The magnificent Texas state capitol stands 20 feet taller than its US counterpart, as any self-respecting Texan will tell you—no doubt out of nostalgia for the brief moment that Austin was, like Washington, a national capital. (The Republic of Texas lasted from 1836 to 1845.) Today, visitors come for music festivals and barbecue, but Austin is still very much a political town, one that served as a launching pad for George W. Bush and Ted Cruz. The bad news—or good, depending on how you see it—is that its legislative body is in session only in odd-numbered years.
Take It to the Bridge
Cutting through the heart of downtown Austin is a two-mile stretch of Congress Avenue lined with shops, bars, hotels, and restaurants. While the wide thoroughfare can get a tad touristy, it embodies what makes Austin special, whether jam-packed Uncommon Objects (1512 S. Congress Ave.; 512-442-4000), where you can pick up a giraffe skull or maybe a glass eye, or the Congress Avenue bridge over sparkling Lady Bird Lake, where summertime visitors line up at sunset to witness hundreds of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats emerging from their home underneath.
At the northern end, the road dead-ends at the Texas Capitol, an Italian Renaissance Revival–style building whose gorgeous interior and 22 acres of tree-studded grounds are worth wandering. End your crawl at the Cloak Room, about 500 feet west of the capitol (1300 Colorado St.; 512-472-9808). It’s a dark, subterranean bar with a fully loaded jukebox and generously coifed bartenders whose suffer-no-fools comportment comes from years of manhandling college students and capitol staffers.
The nation’s capital is not unfamiliar with the glories of wood-smoked meat. But while DC barbecue is an amalgam of perfectly respectable Southern styles—Hill Country, Texas Jack’s, and DCity Smokehouse carry the torch for Texas—Austin’s environs are the true source. And though I’m loath to advise a visitor to spend three to four hours in a parking lot, the experience of patiently waiting to feast on Franklin Barbecue (900 E. 11th St.; no phone)—possibly the best smoked meat on the plan-et—can be a lot of fun. Grab coffee and breakfast tacos from the Pueblo Viejo food truck (907 E. Sixth St.), then secure your place in the world’s longest queue for ’cue and chat up your fellow pilgrims, who may include an architect from Tokyo or a UT student willing to share a cold one from his 12-pack of Shiner.
If you’ve consumed your share of the holy trinity of Texas food—barbecue, Tex-Mex, burgers—lace up and hit the Violet Crown Trail (Zilker Park, 2100 Barton Springs Rd.). Start at mile 0, just west of Barton Springs, a spring-fed pool that’s the jewel of Austin, and hike (well, more like amble) through a swath of greenbelt that offers Instagram-worthy tableaux of rock walls draped in lime-green moss, chalky limestone bluffs, and crystal-clear swimming holes.
Curiouser and Curiouser
If you’ve ever found yourself wondering why “the archives of so many great writers end up in Texas,” as the New Yorker so succinctly put it, make a trip to the Harry Ransom Center (University of Texas at Austin, 300 W. 21st St.; 512-471-8944).A beneficiary of Texas’s vaunted oil largesse, it’s a repository for both the highbrow (the Watergate papers; a rare first edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) and the oddball (Marlon Brando’s address book; a leopard-print boxing robe De Niro wore in Raging Bull).
Just up the road is the LBJ Presidential Library (2313 Red River St.; 512-721-0200), whose high-lights—especially for Washingtonians—include a replica of Johnson’s Oval Office, an animatronic LBJ that’s both charming and creepy, and hours of recorded conversations in which the salty-tongued 36th President comes to life (the phone call to his tailor, to whom he complains of too-small pants—“like riding a wire fence”—is priceless).
Austin isn’t called the Live Music Capital of the World for nothing. If you’re unclear on what a honky-tonk is, scoot on over to the White Horse (500 Comal St.; 512-553-6756), where the cowboy-booted and skinny-jeaned meet to cut a rug to everything from country to conjunto. Meanwhile, the Continental Club (1315 S. Congress Ave.; 512-441-2444) has been holding its own, in glorious neon splendor, for almost 60 years. Expect national touring acts and local legends like James McMurtry and Dale Watson.
This article appears in our March 2016 issue of Washingtonian.