Escape Artist: Austin, Texas

BOOTS ON THE GROUND: One music-savvy frequent traveler gives us an intimate tour of this vibrant, fun-loving city

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As told to Nina Kokotas Hahn

Various businesses in Austin, Texas
Clockwise from top left: Mohawk’s bar, Hotel Saint Cecilia, a boutique hotel, Stag, one of many shops on South Congress Avenue, and Modern Asian cuisine at Uchiko
 

OUR GUIDE, ERIC DAVID JOHNSON: Executive producer of music and creative integration at the advertising agency DDB
Johnson, also a DJ, has visited Austin every year since 2002 to attend South by Southwest (SXSW), the city’s acclaimed annual music, film, and tech festival.

GO NOW: April temperatures range from 60 to 80 degrees, and the state’s famous bluebonnets are in full bloom. Several airlines offer nonstop flights from Chicago, starting at $339.

The first time I visited Austin, I half-expected a big Texas vibe, only to be surprised by the city’s unfussy, bohemian, indie spirit. Austin defies stereotypes. Start with the huge assortment of gourmet food trucks all over town and add upscale restaurants serving everything from handcrafted beer and fresh oysters to barbecue tofu and pork ribs.

You can walk streets lined with mom-and-pop shops, high-end boutiques, and kitschy specialty stores. You can hear live music—honky-tonk, cow punk, indie folk, electronic, and hip-hop—as it spills out into the streets and over the lake from tiny open-air venues unlike anything we have in Chicago. Locals, most with barely a Texas drawl, go out to see music the way we go out to restaurants.

One of my favorite experiences was when I saw Bon Iver perform in 2008 at Mohawk, one of the city’s best venues for new music. We were packed in shoulder to shoulder, all there to be part of an intimate experience with this then-unknown performer. Cold beer in hand, I stood with every age, stripe, and style, taking in Justin Vernon’s beautifully raw falsetto voice. The sign above the bar read “All Are Welcome.” Those words still represent all the ways I’ve come to know and love Austin.

NEXT: Eric David Johnson’s picks—for dining, shopping, and playing »

Photography: Jody Horton

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