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15 March 2018

A Weekend in Kraków, Poland

When I found an opening in my travel schedule for a weekend break in March, Kraków fit the bill perfectly. Attractive, easy to explore on foot and with plenty of history, culture and, of course, coffee to keep me busy for a weekend, the southern Polish city had long been on my list. I knew that travelling in early March meant there was a good chance of bad weather, but after a chilly first night, I was treated to beautiful sunshine and highs of 17C. Despite the variable weather, I packed for the weekend with my usual travel backpack. I took an afternoon flight from London, arriving in Kraków on Friday evening, and my return flight wasn't until Sunday evening, giving me a full 48 hours in the city — enough to visit some of the key sights and develop a taste for more. This is what I got up to.

With no luggage to collect, I walked straight from my plane to the train station at John Paul II Krakow-Balice International Airport. Tickets, which cost 9 zł (about £1.90), are available from the machine on the platform, and the journey to Kraków's Główny station takes about half an hour. I stayed at Home Hotel, a small hotel I chose primarily because of its price (about £45 per night) and proximity to the Stare Miasto (Old Town), the Kazimierz neighbourhood and Java Coffee Company. My room was small and basic but clean and comfortable, and the staff were very welcoming. The hotel is located on a quiet street, although there was some noise from other guest rooms both nights.

I stayed in my room just long enough to drop off my backpack and dig out my hat and gloves before heading back out into the cool, crisp night. I was ravenous and the cold weather made me crave comfort food. Luckily, I had come to the right place: the land of those delicious parcels of joy called pierogi. I strolled south through Kazimierz, the historic Jewish neighbourhood, which was lively on a Friday night, and enjoyed some of Kraków's varied and interesting street art on the way to dinner.

For dinner, I went to a cosy, homey restaurant called Marchewka z Groszkiem (carrots and peas) and found a small, candlelit table at the back. I had planned to have the titular carrot and pea soup, but they were all out and after confirming from the waitress that it would be a bad idea to order potato pancakes and pierogi, I just went for a portion of ten beef and pork pierogi. They came served with butter and bacon and were delicious and very filling. Not bad for 15 zł (£3.20). Afterwards, I stopped briefly at a relaxed neighbourhood bar called Alchemia, a few blocks further north, before heading for a spin around the 13th century Old Town square, Rynek Główny. My carb quotient for the day not quite complete, I picked up a still-warm pączek (doughnut) filled with rose jam at Gorace Pączki in the Old Town.

I went for breakfast at Blossom, a coffee shop, cocktail bar and all-day eatery with an impressive breakfast menu. I've highlighted some of Krakow's best coffee shops in this guide.

Whenever I visit a new city and especially when I'm short on time, I try to take a walking tour. This time, I took a free Walkative tour of Kraków's Old Town, which took about 2 1/2 hours. It was a beautiful morning for a walk, and we saw and learned a lot about the history of the city — there is some World War II history included, but the scope is a lot broader. From St Mary's Basilica and the Cloth Hall in the Rynek Główny, to the Franciscan Church (unassuming from the outside but with stunning stained glass), our cheerful guide Iza regaled us with facts and tales, sometimes asking whether we'd believed one of the myths and legends she had imparted.

We finished the tour at Wawel Castle, the fairytale castle perched on the hill above the Old Town. After a quick tour through the (free bits of the) cathedral, we looked down at the fire-breathing dragon perched on the banks of the Vistula River. I originally planned to spend the afternoon visiting the cathedral tower and the palace, but the latter is being renovated and it was too nice a day to be inside.

After two more coffees and a quick bite to eat at Karma, I went on another walk of my own, hunting out street art murals in the neighbourhoods just to the west of the Old Town. I then continued down to the river, walking past the castle, stopping to people-watch at Forum Przestrzenie, an industrial space turned bar and event space on the waterfront.

15:00 I followed the river round to Podgórze, the south-of-the-river neighbourhood where the Jewish Ghetto was once located. The architecture was striking and there was lots of street art to see; with more time, I would have liked to take a guided walk in this neighbourhood too. My next destination was Kazimierz, just across the Vistula from Podgórze. I had a coffee shop to visit and there was a lot going on in the area, from street food markets to live music, and even more murals.

For dinner, I walked to a hip, industrial-chic area northwest of the Old Town, which centres around the tobacco factory turned foodie hub and cultural centre, Tytano. I had a casual dinner at gourmet sandwich joint Meat & Go, where the porchetta sandwich was only 23 zł (£4.85), but huge and tasty. There are more formal restaurants, like Cargo, too and I had planned to go for a post-dinner drink at a sleek, cool bar called Lastriko but wasn't feeling well.

My original plan was to go for a morning run around the Planty, the verdant park that wraps around the Old Town, but I still wasn't feeling well enough. Instead, I went for a brisk walk back to the Podgórze area. I planned to have breakfast at BAL, but Google Maps took me to the (closed) MOCAK museum cafe instead (enter the industrial estate from Przemysłowa, and BAL is ahead of you and to the right). I ordered coffee (a flat white that looked the part but didn't seem to be made with speciality coffee) and breakfast, but the breakfast didn't arrive before I had to leave for my museum appointment. Other people's meals looked lovely, however.

I booked my ticket for the Museum of the History of Kraków, located in Oskar Schindler's Factory, online but it didn't seem to matter as despite the queue, everyone was able to get in, booking or none. I paid 29 zł (about £6) for a ticket for both this and the neighbouring MOCAK. As for the historical museum, it was detailed, informative, interesting and sobering. You don't really need a guide, as most displays have English translations, but it might help you get even more out of your visit.

Just next door, the MOCAK is well worth a wander for an hour or so. The modern art gallery has a large collection of Polish art and it is well presented and enjoyable to walk through. Don't miss the famous Kunst macht frei (art will make you free) sign in the permanent collection — particularly thought-provoking after hearing about Auschwitz and the other concentration camps near Kraków.

Having missed breakfast, I needed a filling lunch and so it was definitely pierogi o'clock. I stopped at Restauracja Polakowski, a cheap and cheerful self-service restaurant in Kazimierz. My eight pierogi cost 12 zł (£2.50), and this time I opted for the ruskie style with potato and cottage cheese. I had the choice of butter or bacon on top, but the crunchy, crispy bacon pieces were so tasty before, I couldn't quite keep my meal vegetarian.

I spent the afternoon walking and people-watching in the Old Town. I climbed the 70m town hall tower, a steep climb with very old, if not original, steps. There's a nice view of the city from the top — worth the 10 zł (£2.10) fee. I wasn't able to go into the main section of St Mary's Basilica, the Rynek Główny church with two towers of uneven heights, as I had used up all my cash and you can't pay for the 10 zł ticket with card. Instead, I had a quick peek through the prayer entrance, and the church's bold, bright interiors are indeed impressive. I could use my credit card everywhere else (apart from tipping my walking tour guide), so you may find you can avoid having to withdraw any złoty altogether.

After buying one of the hoopla-ring-shaped breads called obwarzanki krakowskie from one of the  many vendors around the Old Town and basking in the sunshine a little longer, I visited one final coffee shop and then eventually made my way back to the station, to return to the airport. I hope I'll be back again soon, although a trip to Warsaw may be on the cards first.

It turned out to be a very cheap weekend: I spent just over £200 on flights with BA and my hotel. I then spent about £60 on everything else — food, drink, sightseeing, transport and coffee. I ended up doing no shopping at all, mainly because most of the shops I found were in the Old Town and very touristy. If you have an extra day, you could consider taking a half-day trip to the nearby Wieliczka salt mine, or to Auschwitz-Birkenau. I visited a different concentration camp on a school history trip two decades ago, and although it was a tough experience, it was an important one.

13 March 2018

Five Speciality Coffee Shops To Try in Kraków

After a stroll around Kraków’s Rynek Glówny, the grand square at the heart of the Stare Miasto (Old Town), and its immediate vicinity, you might well think that the Polish city has little to offer in the way of speciality coffee. International chains abound — I counted three or four Costas, several Starbucks and a Columbus Café, for example.

But just a short walk outside the Planty — the slim, leafy park that encircles the Stare Miasto — there are numerous and coffee shops where you can find a great cup of coffee. I visited six of the eight on my list (one is closed at weekends and the other is too far from the city centre for a flying visit), of which one didn’t serve speciality coffee and isn't included below, although it did have a nice line in latte art.

Among the cafes I visited, I found some striking similarities. They all open late, for example — some as late as 9 pm some days — and most also serve food, wine, beer and/or cocktails as well as coffee. They also tend to offer a wide variety of different single-origin beans, in some cases from diverse roasters. And although it’s easy to find Aeropress, Chemex, V60, Kalita Wave and even siphon filter coffee brew methods, the espresso menus tend to be shorter, with ‘espresso macchiato’ being the only short beverage with milk (asking for a cortado or piccolo generally generated a negative response). The coffee is also very cheap, especially by London standards. Roasters included some from Poland, especially Warsaw, and those from further afield. You will find it hard to pay more than 12 ZL (about £2.50) for a coffee — even for a hand-brewed filter coffee for one.

So, if you’re heading to Kraków, here’s my speciality coffee starter for five:

A short walk northeast of the city walls (or where they once were) and an even shorter stroll from the main train station, Blossom is a bright and attractive coffee shop, cocktail bar and all-day eatery. It was my first port of call on Saturday morning and it had a lovely relaxed, welcoming atmosphere, with as many young families as groups of friends and lone diners. I particularly liked the repurposed bicycle seats positioned at the brew bar, but if you’re not quite ready to get back in the saddle, there are plenty of other seating options in the spacious cafe.

The coffee menu has fab typography but was somewhat vague, especially as the coffee beans themselves were tucked away. When I asked what they were serving through the Aeropress, I was given a box containing several bags of beans, most of them from Berlin-based Five Elephant and Hungarian roaster Casino Mocca. I picked a Kenyan Muthigi-ini from the latter and then scanned the extensive breakfast/brunch menu. I was in a bit of a rush, so I stuck to the scrambled eggs with bacon, but there were some more exciting dishes, such as challah French toast, and various filled bagels on offer too. My coffee was very well brewed, with very intense redcurrant notes, and the food was tasty and filling too. I had hoped to return another time to try the espresso but it wasn’t on the cards this trip.

Blossom is located at Rakowicka 20. Website. Instagram.
One of the reasons I chose my hotel was its proximity — a five-minute walk — to the ‘coffee showroom and cafe’ of Java, a Warsaw-based roaster. Located in Kazimierz, the historic Jewish neighbourhood, Java occupies a small but cosy and immaculately furnished space on a quiet street. After I’d ogled the gorgeous mid-century furniture, my attention turned to the beautiful, colourful designs on the bags of retail coffee beans.

Java was serving four or five single-origin house-roasted coffees as pourovers, and another two were available on espresso. I opted for an Ethiopian Marmora brewed through the Kalita Wave — the whiskey tasting note attracted me as much as the pretty packaging. And I really could taste the delicate whiskey flavours of the coffee, which also paired nicely with the vegan peanut butter, coconut and chocolate cake I tried. I returned the following day for an espresso-based drink; in the absence of a piccolo or cortado, I ordered the espresso macchiato with a Tanzanian bean, which made for a fine, fruity brew.

Java is located at Joselewicza 12. Facebook. Instagram

A few blocks west of the Stare Miasto, Karma is a cosy coffee shop that roasts its own coffee and serves various vegetarian and vegan dishes. There were three single-origin filter coffees, one from Rwanda and two Ethiopians, including the natural Dimtu coffee that I opted for. Brewed as a pourover, it was incredibly flavoursome — one of the tastiest filter coffees of my trip — with lovely floral notes.

The food menu was in Polish and I didn’t want to make the barista translate everything, so I stuck to one of the soups I could translate — a creamy pea and carrot soup, with a side of toasted sourdough. As will become clear once you read my Kraków travel guide, a lot of the food I ate in the city was heavy and/or meaty so it was nice to have a lighter meal. Meanwhile, the cafe was simultaneously buzzing and calm with its rustic décor was a nice place to sit and chill after my busy morning.

Karma is located at Krupnicza 12. Website. Instagram

Just across Krupnicza from Karma is Tektura, another coffee shop and all-day eatery. The coffee menu was heavy on filter brew methods and I was a little overwhelmed. When I asked what coffees they were serving through the Kalita Wave, the barista told me they currently had an amazing 15 bean varieties available! Rather than making her show me everything, I suggested that I might like a Kenyan or a Rwandan. The proffered Kenyan was from Warsaw roaster Coffee Lab, a Kiambu Maasai, so that’s what I went for. I also ordered a macchiato, as I felt I couldn’t completely skip espresso-based drinks while I was in town.

There’s a big communal table at the front of the cafe, which benefits from the natural light from the street, and some smaller tables along the side. I took one of the smaller tables, not quite appreciating that my photos would be bathed in the red light of the neon ‘kawa to podstawa’ (I’m not sure the exact translation, although kawa means ‘coffee’ and podstawa ‘basis’) sign. There were also some cool Polish Aeropress championship posters.

The macchiato was nicely brewed and came with a latte-art heart (not always easy in such a small drink). Appropriately, given the red tint, and in common with several of the other filter coffees I drank in Kraków, redcurrant was the predominant flavour note.

Tektura is located at Krupnicza 7. Facebook. Instagram

Wesoła Cafe
Not too far from Blossom and the train station, Wesoła was the last coffee shop I visited before I caught the train back to the airport, and it was also one of my favourites. I was glad there was a short queue when I arrived late on a sunny Sunday afternoon because it gave me a little time to parse the menu, which was divided into kavy białe (white coffee) and kavy czarne (black coffee). Even here, there was no piccolo or cortado on the menu, which skips from espresso macchiato to flat white, and then all the way up to ‘mega latte’.

I stuck to the other side of the menu, where you could go for an Aeropress, V60 or Chemex (distinguished by size: 200 ml, 400 ml and 600 ml, respectively). They also serve a przelew, which I think is a batch-brew filter coffee. Brew method selected, I then had to choose my bean. There were four coffees from two roasters, Roastains from Kraków and Warsaw-based Coffee Republic (no, not that Coffee Republic!). I chose a Coffee Republic Kii AA+ microlot from Kenya’s Kirinyaga region. Brewed through the Aeropress, it wasn’t the clearest of filter coffees, but it was delicious with tart redcurrant and sweet elderflower notes. It was, in fact, the perfect end to my coffee tour of Krakow.

Wesoła Cafe is located at Rakowicka 17. Website. Instagram

Two more coffee shops I didn’t have time to visit, but which were on my list:

Coffeece Kawiarnia. Mogilska 15A. Website. A few blocks east of Wesoła. Note that it doesn’t open at weekends.

Proficiency Coffee — Coffee Cargo, Aleja 29 Listopada 155c. Website. Instagram. There used to be a Coffee Cargo in town, close to Oskar Schindler’s factory in Podgórze, but it has closed and you will now need to journey two miles outside the city centre to sample their coffee. It’s closed on Sundays.

6 March 2018

Five Coffee Day Trips from London

Although one day isn't enough time to spend in many of the cities I visit, it's definitely a good start. And if you choose a day-trip destination that has a good or growing speciality coffee scene, you can combine sight-seeing with coffee-shop hopping.

I've chosen five cities that you can visit on a day trip from London, giving you enough time for a few coffee-shop visits (4–5 if your caffeine tolerance is as high as mine), and a spot of tourism. Asterisks indicate my top coffee-shop choice for each city. If you're seeking further inspiration for coffee-centric travels, you may also like to check out my collection of coffee guides.

1. Bath
Just an hour and a half by train from Paddington, the city of Bath makes for a great day trip from London. The train fare can be expensive so try to book in advance, and bear in mind that the city is often busy but especially in the summer and when the Christmas markets are on.

Coffee shops to try: Colonna & Smalls (pictured above and in the header)*; Hunter & Sons (check their opening hours); Mokoko CoffeePicnic Coffee; and Society Café. See also my full Bath coffee guide.

Non-coffee activities: visit the Roman Baths; warm up in the Thermae Bath Spa; check out the Royal Crescent and Bath Abbey; or indulge in your Austen addiction. See also my Bath city guide.

2. Brighton
Perhaps best enjoyed on a sunny — or, at least, not too windy — day, Brighton is the ideal destination for anyone wanting their coffee and culture with a side of sea air. There are frequent trains from London Bridge and London Victoria, which take about an hour. I haven't been back to Brighton for a few years and my coffee guide has become rather out of date. Note to self: book another trip when the weather starts to get nicer.

Coffee shops to try: Bond St CoffeePharmacie (Saturdays only); Pelicano Coffee; Redroaster Cafe; and Small Batch (pictured)*.

Non-coffee activities: stroll, picnic or eat fish and chips on the beach; amuse yourself on the Brighton Palace Pier; get lost in The Lanes; visit the Royal Pavilion; or go shopping in Hove.

3. Cambridge
I lived in Cambridge from 2002–2008, during my degree and the two years that followed, but like with most UK cities, speciality coffee was pretty much non-existent at the time. Thankfully, things have changed and you will no longer be limited to tea rooms and chains when you visit this lovely university city. Fast trains from King's Cross take about 45 minutes, although Cambridge city centre is a 20-minute stroll from the station.

Coffee shops to try: Bould Brothers; Espresso Library; Hot Numbers; Stir (pictured)*; and Urban Larder.

Non-coffee activities: visit the University (I am biased but don't miss my alma mater, St John's College — the chapel and Bridge of Sighs are impressive; King's College's more famous chapel is also well worth a peek); go punting on the Cam (you can take a punt tour too, which can be entertaining even if the 'history' should been taken with a cellar of salt); visit the Fitzwilliam Museum; or find shelter and history in the city's many pubs, like The Eagle.

4. Oxford
As I grew up in Oxford but studied in Cambridge, I've never been able to choose between the two cities. They both make good day trips from London, and Oxford is bigger, which means there is more to do and more coffee shops. Fun fact: I used to work in the city's tourist information centre and even in 2004, the most popular question was, "which is Harry Potter college?" Trains from Paddington and Marylebone take about an hour, and the Oxford Bus Company and Oxford Tube both run frequent coaches from several London stops; the journey takes about 90 minutes.

Coffee shops to try: BREW; Colombia Coffee Roasters; Jericho Coffee Traders; Missing Bean (there's a roastery in East Oxford (pictured) and a central café); and Society Café*. My full Oxford coffee guide.

Non-coffee activities: visit the UK's oldest university (you can book walking tours at the tourist information centre); shop for food and locally produced goods at the historic Covered Market; discover the shrunken heads and other curiosities at the Pitt Rivers Museum; and yes, there are plenty of Harry Potter filming locations in Oxford, if that's your bag.

5. Paris
This may not be the most slow-paced day trip on the list, but Paris is definitely doable in a day from London — I've done it several times. The fastest Eurostar services take just over 2h30 and if you start early, you could be in Paris by 10:30 am. If you don't return home until the evening, that gives you plenty of time to visit a few of Paris's ever-growing range of third-wave coffee shops and to see some of the City of Lights.

Coffee shops to try: Coutume; Fondation Café; Fragments; KB CaféShop*; and Neighbours (pictured). NB: Paris is much bigger than the other cities I've listed, so you may need to consult my Paris speciality coffee map to find coffee shops in the neighbourhood(s) you are hitting.

Non-coffee activities: walk along the Seine and through the surrounding neighbourhoods (you can try the walking route here); explore the Catacombes; shop in the Marais; eat, eat and eat — I tend to spend most of my time in Paris, drinking coffee, eating and walking, so you can find some foodie inspiration in these posts; or climb up through Montmartre and enjoy the wonderful view from Sacré Cœur.

4 March 2018

My Picks for the 2018 Academy Awards

Ahead of the Academy Awards ceremony each year, I try to watch as many films nominated for the Best Picture category as possible — this is easier some years than others, given the UK cinema release date schedule. This year, I watched the last remaining film on my list, which means I have now seen all nine films nominated for Best Picture, as well as most of the films that feature in the nominations in the other seven categories I consider in my own almost-annual 'Oscar picks' post.

Best Picture: Lady Bird [9/9 watched]
Of the nine films nominated, I really liked seven (I wasn't wowed by Darkest Hour or Phantom Thread) and of those, I found it very difficult to choose between Lady Bird, The Shape of Water, Three Billboards and Call Me By Your Name. This year's nominated films are so diverse and I loved them for different reasons. The Shape of Water and Dunkirk stayed with me for a long time after I watched them, but the understated but funny, moving, keenly observed and well-acted Lady Bird won me over in the end. As someone who graduated from high school around the same time as Lady Bird, albeit across the pond, I found that the movie rang very true and was a delight to watch. It sounds as though Three Billboards — or perhaps The Shape of Water — will win this tonight.

Best Director: Guillermo Del Toro, The Shape of Water [5/5 watched]
Regular readers will know that Christopher Nolan is one of my all-time favourite directors and until I saw The Shape of Water, I couldn't imagine any film would persuade me to choose anything other than Dunkirk for my best director pick. And yet, Guillermo Del Toro won me over with his beautiful, enchanting and ethereal tale of love, communication...and amphibians. Like Dunkirk, this cinematic magic is best experienced on the big screen, if you have the chance.

Best Actress: Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri [5/5 watched]
Best Actor: Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name [4/5 watched]
All five of the women nominated for Best Actress put in superb performances and I would be happy to see any of them take home the prize. My personal choice is also the likely winner — Frances McDormand, as the feisty, uncompromising Mildred in Three Billboards, whose strong performance anchors a sometimes uneven movie. In the Best Actor category, I have a different problem: I've only seen four of the films and wasn't overly enamoured by either Darkest Hour or Phantom Thread. I thought both Timothée Chalamet (my pick) and Daniel Kaluuya were great, but probably won't win (not this year, anyway), as it is Gary Oldman's year...

Best Supporting Actress: Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird [4/5 watched]
Best Supporting Actor: Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri [3/5 watched]
Although I did enjoy Allison Janney's performance in I, Tonya (which will probably win), it was rather obvious and OTT, whereas Laurie Metcalf's quieter, more nuanced Marion McPherson — mother of the titular Lady Bird — was more interesting and complex. In the Best Supporting Actor category, although Sam Rockwell is likely to win for his role in Three Billboards, I thought his co-star Woody Harrelson was the stronger of the two. Again, Harrelson is more understated, but impressive nonetheless.

Best Original Screenplay: Get Out — written by Jordan Peele [5/5 watched]
Best Adapted Screenplay: Call Me By Your Name — screenplay by James Ivory [3/5 watched]
It was a close call between Get Out and Lady Bird in the Best Original Screenplay category. I missed Get Out when it was first out in cinemas, but caught a recent screening at BAFTA and it entertained me greatly, while challenging my expectations. The script is sharp, funny and very, very dark. Over in Best Adapted Screenplay, despite my soft spot for Sorkin, I was a little underwhelmed by Molly's Game, while James Ivory's adaptation of Call Me by Your Name was by turns sweet, sharp, funny and sad, but always utterly engaging.

27 February 2018

Five Days in Austin, Texas: Things To Do, Places To Eat, Drink & Shop

As I noted in my recent post about Austin's speciality coffee scene, I'd never been to Texas before this year and was pleased to have to opportunity to visit the state capital as part of a trip for work. I attend a conference in the US each February, and after the chilly climes of Boston in 2017 and Washington, DC, in 2016, I was happy to hear this year's location would be rather warmer. But warm though Austin was, after a chilly start, sunny it was not, apart from on one afternoon. The weather was generally grey, misty and very humid, which is apparently typical for the time of year. I usually try to add a few days of holiday onto any work trips but this time, I could only stay an extra day, which meant my time for exploring was limited to one full day, and a few early mornings, although I did at least get to sample plenty of the local cuisine. I was a few weeks early for SXSW, but here's what I got up to.

Places to stay
I booked my first night in town on my own dime at the Kimpton Hotel Van Zandt, which was close to the river and to my next. When I first started researching hotels, I was almost relieved I was only paying for one extra night because the downtown hotels expensive (it doesn't help that for this conference, I am usually booking around Valentine's Day). I got a 60% off Black Friday deal at the Van Zandt, however, and it was a really cool place to stay. The room was large, comfortable and super-stylish, and there was a social hour with free beer, wine and margaritas in the lobby in the evenings. Alas, the grey weather meant that I didn't get to make use of the self-proclaimed best rooftop pool in Austin and the city view from my 13th floor room was almost non-existent; for the price I paid, it was still good value, though.

For the rest of my trip, I stayed at the JW Marriott on East 2nd Street, a few blocks northwest and handily close to the convention centre. I was on the 18th floor and although my view was initially non-existent, as the weather improved somewhat during the week, I got a great view of the skyline, Congress Avenue Bridge and the river, as well as the heated outdoor pool. I got to use the pool a couple of times, once by day and once by night, which was wonderful. The room itself was large, quiet and comfortable. There was, of course, no kettle but I made my morning Aeropress brew using the hot water from the coffee maker.

Things to do
Congress Avenue
I spent my first evening and some of my free day exploring the area around Congress Avenue. There are some interesting things to see, including one of the city's colourful guitars and a statue of Angelina Eberly, an innkeeper who helped Austin to retain its status as state capital. You can also see or catch a show at the famous Paramount Theatre.

Further north is the Texas State Capitol building, which offers guided tours, although I just admired it from outside, by night and then by day, when sun finally came out. Another few blocks north is the University of Texas at Austin campus. I wandered through on a sunny Wednesday afternoon and enjoyed the lively atmosphere — somewhat contradictorily, it was both Valentine's Day and Ash Wednesday. You can climb the campus tower for a good city view if you have time.

Art and culture
There are various colourful murals all around Austin, including the 'Greetings from Austin' mural featured at the top of this post (it's on South 1st Street at Annie Street) and the mural outside the Mexican American Cultural Center, just off Rainey Street.

Continuing the Mexican theme, I spent an enjoyable half-hour at the Mexic-Arte Museum on Congress Avenue, which currently features photography and mixed-media works from young Mexican artists. Entry is $5. It also has an excellent gift shop, where I picked up the colourful, decorative skull I had hoped to buy when I was in Mexico. A couple of blocks further north on Congress is another gallery called The Contemporary Austin Jones Center (entry $5), currently featuring a powerful exhibition from Rodney McMillan.

I made a quick detour to the Museum of the Weird ($12) on Sixth Street, which I figured would be the standard collection of oddities, myths and conjecture. I didn't realise it also featured a 'show' where the guide demonstrated his immunity to electricity, and then also mentioned that he didn't get paid (because it would cost the museum too much in insurance) so could we please tip him? Unless you have a burning desire to see the purported Minnesota Iceman, I would suggest giving this museum a miss.

Lady Bird Lake
This reservoir forms part of the Colorado River, which flows through downtown Austin. There is a running/bike path along the waterfront, which is where I went on a couple of morning runs. On the south side of the river, there's a boardwalk for some of the way. If you're there when the weather is nicer, you can rent kayaks and other boats. And as a former rower, I was excited to see plenty of rowing and skulling crews out on the river.

On the one evening when the weather was nice, I crossed the Congress Avenue Bridge just before sunset, in the hope of seeing the hundreds of thousands of bats that roost under the bridge come out to play. It turns out that they are only in town from their Mexican home from mid-March to November, so the only bats I got to see where the bat-shaped bike racks outside the convention centre, unfortunately. If you're in town at the right time, by all accounts, bat viewing sounds like a must-do.

I had heard great things about the outdoor swimming hole known as Barton Springs but in the absence of good weather and a lot of time, I had to give it a miss this time. Equally, I would have loved to experience some of Austin's live music scene but it wasn't on the cards this time.

Food and drink
Food trucks and casual eateries
I was keen to visit some of Austin's famous food trucks, which also suited my time-limited itinerary. I had some great breakfast tacos from Taco Deli at various coffee shops, but didn't get to visit one of their stand-alone locations. I did, however, have some excellent breakfast tacos at both Veracruz All Natural and Torchy's. The latter were particularly good and well worth the walk south of the river. After a week of a higher than usual meat consumption, I followed the recommendation of some vegetarian friends and sought out Arlo's, a vegan 'curb-side kitchen', where I had a really tasty faux bacon cheeseburger.

If you know my last name, you'll know why I made a beeline for Walton's Fancy & Staple in Austin. It turns out that the deli/cafe is now owned by Sandra Bullock, and the queue was out of the door at Saturday brunchtime. I ordered a sandwich to go (bacon and avo on sourdough, which was huge and delicious) but the brunch menu looked great too. Naturally, I also bought all of the merchandise, including a Walton's Klean Kanteen flask, a tote bag and some spice rubs for my family. Sadly, I didn't get a discount on the basis of my name. They did sell bags of Walton-branded Cuvée Coffee, but it was all decaf, unfortunately.

I also went to Easy Tiger for lunch with a former colleague I hadn't seen in almost a decade, where I had a tasty meatball sub. It's a great spot for German-influenced food, craft beer and freshly baked bread. A few weeks before I arrived, a gourmet food hall called Fareground opened up opposite my hotel. With indoor and outdoor seating and six local food and drink vendors (so far), it's a great space and I went twice. I actually ended up going to the same vendor, Contigo, twice, sampling the rotisserie chicken (excellent) and the cheeseburger (epic), but there are also top-notch tacos at Dai Due, sushi and ramen at Ni-Kome and much more.

Other eateries and watering holes
If you eat meat — which most of the people I was with didn't — then you probably won't want to leave Austin without trying some barbecue. Many people had recommended Franklin and La Barbecue, but I'd also been warned of long wait times (from 7 am sometimes at the former). One of the other places that was recommended, Iron Works Barbecue, was located conveniently close to the convention centre, however, so I nipped out for a huge and tasty brisket plate.

Two classic Austin nights out involve a stroll along Sixth Street — rammed full of restaurants, bars and live music venues — and another down Rainey Street. I was with work contacts on my first night and, shunning the offers of $2 margaritas, we dined at Iron Cactus on Sixth Street. The Tex-Mex fare was pretty good and I enjoyed my huge plate of fajitas. On Rainey Street, down by the waterfront, historic bungalows have been converted into diverse bars and restaurants. The large veggie contingent in our group narrowed down our choice, but we had a tasty Indian meal at G'Raj Mahal, who were very accommodating of our large group (even if they did seem to encourage us to tip twice).

Alone on Valentine's Day, I went for dinner at Bufalina, a Neapolitan pizzeria on the East Side. I had to wait for about 30 minutes, but the Prosecco was really good and the pizza even better, and the staff were extremely welcoming. For a client dinner, I had hoped to go to Swift's Attic but we were delayed and there were no free tables. Instead, we crossed the road to Manuel's for some very good Mexican food and margaritas, with very friendly service. I attended receptions most nights, but I did manage a visit to Garage, a cocktail bar in a parking garage (you can take the girl out of south London but...), where I had a beautifully mixed cocktail involving bourbon, pineapple, lemon and basil.

Most of my favourite US chains, including J. Crew, Madewell, Athleta and Sephora, don't have downtown Austin stores. There's a good selection of shops at Barton Creek Square, five miles southwest of the downtown, but to hit all of the stores on my list, I took the bus up to The Domain, a sprawling outdoor mall 12 miles north of town. It takes just under an hour on the 803 or 3 bus, which costs $1.25 (a lot cheaper than a taxi or Uber).

There are some great independent stores in the downtown area, however, including on Second Street (west of Congress Avenue), where I enjoyed shopping at Luxe Apothetique (a clothing, accessories and homewares boutique), Esperos Soho (gorgeous handbags and leather goods) and Modcloth (a vintage clothing store I used to shop from online). Half a block north on Colorado Street, there are two lifestyle boutiques — Prize (pictured below) and Hacienda — which both sell beautiful homewares and accessories. Because this is Austin, you can even buy cowboy boots from an Airstream trailer at Alvies.

Heading further west, there's a lively farmers' market at Republic Square on Saturdays, and Lululemon, Free People, Anthropologie and a great independent bookstore called Book People are all located around West 6th Street and North Lamar.

There's another group of independent stores on East 5th Street, just east of the I-35, including hip boutique ARO and Succulent Native, heaven for the green-fingered. I didn't get down to South Congress, but that is also a great place for independent-store hopping.