I have hoofed the long walk across the Congress Avenue bridge countless times. I work at its southern edge, after all.
Every time I make that 945-foot trek to the other side, I can’t help but admire the Austin skyline ahead of it and the wide blue expanse of Lady Bird Lake below — and wonder, always, how it is that kayakers are out there no matter that it’s 2 p.m. on a Wednesday.
But I fell under the mesmerizing spell of the bridge and the lake and the skyline in a whole new way last month when 80 of the relatives on my mom’s side gathered here for our big family reunion — a tradition I’ve come to count on.
The many descendants of Maria de Jesus Torres Martinez, born in 1854 in Mexico, have been getting together every other year since 1986 at one of the cities in our home states. At these reunions, we’re not just catching up with each other and bonding anew; we’ve also discovered they serve as fun explorations of each of the cities we’ve visited, from Denver to San Diego to Albuquerque.
This year, for the first time, we met in Austin. Long before they all arrived last month, I had been feeling a certain sense of responsibility about showing off all the best parts of my beloved city alongside the other Austinites in the family. But, I found as the weekend progressed far too quickly, that the out-of-towners were actually the ones teaching me a thing or two about this place. During my four days as a tourist in my own city, I discovered — or, in some cases, rediscovered — nine things about this town:
Home Slice still makes delicious pizza. Well, duh, you might be thinking. But after swearing by Via 313’s thick square pies for so long, I’d forgotten how very worth it the lines at the South Congress pizzeria can be. One bite of the firm crust of one of their New York-style slices — sausage with garlic, on special that day — brought me back to my senses. Go for a weekday lunch, as we did, and the crowds might not be quite so bad.
The Driskill Bar is a treasure, even when it’s not South by Southwest. One of my favorite people-watching posts during SXSW, this upstairs bar, like the rest of the historic Driskill Hotel, still looks like the relic to old Texas charm that it is. Steal in for a drink — many of which have Austin-centric names like the Lady Bird or the Bluebonnet — when you’re needing a refuge from the Sixth Street madness. The bartenders will shake you up a strong one.
Don’t overlook the unlikely places when making a beer run. Some of the most nondescript gas stations in this town have some of the best beer selections, from canned local staples to hard-to-find bombers. East 1st Grocery, on East Cesar Chavez, is one such place. Just keep in mind that if you’re looking to impress your out-of-town relatives with good Texas beers, reserve plenty of time to make your choice because you’ll have a lot to choose from.
Lake Austin is best enjoyed by jet ski. Emma Long Metropolitan Park has plenty of space on the shores of Lake Austin for an 80-person picnic. The main part of the park, which is carved around an oak and juniper forest, offers a couple of volleyball courts, a well-equipped boat dock and several swimming areas, to boot. Rent a couple of jet skis for your day trip to this summer spot, though. They offer a thrilling glimpse of the lake, even if your aunt is screaming in your ear behind you.
Sitting poolside at the Radisson Hotel makes for a relaxing afternoon. The W Hotel has turned its luxurious rectangular pool into a veritable summer hangout spot, but the smaller infinity pool and the surrounding lounge area at the Radisson downtown can make for a relaxing day, too. A handful of lounge chairs are stationed in the shallows for tanning or reading time. Or you can sit at one of the outdoor tables just beyond the new Dine restaurant, now helmed by top Austin chef David Garrido, and watch your grandma and her sisters play a rousing game of cards, as I did.
The LBJ Library is far more than just a library. Our Lozano family reunion only has about four scheduled events, giving us lots of extra time to explore the city we’re in. And one of the top must-visit places this year was the LBJ Library, which I’ll admit surprised me. The Beatles exhibit (on display through Jan. 10), which showcases more than 400 pieces of memorabilia, records, photographs and other items from the 1960s Beatlemania days, was a particular highlight. Just show up before 3 p.m. on weekends — it’s a popular attraction for Austinites as well.
HandleBar on East Fifth offers a little bit of everything. Where do you take half of your large extended family when they’re looking for a night on the town? Some want to dance to good music. Others just want to hang out and have good conversation. Still others are looking to try tasty beers. Not to worry — HandleBar has it all: a large tap wall of craft beer, a rooftop full of games and the space to dance, and some quieter corners to talk, too.
The shops on Second Street are full of neat Austin treasures. The Second Street District just so happened to be a few blocks from our hotel, and it’s not far from many of the other downtown hotels, either. Some of us went window-shopping, which is best to do when the sun hasn’t quite reached its zenith in the sky. Many of the quirky, trendy shops along the street were tempting enough to step inside. Austin Rocks, in particular, was a gem of a find and the place to pick up memorabilia with a live-music focus.
The bats really are a magical sight. I’ve camped out on the Congress Avenue bridge at dusk to await the flutter and flight of the hundreds of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats that seek refuge underneath the bridge each summer; but I’d never before watched their nightly awakening from a boat. Lone Star Riverboats offers a one-hour tour from March to October that won’t just get you a glimpse of these bats from the water. You’ll also find yourself hitching a breath at the sight of Austin in the twilight hour. That’s an exhilarating experience all by itself.