By David Baird
Austin, where it's not unusual for perfect strangers to strike up a conversation, prides itself on giving all comers a warm welcome: punks and honky-tonkers, environmentalists and SUV drivers, cowboy boots and Birkenstocks. In spite of being the Texas state capital and home to the University of Texas, Austin maintains its small-town feel and green spaces. Whether you're looking for posh shopping or line dancing, you're welcome to "do your thing" in Austin.
Things to Do
Austin is home to the largest State Capitol in the U.S. The pink Renaissance Revival building's dome, while smaller than the U.S. Capitol's, is taller. (Like they say, everything's bigger in Texas.) Since Austin prides itself on being a little different, why not visit the Bat Bridge? Crowds of people hang around the Congress Avenue Bridge for the star attraction -- the evening flight of the million bats who live beneath the span.
Downtown Austin's shopping district sells a mix of goods, from local hot sauce to indie music, from Western wear to Texas folk art. SoCo, or South Congress, is home to art galleries, funky clothing boutiques and bargain antique stores. The real fun in SoCo comes on First Thursdays each month, when the shopping district throws a street festival to attract customers. Live music and entertainment (jugglers, magicians, street theater -- who knows?) keep things lively until 10 p.m. (or later if everyone's having fun).
Nightlife and Entertainment
Antone's has always been synonymous with the blues. When Etta James or Edgar Winter head to Austin, it's Antone's they're heading to, although Willie Nelson and other country acts have been known to show up, too. Honky-tonkin' is the name of the game at The Broken Spoke. Expect cowboy hats, cowboy boots and lots of two-steppin'. The Backyard serves good barbecue and draws big names from all music genres.
Restaurants and Dining
Home-style cooking is the rule at Threadgill's, an honest-to-goodness Austin restaurant dishing up chicken-fried steak, fried okra and ham with Jezebel sauce. It's a favorite venue for Austin's musicians. Americana lives at Shady Grove, with its yellow-pine Texas roadhouse decor. The food says Americana, too: Meatloaf, chili and fried catfish. Sit outside on the restaurant's large patio in summer and, on Thursday nights, listen to free live music when Shady Grove Unplugged features musicians going acoustic.