A magnet for music lovers and arty types, Austin's Hotel San José is a masterclass in stylish understatement with chilled-out charm on South Congress Avenue. This is a mellow hangout with retro bungalows and a leafy courtyard. You can borrow a bicycle, tinker on a typewriter or purloin a Polaroid – the extras here are a study in bohemia.
Noon, but flexible, subject to availability. Check-in, from 3pm.
Double rooms from £146.12 ($184), including tax at 17 per cent.
Rates exclude breakfast (from US$15).
Ask front desk to organise a massage, manicure or pedicure for you.
At the hotel
DVD and CD library, iPods stocked with tunes, free WiFi throughout, bikes for rental, typewriter and Polaroid camera for guests’ use. In rooms: flatscreen TV, CD/DVD player, iPod dock, free bottled water and a minibar of gourmet treats including pistachios and cola gummies.
Our favourite rooms
The spacious Courtyard Suites have lofty ceilings, large arched windows overlooking the pool, cow-hide rugs, vintage BB King and Bobby Womack posters, and vivid red and orange accents. Room 50 has a tempting day-bed, positioned by the window and dressed with vintage cushions. For a quiet, secluded stay, book up one of the Grand Suites, located at the back of the hotel near the garden. If you’re going to book a Grand Standard, go for Room 44, which has its own patio by the courtyard.
The slim, rectangular pool in the courtyard has white banana seats dotted around for stylish poolside lounging.
Sheet music and a guitar for impressing guests during impromptu jams; a dog-eared Penguin Classic to enjoy in the courtyard.
Smokers can light up on the outside patio.
Dogs are welcome in some rooms for $20 a night, at a maximum of two dogs a room. Grain-free treats are provided. Just let the hotel know when booking. See more pet-friendly hotels in Austin.
Welcome – travel cots are provided for babies, extra beds are US$10 a night and babysitting is available (book 24hrs in advance).
A hotel to make your eco halo glow – food is organic and locally sourced, biodegradable cleaning products are used, the hotel subscribes to Austin’s renewable energy programme and makes monthly donations to community funds.
Pyjamas, shorts and surf Ts – nothing is too casual.
You have the perfect excuse for a lie-in here, since there’s no restaurant – breakfast is delivered to rooms in Bento boxes. There are six different options, including a choice of cold and cooked goodies. The champagne breakfast features strawberries and cream, French toast and a bottle of fizz.
The Wine and Beer Lounge is a neat, cube-shaped space by reception. You can sit inside, but tables by the garden are a more bright and breezy affair. The courtyard’s simple granite floor is studded with chunky wooden chairs, benches and communal tables, designed for dawn-till-dusk discussions. At night, the fire pit is lit, the pergolas twinkle with lamps and musicians play alfresco – on Wednesdays, house DJ Waxploitation draws in the crowds. Rock ’n’ Reel events are equally popular, teaming live music with a movie under the stars.
The bar is open from 5pm to midnight every day, and you can have breakfast delivered from 7am to 11am.
Your Bento-box breakfast and multi-snack minibar should compensate for the fact that you can’t order in.
Fly with Continental Airlines (www.continental.com) and change at New York or Houston for a connecting flight to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (ABIA). Various shuttle services run from the airport, along with the Capital Metro bus, which travels between the airport, downtown, Austin Central and the University of Texas. A taxi from the airport to the city centre costs around $25.
Amtrak operates regular rail services to and from Austin station, which is at 250 North Lamar Boulevard (www.amtrak.com).
The main roads that lead into Austin are Loop 1 (or MoPac, as Austinites call it), which traverses the city north to south, US Highway 183, which snakes from east to west, or US Highway 290, which offers a quick east-west route from the airport to west and south-west Austin.
Worth getting out of bed for
Borrow one of the iPods, pre-loaded with tunes, and read a good book in the courtyard beer garden, take some holiday snaps with the hotel’s Polaroid camera (you’ll have to pay for the film), then tap out a travel journal on the Remington Premier typewriter. Explore downtown’s shops and restaurants, then have a night in (in the courtyard, that is) – there’s music- and movie-themed entertainment on offer most nights. Sip a cocktail and snack on pizza, popcorn and ice cream while you watch the latest independent films at Violet Crown Cinema. Just down the road, Tesoros sells folk handicrafts; for live music, try juke-joint C Boy's Heart & Soul and the Continental Club for rock, country, jazz and blues acts. In March, music festival South by South West attracts big names, yet manages to stay low key thanks to its laid-back Austinite hosts. Over four days, more than 1,800 music acts descend on the city and there are plenty of unofficial gigs around the official nightly line-up. Or, in October, enjoy tunes in the park at the Austin City Limits Music Festival. Then swap music for movies at the Austin Film Festival.
Stave off hunger pangs with a trip to Home Slice Pizza at 1415 South Congress Avenue, and be sure to try the Margherita slice, which comes piled with fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, garlic and basil. For succulent seafood, do as the local foodies do and head to Perla’s, an impressive seafood stand-out in Austin’s dining scene, at 1400 South Congress Avenue. Botticellis is a little more formal (no eating with your hands here) and serves elegant Italian dishes.
Jo’s shares the hotel’s car park, and teams friendly service with freshly-made sandwiches, soups and cakes. Big-up your breakfast at Magnolia Café, where gingerbread pancakes, queso omelettes and huevos rancheros head up a tempting day-starting menu. Or pledge your allegiance to South Congress Café for its carrot-cake French toast.
For some of Austin’s finest tart margaritas and top tacos, head to Guero’s, a Tex Mex restaurant in a converted warehouse at 1412 South Congress Avenue. Performers such as Elvis Costello, Eric Clapton and Dwight Yoakum have hit the stage at Antone's Nightclub at 213 West Fifth Street. Jazz fans should check out Maceo Parker packed house concerts when he comes to town each year.
What was I thinking? From what I’ve heard this open-minded Texan town is afroth with great food, friendly people. Yet here we are starting our bohemian city break sitting in a car on the side of a multi-lane carriageway. This is where we’re spending our precious vacation?
Fresh from a flight from JFK and a car-rental upgrade to a Mustang, things had been looking good. Then our GPS steered us to a busy main road leading to a crop of high-rises that loom in the distance like a modern-day Oz. Hip creative hub? Parked past a cluster of shiny food trailers outside a stretch of kitsch stores, our SatNav is convinced this is where our edgy motel is. Mr Smith bursting into a bar of Burt Bacharach is not making me feel better. ‘Yes, I know the way to San José. It’s clearly around here. Anyway, he means the one in California,’ I snap.
Then we spot Jo’s across the street. The coffee shop is cult among those who take their beans seriously; it’s a beacon too to this cappu-holic. We park up behind the open-air shack of hipsters on laptops and opter-outers kicking back with double-shots, and stumble out into the balmy southern sunshine. It feels like summer, which is especially welcome in October. Then we spot what’s painted in red on the grey concrete stairs up from the car park: Welcome to Hotel San José.
Quirky touches abound, and we’re only at reception. In just a few feet we’ve browsed Toms Shoes sneakers and arty books for sale, and let retro music posters whet our appetite for after-dark thrills. Checked in by a super-friendly tattooed chap, we’re chaperoned to our little bungalow out back by a pretty, pierced, peroxided gal. A world away from the Stetson- and spur-wearers of Texas’ other big towns, Austin’s stereotypes are more reminiscent of Williamsburgers or Melburnians.
Hotel San José’s grounds aren’t exactly sprawling but succulents and cacti provide bursts of greenery around the cool gunmetal-grey compound. And it’s astonishingly peaceful, though there’s only a hedge and a sidewalk between us and South Congress Avenue.
Our understated air-conditioned putty-and-pea-green bungalow is at first glance basic, but this Austin boutique hotel compensates with considerate high-on-cred details. Daily poems are pinned nonchalantly to bathroom mirrors, the minibar stocked with gourmet nibbles, and if we need them, cameras, typewriters, iPods and bikes are available to borrow. There are even reasonably priced Havaianas and Toms in place of slippers – handy given that we have a sociable new city to explore and we’re a stroll from live music, hill walks and dirt-cheap pulled pork.
SoCo – as is its snappy portmanteau – is as happening as a ’hood can be. Strolling out onto what I’d dismissed as a busy road, sun-drenched South Congress is lined with buzzing bars, restaurants and boutiques. Buildings that don’t appear much from their strip-mall exterior stretch way back and are bursting with personality. After enjoying the best darn pizza we’ve ever had at Home Slice across the street, we browse taxidermy relics and Fifties’ ephemera at Uncommon Objects, then buy cowboy boots at Allens Boots.
‘Keep Austin weird’ was the turn-of-the-millennium bumper-sticker campaign that coined the slogan for a community that prizes all things locally owned and independent. A sentiment that chimes with this pair of Smiths. Plotted up at a table in San José Lounge with a couple of Lone Star beers, a copy of the Chronicle for gig listings, and a printout of our destination guide, we plan our Austin evening. It’s going to be an eating, drinking and toe-tapping marathon, and if all goes to plan we’ll be enjoying a nightcap at nigh-on-neighbouring Austin music institution, Continental Club.
With the sun dropping, we remember a tip-off about getting to the main bridge downtown at dusk. The world’s largest urban bat colony resides here under Congress Avenue, and at sunset they fly out in their droves. We arrive at the banks of the Lady Bird Lake in time to witness a blur of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats whooshing out into the night.
As impressive as those flying fur-balls are, by now we’re desperate for dinner. Foodie friends have insisted we visit places both humble and haute cuisine, so we’ve booked in for a mammoth trail of courses all over town. Dieters, look away now. Our 48-hour foodfest starts at Lamberts Downtown Barbecue with sticky sriracha-slathered baby boar back ribs with blue cheese dip, washed down with a Shiner Bock. Then we mosey across the block to devour upscale street food – zingy ceviche and calabaza and elderflower martinis at vibrant La Condesa. A banquet of desserts ensues at Second Bar & Kitchen; here in the informal offshoot of David’s Bull’s Congress, chef Ethan Holmes is doing a delicious job of keeping Austin weird with creations such as cheese-and-bacon ice-cream.
Jon Dee Graham, once hailed Austin Musician of the Year at South by Southwest (SXSW), is playing at the Continental Club luring us back down that arterial road. Perched on stools, we watch cowgirls sway to his guitar-strumming and guttural crooning and at last we’re living and breathing a scene familiar to us from the movie Crazy Heart.
Bento boxes of breakfast by the pool the next morning take the edge off the kind of hangover Jeff Bridges won an Oscar for portraying. A dip in the ice-cold natural green waters at Barton Springs only 10 minutes west takes care of the rest, followed by a pig-out session of Love Balls and Mati Greek Food at a newer eastside food-cart enclave. As we roll back into our little mini San José house for a nanosleep (in preparation for a fancy feast from chef Josh Watkins at Carillon Austin), I look at our hip Austin hotel and wish we were staying longer. What was I thinking? We needed a week here…