Deep in the Heart of Texas

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    Austin
    By Amber ParcherIt’s an island of cool, refreshing lakes and rolling green hills in a sea of dry Texas flatlands; the ultimate weekend trip. Spend some time in this city and fall in love with it. But, with too much to do and see, here’s a narrowed-down list of the must-do’s in the state’s capital.

    Places to see

    Austin is the capital of Texas, so the entire city is fittingly centered around the majestic domed building where Congress Avenue dead ends. Living up to the Texas motto that everything’s bigger here, the Texas State Capitol is taller than the U.S. Capitol. Take a free day tour by calling the Visitors Center at (512) 385-8400.

    But, if no school means no history lesson, bathe in something less touristy at Austin’s three-acre long natural spring fed pool. Barton Springs is a refreshing 68 degrees year-round and a favorite local watering hole. The summer staple attracts people from all walks of life, from hippies to topless sunbathers (yes, it is legal to forego the bikini top here). This jewel of Austin, nestled in Zilker Park at 2101 Barton Springs Road, is well worth the $3 price of admission.

    After soaking in the blazing sun and frigid water at Barton Springs, meander down to the Congress Avenue Bridge around sunset for an unforgettable sight. (The squeamish may want to stop reading here.) Each evening from about April to November, 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats soar up from under the bridge and blanket the sky in search of food. These bats make up the largest urban bat colony in North America. Summer is prime bat-viewing time as they’re most active on sweltering August nights. On top of the bridge and on the banks of Town Lake are the best viewing points for this beautifully unusual attraction.

    Spread out from downtown slightly north to Austin’s hill country. Those that say Texas is flat haven’t seen Mount Bonnell – this massive limestone formation towers 200 feet over the city. Hike up the steep stairs with for a rewarding view of the Austin skyline or look directly down at Lake Austin and its surrounding mansions. It’s a romantic, breathtaking view located at 3900 Mount Bonnell Road.

    Shopping

    This hippie town is also chic, so take advantage of it with the blocks of eclectic yet stylish vintage stores in downtown Austin. On the Drag, otherwise known as the four blocks of Guadalupe Street, from Martin Luther King Boulevard to 23rd Street, vintage rocks at clothing and jewelry stores like Blue Velvet or Cream. While the price tags usually reflect the stores’ coolness factor, a few minutes spent digging around the sales bin is bound to bring up something useful under $15.

    But eccentricity is at its best at a place the locals like to call SoCo. SoCo, or South Congress Avenue, is another stretch of restaurants, music venues, hotels, coffee houses and shops. Check out the black door and sequined sign on the corner of South Congress Avenue and Academy for the colorfully fashionable Creatures Boutique, where shoes (vegan-friendly without leather) are the focus. Nestled amongst all the women’s clothing boutiques at 1512 S. Congress Ave. is the quirky antique shop Uncommon Objects, with an array of home furnishings, clothing and jewelry to add that weird factor to any home or style.

    Food junkies can die happy on the corner of Fifth Street and Lamar Boulevard at the world’s largest Whole Foods Market (Austin is the company’s headquarters). This 80,000-square-foot giant of a supermarket is an experience on its own. Walk for free through aisles and aisles of unique organic food, the chilly beer ally, the meat butchers with slabs of pork and beef slung menacingly on oversized metal hooks, the fish market where no live lobsters are kept because locals complained their captivity was inhumane, and onto a 3-foot high flowing chocolate fountain. Food samples and sit-down dining of various cultures are dispersed throughout the market. After getting lost in the store for hours, enjoy a spicy Pad Thai from the Asian cuisine on the roof of the whole building next to an open music venue that doubles as an ice skating rink in the winter.

    Restaurants

    Austin sticks to its Texas roots with local barbecue joints such as Stubb’s, with $10 platters of beef brisket, pork loin or ribs. After stuffing down the entire cow, nurse a cold beer while listening to daily live music there. Like most food joints in Austin, Stubb’s doubles as a music venue, boasting moderately big names such as Los Lonely Boys, Kings of Leon and the Burden Brothers, as well as lesser known artists of all genres. Visit stubbsaustin.com for music listings.

    The other Texas cuisine, Tex-Mex, is also abundant in Austin. Polvo’s on South First Street serves up potent margaritas (by the pitcher!) and interior Mexican entrees that taste significantly less-commercialized and processed than chain restaurants of the same genre.

    For the late-night partier who wants to chow down on everything after spending all his or her money on beer, Magnolia Cafe is a goldmine. Unlike the other 24-hour local Austin restaurant Kerbey Lane, Magnolia Cafe offers more than just breakfast with tacos, pasta, burgers, enchiladas and rich chocolate desserts lining its menu, and all at a fair price. Most entrees are under $8.00.

    Austinites like their coffee, and they like to sit and drink it in comfortable, smooth atmospheres. That explains the multitude of hole-in-the-wall coffee shops, each with its own personality. The inconspicuous Spider House, hidden behind 29th Street and Guadalupe Street, unfolds into a caf‚ and bar outside with rickety tables and chairs, a modest stage for the occasional acoustic guitar player, and everything from plastic skulls to blinking Christmas lights hanging in the trees above the patrons. Spider House is open until 2 a.m. daily.

    More

    There are just too many great places to experience in a few days, so check out austintexas.org to plan the next trip.

    San Antonio
    By Asher Fogle

    The second-largest city in the state of Texas is four hours south on I-35: San Antonio. With its rich history and exciting present, the city and surrounding area can provide more than enough adventure for one trip. To help sort through the countless places and activities, we’ve compiled a list of our favorite things to do for around $15 or less.

    Places to See

    No trip would be complete without visiting the Alamo, San Antonio’s most recognizable attraction. Inside the old mission’s walls, enjoy the pretty landscape in the heart of the city and take a moment to read about Texan independence in the Long Barracks Museum. Admission is free, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and opens at 10:30 Sunday. 300 Alamo Plaza, (210) 225-1391, thealamo.org.

    During the Depression, the River Walk was built to combat flooding through the heart of Downtown and beautify the area. Since that time, dozens of shops and restaurants have opened their doors on the level of the water. Strings of brightly colored lights hang from the branches of that reach over cobblestone paths. Music from mariachi bands drifts over the heads of people as they walk along, careful not to fall in. Admission is free, dinner at one of the restaurants is not. 110 Broadway, Suite 440, (210) 227-4262, thesanantonioriverwalk.com.
    Three wacky attractions sit across the street from the Alamo. Check out 16 galleries of unbelievable exhibits, artifacts and videos in the Guinness World Records Museum. Get lost in the elaborate special effects of Ripley’s Haunted Adventure. Finally, ride through the life and times of Davy Crockett on the Tall Tales Ride. Admission is $15.99, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and open until 12 p.m. Friday and Saturday. 329 Alamo Plaza, (210) 226-2828, haunted-guinness-crockett.com.

    Channel your inner John Wayne at Enchanted Springs Ranch, in Boerne, 40 minutes northwest of San Antonio. The replica Old West town is in the middle of a working cattle ranch in the Hill Country. You can stay at one of the rustic guest cottages after a day of touring the area, used for a variety of western films and commercials. Admission is $10,
    From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. 42 Hwy 46 West, Boerne, (830) 249-8222, enchantedspringsranch.com.

    Shopping

    On the South side of the San Antonio River, La Villita used to be an eclectic residential area. Now the historic district is packed with unique shops, restaurants and art galleries. Stained glass, jewelry, clothes and pottery intermingle with the 10 showrooms. 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. 418 Villita #900, (210) 207-8612. lavillita.com.

    From the level of the river, you can walk straight into the entrance of the Rivercenter, a shopping mall in the middle of downtown. In addition to mall clothing staples such as Gap and Forever 21, the center offers drugstores, music shops and Texas souvenirs. 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. 849 E. Commerce, (210) 225-0000, shoprivercenter.com

    Jump on the trolley to Market Square. El Mercado is the largest Mexican marketplace outside of Mexico. Find great bargains on clothing, home items, jewelry and countless other imports at El Mercado, the Farmer’s Market and on Produce Row. Grab a meal at one of the authentic Mexican restaurants in the area. The square comes alive throughout the year during sHispanic festivals, complete with food, mariachi music and dancing. Free Admission. 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. 514 W. Commerce, (210) 207-8600, marketsquaresa.com.

    The Shops at La Cantera offer an upscale alternative off of Anderson Loop 1604 West. Store such as Anthropologie, Apple, Neiman Marcus, Tiffany & Co. and Burberry are located in this open-air mall. 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. 15900 La Cantera Parkway, 210.582.6255, theshopsatlacantera.com.

    Restaurants

    With its rich heritage, San Antonio boasts a diverse spectrum of cuisine options. Here are some of our favorite Mexican restaurants, though:

    Casa Rio was the first business to open on the River Walk. Diners can sit in indoor tables or on the stones next to the water while they enjoy their meals. The food is moderately priced, and the atmosphere and location are excellent. 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. 430 E. Commerce St., (210) 225-6718, casa-rio.com.

    La Margarita Mexican Restaurant and Oyster Bar in the heart of Market Square offers sizzling fajitas and delicious margaritas. Average meals range from $8 to $25. 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, and open until 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. 120 Produce Row, (210) 227-7140, lamargarita.com.

    If you’re hungry late at night, Mi Tierra Caf‚ is open 24 hours on Produce Row in the Market, a couple blocks from the Riverwalk. They serve breakfast all day and have a bakery with traditional Mexican pastries and candies. Margaritas come in grande, jumbo and one-liter sizes. Meals range from $6 to $15. Open 24 hours a day. 218 Produce Row, (210) 225-1262, mitierracafe.com.