As told to Nina Kokotas Hahn
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
Old Settler’s Music Festival
ERIC DAVID JOHNSON’S AUSTIN ADDRESS BOOK
EAT AND DRINK
Food trucks are all the rage during SXSW; try the wraps and fresh strawberry shakes at The Mighty Cone truck (in a lot at 1600 S. Congress Ave.; 512-383-9609, mightycone.com). The low-lit ambiance and half-price happy hour are the draw at Parkside (301 E. Sixth St.; 512-474-9898, parkside-austin.com), which is also famous for its fresh oysters and raw bar. Vegans will love the barbecue tofu at Mother’s Café & Garden (4215 Duval St.; 512-451-3994, motherscafeaustin.com). For creative sushi, go to Uchi (801 S. Lamar Blvd.; 512-916-4808, uchiaustin.com), the upscale sister to chef Paul Qui’s Uchiko (4200 N. Lamar Blvd.; 512-916-4808, uchiaustin.com). Foodies should check out the Austin Food & Wine Festival, April 27 through 29 (austinfoodandwinefestival.com).
Big-name hotels are easy to find, but I prefer accommodations that reflect the city’s indie streak. The atmospheric Hotel San José (1316 S. Congress Ave., 800-574-8897, sanjosehotel.com; from $175) has a cozy courtyard surrounded by retro bungalows. My favorite place lately is the artist-inspired Hotel Saint Cecilia (112 Academy Dr., 512-852-2400, hotelsaintcecilia.com; from $310), which feels off the beaten path with its lovely garden and sustainable Dwell-like design. For a glam high-rise with a Vegas-style pool deck, stay at the W Austin (200 Lavaca St., 866-961-3327, whotelaustin.com; from $379). An 1886 landmark right downtown, The Driskill (604 Brazos St., 800-252-9367, driskillhotel.com; from $250) is the place to soak in old Texas grandeur.
From April 19 to 22, the Old Settler’s Music Festival (oldsettlersmusicfest.org) brings its Americana celebration to Texas Hill Country. I almost always find myself at Mohawk (912 Red River St.; mohawkaustin.com) to check out emerging indie rock. Down the street, the iconic Stubb’s Bar-B-Q (801 Red River St.; 512-480-8341, stubbsaustin.com) has an immense outdoor venue that fills with everything from quality hip-hop to country. Southern Texas punk and a great beer selection are on tap at Beerland (711.5 Red River St.; 512-479-7625, beerlandtexas.com). Try to get tickets to Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater (310 W. Willie Nelson Blvd.; 512-225-7999, acl-live.com/venue), the legendary PBS music series.
My absolute favorite store is Stag Provisions for Men (1423 S. Congress Ave.; 512-373-7824, stagaustin.com), with its curated collection of American men’s clothing and curio art objects. Friends of Sound Records (1704 S. Congress Ave.; 512-447-1000, friendsofsound.com) is the place to go for collectible LPs. Go legit cowboy at Allens Boots (1522 S. Congress Ave.; 512-447-1413, allensboots.com), where you’ll want to buy pairs for the whole family.
Photography: Jody Horton