48 Hours in Austin
Texas’s coolest city keeps on keepin’ on.
There’s no end of sun destinations a half-day’s flight from Western Canada, but there’s only one Texas—a point brought home to me as I walked along the no-sidewalk road of a tiny town in the state’s Hill Country. The drought there’s seven years long now, so this good ol’ boy was out spritzing his garden with a dollar-store mister as I passed, lost in my thoughts. “Sorry you’re having a rough day,” he called to my back. Was I? Right, I’d forgotten to visit, a verb that in Texas is a birthright, an obligation and a reweaving of the social fabric. So I stopped and told him my life story, heard his, and for my troubles got invited in for supper, which I passed up in lieu of a patio he recommended down the way, where I drank beer as the evening cooled down to the 80s and blues rock filled an azure sky. City streets are just as friendly, especially in Austin, the fastest-growing metropolis in America (140 people arrive every day). The only way you’ll stand out as a foreigner is if you forget to stop and visit.
Austin has a raft of hotels (Fairmont, Marriott, Indigo, Kimpton) coming online in 2015. For now, the Hotel Ella (hotelella.com), restored for millions in 2013, will give you the boutique experience away from downtown’s bustle (bring your trunks for the cute pool) or—am I really saying this?—the Radisson (radisson.com) has three benefits: it’s only blocks from the bars you’ll be heading to, it overlooks a natural marvel, and the old TGIF in the lobby has been replaced with one of the hottest dining rooms in town: Chavez (chavez-austin.com), by celebrated chef Josh Watkins (The Carillon). Try updates on Mexican standards like blade steak al pastor, but be sure to finish before sunset, when you’ll wander downstairs to the Congress Avenue Bridge, home to up to 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats; every night you can peer down as they launch themselves out to feed. If mob crowds are your thing, stick to that vibe by hitting the bars of “Dirty” Sixth Street; there are more than 250 live music venues in town (with an economic impact of $1.6 billion just on the city each year). Better by far is to head seven blocks east to Rainey Street, where 16 bars operate out of repurposed houses and shipping containers. With live music and atmosphere to burn, it’s the ultimate one-stop drinking locale (raineystbars.com). You’re welcome.
Austin is often rated one of the fittest cities in the States, thanks in large measure to Lady Bird Johnson, who planted thousands of trees along the 468-acre lake that bears her name. You’ll spend the day walking and exploring, so cure last night’s highjinks with barbecue from Franklin (franklinbarbecue.com).
Lineups for the restaurant start early, and it can take hours for smoked meats frequently voted tops in America, but you’ll meet locals, listen to conjunto and, finally, eat unforgettable brisket with a side of beans. With your remaining time, hit Clarksville (historicclarksville.org), once the largest freedmen colony in the area (Austin never voted with the South) and now hipster central with artist studios, parks and the Texas state cemetery; or stay downtown for boutiques (the city has banned almost all chain stores). For lunch, try Vespaio (austinvespaio.com), all farm-to-table regional ingredients and drinks from top city bartender Tom Upthegrove, followed by dessert to go: Shiner Ruby Redbird ice cream from local chain Amy’s (amysicecreams.com) or a Michael Jackson “100% Non-Fat Free Goodness!” cupcake from Hey Cupcake! (heycupcake.com). Pick up your rental, because you’re driving 30 minutes northwest to Travaasa (travaasa.com). Enjoy the solitude: the five-star experiential spa resort is perched on the edge of the 24,000-acre Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. Explore the trails with a naturalist pointing out everywhere signs of stubborn life amid the seemingly arid scrub; unwind with signature spa treatments (the Hill Country Honeybee massage and body treatment is mind-stoppingly restful); and finish with a swim, then dinner on the flagstone patio, tucked up in Navajo blankets against the winds as the sun sets over the Colorado River. Heaven.
You’ve come all this way; you need horses. Travaasa’s Equine Encounter is more whispering than giddy-up, but after breakfast and a morning trail jog, time with insightful trainer Keith Moon gives you food for thought as you consider personality, dominance and leadership—just you and your animal companion in the ring. Head back into town for a last afternoon of sightseeing, maybe at the Bullock Texas State History Museum (thestoryoftexas.com), where a massive $10-million exhibition about French exploration of the area has just opened. Finish with snacks and a cocktail in the crimson lobby bar at the W Austin (starwoodhotels.com) or a craft beer (sample Austin Beerworks) and artisanal dog at Frank (hotdogscoldbeer.com). Don’t forget to visit.