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Day-tripping in Austin can take you off the beaten path

Austin is a city proud of its out-of-the-ordinary image. "Keep Austin Weird" bumper stickers have been a common sight on cars in the state's capital city for decades. And any visitor is bound to pick up on Austin's quirky vibe faster than you can say "Hippie Hollow." So it would seem to follow that a trip to Austin should also take an alternative approach.

There is an overabundance of things to see and do in the city of 1.7 million fun-loving citizens. But for every well-known attraction, there is a less-celebrated counterpart that should not be overlooked.

Here are some suggestions for trading the usual for an inviting alternative on a trip to Austin that can also be surprisingly easy on your pocketbook.

Sights

The usual: the State Capitol and the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum.

The alternatives: the LBJ Library, Blanton Museum and Harry Ransom Center

The State Capitol is something every Texan should see, but it hasn't really changed much in recent years. The nearby state history museum is also a must. It features a wide range of permanent and temporary exhibits and also houses an IMAX movie theater where educational and entertainment films are screened.

But, if you have already experienced those two important stops, consider similar possibilities in that area near the University of Texas campus.

The LBJ Library is always a good choice, and maybe more so now.

A new exhibit, "Left to Right: Radical Movements of the 1960s," will open April 2. The exhibit will look at "the upheavals and social disturbances that characterized the 1960s."

You can, of course, also visit the presidential library on the same trip. Admission is free, and ample free parking is available on the east side of the library.

The Blanton Museum of Art on the UT campus is a small wonder. Its tidy permanent collection covers several centuries with works that well-define their time and place. The collection reflects exceptional taste and care, and is displayed in an easy to follow and logical flow.

While the pieces from the past are typically pleasing, the museum's contemporary exhibitions are usually dazzling. Displays of new works, from oils to videos, frequently include impressive contributions from the rich pool of talent at UT.

Opening Feb. 20 is "Recovering Beauty: The 1990s in Buenos Aires." Organized by the Blanton, it is considered to be the first comprehensive presentation of art produced in the 1990s in Buenos Aires. It will focus on the "Arte Light" group, which rose to prominence in that decade.

Nearby on the UT campus is the Harry Ransom Center. This facility is more a research library than a museum. But part of its space is devoted to historical and biographical exhibits that change frequently, and it has two stunning permanent fixtures: a Gutenberg Bible and the original negative of the first photograph ever taken. Admission to the public part of the center, where these exhibits are found, is free.

In addition, the library also houses a number of celebrated collections, ranging from a treasure trove of movie memorabilia donated by Robert De Niro to the copious Watergate papers of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Collections such as these are primarily for scholars, but the museum also builds exhibits around some of them.

Dining

The usual: Any number of outstanding restaurants featuring every imaginable cuisine, from vegetarian to steaks the size of saddle blankets.

The alternative: Restaurants on wheels are all the rage in Austin. Food vans can be found in clusters around town, including sites on Barton Springs Road, Congress Avenue and First Street, just south of downtown and the river.

When you think of mobile food vendors, the first thing that comes to mind is the taco truck. There are plenty of those to be found around Austin, but Tex-Mex is far from the only type of street food available. There are now areas where several of these rolling restaurants share a lot on a pretty much permanent basis and offer about any cuisine you could find under a roof -- everything from crepes and Cajun food to snow cones and cupcakes.

Be aware that the hours for these rolling restaurants can be erratic. But if you enjoy dining al fresco, some of the areas designated for these vendors also have picnic tables, and the wide range of choices at relatively low prices makes them an attractive alternative to their sit-down competitors for any adventurous and budget-conscious diner.

Where to see and be seen

The usual: Austin's famous Sixth Street, and its surrounding area, is a well-known strip of bars and unusual shops that attracts throngs of visitors, especially out-of-towners. It remains a great spot for endlessly fascinating (and occasionally shocking) people-watching.

The alternative: The stretch of South Congress Avenue known as SoCo.

There has always been plenty going on in south Austin, but in recent years, a real scene has emerged that is a slightly funkier version of Sixth Street's slickness. With the legendary Continental Club as its beating heart, the area along South Congress across the Colorado River (aka Town Lake) from downtown has developed into an eclectic collection of shops, clubs and restaurants that are especially popular with the locals.

Music and books

The usual: Waterloo Records and any number of general and specialized bookstores around town.

The alternative: Half Price Books and Cheapo Discs.

Because of Austin's young and entertainment-hungry population, it has always been a superior place to shop for music and books. Waterloo Records is one of the best places in America to troll for music, no matter how obscure the band you might be seeking. And, in addition to its fabulous inventory, the store frequently hosts "in stores" featuring famous and soon-to-be famous bands.

But while serious music lovers know about Waterloo, they might not be aware of its neighbor just to the north, Cheapo Discs, at 914 N. Lamar St. This new and used music and video store, which occupies a large building that was formerly a grocery store, offers an astounding number and range of new and used CDs, LPs and DVDs at very attractive prices. It's not the prettiest record store that you have ever seen -- just a big room with walls covered with products or posters. But it is bursting with every manner of music and video. And, since its inventory is determined more by its customers than its management, you never know what you might find on its shelves.

For book shopping, you have more choices in Austin than in most cities its size, from the usual chain giants to highly specialized little shops. But it is hard to beat the Half Price Books store at 5555 N. Lamar St.

When Austinites are not listening to cutting-edge music, they are reading everything imaginable. Much of it winds up on the shelves of this enormous resale shop. All Half Price locations are great for bookworm treasure hunts, but this Austin location offers even more variety than most of the chain's stores.

Shopping

The usual: Round Rock Premium Outlet Mall and upscale The Domain mall.

The alternative: shopping South Austin

The outlet mall just north of Austin is a mecca for name-brand bargain hunters and The Domain, with its high-end retailers, is where the elite meet to abuse plastic.

But if you want to venture away from the big chains, once again, just head south. The area around South Lamar Boulevard and Sixth Street offers an eclectic assortment of shops and boutiques, including many that would fall into the chic and upscale category.

In the nearby SoCo area, you will find some of Austin's oldest and most traditional retailers (Allen's Boots at 1522 S. Congress Ave. has been there since 1977) sitting cheek and jowl with some of the city's most bohemian outlets (the colorful costume store Lucy in Disguise With Diamonds and Electric Ladyland, for example.)

Spending even a short time in either of these shopping areas -- or any number of other pockets of unique retailers around the city -- will make it clear that there is nothing too strange to shop for in Austin

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