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Home to the University of Texas, the state capitol, the Zachary Scott Theatre and the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum, Austin is a sophisticated salsa of culture, history and politics.

What we loved: The spectacular view of downtown from the state capitol. Shrimp tacos and guacamole at Güero's Taco Bar, on South Congress.

The sun burns bright on Barton Springs as mothers and toddlers wave from the tiny train that tootles around Zilker Park. Down the road, at Chuy's, diners tuck into tacos under the benign gaze of a cardboard Elvis. Two doors over, at the Shady Grove, outdoor tables are already packed with beer-drinking boulevardiers.

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Yep, it's another hectic day in Austin, where residents tackle the important business of sitting outside, lingering over lunch and just plain enjoying life. Says Betsy Moore, a lifelong resident: "Austin invented laid-back." Of course, the pace picks up when the bands start playing.

Despite its unofficial motto, "Keep Austin Weird," margaritas and itinerant musicians are a thin slice of the total scene. Home to the University of Texas, the state capitol, the Zachary Scott Theatre Center and the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum, Austin is a sophisticated salsa of culture, history and politics.

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Strong community support for the public schools and the lure of jobs have fueled population growth, which has led to more traffic and rising home prices. Still, the real estate market -- which includes houses priced at $200,000 to $300,000 in the close-in suburbs -- seems cheap compared with other hot cities. Three years ago musician Bruce Smith and his wife, Jennifer, a flight attendant, moved from New York City to Pflugerville, 14 miles northeast of downtown. Their monthly mortgage payment of $1,500 on a four-bedroom house is just a few hundred dollars more than the rent on their tiny Manhattan apartment. Fixer-upper bungalows near South Congress, a hip area lined with restaurants and clubs, start at $200,000. Says Moore: "I've been to 18 countries and half the states, and I've never seen a place where I'd rather live."

-- Jane Bennett Clark