The college football game between the universities of Texas and Oklahoma is so heated, teams don’t visit the rival town. Instead, they meet midway between Austin and Norman at Dallas’ Cotton Bowl Stadium during the Texas State Fair. Stands are evenly split between fans in the Longhorns’ burnt orange and those in Sooners crimson.
In the spirit of the Red River Rivalry, we’re pitting the city of Norman against the city of Austin. As destinations go, Austin – with nearly one million residents – has serious star quality, with its legendary scene of music venues, barbecue joints and, of course, SXSW. Norman, a town of 120,000 has ... well ... a bit less. But it’s part of the Oklahoma City metropolis, which – as a whole – can hold its own for a couple of fun days.
Architecture, Attractions & History
Norman appeared overnight during the 1889 Land Run. Its historic heart along Main Street’s wee, renowned downtown is sprinkled with vinyl shops and theaters. The nearby campus is home to Norman’s top attractions, including a surprising French Impressionist collection at the Fred Jones Jr. Art Museum. It’s worth driving 20 miles north to witness Oklahoma City’s moving Symbolic Memorial for the 168 victims of the 1995 Federal Building bombing.
Created to be the capital after a war with Mexico in the 1830s, Austin is sometimes dubbed ‘Bat City’ for its stunning scene when 1.5 million bats head into the night from the Ann W Richards Congress Ave Bridge. You can tour the towering red-granite capitol (it’s America’s biggest – this is Texas after all) and make a day out of visiting Dazed & Confused sites (Matthew McConaughey spelled out ‘L-I-V-I-N’ on the field at the Toney Burger Activity Center).
Score: Norman 1, Austin 0
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Food, Drink & Nightlife
Come face-to-face with football royalty with a stop at Othello’s. Former Sooners head coach Barry Switzer established the ‘Table of Truth’ in the '70s and is a fixture at the Italian eatery. Norman’s best breakfast is the ‘eggaritto’, a hefty egg tortilla filled with southwestern goodness, and found at The Diner on Main Street,
For something a little more interesting, Oklahoma City’s Asian District is home to dozens of authentic Vietnamese restaurants.
Norman’s music scene has launched many indie-rock bands, including the Flaming Lips. Catch a show at downtown Norman’s ‘micro venue’ – the Opolis.
Austin’s food and drink scene is world-class. Take the barbecue: locals debate whose smoked brisket is the best. One great starting point is Franklin Barbecue, run by a James Beard Award-winning chef Aaron Franklin. Tex Mex is big, too. Try the hand-mixed margaritas at Guero’s Taco Bar, as seen in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof.
Austin’s music scene runs along Sixth Street and South Congress Avenue (SoCo) and is highlighted by March’s SXSW and Austin City Limits.
Score: Austin 1, Norman 1
The Great Plains begin in Central Oklahoma, making the Norman area fairly flat and a bit brown. Just east of town, Lake Thunderbird (aka ‘Dirtybird’ for its muddy water) is nice enough to have inspired a new song by local musician Beau Jennings.
A popular swimming hole is below the 77-foot Turner Falls (60 miles south), while the bison-filled meadows and rock-climbing routes at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge (80 miles southwest) give a surprising break from the flatlands.
Central Texas, as you can see even in Austin, is absolutely lovely. Barton Springs Pool is a beloved, natural swimming hole perfect for a summer swim, while Lady Bird Lake offers a 10-mile biking trail. Venture into the rolling Texas Hill Country for its wineries or honky-tonks.
Score: Austin 2, Norman 1
Lodging, Cost & Walkability
Around OU, it’s mostly the usual chain hotels (and none near the walkable downtown). For a little style, head north. Oklahoma City’s Colcord Hotel is a swank spot originally opened in 1910 within walking distance of downtown sites like Chesapeake Energy Arena (where the Thunder play) and eateries in neighboring Bricktown.
With costs about the same for both destinations, downtown Austin wins bonus points for its bike trails and walkable streets. You can be right in the heart of it all, staying at mansion-style hotel like the Driskill, which was built in 1885 by a cattle rancher, or at the downtown Hotel Van Zandt, a locale with its own music venue.
Final: Austin 3, Norman 1