Sampling Austin's History
One of the best ways to become steeped in Austin's fascinating history is to spend 90 minutes taking a free walking tour of the city's downtown area. Offered by the Austin Visitors and Convention Bureau, the three different daily tours provide a look into the lives of the town's early pioneers by visiting such places as the M.M. Long Livery Stable, which later became the site of Austin's opera house in 1871. Because of the undeniable odor of manure, the opera was moved to a less pungent location within a short time. Stops include the lavishly restored Paramount Theater, an old vaudeville house where the Marx Brothers and Will Rogers starred. The 90-minute tours start at the south steps of the state Capitol, at the north end of Congress Avenue. A tour of Congress Avenue and East 6th Street starts at 9 a.m. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday. The Bremond Block Tour is offered at 11 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday. The Capitol Grounds tour is available Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 9 a.m.
Other tour possibilities include a look at the Governor's Mansion, at 1010 Colorado Street. Free tours of this ante-bellum home are offered Monday through Friday from 10 to 11:40 p.m., with new tours beginning every twenty minutes. Separate tours of the Capitol Complex (East 11th and Brazos) are available Tuesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and weekends from noon to 5 p.m. This is not the present Capitol, but is the oldest government building in Texas, dating back to 1857. The building functions as a visitor center and Texas History Museum. For information, call (512) 305-8400.
Tours of the State Capitol Building (11th and Congress) are offered Monday-Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., on Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Sundays from 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. Admission is free
Brochures are available for self-guided tours of the Texas State Cemetery, as well as Hyde Park, the Bremond Block, and the Congress/E. 6th Avenue area. Pick up the brochures at the city information center, or call (512) 478-0098 for more information.
Bats Under the Bridge
Every year, in late March, more than a million Mexican free-tailed bats arrive to nest under the Congress Avenue Bridge. Most of the bats are females, returning to Austin to give birth and raise their pups (one pup for each female). The bats came after the bridge was rebuilt in 1980, creating new expansion joints below the bridge deck. These opening proved to be perfect for bats to hang in and to raise their young in a protected environment. At dusk, the adult bats leave the bridge to fly in great numbers across the hill country, eating millions of insects each night. Educational kiosks are located on the north and south banks of the river, providing bat facts and places from which to see the daily flights. Several nearby restaurants offer good viewing points.
Before 1900, several American cities erected light towers to simulate moonlight. Starting in 1894, Austin's moonlight towers were erected to light the darker, unpaved areas of the city. 31 towers were put up during the next few years. At the top of the towers were carbon arc lamps, replaced in 1923 with incandescent bulbs. While other cities removed their towers, 17 of Austin's remained and they have been refurbished and each has been refitted with six mercury vapor lamps, casting as much light as 12,600 candles and lighting an area of four square blocks. The towers are made of cast and wrought iron, and provide a unique night-time experience. During Christmas season, the tower in Zilker Park is used as a Christmas Tree, with a huge star at the top and thousands of lights for decoration.
Town Lake, the widening of the Colorado River through the city, provides a great opportunity to indulge in water activity, including boating, canoeing, kayaking, and swimming. The north shore of the river is a linear park, with a walking trail and day-use parks spotted along the shoreline. Similarly, the south bank of the river has several parks, linked to the north side by bridges and trails. The city boasts 18 miles of paved trails, mostly along the river but also along the creeks, plus 14 miles of unpaved trails through natural areas. These trails are open to the public between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m. A particular favorite is the 7.5-mile trail leads beside Barton Creek, from the river past the Barton Springs Pool, and through the riparian habitat into the hills. The Town Lake Loop Trail features 10-miles of trailways on both sides of the river. For a shorter walk, take the Walker Creek Walkway, not quite a mile along the creek, and a quarter-mile of nature trail in the Waterloo Park area (15th Street south to 10th Street. The city has done a wonderful job in creating these greenbelt areas in the midst of the built-up urban area.
At Barton Springs, water gushes to the surface from the Edwards Aquifer at a constant 68 degrees. A thousand-foot pool has been created and it has become Austin's favorite swimming hole. The pool is open year-round, with admission charged from mid-March through October. The pool is within Zilker Park, one of the moonlight tower locations, and a multipurpose recreational area with a botanical garden, including rose and oriental sections, canoe rentals, a nine-hole disc (Frisbee) golf course, and the Hillside Theater offering sumemr musicals, movies and concerts. The Eagle Train is a miniture railroad offering kids rides around the park. The train operates daily from 10 a.m. to dusk, year-round.
The Lone Star Riverboat provides excursions on Town Lake, with a focus on the city's colorful river history. The trip takes about 90 minutes, and it's a good idea to reserve. The riverboat is docked under the S. 1st St. Bridge on the south shore of Town Lake. the boat offers public sightseeing and sunset bat watching cruises Mar-Oct. The sightseeing cruise runs Saturdays and Sundays at 3:00 p.m., for 90 minutes The cost is $9 The sunset cruise has a varied schedule and is 1 hour long. The fee is $8 per person. Call 512-327-1388. More information is on the Lone Star Riverboat website.
LBJ Presidential Library and Museum
Located on the Campus of the University of Texas, the striking library building houses Lyndon Baines Johnson's papers and other memorabilia, at 2313 Red River, one block west of Interstate 35. This is the largest of the nation's presidential libraries, providing a close look at President Johnson's term in the White House, and the Great Society programs. Displays include a Vietnam War exhibit, and gifts to the President from many heads of state. The library is open daily, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free, (512) 482-5236.
National Wildflower Research Center
Founded in 1982 by Lady Bird Johnson, this marvelous facility is now located on 42 acres in southwest Austin. With striking architecture and botanical features, the center has more than two acres of formally landscaped gardens and courtyards displaying Texas' native wildflowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees. The building contains a Visitors Gallery with a museum of wildflowers, a children's section, and North America's largest rooftop water-collection system, including a 45-foot stone tower. The complex uses no water piped from outside to irrigate the gardens.
Informal garden areas include a butterfly garden, Meditation Garden, and Children's Garden. Two shade pavilions run the entire length of the demonstration gardens. The complex (costing $10 million to construct) included an auditorium, a video viewing room, and the Wildflower Cafe. Picnic areas are located near the structure. The buildings and gardens are wheelchair-accessible. For information, call (512) 292-4200. The Veloway, a specially designed cycling area is located near the Wildflower Research Center.
The Hill Country Flyer, operated by the Austin and Texas Central Railroad, runs two excursions through the hill country near Austin. The route was built in 1881, running freight and passenger services, primarily to tap the natural resources of the region. The Flyer leaves the northwest side of Austin through 33 miles of fine scenery, including a steep drop through Short Creek Canyon, then crossing the San Gabriel River. In the spring, wildflowers are in abundant display. The train stops on a high, rocky ridge and descends to the Hamilton Creek Valley and the historic town of Burnet. The train stops here for lunch, with enough time for a stroll through the town and beside the creek. The Flyer runs every Saturday and Sunday leaving Cedar Park at 10 a.m., arriving at Burnet at 12:30 p.m., leaving Burnet at 3:00 p.m. and returning to Austin at 5:30 p.m. The air conditioned cars are parlor/sleeper cars from the 1950s with lounge or compartment seating available.
The second run is the Twilight Flyer, leaving Cedar Park on selected Saturdays at 7 p.m. This is a two-hour excursion with complimentary hors d'oeuvres plus beer, wine, and soft drinks. For reservations and costs, call (512) 477-8468.
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