Travel Diary: Austin

I just spent a great few days in Austin, Texas, celebrating the awesomeness of my friends Cindy & Mike and their many happy years together. This was my second time in Austin — I was there a few years ago for a conference — and hopefully it won’t be my last. Here’s a roundup of all the fun places I went this time.

Slept at: I think I might be an AirBNB convert. We rented this South Austin Cottage, and it was so fabulous to have a house to take over, with all the amenities you might expect. I found that I was much more willing to “go back to the house” than “go back to the hotel room” and it was just nicer to hang out at — we had an outside patio to use, and a full kitchen. This is clearly a house someone uses exclusively as a guest house, which I liked (we had a discussion about how it actually might be weird to stay in a stranger’s actual home, whether or not they’re around). It’s in great shape and was quite comfortable, not to mention absolutely spotless upon our arrival. I am already looking forward to staying there again sometime and I highly recommend that you consider it if you ever travel to Austin. The owner was very easy to arrange things with and had we run into any problems (we did not) I have no doubt she would have been there to assist. It was a great location in a quiet neighborhood with all kinds of good stuff in easy walking (or super cheap cab) distance.

Ate at:

When I asked the owner of the cottage for lunch suggestions for Thursday, she said that Habanero would be a good option. That’s where I went, and I wasn’t disappointed. I had a great lunch of tacos by myself on Thursday, and then we all went back Saturday for brunch. I think the tacos were the best I had while I was there – the meat was nicely seasoned and I really enjoyed them.

I had been planning to go out to an Austin Beer Week event on Thursday night, but I had a bad cab experience coming in from the airport and couldn’t face another cab ride. Since the place I wanted to go wasn’t close enough for me to walk to and I was kind of tired anyway, I got delivery pizza from Southside Flying Pizza. Very good pizza and I also enjoyed the greek salad I ordered.

By Friday morning the first of my 3.5 travel companions had joined me and we eventually got ourselves pulled together and headed to Magnolia Cafe, which serves breakfast all day. I don’t usually go for omelets but since this was also lunch, I got an omelet with shredded roasted turkey and Tex Mex fixings. Ridiculously yummy. After going on a walking tour we decided to get a beer and wound up at Frank. I really liked the vibe there and they had the proverbial “small, but well-curated” beer list. I went local and had a Fire Eagle IPA from Austin Beer Works.

Friday evening the happy couple had a party, so we at dinner at that — barbecue from Kreuz Market in Lockhart and some fabulous sides that were apparently cooked by a friend! Let me just say that you haven’t lived until you’ve had homemade pear apple crisp, blackberry cobbler and peach crisp all in the same night. (What really impressed me was that they were baked in those huge foil pans, and as far as I could tell the quality didn’t suffer at all.)

By Friday night the rest of the group had joined us, and we got a little bit of a late start on Saturday, but we started the day back at Habaneros. After an afternoon of wandering around we stopped in at Amy’s Ice Creams, which is kind of like Herrell’s or Cold Stone but with a lot more personality. They have a rotating cast of specialty flavors (I tried the Mex 3, a Mexican vanilla with three times the usual amount of vanilla, and their coffee, both delicious) and an interesting list of toppings and things to have crushed into your ice cream. (They also have an outpost at the airport.) On the way back home before the big party on Saturday night, I stopped at Jo’s Coffee to re-energize for the evening. All the seating at their South Congress location is outdoors and I was wishing we had more time to chill out there and people watch. The iced coffee was cold brewed, which I quite like. We had a dinner of Frito Pie at the aforementioned party — I was expecting something baked into the form of a pie, but this turned out to be more like having nachos for dinner. Awesome.

Sunday morning started off with a brunch once again hosted by Cindy and Mike, and we spent most of the afternoon at that. One person had to leave for the airport, so after he departed we hung around for a while and then headed back to South Congress to walk around and get some dinner. We decided we wanted something light, and I was looking for something vegetarian. We went to Zen, which I had eaten at my previous trip and remembered enjoying. You can build your own noodle bowl, which is what I did, or you can get some premade sushi or some Japanese/Tex Mex fusion (I know). Overall I think we enjoyed it but I wouldn’t say you should seek it out.

After that a couple of us wandered around on our own for a while and ended up in Boticcelli, which has a nice atmosphere and a lovely patio space out back. We were drawn in because the awning said it was a beer garden, but they don’t really have much of a beer list. They do have a nice cocktail list though, and so we had a couple of fancy drinks. Instead of getting a second round we went back to Amy’s and then walked home. The house we rented is an easy walk from South Congress!

Monday was Halloween, and so the littlest traveler* got to go play at the Austin Children’s Museum for a little while. While he and his parents did that, I wandered in and out of a few of the boutiques in downtown. When I decided it was snack time I found myself walking by delish on the way to a coffee shop I’d spotted earlier and so I went in and enjoyed a carrot cake cupcake and a coffee. My companions met back up with me and we headed out for the afternoon. On the way back to downtown we stopped in for lunch at the first place we spotted, El Azteca. As it turns out, this place had come up in conversation earlier in the weekend as they serve goat. None of us got that and I don’t think any of us were over the moon about our entrees, but the food was decent (excellent salsa) and hey, we got fed!

Our next move was to go back to South Congress to wander a bit, with the goal of winding up at Big Top Candy Shop (Facebook link), a soda fountain and candy shop. They do all the cool soda fountain stuff, but I was a bit overwhelmed by all the soda and ice cream flavor combinations, so I stuck with the classic root beer float, which was perfect. After that we headed home to regroup (and nap) and a delegation went out to Kreuz Market in Lockhart to pick up some barbecue for dinner. (We were going to try another place in Lockhart, but they closed a bit earlier.) We got brisket and pork ribs with sides of pickles, mac & cheese and German potato salad and damn…was it good. Definitely worth the drive (35-45 minutes, easy, straight shot) and I’d say probably worth the wait if you go on a weekend. They seem pretty well set up to handle the crowds. Texas barbecue is done with spice rubs rather than sauce and I thought I wouldn’t like it as much. Isn’t that silly? So delicious. Oh, we also got two tiny pies, pecan and buttermilk, also delicious.

Shopped at:

I went in and out of a lot of boutiques on South Congress and a few downtown. I didn’t buy much of anything at them, though, as the clothes were a little too trendy for me. If I thought I could pull them off I probably would have been tempted to buy boots at Heritage Boot or Allen’s, both of which we visited. Next time I come to Austin I probably need to save up in advance to buy some leather goods, because in many of the places we went there were gorgeous hand-tooled bags and belts. There was also some great stuff at Prima Dora, Tesoros Trading Company and Creatures Boutique.

I spent quite a while poking around at Langford Market, which had tons of cute stuff (though too trendy for me personally) and was very affordable. I really enjoyed Callahan’s General Store, which was a very cool combination of an actual store that you can get ranch & farm & kitchen supplies at and a place for tourists to pick up a few things. The canning section is amazing, I really wish there was someplace with this selection in Baltimore. I highly recommend it. If you’re lucky you’ll get to taste some of the Texas-made condiments I brought home: their own brand of Peachy Chipotle Sauce, Goodflow Texas Wildflower Raw Honey and Fischer & Wieser Amaretto Peach Pecan preserves.

In addition to being a soda fountain, Big Top carries tons of candies. I found a Texas-made line and got one bar of Fleur De Sel Caramel, and another bar as a gift. I also picked up a block of Taza Chocolate Mexicano in the Ginger flavor, mainly just for the sheer novelty of being able to support a Somerville-based business while halfway across the country. I also made a point of stopping by Stitch Lab, a small fabric store that also gives lots of classes. I picked up fabric for a skirt, pillows and a sewing machine cover.

Looked at:

After I arrived and had lunch on Thursday, I went and got a pedicure at Great Nails & Spa, which was very close to where we were staying and had stellar reviews. Super cheap and super nice, definitely check it out and don’t be dissuaded by the strip mall location. It was packed and many of the women were clearly regulars.

On Friday the two of us who had already arrived tried to do a walking tour of downtown, but the visitor center was out of the brochures for the one we were interested in. Instead we wound up doing a walking tour of the Bremond Block, which is up by the capital building. It’s basically a city block where all the houses were built by family members. Not quite what I was looking for but it was just nice to be outside walking around. The visitor center offers a bunch of walking tours, most of which are self-guided.

Saturday afternoon, we went to the Harry Ransom Center and took in the current exhibits. The main exhibit, “Banned, Burned, Seized and Censored,” explored censorship in the US between the First and Second World Wars. There was also a smaller exhibit, “The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door.” Both were very well done, and I recommend this as a stop if you go. As you might imagine with a university facility, there were plenty of restaurants nearby, though we didn’t go to any of them.

Overall: Austin was a great place to visit and I think it’s going to be high on the list for any future vacation-for-the-sake-of-vacation trips that I take (I tend to go visit friends). Everyone was so friendly, from waitstaff to people in the fancy boutiques where I was probably clearly not going to buy anything. And not superficially friendly – genuinely interested in engaging you in conversation. It was pretty awesome. The weather at this time of year is beautiful (one of Cindy & Mike’s friends described autumn as their “second spring” since most of the year it’s really hot). There’s tons of biking and and swimming and other outdoor stuff that we didn’t get into, and plenty of other museums to visit and places to eat at. I’ll be back, especially since I can fly direct from BWI!

*If we’re not friends on Flickr, you won’t be able to see this photo.