The Texan capital keeps things weird by welcoming high tech, treasuring its small, quirky restaurants and bars, and encouraging a thriving live music scene.
“Weird” is one of those words which doesn’t translate cleanly from American into British English. In the US, it’s less about the odd, peculiar or undesirable; more about the quirky, creative and avant-garde. And Austin – aka “Weird City” – oozes the latter in spades.
The Texan capital has long been a bastion for the inventive and eccentric; you just need to glance at the profusion of street art, bumper stickers and faded tie-dye t-shirts bearing its ubiquitous slogan – “Keep Austin Weird” – to see that. But over the last decade, it’s become something considerably more: a booming tech mecca with one of the fastest growing populations in the country. Weird City has also become Wired City.
Last year, Elon Musk’s Tesla became the latest big name to relocate to Austin, following in the recent footsteps of Apple and Amazon, and joining pre-existing tech titans including Dell, Samsung, IBM and Facebook. The mass exodus to Central Texas – largely from California – has been driven by a number of business-friendly factors, including the affordability of Texan property, the availability of land and the lack of state income tax.
According to the Austin Chamber of Commerce, jobs in high tech have grown by a mind-boggling 62 per cent in the metropolitan area over the last decade, representing more than 175,000 new roles. This dramatic increase, in turn, has given rise to yet another nickname for the city – Silicon Hills: a nod to both the departure from Silicon Valley and the arrival in picturesque Texas Hill Country.
The best of Texan nightlife
The dramatic rise in tech has meant a major influx of millennial workers, with an estimated 180 new residents moving to the city every day, and the population spiralling inexorably towards the million mark. Put simply, Austin is absolutely booming right now: a factor Virgin Atlantic recognised this month when it commenced direct flights from London, joining British Airways in connecting the Texan capital to its British counterpart.
This rapidly expanding, youthful population has had knock-on effects elsewhere too, of course. Austin’s two major music festivals – South by Southwest in March and Austin City Limits in October – have expanded to colossal proportions, while the sports scene was also recently given two major boosts, with the 2021 launch of the Matthew McConaughey-backed Austin FC – the city’s first professional sports franchise – and the renewal of the Formula One franchise for another five years, ensuring Austin’s Circuit of the Americas (COTA) will host the US Grand Prix until at least 2026.
The bar and restaurant scene too, is in rude health. Austin frequently tops lists of the best places to live in the US, and a large part of that (aside from the business-friendly environment and reliable Texan sunshine) is the richness of options when it comes to nightlife. This is the “Live Music Capital of the World” (Austin trademarked the name in 1991), with hundreds of venues hosting regular gigs and there are seemingly limitless entertainment options, whether music is your vibe or not.
Rainey Street remains one of the biggest draws – an old street of craftsman-style bungalow homes with quaint wooden porches in the south-east corner of downtown, which has now transmogrified into a string of hipster-friendly bars and restaurants (the best ones tend to be named after former inhabitants, real or imagined; Lucille, Clive and ‘Stagger Lee’ are among the top picks).
Similarly, South Congress (or ‘SoCo’) has blossomed into a major scene, centred on one of the city’s coolest shopping strips (you can buy everything here from homewares to bespoke Stetsons, nipple tassles to haute couture) and fringed with a glut of boutique hotels, lively cafés and quirky cocktail bars. (The first Thursday of each month is particularly big here, when the entire street turns into an enormous block party, with late openings, special offers and live music seemingly spilling out of every door.)
But it’s in East Austin where the most movement and excitement is happening right now, as gentrification revolutionises a once run-down cluster of pocket neighbourhoods, giving birth to some of the city’s hottest new venues.
Feast in the East
The restaurant scene is particularly thriving in East Austin, with a flood of intriguing new spots opening up post-pandemic, including Canje, a Caribbean restaurant and cocktail bar on East 6th Street, fusing Jamaican, Puerto Rican and Guyanese influences in lip-smackingly rambunctious style. Across the street you’ll discover the ever-popular Lazarus Brewing Co with its deliciously feisty beers, while a few blocks north you’ll find Birdie’s, a beloved neighbourhood restaurant which opened in the summer of 2021, serving “bright, graceful food”, such as golden chickpea panisse and steak tartare with shiitakes and pecans. Meanwhile, a short Uber ride north you’ll find another must-try eastside newcomer, Vic and Al’s: a homey eatery serving mouth-watering Cajun cuisine inspired by the spicy dishes of neighbouring Southern Louisiana.
Of course, barbecue is king in Texas, and East Austin has some of the best spots for smoked meats too, including Franklin Barbecue, which is frequently hailed as the best in the country (don’t leave town without trying the oak-smoked brisket; tender enough to cut with a spoon). Other notable outposts in meat nirvana include La Barbecue – where the melt-in-the-mouth pulled pork with chipotle ’slaw has locals raving – and Micklethwait Craft Meats, renowned for its delectable handmade sausages, which range from duck with cherries to lamb with tangerine zest.
It’s not all about bricks and mortar restaurants here either. Austin gave birth to America’s food truck craze, and the scene is still thriving, with pretty much every imaginable cuisine available from four-wheeled vendors, and much of it disproportionately superb. Time-honoured favourites include the Pueblo Viejo Taco Truck on the aptly monikered Pickle Road, and the Smoking Carrot Food Truck on East Sixth, serving healthy bowls with a Texas twist. Arguably, the newcomer that has locals excited is Distant Relatives – an incredibly inventive BBQ truck which you’ll find parked outside Meanwhile Brewing Co on Promontory Point Drive.
As you might expect from a city with excellent weather, a young population and strong nightlife credentials, the cocktail scene is absolutely thriving here too, particularly on rooftops and outdoor patios. New additions include Tiki Tatsu-ya – a tropical paradise framed with lush greenery and waterfalls in the Zilker neighbourhood – and Wanderlust Wine Company in East Austin, where there are no less than 80 wines on tap, many of which are self-pour (don’t miss the “Tappy Hour” from 3-6pm daily).
Meanwhile, Celis Brewery (the grandfather of Austin craft breweries) has opened a humongous new beer garden with a stage for live music on Metric Boulevard, that’s already one of the hottest tickets in town. And finally, for something truly Austin weird, there’s Smash ATX – an outlandish table tennis bar combining all the best elements of ping pong, fried chicken and local beer.
Right now, it seems everyone wants a slice of Weird City with its great weather and superb quality of life, from Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg to Virgin Atlantic and Formula One. Things are very much on the up here, in the formerly sleepy Texan Hill Country town which has too long been overshadowed and outpunched by neighbouring heavyweights Dallas and Houston but is now going toe to cowboy-booted-toe with the big boys.
The secret to Austin’s success has been both the weird and the wired: attracting artists and musicians along with tech workers and start-ups like iron filings to a magnet. Right now, everyone wants to dance to the tune that the Live Music Capital of the World is playing, forsaking Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York in their droves for a city that has become a gleaming jewel at the heart of the Sun Belt – and the worst-kept secret in America.
NEW AND SOON-TO-OPEN AUSTIN HOTELS
A Wyndham Hotel, Origin, is scheduled to open soon, promising “Texan hospitality with a side of Lone Star spunk”. The five-storey boutique property, situated in the up-and-coming Mueller neighbourhood, will have 120 rooms and a restaurant with courtyard dining. originhotel.com
Colton House Hotel
Opened in January 2021, this quirky homestay boutique hotel borrows the best bits from Home Away and Airbnb, with a broad selection of different room sizes (from studio to three bedroom), and excellent deals on extended stays. It also boasts a beautiful pool, a multipurpose rooftop and a 465 sqm lawn for events. coltonhousehotel.com
Austin’s incarnation of The Thompson opened to much fanfare in January, featuring an amazing rooftop pool deck fringed with lush greenery and no less than three delectable restaurant options, led by James Beard Award-winning chef Mashama Bailey. Not to mention its state-of-the-art 622 sqm wellness centre and its killer location – right at the heart of downtown. thompsonhotels.com
Comodore Perry Estate
An extraordinary property that would not look out of place in southern France or Spain, Commodore Perry is a charming, genteel oasis, situated on four rolling hectares in Austin’s Hancock neighbourhood. Centred on a grand manor house, the hotel – which is part of the Auberge Resorts Collection – opened during the pandemic but has managed to go from strength to strength since, winning a number of awards and accolades in the last 12 months. aubergeresorts.com/commodoreperry
Virgin Atlantic flights to Austin start on May 25 and will operate using a Boeing 787-9 aircraft with 31 Upper Class, 35 Premium and 192 Economy Delight, Classic and Light seats.
- VS231 departs Heathrow at 1135 on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, arriving into Austin at 1605
- VS232 departs Austin at 1805 on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, arriving into Heathrow at 0900 the following day
Words: Jonathan Thompson