Sightseeing in Austin
As part of our trip across the United States by train, we had a brief stop in Austin, Texas. We arrived in Austin early evening and then had an onward train the next evening. This gave us one day in Austin to stretch our legs and see the sights.
Our first stop for our one day in Austin was the State Capitol. As with all things Texan, the Capitol building is huge. Firstly, we went to the visitor centre to get information. We also viewed some presentations on how the Capitol was built.
We’ve visited a few of these state capitol buildings and they are quite impressive. Topped by huge domes they are distinctive and instantly recognisable.
The self-guided tour in Austin lets you view the inside of the chambers for a close up look. Pick up a free brochure as you enter for more information on what you’re seeing.
Before they made it the capital of Texas, Austin was a small settlement called Waterloo. However, they changed the name based on one of their early governors. Today, the gardens around the Capitol are a public park. So anyone can wander around and view the statues and monuments. There is a particularly striking one of the early settlers. This acknowledges the Mexican and Hispanic influence on the founding of Texas.
Touring the Capitol
The Capitol itself towers over the city of Austin. Surprisingly, anyone can go inside and look around for free. Austin turned out to be a very good value city all round. I can understand that Texans expect to be able to go into their own Capitol for free. But I’m sure they could get away with charging foreigners although we are obviously not complaining.
On our previous round the world trip we visited Jackson, the state capital of Mississippi. Visiting their old Capitol is also free. I like the way that most US Capitols have domes on them so you know what they are. Although the one in Albany (state capital of NY) does not have a dome. Also, there is a domed building in St Louis even though it is not the state capital. However, for the most part, you know that if you see a domed building in the US it is their Capitol.
Anyway, I digress. We had to go through security screening to get inside but it was fairly laid back. Then we scanned our bags. Then we had to walk through scanners. However, they did not take all my water off me as they did in Washington DC. Unusually, the guards were rather friendly. One of them told the other that he would like a backpack like Paul’s. Certainly, not the airport experience.
What can you see?
Inside the building is very impressive. From the 1st floor, you can stand under the dome. Then look right up to the lone star in the centre at the top. Around the top are a series of blue glass windows and the walls, walkways etc are all elaborately decorated. This is a working building but you can wander around and look in many of the rooms. Even right up to the door of offices used by the important members of the Texan government.
We were able to go inside both the House of Representatives and the Senate as neither were sitting on Monday. The Supreme Court room and Appeals Court are no longer used so they are maintained as they were when it was last used in the late 19th century. We were also able to go inside the library which is still in use for legislators today.
Because it is still a working building and modern government takes up more room they have extended the building considerably but it has all been done underground so that it doesn’t distract from the original design of the building. It is a very impressive complex on a suitably Texan scale. We even got to see some rattlesnakes. Thankfully, from a distance. There was some kind of teen convention in the basement extension area and they were viewing 5 or 6 rattlesnakes in the courtyard. We were able to see them from the balcony above, which was plenty close enough for me.
Interested to find out more about the history of Texas, we headed to the Bullock Museum. This was one of the highlights of our one day in Austin. They recently recovered the remains of a ship that sank off the coast of Texas during the early settlement period in the 19th century. So the ground floor of the museum is given over to the story of La Bella (the ship in question) and its restoration. The Centre stage belongs to the partially reassembled ship and you can view the ongoing restoration work and a number of displays and films on the ship’s history. It reminded me of the work on the Mary Rose when we were in Portsmouth although this one is much smaller.
The History of Texas
The other floors were given over to the history of Texas from early settlement times. It was very interesting to see the changing maps of the area and the struggles between French and Spanish to settle in Texas (La Bella was a French ship although most of the settlers in the area already were Spanish). The ongoing disputes with Mexico over control of Texas are well known although I had not known that Texas was actually considered part of Mexico for some time (Tejas as they called it and the people were Tejans).
Many of the displays are given over to the uprising when Tejans decided they wanted independence and the story of the Alamo (which shamefully, I didn’t know much about other than the name – nor did I know that Texas lost that one) and the subsequent crushing of the Mexican troops which lead to the declaration of independence of Texas and paved the way for them to become one of the United States.
After that, Texas history is far less interesting, or should I say unique as it inevitably follows fairly closely that of the wider USA. We had a bit of a browse and then called it a day and wandered back to the hotel to collect our bags and head to the station.
As you can see, our one day in Austin was mainly focused on the history. However, there is a lot more to Austin and we found it a friendly place to explore. It’s particularly good for exploring on foot with pedestrian areas in the centre.
Back to the Station
With our one day in Austin complete, we headed back to the station. The walk back to the station was considerably more straightforward than the walk-up. Of course, this time we knew where we were going but we left plenty of time in case a freight train was passing when we needed to cross the tracks.
Considering it is the capital of Texas, the Amtrak station at Austin is rather understated. Clearly, all the money went on the Capitol! The station is just a little brick hut with a few chairs. There is not even a platform so you feel like you are just getting on the train from the side of the road. The train was on time, arriving at 6.22 pm and the handful of passengers were loaded quickly and we were off by 6.30 pm. Our room attendant had kindly reserved us a table for dinner at 7 pm so no sooner had we settled into our little roomette than our call to the dining car came. We had dinner with another couple who had boarded in Austin, retired schoolteachers who had purchased a bookstore and were travelling around the US visiting book fairs and buying books.
Only a small part of our train was carrying on all the way to LA – most of the train, including the engine was returning to Chicago. Our carriages had to wait in San Antonio to be attached to the Sunset Limited train which was coming from New Orleans. So, we arrived in San Antonio at around 9pm and after much shuffling, banging, shaking of train cars we set off at around 3.45m. I slept through all of it but Paul said it was really noisy.