Austin | Where to Stay

HOTEL SAINT CECILIA
112 Academy Drive
+1 512 852 2400

I had never been to Austin when we planned our annual post-New Year's domestic trip, but Marc had and he had stayed here and loved it, maybe more than any other hotel he had ever been to. I looked it up online and this is how the hotel describes itself:

"Created in honor of the patron saint of music and poetry, the Saint Cecilia takes inspiration from the great era of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when a revolution of rock and roll and beat poetry overran the hallowed halls of established convention. We pay tribute to the great creative legacy of our revolutionary idols and to the spirit of the artist that lies within us all."

It seemed pretty clear to me that this hotel was exactly what we were looking for, and I am happy to say that it more than delivered. It's a perfect blend of early rock n' roll and modern luxury. The location is spot on - steps from the South Congress Shopping District and pretty much within walking distance to anything you might want to do, but tucked away far enough off the beaten path behind a gate and set amidst beautiful gardens and pool that is a complete oasis. The rooms themselves are perfection - the beds are the most comfortable I've ever slept on (thanks to exclusive Hastens mattresses and bedding from Cuddledown) and each room comes with a record player and the hotel has a huge selection of vinyl from which to choose, which to me, is the epitome of what Austin is all about.

Other places to stay that we have heard are great:

THE DRISKILL
604 Brazos Street
+1 512 474 5911


KIMBER MODERN
110 The Circle
+1 512 912 1046


HOTEL SAN JOSE
1316 S Congress Avenue
+1 512 444 7322


THE W HOTEL AUSTIN
200 Lavaca Street
+1 512 542 3600

 

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Austin | Where to Eat

CONTIGO
2027 Anchor Lane
+1 512 614 2260

Contigo is the brainchild of owner Ben Edgerton who grew up on his family’s 4,000 acre ranch of the same name in Jim Wells County, TX. He always wanted to open a restaurant and so created this incredible interpretation of the ranch in East Austin. We landed at Contigo on a perfect Sunday afternoon and were treated to cold beers and spicy margaritas in the open-air dining room. The whole place feels like a high-end state fair with string lights and glossy picnic benches, and the food is even better. Andrew Wisehart who was formerly at the Michelin-starred Le Toque in Napa runs the kitchen and while the menu is all Texas, it's also really inventive. Don’t leave without trying the rabbit & dumplings, pigs in a blanket or the strawberry doughnuts. We were there for brunch, which was pure perfection, but I’m guessing any meal here is a great one and at night the scene must be simply magical.

FREEDMEN'S
2402 San Gabriel Street
+1 512 220 0953

Visiting Austin and not eating barbecue is an unthinkable sin. There are many places to choose from, and while Freedmen’s is perhaps lesser known than some of the most famous (think Franklin’s or Salt Lick), I would argue that is superior in every way. For starters, it’s in the coolest building ever. Just a quick history: The building is a landmark, built in 1869 by a former slave named George Franklin. It became the heart of Wheatvale, one of Austin’s freedmen’s settlements (hence the name). Over the years the building served as a residence, a church and a grocery, and you can truly feel the history within its walls. So now that your history lesson is over, let’s get to the food and drink here. For starters, Freedmen’s is big into retro craft cocktails and their whiskey wall is also something you have to see. The food at Freedmen’s is straightforward barbecue and it’s really, really delicious. Go for The Holy Trinity (brisket, pork spare ribs & house-made sausage) and add some sides (the grilled cabbage slaw with cider vinegar is the perfect accompaniment to cut some of the fat in the meat) or starters (smoked beets with herbed goat cheese – not your typical bib item!) and do not leave without eating at least twice your body weight in the smoked banana pudding.


LA CONDESA
400A West 2nd Street
+1 512 499 0300

Maybe it’s enough to tell you that La Condesa has the largest selection of 100% blue agave tequila and mezcal in all of Austin, or that its bar program is run by Cocktail World Cup champion Nate Wales. Or maybe it’s enough to tell you that when it comes to modern Mexican fare, Chef Rick Lopez is so good he was nominated for a James Beard award for best New Restaurant. Or maybe it’s just enough to tell you that every single thing on this menu (I know because I really did try every. single. thing) is incredible – from the four types of guacamole (jumbo lump crab with apple and coconut vinegar? Yes, that’s true). To the zanahoria (roasted carrots, crispy quinoa and pickled currants with a carrot top chimichurri) to the huarache de nopal y chorizo masa (grilled cactus paddle) to the bistec asado (grilled hanger steak with garlic mojo, bone marrow, beef tongue & radish) and the carne torcida tacos (smoked brisket pastrami on a rye tortilla with horseradish). The room feels a little sterile, but other than that, this is a definite must.

METTLE
507 Calles Street
+1 512 236 1022

This is the first (and only) place I have ever had vegan chicharrones. Yes, you read that right: VEGAN. CHICHARRONES. I didn’t understand it either, and I’m still not sure I fully grasp how they were made (tapioca, I think?), but they were DAMN good, and you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between them and the real thing. And the most amazing part about them is that they are not all indicative of the menu at Mettle (meaning this is NOT a health food joint). Mettle is a bright, airy and a very cool bistro-type place in up and coming East Austin. The menu includes gems such as bacon tater tots (vegan what?), fried black-eyed peas, fried chicken and chicken fried beef cheeks. If fried isn’t your thing, there are lighter options (no judgment) including grilled scallops and yes, a vegan “soul” plate. 

QUI
1600 East 6th Street
+1 512 436 9626

Paul Qui is the resident bad boy chef of Austin. Born in the Philippines, he grew up loving to cook and went on to win season 9 of Bravo’s Top Chef. Over the past few years he has taken over the Austin food scene with a series of food trucks (East Side King) and this, his eponymous restaurant. Qui is kitschy and playful and can be scary. The menu reflects what Qui has always been about – a blend of French and Japanese cuisine with a little Texas thrown in, and I say scary because on paper a lot of it seems unlikely and maybe even inedible. But let me tell you: leave your judgments at the door. This food is off the hook insanely good. The offerings change often so it’s hard to pin down what you might have the pleasure of trying, but whatever he’s cooking, you should be eating.
*Note: Since we ate there, they have opened a Tasting Room that you can purchase tickets for in advance. From what we can tell it looks like a pretty insane option, so try and get in, and please let us know how it is!

 

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Austin | What to Do

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SEE THE BATS
Yes, bats. It turns out that Austin has over 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats that come out from under the Congress Bridge every night at dusk. Creepy? Yes. But also pretty cool to see. I have been told that the best vantage point to see this phenomenon is to just stand on the bridge. Or, if you prefer to make it an actual thing, rent a boat and watch from the river below.

BARTON SPRINGS POOL
2201 Barton Springs Road
+1 512 476 9044

This insanely cool spring-fed pool inside Zilker's Park measures 3 acres in size and maintains a 68ºF temperature year-round with lifeguards on duty. I've heard that Robert Redford learned to swim here and that it's home to the endangered Barton Springs Salamander, although I didn't see either on our visit.

UMLAUF SCULPTURE GARDEN
605 Robert E. Lee Road
+1 512 445 5582

There are over 100 sculptures in this incredible garden (adjacent to Zilker's Park as well), and they also offer morning yoga and meditation classes that are beautiful. A fun place to spend a nice afternoon with kids, too. 

ALAMO DRAFTHOUSE
Various Locations
Best. Movie Theater. Ever. Seriously. The original on Colorado Street was a parking garage that was transformed by Tim and Karrie League who happened to like the idea of watching movies while drinking beer and eating. That first theater was a one-screen operation that featured second run titles at discount rates, but it wasn't long before people like Richard Linklater and Quentin Tarantino got hip to the Drafthouse and started showing up. It's a great place to see a movie and feel like a local.

LADY BIRD HIKE + BIKE TRAIL
First Street Bridge at Lady Bird Lake
Run, walk or bike this loop (10 miles) and be sure to check out the Memorial at Auditorium Shores which honors the late bluesman, Stevie Ray Vaughan.

LONGHORN CAVERNS
6211 Park Road 4 S., 
Burnet, TX 78611
+1 830 598 CAVE

This self-proclaimed Texas Hill Country wonder was created over thousands of years by the dissolving and cutting action of water on the limestone bedrock of the area. Some say animals from the Ice Age are fossilized here, but I say it's just a pretty cool place to visit.

PARAMOUNT THEATER
713 Congress Avenue
+1 512 472 5470

As old school as a theater can get (it was built in 1915), and has hosted everything from Vaudeville acts to the premiere of Batman in 1966. Today it's home to movies, concert and shows.

 

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Austin | What to Buy

SOUTH CONGRESS SHOPPING DISTRICT:
This hip strip features an array of eclectic shops, restaurants, boutiques, antiques, music venues and galleries. And every first Thursday of the month, the street turns into a street fair of sorts with all stores staying open until at least 10pm. 

Some of the standouts for us were:

ALLEN'S BOOTS
1522 South Congress Avenue
+1 512 447 1413

Cowboy boots! Hundreds and hundreds of cowboy boots. If you're not going to buy them in Austin, then where? 

LUCY IN DISGUISE WITH DIAMONDS
1506 South Congress Avenue
+1 512 444 2002

The Allen's Boots of costume shops. So bizarre and yet so much fun.

SECOND STREET SHOPPING DISTRICT:
Home to most of the big name stores in Austin: Banh & Olufsen, Design Within Reach, Swatch and the like, the area is a great place to walk around and shop, and there are a ton of great restaurants as well (see La Condesa, above). There are also a number of smaller, cooler local shops with checking out.

 

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