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Austin Travel Guide

Weekend Getaway


A Capital Retreat
T
he Southwest's Hippest City
By Danté Dominick


The Austin skyline: Austin hosts more festivals and outdoor activities than there are days in the year
The Austin skyline

Austin is a progressive, open-minded city that prides itself on its quirkiness, but it's the constant word-of-mouth buzz that attracts Hollywood stars, aspiring artists and vacationers.

The casual, laid-back modus operandi makes it hard to believe this is the state capital of Texas, better known by its official slogan: "The Live Music Capital of the World." If you come to Austin hoping to find stereotypical cowboys, ten-gallon hats and colloquial turns of phrase, you'll be more disappointed than a rooster in a pig pen.

Austin is the gateway to the Hill Country, also defying Texas misconceptions with its rolling hills, abundant greenery and large lakes. The city is bisected by Lady Bird Lake, often called Town Lake by locals, which you'll recognize as a river. Austin's downtown area starts at the northern shore and stretches a bit north of the Capitol, slowly giving way to the University of Texas. Just south of Lady Bird Lake are some of the city's most vibrant areas and beautiful residential neighborhoods. Be sure to research Austin event calendars before arriving, because there are more festivals and outdoor activities in this city than there are days in the year.

Accommodations range from posh to adffordable. If you want to splurge, The Four Seasons Austin, on the banks of Lady Bird Lake, lives up to its stellar reputation. W Austin retains its hallmark sophistication with a decidedly Austin bent (it helps being next door to the legendary Austin City Limits stage). Alternatively, The Driskill Hotel is a striking downtown landmark, first built in 1886 and rich with history. Less expensive options in the heart of town that still earn high marks are Hyatt Regency Austin and Embassy Suites Downtown/Town Lake. Or you could opt for unending pampering and wellness at Lake Austin Spa Resort.

The most sought after rooms are quite possibly those at Hotel San José, just five minutes from downtown and across the street from The Continental Club on South Congress. The bungalow-style rooms surround a minimalist courtyard lounging with hipsters. Rooms sell out quickly at the Hotel San José, but its sister inn, Hotel Saint Cecilia, is a nice alternative. Though it's within walking distance of downtown, the feel is more secluded, yet equally inspiring. If you're looking for less expensive digs in the heart of the South Congress vitality, don't be fooled by Austin Motel's name or neon sign — it's actually quite a nice place, especially for the price.

A note about Austin's weather: Summer is hot — very hot. The visitor's bureau will feed you lines about Austin's mild, temperate climate. Don't be fooled. Then again, the hot summers haven't stopped Austin from positioning itself as one of the fastest growing cities in the country, and countless visitors from all corners of the globe cite Austin as the coolest place on earth. A second note about Austin's weather: Winter nights are cold. You will need a jacket. Maybe even a hat and gloves.

With those disclaimers out of the way, let's dive into the city that keeps attracting so much attention.

AUSTIN ITINERARY: DAY 1

Start your first day in Austin with a Texafied version of a hearty, all-American breakfast at the 1886 Café & Bakery in the Driskill Hotel. Nosh on Texas pecan waffles, jalapeno biscuits with chorizo gravy or the indulgent crêpes with Gulf Coast shrimp and crabmeat. Sit on the cozy sidewalk patio and peruse the weekly Austin Chronicle to catch up on the live music listings for the week.

Since its towering, pink granite dome will loom large in your sightline, you might as well start your adventure at the Texas State Capitol at the north end of Congress Avenue. Take the guided tour if your timing is right; it's more fun and informative than the self-guided tour.

Enjoy artful cuisine at Chef David Bull's Congress restaurant
Chef David Bull turns out artful presentations at Congress

The Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas is very much worth the short jaunt north from here. The Blanton houses more than 17,00 works of art, the nation's largest university-owned collection, ranging from Renaissance masters to contemporary American and Latin American art.

Head back south on foot, trolley or car toward the Second Street District, which nestles up to Austin City Hall; its distinctive, award-winning architecture is an attraction itself. Be sure to duck inside; the People’s Gallery features 150 works from local artists, much of it surprisingly progressive for a place of politics. Take in lunch a stone's throw away at Lamberts. This cool, two-story restaurant, perfumed by the scent of mesquite wood, features gussied-up barbecue entrées, simple chopped beef brisket sandwiches, ranch-chopped salad, broiled Gulf oysters and more.

Now that you're appropriately fueled up, you'll have the stamina to shop along Second Street. Couture boutiques like Eliza Page, featuring dozens of local jewelry designers, and the trendsetting fashions at Estilo, have put this stretch on the map for shopaholics as far as Dallas. Locals flock to Finch and Mercury Design Studio for unique home furnishings and décor from independent designers.

Texas State History Museum
Texas State History Museum

Before heading out for the evening, stop at the Congress Avenue Bridge at dusk to watch the famous bat flight (April through October only). How famous are those bats? When 1.5 million bats all take flight at once from under one downtown bridge amid the backdrop of a sunset over the water—well, that garners some attention. The spectacle can be viewed for free from the bridge or from below at the Austin American-Statesman's viewing area. You can call the Bat Hotline — yes, there really is a bat hotline— to get an estimated daily flight time at 512-416-5700 (etx. 3636).

If you’re going all-out for dinner, go straight to Congress (the restaurant, not the avenue). Celebrity chef David Bull's lauded dining room offers three- or seven-course tasting menus, as well as an à la carte menu. The nouveau lobster bisque is decanted tableside, the beef tartare reinvented with fried oysters and kimchi, and the 500-plus wine selection is navigated by a knowledgeable sommelier. Second Bar + Kitchen is Congress’s slightly scaled back neighbor. Or opt for La Condesa, a well-thought mix of Mexican street food and jet-setting sophistication. Duck confit in mole sauce and lamb barbacoa are two standouts you can’t find just anywhere.

Ready for some live music? An endless playlist echoes from more than 200 venues on any given evening. Austin's more famous names — Willie Nelson, Joe Ely, Lyle Lovett, Spoon — still play intimate venues occasionally, but it's the supporting cast of thousands of world-class acts that creates one of the most flourishing music scenes on the globe. Sixth Street and its six-block stretch of bars get a lot of traffic, but the asphalt is mostly clad with collegiates. Though it's worth peeking in for the sight, much of the best original music can be heard off-Sixth. The closest is Red River Street, where a string of venues host local indie rockers and some touring acts at Mohawk and Stubb’s.

Antone's on Fifth Street in Austin
Antone's launched the career of Stevie Ray Vaughan

Among the stalwart music venues is Antone's on Fifth Street. The spirit of the late founder, Clifford Antone, suffuses the place, which served as a blues mecca for three decades, launching the career of Stevie Ray Vaughan along the way. The club now offers a wider range of musical acts on a spacious stage as well, as double bars for the endless parade of thirsty patrons.

The Continental Club on South Congress is one of the city's most seasoned spots. The half-century's worth of history adds energy to the rockabilly, roots rock, or whatever else hits the marquee. Down one door and upstairs, the Continental's more suave incarnation, The Gallery, mellows out with lounge and cool jazz. The Saxon Pub on South Lamar is another heavy hitter featuring at least three acts nightly ranging from rock, Americana, soul, blues and more. The rooftop terrace at Momo's on West Sixth Street offers panoramic views of the downtown skyline, while the stage plays the role of proving grounds for breakthrough Austin acts.

End the night by ducking below Congress Avenue for a nightcap at the Elephant Room, a basement jazz club named one of the best ten jazz bars in the country by jazz great Branford Marsalis.

Continue to Day 2


MORE AUSTIN INFORMATION

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* Skyline image by Dan Herron. Courtesy of Austin CVB. Texas State History Museum by Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum.

PSG022908 (Updated: 04/09/12 SG)

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