Texas State Capitol.
Texas State Capitol.

Overall Grade: A-

Some Words: With it’s interesting historic core, handy B-cycles, street performers, and quirky boutique shopping, Austin lives up to the hype.

More Words: I found myself in Austin with a 22 hour layover last week. At first I was disappointed that I’d be there before the pre-festival activities for SXSW got underway, but I soon found out that Austin is a gem in itself. Whether or not you’re visiting for the music, here are two must-dos if you ever have just a single day Austin.

#1. The State Capitol. Visiting state capitols is free way to get a little bit of the history of a place and, often, see a charming neighborhood. The Texas State Capitol in Austin is no exception, and it is stunning.

Things to know before you go:

1. You will go through a quick security checkpoint proctored by friendly cowboy hat toting policemen. It includes walking through a metal detector and them checking your bags.

Texas State Capitol
Texas State Capitol

2. Free tours are available throughout the day M-F 8:30am-4:30pm / Sat 9:30am-3:30pm / Sun noon-3:30pm. Advance booking is not required unless you are in a group of ten or more. Most of the tours are a general mix of history and architecture, however specialty tours are also offered. You can also grab a pamphlet from a podium on your left after exiting security for a self-guided tour of the capitol and grounds. This is where all tours begin.

Texas State Capitol Grounds.
Texas State Capitol Grounds.

3. For a more personalized docent-led tour, try catching a tour going out with fewer than five people. This happens most often first thing in the morning and at the end of the day. This is also a great tip to skip the crowds and school groups in general. When I arrived, the second-to-last tour group was just starting, and it was jam-packed with over 30 people. I decided to explore on my own while waiting for the next tour to start in hopes it would be lighter. It was — I was the only person there — and I loved it.

My guide’s name was Kim, a mid-twenties history grad. With just the two of us, our tour quickly devolved into an interesting conversation ranging all sorts of topics including whether Texas is more Southern or Western, the best places to get tacos in town, and a host of other topics.

Part of the larger tour group, and a bride, I narrowly missed by waiting for the last tour of the day.
Part of the larger tour group, and a bride, I narrowly missed by waiting for the last tour of the day.

4. Docents are employed by the state and are not allowed to accept tips.

View of the interior dome. My tour guide has actually been to the top ledge where the blue meets the gold, about 300 feet up. The star at the top is a whopping 8 feet wide.
View of the interior dome. My tour guide has actually been to the top ledge where the blue meets the gold, about 300 feet up. The star at the top is a whopping 8 feet wide.

#2 South Congress Avenue (SoCo). This is the place where all Austin stereotypes to lovably take shape, and it’s only a short bike ride over the (Texas) Colorado River from the capitol. The street itself is an over-wide five-lane stroad, and nothing to boast of from a city planning perspective. However, the quirky storefronts and people-filled sidewalks somehow work together to transcend what would otherwise be cars-only area.

View from middle of the over wide stroad, South Congress Avenue looking toward the city.
View from middle South Congress Avenue looking toward the city.
Looking across South Congress Avenue at the interesting store fronts on the opposite side of the street.
Looking across South Congress Avenue at the interesting store fronts on the opposite side of the street.

The street consists of a combination of boutique shops, galleries, restaurants, venues, and empty parcels converted to food truck lots. Although the noise from the road didn’t make it the best street for strolling, it was still fun to window shop, people watch, and listen to street performers.

Shop fronts on South Congress Avenue.
Shop fronts on South Congress Avenue.
I satisfied my sweet tooth at Big Top Candy Shop, one of the many specialty shops on South Congress Avenue.
I satisfied my sweet tooth at Big Top Candy Shop, one of the many specialty shops on South Congress Avenue.
Empty parcel converted to a food truck lot on SoCo.
Empty parcel converted to a food truck lot on SoCo.

Most of the street performers play covers because, they told me, that’s where the money is. However they were more than happy to oblige with an original when I asked — and tipped — for one.

My favorite group was called Ramblers Home and used a bass pedal on an old 70s suitcase for their drum kit. It started of with beautiful vocals:

It got even better when one of the bandmates began a duet with the lead singer.

And I basically fell in love once the harmonica joined in.

There were several solo performers as well, including Holy Broke singing his original, “Sedona Arizona”:

On the first Thursday of every month the scene is apparently even more lively, with a block party that lasts late into the night.

Other Austin spots I checked out and would recommend if you have time include Rainey Street, The Boardwalk Trail at Lady Bird Lake, The Butler Trail, and Zilker Park.

Rainey Street
Rainey Street
View of installation artwork dedicated to the lives lost of people living on the street in Austin, along the Butler Hike and Bike Trail.
View of installation artwork dedicated to the lives lost of people living on the street in Austin, along the Butler Hike and Bike Trail.

IMG_20150306_170328051_HDR

Image of the (Texas) Colorado River with the raised Boardwalk Trail at Lady Bird Lake visible on the far bank of the river, and the Butler bike and hike dirt trail on its near bank.
Image of the (Texas) Colorado River with the raised Boardwalk Trail at Lady Bird Lake visible on the far bank of the river, and the Butler bike and hike dirt trail on its near bank.

 — Laura Rowley

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Written by Laura Rowley

I am an artist, flight attendant, and travel blogger.

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