National Geographic Traveler researcher Christine Blau (on Twitter @Chris_Blau and on Instagram @christineblau) touched down in Austin, Texas, hoping to take a break from winter. Instead, she was greeted with unseasonably cold and rainy weather that shocked locals.
Here are some of the high points of her trip, in her own words:
Local Quirk: “Keep Austin Weird” neatly sums up the Texas capital’s eccentric aspirations. Quirks like Mexican free-tailed bats living under a bridge, clothing-optional Hippie Hollow Park, and throwing an annual birthday bash since 1963 for Eeyore, A.A. Milne’s lovable donkey, make sense here. Some find the funk in live music 365 days a year, local designers lining South Congress Street, or hipster food trucks in East Austin. Personally, I dug the street art scattered throughout town and the pronounced dichotomy between carnivorous pride and vegan revelry. You don’t need the slogan-slapped bumper sticker to realize Austin accepts all.
Best Museum: Even with sunshine on your side, take the chance to explore local lore in the Bullock Texas State History Museum or the powerful exhibits at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library. I happily found some of my favorite artists, the mesmerizing Japanese painter Yayoi Kusama and patient Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui among them, at University of Texas’s Blanton Museum of Art. In addition to providing a stunning showcase for New York City showstoppers, the impressive collection keeps the region’s roots top of mind by highlighting Texas creators, American West paintings, and a bevy of Latin American art.
Doable Day Trip: History lessons come to life at the Alamo in neighboring San Antonio, but the small towns that radiate out from Austin in every direction did more to impress a Texas first-timer like me. While Lone Star State stereotypes abound at Cabela’s Gun Library in Buda (complete with a kiddie shooting range), I reveled in surprises like oil-rig art in Luling, strudel (a nod to the town’s German population) in New Braunfels, and honky-tonk heritage at Texas’s oldest dance hall in Gruene.
Stand-Out Culinary Experience: Though a pilgrimage to Lockhart, the barbecue capital of Texas, was on my bucket list, I found unexpected authentic ambiance in nearby Luling’s City Market. Just outside Austin in Driftwood, bring your own beer to the original Salt Lick BBQ, serving brisket and ribs from a massive pit for half a century, with a heaping side of Hill Country hospitality.
Memorable Moment: While the White Horse embodies the city’s hipster-meets-honky-tonk vibe to a T, a weekend night at the Broken Spoke, Austin’s authentic dance hall, can’t be missed. I abandoned my husband without hesitation when a “real-deal” cowboy asked me to dance, smiling widely as I shuffled along awkwardly to his practiced two-step.