In 1839, Austin was laid out in a grid on the northern shore of the Colorado River, bounded by Shoal Creek to the west and Waller Creek to the east. The section of the river abutting the original settlement is now known as Town Lake, and the city has spread far beyond its original borders in all directions. The land to the east is flat Texas prairie; the rolling Hill Country begins on the west side of town.
Driving in Austin is a bit of a challenge for visitors. Highways are rife with signs that suddenly insist LEFT LANE MUST TURN LEFT or RIGHT LANE MUST TURN RIGHT -- generally positioned so they're noticeable only when it's too late to switch. I-35 -- nicknamed "the NAFTA highway" because of the big rigs speeding up from Mexico -- is mined with tricky on-and-off ramps and, around downtown, a confusing complex of upper and lower levels; it's easy to miss your exit or find yourself exiting when you don't want to. The rapidly developing area to the northwest, where Hwy. 183 connects I-35 with Mo-Pac and the Capital of Texas Highway, requires particular vigilance, as the connections occur very rapidly. There are regular lane mergers and sudden, precipitous turnoffs.
A number of major downtown streets are one-way; many don't have street signs or have signs so covered with foliage they're impossible to read. Driving is particularly confusing in the university area, where streets like "32 1/2" suddenly turn up. Multiply the difficulties at night, when you need super vision to read the ill-lit street indicators.
Nervous? Good. Better you're a bit edgy than lost or injured. Consult maps in advance and, when driving around the university or downtown, try to gauge the number of blocks before turns so you won't have to be completely dependent on street signs. You can also check the Texas Department of Transportation's (TxDOT) website, www.dot.state.tx.us, for the latest information on road conditions, including highway diversions, construction, and closures.
Car Rentals -- If you're planning to travel at a popular time, it's a good idea to book as far in advance as you can, both to secure the quoted rates and to ensure that you get a car.
Advantage (tel. 800/777-5500; www.arac.com), Alamo (tel. 800/327-9633; www.alamo.com), Avis (tel. 800/831-2847; www.avis.com), Budget (tel. 800/527-0700; www.budget.com), Dollar (tel. 800/800-4000; www.dollarcar.com), Hertz (tel. 800/654-3131; www.hertz.com), National (tel. 800/227-7368; www.nationalcar.com), and Thrifty (tel. 800/367-2277; www.thrifty.com) all have representatives at the Austin airport.
Lower prices are usually available for those who are flexible about dates of travel or who are members of frequent-flyer or frequent-hotel-stay programs or of organizations such as AAA or AARP. Car-rental companies are eager to get your business, so they're as likely as not to ask whether you belong to any group that will snag you a discount, but if the clerk doesn't inquire, it can't hurt to mention every travel-related program you're a member of -- you'd be surprised at the bargains you might turn up.
Try checking out Breezenet.com, which offers domestic car-rental discounts with some of the most competitive rates around. Also worth visiting are Orbitz, Hotwire.com, Travelocity, and Priceline, all of which offer competitive online car-rental rates.
Main Arteries & Streets -- I-35, forming the border between central and East Austin (and straddling the Balcones Fault Line), is the main north-south thoroughfare; Loop 1, usually called Mo-Pac (it follows the course of the Missouri-Pacific railroad, although some people like to say it got its name because it's "mo' packed"), is the westside equivalent. Hwy. 290, running east-west, merges with I-35 where it comes in on the north side of town, briefly reestablishing its separate identity on the south side of town before merging with Hwy. 71 (which is called Ben White Blvd. btw. 183 and Lamar Blvd.). Hwy. 290 and Hwy. 71 split up again in Oak Hill, on the west side of town. Not confused enough yet? Hwy. 2222 changes its name from Koenig to Northland and, west of Loop 360, to Bullcreek, while, in the north, Hwy. 183 is called Research Boulevard. (Looking at a map should make all this clear as mud.) Important north-south city streets include Lamar, Guadalupe, and Burnet. If you want to get across town north of the river, use Cesar Chavez (once known as First St.), 15th Street (which turns into Enfield west of Lamar), Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard (the equivalent of 19th St., and often just called MLK), 38th Street, or 45th Street.
Finding an Address -- Congress Avenue was the earliest dividing line between east and west, while the Colorado River marked the north and south border of the city. Addresses were designed to move in increments of 100 per block, so that 1500 N. Guadalupe, say, would be 15 blocks north of the river. This system still works reasonably well in the older sections of town, but breaks down where the neat street grid does (look at a street map to see where the right angles end). All the east-west streets were originally named after trees native to the city (for example, Sixth St. was once Pecan St.); most that run north and south, such as San Jacinto, Lavaca, and Guadalupe, retain their original Texas river monikers.
Street Maps -- The maps available for no cost at the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, as well as at many car-rental companies at the airport, should help you locate major landmarks. For more detail, you can buy street maps at convenience stores, pharmacies, and bookstores.
Driving Rules -- Unless indicated, right turns are permitted on red after coming to a full stop. Seat belts and child-restraint seats are mandatory in Texas (www.txdps.state.tx.us/director_staff/public_information/carseat.htm).
Parking -- Unless you have legislative plates, you're likely to find the selection of parking spots downtown extremely limited during the week (construction isn't making the situation any better); as a result, lots of downtown restaurants offer valet parking (with hourly rates ranging $4-$6). There are a number of lots around the area, costing anywhere from $5 to $7 per hour, but the most convenient ones tend to fill up quickly. If you're lucky enough to find a metered spot, it'll run you 75¢ per hour, with a 2-hour limit, so bring change. Although there's virtually no street parking available near the capitol before 5pm during the week, there is a free visitor garage on 15th and San Jacinto (2-hr. time limit).
In the university area, trying to find a spot near the shopping strip known as "the Drag" can be just that. However, cruise the side streets and you're eventually bound to find a pay lot that's not filled. The two most convenient on-campus parking garages are located near San Jacinto and East 26th streets and off 25th Street between San Antonio and Nueces. There's also a (free!) parking lot near the LBJ Library, but it's far from the central campus. Log on to www.utexas.edu/parking for additional places to drop off your car.
In spring of 2010, Cap Metro began light rail service between downtown and the bedroom communities in the north. This was a relatively inexpensive way to introduce light rail to the city by using existing train track. The downside is that the train doesn't follow the preferred routes. Worse, the train only runs during commuting times, making it an impractical choice for visitors.
Austin's public transportation system, Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority (www.capmetro.org), operates more than 50 bus lines and features low fares. New fares were established in 2010. A single fare on a Cap Metro bus is $1. A day pass costs $2; an express day pass to/from various Park & Ride lots costs $4. You'll need exact change or fare tickets to board the bus. Day passes are a good option because they're more flexible. It costs the same as a round-trip and allows you to ride as many buses as you want for that day. Tell the bus driver you're buying a day pass before you insert your money in the machine.
Call tel. 800/474-1201 or 512/474-1200 from local phones for point-to-point routing information. You can also pick up a schedule booklet at any H-E-B or Fiesta grocery store; at stores and hotels throughout the downtown area; or at the Cap Metro Transit Store, 323 Congress Ave., first floor.
There used to be a free shuttle bus circulating through downtown known as a "'Dillo," but, alas, no more.
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.