Austin is unlike any other city in Texas, or anywhere else really. The capitol city is famous for its 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.
But 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. At the Gourdough's Big. Fat. Donuts. location on South 1st Street, you'll find a retro-style food truck that serves its 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," while "The Mother Clucker" has fried chicken on top. Other favorites include Granny's Pie, Blue Balls and The Flying Pig.
Surprisingly, they don't serve coffee, but that's not a problem; Seventh Flag Coffee across the street is happy to let you bring in your gourmet donuts and order one of their hot beverages—and their latte is served with a perfect leaf shape formed in the foam. If you'd rather not take your meal to go, Gourdough's has a bricks-and-mortar location, Gourdough's Public House, on South Lamar. Its 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.
The LBJ Presidential 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, giving you a fuller understanding of his legacy. From national parks to Rosa Parks, this museum covers the controversial Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and makes learning extremely palatable with videos, animatronics, 3D displays and a much-photographed replica of the Oval Office from the 1960s. 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 on 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. Today, it's an explosion of self expression and color that's become one of the new symbols of Austin. You can park on the street below and walk around the painted park, but you'd better get there while you still can—the HOPE Outdoor Gallery, as it's technically termed, will be moving soon.
Congress Avenue Bridge has the distinction of being home to 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 to watch one million bats flying off simultaneously into the evening sky. 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 are 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.
The Hotel Ella 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, going from mansion to drug treatment center to hotel. Its latest incarnation as the Hotel Ella does not disappoint. The building definitely has a wow factor when you first arrive, with amazing columns and a grand façade. there's a cool historic feel without the creaky floors and lack of comfort.
The terrific in-house restaurant at the Hotel Ella 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 Patio Bar & Grill is located inside a former Sunday house, while its bar was converted from a stable. There haven'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 speakeasy. Not only is Moonshine 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; two of us couldn't finish the thing.
The Texas State Capitol Building was built only a decade before the Wooten house and is an amazing structure, taller than its counterpoint in Washington D.C., as well as the sixth-largest in the nation. Visitors can wander around the building until 10 p.m., although it's unlikely you'll find any politicians hanging around that late. 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 p.m. and there are lots of choices with live music, DJs and sports on big-screen TVs. Sixth Street is a great place to wind down your night—that is, if you're not worn out from bat-watching and museums.