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 hotel. When I first started researching hotels, I was almost relieved I was only paying for one extra night because the downtown hotels are 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 the 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 were 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 CuvĂ©e Coffee, but it was all decaf, unfortunately.

I also went for lunch with a former colleague I hadn't seen in almost a decade at Easy Tiger, 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.


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