It's no secret that Austin's growing. But that growth, from the tech boom to the real estate explosion, can sometimes overshadow the qualities that made Austin a low-key darling and tourist favorite in the first place.
Thankfully, all around our city are smaller towns that happily embrace the old-Austin life. From live music and quirky characters to swimming holes and delicious Tex-Mex and barbecue joints, here are five places where you can enjoy the things you love about Austin while escaping the crowds.
Located 30 miles southeast of Austin with a population of about 9,000, Bastrop in recent years has become a microcosm of many of the things people have always loved about Austin. Take, for example, the film scene–several film studios are already in operation there, and another 546-acre film studio and movie-making facility recently received a green light from the city.
Bastrop also counts some celebrities among its residents, including actor Adrian Grenier, who relocated from Hollywood during the pandemic. In terms of food, the offerings are wide and varied, including a new restaurant by Austin Chef Sonya Cote, who opened Store House Market + Eatery there late last year. Expect a quaint yet bustling downtown brimming with boutiques, galleries, restaurants and bars as well as plentiful outdoor activities thanks to the city's location on the Colorado River.
"I am always honored when a new resident tells me they decided to move here after they had a great first visit," said Bastrop Mayor Connie Schroeder. "I promise, you will not be disappointed if you take a break from driving and check out Bastrop.
Sure, Austin has Barton Springs and the Greenbelt, but Dripping Springs has Hamilton Pool Preserve and Reimers Ranch, two destinations known for offering activities such as swimming, mountain biking, hiking and rock climbing in a bucolic, Hill Country setting.
Located about 25 miles west of Austin with a population of about 7,500, Dripping Springs is also a hub for unique craft beverages and is home to more than 35 wineries, breweries and distilleries including Treaty Oak Distilling, Desert Door, Ghost Note Brewing and Driftwood Estate Winery. It's also become a destination for brides looking for an Austin alternative–it has even been designated the Wedding Capital of Texas by the Texas Legislature.
"It's a town that is full of artisans, innovators and really rad people," said Hope Boatright of Destination Dripping Springs, "making some really cool and tasty things."
We may love our live music in Austin, but Gruene can rival our concert calendar thanks to the star-studded line-up that regularly plays at Gruene Hall, from Gary P. Nunn to Bob Schneider. But there's more to Gruene (pronounced green) than just its famous dancehall, which was built in 1878 and also happens to be the oldest in Texas.
Like Austin, Gruene is set on water–the Guadalupe and Comal rivers, to be exact–making it an excellent place to swim, wade or tube (spelled toob, if you're a local) in the summer. It's also got artisan ice cream (Rhea's), antiquing (Gruene Antique Company) and requisite cowboy hats (Gruene Hat Company). Gruene's population is said to technically be 20, but it's located within New Braunfels, where the countywide population is more like 78,000.
"It's impossible to have a bad time in Gruene, whether you're a visitor looking for your first Stetson to wear while two-steppin' in Gruene Hall or a local looking for a good meal at the Gristmill," said Gruene Hat Company's Cody Courtney. "It's a small-town throwback in time that caters to everyone."
Located in Hays County with a population of 15,000, Buda (pronounced byoo-da) is a small town that, like Austin, has big love for the arts. From concerts and theater performances at the Buda Amphitheater and City Park to the Inspired Minds Art Center, a haven and gallery space for artists of various backgrounds, there's something for the artist in everyone.
The newish Buck's Backyard features a full line-up of big-name musical acts, and Louie's Craft BBQ, which was formerly based in Austin, now regularly ranks among the best barbecue joints in the state. A Main Street Sip and Stroll (aka drink wine and shop) and weekly farmers market only add to Buda's laidback vibe.
"Buda is a lovely small town that is unique–it's not quite rural and not quite suburban either," said Buda City Manager Kenneth Williams. "We have an ideal location contiguous to Austin and close to San Marcos and San Antonio and at the foot of the Hill Country. We enjoy our quaintness and small-town charm."
With a population of around 17,000, the Williamson County town of Taylor packs a lot of Austin-style fun into a small space. Whether you're strolling the nine-block downtown that's chock full of boutiques and antiques shops or hitting up one of several local barbecue joints–including the famous Louie Mueller Barbecue–it's easy to discover something new and unexpected.
Since 2009, more than 20 companies have expanded to or relocated to Taylor, according to the Taylor Chamber of Commerce. The town also made headlines last month for hosting its first official Pride event supporting the LGBTQ community.
"Taylor is known for barbecue, but it's home to so much more," said writer Addie Broyles, who attended Taylor Pride and wrote about it on her website. She recommends a visit to Old Taylor High, a mixed-use development inside the former high school campus that features a bar, vintage store and arcade games, and called the Pride event "the ultimate celebration of what makes Taylor feel so special."
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Texas Longhorns linebacker Jake Ehlingers' death this spring was the result of an accidental drug overdose, according to a statement by the late student's family.
According to the statement, the 20-year-old University of Texas student and Westlake High grad overdosed on pills believed to be Xanax laced with Fentanyl, an often-deadly combo that has resulted in thousands of accidental fatalities nationwide.
Ehlinger was found dead off campus May 6 in a tragedy that shook the Austin and UT community, as well as Ehlinger's family, including his brother, former UT quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who now plays for the NFL's Indianapolis Colts.
An honorable mention All-State player and district defensive MVP while in high school, Ehlinger followed in his brother's footsteps and continued his football career as a walk-on at UT. He was also a sophomore in finance, a member of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity and a member of the Texas Silver Spurs, a student organization that cares for beloved mascot Bevo the Longhorn.
Counterfeit Xanax pills have caused an increasing number of fatalities in the area with 1,000 deaths related to synthetic opioids in the state in 2020. Drug dealers have begun stuffing fentanyl, an opiod that the DEA said can be up to 60 times more deadly than heroin, into pills resembling the prescription anti-anxiety medication and selling them to unwitting customers.
"The spread of counterfeit pills is an ongoing and significant issue throughout our country, particularly in schools, colleges and universities," the the Ehlinger family said in a statement. "As our family continues to process Jake's death, we felt it was important to share these details with the hope that Jake will not have died in vain. We pray that sharing Jake's story will help shed light on this problem and prevent other families from also tragically losing a loved one."
To combat the surge of deaths, Austin police now have access to a supply of Narcan, a drug that can combat the effects of an opiod overdose. Though it's not mandatory, APD officers can now check out supplies of the drug when responding to calls. The department had almost completed training on the drug by June, according to a KXAN report.
"You can talk to a number of families that have had family members die because of opioid overdoses and if this was an option to help their loved one or save their loved one, I'm sure that every single one of them would tell you that it was incredibly important that we now have this incredible tool in our tool belt," Assistant Chief Scott Perry said in the report.
Ehlinger is remembered by his brother, Sam, his mother Jena, his sister Morgen and the University of Texas community. Ehlinger's father, Ross, died of an apparent heart attack while swimming in a triathlon in 2013.
"(Jake) was his dad's little buddy, and they shared an unbreakable bond," Jake's obituary read. "His father's spirit was alive and well in every part of Jake's life. Tragic life circumstances created a unique opportunity for Sam and Jake to uplift and empower each other. They were each other's biggest fans. Their mother, Jena, as well as their sister, Morgen, were the loves of Jake's life. Everyone will miss his giant hugs, but no one more than Jena and Morgen."
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Eight of the world's best Brazilian jiu-jitsu athletes flew into Austin in September to be in the new hub for the sport. But after over a decade of fighting together, they'll no longer be under the same name.
The legendary Danaher Death Squad, which started in 2007 and was led by black belt John Danaher, made a highly-publicized split in late July while in Puerto Rico, with Danaher, legend Gordon Ryan and teammate Gary Tonon announcing the aptly-titled "New Wave Jiu Jitsu" as their new studio to open soon in Austin.
Missing from the new roster were former teammates Craig Jones, Ethan Crelinstein, Nick Rodriguez and even Ryan's younger brother, Nicky Ryan. The new crew announced that day that they would also be forming a new studio with the tongue-in-cheek title "B Team Jiu Jitsu."
Jiu jitsu greats Craig Jones (left) and Gordon Ryan have opened rival studios in Austin.
Both teams chose to move to Austin, a hotbed for the sport that the B Team's Seth Belisle said is becoming a "mecca for jiu-jitsu." With plenty of renowned studios, jiu-jitsu enthusiasts like Joe Rogan coming into town and the presence of Flo Grappling, the sport's premier media outlet, Belisle said there's now "more jiu-jitsu here than anywhere in the world."
While Belisle, an Austin native, handles the business side for the crew, the team's coaching is headed by Jones, a leopard-print wearing Aussie who has been known to sport assless chaps and places importance on the lighter side of things (the studio advertises that they train "Mexican ground karate," a name they created for jiu-jitsu).
Rumors abound about the famed fighters' breakup, including money issues in the Ryan family or a well-rehearsed PR stunt, but Jones told Austonia that the split of the Death Squad simply comes down to personal differences between the fighters.
"It wasn't an amicable breakup at all," Jones said. "What Gordan represents is quite controversial... I would say there would be no line he wouldn't cross to promote a grappling match. So in that sense, we're sort of focused on a different, more positive sort of vibe."
B Team and New Wave alike are opening at a critical time for jiu-jitsu, as the sport slowly becomes a household name. Now, top fighters can make a living from their sport while still maintaining a much lower profile than MMA fighters or boxers.
That name recognition and B Team's positive attitude drew in droves of new trainees, with many opting to move to Austin solely to train at B Team.
"Jiu-jitsu is a relatively new sport," Belisle said. "If you love basketball, it's impossible for you to say, 'I'm going to go play with LeBron James and learn from him this weekend... in jiu-jitsu, that's possible. You have access to the stars of the sport because it hasn't really blown up yet. It's something special."
After an open house that saw over 150 athletes show up, the team realized they needed to become more exclusive. Now, the studio trains only the "Olympians" of the sport, something that sets them apart from other local studios. They also frequently bring in celebrities of the sport for training sessions, including famed female fighter Ffion Eira Davies.
"We're obviously a new gym, but we're probably some of the best guys in the world," Jones said.
Meanwhile, New Wave is training at the famed Renzo Gracie Studio, Danaher's former trainer, as they wait for a new studio.
Will the world's two best teams soon have showdowns in the Texas capital?
While it's unclear whether or not things will get personal (no brother vs. brother matchup is on the horizon), trainees under each studio went head-to-head for the first time Wednesday as New Wave's Gordon Ryan announced his first match out of semi-retirement. Ryan, often lauded as the best grappler in the world, forced UFC fighter Phillip Rowe to submit four times in the 15-minute friendly exhibition match at Austin's Palmer Events Center.
But Rowe, who was first a jiu-jitsu athlete before switching to UFC, said he didn't know about the beef and was just looking to train under his favorite athletes, Jones and Rodriguez.
He competed for a few reasons—including a break from UFC and a chance to give BJJ a bigger name—but he mostly came into town for the fun of it. Ryan and Rowe talked often prior to the meet, with Rowe gifting Ryan a Bumpboxx, or decorated boombox, in honor of Ryans' father. The respect was mutual—Ryan shouted out Rowe after the match for coming out with a broken hand and the death of some loved ones a week prior.
The match was the first indirect competition between the two gyms. Jones said they won't be training with the goal of fighting any of their former New Wave compadres.
"I don't know what's going to happen ultimately," Jones said. "Because obviously, we're not friendly as it is right now, but I mean. I wouldn't go so far as to train someone that was going to compete against them directly."
But with B Team fighters like Nick Rodriguez expressing their interest in fighting in the future and both gyms training for the WNO Championships in 2022, it's almost inevitable that the former teammates will find themselves on either side of the mat sooner or later.
"'I'd be lying if I said that every day since I started jiu-jitsu my goal is to beat Gordon. I'd be lying if I was saying that isn't true," Rodriguez told the Jason Chambers podcast. "My goal is to be the best grappler in the world and nothing less. That's an old teammate that I have to go through to knock him out and get to the top, then that's fine with me."
Atop one of Austin's signature rolling hilltops, 1501 Ridgecrest Drive is similar to one of the plush palaces that one might find in Calabasas. For $10.9 million, the home has four bedrooms, four-and-a-half bathrooms and caps at 10,498 square feet.
Park in the massive, fully air-conditioned garage before walking in, where you'll have eight full spaces to park your collection of cars. If you're not a collector, the garage makes an excellent studio space.
The wide-open living spaces will draw your eyes to the two-story ceilings, glass catwalk, integrated fireplace and wall of floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the pool.
Though the house was built in 2011, it doesn't show its age. Sleek, clean lines lead seamlessly from the formal living area to an elite open-plan kitchen. Separated by a 25-foot waterfall island that can seat at least eight people, the kitchen is fitted with only the finest Miele and Subzero appliances. The custom cabinets are just as pricey as the rest of the place, finished with custom high-gloss Aston Martin (you read that right) paint.
Upstairs in the sprawling master's suite, there are enough amenities to never have to set foot outside again. Armani tile floors, space for living and a walk-in showcase closet lead into the resort-style bathroom, where you'll find dual vanities, a walk-in shower and a lounging bathtub.
The bedroom is a quick elevator trip away from the "party" room, complete with a bar, wine room and movie theater, only the best for entertaining. If your guests are staying over, rest assured they'll be comfortable with the kitchenette, washer and dryer and spa-like bath in their suite.
Though summer has passed, you can still enjoy the grand lap pool's unobstructed Hill Country views, many private lounging areas, grill a homemade snack at the outdoor kitchen or shoot some hoops at the newly-added court.
The listing is held by Compass' Gary Dolch.
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