This proudly different Texas capital is home to thriving live music and culinary scenes, a rambunctious university, and a healthy share of fitness fanatics. In their efforts to “Keep Austin Weird,” locals embrace it all.
Author Mark Healy Photography Blake Gordon
DAY THREE Based on the abundance of bats living under the Congress Avenue Bridge and the Day of the Dead skeletons displayed everywhere, you’ve gathered that Austin has a healthy appreciation for ghosts, ghouls and spirits. Austinites all claim that the city’s grand old hotel, the Driskill (1), is haunted. Taking up nearly a full downtown block, its beautiful, sprawling lobby is an embodiment of Old Texas. Ignore the creepy lore and have a coffee by the fireplace.
Then lighten up with a trip to a toy store. Toy Joy (2) is among the best in the country. Located near the University of Texas campus, it’s a temple of kitsch, clutter and thousands of little rubber and plastic figures. The 50,000 students a few blocks away certainly help keep the store in business, but it thrives due to the support of those weirdness-loving Austinites.
It is your good fortune that another Austin institution, Ruby’s BBQ (3), is located directly across the street. In this town, grown men and women have lifelong disagreements about which barbecued brisket is the town’s best. Far be it for us to choose sides, but Ruby’s is certainly near the very top of anyone’s list. And while you may not remember the beans or the corn bread years from now, the brisket is so soft, smoky and deeply satisfying that, once back out on the street, you find yourself ready to wade into the great debate and throw down on its behalf.
Take the scenic route back downtown: Circle the Texas Capitol Building (4), an impressive Renaissance Revival building made of local granite that entices you to check out its entryway, which rivals that of the national capitol. Glad that you stopped to look, get back on a bike path along the north side of town to the river. Stop at one of the WPA-era bridges and watch a burly, shirtless man navigate his raft, Huck Finn–style, downriver. An old Union Pacific train rattles across the next bridge over, its faded crimson cars lit up by the afternoon sun. Soon enough you realize, yes, you’re hungry again. You’re on vacation, after all.
The upscale and atmospheric Lamberts Downtown Barbecue (5) is housed in a restored brick feed house in the Warehouse District. Lamberts takes its cocktails quite seriously. The Sanchez, which is essentially a vodka martini filthy with olive juice over cracked ice and garnished with pickled jalapeños, is a remarkably good companion to simple but succulent smoked barbecued chicken accompanied by the tastiest salsa verde on the planet. With its lively dining room and bands playing upstairs, you’ll recognize Lamberts as a place you could spend four or five quality hours. And so you will. You raise your glass and toast to keeping Austin weird.
MARK HEALY, an editor at GQ, is still on the four-meal-a-day plan.