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Kate Auletta

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Austin Isn't Weird, It Just Is To Texans (PHOTOS)

Posted: 09/16/2011 9:27 am

"Austin's great."

"Austin is the best."

"You'll love Austin. It's just so...weird."

It was like a Shakespearean chorus of voices in my head as I landed in the Texas capital. As soon as I got off the plane, there were shirts, coffee mugs, everything with the city's catchphrase "Keep Austin Weird" written all over them.

Here's the thing, though: Austin isn't as weird as people claim it is. It's just a) weird compared to the rest of Texas and b) feels sort of like New York City's Lower East Side (or perhaps how the LES wants to be).

Austin residents certainly cultivate that image of themselves in order to show — it seems — that they aren't like the rest of Texas.

Yet...Austin's food isn't weird. Austin's people aren't weird. Austin's art isn't weird. Austin isn't weird. But I found that simply because locals took ownership of their quirks, it makes the place that much...weirder.

I had a lot to see in Austin in my three short days there. I wanted to experience everything Austin: the food, the live music, the shopping, the culture. That's a tall order in 106 degree heat.

The town of roughly 800,000 people has a lot going on, even in the dead of August. Austin City Limits starts up again on September 16 — the town, it seems, prepares for this world class festival all year long. The University had just started back in session: There was a brand new batch of doe-eyed teenagers running around town buying books, school clothes, looking generally as lost as I did.

I ran around like a banshee, trying to absorb the "weirdness" of Austin. My favorite meal? Probably my avocado, tomato and grilled chicken salad at South Congress Cafe. Sounds simple, but the avocados get all kinds of ripe down there. Runner up? An adorable dish called Basil Love Letters, consisting of home-made pasta, asparagus, zucchini & fennel salad, at Haddington's Restaurant. (Plus, oddly the best Moscow Mule I've ever had.)

Herewith, a selection of my favorite places, meals and shops — kooky and non — in Austin.

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  • Lunch @ South Congress Cafe

    I was fresh off the plane and starving when my host suggested we go to <a href="http://www.southcongresscafe.com/" target="_hplink">South Congress Cafe</a>, a very relaxed restaurant on — you guessed it — South Congress. For lunch I had the deliciously simple roma tomato and avocado salad. My friend and I then shared the simply divine carrot cake french toast (pictured here), complete with cream cheese and pecan syrup. Yes, I almost moved into the restaurant.

  • South Congress Avenue

    The shopping on South Congress is varied from the totally hip (hit up <a href="http://www.stagaustin.com/index.php" target="_hplink">Stag</a> for men's clothes) to the totally...unique. Be sure to stop by<a href="http://uncommonobjects.com/" target="_hplink"> Uncommon Objects</a>, an admittedly-scattered but comprehensive antiques store, that's home to everything from old maps to chairs to vintage pins. <em>Austin Tourism Board</em>

  • South Congress

  • A Chia Pet Cow on South Congress

    There are dozens of cows around town, all created for a gala to be held on October 30.

  • Allen's Boots

    <a href="http://www.allensboots.com/#tradition" target="_hplink">Allen's Boots</a> is not only quintessentially Texas, it's quintessentially Austin. The shop is essentially a shrine to cowboy boots, with 4,000 boots on display from 12 manufacturers. The smell in the store is a surprisingly pleasant mix of musk, leather and sweat.

  • The food trucks of South Congress

  • Hey Cupcake

    We stopped for cupcakes for the drive home at <a href="http://www.heycupcake.com/menu.php" target="_hplink">Hey Cupcake</a>. They are the perfect size with just enough icing.

  • Frog Shaved Ice

    A pink lemonade ice cone when it's 106 degrees outside = Perfection.

  • Crepe Mille

    It was too hot for a crepe, but I took pictures of the delicious looking truck of <a href="http://www.crepesmille.com/" target="_hplink">Crepe Mille</a> anyway.

  • The Mighty Cone

    Combine fried chicken, fried avocado and slaw. Put it in a cone. That's the beauty of <a href="http://www.mightycone.com/" target="_hplink">The Mighty Cone</a>.

  • They took my saying!

  • Hotel St. Cecilia

    Also in the South Congress area is the secluded hotel of 14 rooms in the <a href="http://www.hotelstcecilia.com/" target="_hplink">Hotel Saint Cecilia</a>. The hotel is closed to the public, despite it's quaint but super-chic bar, and pretty pool (and secluded) area. The property boasts a killer view of downtown Austin. I was lucky enough to get a quick tour. This is the patio outside the hotel's bar.

  • Hotel St. Cecilia

  • Salted Melon Salad @ Contigo

    I've been told East Austin is sort of like New York's Lower East Side. Regardless of your preference for or against the LES, you'd be remiss to not visit <a href="http://contigotexas.com/austin" target="_hplink">Contigo.</a> Despite the heat, this restaurant has all-outdoor seating (with fans that gently mist water on guests). The decor is all wood, with furniture courtesy of a local Austin designer. It's a small plates kind of place, so we split the crispy green beans (think Texas tempura), JBG cantaloupe (seen here) which has pumpkin seeds, arugula and salted melon and a burger and fries, which had perhaps the best bun I've ever eaten. My friend had a Lagunitas Undercover Investigation Shut-Down Ale, which, though not local, has a cool story. The DEA shut down the brewery while they were investigating a marijuana incident; a couple of workers remained at the brewery brewed the beer. Hence the name.

  • Gallery D

    The <a href="http://www.2ndstreetdistrict.com/" target="_hplink">Second Street Shopping District </a> ("where Texas warmth meets Austin cool") is home to a number of adorable boutiques, such as <a href="http://www.gallerydaustin.com/" target="_hplink">Gallery D</a>, a just-chic-enough store with adorable shoes, pretty party dresses and stunning art hanging from the walls.

  • Broken Spoke

    A trip to Austin isn't complete without a little live music. And, where better to mix Texas tradition with Austin's famed music scene than the <a href="http://www.brokenspokeaustintx.com/" target="_hplink">Broken Spoke</a>, which claims it's the best honky tonk in all of Texas. It was a sight to behold. I've never seen anything like it, and I'm not sure I'll see anything like it again. It's a true dance hall. Couples and singles come together to two-step in their cowboy boots (I stuck out like a sore thumb in flip flops), while a band of four middle-aged guys plays Texas country. I danced with a nice older gentleman from a town near Laredo, who taught me the steps patiently. It's a lot to take in: the steps, the smiling, the awkward conversation, all while making a circle around a dimly-lit dance floor.

  • The bar has, essentially, a shrine to Texas honky tonk, with a separate room that showcases photos of the founders with everyone from Willie Nelson to Dolly Parton.

  • Lady Bird Lake

    If you have time, and it's not too hot, take a walk along Lady Bird Lake (named for Lady Bird Johnson). There is a short 2.5 mile loop if you take a right at the Radisson on East 1st. Be forewarned: There are dogs everywhere. And, as you can only do in Austin, there is a large pooper scooper in the middle of it all, reminding you to pick up after your pooch.

  • Driskill Hotel

    The <a href="http://www.driskillhotel.com/about-texas-hotel.php" target="_hplink">Driskill Hotel</a> was built in 1886 as a place for cattle baron to congregate. The hotel is impressive in its size (it has 189 guest rooms) and has an expansive (and dark) lobby. It's a beautiful spot in the heart of downtown and worth wandering around just for a peek.

  • COWCH

    Another — and my favorite — of the <a href="cowparadeaustin.com" target="_hplink">Austin Cow Art</a>. This one, done by Rebecca Wolfe Spratlin, was called COWCH. I laughed out loud at it--causing quite a stir in the swanky lobby of Hotel Driskill.

  • Texas State Capitol

  • A view from the capitol

  • "Presented to the Republic of Texas...in 1836"

  • I was amazed at how beautiful the capitol building is in person. The famous dome was perhaps my favorite part of the building. In large letters, T-E-X-A-S is written around a star. There are stars <em>everywhere</em>.

  • Lamberts Downtown Barbecue

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/iampeteinaustin"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/iampeteinaustin">iampeteinaustin</a>:<br />Cool unpretentious place for 'fancy barbecue' and live music in a renovated historic building in downtown Austin.

  • Lamberts Downtown Barbecue

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/iampeteinaustin"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/iampeteinaustin">iampeteinaustin</a>:<br />Cool unpretentious place for 'fancy barbecue' and live music in a renovated historic building in downtown Austin.

  • Texas State Capitol

    Everywhere you look there are stars...literally everywhere.

  • Lamberts Downtown Barbecue

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/iampeteinaustin"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/iampeteinaustin">iampeteinaustin</a>:<br />Cool unpretentious place for 'fancy barbecue' and live music in a renovated historic building in downtown Austin.

  • Coolest door hinges I've ever seen.

  • The Texas House Chamber

  • Lamberts Downtown Barbecue

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/iampeteinaustin"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/iampeteinaustin">iampeteinaustin</a>:<br />Cool, unpretentious place for fancy barbecue & live music in a renovated historic downtown building.

  • Lamberts Downtown Barbecue

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/iampeteinaustin"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/iampeteinaustin">iampeteinaustin</a>:<br />Cool, unpretentious place for fancy barbecue & live music in a renovated historic downtown building.

  • The Senate

  • University of Texas

    I went to a small liberal arts college. A big university is foreign to me. ESPN was setting up for College Game Day when we were there. Classes had just started two days before I arrived, so there were campus groups handing out all types of things to students (yes, I was happy to be mistaken for a student). UT is home to one of the original Gutenberg Bibles. It's beautiful in person.

  • Blanton Museum of Art, "About Face, Portraiture as Subject"

    The <a href="http://blantonmuseum.org/" target="_hplink">Blanton Museum</a> is notoriously unfortunate looking. But the art inside is quite beautiful. This exhibit, dedicated to the art of the portrait, had a free cell audio tour attached to it, which I had never seen before. The museum supplies guests with a number to call and learn about each piece of art from a cell phone. Much preferred to carrying around clunky earphones.

  • Blanton Museum exterior

    <em>Austin Tourism Board</em>