A weekend in Texas’ capital city sets you on the edge of the Texas Hill Country and in the thick of the fun

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Like a lush greenbelt gateway to the Texas Hill Country, the capital city of Austin sprawls across rolling hills and runs its cool Colorado River-fingers along the spine of the Balcones Fault. With its regal capitol building sitting center stage, like an enormous pink granite outcropping emerging from rich Texas soil, Austin is one of the most attractive cities in the state. So why not head there for a weekend? Austin is less than a 1.5-hour drive from San Antonio, so it makes a great getaway destination. Best of all, you can leave work on Friday, arrive before dark and still feel like you’re in a whole other world. For even though the two cities are close in proximity, San Antonio and Austin couldn’t be further apart in sensibilities and style.

As you’ve probably heard, “Keep Austin Weird” is Austin’s unofficial slogan, causing out-of-towners to scratch their heads wondering just what’s so weird about it and why they should go there. Actually, not much about Austin is all that weird — unless by weird you mean “special” and “unique,” for those words certainly describe Texas’ capital city. It’s been widely noted that Austin has a different collective personality than any other city in the state. It’s famous for being a university town, an ex-hippie hangout and a liberals’ mecca. Home to Barton Springs, Hippie Hollow, five Highland Lakes and the Colorado River that runs through town, it has its own distinct laid-back Texas vibe. But it’s just that easy-going casual environment that makes Austin such a restful retreat after a hectic work week here in San Antonio.

Austin2Rivers, Lakes, Hikes and Bikes
For many, it’s the city’s glorious natural setting that makes Austin wonderful. Set at the eastern slopes of the Texas Hill Country and surrounded by five Highland Lakes, Austin is edged by tall tree-covered hills and big bodies of water. To the west and north, roads wend through steep sloping land, Mount Bonell stands high, and lakes and wildflowers lend color and freshness to the scrubby cypress, cedar and juniper tree-filled landscape. Water sports, hike-and-bike trails, walking paths and more fill the Austin city limits, and just about anywhere you might stay would be accessible to outdoor attractions, like the lovely Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the public hike and bike trails along Lady Bird Lake, (which many locals still refer to as Town Lake, its former name). Barton Springs Pool, fed by cold gurgling natural springs, is a refreshing place to swim, and places like the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum, the Contemporary Austin Laguna Gloria museum and the little Elisabet Ney sculpture museum make for wonderful afternoon visits in serene natural settings.

City of Fun
You may already know Austin is a beautiful place, but there’s lots more to know about Texas’ capital. First of all, Austin is the 16th-largest city in the United States and the fourth-largest in Texas, with a population approaching 700,000 people. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Austin-Round Rock metropolitan area is one of the fastest-growing in the United States and has a population of approximately 1.4 million people. If you consider the cities just south of downtown — Buda, Kyle and San Marcos — you’ll notice they seem to grow together along Interstate 35, becoming one with South Austin, a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the outside world.

In fact, the Austin-San Marcos area was ranked as the 40th “Most Fun U.S. City” in a survey conducted in 2003 by Cranium Inc. Factors taken into account in the ranking include the number of sports teams, restaurants, dance performances, toy stores, the amount of a city’s budget that is spent on recreation and other factors. Austin is also a past winner of the coveted “All-America City Award” from the National Civic League.

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Stay All Night (Stay A Little Longer)
When you’re planning a trip to see the best of Austin, you’ll need a great place to stay. The quintessential Austin hotel is the Driskill Hotel, which stands in downtown Austin off Sixth Street and Brazos, a block from Congress Avenue. It is one of the finest in town. Built in 1855 by a Texas cattle baron, this recently renovated tall, dark and handsome hotel is classic Texan to the core. The décor is masculine but elegant. The romantic piano bar at the Driskill, with its gleaming wood, brass and soft carpeting and leather club chairs, is a favorite after-work spot for lawmakers from the capital and downtowners after dark. The formal Driskill Grill is an elegant candlelit restaurant, too, with some of the best steaks in town. Big windows in each of the comfortable Driskill rooms offer views of the city lights and nightlife below. The hotel location is perfect, too, because you can walk to all the downtown attractions, including museums, theaters, coffee shops, bars, nightclubs, the State Capitol building complex, the Governor’s Mansion, Lady Bird Lake and the hike-and-bike trails, too.

Hip SoCo and East Austin
Want a more contemporary space for your next stay? Young affluent visitors may want to check out the Hotel St. Cecilia or the Hotel San Jose. I also love the Kimber Modern, tucked behind the Continental Club. All three are close to the SoCo (South Congress) shopping, dining and entertainment district fun. For great value and a fresh new place to stay, I highly recommend East Austin’s charming new little Heywood Hotel, a jewel box just a few short blocks from Interstate 35 off First Street/Cesar Chavez Street, a leader in the fresh up-and-coming revitalization of the east side of town. While you’re in the area, check out the great new east-side restaurants and bars, like Hillside Farmacy, which makes a great breakfast, lunch or dinner spot with healthful farm-to-table fare and warm comfort food, like baked macaroni and cheese.

Lakeside Retreats
For a truly sublime getaway, a weekend at one of Austin’s holistic resorts is always a splurge — especially for women who want a spa treatment. Stay at the Lake Austin Spa & Resort for an unforgettable weekend of quiet and rest, with lots of outdoor activities available on Lake Austin as well as spa treatments, yoga and Pilates classes, guest lectures and more. The Lake Austin Spa is one of my favorites in the state.

Likewise Travassa, Texas’ newest experiential resort and spa, feels like a luxury summer camp for grownups. Surrounded by ancient live oaks and the hills of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, Travassa calls itself Texas’ most active resort, offering its guests a compelling menu of inclusive guided adventures, culinary classes, cultural encounters, healing spa treatments and fitness and wellness workshops, all in a peaceful Zen-like environment. It also has a remarkable spa and striking views of the Highland Lake country above Austin.

by Janis Turk