Austin, Texas, bills itself as the Live Music Capital of the World, a motto it adopted in 1991 after the late blues musician Lillian Stanfield proposed a slogan promoting Austin’s music scene. It’s a bold claim, but the town backs up the boast: Even the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport has five stages, and chances are you’ll be accompanied by live music as you walk to baggage claim.
You might plan your trip around one of Austin’s many music festivals, including South by Southwest in March, which started with 177 artists in 1987 and had a whopping 2,224 in 2016. April has the Urban Music Festival and the electronic fest Euphoria, among others. Another hot ticket: a taping of the PBS program Austin City Limits, which has been broadcasting shows here since 1975, featuring more than 500 musicians, starting with Willie Nelson. If you’re feeling lucky, you can enter to win tickets to a taping—an entry form appears online about a week in advance—but you can also buy tickets for ACL Live at the Moody Theater throughout the year.
Austin has plenty of bars where you can listen to live music in the background while you schmooze and booze, but true music aficionados prefer “listening rooms” where people go to really hear the artists. The Cactus Cafe, located on the Austin campus of the University of Texas, is a great venue for full-on listening. The style leans toward folk but is eclectic, and performers have included Nanci Griffith, Hal Ketchum and the Dixie Chicks.
Dance halls are likewise part of the lifeblood of Austin’s live music scene. The Broken Spoke has offered live music and Texas two-stepping since 1964. You get the sense no renovations have been made in 52 years as you pass through a dining room and a room labeled “Tourist Trap” on the way to the dance floor, a long space with a stage at one end that fills up with dancers of all ages. Neon beer signs abound, and the cowboy boots and 10-gallon hats are real.
Austin, of course, isn’t just a musical capital, but the state capital—and the city that former Texas Gov. Rick Perry once called “the blueberry in the tomato soup” of the state. You can observe that political dynamic directly at Austin’s capitol building, a must-see stop. The building was completed in 1888, and its dome rises 311 feet tall in a shade of pinkish tan, courtesy of a locally quarried granite called Sunset Red. Thanks to a 1993 underground extension, it’s the country’s largest state capitol. Wander on your own, aided by a brochure, or take a free guided tour, worthwhile for the tidbits of info about the decor, like the life-size statues of 19th-century rivals Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston, carved by local sculptor Elisabet Ney and found in the south foyer, where tours start, and Henry Arthur McArdle’s painting Dawn at the Alamo, which adorns the senate chamber.
Political buffs can also pay a visit to the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum (also known as the LBJ Presidential Library), a 10-story building on the UT Austin campus. Offering a comprehensive overview of Johnson’s life, along with a history of the civil rights movement, it houses 45 million pages of documents and more than 54,000 objects, including the desk he used to sign the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a 7/8th scale exact replica of his oval office, complete with then state-of-the-art gadgets, and a life-size, joke-telling animatronic LBJ.
There are all kinds of dining options in Austin, including plenty of upscale restaurants. But the tacos are not to be missed. Torchy’s Tacos is a local chain Michael Rypka started in a trailer in 2006; it’s since grown to a dozen brick-and-mortar establishments in Austin, plus locations that stretch throughout Texas and into Colorado. “Living the damn good taco dream” is the company tagline, and well deserved. “Damn good!” is your first thought as you bite into these expertly created morsels, with fillings that include Baja shrimp, fried avocado and lamb, topped with fiery and flavorful house hot sauce (available to go, too).
And what’s a great dessert after tacos? Ice cream, of course, and there’s a Bay State connection at Amy’s Ice Creams: Owner Amy Simmons worked at Steve’s in Somerville in the 1980s while attending Tufts University. She brought the concept of smoosh-ins with her when she opened the first of 12 ice cream parlors in Austin—you choose a flavor and toppings, which a server smooshes and mixes on a slab counter. Scoopers at Amy’s have perfected tricks, such as tossing a scoop of ice cream in the air and catching it in a cup behind their back. The stuff itself, available in seven basic flavors (Mexican Vanilla, Belgian Chocolate), plus a rotating roster of 350 others, is simply fabulous—and a sweet note on which to end a day’s adventures.
-Pick up your own Texas two-stepping cowboy boots at Allen’s Boots, located in the South
Congress shopping area.
-Get a view, plus a mini hike, at Covert Park at Mount Bonnell, great for taking in the sunset.
Allen’s Boots, 1522 South Congress Ave. (512-447-1413) allensboots.com; Amy’s Ice Creams, several locations, amysicecreams.com; Austin City Limits Live at The Moody Theater, 310 Willie Nelson Blvd. (512-225-7999) acl-live.com; Broken Spoke, 3201 S. Lamar Blvd. (512-442-6189) brokenspokeaustintx.net; Cactus Cafe, 2247 Guadalupe St. (512-475-6515) cactuscafe.org; Covert Park at Mount Bonnell, 3800 Mount Bonnell Road (512-974-6700) austintexas.gov/department/parks-and-recreation; LBJ Presidential Library, 2313 Red River St. (512-721-0200) lbjlibrary.org; Texas Capitol, 1100 Congress Ave. (512-463-4630) tspb.state.tx.us; Torchy’s Tacos, several locations, torchystacos.com