On a whim, my husband and I decided to stop in Austin, Texas on a trip home from the east coast. We’ve heard that Austin is similar to our home town of Portland, OR and wanted to check it out. Since we only had one short afternoon and an evening, I’m sure we missed many of Austin’s hidden gems, so I encourage anyone reading to comment on what we may have missed.
From the air Austin is very flat, dry, and was covered with a thick haze or smog on approach – so the initial impression is nothing like Portland, where you are immediately struck by fresh air, greenery, mountains, and streams. The Colorado River runs through Austin, similar to the Willamette in Portland, but very little surrounding vegetation or interesting topography exists.
We stayed at the The Driskill Hotel, located in down town, purportedly the “grand dam” of Austin. It’s a lovely old hotel that has been kept to its original splendor (much nicer than the Benson, its comparative in Portland). Unlike most old hotels, The Driskill smells wonderful when you walk in the door, absent the musty old worn aroma you typically find. There are many swanky old hotels in New York City that could take a few sensory lessons from the Driskill! The Driskill’s lobby is grand with beautiful stained glass chandeliers and big marble expanse of a floor (although rather dark during daytime). The staff is friendly and welcoming. The entire hotel is decorated with an abundant oil painting collection that appears to be authentic period pieces. Our room was a mini-suite, beautifully appointed for an old hotel, with very nice bedding and pretty antique furniture (the room also smelled nice) and was updated with flat screen televisions. My only complaint was that the two windows in our suite were facing a brick wall, so very little light. So if you’re booking rooms there – inquire on its location (you might want to ask for the LBJ suite which was not available). The Hotel is perfectly located for views of the entire city, and has great access to 6th Ave where the music scene unfolds. I would definitely stay there again.
If you’re looking for something a bit more contemporary, check out the W Hotel. I got a brief look as we walked by and it looks very nice, but not as centrally located as the Driskill. We also searched on Trip Advisor, and some interesting new boutique hotels also popped up. All in all, I think Portland has more hotels (and diversity) to choose from.
After a quick Yelp search and a discussion with the hotel’s concierge, we set off on foot up Congress Street to the south side of town, where we were told we could find some funky boutiques and a nice walking area. In hindsight we should have taken a taxi, because the walk was about 3 miles and not very interesting, along a wide and noisy thoroughfare, over the Colorado River (half way there, we started wondering if we had gone in the wrong direction).
I was expecting to find a vibrant city set on the water much like Portland, but that isn’t the case. While the Colorado River runs right through town, there doesn’t appear to be much commerce centered around it, although a taxi driver told us there are one or two good restaurants that can be found on water’s edge.
On the south side, we found a four or five block stretch with interesting stores, restaurants and coffee bars, very much reminiscent of the east side of Portland (E. Burnside), although not as big, and strangely, only on one side of the street. We found a few hats and T-shirts with the slogan “Keep Austin Weird”, which is a very common slogan, found in Portland as well (I wonder who thought of it first?)
Austin definitely has a funky vibe, but I think Portland wins on the “weird scale”. In Portland you’ll find a bit more of a grunge look to the young people; lots of tattoos, piercings and dreadlocks, as well as many more homeless youths on skate boards (I wonder if they know its dryer and warmer in Austin?). You’ll find some of that in Austin, but I saw more clean-cut college kids than the latter.
They also have several food cart areas that are starting to take shape, similar to Portland, but not nearly as many. In most cases you’d find three or four in a vacant lot, but creatively decorated. I suspect they will follow Portland’s lead and really develop this concept.
After an afternoon cocktail and a pretty good taco at Guero’s, we headed back to downtown area (4th and 5th) to explore near our hotel. Not far from it we found a 4 block square area, that is similar to the Pearl District in Portland, with old warehouse buildings re-gentrified into restaurants and bars, but not much shopping (area is much smaller than the Pearl). Some of the bars have really nice outside areas to sit, listen to music and enjoy a drink. If you have time definitely stop into Peche where our concierge told us we would find the best “mixologist” in town. She was correct; they have a great menu of interesting drinks, and a wall full of interesting liquor choices. You’ll also find Peche to be expert “absinthe” servers with beautiful antique absinthe fountains set up along the bar (much like Secret Society on E. Russell in Portland).
From a food perspective, Austin has a “foodie” vibe, much like Portland. Keep in mind the first Whole Foods is located there, and we were told by our pilot Craig that it was an amazing culinary experience (dually noted for next visit!). For dinner we went to Lamberts Downtown Barbeque, located on 2nd street, for an authentic, yet upscale BBQ experience. It was great! Although bring your appetite, and be prepared for some food with a kick! We started with the Boar Ribs, topped with a delicious spicy piquant sauce, surrounded by a thin layer of lovely blue cheese dressing. We then had the wedge salad (more great blue cheese) and the barbeque beef brisket with a side of Brussels sprouts and a nice bottle of affordable Malbec, and topped it off with homemade vanilla and walnut ice cream. Everything was excellent, but I’m still full thinking about it. It appears Austonians need to take their Yelp reviews more seriously.
We found many interesting restaurants as we walked through town, though curiously not mentioned on Yelp. And reviews that do exist do not really comment on quality of the food in detail, as they should. For updated recommendations, I suggest talking to locals or your concierge, then do quick Yelp search to see some food photo’s (always a good idea). Other restaurants that seemed to get good feedback: Wink (continental) and La Condessa (an upscale Mexican and a James Beard winner).
The main reason to go to Austin is the music scene, which appears much livelier and robust than in Portland (surprisingly not much country, mostly jazz and indie rock). The city really lights up when the sun goes down, so head over to 6th Avenue. There is a stretch of about five or so blocks where you’ll find many lively bars with music spilling out into the street, much like you see in French Quarter in New Orleans. We then ventured over to The Elephant Room on 2nd where we were told we could hear great jazz. Located below the street level with a long bar and lots of seating. Reminds me of smoky jazz places you would find in a basement bar in Chicago. According to the city map, there are seven music districts and we only had time for two, including 6th Ave being the largest, so there could be more to report here.
In terms of city planning, Austin has wider streets (fewer one ways) and less buildings than Portland. They also seem to have more new architecture, whereas Portland has focused on keeping and re-gentrifying most of their old buildings (it is rare to see an old building torn down in Portland). Austin gets a lot more sunshine than Portland (who doesn’t?), and we were told temperatures often reach into 100’s during the summer, so you see very little trees or vegetation around the city, unlike Portland that boasts more city parks per square mile than any other city. Portland also appears to take their outdoor activities more seriously, with well traveled bike lanes and people constantly walking about (even in the rain). Probably due to the fact that Portland is also home to Nike, Adidas, Columbia Sportswear, and tons of small outdoor apparel brands, due to its proximity to abundant outdoor activities.
Lastly, Austonians appear to be much less politically aware and opinionated than Portlanders. Several young people we encountered were not aware there was a Governor’s ball that night to celebrate the inauguration of Governor Rick Perry (who just won a 2nd term). In fact, the first two people we asked (a bartender who has lived in Austin for nine years, and our waitress, a twenty-something year old who looked like a college student) could not name the Governor of Texas, and neither was aware who had won the recent election. “Not interested in politics”, said the bartender. “Guess I should know that kinda’ stuff but I don’t”, said the waitress, with a sheepish smile. The young woman who took us on a horse drawn carriage ride around the city said she did vote for Perry’s opponent, but couldn’t’ remember his name or if he was a Republican or a democrat. So don’t expect to see a dreadlock laden vegan protesting outside the nearest BBQ joint.
What I didn’t see in Austin; lots of big haired blond women wearing too much makeup and diamond jewelry and big strapping men smoking cigars wearing cowboy hats and spurs. Austin is definitely an enigma to Texas, just as Portland is to Oregon. Final analysis; with a population almost half, the Austin metro area is much smaller than Portland (1.7 vs. 2.2 million), so the downtown reflects that. But I think Austin is similar to Portland, but not quite. Sort of like a fraternal twin sister that has a superior love of music, has some similar physical attributes, but more petite, not as physically active and less-opinionated. Make a visit, I enjoyed it!