Take a Walk on the Wild Side

Destinations

Austin, the state capital, is world-renowned for its lively, diverse music scene. It’s home to the University of Texas at Austin and a vibrant art community. San Antonio boasts the Alamo, the bustling River Walk, historic churches and the pulsating Fiesta San Antonio, among other things.

Groups meeting in Austin and San Antonio typically enjoy some of these popular attractions, which are fundamental to each city’s identity. But both cities also have a distinctly atypical—even quirky—side, as shown by their unusual museums, restaurants, bars, natural wonders and ghostly sites, among other things.

When groups come to Austin, they’re searching for unique venues to create authentic Austin experiences,” says Shilpa Bakre, senior communications manager for the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The unusual attractions in both cities are fun and captivating, and help to boost attendees’ spirits for meetings and even their work upon returning home. Smart Meetings focused on several of the best to give planners attractive options.

Austin

Anyone who doubts that this city has more than its share of unusual features need look no further than its slogan—“Keep Austin Weird”—for confirmation. It was adopted by the Austin Independent Business Alliance to promote the city’s small businesses, but applies to Austin in general, which boasts everything from a fascinating cathedral made of junk to a colony of 1.5 million bats that puts on a dazzling show each summer night.

Bizarre Collections

Cathedral of Junk

Cathedral of Junk, Austin

When he began compiling all kinds of junk in his backyard in 1988, Vince Hannemann really didn’t do it to attract attention: He did it simply because he enjoyed it. But as he steadily added all sorts of objects—including car bumpers, kitchen utensils, ladders, lawn mower wheels, bottles and bicycle parts—people became very interested.

It’s now known as Cathedral of Junk and contains an estimated 60 tons of materials. It’s located in the south side of the city and can be visited by calling (512) 299-7413 to make an appointment. An admission fee of $10 is charged for an entire group.

Described as “your eccentric uncle’s attic on wheels,” Uncommon Objects is a one-of-a-kind emporium of quirky and unusual items that puts an interesting twist on the antique-store concept. All of the 24 vendors display a style all their own with their booth design and selection of items, thereby contributing to the store’s raw, free-spirited aura.

Uncommon Objects emporium is located in south Austin and is open Sunday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Unusual Activity

Mini golf always has been a great team-builder, and Austin’s Peter Pan Mini Golf provides its own unique spin on the activity. Created in 1948, the venue’s holes are painted with vibrant designs, and all sorts of large characters—from Peter Pan and Tinker Bell to a rabbit, turtle and clown—can be found throughout the two 18-hole courses, which are filled with challenging obstacles.

Peter Pan Mini Golf, located near the downtown area, is open Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Party rates are available for groups.

Stunning Natural Attraction

Every summer night around sunset, hundreds of people gather to see the world’s largest urban bat colony emerge from under the downtown Congress Avenue Bridge.

The bat colony originated in 1980, when engineers reconstructed the bridge, not realizing that the new crevices under it would be an ideal roost for Mexican free-tailed bats. On the nightly flights, the bats—which now number up to 1.5 million—eat from 10,000 to 20,000 pounds of insects, including agricultural pests.

The flights have become one of Austin’s major tourist attractions: An estimated 100,000 people visit the bridge annually to watch them. One of the best viewing spots is Statesman Bat Observation Center, adjacent to Congress Avenue Bridge.

“It’s incredible to watch 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats emerging from under the bridge at dusk,” Bakre says. If you want to experience this with another unique Austin twist, come during Bat Fest (slated for Aug. 22 this year), where you can also enjoy three stages with live music, more than 75 arts and crafts vendors, food and drinks, children’s activities, a bat costume contest and other bat activities.

Ghostly Haunts

The Driskill

The Driskill, Austin

Built in 1886 as the showplace of Col. Jesse Driskill, a cattle baron, The Driskill hotel remains a legendary downtown establishment. Driskill owned the hotel, but lost it in a high-stakes poker game in 1888, and two years later he died a broken man.

His ghost reportedly haunts the hotel to this day, making its presence known by the scent of cigar smoke and occasional appearances in guest rooms. Guests also have reported ghosts operating elevators, moving furniture, pushing them out of beds and stealing their belongings.

Singer-songwriter Annie Lennox reported a ghostly experience while staying at The Driskill during a concert tour. One night, she was deliberating over which of two dresses to wear on stage and laid both of them on the bed. Lennox says that she then took a shower, and upon returning to the bedroom, was startled to find that one of the dresses had been packed away.

Austin Ghost Tours makes a stop at The Driskill, among other places, during its walking tours on Friday and Saturday nights. Private tours are available for groups of 15 or more, and cover about one mile of the downtown area, including the mysterious whispering banks of Waller Creek.

Eye-Popping F&B Spots

Mean Eyed Cat

Mean Eyed Cat, Austin

Once home to Cut-Rite chain saw repair shop, Mean Eyed Cat bar gives a nod to its history with decor featuring chain saws and blades. But above all, the bar is a tribute to Johnny Cash. Named after his popular song, the bar is saturated with Cash memorabilia, including portraits, posters and vinyl album covers.

Mean Eyed Cat isn’t only about Cash, though. It serves world-famous Stubbs barbecue and features a wooden patio, sheltered under an immense, 300-year-old Texas live oak tree. Near downtown, it can be rented for private parties. Groups of up to 160 can be accommodated. The bar is open Monday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.

Attendees who love circuses will enjoy Carousel Lounge, a dimly lit spot with a bizarre circus theme, including a giant pink elephant on the stage, elephant and lion-tamer murals, and an actual carousel behind the bar.

The venue offers entertainment most nights, and attendees can expect the unexpected: It’s hosted everything from belly dancers to a diverse array of musical acts. Carousel Lounge serves beer and wine but no other alcohol, although people can bring their own, and then purchase ice and mixers at the bar.

It’s located near Capital Plaza and is open Tuesday through Friday from 2:30 p.m. to midnight and Saturday from 2:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. The property can be bought out for group functions.

San Antonio

First-time visitors to the Alamo City often are pleasantly surprised by its uniqueness and vibrant spirit. It’s one of the most intriguing cities in the United States, and boasts a long history filled with colorful characters and fascinating places. Some of the most unusual places to visit might not be on most tourist maps, but they’re enthralling and thoroughly enjoyable to visit—and many of them offer discounts for groups.

Bizarre Collections

Barney Smith

Barney Smith's Toilet Seat Art Museum, San Antonio

Barney Smith, 93, is a master plumber who still spends days and nights working on toilet seats. Actually, he’s retired from his plumbing job, but is immersed in his passion of creating art on toilet seat lids in his garage.

He began his hobby in the same garage in the 1960s, and more than 30 years later he unveiled his work to the public by converting it into Barney Smith’s Toilet Seat Art Museum. He’s now created more than 1,150 toilet-seat art pieces, which he regards as a sort of scrapbook of his life.

The toilet seats cover a wide range of topics and themes. One features $1 million in bills (all cut up, courtesy of the Federal Reserve) and another was created for his wife to commemorate their 74th wedding anniversary.

The museum is located less than five miles from the Alamo, and is open by appointment only by calling (210) 824-7791. No admission fee is charged, but Smith gladly accepts donations for art supplies.

Ripley’s Believe It or Not! in Alamo Plaza contains three unique attractions: Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium, which contains more than 500 strange but intriguing exhibits and artifacts grouped within 18 galleries; Ripley’s 4-D Moving Theater, with digital effects and motion seats that will have attendees feeling like they’re part of the movie; and Louis Tussaud’s WaxWorks, which features 200 lifelike famous and infamous wax figures.

The venue is open every day, Sunday to Thursday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Discounts are provided for groups of three or more.

Unusual Activity

beluga whale

beluga whale interaction, SeaWorld San Antonio

During Stingray Encounter at Aquatica, SeaWorld’s Waterpark (part of SeaWorld San Antonio), attendees swim with cownose stingrays and meet and feed them in a rare, safe up-close-and-personal encounter. Corporate groups of 15 or more receive discounted park admission and dining packages.

“SeaWorld San Antonio is such a big part of what makes San Antonio a fun destination,” say Casandra Matej, executive director of the San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau. “There is so much to learn and experience there. The animal interactions with the stingrays and beluga whales are especially inspiring.”

Reservations for Stingray Encounter can be made at the park if capacity allows, but advance reservations are recommended. Aquatica’s hours are subject to change.

Stunning Natural Attraction

Natural Bridge Caverns

Natural Bridge Caverns, San Antonio

Groups itching for an excursion down under often head to Natural Bridge Caverns, a 30-minute drive from downtown San Antonio, and one of Texas’ most stunning natural attractions.

This intriguing historical cavern system offers an experience that is high energy, educational and fun—and its tours are suitable for beginners through caving veterans. Three different tours are offered, each lasting about 70 minutes. They’re given every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; group tours are available at discounted prices.

Ghostly Haunts

Sisters Grimm Ghost Tours

Sisters Grimm Ghost Tours, San Antonio

San Antonio has more than its share of ghost tales, and many of them involve Menger Hotel. Built in 1858 by German immigrant William Menger, it was the city’s most popular hotel throughout the 19th century and has hosted such famous figures as Robert E. Lee, Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Mae West, Babe Ruth and Oscar Wilde.

Thirty-two ghosts have been reported at the hotel, with some of the most common being Roosevelt; Sallie White, who died after being attacked by her husband in the hotel in 1876; and Capt. Richard King, an owner of one of the largest ranches in the world (The King Ranch) who died in the hotel in 1885.

Alamo City Ghost Tours and Sisters Grimm Ghost Tours both provide visits to murder sites, graveyards and other ghostly spots in San Antonio. Both offer group discounts.

Eye-Popping F&B Spots

Carousel Lounge

Carousel Lounge, Austin

San Antonio also has some pretty unusual culinary offerings and—as might be expected in a Texas city—the emphasis often is on BIG, as in Big Lou’s Pizza. This award-winning, family-run restaurant, opened in 2000 by Arthur and Judith Lujan, started off pretty strongly but still needed something special to put it on the map.

So, Big Lou’s created a 37-inch pizza, and the response was so positive it added a 42-inch pie, which became even more popular and was featured on The Travel Channel’s Man v. Food show. The price of the 42-incher ranges from $53.09 to $83.09, depending on the toppings.

Big Lou’s Pizza, which is located in the East Side neighborhood, is open for lunch and dinner every day except Monday. It provides fast, friendly service and a huge slice of southern hospitality,

Lulu’s Bakery and Cafe on North Main Street began with the aim of offering Texas-sized portions of great-tasting home-cooking at reasonable prices. It fulfilled that goal by featuring large helpings of affordable American diner food, including burgers, chicken fried steaks and fried chicken. But capturing the most attention are Lulu’s gigantic 3 1/2-pound cinnamon rolls, which also have been featured on Man v. Food. Lulu’s is open 24 hours every day.

Summing Up

Austin and San Antonio have such a plethora of unusual attractions that planners usually have no difficulty finding some that suit their budget and attendees’ tastes. In fact, the hardest task is choosing from among several attractive options!

Events That Help Keep Austin Weird

Keep Austin Weird

Keep Austin Weird Fest

Keep Austin Weird Fest (pictured), scheduled for June 27, features a fun run—dubbed the slowest 5K on the planet—with contestants wearing bizarre costumes. Discounts for groups of 10 or more are offered at the festival, which also features food, music and unusual attractions. It’s held at The Long Center for the Performing Arts.

But perhaps Austin gets its weirdest during Eeyore’s Birthday Party—an annual event in Pease Park known for outrageous costumes and booming drum circles.

Everyone is encouraged to wear a costume at the event, which benefits local nonprofit groups while celebrating the birthday of the character from A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books. Prizes are given for best costumes at the party, which also features artists doing face painting and temporary tattoos; non-amplified music; maypoles; and food and drink. Eeyore’s Birthday Party typically takes place on the last Saturday in April.

Not to be outdone, the annual Austin Gorilla Run in late January features hundreds of people running through downtown dressed in mountain gorilla suits. The run is organized by Mountain Gorilla Conservation Fund to further the work of American zoologist, primatologist and anthropologist Dian Fossey, who undertook an extensive study of gorilla groups over an 18-year period before being murdered in Rwanda.

Proceeds from the 5K race directly benefit the Ruth Keesling Wildlife Health and Research Center in Kampala, Uganda. Groups of 10 or more receive a 10 percent discount on registration fees.

Resources

  • Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau
    austintexas.org
  • AustinTex.com
    austintex.com
  • Quirky Insider
    quirkyinsider.tumblr.com
  • San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau
    visitsanantonio.com
  • VirtualTourist
    virtualtourist.com

Unusual Events in the Alamo City

King William Fair

King William Fair and Cornyation

During Chalk It Up, historic Houston Street becomes filled with original chalk murals created by some of the most talented contemporary artists in San Antonio. Community members and visitors are encouraged to contribute to a freestyle area and help complete a city block-sized mural. The next Chalk It Up event is scheduled for Oct. 10 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The city’s buoyancy hits a new level during its biggest annual celebration, Fiesta San Antonio, scheduled for April 14–24, 2016. Floats parade up and down the river, restaurants and hotels are packed, and celebrations can be found everywhere. One of the most bizarre, King William Fair and Cornyation (pictured), consists of many attractions, including Cornyation, an irreverent event that began in the 1950s with skits and satirical spoofs that poked fun at local and national politicians, celebrities and many others.

Now, many of the city’s creative artists and designers collaborate during the event to offer three evenings of entertainment at the Empire Theater. People from all walks of life attend the performances, which are always sold out. All proceeds benefit local AIDS-related charities.

“The Cornyation and the King William Fair provide a fair share of humor to the festivities and are sure to leave attendees in good spirits,” says Casandra Matej, executive director of the San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Major Meeting Venues

Austin

AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center

Located steps from the University of Texas at Austin and the Capitol building; three onsite restaurants; 40,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including 37 rooms.

Austin Convention Center

LEED Gold certified building situated between Lady Bird Lake and historic Sixth Street; 881,400 sq. ft. of space; upper-level grand ballroom, one of Texas’ largest, has 40,510 sq. ft.

Four Seasons Hotel Austin

Near business and entertainment districts; 291 guest rooms offer exceptional view of Lady Bird Lake or Austin cityscape; 18,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Horseshoe Bay Resort

AAA Four Diamond property 45 minutes northwest of Austin; 385 guest rooms; three Robert Trent Jones Sr. championship golf courses; 48,012 sq. ft. of meeting facilities, including 12,012-square-foot ballroom.

Hyatt Regency Lost Pines

Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort & Spa

Hyatt Regency Austin

Overlooks the famous Bat Bridge; near Capitol building; 448 guest rooms; outdoor pool; 26,832 sq. ft. of meeting space, divided among 20 rooms.

Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort & Spa

Situated on 405 acres along the Colorado River; 491 guest rooms; two tennis courts; 18-hole course; 60,000 sq. ft. of indoor meeting space; 240,000 sq. ft. of outdoor function space. q

JW Marriott Austin

Located steps from Austin Convention Center; 1,012 guest rooms; three restaurants; sauna; rooftop pool; 120,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, divided among 41 rooms; grand ballroom provides 30,000 sq. ft.

Omni Austin Hotel Downtown

Located in downtown area, steps from convention center and Sixth Street entertainment district; 392 guest rooms; 20,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Omni Barton Creek

Omni Barton Creek Resort & Spa

Omni Barton Creek Resort & Spa

Situated on 4,000 acres of Texas Hill Country; 309 guest rooms; three excellent restaurants; Three Springs spa; four golf courses; 43,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. q

Palmer Events Center

Nestled in the middle of Butler Park, a 54-acre city park; more than 75,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including two exhibit halls and five meeting rooms.

Renaissance Austin Hotel

AAA Four Diamond luxury property surrounded by nature trails, but near downtown area; 463 guest rooms; 65,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

The Westin Austin at the Domain

AAA Four Diamond property located in the Domain, a shopping, dining and entertainment area; 17,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

San Antonio

Grand Hyatt San Antonio

Luxury property near convention center and River Walk; 1,003 guest rooms; 115,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including 31,000-square-foot Texas Ballroom and 21,000-square foot Lone Star Ballroom.

Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center

Downtown facility; 630,000 sq. ft. of meeting and event space; currently undergoing a $325 million transformation that will add 514,000 sq. ft. of exhibition space; facility will remain open throughout construction, slated to be completed in January 2016.

Hilton Palacio del Rio

Hacienda-style setting on banks of the River Walk, steps from convention center; 485 guest rooms; garden; alfresco dining at the River’s Edge Cafe and Patio Bar; 27,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Hotel Valencia Riverwalk

Stylish downtown boutique hotel; 213 guest rooms; Citrus restaurant and terrace overlooks the River Walk; Vbar ultra-sleek lounge and bar; 7,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort and Spa

AAA Four Diamond property on 300 acres of the Rogers-Wiseman family ranch, 16 miles northwest of downtown; 500 guest rooms; five-acre water park; 83,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Hyatt Regency San Antonio Riverwalk

Situated along the River Walk; 630 guest rooms, some overlooking the Alamo; poolside dining; 40,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa

AAA Four Diamond property on 600 acres of rolling hills, 20 minutes from downtown San Antonio; 1,002 guest rooms; 36 holes of golf; 265,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

La Cantera Hill Country Resort

Former Westin property that completed a massive transformation in April; overlooks Texas Hill Country; 498 guest rooms; two championship golf courses; 16,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

San Antonio Marriott Rivercenter

38-story hotel in the heart of downtown; connects to Rivercenter Mall; 1,001 guest rooms; Sazo’s restaurant features Spanish cuisine; health club; pool; 60,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

San Antonio Marriott Riverwalk

Located along the River Walk; 507 guest rooms; Cactus Flower Restaurant features traditional and Southwestern offerings; 14,976 sq. ft. of meeting space divided among 23 rooms.

The St. Anthony, a Luxury Collection Hotel, San Antonio

Slated to open this month after complete renovation; located three blocks from the River Walk, overlooking Travis Park 277 guest rooms; 31,527 sq. ft. of meeting space, including open-air ballroom.

The Westin Riverwalk

The Westin Riverwalk San Antonio

The Westin Riverwalk San Antonio

Situated on the River Walk; in April, completed a renovation that included reimagining of the lobby, dining concept, pool areas and spas, and added meeting space, which now totals 26,000 sq. ft.