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7 Best Things to See, Enjoy, and Learn in Austin, Texas

Austin, a city in south-central Texas, is the state capital and the seat of Travis county. It is situated on the Colorado River, 75 miles (121 km) northeast of San Antonio. As the seat of state government and the site of the University of Texas, Austin has a special professional character. It is also a shipping and marketing center for a large agricultural area.

In addition to more traditional manufacturing industries, computer, aerospace, and other high-technology industries have been attracted to Austin. The city is a major convention center and the headquarters of numerous state, national, and regional associations.

1. The Universities

Besides the University of Texas, institutions of higher learning in the city are Saint Edward's University, Huston-Tillotson University, the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, Concordia University, and Austin Community College.

2. The Orchestras, Ballets, Operas, Theaters

The Austin Symphony Orchestra, Ballet Austin, Austin Lyric Opera, and various theaters contribute to the cultural life of the city. The Zachary Scott Theater and the Paramount and State theaters are the downtown venues for performing arts. The Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art, situated on the University of Texas campus, opened a new facility in 2006.

3. The Lake, the Park, the River, the Valley

Lake Austin, impounded by a dam on the Colorado River, and Town Lake within the city limits provide recreational facilities. Barton Springs, in Zilker Park, which produces millions of gallons of cold water daily, is a popular bathing resort; also in the park are botanical gardens and the Austin Nature and Science Center.

Just before the entrance to Zilker Park is the Umlauf Sculpture Garden, featuring some 130 sculptures by the noted artist Charles Umlauf. The Highland Lakes country stretches for nearly 100 miles (160 km) northwest of the city through wooded hills and picturesque cliffs along the Colorado River valley.

The short-story writer O. Henry (William Sydney Porter) called Austin the "City of the Violet Crown" because of the purplish mist that rings the surrounding hills in the evening.

4. The Museum, the Library, the Historical Buildings

The present Texas capitol, built of Texas pink granite, was completed in 1888. Other notable homes and buildings include the Greek Revival governor's mansion, built in 1855; the Texas Memorial Museum and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, both on the University of Texas campus; the O. Henry Home and Museum; and the French Legation, a house built in the early 1840s for the French representative to the Republic of Texas.

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You can also visit the Austin Museum of Art at Laguna Gloria; the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum; and the Old Land Office Building -with exhibits relating to Texas history- which now houses the Capitol Visitors Center.

The Mexic-Arte Museum displays many art traditions of Mexico, paying homage to the large Hispanic population in the city. Confederate general Albert Sidney Johnston, Stephen F. Austin, and other famous Texans are buried in the state cemetery in Austin.

5. The Festivals and Celebrations

There are many annual festivals throughout the year in Austin. South by Southwest is a festival that focuses on film, music, and multimedia. Austin City Limits, the longest-running concert music program on U.S. television, features music from all genres.

The Austin City Limits Festival, inspired by the success of this show, is a three-day music event, showcasing over 100 soloists and bands, from aspiring performers to famous artists; the event is held at Zilker Park. Various other events supporting the arts and celebrating the city's diversity are well attended.

Some Weird Things

A distinctive feature of the city is its "artificial moonlight" street-lighting system, which was erected in the 1890s. The system consists of 27 iron towers 150 feet (45 meters) high and capped with mercury-vapor lamps.

A popular, albeit strange, tourist attraction takes place in the spring and summer evenings on the Congress Avenue Bridge; the largest known urban bat colony, with up to 1.5 million animals, swarms from its habitat under the bridge to devour the millions of insects flying in the area.

7. And Learn Its History!

In 1730 three Spanish missions were moved from east Texas to the vicinity of present-day Austin. By 1833 the site of the future city lay within the territory of a Mexican land grant sought by Stephen F. Austin. In 1838 the village that sprang up at the site was named Waterloo. A joint congressional commission of the Republic of Texas reported in April 1839 its selection of Waterloo as the capital of its republic, and the government offices were moved to the new capital in October. The village was renamed Austin in honor of the principal colonizer and "Father of Texas."

Frequent Native American raids and a Mexican invasion of Texas in March 1842 caused the seat of government to be moved to Houston. Austin citizens retaliated by holding on to the government archives in what came to be known as the "Archives War." The capital was returned to Austin in 1845, the year Texas was annexed to the United States. In 1850 a state referendum made Austin the capital until 1870, and in 1872 it won the designation permanently.

During the Civil War Austin supported the Confederacy, although Travis county voted against secession. The city manufactured ammunition, raised a company of light infantry, and contributed many volunteers to Terry's Texas Rangers—a group of Texas volunteers for the Confederate Army assembled by Col. Benjamin Franklin Terry.

After the Civil War, Austin grew rapidly. The Chisholm Trail, an important route for cattle, crossed the eastern part of the city, and the railroads reached Austin in the 1870s. Its selection as permanent capital in 1872 and the establishment of the University of Texas in 1883 determined the future development of the city. Completion of a city-built dam on the Colorado River in 1893 made Austin one of the first cities in Texas to operate its own hydroelectric plant. This dam, destroyed by a flood in 1900, was replaced by the Tom Miller Dam in 1940.

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