Texas Swing: A Queer Travelers’ Guide to Austin, Texas

Though Austin has some notable festivals, the gay community knows how to keep the party going year-round. Photo courtesy Flickr/Alexander Shenkar.

So you want to be queer and weird in Austin, Texas? The progressive blue bubble nestled on the eastern edge of Texas hill country has cultivated many reasons for queer travelers from all sides of the rainbow to visit. Much like our beloved river city, Austin is a vibrant intersection of roots and blues music, stellar food culture, bohemian artisans, provocative queer artists and fabulous cultural and natural experiences.

En Route

We recommend scouting the end of summer airline sales and snagging a flight from St. Louis Lambert International Airport to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. One-way, mid-week flights can be found for as cheap as $106. Save the checked luggage for more exotic locations. Austin has a down-home, casual and funky culture, so pack the weekender with your favorite shoes, some dark denim, a threadbare tee, sunglasses and your favorite vintage statement piece. Book a room in the luxury Austin Motel, a kitschy retro-inspired property complete with a 1,100-square-foot, kidney-shaped pool, a continental taco breakfast and two on-site bars.

Festival Facetime

Austin City Limits and SXSW may be two of Austin’s leading cultural and live-music festivals, but you are a St. Louisan, and St. Louisans don’t need to stand in line for two hours to buy $10 beers. (We have Busch Stadium for that). Instead, make plans for some of Austin’s LGBTQ-centered festivals like OUTsider Festival, a five-day immersive indie queer arts and transmedia festival dedicated to uncensored, raw and provocative queer artists, or get your full henny on at the Austin International Drag Festival with workshops, panels, meet and greets, performances and all the wigs your heart could ask for! If you are a queer athlete or philanthropist traveler, consider registering for the AIDS Walk Austin or Hill Country Ride for AIDS to connect with local activists and to benefit local HIV/AIDS care organizations. And for the queer cinephiles, Contrast Film Fest and aGLIFF bring some of the year’s most anticipated queer films, documentaries, art-house shorts and foreign films to Austin.

Gays Be Shopping

Austin also offers amazing retail therapy for queer travelers searching for exclusive boutiques, vintage treasures, unique crafts and artisanal finds. For curated femme vintage, sift through the racks at Charm School Vintage and Feathers Boutique, or find your next mid-century modern collector’s item at Room Service Vintage. If you are more of an antique mall rat, check out the flea markets at Uncommon Objects for taxidermy and Texas memorabilia or the Austin Antique Mall for aisles of kitsch, jewelry, pottery and collectables. Butch and masc-of-center queer travelers can also find the perfect retro-classic selections at Best Made Co. and Stag Provisions.

Fed by natural springs, Barton Springs Pool is one of Austin’s crown jewels. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Lars Plougmann.

Selfies or It Didn’t Happen

Dust off that favorite fanny pack, make sure your camera is fully charged and channel your inner norm-core dad for some of Austin’s iconic landmarks. Barton Springs Pool is one of Austin’s crown jewels. Fed by underground spring waters, the pool’s water temperature hovers between 68 and 70 degrees year-round and serves as a refreshing reprieve for swimmers escaping the summer heat. Located within Zilker Metropolitan Park, the pool joins other local attractions to make Zilker its own tourist destination. The park houses the Zilker Botanical Gardens, Austin Nature and Science Center and the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum, which features more than 200 touchable works from American sculptor Charles Umlauf’s collection. But a massive bat colony may actually be Austin’s most iconic and awe-inspiring natural attraction. The Mexican free-tailed bat colony numbers about one and a half million, all living, breeding and hunting from beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge along the Colorado River. Arrive early as spectators line the bridge and crowd the nearby Statesman Bat Observation Center for the best spots to catch the colony taking their dusk hunting flights. And pack some garlic, just in case.

Congress Avenue Bridge is home to one of the world’s largest bat colonies, and they take flight every evening at dusk. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Earl McGehee.

Poppers & Potions

Bar life isn’t always on the top of every queer traveler’s agenda, but for the explorers who prefer a kiki and a stiff cocktail with the locals, we suggest holding court at some of Austin’s favorite queer bars and dives. Cheer Up Charlies is a vegan music venue and club apt to host everything from a Rihanna tribute dance party to a queer-indie punk show or a full on electronic-house rave. The interior is narrow and small, but that means you get the chance to chat with a diverse range of Austin culture makers, queer glitterati, off-shift industry folks and college students.

For a more traditional take on gay club life, hop in line at the Highland Lounge, where the dance party never stops. Three stories of music and dancing and an open-sky patio draw a heavy gay bar crowd. Come for drag bingo on an easy-sipping weeknight or go all in for the main Friday “Tucked” showcase. Saturdays bring resident house and electronica DJs to the basement bar, so make sure to pack a fresh bottle of poppers or twerk to the rap and hip-hop heavy rotations on the upper levels.

For St. Louis travelers who lament the bygone culture of go-go dancers, head to Oilcan Harry’s and tip the cowboy-themed dancers as they prove to you that the disco balls and the trade is bigger in Texas!

And of course, no queer voyage could be complete without a trip to the local bear bar. The Iron Bear is the local watering hole for Austin’s cubby cuties and the site for monthly leather and fetish events, but if you can, polish the harness and come for the Sunday beer bust. Stick around for karaoke.
Remember, a trip to Austin should be as queer and weird as you want it to be!

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