At the Crossroads of Art and Life You’ll Find Austin
By Serena Makofsky
You may have been to Texas, but you haven’t dived deeply into its groove until you’ve been to Austin. The Lone Star State’s capital city is a unique entity; progressive, gay-friendly, and so hip it hurts. Austinites love to quote the slogan, “Keep Austin Weird,” referring to the city’s unique blend of funk and fashion that draws from local businesses rather than the bland chains that anchor many a metropolis.
Austin offers too many cultural attractions to list. Catch up on what local fifth-graders are studying at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. The multi-story complex features a chronological exhibit of primary source material, artifacts, objects, and short films.
The downtown outpost of the Austin Museum of Art warrants a visit if you like its temporary exhibit, as the 5,000-square-foot space doesn’t devote much room to the permanent collection. Across the street, the Arthouse at the Jones Center is a striking tribute to boundary-breaking contemporary art. Beth Krauss of the Austin Tourism Board shares, “It’s just renovated. Their whole thing is including a historical building within a new and modern look.” The juxtaposition of the slick exterior with its twinkling laminated glass panels and the interior of brick walls but clean, modern lines provides a stellar backdrop for the multidisciplinary shows. Venture up the starkly beautiful stairway to the rooftop performance space. The minimalist design, framed with dark wood, features floor panels that illuminate upon contact, offering you the rare chance to play Michael Jackson’s role in the “Billie Jean” video. An elevated lookout affords a singular view of downtown.
The Blanton Museum of Fine Art has small galleries of European and modern art, including Andy Warhol’s portrait of Farah Fawcett. Its contemporary section hosts the occasional yoga class amid the art. Come on Thursday for free admission or every other first Friday for B Scene, a buzz-worthy evening of appetizers, local music, cocktails, and art tours.
For a taste of classic architecture, visit the Austin Museum of Art’s outpost in Laguna Gloria. Reminiscent of Italy’s famous Boboli Gardens, the grounds hold a 1916 Italianate villa that served as the residence for local newspaperwoman, playwright, and politician Clara Driscoll. The 12-acre gardens along Lake Austin upstage the small collection of paintings, prints, sculpture, and objects.
Austin’s Mexican culture is celebrated at the Mexic-Arte Museum. Rotating shows mix traditional and contemporary pieces, art installations, and viewings of local private art collections.
The diverse history of the state’s music takes center stage at the Texas Music Museum. The institution’s home in Austin is appropriate considering Austin’s nickname, The Live Music Capital of the World. A jaunt down to famous 6th Street, seven blocks lined with clubs, performance spaces, pubs, and corners with buskers, confirms that the nickname is well deserved. Velvet Underground musician John Cale once explained, “In cities like New York and Austin, there’s much more of a social context for music than in other places.”
Another hotspot of live music is the downtown Warehouse District. Equal parts funky and fancy, this lively neighborhood holds Peché, which tourism expert Krauss describes as “an unsung hero” of Austin’s bar circuit. The absinthe bar serves the cocktails-of-the-moment, including the house special, an adult milkshake of vanilla ice cream, cherry liqueur, and absinthe.
From here, you are close to Austin’s new W Hotel as well as Congress, just named Texas’ best new restaurant by The New York Times critic Patricia Sharpe. Her favorites include the starters of steak tartare or buffalo-milk burrata and the main plates of carrot ravioli in lemongrass foam or white lobster bisque.
Less pricey and not quite as new, but extremely trendy, is La Condesa, a hopping bohemian joint with updated versions of Mexico City cantina fare. The enticing fillings and toppings here include lump crabmeat, wild mushrooms, Peruvian lima beans, pork belly, scallops, and fruity salsas.
Once you’re done eating, the party starts, and you are at its epicenter in the gay-friendly Warehouse District. Local Scott Tyler explains, “Austin has no gay neighborhood. It’s a very welcoming city so we are all over the place. East Austin is a trendy area (newer bars, but not really gay). The Warehouse District has four gay bars.”
The grand poobah of Austin’s gay bar circuit is Oilcan Harry’s, where hottie bartenders sporting Daisy Dukes pour stiff drinks. Beyond the usual music and dancing, the bar hosts male dance revues and CD release parties. The crowd is diverse, but not as cutting-edge as Rain on 4th. Skinny jeans, rainbow body glitter, and expensive shoes are the uniform at this glammy bar. The attitude runs high here, but the gorgeous patio, lounge under a waterfall, and boys gyrating in steel cages to techno music draw crowds as the night goes on.
Downtown, in the shadow of the state capitol building, Charlie’s claim to fame is that it’s the city’s oldest gay bar. Catch go-go boys, amateur strip night, drag shows, Tuesday steak night, and dirty dancing and groping on the air-conditioned dance floor. Sunday afternoons see regulars bringing Rover and Fifi to Dog Days on the patio. The only downside here: weak drinks.
If you like leather bars and bearish ambience, dive into the dive known as Chain Drive, which has cheap well drinks. A bit shinier is the recently-opened The Iron Bear, with its friendly clientele and karaoke on Wednesdays.
Last but not least is ‘Bout Time, which The Austin Chronicle describes as “Austin’s own Cheers for queers.” It may be the early happy hour that makes it special, or the people playing beach volleyball in the buff. The worn-out interior and small dance floor attract a loyal following of lesbians, drag queens, straight singles, and gay men that barfly Keri describes as “queens in jeans.”
If you prefer the day life to the nightlife, you have a fabulous option: Hippie Hollow, a sunbathing spot on Lake Travis, a 30-minute drive west of Austin. Austinite Tyler votes it the best local place to get a tan. “Hippie Hollow is the clothing optional park (actually called McGregor Park) that is run by Travis County. It is 18+. There are unofficial sections. Straight, bear cove, and the last section is the gay section. Some naked, some not. But it’s busy on the weekends as people will pull up boats and anchor off the rocks.”
Hippie Hollow’s season starts with First Splash on the first full weekend of May and winds down with Last Splash on Labor Day weekend. These weekends see the two-story party barge docking at Hippie Hollow. Tyler recommends, “If you go to the bars the night before you can get a free wrist band. When the barge is out at the lake the next day you can get on and get free beer.”
The crown jewel of Austin’s green spaces is Zilker Metropolitan Park. Stretching for 361 acres, the park holds several favorite hangouts, including Barton Springs, a 900-foot-long swimming hole. Note that the water is bracingly cold and that crowds converge here. The city occasionally closes Barton Springs for maintenance. Call the hotline at (512) 867-3080 for current information.
At the Zilker Botanical Garden, you’ll find the Isamu Taniguchi Japanese Garden, which has a Togetsu-kyo bridge or “Bridge to Walk Over the Moon,” designed to reflect the moon when it’s high. Traditional belief dictates that gazing at the moon’s reflection in the water will ultimately reveal universal beauty. Next door, the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum offer a tranquil space to appreciate outdoor art. The hours are limited, so call before going: (512) 445-5582.
Finish your day with a visit to Lady Bird Lake, adjacent to Zilker Park. You can rent canoes or kayaks and bask in lake breezes. On the hottest days, come in the morning or late afternoon to avoid the strong sun. If you need a break while boating, join the folks who park under a bridge to take advantage of the shade. From the vantage point of the lake, you get an unparalleled view of the Austin skyline.
And what of keeping Austin weird? Cap off your Austin adventure with a visit to arty and hip East Austin. Here’s you’ll find the Museum of Ephemerata, essentially half a house converted into a surreal, nontraditional museum. Residents Jen and Scott are your docents for a tour-cum-performance art happening that explores the wonders of haunted dioramas, faux celebrity memorabilia, found art, and the other visitors, who may just arrive in costume. It’s the kind of half-party, half-dream that is quintessential Austin. You won’t want to wake up.
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