The Allens Boots sign is a landmark on Austin's South Congress Avenue. (Dennis Cox/Alamy Stock Photo)

With a Texas-size shiny, red boot kicking up its heel on the roof, Allens Boots was hard to miss. Inside were more than 10,000 pairs of cowboy boots, silver belt buckles ranging from merely shiny to massive statement and stack after stack of Stetson hats.

Not to be outdone, Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds, a few doors down on South Congress Avenue, was crowned with an outsize statue of its own: a 12-foot-tall zebra in full Carmen Miranda costume. Inside, clothing racks were packed with costumes and vintage clothes: Cleopatra to Care Bears and almost everything in between.

On the same block was Uncommon Goods, a self-described “emporium of transcendent junk,” where a taxidermied bobcat frozen mid-pounce vied with risque tarot cards for customers’ attention. The Austin Motel, a couple of blocks down, looked like it had surfaced from a groovy time capsule with its longtime billboard proclaiming itself “So Close and So Far Out.” Across the street, a busker gamely spun his drumsticks in front of a “Willie Nelson for President” mural.

There was not a Starbucks, Gap or CVS in sight.

We were in Austin’s SoCo neighborhood — the offbeat heart of the capital city famously described by former governor Rick Perry as “the blueberry in the tomato soup” of Texas. My only previous experience in the state was a foolhardy spring break road trip from Ann Arbor, Mich., to South Padre Island at its southern tip. While that did impress upon me the sheer size of Texas (a 12-hour drive from stern to stem), suffice it to say, my visit to Austin this winter was different.

First off, my 15-year-old daughter, Sophie, and I had a direct flight on Southwest from Reagan National, making for an easy six-hour door-to-door trip. Also, Austinites assured us we weren’t exactly in the Lone Star state.

“I could never live in Texas,” tour guide and musician Jason Weems, said. “This is Austin.”


Kayakers take in the skyline from Lady Bird Lake, which is encircled by a hiking-and-biking trail that stretches more than 10 miles. ( Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau/ )

We spent four nights in Austin over my daughter’s winter break in late December, inspired by little more than a sale fare and a sense that Austin was cool. Rather than staying in a hotel, we opted to rent a small house through SoCo Spaces, which manages nine properties in the South Congress Avenue area. Ours, “The Orange Door,” was a modern two-bedroom ranch in the quiet Travis Heights neighborhood, an easy 10-minute walk to the main strip on South Congress.

To get anywhere beyond walking distance, we used Fasten, Austin’s alternative to Uber and Lyft. Rides around town typically cost $5 to $10, and we only once had to wait more than five minutes for a ride.

After a late-evening arrival, we spent the morning of our first full day in the city on Austin Detours’ two-hour “Real Austin” tour. The small group van tour, led by Weems, included stops at some of the capital city’s highlights. Our tour started in SoCo and headed north over the Colorado River on the Congress Avenue Bridge.

We saw Austin’s landmarks: its towering, sunset-red state Capitol building — its taller-than-the-U.S.-Capitol stature a bragging right for Texans everywhere, Weems said — and the expansive University of Texas campus, including its clock tower, famous as a campus center and infamous as the site of the first mass shooting of the modern era. Also, the LBJ Presidential Library is there.

Our progress was marked by street art, from the “Hi: how are you?” frog mural near the university famously worn on a T-shirt by Kurt Cobain to the pretty, looping cursive “I love you so much” on the side of Jo’s Coffee in SoCo, originally written by a woman to her partner but widely seen as a love letter to the city itself.

We also stopped to see street art on an almost dizzying scale at the Hope Outdoor Gallery, an abandoned construction site turned into a community graffiti park. Color, tags, cartoons and slogans blanketed every discernible space of the three-story, one-acre park. In my line of vision were Count von Count from Sesame Street, an alien, a viking hat and the phrase “Global warming is a hoax.” It was a little like looking into a strobe light.


Gourdough's (“Big. Fat. Donuts.”) Airstream trailer sits along South First Street in Austin. ( Gourdough's / )

Weems also introduced us to our first Austin food trailer, Gourdough’s, with its immensely satisfying — and just plain immense — doughnuts. (A waiter at another restaurant told us he only lets himself eat one a year.) Consumed: the “Flying Pig,” a salad plate-size pastry covered in maple glaze and topped off with a mound of bacon. Unlike food trucks in D.C., Austin’s counterparts are mostly Airstream trailers and mostly stationary, set up on what were once empty lots.

We tried the popular Odd Duck for our first dinner. The restaurant, which got its start in a trailer, focuses on pairing locally sourced ingredients in unexpected ways, including the salty, delicious pretzel pig-face carnitas and a tasty redfish ceviche with sweet potato curry and grapefruit.

The next day we checked out three Austin retail legends located within a block of each other on the busy thoroughfare of Lamar. We browsed at Waterloo Records, an Austin legend at which customers can hear any of its massive collection of CDs and vinyl before purchase. I bought my first CD since 2009 (the awesome live music sampler “KGSR Broadcasts, Vol. 24”).

Next we marveled at the 80,000-square-foot Whole Foods, now topped with an ice rink, just a few iterations from the humble natural food store that opened its doors in Austin in 1980. Finally, we made our way to Book People, the city’s largest independent bookstore, a place damn close to heaven on Earth for an avid reader.

After perusing its stacks, laden with handwritten staff pick cards, and chatting with employees seemingly at the ready with offbeat recommendations for any genre, I emerged with five books by authors unknown to me.

We concluded our day at Fixe, a relatively new restaurant that aims to “celebrate the soul of the South,” which reminded me how excellent Southern cooking can be. The legendary biscuits are fluffy, buttery, served steaming with a heavenly pork spread. The restaurant also offers up a fantastically crispy fried chicken and multiple savory variations of that Southern staple, grits.


The Hope Outdoor Gallery, formerly an abandoned construction site, is a public space for the ever-changing graffiti art of Austin. ( Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau/ )

Since we were celebrating the soul of the South, we made it a point to schedule a Texas barbecue stop. My pulled pork sandwich at La Barbecue — a food trailer in Cesar Chavez Park favored by locals — was perfect, tangy barbecue balanced with a sharp chipotle coleslaw. It also offers frozen fare that you can bring back in your suitcase, like the five-pound brisket I made my daughter lug home.

With temperate weather much of the year, a lot of life in Austin is lived outdoors. We made a short-lived attempt to follow suit, embarking on an afternoon bike tour that was cut short by rain.

“Lady Bird Lake is absolutely beautiful,” said John Mutchler, our guide from Rocket Electrics, which runs the company’s daily bike tours along the lake trail. We had an expansive view of the Austin skyline across the water, one Mutchler says is constantly changing given Austin’s exponential growth in the tech sector, and of the few crew teams that braved the rain to practice. The trail winds around to Barton Springs — an outdoor pool fed by natural springs and open year-round — and the city’s much-photographed Stevie Ray Vaughan statue.

Like Weems, Mutchler is a working musician as well as a tour guide. “Music is what brought me,” he told us. Austin has about 250 live music venues, he said, ranging from Austin City Limits to clubs on Red River Street, north of the Colorado River.

Sophie, of course, was too young to get into most of the city’s clubs, but live music permeates the city — in coffee shops, on restaurant patios, street corners, in parks. We stopped to watch the “Washboard Tie Guy,” clad in trademark cap and percussive tie (yes, he plays it), set up his stage on South Congress Avenue.

On our last night in Austin we ate at a place we still can’t get out of our heads — Uchi, the storied sushi restaurant that a decade ago catapulted Austin into a new class of food city. Certainly it revolutionized the way I think of sushi, which admittedly was not particularly sophisticated before. We tried “biendo,” a take on spring roll with shrimp tempura with slivers of grapes on top; a variation on what Japanese children have for breakfast with salmon and green tea (which seems to have ruined Cheerios for Sophie); and “hot rocks” with Wagyu beef. Each dish was a micro work of art.

Early the next morning, New Year’s Eve, I wandered down to a still mostly empty SoCo for a last look and coffee at Jo’s before we packed up and headed to the airport. A week later, we feasted on the brisket, a smoky, tender taste of real Texas barbecue on a cold, winter D.C. day.

Muir is a writer based in Arlington.

More from Travel:

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Namaste, y’all: Kicking back at a Texas-style New Age resort in Austin

Now that’s weird: Austin may be cool, but it clings to its oddball image

If you go
Where to eat

Uchi

801 S. Lamar

512-916-4808

uchiaustin.com

Austin’s famed sushi restaurant pairs fish flown in daily from Tokyo with local ingredients in both traditional and unexpected offerings. The restaurant takes a limited number of reservations, but guests can sit outside and enjoy sake while waiting for a table. Dinner, including an adult beverage, costs around $74.

Fixe

500 W. Fifth St.

512-888-9133

austinfixe.com

Under New Orleans native executive chef James Robert, Fixe offers iconic Southern food — biscuits, grits, fried chicken and more — done right. Entrees for around $25.

Odd Duck

1201 S. Lamar

512-433-6521

oddduckaustin.com

Run by second-generation Austin chef Bryce Gilmore, Odd Duck’s farm-to-table menu changes frequently to showcase local, seasonal ingredients. Dinner, including an adult beverage, for around $50.

La Barbecue

1906 E. Caesar Chavez

512-605-9696

labarbecue.com

One of Austin’s most popular barbecue food trailers with a sometimes two-to-three-hour wait. To skip the line, visit with a food tour (Austin Eats goes there) or preorder. Sandwiches average $10.

Gourdough’s

Several locations with Airstream at 1503 S. First St.

512-912-9070

gourdoughs.com

These delicious treats — along with the fried chicken, bacon, jalapeño jelly, grilled bananas and, in some iterations, gummy worms they are served with — are a meal and a half in and of themselves. Doughnut entrees and sandwiches average $10.

What to do

Austin Detours

512-962-8636

austindetours.com

Offers a range of tours, including ones focused on city highlights, music and the Hill Country, starting at $35 per person.

Rocket Electrics

512-442-2453

rocketelectrics.com

Electric bike tours around Lady Bird Lake, as well as food and music tours, start at $58 per person.

Austin Eats

512-963-4545

austineatsfoodtours.com

Excursions, which include a best of food trucks tour and a SoCo and East Austin walking tour, start at $69 a person.

Information

austintexas.org

— R.M.