Next week: Christmas gifts for travelers

AUSTIN, Texas —

A statue of blues-rocker Stevie Ray Vaughan stands prominently beside the banks of Texas’ Colorado River, the burgeoning skyline of Austin rising behind it.

It’s an apt metaphor for the capital city of Texas, which is more than the governmental hub of America’s second-largest state: Austin promotes itself as “the live music capital of the world.”

Certainly, no city west of the Mississippi River — not Los Angeles, not Seattle, not Branson, Mo. — has a greater density of bars, restaurants, nightclubs and concert venues that welcome performers on a nightly basis.

While Austin has greeted country and blues performers since the post-World War II era, its meteoric rise to musical fame can be readily traced to the 1974 launch of the acclaimed PBS television series, “Austin City Limits.”

Vaughan (1954-1990) was among the scores of musicians to perform on the show. A Dallas native, he moved to Austin at the age of 17 and won a Grammy Award for best contemporary blues album shortly before dying in a helicopter crash. Today, a bronze likeness of the singer-guitarist casts a long shadow beside a riverside trail, within earshot of bands performing in the open-air amphitheater of adjacent Auditorium Shores.

Just downstream from Vaughan’s statue is the Congress Avenue Bridge, seasonal home to 1½ million tiny Mexican free-tailed bats. From March to November, the world’s largest urban bat colony roosts in crevices in the bridge’s foundation, emerging after sunset to dine on insects in a nightly feeding frenzy. It’s become a major tourist attraction.

North of the river, Congress Avenue leads through the heart of Austin’s downtown entertainment district to the Texas State Capitol and, beyond, the sprawling campus of the University of Texas. To the west is the marvelous Texas Hill Country, still bearing the stamp of the German immigrants who settled there in the mid-19th century. To the southwest is the historical city of San Antonio, home of the fabled Alamo. Neither destination is more than a 90-minute drive from Austin.

Sixth Street swagger

The population of Austin is 850,000, a quarter-million more people than in Portland. But it’s merely the fourth-largest city in Texas, after Houston (2.1 million), San Antonio (1.3 million) and Dallas (1.2 million).

Austin is not New York; it’s not Nashville. But its main drag, Sixth Street, née Pecan Street, is as frantic as Bourbon Street in New Orleans or Beale Street in Memphis. It’s packed with cafes and bars of all kinds, as well as tattoo parlors, billiards halls, pizza joints and stores that sell T-shirts and cigars, guitars and 10-gallon hats.

Curious visitors join throngs of heavily imbibing university students in places like the Blind Pig Pub and the Dizzy Rooster, the Iron Cactus and the Thirsty Nickel, the Dirty Dog and the Chuggin’ Monkey. There are no fewer than five dozen bars in the four blocks extending east from the classy and historic Driskill Hotel, just off Congress Avenue, to Red River Street.

On a recent weekend, the music club lineup here included such Portland bands as Blitzen Trapper and Quasi, legendary punk rockers The Misfits and a variety of other acts in many genres, including Rikki Lee Jones, Tenacious D, Scotty McCreery, Government Mule, Black Tusk, the Subhumans and the Underachievers.

Not all of the action is in the Sixth Street District. Far from it. Many of the most popular clubs, such as Elysium and Stubb’s Bar-B-Q, are in the Red River District (north of Seventh and east of Naches streets). Others — such as Hotel Vegas, Holy Mountain, North Door and the White Horse — are in the East End, embracing eight blocks of Sixth Street east of Interstate 35.

In fact, many locals shy away from Sixth Street entirely, often heading to the quaint bars in the refurbished residences of Rainey Street, southeast of downtown, or to the venues of the South Congress District, among them the outrageously popular Continental Club. It seems there’s music everywhere.

The best, most creative restaurants are not among the bars on Sixth Street but are spread through nearby neighborhoods. Among my favorites were Arro, where I had a delicious steak tartare; Second Bar + Kitchen, where I enjoyed a wild mushroom gnocchi; and Qui, which tempted me with Thai-style octopus and razor clams.

Austin’s biggest attraction today may be the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) festival, established in 1987 and held over 10 days in March. With concurrent festivals of music, film and emerging technologies, it attracts more than 150,000 festivalgoers, injecting nearly $200 million into the local economy.

Capitol attractions

Named for Stephen F. Austin, the founder of the Republic of Texas, Austin was established in 1839 and made the Texas state capital in 1870. Although now dwarfed by the skyscraping towers of commercial buildings all around it, the Texas State Capitol remains the architectural highlight of the city. Completed in 1888, the National Historic Landmark is capped by a 308-foot dome that is higher than that of the U.S. Capitol, after which it was modeled. Its 22 acres of grounds exhibit 17 separate monuments, two of which commemorate Confederate soldiers and the Texas Rangers.

North of the Capitol, and at the southern edge of the University of Texas campus, are the city’s two most prominent museums. The Bullock Texas State History Museum, unmistakable for the giant star outside its entrance (this is, after all, “The Lone Star State”), has three floors of interactive exhibits along with two theaters. Rotating exhibits cover the gamut of Texas history, from Native American archaeology to future space exploration.

The Blanton Museum of Art is the hub of the largest university art complex in the United States. Founded in 1963, the museum moved into a new $83 million building in 2006, where it displays pieces from its collection of 17,000 works. These include European paintings, mainly Italian Renaissance and Baroque; American art since 1975, featuring donations from the James Michener Collection; and a wide range of Latin American works, organized by country of origin.

Across the 423-acre campus, attended by 50,000 undergraduate and graduate students, the LBJ Library and Museum pays homage to Lyndon Baines Johnson. A plain-speaking Texan who succeeded to the presidency upon the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, then stepped down rather than run for another term in 1968, Johnson (1908-1973) is remembered as much for his success in domestic affairs — notably in civil rights and in the “space race” — as for the criticism his administration took during the Vietnam War.

Johnson’s wife, Claudia Taylor Johnson (1912-2007), may have been more revered in Texas than the president himself. Widely known by her nickname, “Lady Bird,” she made her mark as first lady as an environmental activist. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is now a popular Austin attraction, especially during the peak of blossom season in spring. The broad expanse of the Colorado River south of downtown has been dubbed Lady Bird Lake.

The Hill Country

Lyndon Johnson grew up in the Texas Hill Country. His grand-uncle, James Polk Johnson, gave his name to Johnson City, 50 miles west of Austin. Today, Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park welcomes visitors to both Johnson’s birthplace near Stonewall and his boyhood home in Johnson City. The greatest interest, however, is reserved for the LBJ Ranch, an 1890s stone cabin expanded by the Johnsons to become the Western White House in the 1960s.

Nearby is the family cemetery where both LBJ and Lady Bird, along with parents and other relatives, are buried. Across the Pedernales River, Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site preserves other Johnson family memories, as well as the Sauer-Beckmann Farmstead, whose living-history staff dresses year-round in period costume and performs farm chores typical of 1915.

LBJ was not the only famous person born and raised in the Hill Country. Another was Admiral Chester Nimitz, who served the United States during World War II as commander-in-chief of Pacific forces. It is ironic that the National Museum of the Pacific War, incorporating the Nimitz Hotel that his immigrant grandfather built, is based 1,200 miles from the Pacific Ocean in Fredericksburg, a town of about 11,000.

But this is a superb museum. Its new George H.W. Bush Gallery, dedicated by the former president in 2009, describes the progression of the conflict between the United States and the Japanese empire from its 19th-century precursors through the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Video footage, interpretive signs, interactive displays and World War II artifacts illustrate activity in battle sites from Corregidor to Guadalcanal, Tarawa to Iwo Jima.

The original Nimitz Hotel on Main Street, its 19th-century nautical facade fully restored, depicts the admiral’s German heritage as well as his own life and career. The Plaza of the Presidents honors the wartime contributions of 10 American presidents along with thousands of other World War II veterans. And a couple of blocks away, battlefield re-enactments — with actual historical weaponry — are offered most weekends in a designated Pacific Combat Zone.

German heritage

Fredericksburg is at the heart of the Hill Country. Its small-town ambiance, coupled with the immigrant history that has made Wiener Schnitzel and bratwurst as common in local restaurants as hamburgers and enchiladas, makes it a popular getaway for big-city Texans.

As a result, it has an infrastructure of restaurants and hotels that belie its diminutive size. Both Cotton Gin Village and the Fredericksburg Herb Farm, for instance, have incorporated guest cabins and fine-dining restaurants into their lush grounds. And the delightful Hangar Hotel, beside the municipal airport, features a classic diner built practically on the runway.

There’s also good wine in the Texas Hill Country. In fact, Texas ranks fifth among American states in wine production (after the Pacific coastal states and New York), and three dozen of those businesses are ensconced in the Hill Country, especially near Fredericksburg.

The best of several local vintages I tasted came from the Inwood Estates Winery. Owner and winemaker Dan Gatlin told me he’s been making wines since 1980, but he only went commercial in 2004. His modestly priced, Spanish-style tempranillos and cabernet-tempranillo blends are catching the attention of wine experts — although, like most Hill Country winemakers, his estate vineyard is very small. His tempranillo grapes, Gatlin said, come from vineyards on the Texas-New Mexico state line, 400 miles to the northwest.

Fredericksburg’s Teutonic roots are evident from the towering Maibaum (maypole), next to the octagonal Vereins Kirche (church) in the town-center Marktplatz, to the historic homesteads of the four-acre Pioneer Museum across the street. The heritage thrives in the Silver Creek Saloon, where local musicians provide rousing free performances for anyone who will listen. But even that pales compared to the scene at Luckenbach.

A lucky 13 miles southeast of Fredericksburg on a county road, Luckenbach is little more than a few ramshackle wooden buildings gathered around an old-time dance hall. But there was a community here as far back as 1849, and a post office operated until 1971. Soon thereafter, the would-be ghost town was purchased by local characters Hondo Crouch and Guich Koock, who opened a general store and bar in the former postal building. When Jerry Jeff Walker recorded an album here in 1973, and Willie Nelson joined Waylon Jennings to perform the hit song “Luckenbach, Texas” in 1977, the village’s fame skyrocketed.

Nelson still returns to Luckenbach every year, inviting dozens of close friends for a Fourth of July picnic. But there’s music seven nights a week, regardless of season. Sometimes it’s in the dance hall, where Austin-area legends like Dale Watson, Billy Joe Shaver and Slaid Cleaves frequently appear; other nights, picker circles and impromptu sing-alongs take place in the cozy bar. And they are often accented by the appearance of would-be cowboy poets.

It’s almost enough to challenge Austin for the title of “live music capital of the world.”

— Reporter: