Austin may be renowned for its live music, but it is also the capital of the Lone Star State and home to the University of Texas, one of the largest state universities in the country. With such a resource-rich pedigree, Austin’s cultural and historical offerings are as plentiful as its guitar-toting musicians.
Texas State Capitol
They say all things are bigger in Texas, and the State Capitol is definitely no exception. The largest in the country, the Texas State Capitol is a landmark that you literally just can’t miss -- its pinkish granite walls and crowning Goddess of Liberty seem to look down on the city from just about everywhere you look. Towering even 15 feet taller than the National Capitol, this building houses some nifty architectural and historical features -- floor mosaics that depict the 6 flags that have flown over Texas, for example, and huge chandeliers in the Senate and House chambers with lightbulbs that spell out Texas. Stand beneath the gold star at the apex of the Capitol’s famed rotunda, look up and spin -- it will make you almost as dizzy as Texas politics. Free tours are offered regularly throughout the week.
Harry Ransom Center
In an unassuming building on the edge of the University of Texas campus you’ll find a trove of historical and literary artifacts grand enough to make even the most stoic of culture lovers gasp. Both the world’s first-known photograph, from 1826, and one of the first Gutenberg Bibles call the Harry Ransom Center home. Not only will you find here some of Austin’s most engaging exhibitions, lectures and film series, but their manuscript collection will make your jaw drop. Within these walls rest early drafts of works by Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe, and the complete archives of modern writers like David Foster Wallace and Norman Mailer. Dash in for a quick view of the famous first photograph, linger in the ample exhibition space or spend hours in the reading room -- the Ransom Center is open to the public and free.
LBJ Library and Museum
There is no way to walk out of the towering walls of the LBJ Library & Museum without a serious twinge of appreciation for the 36th president of the United States and his much-loved wife, Lady Bird Johnson. The family ranch photos, his Tony Lama cowboy boots embossed with the presidential seal, the replicas of his Oval Office and her mod orange 1960s workspace -- these are the details you don’t get in history books. The museum also recalls a pivotal period in American history -- Kennedy’s assassination, Vietnam -- just in case you thought Mad Men was making it all up. As LBJ himself said of his library, “It is all here: the story of our time with the bark off.” Plus, the presidential kitsch in the museum store alone makes a trip here worthwhile. Parts of the museum are currently under renovation and reopen on the centennial of Lady Bird’s birthday, Dec. 22, 2012. Free entry.
French Legation Museum
Grab a baguette and some brie and head over to the French Legation Museum, the oldest building in Austin. In 1836, when Texas seceded from Mexico to become her own Republic, France was one of 2 countries to recognize the fledgling state’s independence (the United States was the other one.) The French government sent a delegate, the dandy Monsieur Jean Pierre Dubois, to preside over French affairs in Texas, and he lived in this house, considered a mansion at the time it was built in 1841. Now, Monsieur Dubois’s home is a museum staffed by friendly docents eager to teach visitors about Texas’s unusual history as its own republic and an ally of the French. The legation’s lush shady lawns, just a half mile from downtown Austin, are a charming place to spread out a blanket for an afternoon repast.
Bob Bullock History Museum
The Bob Bullock History Museum, named for a legendary Texas lawmaker, is an enormous granite repository of Lone Star history and mind-blowing, multi-sensory entertainment. To get a head full of Texas’s rich story, walk through the standard cool-artifacts-behind-glass exhibits that fill 3 floors with everything from Comanche teepees to mock oil wells. The hottest tickets, however, are the Imax theater and the 4-D special effects of Texas Spirit Theater -- here your seat will shake, water will splash, wind will blow. School kids are often lined up well ahead for a seat in these hi- tech theaters, and rightly so -- it’s a history class in which you definitely won’t fall asleep.
Texas Cemetery Tours
Two key historic Austin cemeteries, less than a half-mile from each other, feel like contrary cousins. One, the stately Texas State Cemetery, is well tended by the state, its lawns manicured and green. The other, the charming but under-funded Oakwood Cemetery, is elegantly dilapidated and spooky. Regardless, the history buried within each is rich. The state cemetery is the final resting spot of politicians, Texas rangers, Civil War veterans and even Tom Landry, the former Dallas Cowboys coach. Larger parties can arrange a private tour with the state cemetery, or download the excellent online audio tour for a self-guided experience. With shallower pockets, Oakwood Cemetery offers tours twice a year (their Halloween tour is a hoot) or by pre-arranged visits with the friendly staff of Save Austin Cemeteries. Even without a tour, Oakwood is a shady, pleasant spot -- take a picnic and see if you can find the grave of Susanna Dickinson, one of only 2 survivors of the Alamo.
UT Campus Art Tour
Put on your walking shoes or hop on a bike to go on your own art scavenger hunt with the UT Landmark Public Art project. With a map and audio tour available from the website, you can see works by the likes of French-American artist and sculptor Louise Bourgeois either out in the open air or inside different campus buildings. The latest addition to Landmark’s installations, however, you can only see at night: electronic media artist Ben Rubin’s monumental projection onto the southern facade of the UT communications building is a moving stream of news-related words -- in homage to newscaster great Walter Cronkite. While on campus, take a moment to consider the UT tower, the infamous site of Charles Whitman’s 1966 sniper attack.