Barton Springs vs. bayou. Black Pumas vs. Beyonce. Live Music Capital vs. Energy Capital.
As Austin expands into "boomtown" status, it's become subject to a growing rivalry between another storied Texas city: Houston.
While Houston still edges out Austin in population—it's the fourth-largest city in the U.S. and boasts a metro of over 7 million compared to Austin's 2.3 million—Austin has been generating significant buzz as tech CEOs, Californians and migrants nationwide begin to call the Texas capital home.
Most Austinites will tout their Hill Country beauty, world-renowned live music and the proud "weirdness" that has long defined their city. But some say Houston's signature self-deprecating humor and status as the most diverse city in the nation gives them a leg up
It's time for these quarreling siblings to duke it out.
Here's how Austin and Houston compare, mapped out in five categories:
Affordability: Houston 1, Austin 0
Ask anyone in Austin: the city is not what it used to be. That change is no more apparent than in the skyrocketing housing market, which has shot from an average median home price of 189,000 in 2011 to a peak of $482,364 in June 2021, a 255% increase.
The exploding housing market is one of the best examples of Austin's "boomtown" status and is great for current homeowners, but it's a near-death sentence for many with an average income looking to survive. In fact, Austin is expected to become the least affordable metro outside of California by the end of 2021.
According to Salary.com, this translates into the cost of living—it's 11% more expensive to live in Austin than its southeast Texas neighbor.
With both cities nestled in Texas, a state well-known for its bang-for-your-buck housing, both are still attracting ex-pats from expensive metros across the nation. But Houston's reputation as an affordable city lingers.
A study by Property Club in 2019 found that a homebuyer in Houston with $250,000 could purchase 1,204 square feet—six times more than in NYC and more than 49 of 50 global cities studied.
That affordability is conditional, however—the fourth-largest city in the nation differs drastically in price in different neighborhoods. And Houston's housing market is beginning to heat up just as Austin's slightly cools, with home prices up 15.7% in September 2021 as compared to the year before.
"We are witnessing the most energized Houston real estate market in history," Houston Association of Realtors Chairman Richard Miranda said in a June 6 monthly update. "It's difficult to predict how and when this incredible housing run will end."
But with a median home price of $285,000, Houston's housing prices are still just a rumble compared to Austin's boom. Kevin Quist, a Houston urbanist activist, said that comes down to the cities' different zoning policies.
To the chagrin of struggling Austinites everywhere, Houston takes the cake with this one.
Economy: Austin 1, Houston 1
Austin has come a long way from its days as a college town. While a major employer for the city continues to be the University of Texas and the Texas Capitol, the city has been dubbed "Little California" by recent move-in Elon Musk for a reason.
The area's tech boom, headlined by Tesla CEO Musk and his upcoming Giga Texas plant, brought in tech transplants including Oracle, blockchain companies like Blockcap, and 35 others in 2020 alone.
With Fortune 500 companies like Dell and national brands like Indeed and Bumble already in the area, Austin has become the darling of startups looking to relocate to a California-esque utopia with no state income tax.
But the Energy Capital earned its namesake for a reason—the city is home to 24 Fortune 500 companies and over 500 oil and gas firms. With a seven-mile-long Energy Corridor and nine refineries, Houston's opportunities abound.
Still, Austin's job market is projected to expand by 47% in the next decade to Houston's 30%. While both sit under the national average of 5.2% unemployment rate in August 2021, Houston saw a 4.9% unemployment rate compared to Austin's 3.8%. And with many parts of Houston experiencing higher poverty rates than others, Houston's average income is nearly 20,000 less than Austin's $71,579 at $52,558.
Austin may be hard to live in, but its current economic opportunity outpaces Houston.
Janice Omadeke, CEO of startup The Mentor Method, is one of many startup CEOs in Austin. (The Mentor Method/Facebook)
Diversity and Culture: Houston 2, Austin 1
According to Wallethub, Houston was the United States' most diverse city in 2021. By contrast, 38th-place Austin has become more cosmopolitan in recent years but is losing some minority residents—census data shows the city's Black and Hispanic populations decreased from 2010 to 2020.
That's not to say that Austin doesn't have culture—it's a majority-minority city that has seen its Asian-American population skyrocket and diversify. It's not uncommon to find Spanish spoken in Austin, with a quarter of residents speaking Spanish at home and Spanish-language chants like "Dale ATX" chanted at the city's first professional soccer team, Austin FC.
That diversity bleeds into food. The breakfast taco hub is home to Tex-Mex eats of every creed, and residents can grab bites from all the world's cuisines at its ample food truck locales. But with 145 languages spoken in the metro, Houston's dining scene far outpaces Austin's in variety,
While Austin beat Houston in socioeconomic diversity in the same Wallethub study, that may be more due to economic segregation than anything else. According to the city of Austin, an "island of affluence" has emerged to the west even as some means of residential segregation have improved. Houston, on the other hand, often sees "newly poor" neighborhoods right next to their more affluent counterparts.
While neither topped the charts in religious diversity, Houston is the third-most religious area by percentage of population in the U.S., slightly edging out Austin when it comes to places of worship.
It looks like being a truly global city does have its perks. Houston is once again up, 2-1.
Himalaya Houston pairs fried chicken with Pakistani flair for a truly Houston dish. (Himalaya/Instagram)
Identity: Houston 2, Austin 2
Whether it be the Live Music Capital or Keep Austin Weird, Austin has always known what it is. Legends including Willie Nelson and Janis Joplin helped join a massive musical movement in the 1970s that saw hippies, outlaws and cutting-edge artists flock to the Live Music Capital of the World in the mid-to-late- 1900s. By 1991, the city discovered it had the most live music per capital, and an iconic name was born.
Houston, however, has seen a few failed slogans—see an "Austin City Limits" knockoff, "The City With No Limits," or even worse, "Houston's Hot." The city's new unofficial slogan, "Houston. It's Worth It," embraces its imperfections as what makes it special, a name that is aptly fitting for the city's signature self-deprecating humor.
While Houston has finally found its niche as an imperfect place for imperfect people, Austin has known its identity for years-even if some say it's beginning to blur.
The tech boom has seen some of that laid-back Austin swagger morph into a more corporate feel, accentuated by new developments such as The Domain. Every year, new move-ins and natives alike lament about the legendary "old Austin" and its wacky eccentricities.
But the world-renowned music festival Austin City Limits still exists. Weirdness is still accepted in this city like no other-from The Austin World Naked Bike Ride to playing bingo with "chicken shit."
That historic identity shines through, albeit less bright, in every corner of the Texas Capitol. Austin ties it up 2-2.(Charles Reagan/ACL)
Lifestyle: Austin 3, Houston 2
In June, Texas Monthly instigated a war when they wrote an article imploring Austinites to move to "an affordable, weird city: Houston."
"Those Austin amenities that people swear they could never do without—the live music! The outdoors! The progressive attitude!—exist in every other major metropolis in one form or another," writer Evan Mintz said.
But as stated before, that weirdness is not quite matched even in global cities like Houston. In fact, Houston's big-city status may be what hinders it from certain Austin-y amenities.
Even as things change, remnants of Austin's small-town charm still shine through in pockets of seemingly millions of local cafes, wacky mom-and-pop shops and character-filled neighborhoods. Festival culture abounds, from the Moontower Comedy Festival to SXSW, to give residents a fiesta feel all year long.
While Houston has Austin beat in sports ventures—think Astros and Texans—Austin professional soccer team Austin FC has made Q2 Stadium "the biggest party in Austin," and University of Texas tailgates are unmatched. Not a fan of watching? Join sports teams from Quidditch to pickleball.
The Hill Country beats the bayou, as well—a Texas beach isn't too far from Houston's interior, but a river cuts through downtown Austin, improving residents' quality of life with its acres of hiking trails, swimming holes and more.
Houston defeats Austin in sheer numbers of things to do, but Austin takes it home in the lifestyle category to beat its fellow Texan sibling once and for all.
Austin FC matches are just one of many ways to get your party on in Austin. (Austin FC/Twitter)
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By Eleanor Klibanoff
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Friday to overturn Roe v. Wade, eliminating the constitutional protection for abortion and allowing states to set their own laws regulating the procedure. This represents one of the most significant judicial reversals in a generation and is expected to have far-reaching consequences for all Texans.
Texas will ban all abortions from the moment of fertilization, starting 30 days after the ruling, with narrow exceptions only to save the life of a pregnant patient or prevent “substantial impairment of major bodily function.”
The law that will go into effect in 30 days criminalizes the person who performs the abortion, not the person who undergoes the procedure.
This ruling will radically change the reproductive health care landscape in Texas and the entire nation, where more than half of all states are expected to essentially ban abortion in the coming months.
Most of Texas’ neighboring states are also expected to outlaw abortion as a result of this ruling, with one exception: New Mexico. As the sole outlier in the region, New Mexico is expected to become a haven for Texans seeking abortions. The state currently has no significant restrictions and no plans to limit access to the procedure.
Friday’s ruling represents a victory nearly five decades in the making for Texas’ anti-abortion advocates, who have played an outsized role in the national effort to overturn Roe v. Wade.
It also represents a crushing blow to the state’s abortion providers, who have fought to maintain abortion access in Texas amid a nearly endless parade of restrictions, limitations and political attacks.
Roe v. Wade’s Texas roots
Before it became one of the most well-known Supreme Court cases in the country, Roe v. Wade was just a Texas lawsuit.
More than five decades ago, a woman identified in the legal filings as Jane Roe, later revealed to be Norma McCorvey, wanted an abortion. But under Texas’ laws at the time, it was a crime to perform or “furnish the means for procuring” an abortion.
Two young female lawyers, Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington, saw an opportunity to use McCorvey’s case to challenge Texas’ abortion law more broadly. They filed a suit against Dallas County prosecutor Henry Wade, who would be the one responsible for bringing charges against anyone who violated the abortion law.
The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where in 1973 Justice Harry Blackmun shocked the nation with a ruling that blocked not just Texas’ abortion laws from being enforced, but all state laws that banned abortion early in pregnancy.
Blackmun agreed with Coffee and Weddington’s argument that the right to privacy in the U.S. Constitution extended to a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion. That right to privacy must be balanced with the state’s interest in the “potentiality of human life,” a balance that shifted in the state’s favor the further along a woman was into her pregnancy.
This ruling did little to settle the abortion debate in the United States, instead kicking off nearly five decades of anti-abortion activism and legal challenges seeking to overturn the decision.
Texas, the birthplace of Roe v. Wade, has led many of those legal challenges, including a landmark 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld Roe v. Wade and the 1992 ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey.
But the Supreme Court has become much more conservative in recent years, thanks to three appointments by former President Donald J. Trump.
In late 2021, the court declined to block a Texas law that banned abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy through a novel enforcement mechanism that empowers private citizens to sue anyone who “aids or abets” in an abortion.
That law remains in effect and will not be immediately impacted by Friday’s ruling.
In December, the court heard arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson, a challenge to Mississippi’s law banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Rather than considering just the law itself, the court agreed to consider the question of whether Roe v. Wade should be overturned — and today’s ruling gave the answer.
Ongoing legal questions
But if Roe v. Wade did little to end the debate about abortion in the United States, Dobbs v. Jackson is not expected to settle the question either.
Health care providers are worrying about how these laws will impact their ability to provide care for high-risk pregnancies or people experiencing miscarriages. Some local district attorneys have said that they won’t prosecute abortion cases in their jurisdictions.
One such challenge is already looming, as state Rep. Briscoe Cain, a Republican from Deer Park, has made it clear he intends to target nonprofit advocacy groups that help pregnant patients pay for abortions.
Under the current law banning abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy, these abortion funds have helped hundreds of pregnant people leave the state to get an abortion. They’ve paid for travel, lodging, child care and the procedure itself, and they’re preparing for a surge in demand now that abortion is further restricted.
But Cain, an anti-abortion legislator, has issued cease-and-desist letters to these groups, warning that their work may be criminalized under the state laws that were on the books before 1973.
That argument didn’t carry much weight when Roe v. Wade was in effect. Now, legal experts say this may represent the first of many legal questions that will need to be sorted out by the courts as the state begins to navigate an entirely new reproductive health care landscape.
Like Austin, Santa Barbara transcends being a geographic place and has become an aspirational lifestyle brand. While Austin’s lifestyle, at its best, is casually hip, Santa Barbara is casually luxurious on the California coast.
What’s so special about Santa Barbara?
There’s probably nowhere in the United States more beautiful than Santa Barbara. A ribbon of a city tucked between a coastal mountain range and the Pacific Ocean, it looks southward toward a chain of islands that rise out of the sea 30 miles away and paint a perfect backdrop. The city itself is primarily Spanish architecture with red tile roofs. It’s easy to believe you’re in Europe. The landscapes, which in their original, pre-settlement state were much like the Texas Hill Country–live oaks and native grasses–are now lush, well-watered plantings of palm trees, roses, birds of paradise and agapanthus.
The Mediterranean climate in Santa Barbara is close to perfect. Average highs range from 60s in winter to high 70s in summer. In the last few years, summer temperatures have spiked higher. Wintertime lows are in the 40s. Summer is nice and fall is glorious—crisp and clear with low humidity.
The chance of summer rain is 0%. Rain comes, when it comes, in the winter.
Late spring and early summer can be foggy, especially in the mornings. The locals call it “June Gloom.”
Santa Barbara has beautiful beaches, from El Capitan in the west to Fernald Point in the east. All of them are a place to pack your cooler, set up your chairs and lather up with sunscreen. But here the beaches are more of a setting than an experience. A place to get some sun, take a walk or let your dog loose. The water is cold, mostly braved by young children splashing in the surf and by wetsuit-clad surfers. Walk the beach, or sit and look in the early morning or late afternoon, and you’ll see a passing parade of dolphins and pelicans, and sea lions frolicking and foraging in the kelp forests beyond the breakers.
It’s hard to turn away from the ocean, but when you do, there’s a range of 4,000-foot mountains just behind. Spidered with hiking trails and greened with chaparral brush and trees, the mountains are a crinkled, photo-friendly backdrop, especially in the moments before sunset when the hills glow softly in what’s called “the pink moment.” Invisible from below, the upper canyons conceal big predators like bears and mountain lions.
Here’s a rule of thumb: where wine grapes grow, life is good. And lucky for us, wine grapes grow here. Warm, sunny, summer days and cool nights with occasional foggy mornings are a recipe for world-class wines. Santa Barbara is full of tasting rooms and the nearby Santa Ynez Valley is packed with vineyards and low-key, world-class wineries.
The famous and the wealthy discovered Santa Barbara 100 years ago and they never forgot it. Keep your eyes open and you might see the Duke of Sussex walking his dogs on the beaches of Summerland, Ellen and Portia watching Brandi Carlile perform at the Santa Barbara Bowl, or maybe Oprah and Stedman getting coffees to go at Pierre Lafond.
It’s so easy to be healthy here. A list of daily activities:
- walk the beach
- mountain hike
- ebike ride
In one morning, you can splash your feet in the Pacific, walk on the beach, ride your bike in the mountains, and have time to clean up and have a leisurely wine-soaked lunch. The climate and soil will grow anything, and there are farmer’s markets almost every day. Any kind of bodywork or spiritual help you can think of, it’s here. Namaste.
Other things to do
What to do depends on you. If you’re traveling with someone special, or with small children, or if you’re a surfer or kiteboarder, your activities will be different. But here are a few for everyone to consider.
- Visit the Mission and the Rose Garden
- Santa Barbara Courthouse (self-guided tour, climb stairs to clock tower for view)
- Stearns Wharf (touristy but fun, with beautiful views)
- Funk Zone and Harbor (for visitors it’s the heart of the city)
- Santa Barbara Bowl (outdoor amphitheater with ocean views)
- Montecito (wealthy community of celebrities, tycoons and trust funders)
- Wine tasting in the Santa Ynez Valley (one hour drive, numerous wineries and the charming town of Los Olivos)
Where to eat
This and the other recommendations are just samplings. There are lots of great places, and you’ll have fun finding your own special spots.
- Clark’s (coming soon, Montecito. This is Clark’s, the McGuire Moorman Lambert oyster bar on Austin’s 6th St. They expanded to Aspen and now to Santa Barbara)
- Shoreline Beach Cafe (at the beach, some tables are in the sand)
- Brophy Bros. (harbor seafood house with bar and great views)
- Carazon Cocina (downtown, tacos)
- Santa Barbara Public Market (casual, various)
- Shalhoob’s Funk Zone Patio (casual, funk zone)
- Finney’s Crafthouse (bar/restaurant, funk zone)
- Arigato (sushi, downtown)
- Ca’Dario (Italian)
- The Lark (LA style, funk zone)
- Bouchon (fine dining, downtown)
- The Stonehouse (fine dining, Montecito style)
Coffee & breakfast
- Jeannine’s (breakfast and lunch, two locations)
- Handlebar Coffee Roasters (coffee shop, two locations)
- Caje (coffee shop, Haley Street)
- Tre Lune (known for dinner, but serves an outstanding full breakfast)
Beer, wine & cocktails
- Figueroa Mountain Brewing (beer, funk zone)
- Melville Winery Tasting Room (wine, downtown)
- Riviera Bar (cocktails, downtown)
- Santo Mezcal (cocktails, downtown)
- The Pickle Room (cocktails, downtown)
- Harry’s Plaza Cafe (cocktails and food, locals place, Loreto Plaza)
- Lucky’s (Cocktails and steakhouse, Montecito)
- Test Pilot (never been but want to try it!)
Where to stay
You’re not going to spend much time in your room, so keep that in mind when choosing your accommodations. Any of the big hotels along the beach, or the boutique hotels in town, are worth a look. And some spectacular places are available on Vrbo and Airbnb. Just be sure the location works for you. What’s called “Santa Barbara” could be a 20-30 minute drive from downtown. That can get you something really special, so it can be worth it.
A few recommendations:
- Hotel Californian (perfect location—walk anywhere)
- El Encanto (tranquil, beautiful views)
- San Ysidro Ranch (laid back luxury, Montecito)
- Rosewood Miramar Beach (seaside luxury, Montecito)
- Motel 6 (the first-ever Motel 6, some rooms have ocean views)
Flying: There are no direct flights to Santa Barbara. Fly private if you can. For the rest of us, here are your best choices:
- Southwest Airlines via Las Vegas
- American Airlines via Phoenix or Dallas
- United Airlines via Denver or San Francisco
Driving: Another option, fun for some and not for others, is to drive.
1. Measured from Austin’s Steve Ray Vaughn statue to Santa Barbara’s Dolphin Family sculpture at Stearns Wharf, the trip is 1,474 miles and takes about 22 hours.
2. Driving up from Los Angeles can be fun if you avoid morning and afternoon rush hours. Rent a car and drive through Santa Monica and up the Pacific Coast Highway. Stop in Malibu and get a cup of coffee, a drink or some lunch. Distance: 96 miles. Time: 2 hours+.
3. Driving down from San Francisco on the Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most beautiful drives in the USA. It’s 7 ½ hours on Google Maps, but don’t go if you’re in a hurry. Take two days and spend the night in Carmel, or further south, along the Big Sur coast. At Pismo Beach, take the 101 and when you get to the wine country town of Los Olivos, switch to highway 154 for a spectacular first view of Santa Barbara as you crest San Marcos pass and glimpse the ocean, and soon after, the city of Santa Barbara on its shore.
If you go, let us know how it went, and pass along any recommendations you think we should add (or subtract). Enjoy your trip!