Six Must-See Places in Austin, Texas
Keep Austin weird.
Printed on countless bumper stickers and tie-dye t-shirts, this phrase has become synonymous with the Hill Country metropolis. (You'll see Hill Country featured in the Winter 2014 issue of Preservation.) But is it true? Is Austin really that weird?
It depends on your definition. Having spent four amazing years there (UT, class of 2004) and many more plotting a return, I think what makes Austin "weird" is the premium it places on people, places, and experiences. With a keen eye for detail and a healthy dose of ego, the city is designed at every turn to surprise, delight, and inspire. And at the end of the day, it’s not so much that Austin is weird for doing that; it’s weird that so few places try to do the same.
So, if you come to Texas and find yourself with one day in this neck of the woods, this post is for you. I invite you to experience these six inspiring places in and around Austin and see for yourself.
Mt. Bonnell -- Put Your Head in the Clouds
Getting inspired usually requires getting some perspective, and no place in Austin lets you take it all in quite like Mt. Bonnell. While the 775-foot climb to the top of this Texas Historic Landmark will definitely get your juices flowing, it’s the 360-degree view of ATX and the rugged beauty that surrounds it that’ll take what’s left of your breath away. After you do all of the requisite photo snapping (the panoramic function on your iPhone won’t do it justice), take a moment and just sit with the city. You’ll be glad you did.
South Congress -- Now Put Your Feet on the Street
Many moons ago, historic South Congress was the type of place where motels charged by the hour and where drivers nonchalantly locked their doors at red lights. Today, it’s on the grass-is-greener side of a revitalization that has transformed it into a mural and neon-washed commercial corridor imbued with Austin’s playful blend of localism. Start at the iconic Austin Motel sign, and enjoy a seven-block stroll southward that feels more like a parade than a walk.
Moonlight Tower -- Have a Light Bulb Moment (15 of ‘Em)
In the late 19th century, cities across the United States and Europe erected towering carbon arc lamps to illuminate their streets and alleyways. While this technology eventually became outmoded thanks to better and brighter electric systems, Austin held onto its moonlight towers, which were actually obtained secondhand from Detroit. Today, 15 of these local curiosities are not only listed on the National Register, but remain in active use in historic neighborhoods across town. I promise -- once you spot one (psst: W. 12th and Rio Grande), you’ll be obsessed with finding them all.
Barton Springs Pool -- Dive Into History
Ask any local where the soul of Austin is, and they will invariably point you in the direction of Barton Springs. Clocking in as the country’s largest urban pool, the year-round watering hole is fed by an icy spring that has been considered sacred since prehistoric times. Even if you’re too chicken to take a dip in the consistency cold water (I often am), explore the grounds and the surrounding Zilker Park. Both are mirage-like places of intriguing beauty that have a way with hearts and minds.
Magic Hour on the Ann Richards Bridge -- Take Flight With the End of Light
I would speculate that almost every great idea ever had was inspired -- at least partially -- by an amazing sunset in an inspiring place. The world just feels different in that light. Named for the state’s 45th governor and a longtime Austin resident, the Ann Richards Bridge serves up magic hour like few places I have experienced in my life. Stand in the middle and watch the city’s glistening skyscrapers slowly become silhouettes. As that happens, you’ll have prime seats as the country’s largest urban bat colony comes alive and makes a dramatic exit from under the historic bridge.
Campus at Night -- Embrace the Eyes of Texas
Architecturally speaking, the University of Texas is a powerful place – and I’m not just saying that as an alum. Like many colleges, it was built to strike the deep nerves where pride lives. Longhorn fan or not, there’s no better way to tap into the intensely reverential feeling that permeates a campus where everyone bleeds orange than to visit the South Mall after sundown. With the Main Building glowing against the dark night sky in a way that seems nothing short of gravitational, you’ll feel like you’re standing in front of the entire Lone Star State. It’s the stuff fight songs are made of.