Former US president Lyndon B Johnson inspires a new way to visit the Texas city – involving romance, ice cream and speakeasies – that even the least political people can appreciate.

Of all the US presidents, Lyndon B Johnson is not the most likely choice for holiday itinerary inspiration. 

Although he was president during an era that is perennially retro cool (1963 to 1969), the man himself was known as a consummate politician and something of a workaholic. And while his home city of Austin, Texas, is both defined by the credo “Keep Austin weird” and its live music scene, for LBJ, as he was known, “fun” meant reminiscing with friends, probably about politics, and his preferred tunes from musicals including Oklahoma and Hello Dolly are unlikely to be heard at venues on Sixth Street today.

But the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, located on the University of Texas campus in Austin, has just undergone an impressive $10 million refresh, and its new, multimedia-to-the-max exhibitions provide a deep, broad look at the man, his vast political legacy and the era in which he governed. And it turns out that the 36th US president can indeed inspire a new way to visit Austin – involving romance, ice cream and speakeasies – in a way that even the least political creature can appreciate. 

The first stop, of course, is the museum, which reopened to the public on 22 December, the day that would have been first lady Lady Bird Johnson’s 100th birthday.  As the president was best known for a series of legislative initiatives called The Great Society –  divisive reforms aimed at eliminating poverty and racial injustice – the museum’s video and photography shed light on LBJ’s unique method of persuasion, something that became known as “The Johnson Treatment”. He would position his more than 6ft-tall frame practically chest-to-chest with someone he wanted to influence, and lean in nearly nose-to-nose as his quarry would try to squirm away.

LBJ was also known for successfully calming the nation when he assumed the presidency after the assassination of John F Kennedy on 22 November 1963. In an especially moving exhibit, the museum displays the notes for Johnson’s simple and direct remarks to the cabinet at 2:30 pm the next day: “The President is dead. We must keep the business of the government moving. None of us in this room can really express the sadness that we feel. Yet we have work to do. We must do it.” 

Old fashioned, wall-mounted telephones let visitors listen in to selections from more than 600 hours of LBJ’s recorded phone conversations, including an eavesdrop on a chat with John Steinbeck as the writer prepared for a trip to Vietnam – an issue for which LBJ’s legacy is the most clouded. Under his leadership, the US greatly increased both its troop presence and casualties in Vietnam; mass protests often featured the chant “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”.

On a lighter note, an exhibit on LBJ’s humour stars a fairly creepy animatronic statue of the president standing at a podium; press the buttons to make the robot tell jokes and stories.

Throughout the museum there are touches that give a good sense of the 1960s, such as popular board games like Twister and televisions showing vintage commercials. A movie poster from the Gregory Peck/Sophia Loren film Arabesque has a tag line that sums up the time well: Ultra Mad, Ultra Mod, Ultra Mystery. Loren’s fabulous knee-high white leather boots and fur-trimmed leopard print coat could easily inspire a visit to Frock on Vintage or one of Austin’s other vintage shops to hunt for something similar.

At the museum, it is also clear that LBJ had an uncommonly close relationship with his wife, and the city’s historic downtown Driskill Hotel played a large part in that relationship. The Johnsons’ first date, on 5 September 1934, was over breakfast at the Driskill’s dining parlour, and the would-be president was so smitten that he very quickly proposed. Ten days after their first date, the 26 year old wrote this letter:

“I’m sure that there is nothing that could be more distracting, disturbing and estranging to me than a continued evidence of indifference upon your part…

Write me that long letter. Tell me just how you feel – give me some reassurance if you can, and if you can’t let’s understand each other now. I’m lonesome. I’m disappointed but what of it. Do you care?”

The answer was yes. In less than three months, LBJ and Lady Bird married at St Mark's Episcopal Church, about 80 miles south in the city of San Antonio. And the Driskill continued to play a big part in the president’s life; it was where he traditionally awaited election results, including that of his 1960 vice presidential and 1964 presidential bids.

Today you can book a stay in the Driskill’s LBJ Presidential suite, where the decor includes stained glass windows with Texas bluebonnets, a nod to Lady Bird’s wildflower obsession. For a more budget-friendly alternative, opt for the Driskill’s standard room and visit the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, 12 miles southwest from the city centre.

The hotel’s historic dining room, now called the Driskill Grill, does not serve breakfast any more, but the 1886 Cafe and Bakery just off the lobby does. In honour of the couple’s first date, order the Lady Bird Lake, an egg white omelette with spinach, onions, bell peppers, tomatoes and goat cheese, a dish named after the reservoir and recreational area in Austin that Lady Bird helped to beautify and restore in the 1970s.

Admittedly, a healthy breakfast probably wouldn’t have been LBJ’s first choice. The man liked to eat and drink, as unfortunately evidenced by his three heart attacks, the last fatal in 1973. But a traveller can save concerns about moderation for home, and Austin is particularly strong on an LBJ favourite: ice cream.  Amy’s Ice Cream, a local institution, serves peach-inspired flavours on a rotating basis, including peach cobbler and peach cream cake. LBJ was also wild about Lady Bird’s pecan pie, and Lick, a newcomer to Austin’s artisanal ice cream scene, serves flavours including pecans and cream and chocolate pecan with buttered caramel.

While Austin was considered the president’s hometown, LBJ was actually born (and died) on a ranch in Stonewall, a tiny little unincorporated area about 50 miles west of Austin. The Lyndon B Johnson National Historical Park in adjacent Johnson City preserves the ranch, as well as the site of his boyhood home.

Heading into the evening hours, history tells us that LBJ’s cocktail glass was preferably filled with scotch – in particular, the brand Cutty Sark. You can order the same, but it would be a shame not to take advantage of Austin’s creative cocktail culture at Bar Congress. Try the George Burns, a cocktail made with two different kinds of scotch, plus grappa and bitters. And while US Prohibition ended the year before LBJ and Lady Bird married, pay homage to the fraught period that shaped his coming of age with a visit to one of Austin’s best speakeasies, Midnight Cowboy Modeling. Reservations are a must.

The bar, which used to be a massage parlour of questionable repute until it was shut down in March 2011, now has a Victorian bordello-inspired decor. None of that has anything to do with the Johnson presidency – his political scandals were more to do with wire tapping and Latin American coups – but the speakeasy is another good place to pay homage to LBJ’s scotch preference with the Smoke + Mirrors cocktail, made with a 12-year–old scotch, duque de carmona (a sweet orange wine), benedictine (a herbal liqueur), sarsaparilla bitters and a flamed orange. After a few toasts to the Johnson legacy you may find yourself wishing for the presidential perk of always having a limousine on hand. But for non-presidential visitors to Austin, there’s always a taxi.