By the time we drove up to Austin, we’d been in Texas nearly a week and were looking forward to some family time over the Easter weekend. After a whirlwind of San Antonio – sightseeing at The Alamo, cycling along Mission Reach to the Spanish Missions and skeet shooting at Picosa Ranch we were ready to chill out a little. After staying in even the loveliest of hotels, I was feeling the need to reconnect with reality, have a bit of space to spread out, not to mention catching up with the laundry. As luck (and good planning) had it, we’d booked our Austin vacation rental through HomeAway where, for the same price as a hotel, we got twice the space, 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a spacious kitchen and dining area, garden out the back with a deck and barbecue, wifi and a neat laundry room under the porch.
Following the detailed instructions from the owner, Jay, we found our house in the residential neighbourhood of Barton Springs, a 10 minute drive from the downtown area, in a quiet, leafy street with detached, single storey houses. Ours was built of flat-fronted painted brick and looked as if it had been built in the 1960s or 1970s with a drive and a carport and stretch of lawn at the front. We entered the key code we’d been given by e-mail and hey-presto, we were into our very own home-from-home in Austin.
The house had been very nicely renovated in a style that seemed in tune with the laid back Austin vibe – colourful, trendy and a little bit retro with a mixture of modern and vintage furniture. I loved the décor so much that I’d have happily moved in for the duration.
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Our master bedroom had a big comfortable bed piled with lime and turquoise cushions, a large sliding door wardrobe and an en suite bathroom with a bath and shower above with colourful shower curtain. The boys were quickly at home in their twin bedroom designed for kids of all ages with lemon walls, yellow and red bed covers with a pop-art picture on the wall, while the teen princess immediately bagged the second double room with a French window out to a deck and a little mosaic table perfect for sitting in the morning with a coffee. There was a second bathroom with a shower which the children used, so no fighting over the bathroom in the mornings.
I often think that the fun part of owning a second home would be in the decoration, designing colour schemes and hunting for the perfect piece of furniture, curtain fabric or some ornament that would fit perfectly on this shelf or that wall. It certainly looked like someone had had a lot of fun decorating this house, from the colourful bedroom schemes, to the retro patterned curtains and white leatherette 50s couch in the sitting area, to the chopping board in the shape of the state of Texas that I’d have loved to bring home. Of course the sporting members of the family had the flat screen TV on the wall permanently tuned to the sports channels while I was able to make use of the wifi to catch up on the emails and blogging.
As in the rest of Texas, having a car to get around was pretty essential in Austin, although you probably could get away with a bike if you were staying a little closer to the river and downtown area. The very Austin, farmer’s-market-style supermarket called Sprouts, down the road on South Lamar Boulevard was a 5 minute drive away and all along South Lamar there were great places to eat. The famous Broken Spoke Honky Tonk Dance hall was literally at the end of our road and walkable if you didn’t mind braving the busy 2 lane highway.
An hour or so after we arrived, we had a visit from Jay, the owner, who we had corresponded with by e-mail. He came bearing a bag of goodies from Sprouts; some beer and snacks to get us started. We quizzed him for local recommendations which he gladly gave us – there was the Broken Spoke dance hall, Threadgills for food with live music or Hopdoddy’s for gourmet burgers, Amy’s ice cream on South Lamar and Kerbey Lane, a diner style restaurant that was so popular that the queues often stretched out the door.
Our first day started with a swim at the Barton Springs pool, a 5 minute drive down the road, where Robert Redford had apparently learned to swim. This stretch of the river, fed by natural springs, was dammed to make a lake many years ago and makes an open air, freshwater swimming pool that is open all year round. There are plenty of places to sit and sunbathe on the grassy banks around the pool and despite its well kept appearance you know it’s natural because of the river weeds in places that tickle your toes and the signs to watch out for the rare salamander that lives in certain parts of the lake.
Next we headed for South Congress which we’d heard was great for trendy shopping so that the girls among us could get a bit of retail therapy. We wandered around the vintage shops, admired the Mexican jewellery and brightly coloured ceramics and tried on a few pairs of $500 cowboy boots. Next stop was lunch in the food trailer park where you could choose from different styles of food while serenaded by a guitar strumming musician who played country music by the cup cake trailer.
On Easter Sunday we attended the packed mass at St Mary’s Cathedral dressed in our Sunday best and then headed for Zilker park where most of Austin seemed to be out with family and friends having barbecues and picnics. We looked around the Zilker Botanical Garden where the dinosaur figures loomed over the ferns and pools in the prehistoric garden and found the rose garden in full bloom while children hopped over the stepping stones in the Japanese garden. There were wooden settler houses dotted around the Pioneer village where you could peer through the window of the schoolhouse or workshop and get a sense of what life was like for the first Swedish settlers in Texas.
Live music is everywhere in Austin, known as the “Live music capital of the world” and we’d spotted that one of our favourite performers, Devon Sproule was playing, so we went to hear her play at Flipnotics, in the treehouse-like terrace and bar upstairs built into the side of the hill on Barton Springs Road. We found some more live music when we went out to eat at Threadgills, but only caught the end of the set as we didn’t get there until 9pm when it was practically closing. We learned that unlike the European lifestyle where the party starts late, the Americans like to eat early so that most restaurants are winding down by 9pm and throwing you out by 10pm.
We’d heard about the bats who nest under South Congress Bridge and fly out in great black clouds at dusk, so we joined a few hundred others at dusk, sitting on the grassy bank on the south side of the bridge, as well as the kayaks and boats on the river. It was all a bit of an anticlimax though, as the bats must have flitted out of their nests bit by bit, although we could see some fluttering by the lights of the red spotlight that the boats pointed at the underside of the bridge. There was no mass bat exodus and it was too dark to see it anyway. In complete contrast the boys were keen to taste the Texas gun culture and so we sought out a gun range on the edge of town where my 19 year old son was thrilled to be able to shoot an AK47, making the highlight of his trip.
We paid a visit to the Texas Capitol Building in the centre of the downtown area, first looking around the Visitors centre that is part educational centre and part hands on museum with video presentations and interactive media. At the State Capitol itself we went through the airport style security screening and then took the free guided tour to learn all about the history of government in the state of Texas. Unfortunately the children decided that they needed their breakfast more than the tour and disappeared to the café in another part of the building while I was hearing all about legislative practices in the Senate Chamber and gazing up at the enormous dome.
The best things about staying in on our HomeAway Vacation Rental as that we felt so relaxed during our time in Austin and fitted into the laid back Austin vibe, living in the neighbourhood like a local. The Americans don’t have a public holiday as we do in the UK over the Easter weekend, so for us it was like having a holiday within a holiday. After our shopping and sightseeing we could pick up groceries at Sprouts and chill out with a local beer on the deck, while the steaks were sizzling on the barbecue and the dog was barking next door.
Just like at home the kids could sleep in till late and leave their clothes strewn all over the floor and we grown-ups could sit on the deck with a cup of coffee, with a backdrop of tinkling wind-chimes – just good ‘ol quality family time. Near the house we explored the somewhat overgrown green spaces along the river that were accessed through residential roads and found secret swimming places that only a local would know.
I definitely recommend renting a house in Austin rather than staying in a hotel – the city has a chilled out feel where the cool things are going on in the local neighbourhoods and you can be part of it.
Our thanks to HomeAway.com who hosted our stay in Austin at the 3 bedroom Westrock House and to owner Jay who made us welcome and gave us lots of useful tips. HomeAway features vacation home rentals all around the world, enabling families and groups to have more privacy and space to relax and enjoy their holiday.
More cool things in Austin, Texas
Visitor Information for Austin, Texas
- We booked our hire car that took us from Houston to San Antonio to Austin and back to Houston through Argus car Hire
- For more information about food trailers around the city visit the Food Trailers Austin website
- More information about the Bats under South Congress Bridge
- Zilker Botanical Gardens website
- Texas State Capitol Building and Capitol Visitor’s Centre
- We enjoyed live music from Devon Sproule at Flipnotics on Barton Springs Rd, Threadgills on West Riverside Drive and just missed out on The Broken Spoke on South Lamar Boulevard as it was closed on Mondays
- We went shooting at Red’s Gun Range in Austin
- More visitor information at the Austin Texas, tourism website
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