For decades, “Keep Austin Weird” has been the tagline that celebrates the funkiness of this Texan city and it supposedly all started on a radio show. “I don’t know. It helps keep Austin weird,” said Austin Community College librarian, Red Wassenich, when he called into the show in 2000 to donate money. That phrase spread to bumper stickers to the idea of supporting local businesses and then to other cities around the country.
The “weirdness” of Austin is how Facebook and Google can live in the same neighborhood as a one-of-a-kind dog store, a breathtaking mural, jammin’ honky-tonk, and a fresh-pressed juice bar. It’s how some of the best barbecue joints in the world are adjacent to exceptional vegan restaurants.
No longer just the live music capital of the world, Austin combines its indie vibe with a spirited southern heart, its own local personality, and a mix of vintage and modern. Here are a few spots we believe embody the unique essence of Austin as well as capture a taste of its weirdness.
Climb in awe at the Cathedral of Junk
Situated in the backyard of a South Austin home, the Cathedral of Junk is one of the true weird pleasures in Austin. It’s like a jungle gym sculpture surrounded by greenery and comprised of observation decks and knickknacks. Since Cathedral construction began in 1989, artist Vince Hannemann has added over 60 tons of bike parts, circuit boards, Barbie dolls, toilets, illuminated signs, and guitars. It even has a Zen garden of TVs and a throne of junk. Climb onto multiple levels and observation decks, and marvel at high ceilings and structurally-sound stairways. Viewing it is by appointment only, and donations are encouraged.
4422 Lareina Drive, Austin, TX 78745
Bet your heart out at Chicken Sh*t Bingo
Unlike other honky-tonks (a bar that plays country music), the Little Longhorn Saloon has quite the crappy reputation. Although they feature over 600 live bands annually, the main attraction happens on Sunday evenings from 4 pm to 8 pm and involves chicken poop. It’s surprisingly kid-friendly, and a raving success after two decades.
For each of the four or more rounds of bingo, young and old visitors purchase $2 tickets. When tickets sell out, the chicken is placed into a wire and wood enclosure with numbers on the floor beneath it. When the chicken does its business, it falls on a number, and winners are announced. Winners then claim their cash prize and grab a photo with that night’s band. This peculiar type of Americana may be copied by other bars, but none measure up to the original oddity.
5434 Burnet Road, Austin, TX 78756
Watch winged creatures do their thing
There are few places in the world where you can sit in a kayak at night and watch 1.5 million bats fly over overhead. Austin’s Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge, home to North America’s largest urban bat colony, is one of them. The Mexican Free-Tailed Bats who call the bridge home from late March to early fall are both beautiful and bizarre. When late evening hits — from about 7:30 pm to 9:45 pm — hundreds of thousands of bats pour out from under the bridge and fly east over Lady Bird Lake. No lights or loud noises are allowed, so hundreds of spectators silently observe this unusual seasonal take-off from the bridge, the lakefront, in kayaks, or on paddleboards or bat tour boats.
Congress Avenue, Austin, TX 78704
Also flying free is the flock of peacocks that roam the grounds at Mayfield Park. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the park contains two acres of gardens and a historic cottage, and is surrounded by the 21-acre Mayfield Preserve with wildlife and walking trails. Starting from a single pair of birds given to a local family almost 100 years ago, the peacock population has blossomed in a serene area that’s nearby downtown.
Within the historic gardens, the India Blue and Black-Shoulder peacocks sit in trees and on rooftops, wandering around calling to each other. In late winter and early spring, males begin fanning their extravagant feathers to attract females, and from late spring to early summer, peachicks begin to hatch. Although you can’t feed them, enjoying the peacocks and gardens gives you an uncommon type of peaceful breathing space in the bustling city.
3505 W 35th Street, Austin, TX 78703
Hit up the Midnight Cowboy
A reservation-only bar where you can sip incredible drinks for only two hours? That’s Midnight Cowboy: the former-brothel-turned-speakeasy. And the owners haven’t made it easy to pop in for a cocktail at this only-in-Austin experience. After securing your online reservation, you receive a code. At your reservation time, you head to a blank door with a red light hanging above, press a buzzer marked “Harry Craddock,” and present your code to get inside.
Once you’re in, you can relax into curated cocktails, a calm vibe, and a first-rate staff. The menu is thematic, the bar is intricate, and the music is determined by the crowd and feeling of the night. Cocktails also have unexpected ingredients like ricotta or artichoke leaves and are served in unique glassware including test tubes and tiki mugs.
313 E. 6th Street, Austin, TX 78701
Let Your freak flag fly at the Carousel Lounge
Dive bars dot the city, but few have the 56-year history of the circus-themed Carousel Lounge, where eclectic live music permeates the crazy dance floor five days a week. There’s an actual carousel behind the bar, and a ginormous pink elephant serves as the stage’s backdrop. Belly dancers and newbie bands have performed, and famous music videos and photoshoots went down here. The whimsical yet comfy, at-home ambiance hasn’t changed much over the decades, just like the BYOL policy (Bring Your Own Liquor). But the unmistakable offbeat, fun nature of Carousel Lounge simply can’t be duplicated.
1110 E 52nd Street, Austin, TX 78723
Ready to get weird? We’ve got your place to stay while you explore Austin.