Notes from a brief stay in Austin, TX

2023-11-21  Travel and Leisure,   Tech

Through a stroke of good fortune I was recently invited to spend a few days in Austin, Texas, and having never been to the United States I jumped at the chance. The city wasn’t on my to-visit list and I had minimal prior knowledge about the local area, so I had little idea of what to expect from my visit to the Lone Star State.

Dots and lines

One of the first things I noted on arriving in the US is how spread out everything is. Each shop and restaurant is on its own large plot, like in a city builder game, and because everybody drives everywhere you can’t be sure if your journey is actually walkable even if your destination is ten minutes away as the crow flies.

Along the sides of the mammoth roads, which are full of the kind of vehicles you have to climb up into, are an abundance of billboards - most commonly for food, locally brewed beers, and lawyers. I always thought the ubiquity of Better Call Saul-style adverts was a media exaggeration, but they really do line the highways.

Until you’re there, it’s hard to appreciate how little consideration seems to be given to public transport in some US cities. I saw some buses and a tram, but the car is king. Even though the eight-lane highways are frequently congested, this means Uber is your primary means of getting around as a visitor, which rapidly spirals in cost - in one day alone I spent more than $55 zipping between landmarks.

Cautious optimism

A benefit of so many Uber trips is that I could speak to a variety of locals, who were in equal measure excited about the tech boom and cautious about the preservation of what in their view makes Austin unique. Not a journey passed without the driver discussing AI, Elon Musk, and the Cybertruck. This mostly took a positive tone - or in one case absolute awe when trying to describe the futuristic local Tesla factory.

Perhaps these topics were self-selecting due to my easy identification as a visiting foreigner in tech, but they were still discussed enthusiastically. Everyone also mused on how much the city has grown and changed in recent years, and a few mentioned the ongoing campaign to ensure the area’s cultural hallmarks aren’t lost in the ongoing transformation (under the tagline “keep Austin weird”).

The sample size I amassed isn’t anywhere near enough to generalise confidently, but I’d sum up the Texas residents I did speak to as friendly and - perhaps more importantly - optimistic. It was refreshing that even those who brought up concerns about elements of the current situation were still positive, rather than envious or bitter, about technological innovation and the people who make it happen.

Exploring downtown

When I escaped the office to head downtown, I took a car to the Texas State Capitol - an Italian Renaissance-inspired building with a red granite exterior which is taller than even the US Capitol. While the structure itself is impressive, I enjoyed exploring the grounds, where amongst other things there was a miniature Statue of Liberty standing on a plinth and a large tablet inscribed with the Ten Commandments.

The streets to the south are a bustling area full of eateries, bars, and venues for comedy and music. I was around at the wrong time of day for most of this, but it was a pleasant enough walk and there were some beautiful murals dotted around. It’s clear there’s a developing homeless problem, but as of yet it’s nothing compared to the scenes from San Francisco that are frequently posted online.

Yet further south is the Colorado River, around which there are relaxed, leafy trails full of joggers and cyclists. The path passes under South Congress Bridge, which is famous for housing around a million bats in the crevices of its architecture. I couldn’t see them in the daytime, but it was a slightly surreal experience to suddenly realise where I was as I heard their loud collective chirping above me.

I don’t think there are many more landmarks to see if I return, but it feels like an evening downtown is a key part of the Austin experience that I missed out on. I’ll try to find an opportunity for that next time - I’d really like to go back, stay in town a little longer, and create more downtime to chat, relax, and soak up the optimistic vibe.

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