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April 18, 2014

An Austinite’s Guide to #SAA2014: Places to go and family fun

Filed under: archaeology — Tags: , , , , , — John @ 11:19 am

With the Easter weekend upon us, I figured it would be a good time to post about some of things to see around Austin, especially if you’re bringing your family with you to the meetings. After this, we’ll delve more into the seedy world of bars, bar food, and live music.

Some of these places are easily reached by public transit (capmetro.org) or a (relatively) cheap cab ride, while others will require a car. We’ll start with those closest to downtown Austin, and work our way further afield. Some will require a swim suit, others might call for comfortable walking shoes or hiking boots.

One of the major attractions downtown, and Austin in general, is the Texas State Capitol building. I’m ashamed to admit I have yet to do a tour of the building itself! In addition to the Capitol building itself, the ground are beautiful and there are other government buildings in the area to see and maybe visit, including the Capitol Visitor’s Center, The Governor’s Mansion (tours Tue-Thurs only, from 10am to noon), and the Lorenzo de Zavala State Archives Building (which is gorgeous).

Several blocks to the north is the Bullock Texas State History Museum. I won’t go into museum criticism here, other than to say that there’s not much about Texas prehistory here. Texans are proud of their state and their history, and it shows in this museum. And while the full exhibit isn’t ready, you can see hundreds of objects recovered from the shipwreck of The Labelle, one of LaSalle’s ship. Plan on at least 3 hours here. I would also recommend buying tickets for at least one of the presentations at the Texas Spirit Theater, especially if you have kids with you. It’s a little cheesy, but fun and informative. There is also an Imax theatre at the museum.

East of the highway, off of 8th Street, is the French Legation Museum, the oldest standing home in Austin. There are tours (40 minutes long), and the grounds are very nice (a great picnic spot, along with the Capitol grounds).

There are a number of museums and places to visit at the University of Texas Campus (Hook ’em! \m/ ), and the campus is an excellent place to just walk around, look at sculptures and statues, and people watch. The South Lawn features a great view of the UT Tower and the State Capitol and is a lovely place to sit.

The Blanton Museum of Art is the closest Austin has come to a world class museum, and they are currently featuring an exhibit on Arts of the Ancient Andes (which I would love to hear about from my Trafficking Antiquities friends) curated (I’m almost positive) by one of my former classmates, Dr. Kimberly Jones. There will be a presentation by archaeologist Dr. Steve Bourget the afternoon of April 26th.

The Harry Ransom Center is an amazing museum and archive devoted to the arts and humanities, and UT has received the archives of a number of prominent writers and artists (some of whom are pictured on the windows). Among the permanent exhibits are a Gutenberg bible and the world’s first photograph. This is one of my favorite places to visit!

The Texas Memorial Museum seems to still be open, and is now part of the Texas Natural Science Center, which I assume means they’ve taken out all the archaeology and native Texan stuff they used to have. Side note: I had a work study here back in 1994, they had a storeroom full of amazing things. Anyway, this musuem is now focused on geology, wildlife, and dinosaurs, which are all cool things that kids love.

Finally, The LBJ Presidential Library, another one of my favorite places to take people. You learn a lot about LBJ’s life, which provides a fascinating window into early and mid-20th century Texas life (he grew up poor in a tiny town in the Texas Hill Country) as well as US history in the mid-twentieth century.

One last (indoor) place to take the family, at the new Mueller development on the NE edge of the central city, is The Thinkery. Yeah, it’s a bit of a Simpsons-esque name for what was once the Austin Children’s Museum, but my friends with kids LOVE this place. A great hand-on spot for children of all ages.

After all that fun indoors, I hope you save some time and energy to enjoy the amazing outdoor places in and around Austin!

Zilker Park and the Barton Springs pool are a must-visit, especially for families. The weather during the SAAs looks to be in the mid-to-high 80s, perfect for swimming. Barton Springs is ~70 degrees year round, which is a little cool for me but likely warm for Yankees and those who swim in the Pacific! The Zilker Zephyr is a fun train ride that takes you on a small tour of part of the park. There is also the Austin Nature and Science Center, the Zilker Botanical Gardens, and the Umlauf Sculpture Gardens. Outdoor enthusaists can rent canoes or kayaks, or hike the trails (click here for a link to all public trails in Austin).

Another swimming hole, and one that is more toddler-friendly, is Deep Eddy Pool, just west of MoPac and the downtown area. In addition to the historic pool there’s a play area and a hike-and-bike trail. The pool is fed from a well and not chlorinated, with water temperatures between 65-75 degrees. And, to cool down or relax after, pop in to Deep Eddy Cabaret (just north of the park) for a beer (cash only).

A little farther afield, but still within Austin city limits, is McKinney Falls State Park. This little gem is on the southeast edge of town, and would likely need a car or a cab. There are two small falls here (the Upper and Lower Falls), and some areas for swimming and fishing. The ruins of the McKinney homestead are on the property and can be hiked to, along with another historic structure. Unfortunately, a major flood struck McKinney Falls on Halloween 2013, severely damaging the Smith Vistor’s Center (still closed) and the Smith Rockshelter (which may still be closed), but there are several other trails to hike on.

Northwest of town (definitely needing a car) are Hamilton Pool and Reimer’s Ranch, both former private ranches now operated as parks and preserves by Travis County. Hamilton Pool is a sinkhole/collapsed cave into an underground aquifer, which now serves as a swimming hole. Capacity of the park is capped, and depending on the weather (rains) the pool may be closed due to bacteria from runoff, so call ahead if you plan on going. Note that the water is also very cold right now! Reimer’s Ranch is more for hiking, climbing, and birdwatching. There are also a number of other Travis County parks, click here for a list.

Finally, for those with a car and some time, there are a number of State Parks and Natural Areas within an hour or two of Austin, each offering a unique experience. Click here to see a map. Enchanted Rock is probably the most popular, and might best be visited during the week. This is a massive granite dome, over a billion years old. Great for climbing and hiking. Bastrop State Park is one of the many CCC parks in Texas, and is a remnant pineywoods setting. It was severely damaged by wildfires 3 years ago, but is recovering. Please browse the State Parks homepage to see which might offer what you’re looking for.

OK, that’s easily a full long weekend’s worth of activities for you and yours, combining history, nature, and fun!

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An Austinite’s Guide to #SAA2014: Rainey Street

Filed under: archaeology — Tags: , , , — John @ 7:50 am

So far, I’ve focused on some basic details about Austin, the Texas essential cuisines, and a guide for vegan and veggie eats. This post will be a switch, as it will be about an “entertainment district”, and thus includes food, bars, and other entertainment (music, dancing, etc).

This particular entertainment district is known as Rainey Street, and it is just south of the Convention Center, so convenient for lunch, happy hours, after session drinks, and socializing. I’ll also add that it’s not a place I hang out. Basically, I find it a little expensive and full of yuppies. I also don’t know how it gets a pass on gentrification, considering that it’s a traditional, historic working-class neighborhood that was rezoned as a bar district by the city (read this slightly biased – but in a way I agree with – Wikipedia entry for details).

However, there are several places that have gotten rave reviews from my friends. Futhermore, I would not be doing this guide properly if I ignored one of the closest places to socialize, even better for most SAA attendees with no worries about the horrific parking situation.

By far, the top recommendation is Bangers, which is a place I’ve been meaning to check out (even if it means going to Rainey). As my British and Anglophile readers might have guessed, Bangers is a sausage house and beer garden. The sausages range from traditional to exotic and include veggie options, with a seasonal and rotating menu. There are also many other food options (one friend mentioned the beet and goat cheese, and the creamed corn) including poutine for homesick Canadians. There is also a huge beer garden, which goes well with the fact they have 100+ beers and ciders on tap, plus more in bottles and cans, with a huge selection from Austin and central Texas breweries. It apparently can get crazy over the weekends, but they handle crowds well.

Another place with several votes is Craft Pride, which as might be expected specializes in craft beers. Specifically, they specialize in Texas craft beers, with “54 taps and 2 casks representing over 20 breweries”. They look to have some outdoor space too. Another thing they have is a Via 313 trailer serving Detroit Style cheesy bread pizza starting at 5 pm. I’ve had Via 313 at their other location and while my New York self won’t call it pizza, it’s really really good, and it looks as if they have dairy-free options as well.

One friend mentioned Javelina (great Texas name there), on the south end of the Rainey Street district. Having not been there, it looks to have a decent bar area and outdoor space, a number of Texas beers on tap, some local and some lowbrow (my style) can beers, and some cocktails on the menu that look well suited for warm weather drinking. They also serve food, which they call the best bar food in the Rainey district. For the late-night sweet tooth, there’s a mini-donut trailer across/down the street called Little Lucy’s that my friend also recommends.

Someone else (an architectural historian who works for a CRM firm) mentioned seeing a show at Blackheart, a place she called just OK, saying “Too crowded inside, but the back patio has potential- you can see the skyline behind.” The bar area looks nice, tried to capture something of the historic idea of the district.The concept is a New Orleans brothel theme, and the bar is a whiskey bar, with numerous options. Anyway, if that’s your kind of thing, there you go. They also have live music over the weekends.

One last recommended place may not be for everyone, although they certainly welcome everyone: Chain Drive, Austin’s oldest LGBT nightclub. Not strictly a leather bar, but one of the main clienteles. They have a great patio and backyard spot with a view of the skyline, and dancing Friday and Saturday nights.

After this, no recommendations, but a couple other places that are down there:

G’Raj Mahal Cafe was an extremely popular food trailer that has now moved to a brick-and-mortar spot. They do Indian food, they now serve beer and wine, have a big patio. I went to the trailer once, didn’t want to wait 90+ minutes for food, and split. They have an pretty extensive vegan and vegetarian menu.

Bar 96 is an upscale sports bar with a taco trailer (Bomb Tacos). Clive Bar is, now that Lustre Pearl closed, the quintessential Rainey Street bar, with a wide cocktail selection and craft beers thrown in with low brow cans and bottles. There is some outdoor seating and a fancy indoor bar. Finally, Container Bar is a two-story bar and dance club built from shipping containers (perfectly in character with early 20th century bungalows), that’s only been open for a little over a month. They apparently have a tree-lined courtyard and are contemporary-yet-casual.

So that’s Rainey Street, or what I was able to suss. I apologize if I was overly negative and snarky, please feel free to avail yourselves of other review sites for more details and less bias!

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