I had a former manager once tell me that Australians are basically Texans with British accents. Having never been, and not really knowing any, I couldn’t really argue with him. Anyway, to the point, I was incredibly fortunate to have our work offsite over in Austin, which gave me the opportunity to finally visit and see Texas myself. I was even more fortunate that I was able to lengthen my stay by padding out my arrival/departure date to pick up the weekends either side of our off-site.
I’ve always had the impression that Austin is quite similar to San Francisco, with a quite liberal and alternative culture – but without the cold winds, hills and inflated prices. However, I almost immediately came to miss the first two of these things as I forced the A/C in the rental car to stop me sweating as I cruised through small rolling hills without a mountain in sight. I was amazed at how lush and green it was outside, as the picture I had in my mind was a semi-arid desert like the interior of Australia, with endless cattle farms.
Anyway, I’m not sure if I should be proud of this, but I am – my first stop was to Whataburger, which I’d heard Stan Lee rave about (while besmirching my personal favourite In-n-Out) “Everytime I’m in Texas I eat Whataburger. Because fuck that In-N-Out bullshit”. The man didn’t mince his words, but after eating one of their giant burgers, I (respectfully) say Stan Lee is full of bullshit!
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Double Whataburger with cheese. I remember reading a quote from Stan Lee, basically calling in-n-out rubbish, and praising Whataburger, so now that I'm finally in Texas, time has come to see how it compares. I was starving after my flight here, so I made the detour here on the way to my hotel. The saying that "everything is bigger in Texas" surprisingly held true here, with a burger that felt like the size of a diet plate, compared to the tea cup paste sized in-n-out. It almost cane kitty too quickly, arriving at my table just after I'd say down and started reading the news. It was large, but that was about the only positive thing I have to say about it. 3/5. In-n-out it's in another league. Sorry, Stan Lee. #whataburger #austinburger #burgerreview
Rather than spending big money on a hotel, I opted for a hostel just a little outside of town. On paper, it was just a short walk into town, but the reality of the heat and humidity here (and my stupid decision to wear jeans) meant that I gave up after a few minutes – especially when I realised that I had free Lyft credit that was going to work here, too.
I met up with my colleagues, in their far fancier (and pricier) accommodation, where we fleeced the bar for Happy Hour drinks and then at the conclusion of free service, we went out to watch the famous Austin Bats. I purposely phrased it that way, as it initially confused me – Austin Bats sounded like a local sporting team at first listen. It turned out to be something far cooler – there is a large colony of tiny bats that live under a bridge in the city, and at sunset, they all come out, swarming the skies above the Colorado River. I regretted not bringing my camera out a little at this point, as the city and the skies looked beautiful here at sunset.
From here it was more exploration of the nightlife of this city – which was quickly winning me over, with the density and energy that I feel is missing in San Francisco. We walked down famous 6th Street, stopping to sample cocktails along the way. And ended the evening at Rainey Street, with the quirky bars converted from old wooden houses.
With the temperatures now back to a reasonable level, I skipped the Lyft back to the hostel, and instead opted to walk, enjoying the warm evening air – something that doesn’t exist in San Francisco. I won’t lie, the night wasn’t without interruptions, but I still don’t regret not booking a private room.
The next morning happened to be Cinco de Mayo, but it would have started the same way – a search for breakfast tacos – which, thanks to my hostel’s location, wasn’t hard to find! Right across the road from HK Austin, was an amazing taco truck – Veracruz. It wasn’t a secret, and there was quite a queue, so I joined in, placed my order, was given a buzzer and was told that it was going to be at least 30-minutes for it to be ready!
Well, my luck with the location continued, as Flat Track Coffee was only a block away. The timing turned out to be perfect, and my tacos were ready as I returned with my (nearly completed) coffee. Was clearly too focused on eating my food, as I didn’t remember to take a proper photo.
This time I did walk in to town, but was dressed appropriately (shorts). I met with my friends by the giant Ai Weiwei bicycle sculpture – which I later learnt was one of the final weeks you could see it. It was amazing – and not just because I love bicycles. My eyes couldn’t quite decide what was stationary, and what was moving, which was both amusing, and concerning.
We were keen to see what celebrations were taking place in Austin for Cinco de Mayo. I could see that several of the bars around town had celebrations planned, so we wandered around a little, back through Rainey Street in the daylight (it seemed a completely different place), and back along 6th Street, which was shut down to cars and a giant street party was going on.
It was full holiday mode, with margaritas, and enormous portions of Texan BBQ, and more margaritas, which were the perfect accompaniment to the heat and salt/fat of the BBQ.
We must have walked from one side of the city, to the other, and back over the course of the day. Our legs and feet might have been tired, but it did mean we got a great feeling for the city this way. I was loving how informal and casual the city was, as well as the energy – but, I grew up in oppressive sweaty heat, and I don’t think I ever want to return to it.
The evening ended with a public screening of Game of Thrones in a small theatre. I thought that was a pretty cool idea, but had no idea just how popular that would be! I was lucky enough to eventually find a seat just before the episode aired. It was such a different experience sharing it with so many others, with the crowds booing and cheering at the events that were unfolding.
Austin Hill Country
I had one last full day before ‘work’ started, so on Monday, I repeated my morning routine, with coffee from Flat Track, and breakfast tacos from Veracruz. Being a Monday morning, the queues were mostly gone, and I was ready to go see the Austin Hill Country. It wasn’t quite as sunny as it had been over the weekend, with grey skies threatening showers – but, it did mean that there was a slight respite from the heat of the weekend.
The plan was to drive up along the Colorado River (and stop for a quick swim), visit Enchanted Rock, some more swimming, and then finish off with BBQ. Unfortunately for me, there had been heavy rains before we arrived, and the swimming holes were all closed, due to high levels of bacteria from runoff water from the farms.
It was an interesting experience driving away from Austin. The city itself feels quite modern and liberal, with only the country music giving away that we’re in Texas. But, as I started driving away from Austin, I could see and feel a shift. It started with the guns and ammunition, pro-life, and Christian billboards on the sides of the roads, and the religious stickers/murals on the cars – and the cars stopped being cars, and started being pickup trucks. Stopping for fuel, people were walking around with cowboy hats on. I was clearly not in San Francisco any more.
Another thing that really surprised me was just how green Texas was. I know I’m repeating myself, but I had this idea in my head that Texas was like the Australian Outback, with arid dry grass plains, but it was luscious and vibrantly green. My journey towards Enchanted Rock eventually took me off the motorway, and down smaller country roads, which every so often would burst into colourful fields of wildflowers – I couldn’t not stop for photos!
This is going to sound daft, but I was surprised that the Hill Country was filled with endless rolling hills. At first I thought that the landscape was flat, which in comparison to the Bay Area, it certainly is.
I arrived to a nearly empty car park at Enchanted Rock, which felt like a good sign. I paid the park entrance fees, and decided that I didn’t need a long hike around the park, and was happy to satisfy myself with a quick trip to the summit. I blame the recent indulgence of BBQ/margaritas/tacos for the struggles I felt walking up the side of this giant granite rock. The views from the summit made the (small) effort worthwhile. I sat at the summit, enjoyed the cool breeze, and ate a few protein bars as I gazed at the 360-degree panoramas. If I didn’t know where I was, I don’t think I could have possibly guessed I was in Texas.
There was a whole lot of driving today, but I was fine with that, as it was all a new and interesting landscape – plus, it was a comfortable modern car, rather than the old beast we drove around Europe in…
It was later in the afternoon when I made it to Salt Lick, which frequently came up for recommendations for visiting Austin – and this came from locals and tourists alike. Thankfully being 3PM on a Monday, the place was nearly empty. I could see the size of the car park, and the enormous queuing areas that it must get crazy busy here over the weekend. I took a seat, and decided to sample a little of all their meat options. It wasn’t night-and-day between Salt Lick and the smaller BBQ place we went to yesterday (Coopers), but I have to say, generally Salt Lick was superior. A local friend told me that you can choose to go for fattier meats if you want them – as my only complaint of Salt Lick was it was a little drier.
Final stop for the day was to McKinney Falls. Luckily, my entry fee from this morning’s visit to Enchanted Rock also allowed me entrance here. Unfortunately, lots of the park was closed due to the recent rains – plus, the same advisories about swimming were in place.
I had tried to convince some friends that were in town to visit one of the line dancing halls in town, to very limited success. Turned out that it was in vain anyway, as they were closed Monday evenings. So, it was a little more BBQ, and a little more walking around town.
I still had a few more hours before I had to return the rental car, and join the rest of my colleagues at the Hyatt Lost Pines, just outside of Austin. I was starting to feel a little exhausted of walking around all day, but I had some more breakfast tacos, some more coffee, and marched back into town – with somewhat of a plan to see something different.
The city felt very different to how it felt on the weekend. The closed off roads, filled with people were now just regular roads, with the occasional car. The footpaths were mostly empty, and the tourists had gone home. This did mean that there was no queue for Voodoo Donuts – but, I had just eaten an ill-advised large breakfast from Juan in a Million (my tip, just get a small taco if you want to be able to walk around).
Rather than just wandering around semi-aimlessly, I decided I wanted to check out the Texas Capitol building, which is quite a sight to see.
It’s free to enter, so I went to stand under the giant domed ceiling, and then climbing to the upper floors to stare back down. It was amusing to walk around, seeing all the past governors of Texas over the years.
I still had a little time to kill, so I went to check out the Contemporary Austin, which just happened to be free today. I often steer clear of art museums, especially modern ones as I find it very hit/miss for my tastes – and sadly, it was more of a miss than a hit for me.
However, as I was walking to the Contemporary Austin, I feel like I saw the most ‘Keep Austin Weird’ thing I could imagine – a man in a long leather trench coat, riding an electric scooter, with a chicken on his shoulder, singing/screaming something sounding like death metal. I was too in awe to think to grab my phone/camera to capture this.
It was a rush now to the airport to drop off the car, and catch the shuttle bus to Hyatt Lost Pines. But, not so much of a rush that I couldn’t stop for a donut burger from Gordough’s!
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Gourdough's Big Baller @photograbock recommended I make a trip to Gourdough's, to really punish my cardiovascular system – it's not actually why I went, but it was her reasoning for the recommendation. I actually thought that it was a doughnut shop, and I was going to see how it compared with Bob's (in SF) or Voodoo in Austin. While they do have doughnuts/donuts I couldn't refuse a burger, even after having several mixed experiences in the past with donut burgers. My first surprise was how doughy it was, while still being crispy on the outside. It very much reminded me of the langos burger I had in Budapest. It wasn't sweet at all, with a taste much more like deep fried pizza dough. 4/5 – I would have preferred something closer to a traditional bacon cheeseburger, and the dough was a little overpowering at times. But it was an interesting texture/taste combination, and the patty was tasty and juicy. #burgerreview #austinburger #gourdoughs
Austin – Redux
After the offsite, and after a short overnight trip to Houston and back, I had one more evening in Austin. I was lucky enough to make plans with a colleague who was also staying (at a different) hostel for the weekend. So, we teamed up for a night on the town. It was more of the same – Mexican food, beer/cocktails, and walking around town, but it was still a fun night.
We eventually ended up at some fun ‘hidden’ bars, and only hidden in the sense that they don’t look like bars from the outside. I returned to Floppy Disk Repair Company, which might have been one of the cooler bars I visited in town.
And, a little later, we had a locals recommendation to go check out Garage – which was down in the basement of a parking garage. It was late by the time we arrived, so thankfully we didn’t have much time for drinks before they closed. That said, the bartender was amazing, and she made a cocktail based on my vague memories of cocktail that I loved from London (mezcal, lime, ginger, pear) – and then gave me the recipe! I barely remember the Lyft ride back to the hostel, which came as a surprise.
The next day we woke to a return of clear skies and high temperatures. My friend took his time waking up, so to kill time, I went on a mini walking tour, checking out some of the murals in town.
After meeting for some more Veracruz tacos (and Flat Track coffee) we started to make some vague plans to go to one of the swimming holes, but realised that by the time we got there, we’d probably need to head back – plus, they were still probably closed to swimming. Instead, we went to go walk around Barton Springs, which is just south of the city. It wasn’t a unique decision, and it felt like half the town was doing the same. But, we couldn’t blame them, it was beautiful here.
The creek was still closed to swimming (even though there were a few people in there braving it), but the banks were lined with sunbathers. It was an epic internal struggle trying to decide if I go swimming or not – we decided not to risk it.
But, we weren’t ready to return to the airport just yet, so we looked around the area, and found a few shortish hikes – or what looked like shortish hikes. It’s not to say they weren’t short, they just weren’t entirely paths suitable for walking along. But, once we’d made it to the other side of the motorway, it felt like we were far, far from the city. It felt so wild, and untouched – and then we’d catch a glimpse of the skyscrapers off in the distance.
We’d been cautious to not hike too far, so that we’d have time to get to the airport. We hadn’t anticipated the mass exodus from the park happening at the same time that we wanted to leave. It was concerning, as there was a period where we were trapped inside the park, in a giant queue of cars. But, we managed to slip through without too much delay – enough spare time for me to stop at Lucy’s Fried Chicken for one more enormous meal before the flight (I was trying to avoid buying food at the airport). This meal is what it looks like – Fried Chicken Spaghetti – and every bit as delicious as you can guess.
Austin… It’s a fun city to visit, and I highly recommend it. But I don’t think it’s for me, with the heat, and the lack of actual hills/mountains to go explore on the weekends.