The Saturday City: Austin

The Saturday City: Austin

According to research, the phrase “Keep Austin Weird” was inspired by comments made by Red Wassenich in 2000 while giving a pledge to an Austin radio station. He later began printing bumper stickers and published a book called Keep Austin Weird: A Guide to the Odd Side of Town.

Now the phrase reflects the friendly, artistic, creative and a little offbeat culture that is a haven for varying LGBT, intellectual, naturalist, and environmentalist communities.

Austin, the state capital of Texas, is an island of blue in a sea of red. It’s a liberal city in a very conservative state. In Austin, you’ll find boutique food, bike lanes, alternative bars, hippies, openly gay people, food trucks, art, and culture. It’s a welcoming place where anyone who likes happy people, good food, and great music would find themselves at home.

For 10 days last month, I spent my time in Austin attending the SXSW music, film, and tech festival. This massive event is the outgrowth of what was once a small independent music festival. Now, it’s a corporate megashow. It was my second time at SXSW and my third time in Austin.

While I have mixed feelings on SXSW itself (I love and hate it all at once), what I don’t have mixed feelings about is Austin. I don’t think it’s weird at all. I think the rest of Texas is weird for not being more like Austin.

Which is why I love the city and do my part to keep the place “weird.” If it wasn’t for the fact that you really do need a car to travel around the city, it would be on my “I’d move to this city” list. Some of my favorite activities are:

Cathedral of Junk

One of the real highlights of my entire trip was checking out the Cathedral of Junk. The cathedral was built by Vince Hannemann, who sits around while people hang out with his stuff. The Cathedral of Junk is exactly that — a bunch of junk. There’s towers of TVs, bikes, old refrigerators, tires, hubcaps, and more. I found the place great for families. Talking to some locals, I found out that a lot of people come here with their kids; many were running all over the place and having a merry time playing make-believe. Kids + junk + pretend = an easy afternoon.

Museum of the Weird

This museum located on 6th Street is a typical penny arcade featuring weird oddities like a two-headed chicken, a “fish man,” a mummy, and even a sideshow. It’s one of those “step right up and see some weird shit” kind of places. It’s small, taking only 20 minutes to wander through, but it’s weird, Austin-like, and sort of fun. Admission is $5.

Taste of Joy
This hot sauce shop serves hundreds of different kinds of hot sauces and was the reason behind this video:

If you like hot sauce, come here. They offer free tastings for many of the sauces. If you want to go crazy, try all the sauces on the shelves aptly shaped like a coffin. They are for serious spicy addicts only.

Food Trucks

The food trucks in Austin are second only to those in Portland. You can’t say you ate in Austin if you don’t go food truck hopping around the city — you can get everything from sandwiches to Asian fusion. The South Austin Trailer Park and Eatery on S. 1st Street is really good. Definitely check that out.

Listen to music

Austin is famous for its music scene, and there are many opportunities here to listen to some world-class, independent music. Pretty much every bar in the city showcases music. The two big music festivals in the city are Austin City Limits and SXSW.

Visit Whole Foods

Whole Foods, the nationwide chain, started in Austin and the flagship store is located here in the city. This particular store features a wine bar, smoothie bar, beer locker, roof terrace, giant salad bars, and seemingly endless supplies of vegetables, food, and in-store restaurants. It’s a food heaven, and it might be my happy place, too.

Watch the bats on Congress

From mid-March until November, the Congress Avenue Bridge in downtown Austin is home to 1.5 million flying bats. Visit the waterfront at dusk to watch these beauties head out for their nightly foraging.

Get drunk on 6th Street

Sixth Street is the famous street in Austin that is home to all the bars and restaurants and offers a wild, Mardi Gras–style atmosphere during the weekends. This is a great place to meet people.

Jump into Barton Springs

Barton Springs Pool is the city’s main aquatic treasure. Located in Zilker Park (see below), the natural springs provide a great respite from the summertime heat. If you’re up to it, check out Hippie Hollow on Lake Travis, Austin’s nudist beach.

Zilker Park

Zilker Park is in the heart of south Austin. The park offers many different types of outdoor activities such as hiking, biking, kayaking, jogging, and anything else you can do in a park. Barton Springs (see above) is here as well. And don’t forget to visit the statue park.

There is a lot to do in Austin, from the weird to the mundane. The unique and eclectic nature of the city makes it a great place to grab beer, listen to some music, and people-watch for days straight. You’ll find you can only be bored in this city if you try.

The Saturday City: León

The Saturday City: León

Located in northwest Nicaragua, León is a college town often overlooked by tourists who stay south, near Granada, Ometepe, and the beaches. However, given that the area has so much to do, I expected a lot of tourists but instead found mostly empty hostels and few gringos wandering the streets during my visit.

I’ll tell you: all those absent travelers are missing out.

León, a city filled with history, delicious food, outdoor activities, volcanoes, and nearby beaches, was one of the highlights of my trip to Nicaragua.

The city is named after León, Spain. After Nicaragua was granted independence in the 1800s from Spain, the elites of León and Granada struggled over which city would become the capital (eventually Managua was picked). During the struggles between the Sandinistas and Somozas in the 20th century, the city changed hands many times between the two and was a scene of constant and intense fighting (you can still see bullet marks on some buildings). This lasted all the way through the 1980s (which saw US involvement in the Iran-Contra affair) until peace was finally established.

Now, León is a stable university town with a growing food scene, lots of markets, growing (but not overwhelming) tourism, and more colonial churches and cathedrals per capita than any other place in Nicaragua. I spent four days here hiking, eating, overdosing on churches, and sweltering in the heat.

Here are the highlights of my site:

See the churches

There are a lot of churches in Léon. I spent an entire day visiting these monuments to God and marveling at their varying levels of detail. Even if you’re not a religious person (I’m not), you can probably still appreciate the beauty, architecture, and history of these buildings. My favorites included Catedral de León, Iglesia El Calvario, Iglesia La Recolección, and Iglesia de San Juan Bautista de Subtiava.

Enjoy the beach
A short bus ride from the city, you’ll find beautiful beaches, warm water, and people in the surf. The surf isn’t as enjoyable as in the southern part of the country (I’m told it’s a bit rough here), but if you’re looking to relax and cool off in the dry heat of the region, these beaches check all the right boxes. Playa Poneloya is the most popular beach.

Visit the Museum of the Revolution

This museum in the old mayor’s residence is dedicated to the Sandinistas and their fight against “the man.” It’s only two rooms, but you’ll get your own personal guide who explains the history of the movement (in Spanish or English) and will take you up to the roof for good photos of León. The trips may be short, but it was my favorite activity in the city, as you’re talking to a local and getting a detailed history filled with local perspective and context. The museum tour costs $2 USD. Ask for Fernando; he was a funny and informative guide.

Go volcano boarding down Cerro Negro

Throughout the country I saw people wearing the popular “I went volcano boarding” shirt, and this activity is what draws most backpackers here. After all, who wouldn’t want to slide down an active volcano on a piece of wood? (Not me. I skipped this activity. The hike? Sure. Going down on a plank of wood? No thanks.) Trips leave multiple times per day and last a few hours. Bigfoot Tours and Quetzaltrekkers are the two biggest operators.

Wander the markets

León is a market town, and its famous gigantic market located near the cathedral is hectic, fun, and interesting. You can find everything there: grocers, street food vendors, toys, kitschy souvenirs, and everything in between. Moreover, you’ll find delicious soups, BBQ meat sticks, and other local fare.

Take in the art
There is a big art scene in the city, and a number of galleries are available to enjoy, with Museo de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Gurdián ($2 USD) being the biggest. Housed in two buildings, it features a collection of old religious art as well as modern Nicaraguan artists. It takes a few hours to explore, and both buildings have lovely courtyard gardens to relax in. My favorite painting was El Retiro by Mauricio Gomez Jaramillo.

Hike some volcanoes

One of the main reasons why people come here is to hike the nearby volcanoes, as León is near the country’s volcanic range, many of which are still active. You’ll be able to choose between easy half-day hikes and more intense full 12-hour day hikes. The most popular hikes are: Cerro Negro (volcano boarding), Telica (where you go for sunset hikes — see above photo!), San Cristóbal (the longest and hardest), and Momotombo (second hardest).

Visit “old” León

The ruins of León Viejo date back to the 16th century and are a short trip from León. The site is Nicaragua’s only UNESCO World Heritage listing and is one of the oldest Spanish colonial settlements in the Americas. While this isn’t some lavish ruin site, it’s really the only place to see and learn about the country’s founding colonial past.

Enjoy the burgeoning food scene
León is attracting an increasing number of international tourists and expats and as such has a growing food scene. While you are never in short supply of local gallo pinto, I branched out to eat a lot of Western food (there is only so much rice and beans one can eat). I was pleasantly surprised to find a lot of enjoyable meals.

What I loved about León was its close proximity to so many outdoor markets, cheap food, and decent foodie restaurants. It felt a lot more “local” than the tourist meccas of Granada and Ometepe down south. My visit to León was one of the highlights of my trip to Nicaragua, and I’d highly recommend you make it a point of visiting here too.

The Saturday City: Natchez, Mississippi

The Saturday City: Natchez, Mississippi

As the Southern cotton economy expanded on the back of slave labor in the early 1800s, towns designed to transport the cotton emerged on the Mississippi River: New Orleans, Memphis, Vicksburg, and Natchez.

Located high on the bluffs of the Mississippi River, Natchez, Mississippi, was established by French colonists in 1716. The defensible strategic location ensured that it would become a pivotal center for trade.

In the middle of the 19th century, the city attracted Southern planters, who built mansions to show off their vast wealth from the cotton and sugar cane trade. Natchez was where planters came to escape the heat and isolation of the plantations. It was the Hamptons of the South — the place where the rich relaxed and socialized.

I never heard of Natchez until a few weeks before I visited. While visiting Nashville, I met some local Southern boys at a bar. Fascinated by my road trip plans, they gave me all the information they could on their home state of Mississippi. I mentioned my desire to see old Southern antebellum homes.

“That’s Natchez. If you want antebellum homes, Natchez is the place to be,” the three guys said in unison.

They were right.

Natchez was highlight of my time in the American South. As a former history teacher who specialized in pre–Civil War America, I take a significant interest in this part of the country. I’m fascinated by the hypocrisy and duality of pre–Civil War Southern society.

On the one hand, it was genteel, polite, and formal. On the other, it was brutally racist. Southern egalitarian views of chivalry, equality, and honor extended only to a small segment of society, and they found no hypocrisy in owning slaves. (Note: Reams of thesis papers and books have delved into Southern culture. If you’re looking to learn more, check out Ken Burns’s The Civil War and The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South.)

Natchez remains a beautiful city. Secession sentiment never ran high here, and the city quickly surrendered to the Union Army in 1862. None of the destruction that took place in other cities occurred here, leaving the city intact.

Today, Natchez trades in tourism instead of cotton. Visitors to the historic homes and surrounding national park (Natchez Traces) and gambling on the riverboats sustain this tiny town.

But the old homes are the biggest draw.

By today’s standards, they are tiny suburban homes. You wouldn’t stop and think “Wow, that is a mansion!” But for the period, these homes were an ornate testament to the planters’ great wealth, with high ceilings, intricate wallpaper designs, and multiple stories, and they were filled with fine china, carpets, and furniture.

You can visit 10 of the larger unoccupied homes (one for $12 or three for $30). Of the five I saw, I was big fan of Longwood (the best grounds and most unique home), Rosalie (the most beautiful interior), and Stanton Hall (the prettiest grounds). During the Natchez Pilgrimage in the spring, 24 additional private historical homes open up to the public. The costumed guides — some descendants of the original owners — explain the history of the home, their family, and the region. It’s the city’s biggest annual event.

There are also a number of self-guided walking tours that wind through the city. Along the way, historic markers give you the history of the buildings, neighborhoods, and the residents who called them home.

There is King’s Tavern, built in 1769, the oldest bar in the city (and, according to legend, the most haunted). Walking toward the riverboat casino, you’ll come across what is left of Natchez Under the Hill. This one-time bustling dock area of the city was where dockworkers, prostitutes, and drunkards socialized. It was the city’s underbelly during the boom times. Now a sanitized street of restaurants and bars, it does still contain the oldest bar on the Mississippi River, Under the Hill Saloon.

Natchez is beautiful and elegant. I loved strolling around the streets, marveling at the beautiful homes, stopping at King’s Tavern for wine while avoiding ghosts, and sitting in the park as the sun set over the Mississippi.

The downside to Natchez is that it’s expensive. There are no hostels, and I couldn’t find any Couchsurfing hosts, only hotels and B&Bs. Though you can stay in one of the antebellum homes, they aren’t cheap, costing about $120-160 per night (including breakfast).

The upside? While accommodation is expensive, food and drinks are relatively cheap, with a number of sandwich and BBQ joints in the city offering meals for under $10.

Natchez can be seen in a weekend. It may not be a budget travel destination, but if you are looking to learn about American history, see beautiful homes, and visit a destination off the beaten path for most travelers (visitors here tend to be from the surrounding region), visit Natchez.