In the year 2000, Austin was going through a bit of an identity crisis. While facing an influx of new residents and interest from national chain businesses, the little city had to reckon with what made it unique from its larger counterparts.
At this moment, Austin librarian Red Wassenich called into his local radio station to complain about the plans to open a Borders bookstore in Downtown Austin. “Keep Austin Weird,” he said. The phrase caught on like wildfire. Bookstore owner Steve Bercu made bumper stickers with those now-iconic words imprinted on top, and Austin started to gain a reputation as Texas’s weird, hip capital. In the end, the Borders was never built, but the phrase has lived on, becoming something of a catchphrase for this strange town and its equally strange residents.
Sure, Austin has plenty of hippies and some bizarre local traditions, but the characteristics that keep this city weird are even weirder than you might expect.
These days it seems like everyone’s moving to Austin. National interest in the city has increased tenfold, helped along by hugely popular festivals like South by Southwest and Austin City Limits. It’s a little frightening to consider what the city loses when filled with so many transplants. Luckily, Austin has so many weird stories and traditions that we’re pretty sure it can hang onto the weirdness. Below is a list of some of our favorite Austin oddities, but believe us, there are so many more.
The Austin we know today wasn’t even supposed to be called that. In 1883, a commission was charged with surveying the land alongside the Colorado River. Austin was officially observed and promptly given the name Waterloo which thankfully didn’t stick for too long. The stretch was renamed “Austin” soon after that, in honor of Texas’ first Secretary of State, Stephen F. Austin.
Waaay before that commission started up — seriously, like 66 million years before — Austin was underwater. The city is now the sight of ten former underwater volcanoes that give the terrain its signature craters. The rock is called “Austin Chalk” for its white, crumbly texture.
If you’ve ever seen the movie Dazed and Confused, you might remember the iconic all-night kegger. Have you ever looked past all the drinking and the 70s hairstyles to check out the surroundings? The scenes were filmed under one of Austin’s famous Moonlight Towers. The only ones in the country, the Moonlight Towers were erected in 1894 to light up the city at night. Now each of the 17 towers is protected by city law and regularly serviced, ensuring they can keep Austin in the spotlight for many years to come.
PSA to anyone afraid of bats (and no, we’re not talking about the Ice Bats, sports freaks), Austin is absolutely chock full of them. The city has the largest urban population of bats in the country, with more than 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats calling this weird place home. Generally, they hang out under the Congress Avenue Bridge, so if bat-watching is your thing, you need only to head that direction at sunset to see them.
Texas likes to play by its own rules, but Austin is the only city in the state that lets its freak flag fly when it comes to nudity. Hippie Hollow at Lake Travis is a nude beach, free and open to all who wish to get some fresh air down there. Austin is also the only city in Texas that does not regulate public nudity. That is to say, you can leave your home wearing whatever you want, even if that means nothing at all.
The art scene in Austin is bar-none, and some of its quirkiest displays come from the most unexpected of places. In 1989, local artist Vince Hanneman started collecting and displaying various junk he had collected over the years — car parts, signage, surfboards, you name it. As he calls it, this “Cathedral of Junk” now stands many feet high and is open to visitors. It’s a fascinating, albeit overwhelming, display where the eye isn’t sure where to start looking first—a must for Austin visitors.
As we mentioned before, Austin is seeing a massive surge in new residents, brought on at least some by a technology boom. This trend is so prevalent that the city earned a new nickname, “The Silicon Hills.” Microsoft came first, followed by Motorola and Dell. After the lockdowns of 2020, major companies like Oracle, Tesla, and Apple expanded into the City of the Violet Crown. We expect these companies to change the face of Austin some but hopefully not enough to lose its weirdness factor.
Austin has some beautiful water views, but not all of them are natural to the area. There are three artificial lakes in the city, two of which were formed after dams were built to keep the Colorado River from flooding.
We told you Austin has some weird traditions. Every year, the city hosts the O’Henry Pun-Off World Championship, where contestants must recite a pun-filled prepared monologue. Competition heats up during the “Pun-Slinger” portion of the contest, where pun-lovers go head to head to come up with the most impressive puns possible on the fly. Winners get eternal glory and a lifetime supply of bragging rights.
Part of what makes Austin weird is its people. No one is a better example of that than Leslie Cochran, a beloved local figure who has now sadly passed away. Frequently experiencing homelessness and seen in colorful women's clothing, Cochran ran (and lost) for mayor three times. The city now hosts a day to celebrate his life — March 8th.
There are no professional sports in Austin, but the city is diehard devoted to its Long Horns. It’s the most populous city in the country that doesn’t have a pro-sports team and the residents are most interested in keeping it that way. The University of Texas keeps everyone happy with thrilling sports almost all year long. Hook ‘em!
Last but not least, it wouldn’t be an Austin list of weirdness without an appearance from the Hairy Man. This local legend dates back to the 1800s when an Austin hermit became known for scaring the life out of travelers who came through the area. Nowadays, the city hosts an annual festival to keep the lore alive. He’s basically Austin’s own Bigfoot.
Whether we’re talking about Austin’s delightful people, its bizarre traditions, or its natural oddities, this little city is truly unlike any other.
Do you love Austin? Check out our city street map to add a little bit of weirdness to your wall.