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The Austin Experience: Congress Avenue

How to visit Austin like a local
Written by Matt Joyce. Photographs by Will van Overbeek.

Matt Joyce explores life on Austin’s aorta, where history meets quirky


(Photo by Will Van Overbeek)

Texas Capitol and Visitor Center

The Capitol—the historic corner-stone of Congress Avenue—offers 30-minute tours throughout the day, starting in the south foyer. Meet a guide or take one of the self-guided tour brochures and strike out on your own.

The guided tours are worth the time, because the guides know their stuff. As you pass through the 1888 building marveling at the architecture, paintings, and exhibits, you’ll discover many interesting stories. It’s a Texas history buff’s dream.

For example, did you know that the building’s “Sunset Red” granite was quarried near Marble Falls and transported on a specially built railroad to Austin, and that Scottish stonemasons were brought in after the local stonecutters union boycotted the project over the use of convict labor?

Just east of the Capitol, the Capitol Visitor Center—located in the 1858 General Land Office building—provides more insight into the Capitol’s history and major restoration project of the 1990s. Also, check out the exhibit about author William Sidney Porter, aka O. Henry, an interesting character who worked as a GLO draftsman while developing his writing career on the side.

Museums 

Congress is home to several museums beyond the Capitol grounds. North of the Capitol, the Bullock Texas State History Museum serves up a sweeping view of the Lone Star story, with exhibits built around the themes of land, identity, and opportunity. There’s also a terrific gift shop.

South of the Capitol, the AMOA-Arthouse challenges visitors with contemporary art inside its boxy white building in the thick of downtown. You never know what you’ll see. During a recent visit, a darkened theater room screened a short video of trash and debris being thrown onto a city street. Was it playful or severe? I don’t know.

Two blocks south of the Arthouse, the Mexic-Arte Museum highlights Mexican art and culture, as well as exhibits related to the local Mexican-American community.

(Photo by Will Van Overbeek)

Lady Bird Lake

The lake that divides north and south Austin—actually part of the Colorado River—has been an epicenter of recreational activity for generations and is perhaps the biggest reason for Austin’s reputation as an out-doorsy city. These days, the Congress Avenue bridge over Lady Bird Lake is most famous as the home of the largest urban colony of Mexican free-tailed bats in North America.

Music

You’ll find a handful of live music clubs along Congress Avenue, including two of Austin’s most enduring venues—the Continental Club, which opened in 1957, and the Elephant Room, which dates to 1991.

The Continental Club, on South Congress, features a rockabilly vibe, although its two stages—including the upstairs “gallery”—present a variety of sounds, from swing to country and garage rock. Of note to day-trippers, the Continental has bands starting at 6:30 or 7 p.m. on weeknights, and 3:30 p.m. on weekends. The club is a reliable place to catch some of Austin’s best musicians and experience the spirit of the music scene.

The Elephant Room, a basement club north of the river, is Austin’s version of a big-city jazz club. It’s the place to go to hear soloists and ensembles that may provide a breath of fresh air amid all the country-jangle and college rock.

Strolling down SoCo, you might get lucky and stumble upon an impromptu jam session of surprisingly talented buskers, or an outdoor show at the garden stage of Güero’s Taco Bar. It’s mighty satisfying to happen upon a free concert by a smokin’ band under the shade of Güero’s oak trees—cold drinks and tacos al pastor within easy reach.

Eats

As if there weren’t enough restaurants on Congress Avenue before, the number of establishments has spiked in recent years with the onset of the food-truck trend. There are dozens of good eateries between the Capitol and South Congress, including a few of the food trucks that have been shoehorned into parking lots and undeveloped corners.

Many of the restaurant highlights can be found on South Congress, where you can easily walk to another place if you encounter daunting wait times at your first choice. One of the realities of the new Austin is that almost everything worth doing is often crowded, and dining on SoCo is a prime example.

If you’re in the mood for pub grub, Doc’s Motorworks offers a fun patio and an extensive menu of burgers, salads, sandwiches, and other platters. The aforementioned Güero’s is a Tex-Mex stalwart with a fine lineup of plates that sometimes attracts celebrity diners: President Bill Clinton’s 1995 visit inspired the “El Presidente” entrée. Among the food trucks, one of my favorites is Ms. P’s Electric Cock, which serves gently spiced and crunchy fried chicken from a converted Airstream trailer.

Also on SoCo, Enoteca Vespaio is a terrific Italian café. During a recent visit with the family, the crisp-crust cheese pizza thrilled our two-year-old, while the spaghetti carbonara—with a subtle and delicious cream sauce—and the muffaletta—flavored by a tasty tapenade—satisfied the adults. The weather was favorable for patio seating, which provided an ideal opportunity for people-watching—one of the best pastimes on any portion of this historic and funky strip.

                   

From the July 2013 issue.

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