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Is Austin a Portland Doppelganger?

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!

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14 Responses to Is Austin a Portland Doppelganger?

  1. Mark Simon says:

    We have close friends in Chicago with their home on the market. Their sights are set on Austin because they claim a better quality of life awaits. I’ll look forward to hearing if their ultimate experience matches expectations. Nice travelogue!

  2. Jessica Hyman says:

    1. It is 6th STREET not Ave. 2. Using a Bartender and a Waitress as your political social group is disappointing. You make it sound like if I went to portland that EVERYONE on the street would be in love with politics. While I agree they should, I doubt they would. Travis county is one of the only “blue” counties in the state, showing Political divide, thus some very strong opinions.
    3. Yes, I have seen vegan protests. One restaurant was continuiously vandalized over the selling of fois gras. Not to mention we have one of the only plant based culinary schools in the nation, 2nd best to the one in Manhattan.
    So, perhaps unlike Portland we are not homogenously weird. Austin is a melting pot with many cultures and lifestyles.
    4. I disagree w your Yelp comment. There are great local reviews on yelp. Yes there is some crap to sort through but its like that everywhere. Well, maybe not in Portland.

  3. Bizzy Life Author Avatar Michelle says:

    Yes, you maybe correct. My blog entry was meant to be a “one day” impression (laced with humor) and not meant to offend or imply Portland is better. Austin is a lovely city and I’m looking forward to going back, epecially during rainy season in dreary Portland!

  4. David Savage says:

    You can check out 1/22 edition of Wall Street Journal for big feature article on Austin….

  5. Scott Ward says:

    Actually, it is Perry’s 3rd term and I had to hold my nose when I voted for him. The Governor does not hold any power in Texas, he mainly appoints people to boards and committees. Unlike Portland, Austin does not have an urban growth boundary so people will continue to reach outside the city limits where we can own land and not feel cramped next to our neighbors. Living in PDX and spending a lot of time in Austin, they each offer unique choices. Now, if I could find a McMenamins, Lucky Lab and Chang’s in Texas, I would never need a reason to go back to Portland.

  6. v says:

    Austin, Texas adopted this slogan long before Portland did to try and help promote locally owned and operated small businesses. There was a book written about it: Weird City – Sense of Place and Creative Resistance in Austin, Texas, by Joshua Long.

  7. v says:

    Also, your title should read – is Portland an Austin doppleganger? Again, it is 6th st. Did you check out the bats under the Congress Ave bridge? It is the largest urban colony in the world, with an estimated 1,500,000 bats. And Austin is known as the live music capital of the world.

  8. v says:

    Two more things – people who live in Austin are Austinites – not Austonians(???). Perhaps you are thinking of Houstonians – that would be people from Houston.
    The phrase is “grand dame”.

  9. Evin says:

    I know this is an old post but Austin and Portland are hardly anything alike. I lived in Austin for over 10 years and now live in Portland. Portland is definitely a lot more urban and hip than Austin. It’s also much bigger. The bats under Congress bridge?? Really? That’s all you have to compare? Big deal. You see the bats once, you’ve seen them a million times. All they do is fly out from under a bridge. Portland has a lot more to than Austin and the temperatures here are bearable. Austin will have you running to the nearest shade, only to find that even it’s not enough to cool you off. Not to mention the 90+ degree temps even at night time. So no…here article title was right. “Is Austin a Portland Doppleganger”? To that, I say no, not even close. Portland wins by over a mile.

  10. Megan says:

    My 2 cents having lived in both, they are both great cities and I am a fan of each. However, the author of this article couldn’t have gotten more wrong about Austin and her bias unfortunately shows a tad too much, so in an effort to correct: 1) While the topography near the airport is flat, Austin is surrounded by rolling tree-covered hill country, lakes, hike/bike trails, parks, natural water-ways and springs with breath taking cliffs and views. 2) Her gauge on hotels are the Driskill and W. Next time she should try Hotel San Jose, Hotel St. Cecilia, Austin Motel, Heywood Hotel or Stephen F. Austin Hotel to name a few. 3) Yelp – pure silliness and somewhat seemed to discredit the author even more. 4) Food – too much to get into here, but she only went to Lambert’s…so so much more… 5) The author didn’t find Congress interesting, even though it is anchored by the Texas State Capital Building on one end, lined with shops/bar/restaurants throughout and then has the funky double-sided (did she go far enough?) Soco at the other end…hmmm.. 6) The Colorado River running through town is called Lady Bird Lake and is surrounded by park/bike/running trails, a preference by Austin vs. building it up with retail outlets and restaurants which are reserved for other parts of the city. The surrounding park (Zilker) is home to numerous city events including the Austin City Limits music festival. 7) I actually giggled when she wrote Portland has more tattoos, piercings and dreadlocks, as well as many more homeless. Not sure how far she walked but yes, typically college students are peppered throughout (due to The University of Texas) however, I have always seen far more of all of these descriptors as well as other eclectic individuals in Austin vs. Portland. Austin is very, very weird. 8) The great outdoors is huge to Austin including biking (with bike lanes everywhere as well as the right-of-way on all streets in addition to city racks where anyone can slide a credit card to rent one by the hour), boating, hiking, rock climbing, running, swimming…etc…wrong again. 9) The most offensive: Austonians (read: Austinites) appear to be much less politically aware and opinionated than Portlanders – geez this is so wrong. Maybe the author missed when Democratic State Sen.Wendy Davis packed the capital building full of Austinites with her 11-hour filibuster? Congress Ave. is often lined by protesters, as are the Capital Building and City Hall. Being a mainly Democratic city in a state of Republicans lends itself to high passions within Austin surrounding politics, and this author is waaaaaayyy off mark here. 10) The author’s summary of Austin is just annoying. Again, I’ll state I love both cities, but to do a day trip visit to Austin with what appears to be a goal of barely exploring the city and hoping to walk away proving Portland’s worth is just wrong. Nest time the author should make a little more effort in order to write a valid, more credible review of Austin.

  11. Clare B says:

    First off, Austinites, not Austonians! Second, it sounds like you missed some of the essential features and areas of Austin. If you want homeless teenagers with piercings and tattoos head to the Drag. If you want politics, then bar tenders and waitresses may not be the most representative group. I don’t think you gave Austin a fair shake. On the other hand, with 158 people moving here a day, please feel free to keep under-rating us, we don’t need more transplants!

  12. Bizzy Life Author Avatar Michelle Cardinal says:

    I continue to get strange comments on this blog. I’m not sure why. Austin is great. Much better than Portland.

  13. Brianna Acosta says:

    “Keep Austin Weird” started in Austin in 2000 it was then brought to Portland in 2003 and they began saying “Keep Portland weird”

  14. Madhu says:

    It may be an older post, I find it absolutely useful. My impression of Austin, again from a day trip, is quite similar to the author’s. I found Austin to eclectic and lively on par with Portland, and better when it comes to music, but I found it to be much smaller than Portland. I had lived in Ashland (Oregon) for a couple of years and felt that Austin was more akin to that little town. I get it, it’s pretty big college town but definitely felt smaller, I do want to go back and spend more time to get a better feel.

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