At first glance, the terms “eco” and “Texas” might not go together. But Austin, the capital of the Lone Star State, has created a welcome home for environmentally conscious businesses and community organizations – and makes for a great destination for similarly minded travelers.
“Keep Austin Weird” is the motto around town, but there’s nothing oddball about the city’s pioneering efforts in terms of sustainability and collective responsibility toward a greener, healthier place to live, work, and visit.
Here are five green reasons–and green places to visit in Austin.
1. Bat Conservation
On a hot summer night a few years back, I lay flat on my back on a picnic blanket, staring up at the obscured night sky. Bats by the thousands darted and swooped overhead, calling out to each other and rustling the leaves as they flew. I dared not move, and just watched in awe – doubly so once I realized I hadn’t gotten one mosquito bite. (I’m usually devoured within minutes.)
One of the biggest draws to visiting Austin is the only-in-Austin phenomenon of the nightly bat watch off the Congress Street Bridge. The bridge is home to North America’s largest urban bat colony, consisting primarily of Mexican free-tail bats, and the bats settle there from late spring through early fall. The female bats give birth in early June, and in the subsequent months, the community of bats depart their roosts under the bridge every evening to feed. Each night, typically a million bats fly out in a wave—like something out of a cartoon or superhero movie—and gobble up the city’s insects and pests.
While at first there was fear and misunderstanding about the bats, the prevailing attitude now across town is now one of appreciation, conservation, and even outright fandom: The Austin-American Statesman has adopted the bat as the paper’s mascot, erected a bat statue, and set up a viewing area/lawn in a prime spot near the bridge. If you don’t mind summer heat, seeing Austin’s bats is a can’t-miss experience – and one you won’t be able to replicate anywhere else.
2. Organic Groceries
Whole Foods got its start right here in Austin, with the flagship store located at Sixth Street and Lamar Boulevard (just a few blocks from the original, much smaller, location). Stop in and feast on the abundant produce, local artisanal foods, and organic groceries on offer. Not to be outdone, other major supermarkets in the area have kept pace with Whole Foods’ mission, leading to an abundance of organic choices for consumers: Check out H-E-B Central Market and the Wheatsville Food Co-Op, among many other specialty food stores, to fill your picnic basket or vacation rental kitchen pantry.
3. A Commitment to Cycling
“I like your bag.”
“Where did you get that bag?”
On a recent trip to Austin, I carried a handbag that had a bicycle decal on it, and (no joke) was stopped repeatedly to talk about it. So goes Austin’s bike-loving community, made up of car-eschewing commuters, fitness gurus, and green-focused residents. Serving all is Austin B-Cycle, a bike-sharing service that lets cyclers pick up rental bikes at stations around town, and return them to other docks along the way. Open 24/7, the service has been wildly popular both with residents and visitors – it recently set a new record for bike sharing during the 10-day South by Southwest Festival. With 40 stations downtown, Austin B-cycle makes for an affordable, green, and stress-free way to explore Austin without a car.
4. Local Businesses First
Going local isn’t just a tagline in Austin – it’s a mantra. Check out Locally Austin, the city’s small business development hub online. Here, you’ll find extensive listings of local businesses, from arts and entertainment to travel and lodging. Of special interest is the Shop Zero Waste category: With more than 120 businesses included under the areas of (re)Made, (re)Pair, and (re)Share, it’s an even greater way to go green with your tourism/souvenir dollars.
5. Farmers Markets
Big and bountiful describes the Texas Farmers Market, held on Saturdays at Cedar Park and Sundays at Mueller Boulevard in Austin. Local vendors and farmers set up shop to sell freshly picked produce, handmade goods, and other specialties year-round, rain or shine. Chefs and educators regularly offer demonstrations and seminars on how to cook locally and seasonally for health and wellness. Additionally, all vendors have been screened and certified to verify that they’re selling only what they grow or produce – so by shopping at this farmers market, you’re going right to the source.
Have you visited Austin? Which green businesses, attractions, or activities most appealed to you? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below!
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Photo courtesy Ben via Flickr Creative Commons