By Karen Brooks
AUSTIN (Reuters) - At no other time of year is Austin - the self-styled live music capital of the world - so celebrated than in March, when the throngs pour into the Texas city for the 12-day music, film and interactive festival known as South by Southwest.
One of the most influential music events on the planet, South by Southwest marks its 26th year on March 7-16 and draws some 25,000 industry pros and musicians to see at least 2,000 performances at more than 100 venues. (http://sxsw.com)
And that's just the official music portion of the festival.
Austin is a city of many superlatives, consistently ranked among the best places to live for everyone from job-seekers to singles and health nuts to hipsters. (Map: https://goo.gl/maps/WCvVO)
There is much to enjoy for those seeking vast outdoor spaces, world-class eateries and vibrant nightlife.
Austin was recently named by Forbes as the fastest-growing U.S. city, showing that the draw of the quirky capital of Texas far surpasses its signature South by Southwest event.
The renown prompted a Chamber of Commerce campaign to "Keep Austin Weird" - a mantra as ubiquitous as the "Hook 'Em" sign of Austin's beloved University of Texas Longhorns.
Here are tips for getting the most out of a trip to Austin from Reuters, whose 2,600 journalists in all parts of the world offer visitors the best local insights.
The food truck craze has rolled across the United States in recent years but in trend-setting Austin, these bastions of creative edibles are a long-held tradition - making it nearly impossible (thankfully) to find a corner or a bar without one.
Paul Qui, winner of the ninth season of the "Top Chef" TV show, got his start in Austin with his East Side King Asian-fusion truck tucked into the backyards of dive bars on the city's hipster East Side. (http://eskaustin.com/)
The gluten-free Thai Chicken Karaagé from the truck behind the Liberty Bar at 1618 1/2 East 6th Street costs $8 for a deep-fried chicken thigh with sweet-spicy sauce, fresh basil, cilantro, mint, onion and jalapeño.
Food trucks enjoy such wide support that several have been able to turn into full-service restaurants.
Easily the most unique is Gourdoughs at 1503 South 1st Street, which serves its dinners on doughnuts. The Boss Hog features pulled pork, potato salad and barbecue sauce atop a fried doughnut for $5.50. (www.gourdoughs.com/)
Austin also has myriad brick-and-mortar restaurants to satisfy the cravings of those not into street-side dining.
Sunday brunch is a tradition at the one of Austin's most influential eateries, Fonda San Miguel, where roughly $50 per plate gets you a buffet of classic Mexican cuisine and a modern take on ancient recipes. It's at 2330 West North Loop Boulevard, northwest of downtown. (www.fondasanmiguel.com/)
THE PINK DOME
One of the nation's most beloved liberals, the late Texas columnist Molly Ivins, once described Austin as a blueberry floating in tomato soup, a statement of the city's liberal leanings in a sea of conservative red that dominates Lone Star State politics.
But no matter who's in charge, Austin does love its Capitol building, the largest domed statehouse in the United States and the centrepiece of downtown.
Affectionately known as the Pink Dome for the colour of its granite, the 130-year-old Capitol and its expanses of lush grounds with venerable trees is a relaxing respite. Take the free tour or just enjoy a picnic outside.
If you're in Austin during the first half of an odd-numbered year, head to the Capitol's chamber galleries to watch the lawmakers in action during their biennial session. The 181 fiery Texans create the sort of human drama that Ivins lived for - and that you couldn't invent if you tried.
KEEPING IT WEIRD
Even if you don't count the politicians, Austin does a great job of living up to its motto.
Why else would anyone cram inside a sweaty, windowless dive on a Sunday afternoon and bet that a chicken walking on a giant bingo card will defecate on your number?
But that's what thousands of Austinites, for more than a decade, have done at Ginny's Little Longhorn Saloon at 5434 Burnet Road. (http://thelittlelonghornsaloon.com/)
Also check out the world's largest urban bat colony, in the heart of downtown Austin, where up to 1.5 million Mexican free-tail bats live under the Congress Avenue bridge.
Their numbers are greatest in the summer and fall, when their sunset exit to find food blackens the sky and shows up on the local weather radar. Thousands of people flock to the bridge every night to catch the spectacle. The best part? It's a free show.
MORE THAN JUST 6TH STREET
With so many venues, Austin's nightlife can be a challenge, even for the most decisive. Luckily, there's the website Do512 - as in what to do in the area code 512 - that is an excellent resource for residents and visitors alike. (http://do512.com)
For decades, Austin's reputation for world-class nightlife rested on the storied 6th Street - and it's still the musical soul of the city.
Skip the shot bars if you dare and go to Esther's Follies, where a $24 general admission ticket gets you entry to hilarious magic, musical and political satire shows that have been a mainstay on 6th for nearly 40 years. (www.esthersfollies.com/)
With more than 200 live music venues - including City Hall, where the city council meetings open with live music - exciting nightlife can be found in all corners of Austin.
For a true Texas honky-tonk experience, head south to Broken Spoke, a historic dance hall at 3201 South Lamar Boulevard. (www.brokenspokeaustintx.com/)
Once frequented by swing kings Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, the Spoke is a beloved venue for the hipster rockabilly set to take a spin on its wooden floor alongside old-timers who have been two-stepping here for 50 years.
Back downtown, catch a band at The Belmont, a Brat-pack inspired stunner of a two-storey venue at 305 West 6th Street in the Warehouse District. (www.thebelmontaustin.com)
On the southeast edge of downtown is Rainey Street, a previously residential road now crammed with bars and food trucks. Bangers Sausage House and Beer Garden is a favourite spot with an off-leash dog park and 130 beers on tap.
Cross the I-35 and head to the East Side, which plays host to some of the city's funkiest bars and restaurants.
East Side Show Room at 1100 East 6th Street, with its modern/anachronistic steampunk theme, has playful small-plate dishes and one of the most interesting cocktail menus in town. Try the $13 Laveau made with overproof bourbon, apple brandy, Rossa Vermouth, Allspice Dram and lemon oil.
HIKES AND BIKES
Poke your head outside the bar and you'll see that the sun shines in Austin for some 300 days a year.
Go swimming, tubing, climbing or snooze under a shady tree at the Barton Creek Greenbelt, southwest of downtown. The nearby Barton Springs Pool is spring-fed and stays between 68 and 71 Fahrenheit (20 and 22 Celsius) year round. (www.austinparks.org/our-parks.html?parkid=206)
Downtown, kayak rentals on Lady Bird Lake start at around $10 an hour or walk for free along the hike and bike trail that rings the lake.
Rent a bike from one of the dozens of shops in the city. The low-tech cruisers start at around $7.50 an hour at Barton Springs Bike Rental (www.bartonspringsbikerental.com/) and the electric bikes at Rocket Electrics (www.rocketelectrics.com/) rent for similar rates.
Don't miss the Thursday Night Social Ride, one of the nation's largest weekly social rides that draws up to 400 cyclists when the weather is good. (www.facebook.com/socialcyclingaustin)
Sunshine or not, you can always enjoy the serenity and beauty of some 650 species of Texas plants and flowers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. (www.wildflower.org/)
Or head to the Austin Zoo and Animal Sanctuary to see the tigers, bears, lemurs and hundreds of other creatures removed from bad conditions and brought to this peaceful, kitsch-free, natural setting for rehabilitation. Tickets are $9 for adults and $6 for kids under 12. (www.austinzoo.org/)
(Editing by John O'Callaghan)