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The Austin all-star weekend

A dozen esssential experiences for every Austinite and guest

Helen Anders

Ever had a houseguest ask you about the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center or Barton Springs and have to admit that you've never been there?

Don't beat yourself up. A lot of New Yorkers have never set foot in Central Park. You've probably been too busy studying, working or running around after your kids to fully explore your own backyard.

But in hopes that you find time at some point, here's a game plan for the quintessential, full-immersion Austin weekend. Use it yourself or throw it to your next houseguest with the car keys and a "See ya!"

Way beyond cool

Brace yourself: The water in Austin's iconic swimming hole, Barton Springs (2101 Barton Springs Road in Zilker Park. 512-476-9044. $3 adult) is a constant 68 degrees, and that's eye-poppingly cold, especially when you're jumping in on a 100-degree day. But that jump is a must-do for all Austinites and their visitors. Fed by an underground spring, the natural pool is open every day of the year except for a few days when it's being cleaned or when the endangered salamander that lives in it isn't feeling well. (Go to www.ci.austin.tx.us/salamander to find out more about the salamander and why he gets to tell us when we can swim.)

You're not in Texas till ...

... you've been to the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum (1800 N. Congress Ave. 512-936-8746. $7 adults). Here's where you'll learn about every facet of Texas: cattle, oil, space, technology and, of course, which Texan uttered which words right before which big battle. The Texas Spirit Theater's films ($5) acquaint you with important aspects of the state (like barbecue) and an IMAX theater ($7) shows current releases such as "Under the Sea 3D." And this is important: The museum has a garage ($8; $2 is refunded if you show your museum or theater ticket when you leave). In this city of very little parking, that matters.

No belfries, just bats

Driving across the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge over Lady Bird Lake, you'd never know the world's largest urban bat colony (1.5 million at summer peak) lives under it - unless you show up at sundown and see the critters streaming out in a long, flapping ribbon. Stand on the bridge, watch from the American-Statesman's bat-viewing area just beneath the bridge, or go on a sunset bat-watching cruise (Capital Cruises. 512-480-9264. $8 adults).

Wildflower power

The lady for whom Austin's lake is named, the late Lady Bird Johnson, left a legacy of wildflowers all over the nation, but nowhere is she revered more than in Austin. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (4801 La Crosse Ave. 512-292-4100. $7 adult), operated by the University of Texas, showcases the beauty of Texas' Hill Country, as well as South and West Texas, in 16 gardens. You can also learn how to attract birds, butterflies and hummingbirds to your garden.

Parking lot cuisine

Dining al fresco gets the "Keep Austin Weird" treatment at South Austin Trailer Park and Eatery (1311 S. First St. 512-366-0537). But it's more than a gimmick. The food's really good here; that's why you often have to stand in line. You'll find Torchy's Tacos, the hottest taco stand in a city filled with taco stands (try the daily specials), and Shuggies shakes and burgers. Eat them at a picnic table in the parking lot.

Art and a lot more

Just across the street from the Bullock, the Blanton Museum of Art is a reflection of Austin's own eclectic nature: There's something for everyone at this University of Texas art museum at the southern end of the campus (200 E. Martin Luther King Blvd. 512-471-7324. $7 adult). One of the best times to stop by the Blanton is on the first Friday of the month for the museum's "B Scene" event. Enjoy the art along with a cocktail and live music by Austin bands ($10 nonmembers).

Walk the walk

If there's a street that embodies the Austin spirit, it's South Congress Avenue — SoCo — and it's a great place to stroll. Browse homegrown shops like Blackmail (1202 S. Congress Ave.), Creatures (1206), Allens Boots (1522) and Mi Casa (1700). Check out the art at Yard Dog (1510) and Austin Art Glass (1608). Grab a margarita at Guero's Taco Bar (1412), a cup of coffee at Jo's (1300) or a slice of pepperoni at Home Slice Pizza (1415). Then head to the Continental Club (1315) for a longneck and local music. SoCo still has a meat-processing plant, too: Hudson's (1800). Drop by for some jerky.

Don't miss your 'cue

Avoid the word "best" when you're talking about barbecue in this neck of the woods unless you're looking to get kicked in the brisket. Central Texas is famous for its 'cue, and even in Austin proper, there's a ton of it: 'Cue near the Convention Center (Iron Works Barbecue, 100 Red River St.), upscale 'cue (Lamberts Downtown Barbecue, 401 W. Second St.), 'cue with a view (County Line Barbecue, RM 2222 near Loop 360 for a lake view or Bee Cave Road just past Loop 360 for a hilltop view). But a favorite among locals is Ruby's Barbecue (512 W. 29th St. – just off Guadalupe Street, also known as the Drag). The ribs melt in your mouth, the chicken's tender, the sauce is tangy and the sides (including two types of slaw) are superb.

Stay upbeat

Sixth Street has plenty of bars, but if it's live music you're after — and you should be; this is the Live Music Capital — go around the corner to Red River Street. The club of the moment is the Mohawk (912 Red River St. near 10th Street. 512-482-8404). It's an indoor-outdoor venue that specializes in good up-and-coming acts, cold beer and no attitude. The rooftop deck's a great place to graze and gaze. The Mohawk even got a nod from Esquire magazine as one of the best bars in America.

The literary lions' den

One of the first things you see when you walk into the University of Texas' Harry Ransom Center (21st and Guadalupe streets. 512-471-8944. Free.) is a Gutenberg Bible, and things only get more interesting from there. The Ransom's rich literary holdings include manuscripts and other papers of such authors as John Steinbeck, Ezra Pound, Tennessee Williams, James Joyce and Norman Mailer, along with Woodward and Bernstein's Watergate notes. There's always something fascinating going on.

Second to none

For shopping and dining, the liveliest part of downtown Austin — and getting livelier by the minute — is Second Street. Try on dresses at shops such as Shiki (225) and Minx (408) or buy your dog a sweater at Lofty Dog (403). Then enjoy dinner at Taverna (258), Cru Wine Bar (238) or the hot new upscale Mexico bistro La Condesa and its lounge, Malverde (400). You can park under City Hall (301).

Fodder for foodies

Austin doesn't have the foodie cache of Dallas or Houston, but it definitely has its winning tables. A longtime local favorite, Jeffrey's (1204 West Lynn St. 512-477-5584) has a new chef (Deegan McClung) and a new menu, with skate, halibut cheeks, pork belly and a revision of the restaurant's signature crispy oysters. The new menu's also pricier, but you can try it out Sundays through Wednesdays with a $40 fixed-priced tasting dinner (appetizer, salad, entree and dessert). Then there's the shining star of upscale sushi, Uchi (801 S. Lamar Blvd. 512-916-4808). Chef Tyson Cole has reaped national recognition for his inventive dishes. Take some friends and order a lot of small plates to share.

handers@statesman.com; 912-2590