Lovely and historic Austin, Texas is the closest thing John and I have to a home base in the U.S.
Since most of my immediate family lives in Austin, we have been making regular visits there for many years. After we became expats in 2015, those trips evolved into a blur of shopping, seeing old friends, spending time with our family, and filling up on Tex-Mex food and sushi (neither of which is really a thing in Colombia). In the past we haven’t had much time for sightseeing, but we’re making a renewed effort now that my mom has just moved to a more central part of town.
Austin looms large in my childhood. My parents met there when they were both students at the University of Texas in the 1950s, so I guess you could say I owe my existence to Austin! Although I grew up in a small West Texas town, our family traveled to the Big A regularly when my Granddaddy George Baker was serving in the Texas House of Representatives. I later lived there for several years, first as a UT student and then as a young married.
Then, as now, there was a certain mystique about Austin that’s hard to put into words. Maybe it’s the stunning natural beauty of its riverside location in the green, rolling hills of central Texas, or the deep sense of history (Austin has been the capital since 1839, when Texas was still a republic). Or maybe it’s because Austin is both a state capital and university town that has attracted a vibrant, diverse, and cosmopolitan mix of people. And, famously, Austin has fostered a music scene that’s world-renowned.
In many dismaying ways, Austin has changed forever in the past few decades. With the likes of Google, Apple, Oracle, and Tesla building huge new facilities there, the city is experiencing a building boom and a tremendous influx of new folks from California and other states. As such, Austin is struggling to keep from becoming just another sprawling and overcrowded metropolis with hideous traffic problems (that struggle is real, hence the slogan “Keep Austin Weird”). But there are pockets where progress hasn’t encroached yet (much) and you can still experience the Austin of yore.
Here are some new discoveries from our recent trips to Austin. Some of the photos are in galleries – just click to see larger images.
Judges’ Hill and Pease Park
After my mom moved out of her house in North Austin and to her new apartment last week, we decamped to an Airbnb in the historic Judges’ Hill neighborhood. So-named for the numerous judges and attorneys who have lived there for a century and a half, Judges’ Hill is the last remaining primarily residential neighborhood in downtown Austin. It’s filled with stunning and beautifully preserved mansions, many of which are well over a hundred years old and studded with historical markers.
Just down the hill and across Lamar Avenue is Pease Park, a beautiful city park with quite a historic pedigree (General George A. Custer once camped there with his troops). Bisected by scenic Shoal Creek, it’s a lovely place for an early morning stroll.
Scholz Bier Garten
Opened in 1866 by German immigrant August Scholz, this joint bills itself as the oldest beer garden in America and the oldest continuously operating business in Texas. While Scholz is far from a “new” discovery to me (it’s an old haunt from my UT partying days), it was John’s first visit. It was also a fun trip down memory lane for my mom, Mary Lea, who shared many a dance there with my daddy Frank when they were UT students. While we were there, the bartender showed us the old entrance behind the bar to the speakeasy that once operated during prohibition – and also told us about the secret tunnel from the capitol building that kept the lawmakers connected to their booze. There’s lots more interesting history on the Scholz website.
Austin Street Art
The global street art craze has caught on in Austin, and there are beautiful works all over town.
McKinney Falls State Park
After all my past years living in Austin, I had somehow never made it to McKinney Falls. That is, until John the travel planner discovered it and declared he wanted to hike there on his birthday (it was July 20). Hike we did, and we really enjoyed this beautiful and lesser-known park that’s in a far southern corner of Austin.
This beautiful city park is also one of Austin’s oldest, attracting tourists since at least the 1850s. Situated on a 775-foot rise, Mt. Bonnell offers stunning views of the Austin skyline to the east and Lake Austin (one of the segments of the Colorado River that run through Austin) to the west.
Dry Creek Inn
Just down a side road from Mt. Bonnell, you’ll find the Dry Creek Cafe and Boat Dock – one of Austin’s rapidly vanishing breed of funky, original, and atmosphere-filled dive bars. The Dry Creek has been operated by the same family since 1953, and somehow it managed to survive COVID. We were glad to see it.
- Austin has become quite the culinary mecca. Here are our favorite restaurant finds from this visit:
- Wu Chow, serving absolutely wonderful Chinese fusion cuisine from its downtown location. Reservations are a must!
- Juliet Italian Kitchen. Sumptuous Italian food, expansive indoor and outdoor seating, and an adventurous brunch menu on Barton Springs Road.
- Salt Traders Coastal Cooking. This seafood spot was the site of John’s birthday lunch (oysters!), and we enjoyed it so much that we went back with the family a few nights later.
- Juan in a Million. How in heaven’s name have we never visited Juan’s until this trip? This hole-in-the-wall taco joint has been open in East Austin since 1980, serving up traditional and yummy Mexican fare. If you’re lucky, Juan himself will greet you as you come in the door.
- We loved our Airbnb in Judges’ Hill, the Brady Carriage House. It’s a cozy one-bedroom apartment behind the 1915 home of Judge John W. Brady. Bonus for dog fanatics: you’ll be greeted by a darling elderly basset hound named Ruby. We enjoyed our stay so much that we’ve booked it again for November.
Are you making new discoveries in a city that’s familiar to you? Tell us about it!
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