Back in the year 2000, Austin Community College Librarian Red Wassenich (who has a long history of behaving rather oddly himself) remarked offhandedly on phone call to a radio station, "Keep Austin Weird." Since then, that slogan has become the rallying cry for those who are proud of Austin's unique culture (a mixture of government officials; highly educated professionals, since Austin is home to the largest university in the state of Texas; former hippies; many Latino immigrants, and more), and has been adopted as the official motto of the Austin Independent Business Alliance, an organization supporting locally-owned businesses and enabling them to compete with large chains and franchise operations. With that I thought I would give you a peek into some of Austin's more unusual tourist attractions, which go largely unnoticed in the guidebooks published by the larger, more staid and more conventional publishers.
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Get your camera ready, and prepare to be amazed by some of the more unusual attractions that this major Texas city has to offer!
Live Music -- By January, 2009, Austin, Texas supported over 1700 live music venues in the city, so by picking up a copy of the free Austin paper, The Austin Chronicle, you will find listings of most of these venues (note: if you are looking for independent bands, this paper is a great place to start. For those who are more classically inclined, a better place to look is at the University of Texas). Austin bills itself as the "Live Music Capital of the World," and with more live music venues per capita than any other city, might just live up to the advertising.
The Bats -- Austin is home to the largest urban colony of Mexican free-tailed bats and the largest urban bat colony in the world, and their exit at dusk has become a major tourist attraction. A million and a half bats fly out to forage for insects, and it can take up to half an hour for the bats to exit the Congress Street Bridge. For the best view, park down by the Austin American-Statesman building, and walk up to the bridge. (On the bridge itself, the traffic is noisy, and you just do not get the best view.) You can also take a boat cruise from the Capital Cruises or Lone Star Riverboat companies to travel up the river that will time its arrival at the bridge with the bats' exodus. A few restaurants may have bat viewing, but be sure to make reservations well in advance, as the seats fill up quickly. June through October provides the best viewing, as the bats are migratory.
At the end of the street is the Capitol Building, even larger than the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. (They say they do everything bigger in Texas.) This view looks north from S. Congress Street, and you can see some of the modern architecture which draws visitors to downtown.
William Sydney Porter House -- William Sydney Porter, known to most of the world as O. Henry, lived in a small Victorian cottage in Austin from 1893 to 1895 (and got himself thrown into prison for three years). The author of "The Gift of the Magi" and "The Ransom of Red Chief" as well as many other stories with a surprise twist, Porter was an active fixture in Austin during the years that he lived there. Although moved a block and a half from its original location, the original house, built in simplified Eastlake style still stands, and a tour of the house is free (a docent will be provided as a guide to the house and exhibits). Each spring, in May, the house is home to the annual festival of puns, known as the "O. Henry Pun Off," where you can hear some of the world's worst puns live!
Uncommon Objects -- A store, located at 1512 S. Congress Street, with a giant collection of some of the oddest objects around, from a giant stuffed goose to . . . well, you just have to see for yourself, because the collection defies description. This store is like Antiques Roadshow in the weirdest dream you have ever had.
Museum of the Weird -- in the back of Lucky Lizard Curios and Gifts, on East Sixth Street (and only a block or so from the O. Henry Museum), is another astounding collection of bizarre objects. Mummies, a two-headed chicken, and other strange and wonderful objects are featured, much in the tradition of P. T. Barnum and the carnival sideshow attractions. The museum is operated by Steve Busti, and is open most days, but call ahead because the owner could be taking a day off, and the museum is run only by a single person.
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The German-Texan Heritage Society -- housed in historic downtown Austin, the German-Texan Heritage Society building was originally the German Free School building. Most people do not realize that Texas was a major immigration point for Germans looking to come to the New World, and that Texas therefore has one of the largest concentrations of German immigrants (many Texas towns and families still have German names). The German-Texan Heritage Society maintains cultural and genealogical records, and hosts events such as free German classes, a German film festival, and more.
Famous Trees -- some of the famous trees of Texas are in and around Austin, Texas, including the famous Treaty Oak, which was almost a victim of a love triangle gone awry. The vandal, who poisoned the tree in an attempt to break up a couple, killed two-thirds of the original tree, but the remaining third is alive and thriving (the vandal received a fine and a prison sentence). Also not to be missed are the Austin Auction Oaks, which were on the site where the city of Austin was laid out and land auctioned off to homesteaders and developers to pay for the construction of governmental buildings, and the Seiders Oaks, the site of the first playground and weekend getaway for wealthy Austinites.
So if you are planning a trip to Austin, Texas, whether for business or vacation, I encourage you to check out some of these more unusual tourist destinations. After all, don't you want to know just why its residents want to "Keep Austin Weird"? (P.S. Don't forget to bring back a bumper sticker or a T-shirt with the slogan, as a reminder of your oddball vacation!)