Bloomberg Business Week recently ranked Austin as the 8th best city in America, but unlike many of the other cities inside the top ten; New York, San Francisco and Washington DC for instance, few know much about the state capital of Texas. In fact, it has flown under the radar of the well-trodden (or perhaps I should say well driven) backpacker trail in the USA.
After studying abroad there for a year, Austin may well rank as my number one. The dreary climate of Nottingham seemed a mile (or 5000) away as I soaked up the sunshine, cheered for the college football team in a packed out hundred thousand-seater stadium and embarked on a year of incredible experiences in a place, which I too, had heard almost nothing about before I booked my flight.
If anyone has heard of Austin, it tends to be for its city-wide music, film and technology festival, SXSW, and rightly so. Having attended last year, I can fully endorse that, for the month of March, the city was a veritable paradise for the desperately-seeking-original and the happily mainstream alike. If Julie Andrews were a 21st century hipster donning oversized reading glasses and brogues, she’d be singing about how the streets of Austin were alive with the sound of music.
It’s like that summer festival buzz we all love, but exuding en masse from an entire city; every bar, every genre of music and the excited hubbub of music lovers from all walks of life. The best thing is that while the official wristband events are undoubtedly impressive, for the thriftier traveller there are as many, if not more, free events with free food, free booze and glorious free music. In an attempt to resist gloating, one of my highlights was a free gig by The Shins on a stage in the park.
The city thrives on its quirky personality and huge appetite, so having established the company and the entertainment, you can’t help but enjoy them in Austin’s eclectic mix of places to eat and drink.
Austin may owe much of its positive publicity to the SXSW festival, but after living in the ‘Live Music Capital of the World’ for a year, I have no qualms in saying that for all of the amazing things SXSW had to offer, it didn’t quite compare with Austin in a normal week. SXSW is a bit like Valentine’s Day for the madly in love. You enjoy it, but you can express your feelings any other day of the year without all the spectators; Austin makes for a very easy year-long love affair with live music.
However, it was more than just the constant stream of talented artists which made Austin such an enjoyable place to live. I was immediately confronted with southern hospitality, which is as charming as the stereotype suggests. Brits may have traveled far and wide but a British accent is still unique, exciting and attractive to a native Texan who will not have encountered very many of our kind. With their natural friendliness and pro-active go get ‘em attitudes, many a Texan will think nothing of walking up to you and starting a conversation with “I just love y’all’s accents, where y’all from?” (I will say that one quickly learns the convenience of having a word to mean ‘you plural’ and after a year in Texas, I have firmly decided that any word which can correctly use two apostrophes is a winner.) The next thing you know you’re two-stepping (that’s somewhere between a line dance and a waltz by the way), shooting guns, being invited for Thanksgiving and, ultimately, making friends for life.
The city thrives on its quirky personality and huge appetite, so having established the company and the entertainment, you can’t help but enjoy them in Austin’s eclectic mix of places to eat and drink. One of my favourite dining experiences was in a 1950’s style chemist where people were ordering milkshakes whilst waiting for their prescriptions; it was like a time warp to a bygone era. The cinema has table service so you can order food and alcohol during your film and there are 24 hour cafes where you can eat normal food at 4am instead of dodgy kebabs and Dino’s Pizza. There is also an amazing food trailer culture. Again, there is no need to eat kebabs as these are start-up businesses serving anything from doughnuts to a genuine imported London routemaster which sells fish and chips. The best brisket I’ve ever tasted started its life in one of these trailers and that guy’s restaurant is now the insider’s choice of best barbecue in Austin. Of course, music remains the beating heart of the city and most places also serve as a venue; even the supermarket downtown has a stage!
Learning all of this took me by an, albeit pleasant, surprise because I fell into the obvious trap of not realising that Austin is not Texas as you know it. While there’s no denying that Austinites wear the hats and boots, Austin cherishes its liberal attitude in a state largely known for its conservative Republican values. After voting Obama in the recent elections, it is unsurprising that it is called ‘the blueberry in the cherry pie’. The people of Austin welcomed me wholeheartedly and despite the rather well known and oft-criticised darker side to the Lone Star State, this city truly demonstrates the very best of Texas. As such, I can say without hesitation that it deserves its ever more prominent place inside any official top ten list.