The Mild West; Austin, Texas Is America's Most Laid-Back City, Says Andrew Wilson, but Its Rich Culture and Vibrant Music Scene Make It a Fascinating Destination
Byline: ANDREW WILSON
GETTING THERE There are no direct flights to Austin from the UK, but you can fly via Chicago or Dallas-Fort Worth. For details, call American Airlines (0845 7789 789, www.aa.com). There are some wonderful bed and breakfasts in Austin. Check out Carrington's Bluff (www.carringtonsbluff.com), where rooms cost between $89 ([pounds sterling]46) and $149 ([pounds sterling]78) a night, including a gourmet breakfast.
If you want to base yourself in the trendy SoCo area, try the supercool Hotel San Jose (www.sanjose hotel.com) or the Fifties-style Austin Motel (www.austinmotel.com).
For more information on these and the excellent free walking tours, call the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau on 00 1 512 583 7203, or visit www.austintexas.org.
It's been described as America's most laid-back city, an alluring mix of retro chic and ultra-cool hipness. Austin, Texas - the 'live music capital of the world' - boasts a nightly playlist of hundreds of bands, ranging from traditional country and western, blues and jazz to radical experimental artists. Each spring the city attracts thousands of acts to the world-famous South by Southwest music festival (SXSW).
Its year-round sunshine and hotbed of creative talent has also established the city as a new centre for filmmaking - all three Spy Kids movies have been made here, as well as last year's The Alamo, starring Dennis Quaid and Billy Bob Thornton.
It's not surprising to learn that, in addition to Sandra Bullock and Matthew McConaughey, Quentin Tarantino has bought a home here. In fact, the city, with its smoky dives, neon-lit motels and Fifties-style burger bars, looks like a set dreamt up by Tarantino, with a cast of real-life characters to boot.
In contrast to most American cities, Austin oozes individuality. During my week there I went to a hilarious adult spelling-bee competition held in a downtown bar, in which a group of thirty- and fortysomethings competed with one another to spell out particularly troublesome words; enjoyed a midnight screening (with food) at the trendy Drafthouse cinema; and watched a million Mexican free-tailed bats (the largest urban colony in the US) launch themselves into the night from the rafters of the Congress Avenue Bridge.
The people who live here talk about the city with a real passion, and how it has everything - thriving arts and culture, a vibrant music scene, sunshine aplenty, a series of beautiful lakes and springs, a highly educated populace (its university has nearly 50,000 students) and a unique quirkiness. In fact, its near-official slogan is 'Keep Austin Weird'.
If you take a walk at night through the warehouse district downtown, along 4th and 6th streets, you will hear the twang and riff of electric guitars and the smoky, bourbon-tinged voices of country and blues singers. Janis Joplin often played at Threadgill's on North Lamar Boulevard (now a restaurant), while Willie Nelson made his name in the city. Antone's, Emo's, the Elephant Room and Stubb's BarBQ on Red River Street usually showcase a variety of great acts, while The Broken Spoke, on South Lamar, still functions as a traditional country and western dancehall, complete with cowgirls, cowboys and plenty of yee-hahs.
There's a richness of restaurants in the warehouse district. Make sure you try Manuel's, Marisco's and Las Manitas Avenue Cafe (all Mexican), Hut's Hamburgers (a real family favourite) and Gumbo's for imaginative Cajun cuisine. Sample a Shiner (the local beer) at Casino El Camino on 6th Street or enjoy a powerful margarita at the more upscale Saba or Brown's. …