Austin, Texas

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A progressive but down-home site of the University of Texas

 The lively, dynamic city of Austin boasts over half a million residents but manages to retain a sort of down-home charm too often lacking in Texas's larger cities. The liveliness is brought about by more than 50,000 students attending its well-regarded University of Texas, by the city's thriving industry of musical entertainment, a burgeoning high-tech industry, and finally by a political population of lawmakers and administrators in attendance at the State Capitol (LBJ and George W. Bush are former Austin residents). The down-home charm is aided by the beauty of the hill country, which dominates this part of central Texas. Another draw for tourists is the ease of using and enjoying the intellectual and entertainment offerings of the large university. As a state-owned institution financed by tax revenues, those facilities are available to the public at large, and most of them are absolutely free of charge. What will a stay cost? That's the best news of all. A low-cost student town in one of the least-expensive states, Austin boasts bargains as thick as black Texas crude.

The standard orientation

The 357 acres of the university campus are just northeast of downtown and the State Capitol building. Grand in scale (true to Texan style), the campus is dotted with oak trees and big limestone buildings with red-tile roofs. You gain a panoramic view of the area from "The Tower" of the Main Building, located near the western edge of the campus. You can also take free, one-and-a-half-hour, student-led walking tours of the campus Monday through Friday at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. (in May and December, 2 p.m. only) and Saturday at 2 p.m. Tours depart from the Information Desk (512/475-7348) on the ground floor of the Main Building, and like similar escorted walks at every large college in America, they feature colorful anecdotes on student life, campus lore, and local personalities.

A better starting point

But the real excitement of a trip to Austin is in the chance to participate in the actual intellectual life of this giant university-its daily gatherings, speakers, meetings, protests, plays and performances, even its classroom lectures and discussions, almost all of which are freely open to the public at large. And for that, you proceed to the Texas Union building (at 24th and Guadalupe Streets), which is not only the venue for many of these activities but serves as a central source of information on whatever else is happening on other parts of the campus. Schedules and announcements are obtained at the helpful Texas Union Information Center (512/475-6636, utexas.edu/student/txunion), which recently disclosed-for one short period-such stimulating no-charge events as a lecture with animal rights activist and filmmaker Josh Harper, a Latino comedy night, an appearance of James Earl Jones speaking on various aspects of theater and culture, a performance of belly dancing, several interesting exhibits, and an absolutely free sneak preview of a Hollywood film prior to its general release.

The same Texas Union publishes a calendar (distributed free) of every event on campus, which you can acquire in advance of your arrival by logging on to utexas.edu/student/txunion/calendar. And the Union is well stocked with free copies of the campus newspaper, the Daily Texan (dailytexanonline.com), which lists other more impromptu speeches, meetings, and performances.

The Texas Union is also the site of the well-known Cactus Cafe (512/475-6515), which presents musical performances by vocalists and instrumentalists of every kind; Billboard magazine once listed it as one of only 15 "solidly respected, savvy clubs from which careers can be cut, that work with proven names and new faces." Lyle Lovett, Allison Krauss, and Nanci Griffith are among the stars who appeared here early in their careers. Tickets for shows start at a reasonable $5, and the Cactus Cafe's menu includes pitas, bagels, pizza, and empanadas, all for under $7.

Classes, plays, and concerts

As at most state universities financed by taxes, large auditorium-style lectures and classes at UT can be attended free of charge and with little or no fuss (when you are one of perhaps hundreds in the audience). To sit in on smaller classes, you'll want to first check with the Registrar's Office (512/475-7575) about "auditing" a particular session.

On-campus entertainment includes student-generated productions sponsored by the University's Theatre and Dance Department (tickets start at $9), and a variety of touring music and dance productions at the Performing Arts Center (tickets start at $18). For more information and schedules, call 512/471-1444 or visit utpac.org. In the world of classical music, UT's Early Music Ensemble (512/371-0099, utexas.edu/cofa/music/uteme/index.html) performs vocal and instrumental works of the medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and classic periods at Bates Recital Hall, and these are free and open to the public.

The recently published, much-acclaimed Robert Caro biography of LBJ has focused renewed attention on the mammoth and fascinating Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum (512/916-5136, lbjlib.utexas.edu), which sits at the eastern edge of campus on Red River Street. Here, among other things, you can listen in on LBJ's taped phone conversations, check out the simulated Oval Office (seven-eighths the size of the original), and tour Lady Bird's former White House office, which is also re-created in exacting detail, down to the funky '60s furniture and family snapshots. This important museum is open every day 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; admission and parking are free.

Elsewhere in Austin

In this capital of Texas, you may also want to experience the residential lifestyle of the state's First Family at the Governor's Mansion (1010 Colorado Ave., 512/463-5516, governor.state.tx.us/mansion). Free tours are conducted every 20 minutes Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to noon. Across the street: The State Capitol of Texas (11th St. and Congress Ave., 512/463-0063) is 14 feet higher than the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Free tours begin every 15 minutes on weekdays, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and every 30-45 minutes on weekends, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Walk to the other side of the Capitol building and you will see a monumental 35-foot bronze star marking the entrance to the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum (1800 N. Congress Ave., 512/936-8746, thestoryoftexas.com), which displays through multimedia exhibits everything you ever wanted to know about the Lone Star State for $5.

Lodgings

For lodging during your stay, you can always choose from every famous name in low-cost motel chains-they're all here in Austin. But my recommendations are for three more distinctive properties, named in ascending order of cost:

For old-school cool and affordability, you might first choose the Austin Motel (1220 S. Congress Ave., 512/441-1157, austinmotel.com), where doubles start at only $60. Each room here is thematically unique (such as the Beach Room, the Great Wall of China Room, etc.), and there's a classic '50s pool to boot.

Or try Hotel San Jose (1316 S. Congress Ave., 800/574-8897, sanjosehotel.com), surely the trendiest spot in Austin, with 40 rooms offering a taste of urban-loft living. Concrete floors and wrought-iron fixtures contrast with honey-colored wood, thick futons, and olive-green doors. The courtyard features a tiny but warm pool-made more for mingling than for laps. Rooms are $69 per double for a shared bath, $105 for private bath, and rates include continental breakfast, DSL access, and newspapers in the lobby.

The historic 1888 Miller-Crockett House (112 Academy Dr., 888/441-1641, millercrockett.com) is a charming, well-appointed, plantation-style B&B run by the perky hostess, Kat Mooney. For $99, two can sleep in Caroline's Room-complete with brass bed and a balcony with a view. A gourmet breakfast is included, free evening yoga is offered on the lawn, and mountain bikes are available for guests' use at no extra charge.

BBQ heaven

Texas barbecue is the best the world over (proudly claim the Texans), and a great place to chow down on this specialty is local favorite Salt Lick (FM 1826, in Driftwood, 512/894-3117, saltlickbbq.com) near the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Try the heaping family-style (and family-size) meat combo for $8.95 and then top it off with freshly-made-this-morning peach cobbler (tm) la mode ($4.95)-and you'll understand why local girls Sandra Bullock and the Dixie Chicks keep coming back.

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