The rise and rise of Austin, America’s coolest city

Austin City Limits Music Festival 2011 stage and crowd in front of the Austin skyline
Austin City Limits Music Festival stage and crowd in front of the Austin skyline - Alamy

Eddie Wilson is shaking his head in despair at the thought of Donald Trump becoming the next American president. “I’m too old to move out of the country, so all I do is hide my head and shiver when I think of such a thing,” he says.

His state, Texas, may vote for Trump but his city certainly won’t.

Eddie was in at the beginning of the cultural revolution here. He was one of the key players when Austin became hip, on the road to becoming the live music capital of America, as it is now identified.

A card-carrying liberal and former concert promoter, he co-founded the music venue Armadillo World Headquarters in 1970 and put on everyone from Ray Charles and Frank Zappa to Gram Parsons and a young Bruce Springsteen.

And blended with the city’s cultural aristocracy – Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, the brilliant Kinky Friedman, Carolyn Wonderland, Ray Benson, founder of Asleep at the Wheel, and many other southern musical heroes.

A tech haven, Austin is also known for outstanding food, great live music venues and its unique fashion
Austin is more like it always was. Pictured above: Texas Allen's Boots - Graham Boynton

Today we’re having breakfast at the Counter Café on West 29th and he’s trying to explain how Texas’s most alternative, politically liberal, culturally downright wacky city of a million people (two and a half million if you include the metropolitan area) is faring in the last days of Biden 1. “As I’m on everybody’s file under ‘cheap quote’ take this down,” he says. “Austin is more like it always was.”

Well, not quite. In the 10 years since I was last here – when Eddie Wilson generously drove me around for days and showed me how they were all “keeping Austin weird”, as the slogan went – it has become a boom city.

Starting with Dell in the 1980s (Michael Dell was a student at Austin’s University of Texas), it has long been a southern tech city, but Meta, Google and Apple now have significant footprints here, while the recent arrival of Elon Musk in the shape of Tesla and SpaceX has upped the stakes.

Meanwhile, Samsung is currently building a $18 billion factory just north of Austin.

SXSW is one of the city's most popular music festivals
SXSW is one of the city's most popular music festivals - Alamy

And tourism is booming too, with 20 new gates by 2030 at an airport that was built to handle 16 million but already has 25 million people passing through it annually.

I am here to attend a film premiere at the SXSW music and festival. One of the South’s all-time great cultural gatherings, it started in 1987 and has grown exponentially (dates for 2025 are March 7-15). The year of my last visit to the city (2013), Southby, as the festival is colloquially known, brought in $30 million to the economy. This year it is $350 million.

Although Eddie Wilson’s Armadillo is long closed, many of the great clubs are still pounding out live Texas music – the Continental, Antone’s and the must-visit Broken Spoke, a legendary venue that features live music and line dancing in equal proportion, should all be on visitors’ radars.

Antone's is a popular spot for live music
Antone's is a popular spot for live music - Alamy

As is the case with Nashville, the southern Tennessee neighbour whose rise and growth Austin is mirroring, the city has become a foodie destination.

Traditionally the home of Tex Mex cuisine, there are now a string of inevitable Asian fusion restaurants and nouvelle whatever places that are pleasant but not that interesting.

Instead, I would recommend three restaurants that seem to capture the soul of Austin. One is an old favourite: Ranch 616.

It still serves the best Texana food – that’s semi TexMex – in town, and a lunch for four cost us $180, which included a round of Ranch Water, a 616 creation that is similar to a margarita but with Topo Chico (Mexican mineral water) instead of lime juice and which is a big drink in Texas.

Another is a new venue with an historic city vibe. The Uptown Sporting Club is a buzzy bar and restaurant located on that centre of wild Austin nights, East 6th Street.

Broken Spoke is another popular music venue
Broken Spoke is another popular music venue - Alamy

I would enthusiastically recommend the Hot Roast Beef Po’boy or the Shrimp Po’boy, both coming in at a bargain $17, and a couple of bottles of Shiner Bock to go with them.

For breakfast there is Sandra Bullock’s Walton’s Fancy and Staple, a rustic, brick-walled restaurant in the centre of town that serves fantastic brioche.

I am, however, also out here to discover a little more Texas than it’s blue, hippy, cultural capital. I need to get into Red, Trump country.

And so, I drive first to Waco, the town that will forever be associated with the Branch Davidian Siege that killed around 80 cult followers of David Koresh and four Federal officers in 1993, and then to Bryan, similarly a Texan university town in Austin’s orbit geographically but certainly not politically.

They are both easy 90-minute from Austin and I believe essential to the full Texan experience. You’ll find all the bells and whistles of contemporary stylishness – cool boutique hotels, modern restaurants, good cultural events (see below for details) – but with the charm of being not overcrowded; just more homespun, friendly and genuine.

If the evidence of my random poll of young and old in both towns is representative, they’re going to end up voting for Trump, not because they like him but because they feel they’ve been let down by Joe Biden and the Washington Democrats. They shrug and say they have no choice. Quietly.

Texas Red and Blue will go to the polls on November 5 and I suspect that Eddie Wilson and his fellow Austinites are going to have to “hide their heads and shiver”. There’s every chance that Austin will once again remain a Blue city in a Red state.

Not that tourists, after a few rounds of Ranch Water and a night of live music, will be too concerned.

Austin essentials

Graham Boynton was a guest of Visit Austin (

Travelbag ( arranges British Airways direct flights to Austin and car hire on the ground. Return flights with BA from Heathrow to Austin, including one piece of luggage, start from £740. A week’s car hire starts at £345.

For further information on Texas see Travel Texas (; Visit Austin ( ).

Recommended hotels include Austin Proper ( and The Lauren (

Two essential day trips from Austin


Waco is on the I-95, halfway between Austin and Dallas, a convenient stopover that has recently become a destination in itself thanks to the omni-presence of Chip and Jo Gaines, the television personalities who created the Fixer Upper Show and are the founders of Magnolia.

The Magnolia home décor theme park is now the town’s main tourist destination. Before the Gaines’ revolution Waco used to get half a million visitors a year and now it is past two million.

Waco, for so long remembered only for the Branch Davidians siege, has reinvented itself as a cool Texan university town (it the home of Baylor University) that’s been turbo-charged into the 21st century by the designer couple.

Waco is one of Texas' charming smaller cities
Waco is one of Texas' charming smaller cities - Alamy

The hotels are as cool as anything Kit Kemp is doing in London and New York – the ubiquitous Gaines’s elegant 33-room 1828 Hotel, and the soon-to-be opened Herringbone Hotel, a modern, art deco hotel created out of shipping containers with 21 luxurious rooms and four restaurants.

What to do? The Waco Mammoth National Monument is a marvellous museum and research centre built around a major paleoanthropological find of the remains of a family herd of sixteen 65,000-year-old woolly mammoths.

You’re also culturally obliged to visit Magnolia, the Gaines’ upscale designer supermarket. End the day at Cory McIntyre’s Milo restaurant, a temple of barbecued chicken, salmon and grits, and prime rib-eye steak.

Visit for more information. Recommended hotels include Hotel 1928 (, The Herringbone ( and Cambria Hotel Waco University Riverfront (


Bryan is regularly voted one of the best places to live in Texas in consumer polls. You can see why. It has a population of just 84,000, it’s A&M University is the biggest in the US and it has cultural and culinary charms enough to satisfy any visitor.

Downtown Bryan reminds me of my hometown Bulawayo in Zimbabwe with streets so wide you could U-turn an ox wagon. An array of restaurants, art galleries and the historic Queens Theatre all contribute to making this an officially recognised Texas Cultural Centre.

The highlight of my short stay was a visit to Catalena Hatters, the town’s bespoke cowboy hat company that produces 5,000 custom-made Stetson-style hats a year and where I, a notoriously non-hat-wearing person, had the most beautiful hat sculpted by a man named Chase Black.

That was his real name, not some hat maker’s pseudonym.

Cowboy bronc rider on bucking horse during Austin Rodeo
Cowboy bronc rider on bucking horse during Austin Rodeo - mke Lass/laif

Culinary highlights included a wine tasting at Messina Hof Winery, one of the state’s better-known producers, and a sensational meal at Ronin, the farm-to-table haute Southern cuisine restaurant owned and run by Brian and Amanda Light. People drive from Austin and Dallas to have dinner here.

My final night was a Texan-folk-country show at the Stella hotel’s Herschel’s nightclub which had Michael Herne, Walt Williams and Kyle Hutton perched on stools singing Texan folk-country songs in an intimate, connected environment. Perfect.

For further information on Bryan, visit Stay at the Stella Hotel ( and eat at Ronin Restaurant (