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5 hours in San Antonio, 15 hours in Austin and 2 evenings out in Houston
There has been a delay with this blog about Texas and it has been amended slightly because it was initially quite negative and lacked a lot of information about Houston. However, since my first visit I was fortunate enough to return to Houston a second time. We’ll come to that towards the end of the blog.
On my first visit I had 48 hours in Texas, arriving and departing in Houston with late arrival and departure times. I planned to check out Houston and it just seemed like there was nothing much there, other than some Museums, which I get bored of easily and off course there’s NASA. Everyone I spoke with, friends that had been and cabin crew, plus what I had read online prior to arriving described it as an ‘extremely underwhelming’ place to visit. It doesn’t even rate that highly on Trip Advisor. I wasn’t sold on staying here and mostly thought about finding other places nearby.
From my old job and in general from my interest in Music, I had heard so much about Austin. I knew the famous South by South West festival takes place in Houston and for that reason I really wanted to visit this city. Unfortunately I was 10 days to early (for the festival) but I still wanted to check out what many have described as the coolest city in the southern states. Plus it gave me an excuse to drive, which I have missed immensely since moving to Bangkok.
The first night I arrived so late that I just slept in Houston at the Hyatt in the Galleria area. This is the main shopping area of the city, where there is a large mall and not much else but shops and offices. It didn’t really seem to offer much else of any interest so I went straight to bed for the planned early start. I looked at maps and thought I’d check out the city of San Antonio first and then continue to Austin for the night to see a bit during the following day before returning to Houston for my late departure.
The drive to San Antonio is four hours but it can be done quicker. However I avoided the tolls and planned to take some side routes in order to see the countryside of Eastern Texas.
I was pretty excited to be back in a car for a nice long drive so John Digweed’s latest 2 hour set in London banged out of my hired Chrysler car speakers. Whenever I drive I need the music to fit the environment but this didn’t fit the location, I mean I wasn’t in California, so the music went from Digweed to The Chemical brothers and then to Burial followed by some Thom Yorke. Eventually I ended up listening to Sigor Ros. If you’re not familiar with any of this music I started listening to some decent techno and gradually ended up listening to well, kind of depressing atmospheric progressive rock. None of the music really fitted the journey, simply because it was just about the dullest drive I have ever had.
One hundred and fifty miles of almost straight roads and barely anything to see – just dull eerie bleak plains of flat land into the horizon. The highway had huge tall signs adverting gun shops, ranges, adult stores and mortgage companies – it was depressing.
Coming off the main highways was even worse – True Detective Season 1 is the best way to describe it. Run down houses, battered trailers and old rusty cars on the lawn every ten miles showed the poverty but also gave rise to my inner imagination that this really was the rural southern America in need of hope. Cults, guns, Jesus Christ and depravation. Judgemental and ignorant of me I know, but I was so bored on this straight endless road. I even thought some of these trailers on the side of the road would be an interesting photo but I wasn’t going to risk being shot as I was still very aware I was in Texas.
Even this bull gave me the look as if to say ‘come on my land I’ll shoot ya’.
Stop 1 – San Antonio
So, I finally arrived in San Antonio. A historical city dated back to 1691 established by Spanish colonials. The sat-nav said I was one street away from ‘The Alamo’ – A UNESCO world heritage site. I looked around for somewhere to park and the only available place I could find was outside a bar that had a meter in front. A man stood outside on his phone looking at me in disgust like I had taken his space, so I asked if it was okay to park here. ‘So long as you got quarters’ which I didn’t so he said I’d better use the ATM in the bar while he watched the car. I ventured in, got the cash from the ATM and asked the bar lady for change. She seemed fed up and the change didn’t include many quarters so I figured I had better buy a beer so I can get some more.
I started to notice the bar was kind of weird. It had a few pool tables, grubby looking characterless decor, the odd poster here; very run down and had no real character. It’s a local’s bar with a grainy screen showing a baseball game. A slightly rough atmosphere to the place.
I overheard two men arguing about Donald trump, one thought he can get things done the other thought not. Many of the locals were pretty heavily tattooed and wearing bandanas, not the kind of place you’d take your Grandma. I sat and drank up and thought I’d take advantage of the toilet while I can.
Wow. The graffiti in the toilet summed up where I was. This was by no means art, just the crazed mumbling writings of messy locals. My first experience in San Antonio appeared to be a visit to an angry cocaine/crack bar.
No sooner had I made this assumption than I heard a couple of guys shouting at each another. Definitely an angry bar, so for me it was time to leave and check out the sights of this city. This first experience was interesting.
So the Alamo Mission. A very old looking brick building faces me, with a flag. I have no idea what this place is about. A cop outside with a cowboy hat says its free entry and then I see another guy shout “video about to start”. Perfect timing as I had no idea what this place was about. To cut a long a long story short, Texas was colonised by the Spanish and this former Roman Catholic mission was where the famous battle of Alamo occurred in 1836. Though the building dates back a 100 years earlier. It was actually built to educate Native Americans of Christianity.
The Mexican army occupied it but then surrendered it to the Texan army following the Texan Revolution. However, this pissed off the General of the Mexican army & he wanted to fight the revolution that resulted in creating a siege around this building and the eventual deaths of all the Texan army in it including Davy Crockett.
The building has some further history following on from this. It was saved by from demolition by two women in 1905, Adina Emilia De Zavala and Clara Driscoll. They successfully convinced the state to purchase and preserve the building. Various other things happened there but I’m not going to go on much more about it, if you’re interested there is plenty of information available online. It is great that it still remains standing and is probably one of the oldest buildings in the states and quite a popular tourist attraction for this reason. It is so important in American history that it has world heritage status. There is nothing much to see inside though other than the odd sword or metal cup used by soldiers. These are protected within glass cabinets that you not allowed to photograph. But it is free and quite a nice place to take a look at from the outside.
After leaving I noticed a tower, now as this is early days in my venture to the world of blogging many readers are probably not aware that I am obsessed with towers. Going up them and taking photos from above makes the Travelman a very happy man indeed. Most are dull but I feel I haven’t seen a city until I’ve seen it from the highest building I can. So far I have 26 city towers under my belt.
This tower had to be done, it’s called ‘The Tower of the Americas”. Not that big but it’s a tower none the less. The ticket prices included a 4D video that I was told was a must see.
This is where my impression of Texas went downhill. The video could have been interesting; it could have focused on the fascinating history of Texas, but no. It was like watching a propaganda film about ‘how Texas is a state of mind’, how it’s the greatest state and the best place on earth but there was no substance. I believe the narrator even said those words, ‘a state of mind’, no, it’s actually a state physically located in America along with a lot of other states. The video follows a helicopter hovering over each city and bumps you about with your seat moving in a tacky way while you wear 3d glasses. It’s not worth it, in fact, I would pay good money never to have to experience that again.
Anyway, I came out of it thinking yeah right, the state that has magnets showing guns saying ‘we don’t call 911’, the state that kills more people on death row, and lets not forget the war mongering Bush family and more recently Ted Cruz. Apologies for being political but Texas really can’t claim to have bred the best.
Anyway the view from the top was equally unimpressive, a bit like Dubai but it didn’t matter, it was another tower ticked off the list.
Before leaving it was time to visit what Trip Advisor rates as the number one thing to do in San Antonio: The River Walk. So I thought I might as well check it out, grab a beer and some food.
The river lived up to its expectations and I enjoyed the walk, it was very well constructed and had a sort of Disney (due to it being man made) Venice Canal feel to it. People go up and down on boats but I had a 25 minute gap on the new meter as I had moved my car from the angry cocaine bar.
Off course I had to go for the Tex-Mex food, which Texas is famous for. My goodness I must say the Chicken Quesadilla was very good and so good a duck joined me and we ate together. He was keener on the nachos and the guacamole; I guess cheese doesn’t digest too well on a duck. I wondered if he was on holiday from across the border, he was so at home with his nachos with a bit of guacamole on them.
After making a mess with the cheese and having had the waiter look rather unimpressed with me, I decided it was time to drive to Austin.
Stop 3 – Austin
So I finally arrive in Austin after another tedious drive, but I did drive past what looked like the biggest petrol/gas station I have ever seen – maybe 100 pumps but read online it has 250 employees, it’s called Buc-ee’s. Petrol or gas is so damn cheap in Texas, $20 will fill a tank.
Upon arrival in Austin, which seemed like a big looking yet small city, I checked into my hotel, which had really very nice staff. A huge Texan guy comped my parking and gave me a free drinks voucher. Now that’s the kind of thing I like, just how it should be, so knocked back a gin as my throat was feeling a bit dry and I looked up and enjoyed the hotels décor watching the lifts go up and down. I was now in the so-called music capital of the world, though the clientele around me looked as if there were at a car insurance conference. I suppose I was in the Hyatt though. After trying to arrange to meet an old school friend I was told use Uber. The kind bar staff explained to me to how to use Uber, I had never used it before but had the app on my phone. They assisted me well and I thought ‘wow’ Texas people are really nice and natural.
The view from the bar after knocking back some neat gin…
The Uber car arrives. I’m picked up by a fella that I think had just finished his shift at Walmart. “I do this on the side” he says and he briefly explained the concept of Uber to me. I asked if he had any run-ins with regular cab drivers and he ignored the question, like it was a touchy subject. So anyway, the planned bar to meet my friend turned out it to be in another part of the city but he made the effort to get me there.
To cut along story short, a mishap meant that my planned meet up with the old school friend didn’t happen but I ended up on the very famous 6th Street anyway and so I decided to walk through the city back to the hotel. It was around an hour to walk back and I enjoyed observing everything on the way.
Austin is a strange place. People mentioned to me prior to my visit that if I liked Boulder, which I did, then I’d love Austin. My view on that is that Boulder, Colorado is a hippyville, holistic, with no major corporations on the streets, yeah everyone is stoned but Austin doesn’t actually have that same vibe. Maybe it did years ago but just from my observations it feels more like a mix of hipsters, hippies and yuppies – this is a drinking city full of corporations. There is a decent artistic independent bar scene and many great food trucks, mostly trailers & streamers. I decided it was a bad comparison and nothing like Colorado.
My walk started off great, I walked past a few very cool artistic looking bars but at the same time I asked one of the guys inside about directions, had a beer in another and I can’t deny while these bar looked cool the hipster vibe was try hard, not like London but that kind of “oh dear, did I wear the wrong t-shirt kind, is it not ironic enough kind of vibe”. Meaning I felt it was not that welcoming but I can be quite an introvert and at times and socially anxious so perhaps It was just in my mind. Anyway after half a beer I decided to continue my walk.
I walked past these guys with a high tech projector on a wall, which they were using as a stencil to paint – I guessed this was because it was night and perhaps that is normal but I did also wonder if a real graffiti artist might consider this to be cheating. Were these guys just pretenders?
As I continued to walk past more cool looking bars and trailer food stalls. I eventually entered the main city, it now felt a bit more like the live music capital it was claiming to be. You could hear bands playing loudly from the bars, all kind of indie stuff. The problem I found was looking at the patrons, they appeared to be an interesting mix of wannabe hipsters and yuppie businessmen acting like idiots on the sidewalks. Pissed and not dissimilar to what you might see in New York in midtown. It was here that I also walked past huge Ernst and Young offices, GE and other major healthcare/insurance type buildings. All major hotel chains are there too. Plus, now seeing the mayor’s office – it became very clear that this city to me felt like a southern Washington DC at the same time lacking the conveniences you would find in a place like that. For instance I needed something from a pharmacy like CVS – no sir this closes at 10pm. What this? It’s a major city, the capital of Texas the bars ram on until 2am but everything else closes. I also noticed for some odd reason that in the centre of the downtown area, tons of cyclists like doing their evening exercise, it looked fun but it was 10pm, so many streams of cyclists going along the streets. I thought maybe this is an Austin exercise ritual. However I kind of wished I had a bicycle and could join then.
I continued my walk as my hotel was across the river, then I came across a huge highway with really cool purple neon lights on the underpass below it, it looked cool but as I got closer, it became obvious that this was the major homeless place. It was almost as if this city had them all placed there out of the way like rubbish shoved under a carpet. There were possibly a hundred homeless people, just lying like piles of unwanted rubbish. It was sad seeing so many poor people living like this and sad that the city of Austin clearly isn’t doing much to help them. Again it’s no different to DC where I saw many homeless people confined to the lawns.
After getting back to my hotel I decided to get up early and take pictures of some of the things I saw at night when it was too dark for my iPhone to capture decently in the dark.
This is Austin; the big corporate America capital of Texas.
At the same time full of cool art work and bars. Strange juxterposition.
I had this great smoothie at one of the food trailers, but must say it seemed a bit overpriced. I was due to go to a Rodeo that evening in Houston and I asked the guy what he thought about this. His response was interesting, “Well it’s like country music festivals, rodeo and nascar; I go to these places just to simply watch people to figure out why they like it”. I thought it a rather pretentious response. Why waste the money?
In the end I never made the Rodeo, whilst the drive back to Houston was better than to San Antonio, I started to feel ill and went to a hotel to sleep it off before my flight that evening.
Overall I took more photos and have to say I felt these two pictures sum up Austin perfectly. It’s a city of conflicting lifestyles and the original hippies know it. Texas is one of the most conservative states, whilst Gun laws are lax, it’s one of the strictest states for abortion, medical marijuana is still not fully legal from my understanding has the highest number of death row executions. It’s a harsh state ruled by some seriously conservative anal cowboys. When compared to states like California or Colorado it is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Whilst the Mexican food is good there are no Mexicans serving it. Perhaps the Texans like their food but not the people?
I dunno, I’m just blogging my observations but this is my first impression of Texas. I guess if I spent some more time there it’s possible that I could view the place differently.
As few weeks later I was fortunate enough to fly back to Houston there on a business consultancy trip and met a variety of interesting characters, from the cow girl to the gun crazy duck shooter and everyone in between including various Uber drivers. My perspective sort of changed a bit about Texas or at least Houston.
I think despite some differences of attitude to thing like Guns, and politics, which I never avoided debating. The strength of Houston is the people, everyone is so warm and friendly. There was no attitude felt at all like you might find in the major coastal cities of the US.
I spent an evening in the Heights area of Houston where I went for some drinks with a colleague and we were both dumbstruck on how nice the bar tenders were. Maybe because we were English but really friendly bar tenders, millennial twenty year old girls that were not all about trump but did love a good Gun. It was interesting hearing their perspective and American society but there was no pretentiousness all like I sort of felt in Austin. Just down to earth people in a very arty neighbourhood that had some cool restaurants and bars, north of downtown in the suburbs.
One such bar war was Little Woodbrow which had a great selection of beer and that kind of old nice US vibe to it. Despite looking older than 35, bald I was asked for ID which was first in a long time but took it as a compliment.
Another great place we visited was Christian’s Tail Gate Bar & Grill where we ended up chatting again to the bar tender and her colleague for ages, they have superb burgers. Apparently award winning but oddly they put bacon inside the meat as opposed to on top still delicious. Though the best burgers I had overall was at Ruby’s Diner in the international area at The George Bush Intercontinental Houston Airport. Amazing!
Another evening we decided to visit Mid town, where we told is most active place in the city for bars and restaurants, so we went and did the Uber driver thing again. Again the driver was so chatty and it was very interesting learning about Uber, how he makes $25 an hour, no issue with cab drivers like in Paris as he explained current cab drivers are changing to Uber anyway. All it requires is a $200 investment a car over 2010, with more money to be made the newer the car, drug test from the city and an inspection. He liked the fact he had freedom to do it as you choose when you decide to work simply by turning on the app.
Anyway he dropped us off in mid town near the Breakfast Klub, a Zagat rated place for the best breakfast in Houston, unfortunately we were there for dinner and the area Breakfast Klub is in has a odd vibe. A side corner of bars and antique shop then a kind of shady vibe in surrounding area. However I liked it, it had amazing street art but my colleagues wanted to go to where the main part of mid town was which was about 10-15 blocks walk away.
The art as I say was really cool.
As we walked, I felt this city is one of the downtown cities that has nothing, like no shops, just offices and the odd fast food or coffee shop. Sort of reminded me of downtown Orlando. We did finally find the main mid town area, but it is quite small and certainly is not of any comparison to Austin’s 6 street. We decided to eat in a restaurant called Cyclone Anaya’s Mexican Kitchen and try the famous Mexican food. It was astoundingly good. Everyone was very impressed. Generally, it is a famous place for huge Margarita’s but seemed quite upmarket. Again very arty inside and loved the fabric interior of the washrooms.
As a conclusion to Houston it is not the most exciting city but there is a very creative vibrant art scene here and the people, well the people are probably some of the warmest people I’ve met in the US. There isn’t really much to do in this city for a tourist but its great place to chat to people, so if your on business and staying in Houston for a short time. Check out the bars in the heights or go and eat in Mid town, you will meet some friendly characters and see some interesting art along the way.
Overall this 2nd visit left me with more of a positive impression of Texas.