AUSTIN, Texas — Not unlike its namesake Stephen F. Austin, Texas’ capital has always been somewhat of a paradox.
Just as the Virginia-born miner-turned-colonist wavered between separatist and unionist alliances as regarded the rest of the United States in his efforts to free his adopted home of Texas from Mexican rule, the city of Austin has never really been able to decide if it is a bustling political hot seat or a simple, down-home college town.
On the one hand, it is the fastest-growing city in the entire state, with a blossoming high-tech computer industry that has virtually transformed it into a Lone Star version of the Silicon Valley.
As the center of Texan government, Austin has also served as a political springboard for an ongoing parade of civil leaders ever since it was proclaimed the capital of the Texas Republic in 1838.
It was here that Sam Houston first declared Texan independence from Mexico in 1836 and it was here that U.S. Presidents Lyndon Baines Johnson, George H. W. Bush and his son George W. Bush got their political feet wet along the banks of the Colorado River.
In addition to the meandering, 133-year-old University of Texas that accommodates more than 50,000 students every year, Austin boasts no less than five specialized advanced studies colleges and trade schools — no small total for a town of barely two million inhabitants.
In fact, Austin is a multi-hued chameleon with as many faces to its iconoclastic personality as quirks in its flamboyant history.
Home to cowboys and rock starts, trendsetters and naturalists, the Texan capital is a happy hodgepodge of diverse tastes and learning that somehow manages to coexist in a stress-free atmosphere of utopian tranquility (except for rush-hour traffic, that is on a par with that of Los Angeles and Chicago).
But whether toasting the latest victory of the local football team (hook’em horns, y’all), organizing the annual birthday party in Zilker Park for Winnie the Poo’s best friend Eeyore, or debating the environmental impact of urban expansion along Lake Travis, one thing almost all Austonians seem to have in common is an avid devotion to their city.
Although as many as 30 percent of the locals were originally transplanted from other cities, they are uniformly proud of their adopted home and are usually quite eager to share it with visitors, making Austin an exceptionally friendly tourist destination.
Probably the best place to begin a tour of Austin is at the Texas State Capitol, built in 1888 of native pink granite and modeled after its national counterpart in Washington, D.C.
The structure straddles a 20-acre park and is crowned by a replica of the Statue of Liberty on a 309-foot dome.
Inside the building, the floors, walls and columns are decorated with images that depict the state’s turbulent struggle for independence.
The Capitol is open daily to the public and free guided tours can be arranged on request.
Once you’ve explored Austin’s political hub and climbed the 100 steps to the top of its rotund dome, you might want to take a load off your feet and soak in some local culture along East Sixth Street, Texas’ answer to Bourbon Street.
The seven-block strip of renovated Victorian and native stone buildings is bursting with over 100 clubs, restaurants and boutiques and has been declared a historic district by the National Register.
Whether you are looking for a cosmopolitan brunch of camembert crepes and chilled chablis, with a string quartet reciting works by Johann Sebastian Bach, or a Texas-style chow-down with chili con carne and Coors beer to the sounds of Willie Nelson, you will find it on Sixth Street.
No trip to Austin would be complete without a tour of the university campus, bordered on one side by the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library (replete with a replica of LBJ’s Oval Office, biographic glimpses of the man and a complete archive of his presidential administration) and on the other side the ubiquitous Guadalupe Street – aka The Drag – with a renaissance market of locally crafted artwork.
And if you are into kitsch, the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema has a midnight showing of the cult classic film “Rocky Horror Picture Show” every Saturday night with impromptu live interpretations by a foul-mouthed local cast.
But Austin’s biggest draw card is without a doubt its outdoor recreational attractions.
With two major lakes inside the city limits and a natural springs that feeds a 1,000-foot-long pool in Zilker Park, the city is an ideal place to swim, sail or waterski.
There are also an abundance of tennis courts, hike-and-bike trails and a professional 18-hole golf course to the south of town.
On summer nights, hundreds of tourists and locals alike gather to see the world’s largest urban bat colony emerge from under the Congress Avenue Bridge downtown.
When engineers reconstructed the Congress Avenue Bridge in 1980, they had no idea that new crevices beneath the bridge would make an ideal roost for 1.5 million bats.
Although bats had lived there for years, it was headline news when they suddenly began moving in by the thousands.
You can sit in one of the nearby open-air cafes and watch the show as you sip on a Texas-size margarita or sample Austin’s world-famous barbeque.
For those with a lofty sense of adventure, Austin also has hot air balloons from which you can catch a bird’s eye view of the city and its verdant surroundings.
With an average annual temperature of 68.1 degrees Fahrenheit, this mid-Texas oasis has a near perfect climate that makes it an outdoors paradise just about year-round.
And as an added bonus, Austin, unlike most U.S. cities has an excellent public transportation system that makes it easy to explore this one-of-a-kind vacation destination.