regularly hosted at the Capitol Building. Visitors can take guided tours of this interestingly designed building, or attend legislative sessions, which are open to the public. The grounds are also open to the public and are well worth a visit, filled as they are with seventeen monuments including those to the Heroes of the Alamo, Volunteer Firemen, Confederate Soldiers and Terry's Texas Rangers.
The 140-hectare (347-acre) Zilker Park, donated to the city by the German immigrant who gave it its name, is Austin's most popular public recreational area, dominated by its ancient spring-fed natural swimming pool, known as Barton Springs, which Native Americans believed to have healing properties. The pool is about the size of a football field with water at a constant warm temperature all year round.
Zilker Park has other attractions, too, including a botanical garden which features dinosaur tracks, a nature preserve, the Umlauf Sculpture garden and museum, canoes for rent and eight miles (13km) of biking and walking trails; there are sports facilities aplenty and amusements for children like the Zilker Zephyr miniature train and paddleboat rides.
The Zilker Hillside Theatre hosts musical concerts throughout the year, and the park also plays host to the Austin Nature and Science Center where exhibits and workshops run throughout the year. The Zilker Park's annual Christmas tree-lighting ceremony is a popular event, boasting a tree that stands 155 feet (47m) tall and is made up of 39 streamers each holding 81 lights, making for a grand total of 3,309 lights.
Texas hill country is renowned for its glorious spring blooms, and former First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, founded this centre dedicated to the study and preservation of native plants in 1982. There are 72 hectares (178 acres) of wildflowers in display gardens, including a garden designed to attract butterflies. There are also some interesting indoor displays, and the centre offers free lectures and guided walks at weekends.
The centre's exhibition area hosts displays of artwork and photography inspired by nature, especially flowers. In 2006, the centre was made an Organized Research Unit for the University of Texas at Austin. A new feature at the centre is the Mollie Steves Zachry Texas Arboretum, where visitors are invited to learn more about Texas' trees all in an easy-to-navigate, compact space. The focus is on the Texas oak, but many other species are included.
The opulent plantation-style mansion home to the Texas State governor is one of the oldest buildings in the city, dating from 1856. Although it is still lived in when the governor is in town, the mansion is open to the public for limited hours each day and many historical artefacts are on display, including portraits of Davy Crockett and Sam Houston, and a collection of mementoes from each administration. The mansion has been recently renovated, guided tours are available, which offer interesting anecdotes about previous governors.
A major stop on national art circuit tours, the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas in Austin is ranked among the top 10 university art museums in the country. Highlights here are the Suida-Manning Collection of European paintings featuring 250 works by the Continental masters, and the collection of 20th-century American Art assembled by novelist James A. Michener.
There is also a large collection of Latin American Art consisting of more than 500 key works. The permanent exhibitions on show at the museum include Stacked Waters by Teresita Fernandez, a piece of installation art in the museum's atrium. Changing exhibitions often have themes that focus on aspects of American history and scenery as depicted in art, as well as displays of current artists' work.
One of the more unusual tourist attractions in Austin, is the nightly flight of millions of Mexican free-tailed bats emerging from their roosts under the Congress Avenue Bridge. The bridge was revamped in the 1980s and regularly-spaced crevices underneath the new structure inadvertently created a perfect resting spot for thousands of bats.
The bat colony takes up residence under the bridge in mid-March each year and returns to Mexico in early November. There can be up to 1.5 million bats living under the bridge at the height of bat season. During their sojourn in Austin visitors are amazed by their mass evening emergence from their roost, which generally takes place at dusk.
The Congress Avenue Bridge is 10 blocks south of the State Capitol building, spanning Town Lake. A Bat Observation Center is located on the southeast side. During bat season hundreds of people gather on and around the bridge each evening to witness the spectacle.
The rugged wilderness of the Guadalupe Mountains in west Texas was originally a barrier reef under the waters of an ancient sea. Today fir trees and pockets of lush vegetation cling to this mountain range rising from the desert. Formerly the home of the Apache nation, the National Park is now occupied by hundreds of plant and bird species, 60 species of mammals and 55 varieties of reptiles and amphibians.
Visitors can traverse more than 80 miles (129km) of trails on foot or horseback, or take the 4WD route provided. There are several historic sites in the park including Frijole Ranch History Museum and the ruins of a stagecoach station. McKittrick Canyon in the northeast corner of the park is regarded as the most beautiful spot in Texas, where oaks and maples make a colourful display in fall. There is a Junior Ranger program available to keep children entertained. Horseback riding is allowed, although not provided by the park.
Austin has a humid subtropical climate with hot and long summers and mild winters. At the height of summer (June to August), temperatures average between 72°F (22°C) and 97°F (36°C). In winter (December to February), the temperatures stay well above freezing, averaging between 41°F (5°C) and 65°F (18°C). Humidity is at its highest between May and September, and rainfall is fairly evenly distributed throughout the year, with an average of seven rainy days per month.
The largest of the many live music events for which Austin hosts, is the annual South by Southwest festival, held at more than 50 venues around the city and draws performers from around the world. The festival started in 1987 as an extension of the New Music Seminar in New York City, and has since grown and become entirely its own entity. The festival programme includes 1,000 performances on more than 50 stages over a six-day period. In recent years the festival has expanded to encompass film and multi-media, both these categories now forming separate extravaganzas to make South by Southwest a convergence of entertainment and media. Over the years, the festival has led to the discovery of many musicians, such as John Mayer, James Blunt, and Hanson, and a new film genre, mumblecore, was reportedly coinded at South by Southwest.
One of the biggest carnivals staged outside Brazil, and undoubtedly Austin's biggest and reportedly wildest party, is the colourful Carnaval Brasiliero. The festival is a tradition in the city every February since it was started in 1975 by a group of home-sick Brazilian students at the local university. Carnaval was adopted enthusiastically by Austinites and today the crowds of more than 5,000 partygoers pack into the Palmer Events Centre to samba, march, and drum the cold winter night away. Live Brazilian bands provide music for the duration of Carnaval, and visitors are encouraged to dress up as much as possible, showing as much skin as you dare! Face and body painters are available to add to costumes for a small fee. Cash bars are scattered throughout the venue for easy access and quick service, and the ballroom foyer is set up as a quieter decompressing and resting area. There is no food available at the event, and visitors are not permitted to bring in their own food or drinks.
Austin becomes a cuisine and fine wine destination towards the end of March and beginning of April. Some of the best chefs in the US culinary scene descend upon the town at the behest of many of Texas's local masters to educate and indulge a hungry public. The festival is organised by some of texas' well-known foodies, namely Tim Love, Tyson Cole, and Jesse Herman. Cooking demostrations, wine tastings, and cocktail seminars are ongoing for the duration of the festival. A Grand Tasting Pavilion enables visitors to taste a wide variety of food and drinks, with over 80 exhibitors represented at the pavilion. Brand new cook books can be bought and signed by their authors. Live music is also on offer throughout the festival to keep visitors entertained. The festival is a 21-plus only events, which means that small children and babies can't attend along with their parents.
Rated as one of the largest music festivals in the United States, the three-day Austin City Limits event in a 15-acre city park grew as an offshoot from the popular television series of the same name. The Festival draws young and old to a series of stages where 130 bands give ongoing performances on eight stages over the course of three days, and draws more than 70,000 people every day. The music played at the festival covers a broad spectrum, from indie to country to jazz to pop to electronic and everything else in between. The park hosting the festival is Austin's Zilker Park, itself a famous landmark of the city.
The excellent public transport system in Austin provides cheap public buses and vans that cover all neighbourhoods, including downtown and the university campus, for a flat fare. Transfers between buses are free and valid for three hours. Single fares start from $1.25. Taxis are available from hotel taxi stands during the day and by phone at night. Pedicabs can also be found on the streets in the entertainment districts like East and West 6th Street, and the Warehouse District. Multiple local ride-hailing services are available along with larger companies like Uber and Lyft.
Driving in Austin can be very confusing, with a lack of clear east-west routes through the city centre and the fact that locals tend to refer to highways by unofficial names. The city centre can become congested at rush hour.
There is no shortage of things to see and do in Austin. The city centre is easily explored on foot and has a good concentration of attractions and museums around the magnificent Texas State Capitol building. These include the Austin History Center, City Hall, the Austin Children's Museum, Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, the MEXIC-ARTE Museum, and the O. Henry Museum.
The University of Texas contains a number of attractions, including the Blanton Museum of Art, the Texas Natural Science Center, and the President Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum.
West Austin is home to pleasant outdoor spaces and natural attractions in the famous Zilker Park, which includes Zilker Botanical Gardens and the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum. Zilker Park is a must-visit in Austin, and a pleasant place for a picnic on one of the city's many sunny days.