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Trip Report Trip Report: Austin, TX Sept 23-27 2009

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This was my first trip to Austin. I grew interested in seeing more of Texas after a trip I took to San Antonio back in October 2007. I decided Austin would make a nice second location for me to explore with the State Capitol, University, bats, prolific Tex-Mex food and quirky reputation.

Day 1 (Wednesday)
I booked Jet Blue for this trip due to the fact that they fly non-stop from Boston to Austin and no other airline does. Jet Blue is one of my favorite airlines anyway, so if they have a non-stop at a convenient time to my chosen destination, I will usually take it. My flight landed at approx 10:25am local time. The airport is relatively small and easy to get around. I walked through the airport and got a cab to my hotel, the Omni Austin Downtown. The ride from the airport to the hotel was approx 15 min and cost $25 with tip.

Upon arrival at the hotel, my check in was all in order. I had reserved a regular/deluxe king bedded room and “due to occupancy” found I had been upgraded to floor 14, one of the club level floors. On these floors they serve complimentary continental breakfast each day and hors d’oeuvres each evening in the floor lounge. The hotel shares its lobby with an office building and the elevators are glass and overlook the lobby. The club floors and rooftop pool are accessed by inserting your key into a slot once inside the elevator. The hotel suites on the top floors of the hotel are accessed via a separate elevator bank. My room, #1414, looked out over San Jacinto St, was fairly large and was decorated in a beige, green and dark wood color scheme. The bathroom was sort of odd in that it was divided by the entry way. For example, when you stepped into the room, the shower/bathtub room was on your right and the sink room which also contains the closet, on your left. I have certainly seen the shower and sink be in separate areas before, but have not seen them be across a hall from each other before.

Unfortunately it was raining out when I arrived, and temperatures were only in the 60s. I packed my umbrella and went off to eat lunch at the 1886 Cafe, located in the Driskill Hotel. The Driskill is an attractive, historic property which was built in 1886 for a cattle baron. The Cafe offers both indoor and outdoor seating (under cover), but since it was cool outside, I opted to eat inside. I had the Texas Grilled Cheese which is cheddar cheese, lettuce and tomato served on Texas toast with a side of chili rubbed fries. For dessert I had the 1886 Chocolate Cake. The cake was moist, light and artfully served in a pool of hot fudge, with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream and a handmade cookie on top, garnished with fresh raspberries. I enjoyed my meal, but wished they had put less tomato on the sandwich, as I prefer a larger ratio of cheese to tomato. The cake was a winner in my book.

After lunch I walked around the area and made a stop at the Capital Metro Transit Store to buy a 7 day bus pass ($7). Even though I was only going to be in Austin for 5 days, I determined that for me, the 7 day pass was the best deal. Now it was time to make my way to the Visitor’s Center on 6th St to check in for my Austin Overtures Tour. This is a 90 minute, nonstop van tour which shows you the highlights of Austin. It seemed popular with convention attendees who might not otherwise get to see anything of the city. I found the tour to be informative and it was good for getting a general overview of the area-a sampling of the things we saw included East Austin, hill country, University, Capitol, among other areas.

After heading back to my hotel for a little bit to pick up an extra jacket, I walked the 2 blocks over to Congress Ave to catch the #30 bus to Chuy’s on Barton Springs Rd. I enjoyed my meal at Chuy’s. Decor is a cross between roadside bar and mexican theming, with formica tables. The salsa tasted fresh and had a nice spice to it. I ordered a small queso sauce, frozen margarita and ground sirloin burrito with hatch green chile sauce. For the burrito, there was a choice of about 6 different sauces which I thought was great—Tex/Mex places in Massachusetts usually only offer 2 sauce choices if they offer any choice at all. The burrito was huge and is served with a side of rice; I was only able to eat half, which is unfortunate since I thought it was delicious.
In order to walk off dinner, I made my way down Barton Springs Rd to S. Congress to get the 1M/1L bus to Amy’s Ice Cream. I had a small cup of the Dark Chocolate—it was rich, dense, velvety in consistency (sort of similar to Herrell’s Chocolate Pudding ice cream for any Bostonians out there). Amy’s main thing (again, similar to Herrell’s) are the crush’ns. They will take your choice of ice cream and crush in whatever toppings you want. They also flip the ice cream around in the air and catch it in the cup (didn’t see this at the Congress location, but did at the others).

After my evening of gluttony, I walked over to the grassy riverbank area that is next to the Austin American Statesman building, to see the bats fly out from under the Congress Ave bridge. I was unsure if I’d see anything, as the weather was making the sky kind of dark. There was hardly anyone else there—maybe 8 other people. The bats did come out, but it was hard to see them against the gray sky, so you really didn’t get a sense of how many there actually are.

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    Day 2 (Thursday)
    This morning it was raining out again. I decided to walk over to the Driskill again to have breakfast in the 1886 Cafe. I opted for the Gingersnap Pancakes. You get 3 very large pancakes served with blueberries and gingersnaps sprinkled on top. They also serve them with what I think is a pecan syrup which was deliciously sweet. The pancakes were good, but I would have liked them better if the gingersnaps were baked into each cake and not just sprinkled over the top. I think the syrup was my favorite part.

    Next I got the 1M/1L bus up to the University of Texas where I walked around the campus. I was impressed by the beauty of the campus. Once you get into the interior part of the campus, it is quite nice—lots of trees, fountain (not turned on- maybe due to the drought?), nice buildings in a sort of mission style architecture. I stopped into the University store and looked at all the Longhorns merchandise. Now it was almost time for lunch so I walked up the section of Guadalupe know as “the Drag” and went to Torchy’s Tacos. I had the Trailer Park. This is a fried chicken tender with cheese, green chiles, pico de gallo and lettuce. You are also given your choice of flour or corn tortillas to serve the taco in. I had my Trailer Park “trashy” style—which means they take off the lettuce and add queso sauce instead. I really enjoyed the taco—it was different from other tacos I’ve had in the past. They had several different kinds that sounded good to me, so it was hard to make a decision as to what to get.

    Since it was still raining, it was a good thing my next activity was to be a visit to the Bob Bullock Texas History Museum. The museum chronicles the history of Texas from native peoples, explorers and modern day advancements. I spent about 2 hours in the museum. There is also an Imax theater and another theater, which I didn’t go to. Various movies are shown, including some on Texas history.

    I decided it was time for a snack, so I walked down to 6th St to get the ‘Dillo (a trolley bus that runs up 6th St and Congress Ave----they are being suspended as of Oct 2 due to budget). I got off at 6th and Bowie and walked to Amy’s Ice Cream. I sampled Gingerbread Pancake , Mexican Vanilla and Rootbeer Float flavors before deciding on a small sundae with Gingerbread Pancake with pecans crushed in, hot fudge and whipped cream. It was the perfect size for an afternoon snack—not so large as to completely kill your appetite, but large enough to give a nice sugar fix.

    On my way back to the “Dillo stop I stopped by the Treaty Oak where legend states that Stephen F. Austin signed the first boundary treaty with the native people. Prior to a poisoning attempt in 1989, it was supposedly thought to be a perfect tree specimen.

    For dinner tonight I headed back to Barton Springs Rd to the Shady Grove. Due to the weather I ate indoors. The decor is roadside bar. I ordered a frozen margarita and Frito Pie. This is a small (snack size) bag of Fritos cut open and laid in a bowl with chili, cheese, onions and jalapenos over the top. It was not large, but it makes a hearty meal. Then I ordered Chocolate Pecan Pie with vanilla ice cream for dessert. The pie was warm, gooey and falling apart goodness.

    Once again I made my way over to the Congress Ave bridge, to try and get a good glimpse of the bats. This time I stood on top of the bridge. Once again the sky was so dark and gray that it was hard to make them out against the coloring.

    My final excursion for the evening before heading back to the hotel to swim, was a trip down to the Continental Club. I figured since it’s famous I couldn’t go to Austin and not go there. I stayed and listed to the band for about 45 min.

    Day 3 (Friday)
    Today it had stopped raining! I arrived at the Capitol around 8:15am, in time for the first guided tour at 8:30am. The tour lasts about 40 min and shows you the Rotunda, House and Senate chambers. There is also a self guided option. After the guided tour you are free to circulate at will and can view the Library, Governor’s Public Reception Room and Capitol Extension. I’m not sure there is really any advantage to taking the guided tour, as the information office inside the Capitol has informative brochures for the self guided tour of the Capitol. Then I walked over to the Visitor’s Center and started to tour the grounds of the Capitol. There are self guided brochures you can pick up for both the Capitol and the grounds which explain the significance of all the monuments scattered around the grounds. I enjoyed my visit to the Capitol—the building is beautiful and the grounds are lovely and extensive.

    Next, it was time to walk over to the Bremond Block. The Bremond Block is a block of historic homes which were occupied by members of the Bremond family and were built mostly in the mid to late 1800s. This section is located between 7th and 8th and Guadalupe and San Antonio St. Hut’s Hamburgers is not far away, so I walked over there for lunch. I had the Hut’s Favorite. This is a burger with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, bacon and mayonnaise. I also ordered a quarter order of the peppered onion rings (2 very large rings). I loved the burger—it was perfectly cooked for my taste (medium well). I wished the onion rings had more flavor—despite having pepper in the batter, I think the batter tasted a little bland. They have many burgers to choose from as well as other items on the menu. Around 11:45 or noon, it was getting quite busy, so it seems to be a popular place.

    After lunch I made my way over to Congress Ave to get the 1L/1M down to about the 2000 block of South Congress to look in the shops. I went to Allen’s Boots, where they had a wide selection of western boots in addition to clothing and hats. There were also several hand craft type stores I went into, but can’t recall the names. I also took the opportunity to have dessert at Hey Cupcake. Hey Cupcake is one of those unique Austin type places--- the location on South Congress is a silver airstream trailer with a large cupcake on top. They are located in a vacant lot with other food vendors with trucks/trailers. I got 3 cupcakes (I only ate one of them at the time, as they are large). I got a Standard (yellow cake with chocolate frosting), Vanilla Dream (yellow cake with vanilla frosting) and a Double Dose (chocolate cake with chocolate frosting). I made the Double Dose a whippersnapper (they inject whipped cream into the center of the cupcake). Since the whippersnapper was perishable, I ate it right away. I loved it! At first I thought the cake seemed like it was going to be dry, but once I bit into it, it was moist. It was very chocolatey and the frosting was rich. The cupcakes from Hey Cupcake are pretty large. If you are taking your cupcakes to go, they have nice boxes with individual holders for the cakes so they don’t slide around.

    I spent the afternoon sitting by the hotel rooftop pool. The pool is a small plunge style pool, but the setting is quite nice with a view off the rooftop. In nice weather they also have a small bar tent set up.

    Around 4:45pm, I walked over to Hertz on 10th St (across from the Sheraton) to pick up a rental car. I then drove to Fonda San Miguel for my 5:30pm dinner reservation. I was seated in the large main room of the restaurant, which was attractively decorated with dark carved woods. My table also had a view of the women making the tortillas, which helped pass the time. The chips and salsa were good—they serve 2 types of salsa—a red tomato based one and a green tomatillo based one. The tomato was a littler spicier.
    I also ordered chile con queso. This was different than other chile con queso I’ve had; it was not a sauce, but a melted cheese which was very thick/chewy. It tasted good, but I think I prefer the sauce variety. It was served with fresh flour and corn tortillas. For the main course I had the Carne Asada a la Tampiquena. This was a steak served with rajas (poblano strips), refried black beans and a cheese enchilada with mole sauce. It also came with a small side of guacamole. I enjoyed the meal—I’m not sure how their mole sauce stacks up against others, as I had only had mole once before, but I thought it was good with a fairly complex flavor. For dessert I had the El Mateo, which is vanilla and cajeta ice creams with slivered almonds, cajeta sauce and frangelico poured over the top.

    On the way back to downtown, I ended up getting lost, as I tried to get back a different way than I came and my directions I printed didn’t seem to make sense. Some how I ended up on a highway going some other direction, but I was able to get off and somehow find the right highway by sheer luck, since the map I had did not seem to cover the area I was in. Since I had not had the best luck viewing the bats in the rainy weather, I wanted to try again now that it was sunny. I had planned to park in the Austin Statesman parking lot, but I failed to take into account the fact that it was now the weekend and the weather was nice, so the lot was already full when I got there. Earlier in the week, hardly any cars were in the lot. So I ended up dumping the car in a $7 paid lot and walked over and stood on top of the bridge. The third time turned out to be the charm as far as getting a good view of the bats! Since the sky was much lighter in color, when the bats finally emerged, you could see them against the sky. There are so many of them and they just keep coming for about 20 min or more. It is a sight to see them flying up the river en masse, darkening the sky like a moving cloud.

    Around 8pm I left the bats and drove to the Broken Spoke. I am not one for going to bars by myself. But I had read about the Broken Spoke and it sounded like nothing we have at home, so I decided to go—I knew I’d be annoyed with myself later if I left Austin and didn’t check it out. The parking lot was getting fairly full by the time I arrived at 8:30pm. They give dance lessons from 8-9pm (which I did not partake in)—I sat down at a table with my drink and watched. Some people picked it up right away, while others needed extra attention. A little after 9pm the band started and the serious dancing began. This is when the people who actually know what they are doing come out; some people were really good dancers. This place was very different than anything I’ve experienced in Massachusetts. It has the feel of a roadside dancehall. Seems like most people come for the dancing; men will ask you to dance and you can tell they are there to dance—not to hook up (I’m sure there are exceptions). It was fun to see the mix of people that were there—some people were in western wear, while others like myself, were in jeans and t-shirts or shorts.

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    Day 4 (Saturday)
    This morning I drove down Congress to the Magnolia Cafe. There you can order pancakes of several varieties in 1 , 2 or 3 cake orders. Knowing that that pancakes are large and I’m not a big breakfast eater, I opted to get one gingerbread pancake. I liked it very much—it really tasted like gingerbread. Magnolia Cafe is a 24 hr eatery. It seems like the type of place that would attract an interesting crowd.

    I then proceeded west and drove around West Lake Hills. There were many nice houses in this area and it had a rural feel; I saw several groups of deer grazing by the side of the road.

    Next I drove to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. The complex is not really large, and I walked 2 of the loop trails as well as viewing the exhibit gardens. I believe I spent about an hour and a half at the center. My next stop was Central Market. They certainly had an impressive variety of prepared foods and a made to order/dining section. The salsa bar looked especially tempting, but I was not on the market for food just yet. After the market, I went next door to Cavender’s to browse the western wear.

    Now it was time to eat; I took the car and drove to Fran’s Burgers where I had a small cheeseburger (comes with lettuce, tomato, pickles, mustard) and chocolate shake. It was okay, but not memorable. For lack of a better comparison , I found it similar to McDonalds. The shake really had no flavor—it was a vanilla base with some barely there chocolate flavoring. It wasn’t bad—it just wasn’t a place I would return to, as there are so many others to try.

    Oh well, on to the next destination. My last stop with the car was Barton Springs Pool. I parked with no problem, paid the $3 entry fee and found a spot on the grass. Barton Springs pool is spring fed. The water was pretty cold, so I did not brave it and go in, but sat on the edge instead. I stayed about an hour before deciding to head back and return the rental car and then sat by the hotel pool for the rest of the afternoon.

    Before getting the bus to Guero’s for dinner, I went down to 6th St to check out the Pecan Street Festival. There were several blocks of vendors set up and stages where bands were performing. After that, I headed down to Guero’s for dinner. They have a small amount of outdoor seating, but it was pretty hot, so I sat inside. I had an Ultimate Margarita, small queso sauce and cheese enchiladas with ranchero sauce (they have about 6 different sauces to choose from for the enchiladas), served with rice and beans. I enjoyed the queso sauce quite a bit—it was smooth and creamy. I liked the enchiladas but wished I had selected a different sauce. The description said it was spicy and I guess it was a little, but I was hoping for more. It was also a little chunky, yet watery at the same time. The sauce itself was quite liquidy but had large chunks of tomato. It was not what I expected, but I enjoyed it all the same. One nice feature about this restaurant is the salsa bar—they have 3 types of salsa that you can help yourself to. The pico de gallo tasted especially fresh. I skipped dessert at the restaurant and instead walked to Amy’s and got a small butterscotch with graham crackers crushed in.

    I decided to go one last time to see the bats and once again the view was pretty good, but not as nice as the night prior.
    I then went back to Guero’s and sat in their Oak Garden to enjoy the live music with a margarita.
    The garden is nice, with benches and tables and a large live oak tree covered in small white lights. You may enjoy a drink in the garden until your table is ready, if you are dining at Guero’s.

    My last event of the night was to take the bus up to the Capitol to view it all lit up at night. All week I had been admiring it from my perch on the Congress Ave bridge when viewing the bats. Up close it looked even better; it is bathed in white light and seems to glow. There were quite a few people up there at about 9:30pm at night.

    Day 5 (Sunday)
    When I originally booked my flights, I was to have a mid day departure which only left me with a couple hours in the morning to do activities around Austin. However, due to an airline schedule change, my departure was pushed back 6 hours, which left me with most of the day to continue my exploration of the city. It was nice to have the additional time to look around. Due to a road race, some of the buses were running on detoured routes. I also had forgotten to check my bus schedule and ended up missing the bus—so I walked from the Omni to the Zilker Botanical Garden. Part of the section of Barton Springs Rd (across from the entrance to Zilker Park/Barton Springs Pool) has no sidewalk though—and they were setting up for the ACL Music Fest so there was fencing all along the road which made the walk a little narrow in that area. When I arrived at the garden though, I thought the walk was worth it. The garden is made up of several different themed gardens including Oriental, butterfly, rose, pre-historic. The gardens were very well done and well tended. If you like visiting gardens, I suggest giving Zilker a try.

    After leaving the garden, I walked back to Robert E. Lee Rd and picked up the hike and bike trail along the water. I walked out to and beyond Lou Neff Point where you get a nice view of the Austin skyline across Lady Bird Lake. I then walked back the way I came and continued along the trail. There were a lot of people out and about and the path was very busy with walkers, runners, bikers and people with dogs. I walked to Lamar, got off the trail and walked to the Shady Grove for lunch. The weather by now was sunny and hot, but I opted to sit outside. They have fans and some of the tables are shaded. I ordered chile con queso, a frozen margarita and a cheeseburger. Everything was good--- the queso also came with a side of salsa. The burger was cooked perfectly for my taste and had a nice flavor.

    After this hearty lunch, I got back on the hike and bike trail and walked to 1st St where I got off and bought a frozen custard at Sandy’s. I wouldn’t call what was served frozen custard—at least it was not like any I’ve had before. It was not creamy/dense enough and was too icy. I got the vanilla/chocolate mix and really it seemed like regular soft serve, not frozen custard. It also lacked flavor—it was hard to differentiate the chocolate from the vanilla.

    Now I was pretty tired from all the walking I’d done so far during the day, so I got back on the #30 bus and took it a couple stops to Robert E. Lee Rd, where I disembarked and walked a short distance to the Umlauf Sculpture Garden. This was not one of the better sculpture gardens I’ve been to---the sculptures were simply not my taste. They all appeared to be more or less the same style and on whole they just were not my taste; the subjects/people looked gaunt. I could have skipped this stop and not missed anything.

    I walked back to the bus stop and got the #30 back downtown where I got off at 2nd St and then got back on the hike and bike trail near the Radisson hotel. I walked along the path up to beyond the Austin Rowing Club and then turned back and walked the opposite direction to near Lavaca Street where I sat on a bench for a while and enjoyed the water view. I exited the path up the ramp and walked around the streets in the area. I ended up stopping at Delish, a bakery that specializes in cupcakes. They offer more exotic flavors of cupcake and had several flavors of the day including chocolate chip cookie dough and cookies and cream. I got a cookies and cream cupcake- chocolate cake with chocolate cookies and cream frosting, garnished with half an oreo on top. It was very tasty, as the cake was extremely moist and flavorful. The cakes here are smaller than those served at Hey Cupcake, but they are more artfully decorated here.

    Now it was about 4pm and time for me to head back to the hotel to collect my luggage which I had stored for the day. I got a cab to the airport and the ride took about 20 min and was $30 with tip. There was virtually no line for security at the airport and I had plenty of time to wait and get “dinner” which consisted of Amy’s ice cream---Mexican Vanilla with oreo crushed in. Unfortunately my flight was delayed about 30 min, but the airport has ample seating and was not crowded.

    I enjoyed my trip to Austin. There is a lot to see and it is a different atmosphere than Massachusetts. It is a very outdoorsy city—the hike and bike trail was packed on Sunday morning and it seems to be a very dog friendly city as well. Many things seem centered around being outside, including dining options with lots of outdoor seating and many places where food is served out of roadside trucks and trailers. It really is true that live music can be found virtually anywhere—festivals, bars, dancehalls and restaurants. I guess that’s why they refer to Austin as the Live Music Capital of the World. I found it easy to get around the main city using the bus, but if you want to go further afield it is helpful to have a car. I managed to pack a lot of activity into my trip, but one of the things I didn’t have time for but I’d like to do is rent a kayak on the lake and spend a morning on the water.

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    What a great detailed report. Glad you liked it. Yes, it's a very outdoor-centered town, and with good reason. So many options. Sounds like you hit some of our favorite spots. Zilker is always fun and great place to spend a weekend afternoon.

    Sorry you ran into rain, but believe me central Texas desperately needed it. Record drought and we hope more comes in the fall.

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    Glad you enjoyed Austin. You came during a strange week, from a day when the temperature didn't get above 60 and raining to mid 90's and sunny by the weekend. Oh well, that's Austin in the fall!

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    miramar, thanks for posting your trip report. I'm skimming it now, and the details on sites and places to eat are helpful...I'm going to print it out. My husband and I are headed for Austin soon...our first trip...but I can't figure out where to stay. How did you like the location of the Omni? Did you find it convenient to the sites? Now that you've been to Austin, which area would you stay in next time if you wanted a quiet night's rest, and still have a convenient location? (We will have a car.) Thanks for your opinion!

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    Geez, I've lived her since 1981 and I learned a few things about Austin from your report. It sounds like you found all of the best food in town. You and I like all of the same sweets too. :-)

    I hope you will come again someday.

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    Thanks, I really enjoyed my trip and hope to return someday.

    Melissa5- I really liked the location of the Omni. I thought it was very central to everything. You can easily walk to the Capitol, 6th St, bat viewing and other locations. If you'll have a car you'll easily be able get to everything, the challenge will be to find parking around the downtown area close to what you want to see. I think I'd definitely stay downtown again if I go again---it just seemed slightly more convenient to seeing all the sights. Not that the SoCo area is inconvenient, it's just a little farther from the major visitor sights.

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    WOW! You really did your research before this trip and it shows. Austin is my birthplace and even though I no longer live there, I still consider it my hometown. You did us proud. Y'all come back now!

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