The state capital of Texas is easily accessible with new direct flights from the UK, says Sarah Marshall.
Being described as weird isn’t always considered a good thing. But when it comes to a place as innovative and eccentric as Austin, the term is worn as a badge of honor.
The Texas town’s unofficial motto “Keep Austin Weird” appears on everything from T-shirts to car bumper stickers, and it’s a mantra enthusiastically embraced by the population of one million.
Here, in this liberal and progressive enclave of one of America’s most conservative states, every degree of eccentricity is celebrated. Independent cafes, restaurants and bars champion boring chains with a punch, while bold entrepreneurs are encouraged to think differently and change the world.
It’s no surprise that Sir Richard Branson chose Austin as Virgin Atlantic’s first new route since the pandemic.
After the most difficult two years in its history, the airline has launched a new direct service from London Heathrow, offering travelers a new connection to one of the most exciting cities in the United States.
The 10-hour flight currently departs four times a week, but an increase in bookings means the service will become daily from spring 2023.
“They say everything is bigger in Texas and I found that to be true with the entrepreneurial spirit, creativity and innovation that emerged from this great city,” said Branson, wearing a a cowboy hat, during the launch of the maiden flight.
“If you look at Austin’s entrepreneurial culture and heritage, this is the perfect fit for Virgin Atlantic.”
So what awaits us?
All the wonderfully familiar Texan cliches abound in its laid-back state capital: cowboys and ranches, heartfelt Southern hospitality, the aroma of barbecue wafting down the boulevards, and the sound of live music at almost every street corners.
But there are also surprises. Dissected by the Colorado River, Austin is a place of hot springs and islands that could pass for the Caribbean.
Here are some of the best ways to discover the city…
Take a pleasant bus ride
To tick off all the major sights and escape the intense Texas sun (temperatures are known to top 40°C in August), book a guided (and air-conditioned) bus tour with AO Tours.
An itinerary focused on the downtown district includes the dark but beautiful Texas State Cemetery (the final resting place of generals, governors, and members of Congress) and the magnificent 92-meter-tall State Capitol Building – taller than its iconic counterpart in the nation’s capital.
Stop to pose in front of the famous ‘Greetings from Austin’ mural, the city’s most famous piece of street art, at the corner of 1st Street. A 2.5-hour scenic tour costs from $51/£42. Visit aotoursaustin.com.
Kayak with micro bats
For something more unusual, take a kayaking trip along the Colorado River. Paddle leisurely under the Congress Avenue Bridge – also nicknamed the Bat Bridge, in reference to the 1.5 million tiny Mexican free-tailed bats that live below. Every evening between March and November, the bats emerge to feed, creating a spectacle in the sky. A two-hour tour costs from $59 / £49. Visit austinkayaktours.com.
Learn the ropes on a ranch
Sweeping thick blonde locks under her Stetson, Miss Tina is a tireless taskmaster when it comes to training cowgirls and novice cowboys at her Lone Star Ranch.
John Wayne wannabes can try their hand at roping, tomahawk throwing and archery, all under the watchful eye of Miss T – or go horseback riding along the trails that criss-cross the 600 acres ravines, meandering creeks and open ranch plains. The working livestock farm is open to the public by appointment only. A class of two and a half cows costs $150 / £124. Visit lonestarranchtexas.com.
Savor the oversized dishes
You won’t go hungry in Austin, where the flavors are as big as the portions. Texas BBQ is almost a religion in these regions, and there is no shortage of exceptional places to taste grilled and smoked meats.
Patient diners should head to Franklin (franklinbbq.com), the no-frills streetside eatery where people line up until three for a pulled pork sandwich and a slice of pecan pie. Located in the historic East Side, it’s only open until everything is sold out (usually around 2pm). The verdict? Well worth the (very long) wait. Pay around $14/£12 for a sandwich.
Sharing a border with Mexico inevitably means the city’s food scene is heavily influenced by its neighbor to the south. One of the best places to grab a bite on the go is Torchy’s (torchystacos.com), food trucks known for their lip-shivering tacos. Try the trailer park taco with fried chicken, green chiles, pico de gallo salsa and poblano sauce. Pay around $7/£6 for a taco.
Tap your feet to great tunes
Austin could easily rival New Orleans or Nashville as America’s live music capital: there are around 250 venues, with up to 100 shows often taking place in a single night.
Broken Spoke (brokenspokeaustintx.net) is one of the most famous ‘honky-tonk’ country music bars and was even home to legend Dolly Parton. It also offers two-step dance lessons for those who want to blend in with the local crowd.
Meanwhile, Antone’s (antonesnightclub.com) has been playing the blues since 1975. Back then, everyone from BB King to local hero Willie Nelson took the mic here. Whether known or promising, the quality of the musicians is always there.
Stock up on boots and Stetsons
A cowboy hat is an essential wardrobe item in these regions. Between the hip, minimalist boutiques of South Congress Avenue, Allens Boots is a local institution (just look for the giant red boot outside).
The aisles are lined with authentic cowboy boots, hats and chunky buckle belts, each handmade and authentic. The friendly staff will have you outfitted and looking at every square inch of the Texan in no time. Visit allensboots.com.
How to plan your trip
Virgin Atlantic (virginatlantic.com) flies from London Heathrow to Austin from £516 return. For more information about the destination, go to visitaustin.org.