Austin: Saturday: Downtown Austin, Bats, and the State Capitol

These pictures and this entry simultaneously describe the day's activities.

The day began, as most do, with breakfast. I headed to Maria's Taco Xpress for an authentic Tex-Mex breakfast of migas, basically a breakfast taco. As soon as I pulled up to this funky joint, I thought, "what an awesome place." (Look at the pictures.) I took it as an omen that this would be a good trip, a perspective I maintained despite not liking the food very much.

After breakfast I drove downtown. As I couldn't find parking near where I planned, I mentally rearranged the day's schedule and to start somewhere else downtown. In the process, I forgot one reason I wanted to park where I did: a chance to visit Austin's largest farmers market. Ah well. Regarding other activities I ended up not doing on Saturday, I also skipped Eeyore's Birthday Party Festival. Although the name and idea tempted me, wikipedia's description didn't make it sound that special.

Instead, I ended up near the Texas State Capitol. From this point, I was on foot until lunch. Here's my route. I first wandered briefly through the Texas State Capitol's Visitor's Center, and decided there was too much text and not enough items to see and that I didn't have the patience.

As for the capitol building itself, I took a short walking tour. What most impressed me was the way everything from the floor to the furniture to the light fixtures show Texas pride, yet in a nice, understated way. Also, along the tour I learned that the government didn't spend any money on the building: it gave land grants in exchange for labor and materials.

After the building tour, I picked up a brochure and did a self-guided tour of the capitol grounds. Other than being pretty, they're none too exciting.

Next, I began to explore Austin's main street: Congress Avenue. I soon found the Austin History Center library and picked up some maps for walking tours. I'd originally planned to take some of the Austin Convention and Visitor bureau's walking tours. I heard their tours are fantastic, but I missed them because I didn't realize until I was already in Austin that they required 48-hour notice. Regardless, I toured this and another neighborhood using the detailed booklets they produce.

Walking around downtown was stress-free because all the one-way streets made it easy to check whether a street was safe to cross. Also, although warm, the wind made it reasonable walking weather.

I decided to enter the small Austin Museum of Art because its current exhibits sounded interesting when I read about them on the web. One exhibit was photographs by Clifford Ross. He makes huge (10' x 6') impressive photographs of mountains. He also did some experimental stuff that I cared for less. Another exhibit was Lordy Rodriguez's State of America. He drew reconfigured maps of states, where shapes and places names look familiar but the relationships between everything is wrong. I didn't get it, but thought these pieces might make a good Game clue. The 12:19 exhibit, a product of the 12:19 project, consisted mainly of displays of twitter feeds captured at 12:19pm from various cities, providing a slice of life from around the world.

After a little more walking downtown, I decided it was time for a late lunch. I grabbed a westbound bus to the Whole Food flagship store. On the way I saw that W. 6th St. has many pubs, some with pleasant patios.

The Whole Foods flagship store is big. Its enormousness was overwhelming. I decided not to take pictures because I'd end up taking too many. The store has so many counters at which to buy various freshly prepared foods, both cool and hot, I don't want to attempt to list them all. It even has a pizza oven. As for counters which don't cook food for you, there is a huge cheese selection (bigger than most specialty cheese shops), and large dessert and bread counters. Another counter is devoted to chocolates and truffles, and another to nuts, roasted and seasoned. The coffee bar has over two dozen types of coffee. A stand has more than a dozen salts in different colors and shapes. You see what happens if I try to list things? I'm glad I skipped listing all the prepared food counters. Nevertheless, I will mention there's a raw food counter that had such unusual concoctions as cheesecake, bean-less hummus (zucchini was the base), and mac `n cheese (because pasta requires cooking, cauliflower was the base).

The scope of the grocery part of the market was similarly large. Not only were there fruits and vegetables such as blood oranges, purple beans, and dragon tongue beans (which I'd never heard of before) not normally found in supermarkets, but there were also a much larger variety of pre-sliced fruit than all supermarkets I've been to. And they even have pre-sliced vegetables. The seafood counter, in addition to the usual suspects such as Alaskan halibut (sold as large 20+ lb fish), had artic char, which I rarely see sold fresh. They also sell a selection of house-smoked fish. The dairy sells fresh duck eggs. The butcher makes sausages, sometimes with veal, quail, or buffalo. All the meat comes from animals on vegetarian diets; the cows in particular are all grass-fed. The beer selection might rival bev-mo's. The bakery makes gluten-free breads, even going as far as making gluten-free hamburger buns.

Everything about it makes it a great example of economics of scale.

After having lunch and exploring the store, I looked around the area, found nothing worth mentioning, and took the bus back to Congress Avenue.

Back downtown, I continued going to all the places mentioned in the walking tour brochure. I learned the east-west streets, now numbered, used to be Texas tree names. The north-south streets remain named after Texas rivers. This sounds like the kernel of a good Game clue.

I ended up walking this path for the rest of my daytime explorations. Over the course, I explored 6th Street, Austin's liveliest street. I wanted to see it during the daytime before getting the feel of it at night. As you can tell from the pictures, it has a freaken' high density of bars. Most reside in restored 19th-century buildings.

After seeing the historic buildings on 6th Street and nearby, I walked to my car to change into pants for the evening, then walked all the way down Congress Avenue to the bridge, on the way observing more sights the walking tour brochure mentions. Once at the bridge, I settled down to get ready for the bats.

Yes, bats. 1.5 million bats live under the Congress Avenue bridge and emerge at dusk to feed. As it got dark, I began to hear the bats' squeaks as they woke up. It built the suspense. Eventually they emerged. I took pictures and videos. The bats took a while to emerge: it takes time for that many bats to fly away.

After the bats, I explored Austin's nightlife. The weather was perfect for nighttime walking. I walked this path, first exploring the Warehouse district (around 4th Street), which was like 6th except the venues were bigger and the buildings weren't as old, and then re-exploring 6th. I also explored Red River Street, which also had large venues but these weren't warehouses and were often outdoors. As I said in the Austin overview, there's a ton of live music, people at doors trying to entice you to enter, and such competition that some bars offer $2 beers and no cover.

I wasn't ready to tackle the big burger at the place I had planned to go to for dinner, so I ended up opting for small dinner at the Roaring Fork, a place nearby on Congress Avenue I didn't plan on visiting. I had a caesar salad with corn croutons (funky and a little wrong) and a "hot huckleberry bread pudding", which was basically a muffin, not bread pudding.

After dinner, on the way home I tried to drive down 6th Street to see how it looked later in the evening, but it was closed to traffic. They must've closed it between when I was there around ten o'clock and when I tried to drive it closer to midnight. I guess this gives a sign of when things begin to get started on a Saturday night. Also, I tried to drive down 4th to the warehouse district. 4th was open but bumper-to-bumper. I bailed on the idea.

Austin: Friday: Arrival

Getting to Austin was pretty simple, though it took a while. My only real complaint is that I didn't get a chance to eat dinner because Southwest doesn't sell food and none of my layovers were long enough.

I took one picture relating to my travel.

Upon landing at 11pm, a warm and humid evening greeted me. I picked up my luggage and waited in the line to pick up my rental car. It took over an hour to get my car! I'd booked with Hertz because it was open past midnight, later than all the other companies. My plane, however, landed on time so I didn't need this safety hatch. I guess other people booked at this time of night with Hertz for similar reasons. (No other car company had lines.) While I waited, I chatted with the Texas-based software engineer in line behind me.

Finally, I checked into the hotel where I'd be staying for the trip. It turned out to be a reasonably nice hotel. The water in the sink and shower may have been soft, but I'd actually call it slick. It took a little getting used to. Nevertheless, I'd stay there again. In unrelated news, I was surprised to find a treadmill in my room.

Austin Overview

I'd been talking about seeing Austin for quite some time. From Friday, April 24, 2009, to Monday, April 27, 2009, I finally went through with it.

Although technically a city, Austin doesn't feel dense like a city should. With the exception of a few streets (N. Congress, E. 6th, W. 4th), the stores are too big and too scattered. Indeed, even on foot a block off of a major street, I could look down the next block, see not much of anything, and decide it's not worth walking in that direction (unless I already had a destination in mind).

Two things define my image of Austin: dining patios and live music.

First, Austin has a huge number of restaurants, pubs, and bars with outdoor seating, whether in an interior or backyard courtyard or on a wooden patio in front. I guess the weather makes this reasonable year-round.

Second, it's not hype: Austin is the place for live music. Walking down East 6th Street, there was always at least one band in a venue on each side of the street on each block, usually more. Live music is everywhere. For instance, when I dropped by a hotel on a Saturday afternoon to use the bathroom, I saw a band setting up in the lobby.

Regarding Texas, I observed many historical sites spent much time and emphasis on the history of the Republic of Texas: the decade or so after independence from Mexico before joining the United States. Although it's true that it's interesting to talk about the writing of the Texas declaration of independence and the constitution and about the various wars and political maneuverings that happened near both ends of this period, I felt there may have been more focus on this than necessary--it gave a feeling of "look at us; we're different from the rest of the United States; don't you forget it."

I also noticed that everywhere I went, I tended to be surrounded by white people. This surprised me, as I know Texas has a significant immigrant population. It felt a little weird. I guess that the places I visited are ones only white people tend to go? The only time I noticed non-trivial numbers of non-whites (aside from the few occasional brown Hispanic-Americans that looked like the result of multiple generations of intermarriage) involved spotting Chinese students near college campuses.

By the way, although I didn't see many single-family homes in and around Austin (this is simply due to where I went) so my sample is small and unrepresentative, those I saw were as nice and distinctive as those I saw in Atlanta, and larger.

This trip I focused my attention on sights within Austin, and I hit the major ones. There are a few places in Austin that vaguely tempted me and that, on another trip, I might've decided to fit into my schedule. I won't mention places I considered going outside Austin, such as the bluebonnet trail, a driving trail northwest of Austin that passes many miles of bluebonnet flower fields (for which it actually was the perfect time of year). I list undone within-Austin activities here for my future reference:

  • explore the Blanton Museum of Art. Although it's Austin's top art museum and most guidebooks put it in their list of top things to do, I looked at the exhibits online and I just wasn't feeling it.
  • browse the boutiques and funky shops on South Congress.
  • watch the sunset over Lake Travis, probably sitting with a drink on a deck at The Oasis restaurant. (I skipped this only because every day was overcast.)
  • walk the various hike/bike trails near the river, especially by Town Lake and Lady Bird Lake.
  • visit the Mexic-Arte Museum. It's a small museum that had one exhibit that interested me, but I didn't feel like paying an entrance fee only to see a collection of traditional ritual Nahua Indian masks.
  • wander the Unlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum.