austin + san antonio : where i saw so much burnt orange

antfeat

Welcome to Texas, or as it’s known in my childhood – Cowboy town. I’ve said this before but the US is really more of a conglomerate of different states than one unified country, which provides it an ample set of advantages and obstacles. Texas is one of its most distinctive states, with some even calling it a country by itself. To be fair, I discovered on this trip that at one point, Texas actually was its own self-governing country for a while. In fact, that was just the tip of a very large iceberg on how complex Texas’ history and legacy was, and I was just about to discover it. I started my trip by flying into Austin and taking the airport bus downtown.  One of my favorite things about the city is how well planned the public transportation is.  You can take buses everywhere for a flat price of $2.50 per 24 hour period.

capitol

The most iconic sight in Austin has to be the State Capitol. It’s almost like the center of gravity of the city, with its large stature imposing onto Congress Ave, the main road of Austin. It’s probably one of the biggest state capitols that I’ve ever seen and has a beautiful park surrounding it for a peaceful walk. I definitely took advantage of the ambiance for some quiet time.

ladybird

Austin has done a really good job of balancing its urban buildup with parks and natural expanses. One of my favorite parts of this effort is Lady Bug Lake on the east side of the city. It’s one of its largest water bodies and people frequent the area for all kinds of water sports such as stand-up paddleboarding and kayaking. Had I more time, I would have definitely wanted to hit the water too.

soco

If you’re looking for more of Austin’s restaurant and commercial life, head down to South Congress, which is literally south of Colorado River and Congress Ave. There’s a bunch of cool street markets, craft stores and amazing restaurants. I took a walk up back to the bridge crossing the river and stopped at a bunch of stores just to see what was being sold.

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I would also plan the trip back up to the bridge to align with sunset, because one of Austin’s coolest attractions is the flight of the bats. At sunset, all the bats that lie underneath Congress Bridge come out in a swarm.

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This is a hazy sight of it. I couldn’t get a good shot because it was storming and I really didn’t know what I was expecting and how to prepare my camera for it, but trust me when I tell you, it is one of the most memorable sights I’ve seen and I’ve seen some cool stuff around the world. The wait can be rather frustrating because the bats literally do what they want but I made some good conversation with the hundreds of people also in anticipation.

bartoncreek

Another cool place to check out is the Barton Springs. You have to pay a $8 fee to enter the actual pool where the water comes from naturally heated springs, but you can also swing through the children playground to this creek-like area. The actual pool is top-optional so note that when you’re heading there. Austin has a bunch of cool secrets like these.

6th

And then of course, what’s Austin without 6th Street. Austin is known as the live music capitol of the world, and the areas surrounding 6th street do host some of the liveliest pubs and bars I’ve seen in a city. There’s a bunch I liked including Jackalope, Blind Pig Pub and Bull McCabes (which is actually on Red River St). Grab a beer, chill out and dance with other tourists/locals. It’s a ball of a time. One place I highly recommend is the Midnight Cowboy speakeasy which needs reservations well in advance but does tableside cocktail preparations.

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Before I go on to talk about food, we must talk about food trucks. Austin has the most food truck parks I’ve seen in an US city, probably comparable to Portland. These are where some of the best food is dished out and it’s a lifestyle here to eat out on outdoor benches because the weather is always warm. I love love loved this.

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One of the places you MUST make your way to is La Barbecue. It’s a 2 hour wait if you just swing by but if you pre-order a week in advance, you can just come up and collect your order and pay immediately. The beef brisket is heavenly and is some of the best I’ve ever had in my life. It’s really depressing because I don’t know if I’m ever going to have such good brisket in a while. Their sausages are also really well done, with the meat mix being spot on and spicy. I also was a big fan of their potato salad.

torchys

The most recommended place to me was Torchy’s Tacos. I’m not sure if you’re aware, but Austin is famous for multiple things, and Tex-Mex is top on that list. Torchy’s is the epitomy of that celebration with savagely unique taco combinations and a mean queso dip. I’ve had comparable tacos in my travels around cities, but I will admit their queso is unbeatable. I personally liked their Green Chile Pork taco the best.

gordough

Another recommendation I’ll provided is for Gordough’s. I couldn’t make it out to their Public House where they serve ~donut burgers~ but I made a stop at a food truck and had one of their most populat donut dishes. I can’t remember what it’s called but it has whipped cream and fresh strawberries on a light fried donut. It was so good, but so sinful. Texan food isn’t known for being light but I didn’t know that so I was very overwhelmed quickly by how dense the food was. Make sure you take note of that, if not you’ll leave a few pounds heavier for sure.

Having seen Austin, I heard I had to check out San Antonio while I was nearby, so I booked a Greyhound and went out.

riverwalk

San Antonio is an absolutely beautiful city, and a lot more historically tied if you ask me. There’s a lot of events that happened around the area and the buildings and roads seem to reflect that. The centerpiece of the city though is the Riverwalk, which is a long expansive river that is banked by restaurants and bars. At some points, there are dams, bridges and even this performance area. You can take a boat cruise tour although I opted to walk the whole way and pick up on tidbits that the tour guides were sharing.

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On the upper level lie more of San Antonio’s historical features, the most important being the San Fernando Cathedral. It is one of the oldest cathedrals in the US and has the architectural brilliance to show for it. I loved just walking around and admiring the stonework gone into the church, and the best part was that because I came on a Sunday, service was going on and I could peek into the stunning interior.

mexmart

If you continue westwards from the Cathedral, you’ll come across the largest Mexican Market outside of Mexico. This market has all kinds of stalls selling crafts, goods and memorabilia. There are also live music performances and talent shows.

mexstreet

Of course there’s a whole array of Mexican street food to choose from. I would say you’re gonna get more authentic Mexican food here than actual Tex-Mex which was a big thing for me because I’ve discovered a love for Mexican food since coming to the US. I’m really going to miss having easy access to Mexican food now that I’m out of the US.

alamo

And then we come to the Alamo, the highlight of my trip. From the memorable warcry ‘Remember the Alamo’, this area is a historical tribute to the complexities of Texas’s politics. The main building is actually a shrine of sorts to those who sacrificed their lives to protect the Mission (monikered ‘The Alamo’), but the whole campus holds artifacts and exhibits explaining how people fought over this area. It’s really an exciting and sobering visit, and completely meets the hype. It’s also completely free.

poblano

In San Antonio, I only had one meal, but this meal probably is as classic as it gets for my travels. I didn’t really want to drop a pretty penny on the Riverwalk restaurants but I also wanted good food. I basically camped outside the San Fernando church and followed those people who escaped church service early to reserve seats for lunch. I followed them to the nearby Poblano’s, which is a Mexican cafeteria that serves platters that are so affordable. I really had a hearty taco meal with chulapas here. Man, this was as good as it got for Mexican food.

Texas was an adventure and a ride. Be prepared for a very different part of the US when you cross these borders. There’s so much more I wish I did, like catch a rodeo or visit the famous Hamilton pools, but alas I must await my return to this exciting state. I will be back, Texas.

hooah.

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coasting it on the west – +san francisco

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We resume our adventure on Highway 1, the famous coastline highway that is uninterrupted in beauty. Between LA and SF, sticking on the highway will bring you up along the mountains and on literally the closest reachable point to the Pacific Ocean on this stretch. It’s a breathtaking sight, and a dangerous one too as the mountainous path curves unexpected and propels you to another risky stretch.

It’s all completely worth it though, for sights as the one above. Wild, untouched and absolutely mesmerizing, this was by far one of my favorite parts of the trip.

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Go further north, and you’ll hit Monterey, a lovely coastal town that is home to a number of attractions including the Monterey Aquarium.  We reached too late to visit the aquarium, so we took the time to explore the 17 Mile Drive though, a famous route that passes by many beautiful natural coastal sights and the well known Pebble Beach Golf Course. I’m not sure if it was named Pebble Beach because of the beach above, but I’d like to think so.

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What you’ll notice immediately about this route is how secluded it is. It’s really a testament to the exclusive lifestyle lived by those who can access these parts of the country. Beautiful, untouched and barred by gates.

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The lone Cypress tree is known as one of the most photographed trees in North America, and it sits near the end of the 17 Mile Drive. It’s held by cables, but one must ask – how does a tree endure the hardships of being exposed to the elements all by itself and remain standing? I guess that got pretty deep.

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Of course while in Monterey, we decided to try some of their famous seafood. The Clam Chowder at Old Fisherman’s Grotto was memorable, with its hot, creamy and delicious flavor going doing your throat. Their crab sandwich is worth trying, although the chowder was definitely the star.

San Francisco

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The next day, we made our way into San Francisco, the second most famous city in the US. SF is full of promise, and its city seems to suggest a new way forward for the US. The first stop for us was Pier 39, a pier completely redone to accommodate commercial activities and restaurants. There’s tons to see and do on this pier, but only if you’re looking for ways to simply spend money.

alcatraz

Walk further along the pier and you’ll notice Alcatraz, the infamous prison island for the US’s most dangerous prisoners. You need to buy tickets weeks in advance to even have a shot of stepping on the island, but the view from afar is already thrilling in imagining the lives of those on the island and how difficult it must have been to be so close to the mainland.

bayofseals

One of the more unique attractions is the Bay of Seals. I’m still puzzled on how all these seals manage to just flop on over to these platforms and how they do so consistently every day, but they do and people simply watch. One must wonder who’s watching who – are we watching them or are they watching us?

trams

One of my favorite sights in SF was the trolleys moving up and down the main streets. Apparently, SF has brought in all the trolleys from around the world and incorporated them into its network, making it a unique way to travel around but also a iconic part of SF transportation.

lombard

My only grievance, if you would call it that, of San Francisco is the hilly streets. Without a car, one can expect to climb a couple of blocks uphill before reaching your destination. The most significant point is Lombard Street, that peaks on Russian Hill. From this point, you can see most parts of SF but you’re also going to see the world’s ‘crookedest’ street, which is quite the comical view.

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How can one go to San Francisco and not see the Golden Gate Bridge? It’s an architectural wonder and the photos never do justice to the scale of the bridge when up close. We took the bicycle tour and biked up and across the bridge. It was a good exercise but an even better memory as we crossed one of the most iconic structures of the world on our bikes.

coronahill

There are many good sights of San Francisco. Twin Peaks is normally suggested as a popular spot, and I have good memories there from my previous trip, but this time our friend Lucas brought us up to Corona Hill, where we coincidentally opened up some Coronas and enjoyed the view. It’s a secluded and therefore cozy running trail that only those who want to put in the effort to climb get to enjoy the view from.

castro

Being in Chicago, you become familiar with Boystown – the popular Gay district where gay people have their own bars and clubs that are catered for them. But in a lot of ways, Castro in SF stands boldly as a whole cultural district. It’s not just bars and clubs, it’s a celebration of the LGBTQ culture and stands boldly for them. I was personally caught unaware by the Rainbow streets which made for a great picture.

ghira

Finally, a trip to San Francisco is not complete without a trip to Ghirardelli, the chocolate factory that is similar to the fictitious Willy Wonka’s. The smell of chocolate in the building is intoxicating, and such a pleasure.

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I got the world famous Chocolate Fudge sundae, and I had a tough time eating anything else the whole day. The fudge is smooth and rich, and the ice cream mixes well with it to make a sweet escape.

boudin

On the topic of food, one of the must-eats is Boudin’s sourdough bread. Yes, the bread. The clam chowder is what’s well known, but I decided to try their shrimp sandwich and was not disappointed. The bread is flavorful and adds such distinction to each bite, the shrimp played but a supporting role in this meal.

dimsum

Finally, while in SF, one cannot avoid the Asian Food. Dim Sum places are plentiful and at good prices, and it was a good time taking my friends who had never tried it before on an adventure where it was as authentic as it got, with shouting waitresses and bamboo steamers. The food reminded of Asia back home, and that was all that mattered.

San Francisco was full of culture, with people trying to make their claim on the new America. From a strong immigrant culture to the obvious rise of Silicon Valley nearby, this city is where you’ll find energy. There’s much to be aware of as well, it’s not all gold and silver – with many homeless and places in shambles – but those stories don’t get told of much in favor of shining light on the promise of a new future.

In the next and last post, we finish the adventure by traveling through the Redwoods and ending up in Portland, where things get weird.

till then,

hooah.