Guest Editor Lena Dunham sent Travel Editor Anna Hart to the Hotel Saint Cecilia in Austin, Texas, and rustled up an itinerary of amazing Mexican food, quirky cinemas and mind-blowing vintage boutiques
There aren’t many large cities where you can show up, alone and clueless, and be pretty much guaranteed to have a total blast from start to finish. Okay, it helps to be armed with a bespoke itinerary by Lena Dunham. But even so, I can name Austin as one of those rare metropolises where the cool stuff is densely concentrated, the living is easy and good times just to fall into place.
Lena’s amazing To-Do List takes in all the stuff you really really need to do in Austin or people will laugh: Mexican food, vintage shopping, live music and an indie film theatre. But first it takes me to the Hotel Saint Cecilia, which, within minutes, is one of my favourite hotels in the world. Opened in 2008 by hip hotelier Liz Lambert, (who already owned the much-loved San Jose Hotel, a stylish revamp of an old motel) the Saint Cecilia is a singular, sultry and serene big sister, on a grand residential estate just off South Congress, a hipster focal point teeming with organic grocery stores, vintage stores, coffeeshops, taco shacks and music venues like the legendary Continental Club.
Housed in a white clapboard Victorian villa, guest rooms feel like you’ve Airbnb-ed a rock star’s mansion; surrounded by edgy artwork, rock memorabilia and louche red velvet upholstery, you daydream about populating the Chesterfield leather sofas with groupies and guys with beards and guitars. But in this heat I’m relieved to check into one of the six poolside bungalows. To my unexotic Irish mind, it’s the Californian beach home of my dreams; high ceilings, hardwood floors, pristine white linens, record turntable (and access to the vinyl library, I go for Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin) and exotic flourishes like mosaic tiling in the bathroom. But it’s the flirtatious turquoise pool, crowned with a huge neon sign blaring the word SOUL, that inevitably becomes the focal point in this dirty, sweaty, sexy and cacophonic town.
The pool looks like a drugged-up starlet once drowned in it, and I intend that as a compliment; the air of Hollywood decadence and undercurrent of rock’n’roll debauchery at the Saint Cecilia is utterly beguiling. I tingle with glee as Led Zep, Devo, Cream and the Stones soundtrack my swims; resorts normally torment swimmers with sub-Ibizan ‘Balearic beats’ or smooth jazz, guaranteed never to chillax me). Cocktails are served poolside day and night, and I’m soon in the swing of things, emailing a friendly rep from Austin city tourism to suggest having our meeting in the pool. (It’s not the only meeting I have here - the hotel pool has a sexy reputation with Austinites, so trust me, the invitation will be gratefully accepted.)
The jetlag benefits outbound Brits; I wake at 6am raring to go, and jump on a hotel bike for a steamy 10-mile circuit of Ladybird Lake along the new ‘hike and bike track’, a boon to a city recently crowned ‘world’s fittest city’ by <Men’s Health> magazine. En route I cool off at beautiful Barton’s Creek pool (free before 8am; $3 after), a vast spring-fed swimming pool hewn out of rock, swimming alongside eccentric old Southern belles in retro psychedelic swimming caps, chattering young mums with tots and tech industry freelancers. I regularly think that cities with everything you demand of a city AND some cold water you can jump in have hit the jackpot, for quality of life. I never expected Austin to make this watery list, but rowing clubs and paddle-board rental companies line the lakeshore and river, and the big-money celebrity homes in the hills (Matthew McConaughey is just one star who calls Austin home) generally back onto the water with a private pier.
I wind up my ride with an iced coffee at beloved local chain Jo’s on South Congress, then, at Lena’s suggestion, do beer and brunch <in an actual cinema>. I order an asparagus frittata with sourdough toast ($7) with a bottle of Austin Brewhouse ($3) at the Alamo Drafthouse Theatre, placing my scrawled order on a card which is whipped away by stage-hand-like staff travelling noiselessly along narrow passages between the seat rows. My order arrives to the opening credits of <Ghostbusters> and I’m so happy, I mentally snog Lena Dunham. On a Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver high, I stroll back along South Congress counting scores of vintage Airstream food trucks (Austin has 14,000 streetfood vans and counting), and snooping around vintage stores, dutifully buying a stripy 80s dress in her favourite, Feathers.
If South Congress is the city’s well-trodden hipster thoroughfare, the up-and-coming creative neighbourhood is the East Side, where I spend a glorious afternoon touring and tasting the local brewery, Hops & Grain (hopsandgrain.com), before a beyond decadent dinner at industrial-chic Mettle next door, the newest restaurant by nightlife maestro Bridget Dunlap, the one-woman machine behind Rainey Street, a residential street turned urban phenomenon, where bars and cafes are housed in converted bungalows.
Countless friends have returned from SXSW festival smitten with Austin, and she casts a powerful spell. Texans are famously friendly; in Austin they meld Southern charm with cultural capital, a downright filthy lust for life, a green-oriented, left-leaning political bent that’s created a liberal Democratic oasis in a reliably Republican state. I see why Austin has one of the fastest-growing populations in the US, currently fielding a steady influx of Californians, lured by the laid-back lifestyle (and affordable real estate) in a hip city that doesn’t feel like a compromise. On my final night, a friend-of-a-friend crowdsourced from Facebook takes me to local favourite Curra’s for Mexican food, where we sip $5 Avocado Margaritas and eat slow-cooked pork tamales before catching a live singer songwriter set at the Cactus Club in the college district. The huge student population just another thing helping to ‘keep Austin weird’, as the local slogan goes. I walk back feeling like the luckiest girl in the world. A city that loves music, vintage gear, pop culture and weirdness this hard will never be short of lovers. If I saw Austin on Tinder, I’d bite.
Lena Dunham’s Austin Itinerary
“The term hipster is overused (and often misused), but it’s the only word that works to describe the denizens of Austin. Richard Linklater captured it in Dazed & Confused: aimless, attractive youth with nowhere to go but into each other’s cars/arms. This is the feeling Austin evokes in me: creativity, possibility and freedom. Plus, it’s home to SXSW, where I first showed my work and have returned many times. Here are my top five places to go.”
“Hand-picked vintage with pieces from every era and cute shop girls who model the wares (you will want to buy the dress off their back).”
“Get a milkshake at the movies. Enough said.”
“Delicious fresh sushi and adorable wallpaper.”
“Tacos dominate Austin and these are some of the best. Meat containing cheese in a carb. A perfect food.”
“A twist on traditional Mexican food with a selection of guacamole.”