The Live Music Capital of the World is buzzing with beats, bats and bites to eat, discovers Madeleine Barber
I’m sitting in a dark, wooden-walled, fan-filled front room tucking into my first ever plate of sopecitos yucatecos. The dish is a corn cake topped with cochinita pibil – a traditional slow-roasted pork recipe from the Yucatan Peninsula – hollandaise eggs, plantains and bacon. I could be forgiven for thinking I’m eating brunch in the heart of Mexico, but in fact I’m in the neighbourhood of East Austin, Texas.
Licha’s Cantina, this bungalow-turned-restaurant, is named after owner Daniel’s mother, who raised him in Mexico City. I can tell it’s a friendly place when my city guide, Donnalou Stevens, greets Licha’s family with hugs, smiles and a distinctly southern “how’re y’all?”.
We arrive at the restaurant via a Pedego Electric Bikes tour, which I’m grateful for in the 43°C July heat. The built-in throttle means we can navigate the city (almost) without breaking a sweat, taking in Barton Springs natural swimming pool, the green grass of Zilker Park, statues and dogs at Auditorium Shores and zipping on and off the 10-mile Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail that surrounds the city’s north-south divider, Lady Bird Lake.
This “lake” is misleadingly named. In fact, it is a section of the lesser-known Colorado river that flows from the north-west corner of Texas down to the Gulf of Mexico.
At the Bullock State History Museum, I learn that the city’s Mexican ties are far from surprising, given the state’s history. Until 1836, Texas was under Mexican rule – they called it Tejas – but the Battle of San Jacinto the same year saw Santa Anna, the president of Mexico, defeated by Sam Houston and his Texan army in just 18 minutes.
As a result, Austin brandishes a deliciously diverse Tex-Mex identity that flows through the city’s cuisine and culture. And with Norwegian’s newly launched Gatwick-Austin route operating three times a week on a fleet of new Boeing 787 Dreamliners, it’s now easier to get a taste of the southern US city than ever.
The walls are lined with original murals and its ripped, red-padded benches and darkwood bar stools prove that this is one of the most authentic clubs in the city
My hotel, the Hilton Downtown, is host to one of these Tex-Mex tastes: the Austin Taco Project. The eatery takes inspiration from Texas, Thailand, Spain and Japan to create a modern mix of taco dishes. The “barbacoa” taco sets me up well for my Austin Detours Live Music Crawl the same evening, which is designed to highlight why the city has been dubbed the Live Music Capital of the World.
My guide Sierra, a folk musician herself, starts us off at the Saxon Pub, where Johnny Nicholas – once a member of country music band Asleep at the Wheel – is playing Americana tunes to dancing Austinites.
The Austin Beer Garden Brewing company (ABGB) has a more contemporary vibe, with canteen-style tables and a low-profile but talented young singer-songwriter named Ben Ballinger strumming folky melodies on stage. I’m told that beer buffs should try the Day Trip pale ale and Big Mama hoppy red here. But the highlight of the tour comes when we hurry under a neon sign flashing “The Continental Club” on South Congress Avenue, or SoCo, as the locals call it.
The club’s walls are lined with original murals from 1955 and its ripped, red-padded benches and darkwood bar stools prove that this club is one of the most authentic in the city. It’s a musical mecca for traditional country, blues and rock, and on the evening of my visit, an energetic band named Tomar and the FCs is belting out one catchy soul track after another.
The atmosphere is electric, and I can only pull myself away from the stage with the thought of satiating my sweet tooth at Voodoo Doughnut – a 24-hour late-night-eats establishment on East 6th Street. Its doughnuts are topped with a range of quirky ingredients such as Fruit Loops, bacon, bananas, hibiscus frosting and pretzels.
The bakery is surrounded by whisky lounges, dive bars and backyard hangouts, so with the musical notes of southern voices, guitars and drums filling the street at any time of the afternoon and night, there’s no doubt that this is the place for night owls seeking a party scene.
For alternative evening entertainment, visitors can book a show at ACL Live, the concert venue that also hosts tapings of music artists for Austin City Limits, the longest-running live music TV show in the world, having stolen the accolade from Top of the Pops last year. During my visit, the staff are setting up for Sam Smith’s recording, so Zac, the front-of-house manager, gives me a sneak peek of the set, audio room and goings-on backstage.
To mingle with night-time creatures of another species, a visit to Congress Avenue Bridge at dusk is a must during summer. Visitors are treated to a spectacular show of the bridge’s 1.5 million resident Mexican free-tailed bats – the largest urban colony in North America – emerging from their roost to feed on thousands of insects every evening.
The sounds of their echolocation (squeaking) and the vibrations in the air from their wings can be heard and felt even from the Capital Cruises boat I’m onboard in the water below.
A short walk from the bridge is SoCo, where I return during the day with high hopes after my visit to The Continental Club the previous evening. Again, the main street is alive with the sound of instruments, and I see how deeply music is rooted in the city’s soul. This makes for a fun shopping experience while I browse SoCo’s vintage clothes stores and contemporary art galleries.
Popping into Allens Boots, I’m overwhelmed by the range of cowboy boots on offer. Each aisle is stacked with five shelves either side, filled with all colours, styles and sizes, and the comforting aroma of leather fills the air. This store is such an Austin institution that its wall of fame hosts snaps of movie stars, rock stars and famous athletes that have visited the family-run store since it opened in 1977.
Another SoCo hotspot is Guero’s Taco Bar, which opened its doors in 1986 and is known for its traditional Mexican menu featuring caldo de pollo (Mexican chicken soup) and tacos el pastor (shawarma spit-grilled meat from central Mexico). This restaurant is also famous for its handmade corn tortillas and hand-shaken margaritas mixed with fresh lime juice.
If it’s cocktails your clients are after, it’s also worth recommending a night on Rainey Street. This short strip of bungalow bars is buzzing every night of the week and is peppered with food trucks for when hunger pangs kick in.
This isn’t the only street in Austin where food trucks are abundant – they’re parked up on roadsides all over the city. The Picnic, near Barton Springs, is a popular food truck park, so I make it my last stop before heading home.
There’s Texan BBQ, Thai, Italian and Venezuelan cuisine being cooked on-site, but I opt for the Texican taco from Duck and Roll for one last Tex-Mex taste. The steak tortilla is served with nopales (cactus), avocado crema and tater tots and becomes reason number 101 that I will definitely be returning to this enchanting Texan city.
Book it: America As You Like It offers a city break in Austin from £850pp, including direct Norwegian flights from Gatwick and four nights’ accommodation at the Hilton Garden Inn in Downtown Austin. Price is based on two people sharing and an October 2018 departure. americaasyoulikeit.com
For more information, visit austintexas.org. Return flights with Norwegian start from £365pp.