(There is really an animatronic Lyndon Johnson in Austin. (Photo: Lauren Gerson)
By Max Gross
For years, Austin, Texas, has been the Canterbury Cathedral of music nerds — a site of pilgrimage and worship. Likewise, with the emergence of names like Paul Qui (of Qui), Tyson Cole (of Uchi) and Aaron Franklin (of Franklin’s), the city has become similarly revered by food nerds.
But what of us plain old nerdy nerds?
As it turns out, Austin — despite its youthful vibe, its music scene, its weirdness, its boozy and fattening temptations — is a fantastic city to geek out on a trove of Americana and Texas history.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, and what better place to mark it than by visiting the library dedicated to the man who put the wheels of desegregation in motion?
Beyond the exhibits and artifacts, the LBJ Presidential Library is worth the price of admission if only for the animatronic version of the 37th president cracking (extremely corny) jokes.
The library is in a corner of the sprawling University of Texas campus, all within striking distance of a trove of Austin’s best museums.
The Harry Ransom Center, for instance, boasts Joseph Nicephore Niepce’s “View from the Window at La Gras” — one of the world’s first photographs (it was taken in 1826 or 1827, and is agreed to be the first photograph of a scene from nature) — and a Gutenberg Bible from the early 1450s (one of only 48 in existence and five in the US).
It’s just down the block from Bullock Texas State History Museum, which tells the history of the Lone Star State in a way that probably won’t bore the kids. There are rebuilt log cabins and teepees that original Indian tribes and settlers of the land used; and the history itself is pretty exciting, like the Battle of San Jacinto, which resulted in Santa Anna’s decisive defeat by the hands of Sam Houston in the Texas Revolution.
Nearby is the most prominent building in the city: the Texas State Capitol. “It’s taller than the Capitol Dome in Washington,” almost every Austinite will tell you. Finished in 1888, the capitol has a somewhat pink cast to it, owing to the red granite of the exterior. Free 45-minute tours are offered throughout the day, seven days a week.
The Hotel Ella was built in 1900. (Photo: Matt Lankes)
It wouldn’t be Austin if there weren’t some quirky museums, too, like the Mexic-Arte Museum, which features — along with local Mexican and Latin-American art — what is by far the city’s best museum gift shop (there are a lot of skull-related keepsakes in the spirit of the Day of the Dead.)
But our favorite would have to be the O. Henry Museum. Before he became a short story writer, O. Henry lived in this modest Queen Anne-style cottage while working at a newspaper called The Rolling Stone. Among its treasures include a never-before-published short story that can only be read while in the house. (It’s not bad!)
Of course, while there are plenty of hotels (with many more coming) to keep a roof over your head, if you’re truly in the historic spirit one should consider staying in Hotel Ella, right on the edge of the UT campus. The landmarked 47-room, 10-suite hotel, which just underwent a name-change and renovation last year, was originally built in 1900 by Goodall Harrison Wooten and has lots of historic charm, but with plenty of modern touches. The bar is adjacent to a pleasant porch, and even in a city with crazy competitive dining options, their restaurant, Goodall’s, is a standout. (Try the roasted cauliflower.)
Sipping a drink on Ella’s porch in the late afternoon, you’ll feel at peace with your nerdiness.
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