Austin City Guide

There's way more to Texas than cowboys

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Posted by Kasia Hastings

Review by Frankie Mullin

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Despite increasing gentrification, Austin remains a bastion of independent spirit, famed for its alternative culture. Most visited during the South By Southwest music festival in April, at which upwards of 2000 acts play at venues across the city, Austin is an intriguing counter to stereotypes of Texas.

The city’s all-year-round live music scene earns it the tag line ‘Live music capital of the world’, while its other slogan, ‘Keep Austin Weird’ is warranted by the dominance of one-off boutique shops. Those who like things cushy can seek out luxury spas, gourmet restaurants and stylish accommodation while, thanks to the Colorado River meandering across the city, there are also peaceful spots to swim or walk.

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Where to stay in Austin:

W Hotel

For slick luxury, slap bang next to the iconic Austin City Limits music venue and close to high-end downtown shopping, choose the W Hotel. Rooms have flat-screen TVs, iPod docks and optional games consoles and there’s a roof-top swimming pool, spa, gym, restaurants and a cocktail bar (200 Lavaca Street; +1 512 542 3600; whotelaustin.com; Double rooms for one or two people from £166 per night, breakfast not included; see website for deals including spa packages).

San Jose

Musicians passing through town, especially those playing the renowned Continental Club, favour the hip San Jose, a renovated 1930s motel on the laid-back, cool strip that is South Congress (1316 S. Congress Ave; +1 512 852 2360; sanjosehotel.com; Double rooms for one or two people from £120 per night, breakfast not included).

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Hotel Saint Cecilia

Nearby, the stylish, eccentric Hotel Saint Cecilia is a Victorian mansion with poolside bungalows set in beautifully landscaped grounds (112 Academy Drive; +1 512 852 2400; hotelsaintcecilia.com; Double rooms for one or two people from £180 per night, breakfast not included).

Heywood Hotel

If you’re in Austin to party, the city’s new boutique accommodation, the Heywood Hotel, in the middle of East Austin bar-land, is modern and stylish (1609 East Cesar Chavez; +1 512-271-5522; heywoodhotel.com; Double rooms for one or two people from £115, breakfast not included).

Just out of town, the award-winning Austin Spa Resort offers luxurious rooms and treatments in a stunning stetting (1705 S Quinlan Park Rd; +1 512 3727300; lakeaustin.com; Three-night resort package rates from £1045 pp, per double, including full board, fitness classes and activities. Spa services are a la carte).

Where to eat in Austin:

One of Austin’s joys is the booming food truck scene and, especially around South Congress and East Austin, you’ll find gourmet bites in myriad cuisines served from the side of silver airstreams and painted trucks. At night, sitting at a picnic table under trees filled with fairy lights on East 6th St is a memorable experience. You’ll never have time to try everything, but Korean-Mexican fusion truck Chi’Lanntro (chilantrobbq.com; @ChiLantroBBQ) and pan-Asian East Side King (eskaustin.com; @EastSideKingATX) are good places to start. You’ll want to take a picture in front of psychedelically cute Hey Cupcake! (heycupcake.com; @HeyCupcakeATX) a pink van replete with giant cupcake and candy-striped umbrellas. Check websites and Twitter for locations.

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If it’s fine dining you’re after, the relatively new Congress (200 Congress Avenue; +1 512 827 2760; congressaustin.com) is crisp and elegant, offering an exciting and much-lauded seven-course chef’s tasting menu. Meat-lovers must head to Steiner Ranch Steakhouse (5424 Steiner Ranch Blvd; +1 512 381 0800; steinersteakhouse.com) for steak and incredible views. Seriously delicious sushi and other modern Japanese fare is served with panache at Uchi (801 S Lamar Blvd; +1 512 916 4808; uchiaustin.com).

Austin prides itself on great breakfasts, so you should treat yourself after a late night of live music. Trace (200 Lavaca Street; +1 512 542 3660; traceaustin.com) is your place for mimosas and Eggs Benedict, while famed Fonda San Miguel (2330 North Loop Blvd; +1 512 459 4121; fondasanmiguel.com) puts on a hangover-busting Mexican brunch buffet in a colourful Spanish villa setting Frida Kahlo would have approved of.

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Where to shop in Austin:

Austin’s most interesting, eclectic shops are on South Congress, the long straight thoroughfare that cuts through the city, lined with hip bars, coffee shops and boutiques. The ultimate symbol of Texas, Heritage Boot (117 West Eighth Street; 512-326-8577; heritageboot.com) sells handmade Western boots in exotic leathers using flamboyant vintage patterns. Opposite, the charming, well-dressed assistants in Goorin Brothers (1323 S. Congress; +1 512 3264287; goorin.com) will find you the perfect hat, be it fedora or floppy. For beautifully-selected vintage pieces, pop into Feather Boutique (1700 S. Congress Ave; +1 512 912 9779; feathersboutiquevintage.com) then browse the eccentric antique oddities in Uncommon Objects (1512 S. Congress Ave; +1 512 442 4000). In North Austin, the park-like Domain mall (11410 Century Oaks Terrace; simon.com) features upmarket shops including Neiman Marcus, Louis Vuitton and Tiffany. Don’t miss Hem Jeans (908 W 12th St; +1 512 478 5326; hemjeans.com), Austin’s denim specialty store which has its own on-site tailor.

Where to go for pampering in Austin:

Set aside a day to unwind and recover from your live music-induced fatigue at the Lake Austin Spa Resort (1705 S Quinlan Park Rd; +1 512 372 7300; lakeaustin.com). Set in lush gardens, overlooking the lake and wooded hills, the spa has an extensive menu of body treatments including East Asian therapies such as Acupuncture and Manaka Tapping. If you have time, stay for the night, take a lake-side yoga class or jog on one of the waterside trails. For massage, manicures, facials and waxing, the unpretentious and well-priced Viva Day Spa (215 S Lamar Blvd; +1 512 472 2256; vivadayspa.com) is popular with busy Austin natives. You can probably shop Austin’s downtown boutiques in a morning so spend the afternoon in the Away Spa (200 Lavaca St; +1 512 542 3626; austinawayspa.com); great for hot stone massage, personalised aromatherapy blends and party-fatigue-combatting facials. Plus, you’ll get use of the rooftop swimming pool with its views of the Austin city skyline, and bar serving fresh fruit juice or stronger concoctions.

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Where to watch live music in Austin:

Austin’s tagline, ‘Live Music Capital of the World’, is well-deserved. For uber-cool dive bars, the far end of East 6th St is your place; wooden one-storey buildings have been turned into a playground of bars, cafes and restaurants and this is where Austin’s hip, music-loving crowd hang out. Most bars will have live bands playing so follow your ears and check out carnivalesque Cheer Up Charlies (1104 E 6th St; cheerupcharlies.com), with its light-strung garden; drink cocktails under a chandelier in latter day music hall, The East Side Showroom (1100 E 6th St; +1 512 467 4280; eastsideshowroom.com), or soak up some punk rock vibes in the Hotel Vegas (1502 E. 6th St; texashotelvegas.com). Further down, in the cavernous White Horse Saloon (500 Comal St  Austin; +1 512 553 6756; thewhitehorseaustin.com), hipsters and rockabillies pack the dance floor. Weekend nights here get pretty crazy, while on Sundays, stylish Austinites hit the cosy beer garden as older Tejano couples dance sedately to the Mexican-country fusion of conjunto bands.

Away from the Eastside, with rock’n’roll credentials dating back to the 50s, the Continental Club (1315 S Congress; +1 512 441 2444; continentalclub.com) on South Congress is an institution; expect rockabilly or country and strong drinks. Big acts play this venue from time to time and Sonic Youth recorded a live album here in their early days.

If dive bars aren’t your thing, but you want to hear some music, Austin City Limits Live (310 Willie Nelson Blvd; +1 512 225 7999; acl-live.com) is a state-of-the-art, 2,700-person space in which America’s cult music series, Austin City Limits is filmed. This is the place to catch both big bands and up and coming artists. For sit-down entertainment, the historic Paramount (713 Congress Ave; +1 512 472 5470; austintheatre.org) is a magnificently ornate theatre, in the grand European tradition, and has an eclectic program of theatre, music and film. Nearby, sit on the balcony of the classy Stephen F's Bar & Terrace (InterContinental Hotel, 701 Congress; +1 512 457 8800; austin.intercontinental.com) to sip cocktails and watch the world pass by beneath you. On the same strip, nonchalantly cool jazz bar, Elephant Room (315 Congress Ave; +1 512 473 2279; elephantroom.com), is dimly lit, intimate and has a great wine list.

Don’t leave Austin without: 

Austin is a manageably small city and one of its beauties is the green space that reaches in from the hills around, intersecting the city with the wide, tree-lined Colorado River and spilling out into the 358-acre Zilker Park. The river is a focal point and you should make time to walk or jog along its banks. Within walking distance from downtown Austin, Barton Creek opens out as underground springs feed the beautiful man-made pool that is Barton Springs Pool (2201 Barton Springs Rd; +1 512 476 9044; austintexas.gov), with water that is, on average, 20 °C. These springs were once considered sacred by the Tonkawa Native American tribe and there is something magical about swimming in the fresh water so close to the city.

At night, you may find yourself again on the river, this time leaning over the Congress Avenue bridge to catch sight of Austin’s famed bat colony. Each dusk, people gather to wait for the bat colony – sometimes more than a million strong – to take flight from under the bridge and set off in a great cloud through the darkening sky.

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