Although Austin, designed to be the capital of the independent Republic of Texas, has a planned, grand city center similar to that of Washington, D.C., the city has spread out far beyond those original boundaries. These days, with a few exceptions, detailed below, locals tend to speak in terms of landmarks (the University of Texas) or geographical areas (East Austin) rather than neighborhoods.
Downtown The original city, laid out by Edwin Waller in 1839, runs roughly north from the Colorado River. The river has been dammed in several places, forming a series of lakes. The section near downtown is called Lady Bird Lake. Downtown extends north up to 11th Street, where the capitol building is. The main north-south street is Congress Avenue. It runs from the river to the capitol. Downtown's eastward limit is the I-35 freeway, and its westward limit is Lamar Boulevard. This is a prime sightseeing area (it includes the capitol and several historic districts), and a hotel area, with music clubs, restaurants, shops, and galleries. There are a lot of clubs on Sixth Street, just east of Congress, in the Warehouse District, centered on Third and Fourth streets just west of Congress, and in the Red River District, on (where else?) Red River, between 6th and 10th streets.
South Austin For a long time, not a lot was happening south of Lady Bird Lake. This was largely a residential area -- a mix of working class and slackers lived here. South Congress, the sleepy stretch of Congress Avenue running through the middle of South Austin, was lined with cheap motels. In the 1980s, the area became attractive to store and restaurant owners who liked the proximity to downtown without the high rents. Trendy shops moved into the old storefronts. Yuppies started buying houses in the adjoining neighborhoods. And now South Austin is booming. Fairview Park and Travis Heights, adjoining neighborhoods between Congress and I-35, are perhaps the most popular for young professionals who can afford the high prices. They were Austin's first settlements south of the river, because Austin residents realized they were not as likely to be flooded as the lower areas on the north bank. Farther south and west, toward the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, South Austin begins to reassert its rural roots, with less construction and more businesses that serve the local populace.
Central Austin This is a larger area that includes downtown and the university campus. It's not precisely defined. If you were to travel north from Lady Bird Lake through the downtown area and past the capitol, you would come across a complex of state government office buildings (btw. 15th and 19th sts.). Past that would be the UT campus (19th to 26th sts.). Farther north, you get to the Hyde Park neighborhood (35th to 51st sts.). Hyde Park got its start in 1891 as one of Austin's first planned suburbs; renovation of its Victorian and early Craftsman houses began in the 1970s, and now it has a real neighborhood feel. Neighbors socialize a good bit here and are out tending their gardens or walking to one of the many places here where people congregate.
Beyond Hyde Park, numbered streets disappear. You pass through a couple of neighborhoods, and eventually you come to Research Boulevard. For a lot of Austinites, this is where central Austin ends and north Austin begins.
West Austin West of Lamar is Clarksville, formerly a black community founded in the 1870s by freed slaves. It's now a neighborhood of small, old houses that command high prices. To the west of Clarksville, on the other side of the Mo-Pac Freeway, is a tony neighborhood called Tarrytown, which extends as far as Lake Austin (upstream from downtown, the Colorado river bends around in a more northerly direction, where another dam creates this long, narrow lake).
West Lake The name denotes the townships that are on the opposite side of Lake Austin from West Austin. This is an affluent suburban area that includes the communities of Rollingwood and Westlake Hills. If you head upstream to the next dam, you come to Lake Travis, a large lake with lots of marinas and lakeside communities, such as Lakeway. But you don't have to live here to play here: This is also where those who live in Central Austin come to splash around and kick back on nice weekends.
East Side East of I-35 are several neighborhoods, which are predominantly Hispanic and African American. The parts closest to downtown and the university area are increasing in popularity, forcing many of the poorer denizens of East Austin to move farther east.
Northwest This is where most of the high-tech industry is located. It is largely suburban and includes the Arboretum, a large mall, and a newer mall called the Domain. Farther north are the bedroom communities of Round Rock and Cedar Park.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.