Austin, Texas: The Most Gay-Friendly Capital
Located right smack-dab in the heart of Texas, Austin, the Lone Star State’s capital city, is the gateway to Texas Hill Country. It may be in the center of the giant state, but it’s a world away from Texas stereotypes. The locals know they have something good here, and their only regret is that their once-hidden secret is getting out. Home to Whole Foods, Dell Computers, the massive South by Southwest rock music festival and showcase, pot-smokin’ country music legend Willie Nelson and liberal columnist and writer Molly Ivins, Austin presents a whole different way of looking at Texas.
For the biggest dose of "Hi y’all!" friendliness, and a Circuit event unlike any other, head out to Lake Travis for First Splash, Last Splash or July Fourth weekend. Lake Travis is a half-hour drive from downtown, so follow the signs to Hippie Hollow, Austin’s gay beach. Just be prepared; Austin’s beaches are big limestone outcroppings along the shore of this 64-mile-long manmade lake created in the 1930s.
So lay out your beach towel on the Hippie Hollow limestone, or finagle a way onto one of the hundreds of boats that pull up from all over the lake. Show your friendly side, and someone is bound to shove a Texas-sized margarita into your hand, invite you to share some genuine pit-smoked BBQ, and give you whatever else you may need. Don’t forget to look up at the spectacular natural scenery. After you’re done on the lake, head up the hill to the landmark Oasis Restaurant, for more margaritas and a view that will take your breath away. If you still want more, there’s dancing downtown.
Gay people are deeply integrated into the city, so there’s no real gayborhood like Chelsea in New York, or the Castro in San Francisco. But the gay community is vibrant, strong, and welcoming. Find a local friend or two, and you’ll soon be balancing a full social calendar. The gay bars are mostly downtown, although it’s fun to sidle over to a few outliers such as ’bout Time. If you happen to be in town on the second Friday of any month, don’t miss the roving Guerilla Bar: Hundreds of gay men descend on an unsuspecting straight bar.
From its earliest beginnings, Austin was always a little different. In one of the most famous moments of Austin’s history, a humble woman named Angelina Eberly single-handedly saved the city. You see, some folks snuck into town late one night to steal the state archives and move the state capital to Houston. Angelina saw what they were up to and set off a cannon volley to alert the rest of the city. You’ll find her statue on Austin’s main street, Congress Avenue. She may be the only pre-Civil War black woman who ever fired a cannon - in bare feet, no less. While you’re strolling around town, take a look at some of the other statues of Austin heroes: Willie Nelson (yeah, again); a bat (be sure to watch Austin’s 3 million resident bats from the Congress Avenue bridge, at sunset); several guitars (it’s a music city to rival Nashville); and, at the Austin airport, former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, one of the most remarkable politicians of the 1970s, who starred in the Watergate hearings.
What has given Austin its uniquely liberal, open, savvy sensibility is the presence of the massive University of Texas, with 80,000 students (and a 3:1 men-to-women ratio). The longstanding local hippie culture melds college kids, state government employees and the layabouts always attracted to college towns.
Austin’s unofficial self-proclaimed battle cry shows up everywhere: "Keep Austin Weird!" Scratch below the surface, and you’ll find out how much effort the locals put into making sure that motto rings true.
Where To Stay And Eat
For such a relatively large (800,000) and sophisticated population, Austin doesn’t have that many chic hotels. People come for the lifestyle, not the hostel. That said, the city has two boutique, (relatively) hip hotels. As for the big hotel chains, they’re all represented here: Four Seasons, Hyatt or InterContinental.
200 Lavaca St.
Downtown, just opened in April, this branch of the well-known boutique chain is the perfect base for checking out the bar scene, as a launch pad to downtown nightlife.
Hotel San Jose
1316 South Congress Ave.
In the heart of the South Congress shopping district, this is still the hippest hotel in the city.
604 Brazos St.
A stay at this Austin original, in the heart of the Sixth Street live-music district, necessitates hitting some of the hundred or so live music venues. Everyone, guests and visitors alike, saddle up to the Western Bar.
When in Austin, do as the Austinians do: Barbeque and Mexican food are the local cuisine of choice. Many of the finest restaurants are downtown, but you’ll find even more options with a car. A few local celebrities have started restaurants, including Sandra Bullock (Bess Bistro) and Carlos Santana (Maria Maria).
This is your chance to find out what Tex-Mex really tastes like.
1212 S. Lamar Blvd.
This is where George W’s daughters were arrested. Several times.
Arrive before 7 p.m. for the early-bird options.
14 E. Oltorf St.
This long-time favorite, just off South Congress, is always packed. Be sure to try the avocado margaritas.
1501 E. Sixth St.
If it’s a game night, you’ll want to watch along with all the boys, on big screen TVs.
Fonda San Miguel
2330 W. North Loop Blvd.
The gay-friendly, award-winning chef is renowned for high-end Mexican food from the nation’s interior.
This is Texas Hill Country. Unless you’re a vegetarian, you are going to have to have barbeque here.
County Line Bar-B-Q
6500 Bee Cave Road
5204 FM 2222
Legendary BBQ with locations all across the state. The Bee Cave Road location is the original that started it all.
Salt Lick Bar-B-Que
18300 FM 1826
A trek to this hill country town is an Austin ritual. Expect long waits and plenty of hot boys, who come from miles around to gorge on the all-you-can-eat meat platters. The owners have finally opened a couple of locations in town, but this is the original and still champ.
Iron Works BBQ
100 Red River St.
Some of the best BBQ right downtown.
24 Hours & Fast Food
Austin offers two alternatives to the typical IHOP experience, whether you’ve been partying or just crave a late snack.
Look for "the Economical" if you want a-little-of-everything breakfast, or one of their Space Age-named sandwiches in this restaurant whose clientele do their best to keep Austin weird.
Kerbey Lane Café
It may be less weird than Magnolia, but there are more crunchy-granola leftovers from Austin’s hippie heritage.
6550 Comanche Trail
Just above Lake Travis, this oasis provides breathtaking views and fire-breathing margaritas to quench your post-Hippie Hollow thirst.
This trendy burger chain began in a converted gas station.
3825 Lake Austin Blvd.
For generations, this institution on Lake Austin (not Lady Bird Lake!) has had the crowds waiting for an hour or more for their unique "Tiki-Mex" cuisine- all the better to enjoy flavored frozen margaritas on the deck.
Where To Shop, Party And Get Off
WHERE TO SHOP
This street is the home to everything hip and retro, and the epicenter of Austin’s "weird" vibe. Lots of quirky shops and outdoor sculptures adorn the buildings. Be prepared to take home some of the "weird" Austin for yourself.
The "in" crowd goes here to shop - similar to South Congress, but up-and-coming and more prone to bargains.
This is where the college boys from University of Texas hang out. The long stretch of Guadalupe Street starts at the edge of campus, from 15th Street up to about 30th. When you finish, head over to Spider House for the very groovy ’70s-style outdoor garden, with full bar, on Fruth Street, just off Guadalupe and 30th Street.
On the edge of an upscale residential neighborhood, you’ll find almost any store you want here, from basics to luxury.
Home to every high-end chain store that ever existed: Tiffany, Perry Ellis, Neiman Marcus, Fendi, Prada, Coach, Louis Vuitton, Diesel, etc.
Sixth & Lamar
The biggest concentration of Austin’s home-grown local stores and chains are all within a few blocks. Look for Waterloo Records, BookPeople (one of the country’s most famous independent bookstores), By George (trend-setter, top-notch fashion) and Whole Foods’ global headquarters. After you’ve exhausted yourself, head over to Amy’s Ice Cream to find out why Austin is crazy about Mexican Vanilla, B-52, Grasshopper, and Spock-olate: Very groovy servers. Check out their website: http://www.amysicecreams.com.
WHERE TO PARTY
Oil Can Harry’s
211 W. Fourth St.
Around for years, Oil Can keeps going strong by drawing a diverse crowd. Some say this is Austin’s "legit" gay bar. Indoors and outdoors, it’s always fun.
Rain on 4th
217 W. Fourth St.
Where the upscale and trendy folks go means crowds of hot guys, lots of pretty boys and twinks. Check out the theme events, Wednesday Karaoke nights, and the latest music on weekends.
1301 Lavaca St.
Austin’s longest-running gay bar is only steps away from the State Capitol. Keep your eyes peeled for your favorite Texas state politician on the down low, enjoying the eclectic crowd, outdoor patio and two separate indoor bar areas.
504 Willow St.
Austin’s leather bar is a long-running favorite of the locals.
Kiss and Fly
404 Colorado St.
Just a few steps away from Oil Can Harry’s is this multi-level, multi-bar club, with lots of fun dancing and crowd-watching.
9601 IH 35
If you’re on the north end of town or are just looking for a low-key crowd, look just off the I-35 service road, Rundberg Lane exit.
WHERE TO GET OFF
With more than 20 percent of Austin men gay, according to some estimates, Austin has its share of action spots. Check out Hippie Hollow (at Lake Travis), Pease Park (central Austin), and a few cruising areas on the University of Texas campus - if you like horny college boys. But watch out: Recently, the police have really stepped up their patrols. If you want a safer venue, head over to Midtowne Spa (5815 Airport Blvd., 512-302-9696).