|Type||Great Urban Baselodge|
|Duration||How Long Have You Got?|
|Difficulty||Depends on how well you handle your liquor.|
|Highlights||Live music all night long|
I’m a city girl at heart, for whom walking will probably always remain largely a practical act, a way of getting there, spiritual in the sense that it delivers me to the houses of food and drink that are my temples. Austin, Texas has a lot of these places of worship, so when my husband suggested we spend a few days there, there was much rejoicing.
The celebration continued at the Austin airport with our discovery of the one dollar bus to downtown, the first indication that the city would be hospitable to our plan to forgo a rental car and plow those savings into good eats. The bus, cool and clean, dropped us off on Red River and we walked the handful of blocks to our hotel (The Sheraton Austin Hotel at the Capitol), pulling our roller bags behind us as we got a quiet daylight glimpse of the noisy nightlife hotspots that line the street. The Sheraton, which had recently undergone a major renovation, proved to be quite a luxe base camp for our pedestrian operation, especially for its reasonable rate. Our room was somehow simultaneously large, chic, and comfy, and the sumptuous bed encouraged late and lazy morning starts.
But let’s stop wasting words here and get to the food, which we did after a needed set of short naps and showers and a stroll into the heart of the tourist district. Sixth Street is historic—stepping inside the marble and stained glass lobby of its Driskill Hotel is to enter the nineteenth century—but is also Austin’s Bourbon Street, a cacophony of pizza and BBQ joints, t-shirt shops, and black-paint music clubs. Occupying one corner in the middle of this mayhem is the urbane calm of Parkside, a modern bistro where we sipped on icy glasses of Austrian Gruner Veltliner and dug deep into marrow bones to retrieve their melty goodness and spread it on salted grilled bread.
When we woke up the next morning, we headed back down Red River in search of breakfast. It seemed like a long walk without much sign of human life when in the shadow of the Civic Center we came upon a mass of people clustering on the sidewalk in front of the Moonshine Patio Bar and Grill. Their patient eagerness encouraged me to break my injunction against waiting on line for the privilege of being served eggs.
The Sunday brunch at Moonshine is table after table loaded with dish after dish of Southern deliciousness like Broccoli and Cheese casserole and Green Chile Cheese Grits and Deviled Eggs and the superfluity of green and fruit salads. There was so much that was so good, I actually forgot to get any bacon and I didn’t miss it. Coffee and a newspaper, and life, if shortened by the meal, was good.
Well fortified, we started traversing the grid of downtown Austin. We walked across Fifth Avenue, passing by the 1886 O. Henry House, and up Congress Avenue, where we found the Austin Museum of Art, a nicely bite-sized set of galleries. As we made our way up Congress, the enormity of the domed Texas State Capitol loomed larger. We tooled around the expansive grounds, with its many monuments to the war dead, and then headed inside the grandly-granite building, which offers such peculiarities as the Agricultural Museum, which among other things displays a lot of cotton balls in glass jars. The shade of a tree on the grounds provided a good spot to lie down and finish digesting brunch to make room for another meal.
Other walks included one through the University of Texas campus to its famous tower and gardens and around its impressive Blanton Museum of Art. Another was a bus-assisted trip through the commercial district west to Sixth Street and North Lamar for a little shopping at independent bookstore Book People, old school record shop Waterloo, and the 80,000 square foot flagship Whole Foods. Returning, we took the Town Lake Hike and Bike Trail along the pretty river Austin likes to call a lake. The map we had did not make it obvious how to access the trails and we forged a slightly treacherous path past some construction sites and across a few busy intersections. Once we made it, we walked about one and a half of the tranquil ten miles of looped trail.
Austin’s most unique tourist attraction is at the lake at dusk, when the nation’s largest Mexican bat colony, which has made its home under the Congress Avenue Bridge spanning the lake. Crowds gather to watch the bats, as if on cue, begin pulsing out, in unbelievable numbers, and stream across the river into the night above the city skyline. We came back twice to see this worth-the-wait show.
On our walk home from the bats one night, we popped into Twin Liquors, where we perused the wine racks and were advised by Chip, from his perch at the register, that if we wanted to see good live music while we were in town (and who didn’t) we had, had, had to visit the legendary Continental Club. It was especially imperative that we check it out on Tuesday night for “Hippy Hour”, a real good time, Chip assured us, although we would likely bump into his ex-wife who was sure to be “runnin’ around down there”. As we left, Chip pointed his finger at my husband and intoned gravely, “Hippy Hour. You need to be there, bro”.
“Down there” turned out to be the hipster neighborhood of SoCo, an area south of the lake that boasts L.A.-style boutique hotels and venues like the Continental Club, a real-deal retro music club that since 1957 has been regularly hosting local legends such as James McMurtry and Junior Brown. Once there, we understood who was buying enough fedoras and panamas to keep in business the HatBox, a snazzy haberdashery we’d window shopped.
The Continental’s “Happy Tuesday Hippy Hour” is presided over by the Club’s queen, Toni Price, who sang a couple of lovely sets while we sipped on some Lone Stars. Between sets, when we asked her if she had any CDs for sale, she exited the back of the club and returned from her van with a slightly battered copy of her mermaid-themed “Swim Away” and graciously gave it to us as a gift.
It was a pretty long walk back from SoCo to the Sheraton, but if not for being on foot, Price’s may have been the only music we enjoyed in Austin. On each return trip to our hotel, we passed Stubb’s’ Bar-B-Q, where we parked ourselves for glorious late night feasts (three words: Serrano Cheese Spinach) and where one afternoon my husband watched a favorite ska-reggae band, San Diego’s Slightly Stoopid, sound check for their sold-out show that night.
That was it for us. Our last steps were back to the one-buck airport bus. Next time, we agreed, we’d explore some of the sights beyond central Austin, try out the town’s new light rail line. Maybe we’d go during South by Southwest—oh, did I mention they host a little music festival there each March?
Editor's Note: Don't miss the WeekendWalk excerpt from Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and Its Effect on Our Lives, which Anne Lutz Fernandez co-wrote.
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