Austin was not what I was expecting. First it was cold, like New York where I had just flown in from. When a place is supposed to be warm and it’s not, it feels much colder than a place where you expect it to be cold.
So I spent a lot of my time in Austin – my first trip to Austin or Texas for that matter – in the bath. I even had lunch in the bath (a ’why not?’ moment). In spite of all my time underwater, I still managed to see a lot, perhaps because my hotel was well located on South Congress Street, a quirky street that takes some time to warm to.
We’re here, said the cab driver.
I looked out of the car window at a bunch of unassuming, low built, bungalow style 1930’s buildings bordering a wind-blown deserted street.
This is it?” I asked, not sure I wanted to get out of the car.
is how architect and native Austinite David Lake of the talented Lake Flato practice describes South Congress Street. There’s an ad hoc, funky town element to South Congress that gives you a good flavour of the city and its unofficial slogan ‘Keep Austin weird’.
Austin is more tattoo than tiara, explained my sister Alexandra when advising me on what to pack. If only she’d mentioned tossing in some thermals. Weather-wise Austin – the fun, cool, hipster capital of Texas, is nicest in the spring and fall. Don’t miss the April wildflowers at Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center),
If heat’s your thing, summer is ok too.
I grew up in Texas, so I like the heat,” says Lake. “The best thing Austin has going for it is this huge green canopy of trees and open space. There’s a commitment to linear trails and park systems. Creeks, rivers flow down into the Colorado river. There are all these swimming holes that are natural- Barton Springs– which is spectacular, 69 degrees (fahrenheit), very cold. Deep Eddy is another one.
Winter-time, my vote goes to the steamy bath option on South Congress.
The street itself is lined with independent shops, restaurants and clubs. Top picks include By George for clothes, Perla’s for oysters, the Continental Club for music and Jo’s Coffee for …
Funky as it may be, Austin is also booming thanks to tech, low taxes and the University of Texas. Much of the city feels like the Pacific Northwest, the Seattle of the south. The city has a thriving music and restaurant scene. Plus this month’s unveiling of the late artist Ellsworth Kelly’s sublime secular chapel on the UT campus has put a luminescent feather in Austin’s cultural Stetson.
I had come to Austin to join my mother
and friends to see the Kelly sanctum, an ode to creativity.
“Austin” as the chapel is called is the only standalone Kelly building and a must-see, must-meditate spot.
Read this excellent article in the New York Times to learn more about Kelly’s final masterpiece.
Here I am, learning how to signal the Texan Longhorn, UT’s mascot, at the Kelly gala
If you visit Austin this spring, don’t miss two Kelly shows – “Form Into Spirit” at the Blanton Museum of Art adjacent to Kelly’s Austin on the southern border of UT’s campus and “Ellsworth Kelly: Prints” at the Lora Reynolds Gallery.
Other sites to visit now or in the future: Lake’s firm has just finished Austin’s Central Library and is working on a 3 block project on South Congress … including a new Soho House, a new hotel called the Magdalena, and an addition to the existing St Cecilia hotel, plus plenty more restaurants and shops.
The upcoming Magdalena, St Cecilia and San Jose hotels – all located within a few blocks of one another – are owned by Liz Lambert and her Bunkhouse group of cool hotels. She also owns the aforementioned Jo’s Coffee.
We did the San Jose 22 years ago, says Lake. We didn’t have much money. It was a motel, a dive, the entire site was asphalt. So we kicked out all the cars and did an enormous amount of landscape.
The more expensive St Cecilia is located on a quiet side street off of South Congress with lovely rolling terrain, live oaks and a pool.
The 100-room Magdalena will sit somewhere between the two price-wise when it opens in 2020. It will feature an 85′ pool, reminiscent of Austin’s beloved natural pools.
Music is everywhere in Austin – live bands play on street corners, clubs, even a chili cook-off on South Congress …
Last of what I did see when I wasn’t submerged was the terrific Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum on UT’s campus.
Following JFK’s assassination, LBJ presided over a tumultuous six year presidency (1963-69) spanning Civil Rights protests to the Viet Nam War. Three hours raced by in this multimedia extravaganza as I dove deep into the sixties, Johnson and the slew of landmark legislation Johnson got passed during his short tenure.
Don’t miss the illuminating and entertaining taped conversations between LBJ and the First Lady, Ladybird Johnson, Washington Post Editor Katherine Graham and various congressmen Johnson charmed, cajoled and bullied to get bills passed.
I wish I had had more time in this city. Next trip I want to visit when it’s warmer and trade my hotel bath for a natural one. I plan to explore the city trails around Ladybird Lake on foot or bike, check out Ai Weiwei’s bike installation, and follow Lake’s advice at the capital building:
I just love going in the dome and lying on the floor and looking up. It drives the guards crazy, but there are all these kids doing it. Why let them have all the fun?
Food-wise Austin is full of tempting food trucks. But which are the tastiest? Lake’s team at Lake Flato singled out their top picks:
Veracruz All Natural, Migas & Migas Poblanos Tacos
Micklethwait Craft Meats, BBQ
Dee Dee, Northern Thai
G’Raj Mahal, Indian (technically ex-food truck, they just opened a bricks and mortar)
Kebabalicious, Turkish (same)
And restaurant wise -I loved Lambert’s (owned by Lizzie’s brother) for its barbecued meats, and cocktails. Eat downstairs, but use the loo upstairs. I was tempted to strut my stuff when I passed the live band on the way to the bathroom. ATX Cocina is a trendy Mexican with delicious duck tacos, buzzy bar scene and a youthful crowd. Others I did not try but will on my encore are Italian Red Ash, Japanese Kemuri Tatsuya and Launderette. This last one serves American fare in a converted gas station/laundromat.
And last, but so not least, is a souvenir like no other. Local artist Eliza Thomas raves about the hand-made cowboy boot shop ML Leddy’s in San Angelo, a pretty three-hour drive west from Austin. Eliza says the boots take ten months to make but are worth every second.