Keep Austin Weird
As I woke up in Austin and took my first jet lag infused walk down South Congress, I have to say it felt pretty much like I was walking down the streets of San Francisco. Sure, I knew that the city motto is to “keep Austin weird”, but this was my first visit to the Lone Star State of Texas and I was (quite naively) imagining more cowboys brandishing revolvers and spurs and less Willie Nelson murals.
I didn’t know it at the time but I’d get my fair share of the former when I drove west, and either way I happen to think San Francisco is one of the best spots in the world – meaning falling in love with Austin was easy and quick. Not only are people really laid-back and cool, the city is also home to SXSW – the biggest tech, music and film conference in the world, as well as a bunch of cool companies.
Weird or not, Austin helped me find myself a new favourite city – so here are some of my favourite spots to eat, sleep and hang.
The best hotel to stay at when in Austin is The South Congress Hotel, perfectly located on my favourite street. Only a year or so old, this boutique hotel offers a lot more than just 83 lovely minimalist rooms and suites. You’ll find subway-tile rooms (you know the type) with floor-to-ceiling windows, exposed-concrete ceilings and custom-built wood-and-leather headboards, desks, and chairs. And even if its interior design is quite brilliant, most of its buzz comes from the food that its awesome restaurants have to offer. Otoko, the 12-seat sushi counter, serves a mind-blowing omakase menu whilst Café No Sé and Central Standard offer amazing avocado toast and wood-grilled burgers and steaks. South Congress Hotel also features a hidden town square, with free concerts in the open courtyard, a mid-century modern lobby you’d actually want to hang out in, a great rooftop pool, a nail salon, and several boutiques. It also happens to host our favourite coffee (and juice) shop in Austin, aptly named Manana Coffee.
Speaking of food, there’s an abundance of the good stuff to check out whilst here. Bufalina in East Austin serves awesome pizza as well as a brandy or or sherry dessert that’s to die for. You’d obviously be dumb to miss In N Out Burger, but there’s also tons of great mexican food to enjoy around the city. The classic chain, Torchy’s, has a bunch of places all over and they’re all safe bets. If you’re looking for a proper sit down, we really can’t stress enough how good Central Standard is – so make sure you go there even if you’re not staying the night.
When it comes to drinking, Austin also has plenty to offer. Rainy Street, for example, is a couple of blocks long and full of old houses turned into bars. It’s great. Or, you could head over to East Sixth where the bars tend to be a bit more hipster and where you’ll find place like Hotel Vegas, East Side Showroom and Shangri La. Also make sure to visit a classic “honky tonk” for some live music and real Texan vibes – our favourite is The White Horse
Marfa and the wild, wild west…
After a week in Austin it was high time to see some of the real Texas, so I hopped into my Ford Explorer rental and started driving west. After a somewhat lonely five hour drive accompanied by tumbleweed, desert and exactly zero In N Out Burger’s, I rolled into the small town of Marfa. With only 2,000 residents, this little desert town has achieved almost mythical status thanks to its modern art, magical desert landscapes, starry nights – as well, naturally, its very own Prada store.
Needless to say, Marfa has amassed a lot of hype over the years. Thanks to this hipster craze, it also has a range of great lodgings to offer. I stuck around for three nights in total, spending my first two nights at the new Hotel Saint George, a spot so cool you might think you’ve traveled back to New York. Clean, modern, and white, the place is filled with Aesop toiletries and features an Illy espresso bar in the lobby. For my last night, looking for something a little less comfortable, I headed over to El Cosmico, a 21 acre nomadic campground featuring Sioux-style tepees, a Mongolian yurt and a bunch of renovated vintage trailers – all kitted very nicely and all offering easy access to the amazing views of the starry skies above. Famous past guests include, well, Beyonce.
When you get hungry, Marfa gets quite tricky. Most places, and there are like five in total, open when they want, close when they want – and don’t offer menus. With that said, there’s definitely good stuff to be found. For breakfast you can get a great cup of coffee and a smoothie at Frama, situated at the back of a laundromat. My favourite spot for lunch was Boyz 2 Men, an old beaten up airstreamer serving some of the best (seriously) tacos I have ever eaten. The guys running it are super rude and always downing beers, but get through the charades and you’ll enjoy some of the best food Marfa has to offer. For a proper sit-down meal, head to Jett’s Grill, where portions are Texan size but delicious. And if you’re looking for something more casual, Pizza Foundation does not disappoint – and you get sweet views of the railroad running through town.
For drinks and snacks, Capri is a popular venue with a killer margarita and outdoor fire pits and hammocks. Those looking for a more Texan experience should try Planet Marfa, a watering hole littered with tables, string lights, and signs and topped off with a sunken floor teepee at its center. The beers are cheap and the crowd is a great mix of ranchers, hipsters, and tourists. Want even more Texan? Check out The Lost Horse Saloon, owned by a eye-patched cowboy and which like many other places around here host great live music throughout the year.
When it comes to the arty stuff, the first thing that anyone will recommend when you arrive are the Donald Judd tours. The artist landed in Marfa in 1971 and spent three decades here, constructing a live-work compound in the center of town and an art foundation, called the Chinati Foundation, on its outskirts. Judd’s home and studios, my favourite of the two tours, are meticulously kept and just as thrilling for experts as for casual followers of his art. Chinati offers up a kilometer of Judd’s concrete sculptures, plus 100 aluminum prisms installed between two former army base buildings.
For me personally, Marfa was the kind of place that I didn’t know I’d miss before I actually left. But looking back, it was one of the best and most important trips I’ve ever taken – packed with healthy perspective, Lone Star beers, and the perfect mix of hipsters and cowpokes.
PS. If you have a few extra days, driving down to Big Bend is highly recommended. You’ll find beautiful winding roads to drive and endless (and equally gorgeous) nature to hike, as well as the very special ghost town of Terlingua, home to The Starlight Theatre.