Geographically, Austin is located in the heart of Texas in the Hill Country, which stretches west from Austin for about 75 miles and stretches south to San Antonio, roughly. There is a reason Lance Armstrong lives and trains here: it's very hilly with rocky terrain and lots of green space, which includes lots and lots of trees. The Lower Colorado River runs right through the middle of town, and about 100 years ago, it was dammed up in several places to form the beautiful lakes that Austin is known for. The smallest is the 10 mile long Town Lake, which, true to its name, forms the southern border of downtown Austin. This lake is ringed by a stellar trail system, which is very popular among the athletically inclined as well as the less active. Apparently the wildlife likes it too, since the Congress Avenue bridge is the seasonal home to 1.5 million Mexican Free Tail bats (you can sit on the shores of the lake and watch the bats depart at twilight for their evening feast from approx. March to October). No motorized boat traffic is allowed on Town Lake, so this is a popular place amongst kayakers and dog owners as well. The next largest is Lake Austin, which is 26 miles long. It's less accessible to the public, but you can find several nice places to enjoy it, which include Mozart's Coffee, Hula Hut restaurant, and the overlook from the 360 bridge (a really beautiful bridge on Loop 360). Motorized watercraft is allowed here, so it, too, is popular for waterskiing and boating. Lake Austin is flanked by some of the priciest homes in Austin, as is Lake Travis, the largest of the Austin lakes at 66 miles long. Lake Travis is outside of the City of Austin and is a popular weekend boating area for both wind and motor-driven boats.
For outdoorsy types, you won't run out of things to do in Austin. There are many, many opportunities for hikers and mountain bikers in the many miles greenbelt trails that wind in and around Austin. For the short haul, 20 minute or less hiker, Mount Bonnell is a do not miss, easy climb and the view is spectacular! Cycling is very popular in Austin, and any cycling store here would be happy to tell you the most popular places to go (I'm not a cyclist, so I'd be a bad one to advise on this!). The Austin Botanical Gardens are stunning at nearly any time of year. If water is your deal and you don't want to enjoy it in a boat, in the summer months, it's very worth it to make the trip about 30 minutes south to Gruene (pronounced Green) and New Braunfels to go tubing on the Guadalupe or Comal rivers, or visit Schlitterbahn, one of the largest waterparks I've ever seen.
Of course, Austin is the capital of Texas and the home of a whole lot of Texas history, so history buffs won't run out of cool things to do in Austin. If you can't find the Capitol building in Austin, you're just not looking for it :) Built of pink granite which was mined exclusively in the Texas Hill Country, it bears a striking resemblance to the Capitol buildings in Colorado and Michigan (namely because they were designed by the same architects!). The stone work inside is awe inspiring, and a tour of the building will give you lots of information. It was in this building that EJ Davis, the infamous post-Reconstruction governor, had to be physically removed from his office when he was ousted in a reelection in the 1870's (talk about a sore loser!). Of course, this building was also the place that caused so much controversy in 2004 when Tom DeLay forced redistricting of political boundaries in Texas, leading to exodus of a quorum-breaking group of Democrats to Ardmore, Oklahoma. The Bob Bullock State History Museum is also a great source of historical information, as well as the home of the Imax theater. If it's still playing, "the Story of Texas" is an interesting film that you can see there.
Austin is also known as the Live Music Capital of the World, hosting a larger than life statue of Stevie Ray Vaughn on the shores of Town Lake and boasting to be the home of the likes of Willie Nelson. On any given night in Austin, there are more bands playing in downtown alone than you could possibly shake a stick at, and Austin is also the home of South by Southwest, the music and film industry's playground every year for new bands and filmmakers. SXSW is serious business; it books every hotel room in town, some local residents open their homes to poor musicians, the wristbands that serve as weeklong tickets to events start at $125 (and don't guarantee entrance to every venue), and nearly every venue that could possibly put up a stage has one, hosting 4-5 bands per night for 4-5 nights. Residents for whom this is important and a must see take the full week off from work to enjoy the festivities. (sidenote: if this is the only week of the year you ever visit Austin, you'll get a really skewed idea of what it's really like here. Austin's slogan is "Keep Austin Weird," but we're not as weird as it looks for that one week!) For the other 360 days of the live music year, you still won't be disappointed; Austin didn't gain the Live Music Capital for nuthin'!
Austin's 6th Street district is a world famous entertainment district with more bars (featuring a lot of live music, of course) per square block than any one would possibly need (but it is fun!). Bars of every kind line this street, and on the weekends, local police close the street to anything other than pedestrian and bicycle traffic in the evenings. At the east end of the 6th Street district is Esther's Follies, home of one of the funniest shows I've ever seen. Esther's show format is very similar to that of Saturday Night Live and is rife with political stabs and poking fun of stereotypes both local and elsewhere.
If you don't want to drink or hike, there is still plenty to do for you in Austin. Take a ride on the Austin Duck Adventure (www.austinducks.com) and get a narrated tour of Austin, complete with a light, easy to digest, amusing history of some of downtown Austin's landmarks, finishing with a drive into Lake Austin (not kidding, you'll drive right in and motor around the lake for a while). The Austin Ghost Tour is also a fun way to spend a few hours (www.austinghosttour.com), though if you can't walk for an hour or so, you might want to rethink this one.
If you don't drink, hike, or like live music, I'm betting that at the very least, you probably like to eat! Austin is a great place to get a bite to eat. First and foremost, Texas is the unofficial Barbeque State. By barbeque, I don't mean that stew-looking stuff they eat in the midAtlantic and South (no offense to it, of course... I was raised eating it!), I mean big juicy slabs of brisket, chicken, turkey, ribs, and pork, smoked in huge pits that look like giant metal coffins. Local folks' favorites are the Salt Lick (be sure you go to the original location in Driftwood, south of town on FM 1826), County Line (on Loop 360 as well as 2222), Stubb's (downtown), Ruby's (by the University) and Rudy's, which has lots of locations with more being added all the time. Understand that Texas bbq is a long standing battle: everyone thinks that their favorite barbeque joint is the best ever and that no other place could *possibly* compare. Texans embrace this bbq argument much as they do their fervor about football: don't knock it, and to suggest that it's just not as big a deal as everyone makes it out to be could earn you an immediate ride back to the airport! (kidding) My personal favorite requires a 40 minute drive out into the hills west of Austin to the tiny town of Spicewood, to a place called Opie's. In another recent post, I gave all of my reasons why, but suffice to say it's the best :)
Of course, there is more to eat in Austin than barbeque (though some may argue that point!). it would be impossible to be this close to the Mexican border without some great Mexican and Tex Mex food, and Austin doesn't disappoint. Some popular ones are, in no order, Matt's El Rancho*, Curra's Grill, Maudie's, Las Manitas* (breakfast and lunch only), and Habanero Cafe. (*= my faves!) Some other nonMexican, non-chain faves are: Texas Chili Parlor, Moonshine, Texas Land and Cattle, the Green Iguana (at the lake), Shady Grove, Austin Java Company, North by Northwest, and the TreeHouse Italian Grill.
So I'm out of time and out of quick ideas, but Austin is an uber-fun town. Come visit us!