Austin is booming…and evolving. The city is an economic and cultural magnet, attracting some 150+ new residents each day. Construction cranes lace the skyline. Double-decker tour buses crawl down South Congress Street. Out-of-towners pose for selfies on street corners. Beloved food trucks have been squeezed out by luxury hotels and timeworn honky-tonks engulfed by high rise apartments. It is easy to conclude that offbeat Austin no longer exists.
Thankfully, Austin has an independent, creative, and exceedingly stubborn streak that goes deep and wide. Indeed, offbeat Austin still exists. Global Gallop went in search of the eccentric side of the city and hit the jackpot.
Here are Global Gallop’s tips for experiencing the Best of Offbeat Austin:
Go Deep on Things that Don’t Matter
The line between reality and make-believe gets a little blurry, but it is all in good fun at the Museum of Natural & Artificial Ephemerata. The family-owned, in-home ‘impermanent collection’ features a cosmic array of items of no lasting significance, including a strand of Willie Nelson’s hair, Marilyn Monroe’s last smoked cigarette, a raccoon’s penis bone, and the skull of P.T. Barnum’s organ grinder monkey. Prepare to have your leg pulled.
Step into Christmas
If you ever wondered why Santa is so jolly and Rudolph’s nose is red, perhaps it is because they spend all their off time at LaLa’s. Perennially festooned in Christmas decor, LaLa’s is the dive bar of your most festive fantasies. Bloody Marys reign supreme at LaLa’s, and you will think you’ve had too many when the elves hanging above the bar start to jump and sway. Fear not, because the secret behind the elfin jitters is not the vodka but the fishing line tether attached to LaLa’s bathroom door.
Beware of Unintended Consequences
Austin’s Congress Bridge is the seasonal roost of the largest urban bat colony in North America. Approximately 750,000 bats, all pregnant females, make the journey annually from Mexico to give birth their pups. You have to wonder, where are all the male bats? Are they back on the beach in Mexico, smoking cigarettes and drinking tequila?
Bat watching is a big deal in Austin during ‘Bat Season’ which runs from March to October. Each evening, hundreds of spectators line the Congress Bridge to watch the bats depart at dusk to forage. A much better vantage point accrues to the passengers aboard the Lone Star Riverboat Bat Cruise. From the boat, you can watch the bats, and watch the people on the bridge watching the bats, which is almost as entertaining. Just remember to wear a hat and keep your mouth closed.
One of the most prolific examples of offbeat Austin is the way the city’s residents proudly display what most other people would dump. For example, there is a ‘community paint park’ euphemistically called the HOPE Outdoor Gallery, where folks are encouraged to create what is basically graffiti. Then, there is the ubiquitous Austin yard ‘art’, otherwise known as junk. Really, who wouldn’t love to have a life-size concrete gorilla in their front yard or have their flower beds lined with old bowling balls?
Sample Repurposed Restaurants
Austin is proud of its eco-sensitivity, so it comes as no surprise that two of Austin’s most unique – and rewarding – dining destinations have taken root in recycled buildings. At the Launderette, a James Beard nominee for Best New Restaurant, Chef Rene Ortiz puts a new spin on Mediterranean cuisine in a relaxed, sun-soaked former neighborhood coin-op. The Whip In, a convenience store turned café, pairs Texas influenced Indian flavors with craft beers and sprinkles in some live music for an out-of-the-box stop.
Sneak a Drink
Some of Austin’ coolest cocktail dens are hidden in plain sight. You will need a reservation to pass through the unmarked door leading to Midnight Cowboy, a moody, sophisticated speakeasy located in a former massage parlor. The uber-talented drink meisters at Midnight Cowboy create libations tableside on rolling carts, employing finesse and flames to deliver spirited concoctions. Rest assured, you can douse the heat at your next stop, the Firehouse Lounge. Hidden behind a sliding bookcase in a former fire station turned hostel, the Firehouse Lounge spews crafty cocktails, small plates and live tunes in a very red room. End your offbeat Austin drinking expedition at the Garage Bar, situated in a former valet parking ticket booth. Nose into a seat at the circular bar and prepare for some serious mixology theatre in-the-round.
Seek Unconventional Commerce
There is no need to conform when its time to hunt and gather in Austin. Room Service Vintage displays a curated collection of quirky second-hand items ranging from classic Playboy magazines to a tortoise shell ukulele. Uncommon Objects presents an ever changing aggregation of oddities that you surely don’t need but simply must have. Without a doubt, the strangest stop on the offbeat Austin shopping tour is the unassumingly-named Corner Shoppe. The Corner Shoppe is a hunting trophy resale store. Basically, it is a zoo, except the animals are all dead. Wanna take home that towering stuffed polar bear? The price tag is an equally imposing $25,000.
Watch a Fowl Foul
Offbeat Austin turns excrement into entertainment when the Little Longhorn Saloon hosts Chicken Sh#t Bingo on Sunday afternoons. Here is how Chicken Sh#it Bingo works. First, eager, beer-guzzling patrons purchase two-dollar tickets to be assigned one of many numbers drawn in grids on a board. Next, a chicken is released to eat corn that has been scattered across the board. As the bird advances around the board eating, the crowd cheers for the chicken to drop a load, so to speak. When the chicken poops on a number, the winner is declared, and a cash prize is awarded. Win or lose, there is something strangely satisfying about bonding over brews and bird dung in an endearingly ramshackle saloon.
Make Your Home in the Happening Hood
Oddly, Austin has kicked Uber to the curb, so it is more important than ever pick your roost strategically. East Austin sits in the afternoon shadow of downtown and squarely in the sweet spot of gentrification. In East Austin, you will find some of the city’s hottest eateries, performance venues, and artist studios happily co-existing with tattoo parlors, transmission shops and piñata stores.
The Heywood Hotel is a harmonious addition to the funky East Austin feng shui. Housed in a converted 1925 craftsman bungalow, The Heywood Hotel’s seven individually decorated rooms are interspersed with ample lounging lairs. Complimentary bikes help you channel your inner Armstrong, and the staff at the Heywood Hotel are neighborhood natives who stand ready expedite all your Austin aspirations. The morning coffee is Heywood’s private blend, locally roasted, but the hotel understandably refrains from serving breakfast in-house, a wise deference to the flavorful brilliance of nearby morning meccas like Veracruz Al Natural and Juan in a Million.