You can follow Mark's tips at MarkSheaves
I am a creative writer, philosopher, and passionate teacher who traded tranquil life in a small village in Southern Spain for trendy Austin Texas last August. I knew very little about Austin until 3 months ago when my wife was offered a five year scholarship to study at the University. My first thoughts were informed by the typical stereotypes associated with Texas: desert, cacti, guns, cowboy hats, oil, and the Bush family. But from feverish internet exploration I discovered that Austin is a progressive fast-developing city which prides itself on diversity, creative energy, and being ‘weird’ (as in different from the traditional values of the rest of the State).
Austin is fiercely proud of its cultural creativity, attracting artists, musicians, film makers, and progressive thinkers from around America, and beyond – I am commonly reminded by my Austonian housemate that he and his ‘buddies’ are probably the only true Austonians I will meet; an unlikely claim, but it gives some idea of how much of a magnet the city has become for Americans seeking a vibrant and cheaper alternative to the coastal areas and the resulting energy of such a mix of creative and ambitious people is infectious.
One of Austin’s boldest claims is that it is the ‘live music capital of the world’. An impossible statement to judge, but the city hosts the internationally recognised ‘South X South West’ – during which every possible public space is colonised by bands hoping to get spotted by the suited executives who patrol the city streets looking for talent – and the Austin City Limits festival. Live music is actively promoted by most bars and clubs, normally without charge. Stages have been erected in every nook and crevice available, and I look forward to meeting the almost impossible challenge set by the tourist bureau to see whether live music can really be found at any moment in Austin.
Austin is diverse. Becoming an Austonian not only requires an immersion in Texan culture - rodeos, country music, and mountains of beef – but also Mexican culture, and the wonderful mixes of the two cultures, commonly known as TexMex. Austin is just under four hours drive from the Mexican border and the culture of the neighbour to the south is prominent: Austin boasts two significant museums of Latin American art and culture; the prestigious Latin American Studies institute at the University organises continuous cultural events; the annual Pachanga! festival showcases Latin American and Latino-North American fusion music; there is an annual 10 day Latin American film festival. What I get most excited about with regards to discovering Austin’s diversity are opportunities to eat: from breakfast tacos served by unnervingly friendly people at different vendors each morning, to belt loosening portions of ribs, beef steaks, and corn at the great Barbeque ranches, such as Ranch 616 and the Country Line BBQ.
Austin is an international city as people flock in for the music and the vibrant technology industry, yet it is also a city which places a heavy emphasis on the local. The slogan ‘Keep Austin Weird’, coined in the early years of this century by the Austin Independent Business Alliance to keep corporations out of Austin, is ubiquitous, proudly displayed on t-shirts and bumper stickers. To operate in any meaningful way in Austin it is vital to be a local, and since moving here I have been trying to become every kind of local available, a mission that will continue forever if the current pace of change in the city is anything to go by. I have been exploring the food trailer movement, Mexican arts and food markets, independent book stores, bizarre fashion boutiques, the vicious Texas girl’s roller disco, ‘hanging out’ at the lakes, late night swimming in the springs, visiting the small German towns surrounding Austin, watching the almost cultish University football team – the Longhorn’s - and consuming great mountains of barbequed meat under starry nights and pecan trees.
I am used to becoming a local. I grew up in Oxford, studied History in Exeter, and then broke free of small city life: I bounced around Europe and lived for substantial periods of time in Barcelona, Prague, and Madrid; I spent five years in London where I travelled through the history of Latin America, conducting postgraduate research on Mexican revolutionary thought and art, which I think will prove helpful when exploring the Latino scene in Austin. During the last year I took a desire to return to small town living to the extreme, and ended up in the sleepy coastal village of Guadiaro in Cadiz Province in Southern Spain. This proved to be a wonderful chilled out stop off for channelling the confused inspirational experiences of London life into short stories and has also provided the source material for my second set of stories based on the history of English and Spanish speaking people in Andalusia, a theme that I am continuing to pursue in Austin. Since arriving I have been exploring the cultural gem that is Austin Texas with immense vigour and I want to share all of these experiences, and many more, with you, to convince you to make the visit the Violet Crown city, nestled in the heart of Texas.
I have gotten-by over the years as a book shop assistant, coffee barista, barman, doctoral student, teacher, and freelance editor; jobs which have taken me deep into the life of the cities I have lived in. Unless I become a rich and famous novelist any time soon, I will get-by in similar ways whilst discovering Austin. Here are three tips to get you going:Barton Springs Pool
Barton Springs swimming pool is a back-to-nature paradise for those seeking to escape the city, and especially the heat. This three acre pool is replenished continuously by cool water from the largest of four natural springs flowing into Zilker Park, and is a magnet promising reinvigoration for everyone in Austin, welcoming families, school children, tourists and locals of all persuasions. It is also the place to be seen for the super trendy musicians and creative technology workers who lounge amongst the grassy banks and shady Pecan trees surrounding the pool, topping up their tans, networking for gigs, and nonchalantly designing the latest smart phone apps. A diving board is conveniently located for those wishing to dive to the bottom of the pool and experience the sensation of water pumping at 31 million US gallons per day, which is like hearing and feeling a heart-beat at the same time. Located in Zilker Park, home to the Austin City Limits festival and an attraction in itself, Barton Springs Pool is easily accessible by car and there are some of the best outdoor restaurants nearby (such as Shady Grove) – there is also a café and bar just outside the pool. At only $3 to get in, the pool does get busy at the weekend, so it is best to visit during the week in the day. I recommend going for an early morning swim, the pool opens at 5am, or going late at night (between 8pm and 10pm there is no entry fee). http://austintexas.gov/department/barton-springs-pool
2201 Barton Springs Road, Austin, TX 78746
+1 512 994 9952Google map
: http://g.co/maps/aq27jSouth Congress Trailer Park
Over the past few years, glistening trailers have colonized vacant parking lots and flat open spaces across Austin, offering innovative and delicious cuisine from all around the world. Playing on traditional Texan trailer parks, these kitchens on wheels pride themselves on quality, value, innovation, ethical produce, and providing an unpretentious eating experience. The trailer park located on trendy South Congress Avenue is no exception. One of the founding fathers of the trailer park eating movement is restaurant owner and chef Jeff Blank who was approached by the Austin City Limits Festival to provide local quality food for the festival goers in 2002, and in 2009 opened The Mighty Cone
. Not to be confused with an ice-cream van, the Mighty Cone sells tortilla cones filled with chicken, avocado, or shrimp, coated in the special Hot and Crunchy batter of Chilies, Almonds, sesame seeds and corn flakes. Look out for specials as these guys like to experiment by putting their batter on everything: “If it sits still long enough, we'll put Hot 'n' Crunchy on it”. For the most exotic German Sausage you could conceive of then visit Wurst Tex
next door; I recommend the Predator and Prey which is rattle-snake and rabbit with a hint of jalapeño, but the El Wursto (Chicken and Turkey, with mild habenero, green chilies and Tequila) may be a safer bet for those of you seeking something more familiar. If you have space, or even if you don’t, you shouldn’t leave without trying the “decadent goodness” of Hey CupCake! The creamy fluffy infusion embodied in the signature cupcake Vanilla Dream must be tried, but so too should the chocolate, carrot, and strawberry flavours – to be inspired I recommend that you watch their promotional video at http://www.heycupcake.com/
. If you are too stuffed to try a cup cake first time, look out for their super shiny trailers at four other locations across the city and their café.
Closing times vary and can be erratic, as they are often determined by the moment that daily provisions have been devoured, which is something I have always found reassuring. Picnic benches are laid out alongside the trailers and these offer a convenient spot for those seeking to watch the cool people making their moves up South Congress. The South Congress Trailer park is located at:
1600 South Congress Avenue, Austin, TX 78704
+1 (512) 383-9609 Google map
Wurst Tex: www.wursttex.com
Opening Times: Wed 11am – 7pm. Thurs 11am – 8pm. Fri & Sat 11am – 9pm. Sun: 11am – 6pm
Hey Cup Cake: www.heycupcake.com
The Mighty Cone: www.mightycone.com
Opening times: 11am – 9 pm every day except MondayThe Magnolia Cafe
I am obsessed with The Magnolia Café, and so is the rest of Austin. The Magnolia café is really a classic all-American diner, and it is common knowledge this is simply the best diner in Austin: as their slogan states, “Everybody knows, Everybody goes”. And you must go! Pulling into a diner one would always expect to order a huge burger with mountains of chips or, given that we are in Texas, tacos, enchiladas or fajitas smothered in melted cheese: you will not be disappointed by the giant size of the Magnolia’s freshly prepared plates of these classic dishes. But there are plenty of places to have good burgers and fajitas in Austin, so I really would not look any further than the Breakfasts which are served 24 hours a day! I love Eggscape which is two eggs over “a mini mountain of seasoned home fries and sausage, topped with cheddar/jack cheese”, although the Flaco Taco (scrambled egg, avocado, cheese and bacon in a tortilla) is potentially a healthier option. A breakfast at the Magnolia Café would not be complete without at least one pancake with a selection of toppings of your choice – I have Buttermilk pancake with chocolate, pecans, bacon and lashings of maple syrup every time, but they also come with a variety of fresh fruit. As you would expect from an American diner, your coffee cup is replenished the minute you finish the last drop so if you do make a visit at 4am, you won’t need to worry about falling asleep at the table. There are two Magnolia cafes in Austin, but the one I know best is on South Congress Avenue, and is dangerously located just one block from my house. The food is served by a team of good humored and relaxed staff and the atmosphere is very relaxed and unpretentious, “kind of like your favorite aunt’s giant kitchen” as they claim. The Magnolia Café gets very busy on Saturday and Sundays, and it is common to queue, in fact I have even queued at 3am on a Tuesday, but it is totally worth the wait. www.themagnoliacafe.comMagnolia Café South:
1920 S. Congress Avenue, Austin, TX 78704
+1 512 445 0000Google map
: http://g.co/maps/n8n4dMagnolia Café Lake Austin:
2304 Lake Austin Blvd., Austin, TX 78703
+1 512 478 8645Google map
: http://g.co/maps/4em9dBACK TO LOCALS HOMEPAGE