I had never been to Texas; not much desire to go really. But everyone told me Austin was worth it, different from the rest of the state – a fun college town with a booming tech industry, Uber-riding millennials, a renowned live-music scene, and even some rolling hills to break the monotony of Texas’ generally flat landscape.
So when my husband suggested we go there for a long weekend to see a college football game between his alma mater, Cal Berkeley, and the Texas Longhorns, I agreed to make my first outside-of-the-airport trip to the Lone Star State. We arrived on a Thursday evening, and left very early Sunday morning. We had a blast from start to finish; here’s what we did . . .
Thursday evening – Day 0
After checking in to a reasonably-priced Hyatt Place about five miles outside the city (it was a busy weekend in Austin, and we weren’t able to book anything downtown), we headed over to East 6th St., where all the action is, roughly between Lavaca St. and Interstate 35. By the time we arrived it was already on the late side, and several blocks were being closed to traffic for the Thursday night revelers. While not packed just yet, students, out-of-towers (mostly from Berkeley for the game), and yes, a few seedy-looking characters, were starting to filter in.
The best way to describe this section of 6th St. is probably a combination of Bourbon St. in New Orleans and fraternity row. We were tired and hungry, so decided to save Austin’s party scene for another night and find a proper sit-down restaurant. Passing nightclub after nightclub and bar after bar, we finally found a nice place for dinner on the corner of San Jacinto and East 6th called Parkside. With a hip and inviting atmosphere, they serve New American cuisine, and are known for their raw bar and innovative cocktails. It’s a relatively quiet and cozy spot amid the area’s more raucous bars and entertainment venues, and they’re open later than most restaurants.
Friday – Day 1
After the relative luxury of sleeping in past our normal 6am wake-up time, we set out in our rental car out to see one of my high school friends who’s been living in Austin for over 10 years. She suggested we meet for coffee at a café called Mozart’s overlooking Lake Austin. As we sat outside enjoying the lovely view, I asked my friend why Lake Austin is called a lake, but looks more like a river. She explained that all the lakes in Austin (Lake Austin, Lady Bird Lake, etc.) are part of the Colorado River (not to be confused with THE Colorado River that passes through the Grand Canyon), and sections that are damned off are called lakes. Mystery solved!
Next stop was the Lyndon. B. Johnson Presidential Library by the University of Texas campus (though it is independent of the school.) It is a must-see if you’re in Austin. Occupying 14 acres of space, the library provides an in-depth look at the man who assumed the presidency just hours after the assassination of JFK; ushered in countless social reforms such as the Voter Rights Act, the Civil Rights Bill, and the Immigration and Naturalization Act; and also took the brunt of criticism for the escalation of the Vietnam War. It’s also a window into the pivotal and turbulent decade of the sixties, and is featuring a temporary Beatles exhibit through January 10, 2016. The library is open seven days a week from 9am to 5pm, and you’ll need about three hours in the library to get the most out of it.
From the library, we drove to the Barton Springs Pool for a swim, passing by the absolutely colossal Whole Foods headquarters and store on Bowie St. Austin is hot, and the weekend we were there was no exception, with temperatures well into the 90’s and high humidity. Barton Springs was a refreshing treat, and reminded me of swimming in the canals of Munich, with its emerald green hue and naturally slick bottom. Located within the 358-acre Zilker Metropolitan Park, its fed from underground springs and maintains an average temperature of 68-70 degrees. The “pool” is surrounded by pleasant grassy areas with shade trees and is open every day except Thursday (for cleaning) from 5am to 10pm. The entrance fee for non-residents is $8.
While we could have lounged at Barton Springs all afternoon, we had a function to attend that evening for Cal alumni, so left around 3pm to head back to our hotel, stopping for a bite at Chuy’s, the eclectic Tex-Mex chain that originated in Austin. The Chuy’s on Barton Springs Rd. near the pool is the original restaurant opened in 1982.
After the Cal function, we connected with some friends from home and fellow Cal alums to finally experience the 6th St. District. The scene here is something – one big lineup of bars, lounges, nightclubs, and live music venues. Because the nights are so warm, most of the bars have rooftop patios strung festively with lights, patrons lined up along the railings, and music blaring into the streets. One of the best rooftop patios is at The Market at the corner of 6th and Colorado streets in the “Warehouse District”, but really, you could go anywhere – check out the options at www.6street.com.
The night was still young, and after a couple of drinks at The Market, we decided to go dancing and try out a more authentic Texas experience at a country bar. The bartender at our earlier function told us about a place called the White Horse. They serve up live honky-tonk music, and people here actually know how to partner dance, something I assumed was lost to previous generations. While I’m perfectly at home dancing in most nightclubs, I felt much less sure of myself trying to do the two-step with my husband. On the upside, we had a lot a lot of fun trying, and I did get to wear my faux cowboy hat and boots! Like many spots in Austin, The White Horse has a “built-in” food truck in the outside patio area to quell the late-night munchies. They even had a live white horse standing outside the entrance when we arrived, though I was happy to see he’d been relieved of his “duties” when we left shortly after midnight.
While you can find live music almost anywhere in Austin, the place to go according to several local sources is Rainey St., a once quiet residential neighborhood of historic bungalows that has recently morphed into a trendy hub of music lounges, bars, and food trailers. Friends who had been on Rainey St. the night before had good things to say about the Container Bar and the sports bar, Bar 96, though we only had time to drive through the neighborhood on our way back to the hotel. (For the record, we would have stopped had we been able to find a parking spot, but it was absolutely packed – an even bigger scene than 6th St!)
Saturday – Day 2
No matter where I travel, I always try to fit in a hike, because it’s a great opportunity to explore beyond the main tourist spots and get in a little exercise. Texas is pretty flat, but Austin is part of what’s called “hill country”, and we had heard there was a hike to the top of the city’s highest point, Mt. Bonnell, where we’d find the best views in Austin.
Well, let me start by saying that we did make it to the top of Mt. Bonnell, and the panorama is stunning. But, is it a hike? Coming from Northern California, I’m not sure I’d define it as that; the summit is only 785 feet, and the trail, which basically consists of climbing 106 steps to the top, is less than half a mile. Nevertheless, the views are fantastic, so for that reason, it’s definitely worth putting on your to-do list if you’ve got a car to drive there. You won’t need more than an hour or so, which leaves plenty of time for all the other fun Austin activities.
On the recommendation of the same friend who clarified the “river/lake” mystery for me, we next headed to South Congress St., or “SoCo, a funky neighborhood with an eclectic mix of boutique shops, art galleries, food trucks, bars, and casual restaurants. Fun stores to visit are Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds with its massive collection of costumes representing every time period and theme imaginable; Allen’s Boots, which is like a Costco that sells only boots and hats; and Uncommon Objects with a vast and attractively displayed collection of antiques and other vintage objects.
Of course, being in Austin, there’s also live music, including the legendary Continental Club. For lunch, we stopped at an outdoor taco bar called Guerros Texas Mex, which was excellent and cheap, and like so many places in Austin, there was live music.
On our way to South Congress, we made a brief stop at Lady Bird Lake, which is actually a reservoir on the Colorado River. Popular with runners, walkers, cyclists, kayakers, and paddle boarders, Lady Bird Lake is an oasis smack dab in the center of the city and is bordered by 10 miles of trails. It’s very pleasant for walking and taking photos, and there’s a statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan, which is a popular destination for fans of the guitar legend.
After Lady Bird Lake and South Congress St., it was time to go to the Cal-Texas football game. I’ll admit upfront that I’m not much a football fan, but my husband loves his Cal Bears, and I figured going to a football game would be a quintessential Texas experience.
It turned out to be both a great game and an authentic taste of the Lone Star State. Compared to the Northeast where I grew up, and my home in the San Francisco Bay Area, Texas is really big into college football, and the Longhorns are an integral part of the Austin experience. Their stadium puts many NFL venues to shame and has a capacity of just over 100,000 . . . yes, you read that correctly, over 100,000.
Every young co-ed in the stands was decked out in the same attire – a light-colored, flowy dress with well-healed cowboy boots (yes, I actually kept track!) Even famous alum and avid Longhorn’s fan, Matthew McConaughey, made an appearance from one of the luxury boxes, doing his signature chest thump from the “Wolf of Wall Street” movie and donning a cowboy hat and “Longhorn orange” jacket. Being in a stadium with 100,000 screaming football fans (and Matthew McConaughey) could possibly be the perfect way to cap off 48 hours in Austin, Texas.