Austin rocks. It may not possess the big-ticket attractions of New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco, or the culinary cachet of New Orleans, but what Austin lacks in conventional tourist drawcards it more than makes up for with a famously buzzing music scene. Its reputation as 'Live Music Capital of the World' is as entrenched as local boy Willie Nelson’s wrinkles, and high-profile festivals like Austin City Limits and South by Southwest are just the beginning. With over 250 venues (in a city of just under 900,000 people) and thousands of musicians, it is a challenge deciding where to go and what to see.
Night-time is the right time
Packed with bars, pubs, clubs and revellers, Sixth Street is arguably the city’s best-known musical thoroughfare. Though it is touristy, there is treasure to be found if you know where to look. The 311 Club (311 E Sixth Street) delivers for old-school R&B, while the Parish (theparishaustin.com) is a respected live music haunt.
Besides being the state capital, Austin is home to the prestigious University of Texas, and the epicentre of the university district is Guadalupe Street (known affectionately as 'The Drag'). Like any student stomping ground, it hums with happening venues. Top pick is the legendary Hole in the Wall (holeinthewallaustin.com), established in 1974 and still going strong with its cheeky promise of 'cheap music, fast drinks and live women'.
Even more historic is the Continental Club in the super-lively South Congress (SoCo) strip. Starting life as a ritzy supper club in 1957, this vintage-vibed joint has hosted everyone from Glenn Miller to Link Wray over the decades, and is synonymous with killer roots, rock and country. Local hero Jimmie Vaughan (Fabulous Thunderbirds) and illustrious transplant Ian McLagan (ex-Small Faces, Faces) both play here regularly.
The beat goes on
Forget about sleeping in; Austin’s musical heartbeat never stops. This town lives and breathes music, and the city’s rich heritage is evident everywhere – a fact of life as well as a source of pride.
The Austin Music Memorial (governor.state.tx.us) and the Texas Music Museum (texasmusicmuseum.org) celebrate the key players, like Austinites Janis Joplin and Roosevelt T Williams, who helped make the music community what it is today. Meanwhile, giant Gibson guitars dot the streets, just in case anyone needs reminding what matters most round here.
Of course, the city’s disproportionately large number of record stores comes as no surprise. Hailed as America’s top independent record store, Waterloo Records is a great place to score local releases. Antone’s Record Shop and Friends of Sound (friendsofsound.com) also offer rich pickings.
Any city that honors its fallen musical heroes has to be cool. A pilgrimage to the Stevie Ray Vaughan memorial, overlooking Lady Bird Lake, reveals as much about Austin’s soul as it does about Stevie Ray Vaughan. Considered one of the all-time guitar greats, Jimmie’s younger brother died in a helicopter crash in 1990, but his hometown keeps his spirit alive with this moving tribute.
Keep Austin weird
Renowned for merrily flying the freak flag in the heart of conservative Texas, Austin has long welcomed misfits, outcasts, eccentrics, students and artists from elsewhere, while nurturing its own. The result is a population that lives by the memorable motto 'Keep Austin weird'. Dovetailing seamlessly with the outsider ethos so central to rock ’n’ roll and the blues, this philosophy even has an unofficial poster boy: Roky Erickson. Psychedelic survivor and the perverse genius behind Austin’s mind-bending rock band 13th Floor Elevators in the 1960s, Roky is so beloved, there is even a doll in his likeness.
Keep Austin nice
Obviously, not everybody takes it to Roky Erickson’s extreme. But it is widely acknowledged that Austinites are a special breed. As film director Quentin Tarantino remarked, 'It’s one of those cool towns where everyone is friendly.' He's not exaggerating. People here are consistently warm, welcoming and eager to share their city’s charms – musical and otherwise. From cabbies to waitresses to folks in the street, it is a veritable niceness epidemic!
This article was originally published in Feb 2012. It was updated in Feb 2017.