Austin has a vibe – youthful, cool, casual, and artsy. It has accomplished something that the rest of Texan cities can only dream about: Austin has a vibrant downtown where young people want to live. All of my friends who have spent some time there are raving about its livability. I visited Austin many times in the past but never spent enough time there to really get the vibe. My son, who I am incredibly proud of, recently got accepted to UT’s MBA program and moved to Austin, using his new educational adventure as an excuse to live there. I decided to spend a weekend as his guest with the mission of figuring out why young professionals from all over the US (including my son, who is willing to drive every day to work to San Antonio) love living in downtown Austin.
On a bright Saturday morning, my GPS brought me to a white high-rise situated on Lady Bird Lake and surrounded by a park. I was greeted by an idyllic picture of young people casually strolling along the lake, walking their dogs or just hanging out. The apartment building looked super modern inside and out, with slick finishes and fantastic views of the lake. It was not too hot and we walked for about 5 minutes to a street filled with little bars and restaurants – no chains, just family businesses. We ate at an Indian place cleverly called G’Raj Mahal. It was not a garage as you might think, but a trailer that hosted a kitchen and where people were seated outside under canvases. We paid very little and the food was phenomenal! It was packed with people of all ages and unassuming dress codes. It felt like Sonoma.
My son Arseni and his girlfriend Flor were very nice to me and offered to do whatever I wanted, and I always want Art! So we went gallerying. Our first stop was at Art on the 5th Fine Art Gallery where we enjoyed a variety of Austin and San Antonio artists. In the far end of the gallery we found the treasure – the fun and funky prints of Dr. Seuss. It was a wonderful surprise! Then, we decided to check out the Blanton Museum of Art on the UT campus. The entry way was a modern version of the Alhambra… sort of serendipity, having in mind that I just got home from Spain. Although the classical part of the collection could not stand comparison with the richness of the old world museums – in Spain per se – I was very impressed with their American Modernism and contemporary art collections.
We saved the BEST for last – the Austin music bar scene. I mentally buckled up for a long night. It was a Saturday night and we decided to start with the Elephant Room, the Jazz club. Playing was great but there were no seats available. We decided to try our luck in different musical genres and moved on to a disco bar where musicians were wearing huge curly wigs and dark glasses, then to salsa with its bright sexy dresses… but no luck! Everything was packed! People invaded downtown! All of the bars, regardless of the quality of music, whether it was live or DJ, were packed! Can you imagine how much alcohol is consumed in Austin bars on any given weekend? I bet you Austin’s government enjoys the alcohol tax revenue; I am sure because of all these bars their economy is doing darn well.
By midnight I had enough fun and decided to return to the apartment. Outside of our last bar there were a couple of carriages with the bike upfront and a little two-seater on the back. This is a new kind of transportation in Austin called Pedi-cabs, Sort of like the ones we see on the travel channel in Vietnam. For reasonable prices you can get a ride anywhere in the Austin downtown area. I decided that I needed to try it as a part of the authentic Austin experience and fearlessly jumped in the seat. My driver, a young lady about size 4, turned the music as loud as possible (it is a necessary part of the riding ambiance) and we embarked on my journey back to the apartment. Pedaling hard up and down the hills, taking the stoplights and other signs on the streets as unnecessary suggestions, we navigated through crowds of drunks and night traffic.
I saw Austin through the eyes and lifestyle of my son and his friends who are successful young professionals in their late twenties, and I understood why they want to live there. Besides the fact that being a small town, downtown Austin looks like a big metropolitan city with cool glass high rises, the overall infrastructure is set up for walking, recreation, casual dining, a lot of musical choices, and of course, somewhat safe drinking. The quality of living is comparable to California but the cost of it is Texan. It is nice to have the choice to run around the lake and not inside the fitness club for a change, and walk to places once in a while. And it is nice to know that just in case you had a little too much fun in one of the bars, there is a magic Pedi-cab taxi to take you home relatively safe.