Kooky, liberal and easy to fall in love with, Austin feels a world away from clichéd images of conservative, oil-rich Texas: a "blueberry in the tomato soup" as memorably described by former governor, Rick Perry. A haven for free-thinking creatives, the Texan capital is a laid-back college town at heart, fed by its vast and wealthy university - UT - with a cultural vibrancy that extends way beyond the hugely successful South by Southwest.

But that's only half the story. Since the Nineties, Austin has been riding the wave of a tech boom (Dell, Apple and IBM are among the titans with a major presence here), investors and start-ups drawn by its compact size, low taxes and relative affordability.

Austin, Texas, USAAustin mural © Edward Aves

The result is a compelling mix: a small-town big city, where jobs are easy to find but hippie values and community spirit hold strong. Not surprisingly, Austin tops the league as the most desirable place to live in the US.

And with the recent launch of Norwegian's direct budget flight route from London Gatwick opening the city up to European travellers, there has never been a better time to go. Here's why Austin is the coolest place to visit in the States.

It's officially the Live Music Capital of the World

The birthplace of SXSW and Austin City Limits, with its own distinctive sound, Austin has music running through its veins. In fact it coined its official slogan, 'Live Music Capital of the World', with a true Texan love of hyperbole, after the discovery that nowhere else in the US has more live music venues per capita.

You'll feel the raw energy if you wander down East Sixth Street, the rowdy central strip crammed with party bars, which vibrates with the clamour of bands competing to outblast each other to draw in punters. To up the cool stakes, though, stroll north to Red River, where edgy Mohawk showcases the best of up-and-coming indie. Or get devotional over ribs at Sunday morning's gospel brunch across the street at Stubbs B-B-Q.

And in a city that celebrates every July 4 with local hero, Willie Nelson, never claim that country music isn't cool. Joining the hipsters for a Texas two-step tutorial at the dark, divey Eastside White Horse or the family-run Broken Spoke dancehall on South Lamar is the best way to get your bearings around town.

Austin, Texas, USALive music on Sixth Street © Edward Aves

Austin is still the weirdest city in America

For nearly two decades "Keep Austin Weird" has been the city's unofficial motto, and though creeping gentrification, rising rents and the influx of outsiders feeding the tech boom have left some long-term Austonians grumbling that it's losing its edge, Austin still revels in its abundance of eccentric characters.

Look out for the downright scary Lizardman, complete with bifurcated tongue and subdermal implants, or visit amiable Vincent Hannemann, who's spent thirty years converting his back garden into a vast, Gaudí-esque Cathedral of Junk; for a $5 contribution, Vince will let you clamber freely over his towering construction of discarded Americana (but call ahead).

Where else but Austin would celebrate Eeyore's Birthday annually or put on the world's slowest 5k? Or raise the funds to commemorate a homeless crossdresser, the late, much-loved activist Leslie Cochran, with a bronze statue in the heart of Downtown?

For an essential slice of weirdness, search out the Little Longhorn Saloon, an adorably cute one-room honky-tonk in North Austin. It's one of two bars to play host every Sunday afternoon to Chicken Shit Bingo, an enduringly popular twist on the usually sedate granny's favourite: grab your $2 bingo card and wait for the plump, well-fed fowl to poop. If the bird turd lands on your square, you're in the money.

Austin, Texas, USABats flock every night at dusk for an eerie display at Congress Avenue Bridge © Kushal Bose / Shutterstock

Its inventive food scene

Austin's passion for the alternative extends to its food-consciousness, with trends embraced quickly and fashioned into distinctively Austonian flavours. 'Shop local' has long been the prevailing mantra, and homegrown institutions offering all-natural ingredients like P.Terry's, Juiceland and Torchy's Tacos triumph over the national chains that pepper other cities.

Much of the city's inventiveness stems from its enduring love affair with food trucks, allowing culinary creatives to try out new ideas before committing to the expense of brick and mortar. At any given moment, there are hundreds of reconditioned Airstreams and converted trailers gathered in food truck parks and outside bars, offering everything from gyros and arepas to vegan soul food and gourmet donuts. Check out foodtrailersaustin.com or ride on Austin Eats' Food Truck bus for more.

That said, there are certain Austin flavours that shouldn't be missed. An early morning migas taco from Veracruz All Natural or El Primo on South 1st is the only way to start the day, while barbecue - specifically Texas barbecue - is elevated to an art form here. Crowds form outside the most popular spots - at Franklin Barbecue, the eponymous restaurant of legendary barbecue pioneer, Aaron Franklin, President Obama's local rep took a temporary battering when he became the first (and only) person ever to cut the queue.

Unless you're blessed with infinite patience, or impervious to hunger, go gooey at the tender brisket at Micklethwait Craft Meats instead, or take a perch at Kemuri Tatsu-Ya, a Japanese-style izakaya that's spearheading the current trend for BBQ fusion and small plates.

Austin, Texas, USAMicklethwait Craft Meats food truck in Austin © Edward Aves

There's always somewhere to cool off

Cut through by the aquamarine Colorado River, and scattered with giant swathes of green, one of Austin's greatest joys is its outdoor spaces. Cycling the lush, shaded Hike-and-Bike Trail along Lady Bird Lake, or exploring the surprisingly unspoilt, jungle-like trails of the Barton Creek Greenbelt, it's easy to forget you're in a major city.

But on sultry summer afternoons, as temperatures hit the high 30s and brains fry, there's only one place to head: Zilker Park's Barton Springs Pool. Fed by an underground spring that keeps the temperature a deliciously cool 20-21˚C year-round, with acres of sloping grass banks on which to dry off and bask, the pool - closely resembling a lake - is more than big enough to absorb the crowds. Gazing smugly with your frog's-eye view towards the industrious skyscrapers of Downtown is one of Austin's greatest sensory pleasures.

Barton Springs, Austin, Texas, USABarton Springs Pool © Edward Aves 

Ed flew to Austin with Norwegian, who operate three flights a week from London Gatwick to Austin-Bergstrom from £315 return, and stayed at the Fairmont in Downtown, East Austin's boutique Hotel Eleven and Lone Star Court, a cool, retro-themed hotel at The Domain in North Austin. See visitaustin.com and traveltexas.com for more. For car rental, contact Hertz, who offer seven days’ travel from £230; consult their Road Trip Planner for advice on exploring Texas and further afield.

Top image: Austin skyline © Roschetzky Photography / Shutterstock


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