Austin is a mediocre city, but a great place to live.
Since I moved to town, a bunch of people have asked me, “What’s up with Austin?”
This article is an answer to that question. It’s the answer I’d give at a bar with friends, so there’s basically no research to back up anything in here. Most of the comparisons are to the places I’ve spent the most time: New York and San Francisco. Since I wasn’t able to interview all 1,028,225 people who live here, it’s based on my personal experiences.
My quick summary is this: Just about everything is a 7/10. The food, the weather, the music, the sports, the nature, the comedy. It’s pretty good in almost every category.
Austin also has glaring flaws—especially its general eyesore-ness. The buildings look like they were built in a rush by contractors on a budget and architects without taste. Like much of what goes up today, Austin suffers from a coldly utilitarian aesthetic that strips out beauty in the name of efficiency. Walking around town, it’s easy to forget that beauty is worth striving for in the first place.
And yet, I’ve chosen Austin as my home for the foreseeable future. It’s a good place to live. The people are down to earth. Instead of defaulting to drinks at a bar, people meet up for active, outdoor activities like pickleball and paddle boarding. Though it’s the capital of Texas, the quirky vibe hardly resembles the guns and cowboys culture that rightly defines the rest of the state. Socially, it’s one of the most communal places I know. Intellectually, it’s a haven for the kind of free-thinking that’s historically defined America but is on the way out these days. It’s as far as you can get from a coastal city, while still being able to work out at Equinox. And technologically, it has its finger on the pulse of the future — maybe more than any other American city.
Austin: A Free-Thinking City
I’ve lived in San Francisco and New York. In both, it felt like every conversation centered around either the news or the culture wars. But conversations in Austin are less likely to revolve around what’s happening in the media. Partially because of that, a diversity of opinions is welcome (although I know some people have left because they were frustrated with the lack of racial diversity). Unlikely groups come together here. I once had BBQ with a canceled journalist, a sex worker, and a YouTuber with 400,000 subscribers. You won’t really get shut down for saying something unpopular here. If you meet somebody who judges you for your ideas, chances are they’re married to a much freer thinker who got tired of coastal politics and insisted on a family move to Austin.
That makes it a good home for weirdos. My friend’s hairdresser smokes weed every night and supports gay marriage, even though she’s pro-life and a passionate supporter of the Heartbeat Bill that Texas passed. I also know of a gun-carrying Greenpeace advocate, and an uber-masculine, tatted-up ranch-owner who’s super into psychedelics.
Moving to Austin is the geographical equivalent of saying: “I don’t read the news anymore.” The people moving here are tired of others telling them what to think, which is why the people here are so much less likely to police your speech. That’s basically why I’ve stayed here too. I grew up in San Francisco and lived in New York, but became disillusioned with the intellectual homogeneity of both cities.1
Don’t get me wrong. There’s intellectual homogeneity in Austin, but it’s nothing like what you find in cities in California and New York.
Austin’s freethinking culture, combined with Joe Rogan’s presence in town, is turning the place into a top-tier comedy hub. Though the comedy world has historically centered in New York and Los Angeles, Austin’s gotta be the fastest-growing comedy city in the country. Comedians know they’re not likely to be harassed after shows here, which makes it a good place to do stand-up.2
Rogan’s presence is also turning Austin into a podcasting hub, with hosts like Tim Ferriss, Lex Fridman, Aubrey Marcus, Sam Parr, Chris Williamson, Ryan Holiday, and Andrew Huberman.
Politically, Austin is classically liberal and progressive. Locals tend to believe in free markets, the unconstrained exploration of ideas, and the notion of a better future. In the early days of computing, Austin birthed big companies like Dell. Today, the frontier spirit is still here. Tesla just moved its headquarters here, and they’ll manufacture the cybertruck here too. Apple has a new billion-dollar campus in North Austin, and Google just plopped a 35-story building in the heart of downtown.
An Experimental Town
The underbelly of Austin tech is one of the most interesting things about it.
Cultural and technological leaps happen when wealthy people (who often don’t have ideas) meet ambitious creatives on the intellectual frontier (who have lots of ideas). In Austin, the way tech wealth clashes with an established hippie movement makes it feel like a new San Francisco. The fusion of Austin’s growing reputation as a “tech town” and Texas’ libertarian ethos has also made it a crypto hub. Since the Bitcoiners got rich by betting against the establishment, their philanthropy and investments will steer the city’s evolution on an anti-establishment vector.
Like the Texans around them, Austinites are skeptical of authority. That skepticism shows up in the underbelly of Austin’s tech scene, where people are pursuing radical visions of the future.
For example, there’s long been a passionate cadre of Bitcoiners in town. Today, the city is dotted with pro-crypto ads and there are a rising number of Urbit obsessives in town too (Urbit reminds me of Bitcoin in 2012). These two movements are driven by sister questions. Bitcoiners ask: “What would the financial system look like if we could build it from scratch?” Urbiters ask: “What would the Internet look like if we could build it from scratch?”
Even the food scene is rebellious. Many of America’s cutting-edge food companies are based in town. If you look at the shipping labels of healthy DTC foods in your pantry, a surprising number of them will be based in Austin: LMNT, Waterloo, Kettle & Fire, and PerfectKeto come to mind. There are all kinds of experimental foods too. Never have I seen so many foods with an adaptogenic mushroom base (or heard so many people talk about psychedelic trips, cold plunges, MCT oils, or zero-gravity float tanks). 3
Austin’s health-focused energy shows up in gyms with strong perspectives on fitness. Central Athlete is revitalizing gym memberships by focusing on holistic health and giving everybody a personal trainer; Squatch facilitates a social environment with a garage vibe, outdoor CrossFit gear, saunas, and ice baths; and Onnit (a supplement company that sold to Unilever for nine-figures) has a 10,000 square foot gym with martial arts classes an infrared hybrid sauna and a wall of squat racks that resembles an NFL locker room.
Intuitively, it also seems like Austin is a food hub because Whole Foods is based in town. Aligned with its farm-to-table ethos, the restaurants here are uniquely upfront about their ingredients. Picnik doesn’t cook with seed oils. The honey is served raw and all the butter is grass-fed. Ziki Kitchen, a food truck with ambitions to become the next Sweetgreen, overtly prepares their food to eliminate pathogens, and they don’t cook with soy, peanut oil, or palm oils. 4Even the bodega stores have fresh food, healthy snacks, and drinks beyond the typical trifecta of soda, booze, and energy drinks.5
People in Austin look for an excuse to put tortillas on everything. Just about every coffee shop and convenience store sells breakfast tacos.
As my friend Alex Hardy has observed, though Austin’s food scene is rapidly improving, it only does well across price points in three categories: BBQ, steakhouses, and Tex Mex. But other categories such as Sushi and Italian have a few good options at the high end of the market (Uchi, III Forks, and Red Ash), but slim pickings after that.
Austin’s experimental scene comes from the synthesis of youth, prosperity, psychedelics, technological dynamism, a free-thinking spirit, and a stubborn belief that the world can be radically improved.
The counter-forces against economic dynamism are worth mentioning though.
There’s a saying in town: “Keep Austin Weird,” which expresses some of the frustration with how the city is changing. It’s about the inflow of new money. You don’t have old-money tycoons in Austin like you do in Houston and Dallas, where most of the Texas oil billionaires live. Rather, their reluctance comes from wanting to preserve the culture and keep costs low. Many college towns are like this. Austin was once a humble university town with a kind of funk that felt more like Berkeley than stereotypical Texas. Many of the longtime locals I’ve met are livid about how aggressive development and the influx of wealth has commercialized the city. They feel like Austin skews too much towards high-end residences. If they’re right, it’s partially because Texas doesn’t allow zoning permits that require developers to set aside additional homes for low-income residents.
No place illustrates the evolution of Austin more than South Congress Avenue. The closer you get to downtown, the more you see the sterile, globalist, and hyper-contemporary aesthetic that defines so much of modern urban architecture. You have the same brands that you see in every major American city too: Equinox, Nike, Everlane, Alo, Lululemon, Allbirds, Sweetgreen, Warby Parker, and SOHO house — all of which are foreign to Austin’s native culture (seeing these brands in order is like a game of Millennial brand bingo).
These brands clash with the uniquely Austin spots that’ve historically defined South Congress: Ego’s Bar (the hot spot for local karaoke), The Continental Club (where you can see local bands for the price of a beer), a hippie 24/7 breakfast spot called the Magnolia Cafe, a hardcore “Keep Austin Weird” collectible store, and a funky open-year-round costume shop that treats every day like Halloween. I’ve seen drag queens dance on top of tables at brunch too. Gone are the comic book store and the castle-themed wax museum, though. Fortunately, other Austin classics, such as Uncommon Objects (which is exactly what it sounds like) have managed to relocate.6
Though most of the longtime locals I meet say that Austin used to be better, they cite different years as Austin’s peak — usually the first five years they lived here. I’m not sure what to make of this, but it makes me skeptical of this-city-used-to-be-better claims.
For whatever reason, Austin doesn’t have many good bookstores either. Given its position as an intellectual hub and prominent university town, the lack of bookstores is quite the anomaly. Come to think of it, maybe my friends and I should open one. Fortunately, the intellectual culture shines in other ways. The public library downtown is well-run, well-stocked, and a lovely place to work.7 At cocktail parties, people say things like: “Let’s make Austin the center of online education.” It’s already happening. Besides the University of Texas, we have the University of Austin, Ender, Acton Academy, GT School, and Alpha School.8 Maven was founded here and Dell Medical is at the cutting-edge in its field too.9 10
The best bookstores in town are Book People and Half Price Books. Also, American society suffers from a lack of public spaces that celebrate knowledge. Bookstores don’t just sell books. They sell the idea of intelligence and intellectual curiosity, which should be praised and promoted.
Elon Musk wanted to start the Texas Institute of Technology and Science in town, partially because of the acronym it’d create: TITS.
Full disclosure: I’m an investor and advisor to Maven.
One of my favorite education writers, the Austin Scholar, lives here too.
And of course, Write of Passage is based here too ツ.
When it comes to dining, I appreciate how many restaurants operate out of converted Airstreams or food trucks, like Levercraft and Flitch Coffee in the photos above.11
My favorite coffee shop on the East Side was broken into so many times that the owners shut it down.
The views from Auditorium Shores, just across the lake, are some of the prettiest ones in Austin. They remind me of Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York. The difference is you’re way closer to the skyscrapers, but the city is much smaller. Also, the building that looks like a sail is Google’s new office.
Austin is like Portland with cowboy hats.
The “Keep Austin Weird” movement is fueled by immense local pride. People here are proud of this place. They’ll say things like “Austin’s water is the best water” and raise hell when their favorite local shops close. Support for local brands has kept away chain restaurants (though I’m seeing more of them now). The local pride is also evident at the airport. Because of a mandate for Austin-based restaurants, almost all the chains are local: Juiceland, TacoDeli, Amy’s, Jo’s, and Salt Lick. There’s even live music and taco trucks.12
A commenter on Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolution blog writes: “The airport rule used to be that all the brands had to be local – there didn’t even used to be a Starbucks… Airport contracts are signed off on by the city council.”
Here’s a pet theory too. Economically, the Austin airport also support a local food scene because the vast majority of passengers are starting or ending their travels in Austin. Since it’s not a hub for any airline, there are few connecting flights (in contrast, hub airports like Dallas Fort-Worth, Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson, and Chicago O’Hare are tailored toward connecting passengers with short layovers).13 The more flyers need to rush through the airport, the less they’ll care about the local city and the more they’ll defer to fast-food chains between flights.
The lack of direct flights has kept many frequent travelers away. Rumor has it that Delta Airlines is considering a hub here though.
Austin will struggle to preserve that pride because of the mindset of people moving here. They aren’t moving to Austin as much as they’re moving away from California and New York. As a result, they’re trying to replicate the culture they wish they had in their former cities instead of embracing the one that’s already in Austin.
With the influx of newcomers in town, social trust seems to be falling. Though it’s reminiscent of America in general, I’ve noticed a decline in the two years I’ve lived here. Public bathrooms that were open when I arrived are now closed. The rates of homelessness are tragic. I know a guy who shut down his coffee shop because it was vandalized so many times. In some interactions, people have their guard up by default. For example, in my own apartment building, I once asked the front desk if I could leave my dry cleaning with them, so a cleaner could pick it up while I was traveling. They said no. It was too much of a liability. When I told the story to an Irish friend, he chuckled and mockingly replied: “That would never happen in my country.”
In physics, the second law of thermodynamics says that energy cannot be created or destroyed. It’s true for Austin too. Though the funky shops aren’t as present as they once were, the “Keep Austin Weird” energy has shifted towards the consciousness & spirituality community. Since it’s a bit of a black box to me, I asked Alex Hardy, the guy who convinced me to move here, for help with this section.
I knew about the shamans, the life coaches, the cacao ceremonies, the breathwork, the sound baths, the polyandry, the kambo ceremonies (where people inject themselves with poison from giant Amazonian toads), and the recreations of Burning Man. But only after I spoke with Alex did I understand how spirituality and careerism coexists so strongly in Austin. As he wrote to me:
“It could be Austin’s proximity to Latin America where shamanic culture and Ayahuasca ceremonies originate. Or maybe it’s just the type of person that moves to Austin – everyone here is a transplant. But this current of counterculture is refreshing. These rituals ask us to question default assumptions, and remind us that there’s more to life than heeding a siren’s song to chase fame, money, or power.
However, some Austinites get trapped by so-called Spiritual Materialism. They reject the status games of other cities, but substitute them with a quest up the mountain of “Spiritual Success.” Who can build the biggest instagram following, have the most mind-blowing psychedelic experience, or appear the most enlightened?
But if you stay in Austin for long enough, you’ll learn to distinguish the people who’re earnestly exploring spirituality from those who are using it to scratch an egoic itch.”
Where are the Pretty Buildings?
The lack of beautiful architecture is one of the things that kills me about Austin. The downtown is sterile. Too much of it has an Airbnb aesthetic where things are nice, but without character, and many of the local restaurants are being replaced by national (albeit delicious) chains like Chipotle and Sweetgreen.
A friend tells me that downtown Austin doesn’t have any building restrictions, which means there’s going to be an explosion of high-rise growth. That explosion will be fueled by the fact that the traffic is already terrible and there aren’t really places to expand highways. Nor is there a culture of public transportation.14 Since it’ll be so hard to get downtown, demand to live there will rise, and the property values will soar.
To be fair, there’s a new train line between downtown and North Austin, and I’m a huge supporter of it.
Like many cities, the road customs contradict their design. Though pedestrians technically have the right of way, the streets are built for cars instead of people. Cars move so fast that pedestrians are always on edge. There are no walking streets where you can take a stroll either. Instead, the communal areas are places like Mueller and The Domain, which you have to drive to. The downtown area is organized into a grid so there’s little room for the kind of walking spontaneity you find in Europe and neighborhoods like Greenwich Village in America. Given Austin’s weather, a narrow walking street with a few fountains and a bunch of local shops would be an instant hit.
Luckily, there are bike lanes around the city. Because of them, I was able to survive in Austin for a year without a car. Though I drive now, I still scooter all the time.
Frankly, it’s the perfect city for scooters. It’s too big to walk but small enough that you can get anywhere on two wheels in less than 15 minutes. Even if you wanted to drive downtown, the parking is terrible. The weather is warm, the geography is flat, and there are now enough bike lanes that you can rip through town safely.
As the wind whisps through my hair, I like to study the architecture. The city’s prettiest building, the state capitol, is also one of its oldest ones. Seeing it down South Congress Street (the Broadway of Austin) is one of the great joys of living here. I wish the city had been more deliberate about preserving sight-lines to the building (Washington D.C does this well). The capitol’s classical style makes it stand out in a city of lazy architecture. Though there are some pretty Victorian-style homes west of downtown, most of Austin’s architecture lacks detail. It’s functional and utilitarian. The gargantuan parking lots and parking garages spur an allergic reaction in me too.
Austin is run by a pair of major bureaucracies: the state government and the University of Texas, so even the architecture matches the bureaucratic ethos. Like many institutions these days, the buildings look a little run-down. (Of course, when an Austin-native friend of mine read this, she framed it as “rustic”).
The Texas State Capitol Building in downtown Austin. (Source: Texas Highways)
Some homes even look like they’ve been slapped together.
Two neighborhoods in particular, the East Side and Bouldin Creek, are littered with the same repetitive modern homes that look like they’ve been copied & pasted by a slapdash architect. Professional architects might say that the style is “minimalist,” but I think the buildings are just soulless. Though minimalism can be beautiful, it’s become a justification for rampant mediocrity. Many of the new homes are as bland as the temporary modules on the back of 18-wheelers.
A typical neighborhood in the East Side, where Teslas and new builds clash with old homes and empty lots.
If there’s one saving grace to Austin’s built environment, it’s the charm of big backyards in a climate that’s ideal for outdoor get-togethers. Since the weather is warm and people aren’t as constrained for space as they are in major cities, the backyards are ginormous. (Some of the trucks are bigger than my first NYC apartment, too). Many people’s backyards are furnished with string lights and long wooden benches. Though they’ve historically had live music, it’s less common nowadays.
Live Music Capital of the World?
The shift away from backyard music is consistent with broader trends. Austin is a music city that’s becoming a technology hub. But as you move through town, you’ll see the slogan “Live music capital of the world” is still up there. Austin is home to SXSW15 (one of the world’s biggest music festivals) and Austin City Limits (the longest-running music series in television history), and it also hosts a festival by the same name. There are statues downtown of musicians like Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
SXSW is a marketing asset for Austin’s growth because it brings hundreds of thousands of dynamic people to town every year. It’s so popular that the downtown area is so crowded that it effectively shuts down throughout the festival.
When it comes to music, it’s nothing like it used to be.16 Longtime locals tell me that the bars used to center around music more than they do now. Sometime in the past decade, the baton for the live music capital was passed to Nashville. 20 years ago, young people came to Austin to pursue a music career. Now, they work in tech. The influx of money has upsides. Until recently, we haven’t had a modern live event arena, which is already attracting big-name musicians to town. Whatever its brand implies, Austin is certifiably not the live music capital of the world anymore.
A lot of the energy that once went to music has shifted to comedy.
A classic Austin restaurant backyard.
With more money come higher prices. Austin is much more expensive than it used to be. When my barber moved to Austin in 2009, his two-bedroom was $600. Now, the same one is $1,500. There are reasons to smile though. During that time, his surrounding neighborhood became much safer, and the actual apartment is a lot nicer than it used to be. The floors have been renovated, the light fixtures actually work, and if you’re lucky, there’s a doorman to hold your Amazon packages.
If you can afford it, New York is a better place to launch a career than Austin (although Austin’s getting better). The people I know only arrived in Austin once they were making decent money, had a network, were in a serious relationship, and were ready to raise kids.17
Since Texas doesn’t have state income taxes, I have a few friends who’ve moved here to liquidate their assets in the next few years.
From a city marketing perspective, one of Austin’s major disadvantages is that it’s not very photogenic. It doesn’t have the California cool of Los Angeles, the views of San Francisco, the grandeur of New York, or the neon-lot buildings of Miami. At its best, Austin is understated. At its worst, it’s ugly. No matter how you cut it, the city’s not very photogenic.
For example, you would never see something like South Florida’s Hard Rock Hotel in Austin. (Source)
Matthew McConaughey is Austin’s unofficial mascot. He’s a University of Texas graduate and often leads chants on the field during Austin FC soccer games (our one professional sports team). (Sources: KTLA and Southern Living
Also, as a writing teacher, it’s my duty to give you a free writing lesson. Everything in an essay should logically follow what came before it, and lead into what’s coming after it. Finding a linear order for these ideas was the hardest part about writing this piece. But because I couldn’t find a natural fit for this McConaughey feature, I added it as an image, which let me include him without hurting the flow of this piece.
Though the greater Austin area is growing faster than Miami, you won’t hear about it as much in the news because people here are less showy.18 Miami is the home of slick lambos, flashy neon-lit buildings, slick consumer products, and high-end nightclubs. Austin is quieter. It attracts a quieter set of people who want to mind their own business (although you’ll still see the occasional lambo).
The United States census bureau reports that the two fastest growing cities in America are both suburbs in Northern Austin: Georgetown and Leander. Travis County, where Austin is located, is also half the size of Dade County, where Miami is located.
Austin is an anti-scene.
The people aren’t snobbish and want to repel the ones who are. Just look at what people wear. As one friend whispered to me: “The chicks who were dressed like normal chicks in New York were all lawyers in Austin.” I feel overdressed whenever I wear a button-down. Throw me in a blazer and I’m gonna get some serious eyebrow raises. If there was ever a home of athleisure clothing, Austin would be it.19 The combination of sweltering heat, a chilled-out culture, and a generally in-shape populace (especially compared to the rest of Texas) has people revealing their sexy and sculpted figures.
The athleisure company, Outdoor Voices is based here and in true Austin fashion, their hats say “Doing Things.”
Even the neon signs are chiller in Austin than they are in Miami. The ones in South Beach are extravagant. They add color to the local buildings and have louder pastel colors. In Austin, the neon signs are more functional. Though there are a bunch of neon signs here too, they tend to use simple primary colors, unlike Miami.
Austin has some fantastic neon signs. Driving by them is one of my favorite things about living here. (Source: Austin Monthly)
Aesthetically, Austin is a masculine place. The architecture is functional, but hard on the heart. Buildings on the skyline have straight lines, sharp right angles, a bunch of glass, and little ornamentation. Beauty is the exception, not the rule.
Maybe the urban ugliness is a Texas thing. None of the cities in this State give me my beauty fix. Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio are all aesthetically hostile, car-centric sprawls of concrete. Outside of Southern California, Texas has the most gargantuan highway overpasses in the country. Future generations will look at them with the kind of fascination we reserve for Roman aqueducts.
Traditional gender roles aren’t questioned in Austin as much as they are on the coasts. The people have more of a masculine vs. feminine divide. When I was dating in New York and the bill arrived, some women insisted on paying for drinks. That didn’t happen once here. A much higher percentage of women in their 40s and 50s are stay-at-home moms too.
A typical downtown intersection in Austin.
Some notable exceptions to the lack of beauty are the Trail of Lights (which goes up every winter at Zilker Park), McKinney Falls State Park, Mount Bonnell, and the lake below it. (Sources: Statesman Photo Blog | The Bridge | Wikimedia | Wikipedia)
Urban sprawl and giant highways in Houston, both of which have been replicated on the outer edges of Austin.
People don’t really move to Texas for glitz and glamor.
As Justin Murphy once said to me, people historically moved to California in search of a fortune. This goes all the way back to the gold rush. But people moved to Texas for freedom. They wanted land and a free-living, don’t-tread-on-me lifestyle. These patterns persist today. People don’t come to Austin if accumulating wealth is their top priority.20 The people I know in San Francisco want money, the people I know in Los Angeles want fame, and the people I know in Texas want liberty and self-reliance (maybe that’s why so many dudes here are hardcore preppers who take jiu-jitsu lessons).21
The anti-government bent may also be why there are fewer cops here. Growing up in San Francisco, we were always worried about parking tickets, speed traps, and red light cameras. But it seems like there aren’t as many police officers in Austin, and therefore, not as much law enforcement on the roads.
Locals embody the mindset of a Texas rancher. When you work on a farm, you’re constrained by the limits of nature, such as the biology of your cattle and the physics of agriculture. Against the stereotype, Ranchers are some of the most curious people I’ve met down here. Eager to improve their yields, they balance a belief in progress with a hearty respect for proven methods. Like Austinites, they’re eager to experiment with new tactics, but ground their thinking in the wisdom of previous generations.
Austin’s laptop class is different from San Francisco’s too. For starters, it’s cool to be ambitious in Austin but uncool to be too ambitious. The grindset is frowned upon. Some of the coffee shops don’t allow computers on Sundays, and people will scoff at you for skipping weekend social events to work. Austin entrepreneurs also care more about profit than growth. The people I know aren’t in a rush to build their company. They have a life to live and an income-to-effort ratio to maintain. Slow, steady, and sustainable is the name of the game (which makes it a tough place to be a venture capitalist).
The most successful people I know are understated because it’s not cool to flaunt your wealth here. That said, a trusted friend insists that almost 100 billionaires will move here in the next decade, and these days, I’m seeing more and more private jets at the airport. Though they’ll call Austin their home base, they’ll leave town for the summers, just as snowbirds on the East Coast migrate to Florida in the winter.
Being in Austin lowers my ambitions. The city doesn’t inspire me to be great like San Francisco or New York. But what I lose in ambition, I gain in focus. The city’s relative slowness makes it easy to focus (though 250 days of blue sky per year is arguably too much sun for serious writing. Perhaps, I’d benefit from colder and gloomier weather that makes it easy to sit inside. If I never reach my potential as a writer, blame it on my decision to move here).
With all the big shakers coming to town, the level of ambition is going to rise, though it won’t reach the levels of San Francisco and New York.
On the theme of “Keep Austin Weird,” Austin signage has a sense of humor. The trend was started by a Tex Mex spot called El Arroyo, and now a bunch of restaurants compete for the wittiest signage. (Source: Good News Network)
A City that Feels Like a Town
Though the greater urban area is growing fast, the Austin core still feels like a small town. There are only a few good walking neighborhoods in the center of the city: South Congress, the East Side, 6th Street, and Downtown. I’m always running into people when I’m there.22 Once you drive more than 20 minutes away from downtown, the combination of highways, strip malls, and fast-food chains resembles the rest of middle America.
In The Complacent Class, Tyler Cowen argues that Austin is once of the most segregated cities in America. The Whole Foods, high-end apartments, and tech startups are concentrated close to downtown. The poorer parts of town are to the East, as shown in the BBQ. Cowen writes: Even the barbecue is highbrow [in downtown], made of expensive cuts of meat and carried by well-dressed servers. Drive out by the airport and… there is again barbecue, but in smaller and less glamorous settings, often trailers, and it makes the best of inferior cuts of meat.”
Friends who visit comment on how social Austin feels. Barton Springs Pool comes to mind because it feels so foreign. It’s a clean and jam-packed outdoor swimming pool 10 minutes away from downtown that’s so communal that it reminds me of Europe or Australia.23 On the social front, I also know a bunch of people in their late 20s and early 30s who want to escape town, buy a ranch, and start a co-living community with their friends.
Here, I’m referring to Barton Springs Pool. Deep Eddy Pool is on the other side of the lake, and is the oldest swimming pool in Texas.
People here also escape the toasty summer heat by paddleboarding on the Colorado River which runs through the middle of the city (it’s too dirty to swim in though).24 Technically, the waterway is a chain of reservoirs to mitigate flooding and power the city. At dawn and dusk, rowers speed down the lake, where they look like silhouettes in an Impressionist painting.
It’s called Lady Bird Lake in honor of the former first lady of the United States, Lady Bird Johnson, the wife of Lyndon B. Johnson. During his presidency, the two of them spent a bunch of time LBJ’s ranch in the Hill Country, an hour’s drive west of town. Lady Bird attended the University of Texas in Austin and met the president in town. LBJ proposed on their first date at the Driskill Hotel, a classic hotel in the heart of downtown. After LBJ died of a heart attack in 1973, Lady Bird took on a beautification project for Town Lake in the center of town. She led the initiative to clean up the lake, and create a walking and biking tail around it that I use basically every day.
The combination of weather, water, density, green space, and constrained ambition makes Austin a recreational place. My friend Pratyush noticed that “In San Francisco, people have hobbies to escape and decompress from work: hiking, yoga, endurance sports, etc. In Austin, people have hobbies they want to excel in and are just as important as work: high-end cooking, making their own crafts, team sports, etc.”
Locals bring that same extracurricular energy to dogs too. I swear: it feels like the city forces you to get a dog once you move here. When I was single, multiple girls brought dogs to our first date.25
An abundance of puppies and dog parks for them to run around in makes the city even more social.
Barton Springs Pool, which feels like something in another country because of the way it breaks America’s individualism. I like going in the mornings because the cold water wakes me up more than a hot cup of coffee ever could.
Okayyyyyy, I found one place where Austin is very photogenic. Evening walks on Lady Bird Lake are one of my favorite things about living here. They help me keep pace with all the construction going on and I’d enjoy Austin much less if this path didn’t exist.
Greenspace and bars serve a similar social function: they’re easy places to congregate because people don’t have to plan or do the work that being a host requires. The difference is that places like Zilker Park in Austin make people healthier, while bars lead people towards alcohol.
Zilker is the soccer and spikeball capital of Austin. The Austin City Limits music festival happens at the park every fall too. (Source: Sara Marjorie Strick)
Austin is a place where you can make last-minute plans. You can thank geography for that. The city’s small and somewhat dense, which means your friends are rarely more than a 15-minute drive away.26 For whatever reason, it seems like people are always free here. As a contrast, I could only see people in New York if I planned three weeks in advance and committed to a 90-minute round-trip commute.
There are neighborhoods within a few miles of downtown that feel like suburbs, with gated driveways and yellow “slow down, there are kids playing” signs on the streets.
Making friends is easy because Austin is a little boring too. When I say boring, I mean that there are few museums, one professional sports team, and no significant landmarks.27 You can basically see the city in a weekend. There’s a good bar scene too, which makes it a hub for bachelor and bachelorette parties, without the hubbub of Vegas and Miami.28
Though the entertainment is minimal, there are good professional shows at the ZACH Theatre and I saw a solid production of The Lion King at Bass Concert Hall. The Paramount Theatre also does a summer classics series, where they show iconic films on the big screen.
Austin’s bar scene is a black box to me because I’m not a big drinker.
But because there’s so little entertainment but many things to do as a group, Austin is a great place to develop friendships.29 It reminds me of the time when I was applying to colleges, and my dad encouraged me to apply to small schools in boring places. The lack of activities would force me to make friends because I’d be so bored without them. He was right. Austin’s the same way. You have to entertain yourself when there are so few shows and sporting events to do it for you. The chilled-out vibe makes for laughter and lengthy conversation. Easy access to big backyards and public parks means that people tend to hang out in groups. Unlike San Francisco and New York, where people get out of town on the weekends, Austinites stick around which facilitates deep friendships as well.
I know a few women who’ve struggled to make friends here though. They felt like the density of cool and interesting women was much lower than New York and Los Angeles.
Long Time Horizons
The people here, overwhelmingly, plan to stick around for the long term. Most people I knew in New York wanted to make it, then move out when the time came to raise a family. My college town of Elon, North Carolina was the opposite. Though there was no ambition, just about everybody planned to live there forever. Many of them lived in homes their grandparents bought after World War II.
I think, in general, the more ambitious a city is, the less likely people are to raise their kids there.30 Austin is an anomaly though. People here have long time horizons for such an ambitious city.
Many wealthy people move to Westlake, a suburb of Austin just outside the city. High schoolers tell me that Westlake high school Football games are the hottest social event in town. It’s like Friday Night Lights in real life. Football is religion in the great state of Texas, and they’ve won multiple state football championships and have one of America’s top cheerleading football programs. Multiple professional athletes, such as Drew Brees and Nick Foles went there too.
People in Austin have long time horizons for how ambitious they are. Most places fall somewhere on the spectrum of ambitious with low time horizons like New York, and unambitious with high time horizons like my college town of Elon, North Carolina. Austin transcends the efficient frontier though.
Long time horizons improve behavior.
This is the essence of game theory. People who plan to interact for multiple decades are more cooperative with each other. In Austin, I have two sets of friends who are recruiting friends to buy the homes around them, so they can live near each other. The effort to stay on top of the real estate market only makes sense if you plan to stay. Because of these long-time horizons, people in Austin are uniquely supportive.
Austin: A Great Place to Live
Great cities instantly reveal their benefits. San Francisco has tremendous natural geography, Paris is a temple of artistic excellence, New York compresses the entire world into one city, London is a historic pedestrian’s paradise, and Amsterdam is a delight to bike around. They deserve their shining reputations because they are, indeed, great cities. They all have some combination of easy public transportation, good museums, cultural variety, green space, professional sports, and the kind of high density that breeds serendipity.
Austin’s charm is of a different sort. It only reveals itself with time. It isn’t the best in many categories, but it’s good in a bunch of them. From a nature perspective, I recommend the view from Pennybacker Bridge or a Sunday hang at McKinney Falls. Even if it’s the 7/10 city, the people are great, and it’s a great place to live because of what it does for your life. People here adopt the “Keep Austin Weird” ethos and apply it to radical visions of the future. Since Austin bats above its weight for such a small city, it has a tip-top hassle-to-joy ratio (New York was exceptional, but living there is like going to war with the world).
Living here has made me healthier, more focused, and a red meat connoisseur. Since moving here, I’ve gone on some hunting trips, eaten rattlesnake, debated the likelihood of Texas seceding from America, bought a pair of cowboy boots, road-tripped for BBQ, met a Chabad rabbi who I study Torah with every week, joined a Christian men’s group, purchased the same Stetson that LBJ used to wear, taken swing dancing lessons, and eaten hundreds of breakfast tacos.
Though I’m not ready to say “Texas Forever” like Tim Riggins in Friday Night Lights, Austin is my home for the long term.
Thanks to Ellen Fishbein, Rabbi Levertov, Alex Hardy, Ana Lorena Fabrega, the Austin Scholar, Peyton Price, Justin Mares, and Miles Snider for the conversations that shaped this essay, and also to Devon Zuegel whose piece on Miami inspired this endeavor.
For more about Austin, I recommend this piece by Paul Millerd, who is certifiably one of my favorite people in town.
I updated a few parts of this piece after publishing it. I rewrote the section about the airport to reflect the mandate for local restaurants and updated the capitol view corridor section too. I also added some photos of Mount Bonnell and McKinney Falls State Park. Please keep the comments coming. I read them all, and if you see a way to improve this piece, I’ll happily update it!