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From honky-tonks to high tech, the Lone Star capital throbs with energy and variety.

“Keep Austin Weird” is a rallying cry of recent vintage that refers to the eccentric side of the state capital of Texas: Willie Nelson and the hippie ethos, honky-tonks, late-night jazz, and an abundance of homegrown businesses and veggie restaurants. But there’s much more to Austin’s wonderfully “weird” admixture: high tech, hot sun, cool springs, and Tex-Mex; Whole Foods, Longhorns, Hill Country, and 10K runs. Indeed, it is the happy — and unexpected — confluence of so many divergent elements that contributes to this city’s vibrant character, allowing it to rank consistently as one of the most livable, friendly, and green spots in the nation.

And Austin is hot. In 2008, Forbes magazine ranked it No. 1 nationally for income growth, predicting a 15 percent rise in population by 2012. As a mecca of tech and innovation, supplied by thousands of engineers and computer scientists from the University of Texas-Austin, the city continues to attract high-powered companies. It’s not just the grand-daddy of them all, Dell, but also Apple, IBM, National Instruments, SEMATECH, Texas Instruments, and 3M. Just last year, Google set up a local shop. The energy of this young, educated, outdoorsy population is hard to miss as you stroll Austin’s streets. White- and blue-collar workers, bicyclists, musicians, students, recent transplants, and old-time “Texians” all mix easily — in the cafés and museums, at the city’s 208 parks, or along the banks of the Colorado River.

At a time when other American cities face depopulation and job loss, Austinites worry about managing their hometown’s growth while maintaining its unique, laid-back character. Will success spoil the shining Lone Star capital? It’s doubtful. There’s surely enough room and easy humor here for everyone’s Stetsons and briefcases, film fests, greasy spoons, and black bean tofu tamales. We at ASEE invite you to join us at this lively scene during the 116th ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, June 14 to 17, 2009. For information on the ASEE-sponsored activities and post-conference extensions, you can check the conference website at


In 1839, Texas President Mirabeau B. Lamar fought to have Austin — then known as Waterloo — designated the permanent capital of the independent republic. He did so against the fierce objection of former President and Texas hero Sam Houston, who bristled at the idea of this distant backwater gaining such prominence instead of the city that bore his name. But others waxed eloquent about the new site, including one who wrote that “Rome itself could not have surpassed the natural scenery of Waterloo.” Austin won out, becoming a state capital when Texas joined the United States of America. Even today, nature plays a starring role in this city framed by the Colorado River and gently rolling hills to the east. Three other long-time supporting players are the state government, the university, and the music and arts scene. Come visit a few key sites of each to learn more about Austin.


Located on the grand central concourse of Congress Avenue., the Texas State Capitol is the physical and political heart of Austin. Locals are quick to point out that this pink-granite building rises 14 feet higher than the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Gazing up at the magnificent rotunda and imposing statues of pioneers Stephen Austin and Sam Houston, it’s hard not to feel inspired by the fierce Texan spirit. Stroll through the halls to see the state legislature rooms, visit the exhibits at the nearby Capitol Visitors Center, and look in on the governor’s mansion, which, if reopened after last year’s major fire, puts on view elegant 19th-century Texas décor. Also on the grounds of this 22-acre complex are manicured lawns, pathways, and outdoor displays that attest to the state’s cultural and historical complexity: the “Heroes of the Alamo” monument, several statues honoring soldiers of the Confederacy, and a 6-foot engraving of the Ten Commandments, which won its place only after a controversial U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

For further exploration of the Texas past, travel a mile north up Congress Avenue to the impressive Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. The three floors of exhibits trace human settlement in the region from the earliest days of American Indian tribes through periods under the Spanish, Mexicans, independent Texians, and Americans, with special focus on Lone Star identity. The 35-foot bronze star outside the entrance provides a great photo op.


Take the kidsAustin is a great conference site for the family, with abundant nature, good food, and endless activities. Here are some that top our list:

Of the numerous parks within city limits, Zilker Park is one of the best, with biking and hiking trails, playing fields, picnic areas, a botanical garden, and a nature and science center — even a miniature train. The centerpiece of this 351-acre park is Barton Springs pool, which remains a chilly 68 degrees even on the hottest summer days. Deep Eddy Pool, another natural aquifer, off the Lake Austin Boulevard, has a large shallow area for younger children.

At sunset, come watch the Austin bats. There’s nothing creepy, just a magnificent display of 1.5 million Mexican bats spreading out against the night sky from beneath the Congress Street Bridge as they seek an evening meal.

Close to the Hilton, the Austin Children’s Museum buzzes with activity and exploration, including the Tinkers’ Workshop, where budding engineers can design, build, and test their inventions. On weekends, UT students lead hands-on engineering and science workshops. Parents and older children can check out Jo’s Coffee Shop next door or browse the Second Street boutiques.

In the heart of downtown, explore the 22 acres of the Texas Capitol complex, lingering in the cool marble halls of one of the nation’s largest capitol buildings and learning about the “reverse state seal,” with the six flags that have flown over Texas: Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the Confederacy, and the United States. The Capitol Visitors Center has history exhibits and tours, and the 1856 governor’s mansion offers a glimpse of gracious 19th-century Texan living.

The interactive exhibits of the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum will inspire older children, and everyone will enjoy its IMAX films on Texan history, the Grand Canyon, and the ocean. From there, continue on to the UT campus, where the natural-science Texas Memorial Museum houses a working paleontology lab, fossils, gemstones, and the famous Glen Rose dinosaur tracks. Afterward, take in the panorama from the observation deck of UT’s main tower and visit everyone’s favorite, the turtle pond and gardens.

A perfect end-of-the-day treat is the funky children’s store Toy Joy on Guadalupe Street. Its two rooms are crammed with every imaginable pleasure: robots and yo-yos, giant sock monkeys, disco balls, spinning tops, and vegan ice cream. Can’t get more Austin than that.


From the Bullock Museum, cross Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to step onto the sprawling 357 acres of the University of Texas-Austin. It boasts one of the largest single-campus enrollments in the country and an engineering school that ranks 11th nationally, with 7,200 undergraduates and graduates in seven departments. Biomedical engineering became the latest addition in 2006.

President Lamar helped pave the way for this public university by persuading his Congress to set aside land for College Hill. Texans had to wait 40 years more for “a university of the first class,” but once it was set in motion in 1881, Austin again beat out other contenders to become the main site for the university system. The medical branch was placed in Galveston, however, and to this day, there’s no medical school in Austin.

On this southern end of campus, across from the Bullock, you’ll find the Blanton Museum of Art, the largest university museum in the country. In addition to the extensive American collection, with 400 works donated by novelist James A. Michener and his wife, are European, Latin American, and Texan galleries, as well as modern prints and temporary exhibits.

Also on south campus, you’ll find a fitting monument to UT’s petroleum engineering past: the Santa Rita No. 1 oil derrick. When in 1923 black gold spewed forth on West Texas land owned by the university, this rig helped position UT as the richest public university system in the country, a distinction it still enjoys today. The Santa Rita is typical of the many striking monuments on campus, including a bronze figure of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1933 Littlefield Fountain, honoring the soldiers of WWI.

Other stops on your campus tour should include the 307-foot main building and tower, a central landmark of the university, where you’ll enjoy excellent panoramic views of the campus and town from the observation deck; the Harry Ransom Center, with an extensive archive and exhibit, including a Gutenberg Bible and the world’s earliest photograph; and the LBJ library and museum, one of the most popular presidential libraries. The LBJ exhibit highlights the life and career of the 36th president, as well as the turbulent era of the Great Society: the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the Kennedy assassination.


Austin EatsAustinites are equally choosy about their BBQ, fajitas, and pad thai, which is good news for visitors, who have a wealth of eateries to choose from. Here are some favorites:


Guero’s Taco Bar and Maria’s Taco Express are two tasty highlights in the “SoCo” district of South Congress Street. Fonda San Miguel, one of Austin’s pricier restaurants, serves exquisite dishes and a wonderful Sunday brunch in a lavish hacienda setting. For simpler, hearty fare, try Las Manitas Avenue Café, an Austin institution run for more than 25 years by sisters Lidia and Cynthia Perez.


People start fights over the best Texan BBQ, but a top contender is Stubbs, site of this year’s ASEE picnic and a hot spot for local music. Lamberts, on Second Street, is a treat, with a wood-grill barbeque, live music, and locally brewed beer. Ironworks is another, close to the Hilton, and you can’t beat the steaks at Ranch 616, at Sixth and Nueces streets. The upscale Z’Tejas Southwestern grill is located in a converted Sixth Street Victorian, with an open garden balcony. It, too, features music in the evenings.


At both the fine-dining Driskill Grill and less formal 1886 Café & Bakery in the restored Driskill Hotel, you’ll be enveloped in surroundings of the 19th-century cattle-baron era, replete with stained-glass windows, dark wood paneling, and copper pressed ceilings. For a very different historical experience, Threadgills offers rocking tunes and hearty Southern meals. It’s one of the city’s oldest music halls, where Hank Williams, Janis Joplin, and Willie Nelson have all packed the house.


Much more than an ordinary grocery shop, Whole Foods Market’s 80,000-sq.-foot flagship store is an awesome display of food, supporting several dining areas and an outdoor playground. Central Market offers strong competition, with equally enticing shopping, ready-made meals, outdoor dining, and a stage with free weekend performances. As is true of most Austin restaurants and some bars, both welcome children.

Aiming to “nourish the mind, body, and soul,” Casa de Luz is a popular retreat for many residents, featuring a vegan, macrobiotic dining room as well as venues for live music, yoga, tai chi, and massage treatment.


Closer to the Austin Convention Center and ASEE conference headquarters hotel the Austin Hilton, you’ll find other museums, restaurants, and shops, including the gemlike Mexi-Arte Museum, the Austin Children’s Museum, and the Austin Museum of Art. The historic Driskill Hotel, where LBJ is said to have wooed Lady Bird, is itself a remarkable show of 19th-century Texan style, with elaborate stained glass windows, inlaid marble floors, cowhide settees, and a mounted longhorn head. If it’s shopping you’re after, you’ll find several boutiques in downtown areas like the Second Street district. But be sure to travel across the river along South Congress Avenue, or SoCo, to find distinctly Austin venues like Allen Boots, Half-Price Books, and Mi Casa, crammed with folk art, textiles, and furniture. The exuberantly painted Maria’s Taco Express is worth a visit just for the décor, but the margaritas and enchiladas also beckon.

Austin has long cultivated a reputation as a center of music, today billing itself as the “Live Music Capital of the World.” Each spring, the South by Southwest conference showcases thousands of groups, while the long-running PBS program Austin City Limits has inspired a three-day autumn festival to celebrate hot new talent. While some grouse that the eccentricity of Austin music has been lost amid the hype, you won’t be disappointed by the variety and quality of tunes. Sixth Street and the Warehouse District are the two downtown areas for clubs and bars, where you’ll find Antone’s, for the blues, and the Elephant Room, for smoky jazz. Across the bridge, SoCo offers a quieter environment of separate venues, including Threadgills, with old-time gospel groups like the Bells of Joy at Sunday brunch, and the cool, dark Saxon Pub, for jazz, rock, and local country groups. Be assured that in Austin, it’s hard to find a restaurant, bar, or even community center that doesn’t feature live tunes most evenings and weekends. Your best bet is to check the local listing, then follow the crowds to the music.


The musical exuberance is eclipsed only by Austin’s stunning natural setting. Residents and visitors alike enjoy the great outdoors even on the most blistering summer days. That’s in part because there are plenty of places to cool off, including the three man-made lakes that skirt the town — actually, dammed sections of the Colorado River — as well as several spring-fed pools. Barton Springs is the easiest to reach, a magnificent Texas-size swimming hole with picnic lawns and shady trees. It’s tucked within Zilker Park, just over the Congress Avenue Bridge, where you can jog, bike, and hike the trails or find a pick-up game on the playing fields. Town Lake Metropolitan Park, further east on the downtown side of the river, has 10 miles of hike and bike trails.

Following the river further northeast to Mount Bonnell, you’ll reach the highest promontory within city limits. A short hike up will reward you with panoramic views of the river and city beyond.

One of Austin’s best outdoors activities is also its best free entertainment: the Austin bats, the largest urban colony in the country—1.5 million in all. Join the rest of the town at sunset to watch these remarkable winged creatures soaring out from beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge for their evening meal of insects. You can take in the view from the bridge, on the park lawns below, or aboard one of several cruise boats that feature sunset bat tours.


Austin is a large, sprawling city, fourth largest in Texas. Yet the neatly contained downtown is easy to navigate on foot or via bus or taxi. Orient yourself with the basic borders of the Colorado River to the south and east, the University of Texas to the north, and Interstate 35 to the west. Downtown’s grid layout was planned and executed back in 1839 under the administration of Texas President Mirabeau Lamar. East-west streets bore the names of state trees, and north-south streets the names of Texas rivers, reflecting their layout on the state map. Today the east-west streets are numbered, beginning at the river, making navigation even easier. And if you know your rivers, you can still track Texas riverine geography as you cross the Brazos, Colorado, Lavaca, and Guadalupe.

Austin’s grand concourse is Congress Avenue, a six-lane, tree-lined boulevard designed by Lamar as a statement of Texan grandeur. Within downtown, it runs up from the river to the state capitol, then further north to the University of Texas campus. To the south, cross the bridge where the town gathers for evening bat sightings, then follow Congress to “SoCo,” a long strip of small restaurants, stores, and bars with a fun local flavor.

A number of bus routes allow you to traverse the city. One of the most identifiable is the ’Dillo, Austin’s trolley-style bus. Of its two routes, the 451 follows Sixth Street, beginning at Red River, just up from the Hilton, to Bowie Street; it then circles back along Fifth Street. The 450 route runs north on Congress, circling the Capitol to 17th Street, then back south along Congress and across the bridge to SoCo. You can ride two hours for 50 cents or buy a daily or weekly pass. On weekends, the 470 Tour the Town buses visit key downtown sites, then head out to Zilker Park, at $1.50 for a day pass.


There’s still more to explore beyond Austin city limits, much of it within easy driving distance. The 279-acre Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, 20 minutes from town, draws attention to the nation’s native flora, with 16 beautiful gardens showcasing different wildflowers and plants. The small towns in the surrounding Hill Country display a more rural, quaint side of Texas. Try the German-influenced Fredericksburg or Gruene, home of the oldest extant dance hall in the state. Just an hour and a half away is San Antonio, site of the historic Alamo and the lively Riverwalk district.

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Michael Dell, Walter Cronkite, Lance Armstrong, and Stevie Ray Vaughan have all hung their hats in Austin—not to mention former ASEE presidents Wally Fowler and Ron Barr. Whether your pleasure is chile rellenos, Lady Bird Johnson’s wildflowers, mastering the two-step, or chowin’ down at a Sunday gospel brunch, you’re sure to enjoy this true heart of Texas.

Robin Tatu is senior editor of Prism.

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