Austin: Texas’ Most Sustainable Oasis

As one of the most sustainable cities in the U.S., it’s not hard to fall in love with Austin.

There is one reason I’d consider leaving the Big Apple for the Lonestar State, and that reason is Austin.

Anyone who’s been to the state capital has experienced the progressive and liberal personality that juxtaposes much of the rest of the state and Austin is the inoffensive exception. While on a road trip through part of the former Mexican territory, I was able to glean just how much so. From San Antonio to Frisco, with stops in Fredericksburg, Austin, Round Rock, Parker and Dallas, I took on the wide, open Texas road and realized that it leads to both a delightfully charming and calorically appalling Texas.

Here’s a list of things about the capital city that in a small way might contribute to slowing down the global warming process.

People are active and always outside.
Austin is quite possibly a land of productive freelancers. Everyone and their dog seems to be out and about throughout the workday and doing exactly what they should be doing – relishing the great outdoors. I spent a late morning with Barton Springs bike-tour company where our guide, Kelly took us over pedestrian bridge extensions, through Zilker Park, past the Stevie Ray Vaughn statue, along Auditorium Shores, around Lady Bird Lake and past Barton Springs Pool. While riding I was joined by dozens and dozens of other bikers and as many runners. In the early afternoon I joined another few dozen locals on Lady Bird Lake where I walked across water stand-up paddle boating alongside kayakers, canoers and water bicyclists. Austin feels like everyone is outside living a well-balanced life where people can pay their bills and spend time outdoors.

Barton Springs Pool

Everyone is in it together.
One night a chatty pedi-cab driver told us we had to go to Lambert’s for fancy BBQ. While devouring some fennel and coriander rubbed pork ribs we saw Japanese female drummer Masumi Jones and the Gentlemen, and The Warm Guns tear things up on stage. Then the next day I saw the music stars casually frolicking with the rest of Austin in the swampy Barton Springs Pool.

Bicycles, motorcycles and cars coexist here in harmony.
Bicycle riders share the lanes with cars and drivers don’t even seem to blink an eye. Nary is there a horn honked at a bike rider slowing down traffic, and signs remind everyone to be mindful of fellow cyclists and motorcyclists. On some blocks its seems like the streets have more bikes than cars. Besides bike lanes there are bike paths too—which the latter is known as the Lance Armstrong Bikeway, named for the championship cyclist.

SXSW, Denise Chambers photo

Keep Austin Weird.
The slogan was dubbed to promote small businesses in town and so far considering the city is said to get 1,500 new residents a week, it’s doing a decent job. The famed SXSW festival has grown more corporate and less grassroots, whereas the Austin City Limits concert has retained local and less is more roots. And as for the truly weirdest thing about Austin (besides the lizard people), is that the closest thing to weird is that the city is home to the largest urban bat colony in the world. But until you’ve checked it out – be it on a cruise, kayak, canoe, paddle boat, boat bicycle, or, you’re just standing on the Congress Avenue Bridge, you can’t knock it until you see over a million Mexican free-tail bats take off a just as the sun is setting.

There are a lot of places to stay the night.
Besides hotels like the new W, there are also a lot of new condos and high-rises. Like many fast growing cities, a lot of new development has been hit hard by the struggling economy so there’s an inordinate number of luxury rentals lying around unused. Many of these rentals have side gigs in the short-term rental world and are listed on Roomarama and Airbnb. I booked with Roomarama and stayed two nights in downtown Austin in a balconied high-rise just a few blocks from the infamous Sixth Street.


The live music scene truly rocks.
It’s hard to find a joint that doesn’t have live music playing in it when walking through the warehouse district, along Sixth, Fifth, or Fourth, along South Congress, or, in the Warehouse District. What may look like a non-descript spot easily ends up the stage for the next Jeff Buckley or Elliot Smith. At The Red Fez, the band Atash played a mix of Persian and Indian music replete with a sitar that had a rock and roll backbone. In recent years, Austin has become world renowned thanks to it’s killer music festivals.

It’s the birthplace of Whole Foods.
The local, seasonal, organic corporate food chain, Whole Foods got its start here in Austin so it’s possible to keep it weird and still shop here. Plus, everyone’s so proud of Whole Foods that between the classes and samples inside the store, it’s actually pretty fun to tour for an afteroon.  And who can resist poking fun at the obsessive quinoa-loving, Kombucha-eating counter culture that’s emerged there?

The BBQ is damn good.
Sure there is excellent BBQ to eat within Austin’s city limits, but the real deal that locals and tourists alike consistently recommend is the Salt Lick. With locations in Round Rock, Driftwood and the Austin Airport, I headed north to Round Rock (less than an hour from Austin), and it was totally worth it. A dinner of smoky beef ribs, hot mashed potatoes and refried beans finished with a warm pecan pie is hard to pass up. Did I mention the horseradish-infused bloody Mary’s? Drinks pair nicely with the live music that plays for those enjoying the outdoor seating. Because it’s a popular spot, it’s advised to go early or late in the night to avoid the crowds.

Austin is near Texas wine country.
Yes, in Texas’ Hill country is the Texas wine country. Just 67 miles away is Fredericksburg a charming stretch with adorable boutiques, quaint restaurants and a healthy dose of vineyards a few miles away.  I stopped by the family-owned Grape Creek Vineyards and Torre di Pietna. The Becker Vineyards also have a lavender farm. For further exploring stop by the tourism office just across from the where Curly, the octogenarian on staff who will offer to leave work early and take you out for a drink or two over his old war stories.

Becker Vineyards

“Dallas” fans can geek out on the TV show’s old location.
I’ve actually never seen a single episode of the 13-year series and I still found the tour located 214 miles from Austin absolutely fun and engaging. Our guide Tim, a Texas local who has spent decades working with the J.R, Ewing Mansion on Southfork Ranch, has salacious stories that are more dramatic than the series. (He’s caught countless people sneaking off to have sex on various parts of the property.)

There’s an artist colony of Brooklyn hipsters in the middle of nowhere.
Marfa, 375 miles west of Austin is a high desert oasis of awesome, where modern art and expression thrive. The colony was founded by minimalist artist Donald Judd who moved from New York City to Texas to create a more affordable and spacious home for his art installations. After he died, the area transformed into a haven for two foundations that maintain Judd’s vision: The Chinati Foundation and the Judd Foundation. Other large scale projects have formed in Marfa in recent years too including the Marfa Film Festival, Lannan Foundation and Ballroom Marfa where art films, music shows and art installations are featured. Marfa is also known for its night skies and for being the location of the films There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, and Giant starring Liz Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean and Dennis Hopper.

Ready for a road trip?

Image: StuSeeger, Austin Post