Kaye Holland visits the hottest new destination in Texas
Most visitors to Texas rush to the bright lights and big hotels of Dallas but look through recent travel ‘It lists,’ ‘hot spots’ and ‘must visit destinations’ and one Lone State city emerges triumphant. And it’s not the Big D.
Rather it’s the state capital, Austin, that is lauded as the most original, fascinating and increasingly fashionable place to holiday in Texas. And in my mind, Austin - a quirky, bohemian island in the middle of uber conservative Texas - is the only place to live if you’re going to relocate to the Lone State.
For while there are American towns with more history and culture, no city delivers quite as enticing combination of individualism and sheer fun as Austin.
To get the inside story on the city, try a tour with Austin Overtures - experts on all things Austin. Through Austin Overtures, I discovered places that I might not otherwise have done: I learnt that Austin is the birthplace of Whole Foods (and that locals are a tad annoyed that the biggest branch is now in London and not Austin). And I also got to see the renowned University of Texas (nearly half of Austin’s population has earned a bachelor’s degree or higher), the historic and haunted Driskill Hotel (a local landmark whose guestbook is full of doodles from the rich and famous), the suburb of Rock Round (the home of Dell computers), and beautiful Barton Springs Pool - the perfect spot to beat the heat on a hot summer’s day.
But as interesting as my tour with Austin Overtures was, Austin’s real selling point is its street life. Austin isn’t really about sightseeing per se but exploring: wandering backstreets, stopping for a coffee in one of the excellent independent cafes (proof that if you pick the right part of Texas, you’ll get character and local charm rather than identikit chains), eating a long late lunch and then listening to live music.
For if Houston has the problem and Dallas the cheesy TV show, Austin has the music: it’s the city’s lifeblood, currency and reason for existence and you can’t very well visit Austin without listening to live music until the wee small hours. Make no mistake: Austin’s residents are a lively lot, crowding into clubs and bars like the Elephant Room and Continental Club - one of the hottest places to gather post midnight - to catch the city’s best local acts. In spite of some good intentions, I never made it to bed before 3am, but that’s just how Austin rolls: it’s best not to make too many plans.
But while Austin has a greater number of live music venues per capita than anywhere else in the US - and has even trademarked the title “Live Music Capital of the World’ - there is more to Austin than its music scene.
Food is most definitely part of the city’s short break pleasures. The trouble isn’t finding somewhere to eat, it’s deciding what cuisine you fancy. And you don’t have to spend a lot to eat well thanks to a plethora of fabulous food trucks (Austin pioneered the food truck scene) making it a great destination for those, like me, longing for affordable indulgence. There’s a truck on every corner serving Mexican tacos, Thai food, Indian dosas, cupcakes, ice cream (Amy’s is amazing) creole stews and health conscious fare - challenging the ‘barbecue only’ image that’s often associated with Texas.
But if you want a meal that’s served with a slice of weird (v Austin), make for Way South Philly. The lines are long but the wait - for a cheesesteak sandwich served by waiting staff whom are all ordained ministers! - is worth it.
Still not sure which addresses to hit? Rocket Electrics is the name you need. Founded by John Dawson, Rocket Electric's savvy guides will take you to a parade of their favourite places - on an electric bike! It’s a great way to solve your your delicious dilemma while also discovering areas of Austin that might not yet have made it into your guidebook.
My group’s guide, the amiable John, introduced our coterie to East Austin. As everywhere, hip neighbourhoods come and go but at the time of my visit (April 2014) the scene had shifted from South Congress (or SoCo as the area is affectionately known) to the East side of town. This, John enlightened us, is where you’ll find the hipsters eating sausages and drinking beer at Banger’s.
Watching them, you’ll wonder how - in a city of such gastronomic opportunity - the locals all manage to stay so damned slim (especially for an American city). Then you’ll see the stand up paddles on the Colarado River and the joggers pounding the pavements and you’ll have your answer.
I’ve waxed lyrical about Austin’s eating scene but food isn’t the only front Austin is firing on. Chances are your food orgy will be tempered by another vice: shopping. Browse everything from jewels to jeans in Austin’s cool, independent boutiques on which the city’s slogan - ‘Keep Austin Weird - is based. Head to Heritage Boot to pick up a pair of bonafide cowboy boots and South Congress Books for rare editions of classic novels and cult favourites alike. And don’t miss Uncommon Objects - a quirky antique store selling ‘curious oddities’ and Antone’s Record Shop which, as the name suggest, sells a decent selection of Austin music.
With so much on offer, it’s little wonder that Hollywood stars Matthew McConnaughey, Sandra Bullock (who owns a couple of restaurants in town), tennis ace Andy Roddick and, ahem, disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong all call Austin home. As do America’s largest urban bat colony: stand on Congress Avenue Bridge at sunset during the summer months and you’ll see the flying mammals emerge from under the bridge to turn the sky black.
Speaking of locals, there are lasting memories to be gained from meeting the average austinite who will go out of their way to make sure you fall under the spell of their city. Not that they need to try hard. Spend even the smallest amount of time here and you’ll quickly discover that Austin is that rare place where the nexus of varied activities, excellent food and cultural options come together in a cocktail of very affordable fun. Am I’m guilty of gushing? Absolutely but for good reason: there’s no cooler place in the country to get your grove on than Austin. I’d go back tomorrow.
NEED TO KNOW
How to get there and when to go Thanks to the new direct flights from London with BA, this is a good year to visit Austin. But deciding to go is the easy part: you also need to decide when. Each month of the year, there’s something happening somewhere - a festival (including the colossal South by South West music and film festival, a show, a sporting event (the X Games - aka the ‘Olympics of extreme sports’ ) or an event like Eeyore’s birthday party (not for nothing is the city’s tagline: Keep Austin Weird).
Where to stay
The Omni Austin Hotel pushes the boundaries to an all new level of opulence and style. Beds are the soft kind you could spend all day in, bathrooms are the type you could lose yourself in and the service is warm and efficient in equal measure: from the charming receptionists and waiters to the long serving door attendants and Austin’s most conscientious concierge. Don’t believe me? Perhaps you’ll believe Barack Obama - the Omni Austin is the American president’s hotel of choice when in town.