For much of the 20th-Century, Austin was known as a university and government town, but these days it’s likely more recognized for its reputation as a tech hub, festival locale or as the Live Music Capital of the World®. The Texas capital has been steadily growing since it was established in the early 1800s, and one of the city’s defining characteristics is that it’s always changing. As Texas Monthly chronicled in a 2016 feature called “City of the Eternal Boom,” Austin has, in recent years, established itself as a shiny metropolis of the modern age, thanks largely to an influx of new residents, new businesses and new development.
Take downtown Austin, for example. While towering condos and mixed-use developments may seem to dominate the Austin skyline, downtown’s most eye-catching architecture is still the Texas State Capitol. The iconic Capital we all know today was constructed in 1888 out of Oak Hill limestone and red granite from nearby Marble Falls, the Capitol is showcased by a stretch of Congress Avenue that rolls out almost like a red carpet (that particular stretch of Congress is itself listed on the National Registry of Historic Places).
Another celebrated landmark at the heart of Austin culture is Barton Springs, a legendary spring-fed swimming pool just south of downtown. The springs themselves were at one time the site of a Spanish mission, they were used by Tonkawa Native Americans for centuries before Austin was incorporated in 1837. In the city’s early history, the land around the springs was settled by William Barton, who promoted their waters as a tourist attraction. Andrew Jackson Zilker, a later owner of the tract, deeded the land to the city in 1918, and shortly thereafter the springs were dammed to create a pool much as it is today. To this day, Barton Spring remains a popular attraction for locals and visitors and the subsequent renovations over the years have successfully improved the municipal pool without cramping its historical charm. Deep Eddy Pool, located in Tarrytown just off Lake Austin Blvd, is another historic spring-fed municipal pool, having been constructed by a private owner in 1915 and then sold to Austin in the 1930s.
But the city’s cultural history includes more than just the aquatic. On the east side of town is Austin’s African American Cultural Historic District (AACHD), aka Six Square, a six-square mile area in East Austin of cultural significance to Austin’s African American community. Notable landmarks in the Six Square district are Victory Grill, which opened on V-J in 1945 specifically for returning Black troops, and the Downs Baseball Field, once the home of the team the Austin Black Senators. At the heart of Six Square is Huston-Tillotson University, an HBCU that is the oldest University in Austin.
Austin has a booming culinary scene. Many local chefs have been recognized by the prestigious James Beard Foundation, and new award-winning restaurants pop up year after year. But there are also many local restaurants that continue to thrive even after serving the Austin community for decades or even a century. Scholz Garten, for example, is oldest continuously operating tavern in town. Built and opened by Civil War veteran and German Immigrant August Scholz in 1866, it has been serving German food and beer for more than 150 years.
At the northwestern edge of campus is Dirty Martin’s Hamburgers, which has been flipping beef patties since 1926. A mile or so south of there is The Tavern, a bar and grill that first opened its doors when Prohibition ended in 1933. On West Sixth Street are a couple other early-20th-century relics, including Hoffbrau Steakhouse, which opened in 1934, and Hut’s Hamburgers, which opened on Congress Avenue in the 1930s and has been at its Sixth Street location since 1969. One of East Austin’s most prominent restaurants is Joe’s Bakery, a Mexican bakery and cafe that has been owned and operated by the Avila family since 1962. Or for easy dining make sure to check out local favorite Sandy’s Hamburgers on Barton Springs for walk up burgers, fries and ice cream cones.
Many of Austin’s most iconic locales are those with connections to the city’s rich musical history. As a college town, Austin has always had a youthful culture, but it wasn’t until the 1970s, when Willie, Waylon and the boys planted their flags at the Armadillo World Headquarters, that the city garnered its reputation as the Live Music Capital of the World® (which you can read about in Texas Monthly’s oral history of Outlaw Country, “That 70s Show”). The Armadillo World Headquarters was a legendary venue near Barton Springs Road and South First, and though its last show was on New Year’s Eve in 1980, its legacy lives on at the nearby Threadgill’s World Headquarters, which has a menu inspired by the Armadillo’s and houses a piano played by the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis and Captain Beefheart.
The Threadgill name is itself part of Austin legend. The company’s original location in north Austin was founded in 1933 by former bootlegger Kenneth Threadgill. It survived the rest of the 20th-Century and is best known as one of the venues in which a young Janis Joplin developed her signature sound. Other legendary venues around town are the Continental Club on South Congress, which opened as a supper club in 1955, and the Hole in the Wall, a campus venue that got its start in 1974. The Broken Spoke, a honky tonk that opened on South Lamar in 1964 and has hosted everyone from Willie Nelson to Garth Brooks, is another of the city’s most notable music joints. The oldest venue in Austin is the Historic Scoot Inn. Located just east of I-35 on Fourth Street, the Scoot Inn was originally opened as a grocery store and mercantile by former slaves in 1871. It was converted to a saloon by Aubrey “Scoot” Ivy in 1955 and has been a staple of Austin culture ever since.
Because it has such a rich musical heritage, Austin is well known as a festival town. In addition to world-renowned events like South by Southwest® and the Austin City Limits Musical Festival, the city hosts countless other festivals, from the Austin Film Festival, to the Moontower Comedy Festival, to the Kite Festival in Zilker Park. Other notable fairs include the Pecan Street Festival, a two-day arts event that takes place in downtown Austin twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall. Another one of the area’s big draws in the Old Settler’s Festival, located just outside of town in Driftwood, TX. Old Settler’s is an annual roots, Americana and bluegrass festival that has been tearing it up since 1987.
Austin’s rich cultural history is omnipresent, and even the city’s new construction honors this legacy. The recently developed Seaholm District is a perfect example of Austin’s unique ability to blend the vintage with the modern. The Seaholm Power Plant was an iconic art deco power station location north of Lady Bird Lake and just east of Lamar. Built in the fifties, it stopped generating power in the nineties, but it wasn’t until 2005 that a team took on the humongous task of redeveloping it for mixed use. Today it houses tech start-ups, a Trader Joe’s and several popular restaurants.
The St. Elmo Public Market is another example of the city reimagining its old infrastructure. Located on South Congress just south of Ben White, the St. Elmo Public Market will transform industrial warehouse space into a mixed-use facility featuring a hotel, office spaces, a music venue, restaurants and the city’s first indoor-outdoor marketplace. Additional proof of how the city has invested in conserving its legacy is its partnership with the Waller Creek Conservancy, a nonprofit working to restore the area around downtown’s Waller Creek, and create a chain of 37-acres worth of urban park space.
The Austin City Limits theater, located adjacent to the W Hotel on 2nd and Lavaca in downtown Austin, has a 2,700-person capacity making it one of the top venues in town. It is a state-of-the-art facility, but its newness doesn’t outshine its historical charm. Outside the venue’s entrance is a Willie Nelson statue reminiscent of the iconic Stevie Ray Vaughan effigy on Lady Bird Lake, and the hallways are decorated with images from Austin City Limits tapings of yore. The Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater is a shining example of Austin’s commitment to growth and innovation, and a celebration of the city’s rich past.