Photograph by Matthew Johnson
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Stand-up paddleboarders explore Lady Bird Lake.

Photograph by Matthew Johnson

Smart Cities: Austin, Texas

The Texas capital constantly invents new ways to wow.

Austin used to be known as Texas’ progressive pocket and a slacker paradise where musicians, artists, and postgrads on shoestring budgets could comfortably “get stuck.”

Today, the fastest growing city in the U.S. is frequently referred to as “the Silicon Valley of the South” (or that place where your friends from Brooklyn just moved to open a vegan-friendly, gluten-free food truck). Austin has attracted a slew of start-ups, 6,000 high-tech companies, and a billion dollars in annual investments that keep the city’s creative culture and productive potential on the rise.

Here are reasons to celebrate the innovative Texas capital:

Green Team: Austin ranks as one of the top 20 fittest cities in America, with 48 percent of residents living within walking distance of a park. Around 14 percent of the city is an urban green space, including the popular Lady Bird Lake.

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The Picnic food trailer park brings lunch to natural Barton Springs Pool.

Launchpad: Entrepreneurs flock to Austin partly because of success stories like Mikaila Ulmer, the industrious pre-teen CEO who recently scored an $11 million deal with Whole Foods to sell her organic juice line, Me & the Bees Lemonade.

Surround Sound: There’s no escaping Austin’s music scene—even underwater. The new Hotel Van Zandt is a chic salute to the Live Music Capital of the World, outfitted with wow factors like an underwater sound system in the rooftop pool.

New Brew: Travelers can still find Lone Star tallboys in almost any local bar, but craft beer is a thriving industry. The city’s dotted with renegade brewers and new operations like the Blue Owl Brewery, which invented a “souring unit” scale to measure the lactic acid content of their sour-mashed beers.

Beloved Bats: Everyone complains about Austin’s mosquitoes, but nobody minds the urban bat colony. Maybe that’s because 1.5 million bats emerge from the Congress Avenue Bridge every night (March through November) to consume as much as 20,000 pounds of insects.

Futuristic Transport: Austin’s infamous battle against traffic is making strides despite enduring gridlock. It’s now home to a fleet of self-driving cars and the B-cycle bike-share has exponentially increased access and affordability citywide. Nearly 100,000 riders use B-cycle, which has offset 1.1 million pounds of carbon since its launch.

Local Swimming Hole: A swim at Barton Springs is a holy rite for Austinites. So when the population of an endemic salamander species plummeted in the spring-fed pool during the 1990s, local devotees fought to list it as endangered. Federal protection in 1997 led to large-scale conservation initiatives that preserve the springs to this day.

Game Fame: The indie game community is a decentralized magnet for the city’s most talented developers. The independent collective Juegos Rancheros hosts monthly interactive showcases and events like Fantastic Arcade, a free gaming festival held every September.

Film Stars: Aspects of Austin’s film industry have achieved mainstream notoriety, from SXSW to Matthew McConaughey, but the capital’s love of all things fringe and far-out is celebrated at Fantastic Fest (September), the annual festival dedicated to horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and cult films.

Historic Pride: High-rises are a dime a dozen, but classic music venues are sacred. The Broken Spoke, the historic honky-tonk, still operates (in between apartment buildings) and a revamped Antone’s, “Austin’s home of the blues,” recently reopened three blocks from its original Sixth Street location.

Local Eats: International acclaim continues to nourish Austin’s rip-roaring culinary scene, but the city’s boldest talents keep their focus hyper-local. The entire concept behind new restaurant Emmer & Rye’s daily menu rotation, nose-to-tail butchery, and in-house fermentation program is designed to support area producers, farmers, and ranchers.

App Happy: Some made-in-Austin ventures like Favor, a mobile app that “delivers anything,” attribute their success to surrounding inspirations—aka catering to huge numbers of college kids and tech developers who can’t pull themselves away from their laptops long enough to enjoy brunch (or pick up their dry cleaning).

Mixing it Up: Skyrocketing urban density has spawned a counterbalanced trend of sustainable mixed-use public spaces, like the ongoing transformation of downtown’s Waller Creek, which will be a meandering greenbelt park when fully realized.

Creative Force: Live music is just one feather in Austin’s cap. The city empowers its wildly eclectic creative sector and travelers reap the benefits, from free citywide arts festivals, dozens of museums and galleries, multicultural collectives, and public art that can be seen on every street corner.