It’s late for my last night in Austin and I know I should head back to my hotel. For once, I think it would be nice to fly without being hungover. But this is not the case. East Austin’s dive bars are far too alluring for that.
This once Hispanic neighborhood of small one-story buildings is now one of Austin’s trendiest enclaves. Eclectic, sometimes seedy bars, cafes, restaurants and food trailers line a street that’s a laid-back place to drink coffee by day and a music-filled playground by night.
In the no-frills live music bar Hotel Las Vegas, I watch post-punk band Crooked Bangs, the singer with the tousled hair, tattoos and rolling eyes. They are followed onto the tiny stage by Los Vigilantes, whose beer-spitting, cape-wearing energy turns the front of the crowd into a stumbling mosh pit.
Down the road in the brilliantly named Cheer up the Charlies – which, with its rainbow-painted pastel exterior, looks like a children’s nursery where your children might just be fed acid – the electro Brute Force plays a jaw-dropping set outside, under a stretched parachute of colored lights, people sit and drink beers.
I go and follow my ears to the corner of the cave White horse, packed with people of all ages, many in a rockabilly ensemble, dancing or drinking to American band The Bellfuries.
It’s the music, of course – diverse, of widely varying quality but always on offer – on which Austin has built its reputation, exemplified by the epic annual South By Southwest music festival in April, where more than 2,000 artists play in locations across the city.
“Live music capital of the world” is one of Austin’s self-award winning slogans (the other is “Keep Austin Weird”) and after a few days here, I rarely find myself more than a stone’s throw away. live music in one form or another. else, I’ll go with that.
Austin is small (population around 820,000) and finding your niche is easy. Further along 6th Street, across a freeway flyover, Magaluf-esque student madness reigns: girls dancing with glow sticks, bucking broncos and commercial dance music attract ( or not) customers in side-by-side places and people spilling out of the bars onto the street.
In downtown Austin, the beautiful and historic Primal Theater definitely worth a visit and spent a night listening to the exquisite Kat Edmonson, a critically acclaimed jazz singer who launched her career right here in this city.
However, arguably Austin’s most important concert hall is Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theatre, a state-of-the-art space that can seat 2,700 people in which the cult American musical television series Austin City Limits is filmed. ACL Live is “the crown jewel of Austin,” says assistant general manager Gary Rushworth.
He’s understandably proud of the venue and, with his rock ‘n’ roll career (the fact that he once drove Slash down a highway median en route to a Guns N’ Roses concert seals him) to me), he should know. A constant roster of great bands play ACL (from Al Green to Jay-Z), but up-and-coming artists also have a platform, and at every gig you might hear the next big thing.
Music may be Austin’s first love, but it’s not the only reason to visit. Amazing street food, quirky shopping and neighborhoods full of character are some of the other earthly delights this city has to offer and it’s the city’s enthusiasm for small, independent businesses that underpins the slogan “Keep Austin Weird.” .
A good place to start your tour of the general center-left is the Southern Congress (or SoCo as the natives call it). Like East Austin, SoCo attracts a hip, creative crowd and the bars, food trucks, and shops are suitably eclectic.
Don’t miss the incredible Heritage Boots, which sells handmade cowboy boots in a dizzying array of designs. Nearby antiques store Uncommon Objects sells everything from Indian arrowheads to lamps made from armadillos, while South Congress Books has a rare collection worth perusing.
The week I visit Austin, the annual Lonestar Rally takes place and dramatically upgraded vintage hot rod cars congregate in SoCo. The event is a window into the melting pot that is Austin, attracting a mix of Texas country folk, hip residents, older Austinites and tourists from around the world.
I check cars and drink tequila with Beth, a California girl in suspender pants and a shaved head, now based in Austin. We’re hungry and stroll through Congress to a collection of food trucks parked under a grove of trees.
Over the past few years, the food truck scene in Austin has exploded, and nearly every neighborhood has a collection of brilliantly quaint trailers and trucks that serve varied menus.
At night, East Austin’s food truck parks, with their fairy lights, picnic tables and potted plants, look like mini fairgrounds where you can enjoy Creole stews, Mexican tacos , vegan diet food, burgers, sandwiches, Thai food and even fish and chips.
Here in SoCo, Beth and I sit in the sun in front of Indian street food vendor Nomad Dosa, a gleaming silver Airstream trailer that wafts heavenly spice smells. I eat one of their vegetarian dosas and it is delicious. “Like in life, so do food trucks,” Beth says. “There are so many fucking choices but, if possible, try everything once.”
With that in mind, we make our way through several more bars, a few food trucks, and a cafe before hopping in a cab to the Hops and Grain brewery at the end of 6th Street. Outside the industrial-looking building (only open to the public on Fridays from 2-6 p.m. and Saturdays from 12-4 p.m.), laid-back Austinites mingle and drink pints. We have beers and go on a tour.
Hops and Grain’s tagline, “Environment, Community, Craftsmanship,” isn’t a marketing gimmick, owner Josh Hare tells us, and it looks like he’s putting his money where his mouth is. The substantial grain waste that is a by-product of brewing is used to make dog food (it’s full of fiber and protein), employees are paid more if they use environmentally friendly transport and a percentage of the company’s annual profits goes to green projects.
Justice aside, however, the small but tasty beer selection keeps us going until we decide our livers and stomachs need a break. Heading back down 6th, we bathe in the 20s-themed Ritz Theater for a screening of the original Evil Dead.
Unfortunately for our livers, the Ritz’s screening room is called the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, an inspired venture that combines watching movies with food and drink, provided by waitresses at the theater. I turn in and drink margaritas throughout.
As I walk out of the Ritz, I’m again struck by Austin’s quintessentially village vibe – even the city’s busiest streets have a small-town feel. Maybe it’s the grackles, twinkling blue birds whose wild whistles follow you from the tops of the trees through the city. “People in Austin hate them,” Beth tells me.
Grackles may be out of favor with locals, but the city’s other distinctive flying colony – bats – are adored, and every dusk crowds gather on the Congress Avenue Bridge to await their appearance. . Spanning the Colorado River – on which you can canoe, kayak and, further upstream in a hot spring, swim – it’s a scenic spot to explore in the city. And when the bats arrive in a big cloud below the bridge, it’s impossible not to be charmed by the magic of Austin’s countryside-city combo.
So, on the last evening, it’s much later than expected when I drag myself home. Yes, I’m going to curse myself by throwing things in my suitcase tomorrow morning. Yes, I will have tinnitus for days. But Austin is definitely worth it.
Frankie Mullin traveled to Texas courtesy of American Airlines and stayed at the W Austin Hotel.
when should we go: September to November and March to May, when temperatures are cooler than the scorching summer months.
Currency: £1 = $1.57 (US dollars)
Accommodation: The fire station hostel has rooms from £18.50 pp and is centrally located. Includes free breakfast, free coffee and tea, and free Wi-Fi.
The W is adjacent to the ACL Concert Hall and definitely worth the treat. Rooms from £166.
Getting There : Fly from London Heathrow to Austin from £810 return with American airlines.
Photos: Getty, TNT, www.austintexas.org, MarQuito Molina