On a balmy Thursday evening in April, my partner John and I joined a crowd of several hundred people gathered on the eastern bank of Ladybird Lake in the state’s capital, Austin.
Above us stretched the span of the Ann Richards Congress Avenue Bridge, named for the Texas’ trailblazing first female governor and nicknamed Bat Bridge (not for Ms. Richards!), the bridge’s underbelly is home to North America’s largest urban bat colony.
Beginning early each spring, roughly 750,000 mostly female, mostly pregnant Mexican freetail bats take up residence. Before migrating south in late autumn, they give birth to a similar number of pups, raising the population to over 1.5 million.
At sunset, the dark-winged ladies of the night began to emerge from beneath the bridge, first in a pointillist trickle and then, in a thick, seemingly endless swarm that poured forth for more than thirty minutes, delighting an audience that had grown to over a thousand on the banks, along the bridge, and in boats on the water. They are said to eat between 10,000 and 30,000 pounds of insects nightly.
On this particular night, the thrill of the bat emergence was rivaled by that of the human emergence. That morning had marked the first time John and I had flown in two years. Now we let ourselves mingle amidst a large group of strangers, exchanging smiles in the twilight, delighting in the sense of impromptu community and the joy of travel. After so many months of relative isolation, it felt a bit spooky and a lot wonderful.
Austin is a great place to celebrate new beginnings. Since 1839, when it was founded as the capitol of a then-independent Republic of Texas, the city has constantly reinvented itself. From its origins as a political power center, through overlapping periods when manufacturing, higher education, and a vibrant music and arts scene held prominence, to its recent rise as a tech hub, with Google, Amazon and Facebook making marks on the skyline, Austin, while proudly preserving its history, has never stood still.
Fueled by a growing young professional population, warm weather, a walkable urban core, and attractions ranging from public swimming to the Austin City Limits festival and TV tapings (Moody Theater. 310 W. 2nd Street, Willie Nelson Blvd. Tel: 512-457-5550. austincitylimits.com), to the The Contemporary Austin museum’s stunning Laguna Gloria sculpture garden (3809 W. 35th St. Tel: 512-458-8191 thecontemporaryaustin.org), the city’s hospitality business has boomed in recent years.
Even during the travel-lean pandemic period, hip new accommodations continued to open. Several of Austin’s hottest hostelries pivoted to highly successful staycation and weekend promotions for locals, laying the groundwork for a growing hotel-based hangout scene akin to that in Los Angeles, but with a distinctive Austonian accent.
The Moxy Austin (2552 Guadalupe St. Tel: 737-471-2621. marriott.com), which opened in January 2021 alongside the University of Texas campus, has a sprawling, comfortable lobby bar that may get a bit too Animal House on weekends but makes a great weeknight spot for drinking in craft cocktails, local brews, and student bodies. Moxy is one of Marriott International’s more youthful, less cookie-cut brands, and its Austin outpost’smost impressive nod to its environs (both Texan and collegiate) is a 24/7 lobby taqueria, Zombie Tacos (zombietacoaustin.com). For travelers whose biological clocks are aligned with the local bats, there are Happy Hour deals from 1 to 5 A.M. In perhaps the unlikeliest duel in all of Texas, Austin has a second hotel lobby taco joint.
At the chic downtown Line hotel (111 E. Cesar Chavez. Tel: 512-478-9611. thelinehotel.com/austin/), a radically remodeled onetime Ramada, you’ll find an outpost of one of this tortilla-crazed city’s favorite mini-chains, Veracruz All Natural (thelinehotel.com). Owned by sisters Maritza and Reyna Vazquez, Veracruz is famed for its migas breakfast tacos and taps into Austin’s omnipresent vegetarian vibe with a highly inauthentic but surprisingly tolerable vegan queso, made with cashew and coconut “cheese.” As if to underscore the city’s trend toward hotels as hybrid spaces for guests and the local public, Veracruz even has a takeout window that opens onto the sidewalk along busy Cesar Chavez street. Likewise, the Line, along with over half a dozen other Austin accommodations, including the new Hotel Van Zandt (hotelvanzandt.com) and Proper Hotel (properhotel.com/austin), sells day passes to its swimming pool.
The Line also boasts a higher end but informal restaurant, Arlo Grey, conceptualized and supervised by lesbian Executive Chef Kristen Kish, known from television’s Top Chef and Fast Foodies. The light-filled dining room has an unusual (bordering on strange) decor by interior designer Sean Knibb with a ceiling covered in ragged overlapping patches of plaster stiffened canvas and a hulking black central bar with biomorphic sculptural protrusions that recall H.R. Giger’s sets for the Alien movies.
Kish’s dishes are fresh and accessible (try the rich, bright lobster tortelloni with mustard greens, mascarpone, and preserved lemon). For dessert, order the carrot cake, a cashew-and-espresso frosted orb accented with the tang of grapefruit ganache, or the lime sorbet, a bowlful of crazy textures including a yuzu foam, miniature meringues, pink peppercorns, and a bath of sweetened aloe juice.
Yet another impressive place to roost during an Austin getaway is the Hotel Magdalena (1101 Music Lane. Tel: 833-422-1999. hotelmagdalena.com), a tucked-away, multi-tiered oasis featuring 89 mod hillside rooms linked by walkways and landscaped terraces. A living room-like reception lounge is staffed by knowledgeable locals, quick to provide tips on bands to catch and other goings-on about town.
The hotel is part of the new Music Lane development that, as of 2020, has gilded the lily of the South Congress Avenue neighborhood (visitsoco.com), a longtime favorite of visitors for its storied live music venues (The Continental Club, C-Boys Heart and Soul), restaurants (Perla’s for seafood, Guero’s for authentic Tex Mex) and eclectic shopping (men’s boutiques STAG and Service offer striking styles from local brands).
The Music Lane complex (musiclaneatx.com) itself includes yet another great men’s shop, ManReady Mercantile, the Austin branch of international social club SoHo House; and the eminently browsable Neighborhood Goods, a contemporary department store of sorts with kiosks and pop-up display areas each dedicated to an individual vendor, including queer-owned brands like skincare line Clark’s Botanicals and cheeky candle company Boy Smells.
Lest you believe lobby tacos are the most unusual hotel amenity in Austin, think again: The Magdalena is home to the open-to-the-public Song Confessional (hotelmagdalena.com), a cozy Wurlitzer-shaped cabinet that will feel familiar to anyone who’s spent time in a Catholic Church or a photo booth.
Step inside, press a button and make an audio recording your deepest secrets (you can identify yourself, or remain anonymous). The taped stories are reviewed by local songwriters and the Magdalena’s rotating artist-in-residence who select their favorites and use them as the basis for original tunes which are played and immortalized on a Song Confessional podcast.
Austin’s most gay-adjacent new place to stay is the Hotel ZaZa (400 Lavaca St. Tel: 512-542-9292. hotelzaza.com/austin), which happens not only to share a name with the La Cage aux Folles drag queen but to be situated on 4th Street in the Warehouse District, the city’s central queer corridor.
The spectacularly decorated hotel is a riot of colorful contemporary art, celebrity portraits, and outré furnishings, including a crystal chandelier that once hung in the Beverly Hills Versace boutique and was featured in Pretty Woman. Whether you need a stiff drink at Group Therapy, the hotel’s swank cocktail bar and restaurant, which features live music most nights, or a soothing massage at the inhouse spa, ZaZa’s got something good for what ails you. Just down the block are a handful of gregarious gay nightspots, including Rain (217 W. 4th St. Tel: 512-494-1150. rainon4th.com ) and Oilcan Harry’s (211 W. 4th St. Tel: 512-351-8423 oilcanharrys.com); that nickname thing is a quirk of queer Austin.
Elsewhere in town is Cheer Up Charlie’s (900 Red River St. 512-431-2133. cheerupcharlies.com), an indoor-outdoor venue with featured nights called Serving Face and Slay! Werk! Bewts! The old saying that everything’s bigger in Texas certainly seems true of Rain and Harry’s whose modest streetfront facades give way to sprawling interiors and back patios that seem to go on forever, with room for dance floors, go-go platforms, multiple bars, and drag show stages.
Given its well-earned reputation as a blue speck in the red state of Texas, Austin is unsurprisingly gay-friendly on the whole. The city’s annual Pride Parade (austinpride.org) and celebration takes place in August after the hectic cluster of June events elsewhere, providing an excellent time for queer travelers to visit without missing their hometown festivities. And in February, the OUTSider Fest (outsiderfest.org) focuses on queer film and multimedia arts, but there’s a prominent queer presence at even general audience events.
During our April visit, there were two annual festivals underway, both of which had significant LGBT programming. The massive Moontower Just For Laughs Festival (austintheatre.org/moontower), a two-week affair that ranks among the largest regular gatherings of comedic talent in the U.S., there were queer-themed multi-performer events as well as mixed stand-up bills that featured lesbian and gay talent including Guy Branum, Irene Tu, Joel Kim Booster, Matteo Lane, Brandi Davis, Daniel Webb. and Trixie Mattel. Concurrently, the city’s Fusebox International Performing Arts Festival (fuseboxfestival.com) included an experimental music theater piece featuring Dexter’s Michael C. Hall and a grand finale concert with glittery gay male duo The Illustrious Blacks singing, dancing, and making out on stage for a surprisingly prolonged period.
Among the most encouraging, and most delicious, instances of a strong queer presence in mainstream Austin culture is the ongoing success of La Barbecue (2401 E. Cesar Chavez St. 512-605-9696. labarbecue.com), a lesbian-owned purveyor of Texas’ almost religiously revered pit-smoked meats. In 2020, after building a following while working out of a trailer beside a liquor store for several years, wives LeAnn Mueller and Alison Clem opened their own freestanding restaurant where lines now wind around the corner and waits can be an hour or more for heaping aluminum trays of brisket, homemade hot links and ribs; the ladies also own The Red Rocket Wiener Wagon, a food truck. Even more than the world at large, the barbecue business has traditionally been dominated by straight men, so here’s a tip of the ten gallon hat to these women who are putting the Q in BBQ .
If you still haven’t treated yourself to a long-awaited post-Covid getaway, and even if you have, why not make like a bat and take wing to Austin?
For a regularly updated calendar of LGBTQ events in Austin, visit austintexas.org/plana-trip/lgbtq/events.
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