Distinctly different from other Texas cities, cool Austin has a quirky and creative vibe underpinning its celebrated live-music and street-food scenes. And while big brothers Dallas and Houston focus squarely on business travellers (and their expense accounts), the Lone Star capital offers a Stetson-size array of budget options – especially attractive for north-of-the-border visitors and our par-flirting dollar.
In typical cheapskate mode, I hit the streets with $30 (U.S.), aiming for a full day of food, attractions and maybe some nighttime entertainment for the lowest possible price. By driving around with a local friend, I got the inside scoop (and saved on transport costs; a one-day car rental typically costs about $40 here) and became an honorary thrifty Austinite, hunting down the city's best deals and freebies.
STOP 1: TORCHY'S TACOS
131 South First St. Cost: $2
Austin's street-food scene has exploded in recent years with hundreds of taste-tripping trailers now dotted around the city. All offer outdoor seating, while many are open all day and have handy BYOB policies. Expect to pay up to $8 for dishes as diverse as Korean burritos, Indian curries or chocolate-cake-thick shakes. I kicked off at Mexican-themed Torchy's ( torchystacos.com) with a bulging breakfast taco of egg, cheese and spicy chorizo.
STOP 2: ZILKER BOTANICAL GARDEN
2220 Barton Springs Rd. Cost: $2
A three-kilometre drive away from Torchy's, this tranquil labyrinth of ornamental mini-gardens ( zilkergarden.org) colonizes a stepped hillside plot. Soon lost on the trails – maps are available if you prefer to know where you're going – I wandered past burbling streams, humpbacked bridges and a jungle of lush local and imported plants. The highlight was the Prehistoric Garden, a fern-fronded tangle surrounding a lifelike bronze of a beady-eyed dinosaur.
STOP 3: HARRY RANSOM CENTER
21st and Guadalupe streets. Free
Weaving downtown, I hit the University of Texas and this surprisingly excellent freebie museum ( hrc.utexas.edu). Permanent exhibits include a breathtaking Gutenberg Bible and "the world's first photograph" – a murky 1826 image shot from a window in Burgundy, France. Temporary displays fill the rest of the space: During my visit, it was hundreds of iconic photos by the likes of Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson. The current exhibition, Banned, Burned, Seized, and Censored, explores censorship in America. Plan ahead for a free tour (2 p.m. Tuesday, Saturday or Sunday).
STOP 4: TEXAS STATE CAPITOL
Congress Avenue and 11th Street. Free
A few blocks away, this spectacular 1888 faux Renaissance palace ( tspb.state.tx.us) dominates Austin's downtown skyline. I ducked inside and wandered the marble-lined corridors of power – eerily almost devoid of life on my visit – before lingering under the dome in the cavernous rotunda, where an enigmatic-looking George W. Bush enlivens a series of Texas governor portraits. Free 45-minute tours are also offered throughout the day, starting in the South Foyer.
STOP 5: MIGHTY CONE
1603 South Congress Ave. Cost: $4.95
After all that sightseeing, a late lunch beckoned. South Congress Avenue is home to a string of colourful food carts between Monroe and Milton Streets. Bratwursts and fruit pies tempted, but I opted for a diet-busting tortilla wrap from Mighty Cone ( mightycone.com). Packed with deep-fried, sesame-crusted chunks of soft avocado (the veggie equivalent of deep-fried Mars bars), I gobbled it down at a picnic table overlooking the quirky shops across the street.
STOP 6: TEXAS MUSIC MUSEUM
1009 East 11th St. Free
Revitalized, I hit this unassuming little museum ( texasmusicmuseum.org) for an introduction to Austin's legendary music scene. Lined with album covers, mini-biographies and memorabilia covering a small fraction of the institution's vast collection (a larger venue is in the cards), the museum makes it easy to learn about artists such as Ervin Charles and Willie Nelson, as well as unfamiliar genres such as Texas Tejano music. Whetting my appetite, a chatty staffer also offered suggestions for local live venues.
STOP 7: ARTHOUSE
700 Congress Ave. Free
Before hunting down a freebie show, though, I checked out this newly expanded downtown public gallery ( arthousetexas.org). Artfully colonizing a former old-school cinema, it showcases contemporary work, displaying an ever-changing array of often challenging paintings and multimedia. On my visit, I rubbed my chin before some large Daliesque canvases and a roomful of melted glass bottles, reformed into a surreal dinner-party exhibit.
STOP 8: CONGRESS AVENUE BRIDGE
Congress Avenue at the Colorado River. Free
A few blocks away, I hit the city's most unusual attraction. With dusk now creeping over the streets, I parked and strolled onto this otherwise nondescript-looking bridge, finding an expectant throng lining the span's eastern sidewalk. Within minutes, a roiling, chirping mass of Mexican free-tailed bats swooped from underneath, swirled around like a cape then flew off in search of tasty insect sustenance. More than a million bats call these arches home and they've become a mascot for Austin's alternative edge.
STOP 9: ODD DUCK
1219 South Lamar Blvd. Cost: $12
Inspired by this show of rampant hunger, I hopped back in the car, continued over the bridge and hit South Austin for dinner. It's easy to fill up on calorie-packed comfort food at the city's street carts, but Odd Duck ( oddduckfarmtotrailer.com) offers a gourmet, "farm to trailer" small-plate alternative. At a picnic table under a twinkling night sky, I tucked into a velvet-soft pork belly slider and a perfectly seasoned grilled half quail with rice.
STOP 10: SAXON PUB
1320 South Lamar Blvd. Cost: $2.25
With my day drawing to a close, I finally nipped across the road for a show at the cozy, wood-lined Saxon ( thesaxonpub.com). Like many Austin neighbourhood bars, its free-entry happy hour includes some great live music. Sliding into a shadowy side booth with the cheapest available beer – a dark Houston-brewed Ziegen Bock – I was soon tapping my feet to a five-piece band thumping out some good-time bluegrass from the corner stage. After my inexpensive day, I had more than enough left over to stay for another set.