Austin, Texas, is the easiest place to fall in love with -- a sweet, sunny spot with so many forms of recreation and relaxation that it's more like an all-ages summer camp than a metropolis. Though the technology and music-industry booms have made it a bigger, slicker town than it once was -- the U.S. Census Bureau currently ranks it the fastest-growing city in the nation -- many of the charms that dazzled me when I first set eyes on it in April 1976 remain.
Back then, it was a town of 308,000; there was no South by Southwest and no "Austin City Limits." The first Whole Foods Market anywhere opened in 1980 at Ninth and Lamar; it was right up the street from my house. Now, Austin's metro population is over a million and the flagship Whole Foods is an 80,000-square-foot theme park of gourmet health -- it's one of the stops on the tour of Austin I give to first- timers. Here are some of the other highlights.
For me, every Austin experience starts, and ends, with Mexican food. Even now that Chipotle has made beans and rice with fresh salsa a national option, you haven't lived until you've had Tex-Mex in Austin. Breakfast might be the greatest meal of the cuisine, with the key delights being migas (eggs scrambled with tortilla chips and cheese), huevos rancheros and breakfast tacos. Good salsa and tortillas are the secret of these dishes, and in Austin, they aren't hard to find.
The most traditional spot for migas is Cisco Restaurant Bakery, which is on Austin's East Side and has long been known as a hangout of movers and shakers from the Capitol; photos of LBJ and his ilk paper the walls. Once a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, much of the East Side has become hipsterville -- and I mean that in a good way, with funky bars, killer food trucks and an annual art crawl that includes well over a hundred studios.
In South Austin, I drizzle my migas with one of each variety from the salsa bar at Polvos. In locations all around town, two venerable local chains, Trudy's and Maudie's, have delicious breakfasts as well as every other meal, and can give you a fine margarita on the side.
For dinner, I love Manuel's Downtown. The margaritas are unrivaled and the appetizers -- chile con queso, hongos guisados (sauteed mushrooms), ceviche and guacamole -- are so good it's hard to get past them.
Fresh air and exercise
Fortunately, the other best thing to do in Austin will help you burn off some of the calories you'll be hoovering down. Barton Springs is a quarter-mile-long, spring-fed swimming pool that is 65 degrees year-round and is so stunning that it's worth visiting even if you have no intention of getting in the water. It's the crown jewel of Zilker Park, which also has a botanical garden, a mega-playscape and a choo-choo train. I always pay a visit to Philosopher's Rock, which commemorates three local writers: J. Frank Dobie, Roy Bedichek and Walter Prescott Webb. Don't miss the bronze plaques with a quote from each one, embodying the intellectual and civic spirit of Austin.
If Zilker is the heart of the city, the Lady Bird Lake Hike and Bike Trail is its jugular. This 10-mile loop runs around the part of the Colorado River that cuts the town in half, dividing north from south, and giving a number of its hotels waterfront views. Recently completed with a mile-long boardwalk section, the trail passes a statue of the beloved Stevie Ray Vaughan, a pilgrimage spot for blues lovers.
Not far from Stevie Ray is the Congress Avenue Bridge, under which, from March to November, lives the largest urban bat colony in North America, numbering 1.5 million. They fly out in a breathtaking black cloud at sunset in search of dinner (30,000 pounds of mosquitoes, thank you very much), and every day a throng of humans gathers to watch them -- on shore, along the bridge, and at Chavez, a lovely bar in the Radisson Hotel.
Another spectacular view of Austin is seen at Mount Bonnell, from whose summit the city spreads like a toy town: the University of Texas clock tower, lit up orange when the home team wins; the Capitol; Lake Austin; the MoPac highway, named for the Missouri Pacific railroad whose track it follows. The 99 wide steps cut into the eastern ledge of Mount Bonnell make getting up there easy; there's also a sloping path on the north side.
Congress Avenue, North and South
Made of pink granite from nearby Marble Falls, the Texas State Capitol building is 7 feet taller than the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. It stands regally at the head of Congress Avenue, dominating downtown; skyscrapers line up alongside the boulevard like courtiers. Inside, there's an elegant rotunda and a self- guided tour.
With the Capitol still in view, a fine day can be had strolling Congress Avenue south of the river, which has become a bohemian shopping and dining paradise. Here are a few highlights within just two blocks.
Lucy in Disguise (1506 SoCo, 512-444-2002, nwsdy.li/lucy). An 8,000-square-foot costume and vintage shop. The categories ("Religious," "Scary Monster," "Hawaiian") are as funny as the costumes.
Uncommon Objects (1512 SoCo, 512-442-4000, nwsdy.li/uncom). I am not the type of person who likes pawing through curios and antiques, but this place has everything arranged in such perfect little nooks and scenarios that even I am charmed. Every time I go in, I buy someone a real Texas horseshoe for luck.
Allen's Boots (1522 SoCo, 512-447-1413, allensboots.com). Thousands of pairs of cowboy boots displayed on shelves for you to try on. The smell alone is worth a visit.
South Congress Avenue Books (1608 SoCo, 512-916-8882, nwsdy.li/scb). One of the most carefully curated used book stores you'll ever see. Last time I was in there, I bought a signed copy of Tom Waits' poetry.
Austin is a big city now, but not so big that a newcomer can't make a discovery, or find a quirky coffeehouse, a live-music dive or funky taco shack of your own. Go look.
IF YOU GO
WHERE TO EAT
Cisco's Restaurant Bakery, 1511 E. Sixth St. Open daily, 7 a.m.-2:30 p.m. 512-478-2420
Polvos, 2004 S. First St. 512-441-5446, polvosaustin.com
Trudy's, several locations, trudys.com
Maudie's, several locations, maudies.com
Manuel's, 310 Congress Ave., 512-472-7555, manuels.com
WHERE TO STAY
Radisson Hotel Downtown. Bat-centric location, right downtown on the river, from $160, 111 E. Cesar Chavez St., 512-478-9611, radisson.com
San José Hotel. Gem of the SoCo district, across from the landmark nightspot The Continental Club, from $145, 1316 S. Congress Ave., 512-444-7322, sanjosehotel.com
Heywood Hotel. New and ultracool on the hipster East Side, from $199, 1609 E. Cesar Chavez St., 512-271-5522, heywoodhotel.com