Robert Schrader is a travel blogger, photographer and web consultant who has traveled the world and chose Austin, Texas as his home. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, gives readers tips on location independence as well as offering high-quality travel guides for cities and countries around the globe. We sat down with Robert to talk about his journey and the quirky southern city he calls home in this interview style Austin city guide.
Robert’s Top Austin Picks
“It’s a great place to visit but more importantly, it’s the best place in the world to come home to.”
#1. Why did you choose Austin and what sealed the deal?
In my life, I strive to achieve a balance between ease and effort – Austin perfectly embodies that. Austin is affordable enough that I can live in the center of the city, and justify paying rent even when I’m gone on my trips, but rich enough in culture, entertainment and natural beauty that I never find myself bored. The magic of Austin is in the intangible things: The serendipity of always running into people you know and the way certain street corners, buildings, trees and colors of the sunset can evoke entire swaths of your life.
#2. What are the typical stereotypes about Austin? Are they true?
Austin has a reputation as being “liberal,” but that’s only true when you compare it to what’s around it. People’s mindsets are quite conservative here, even among people who aren’t native or haven’t lived here long.
Another stereotype about Austin is that everyone is extremely laid back. While I would say that this is true for a certain segment of the population – namely, the segment that’s been here a really long time – the city is also full of entrepreneurs, who are largely responsible for its economic boom, and so for every lazy hipster there’s a team of self-employed hustlers makin’ dat cash flow.
#3. After a trip, where is the first place you go (after home of course)?
If it’s morning, I go to Vintage Heart Coffee, my neighborhood coffee shop. It’s something of a boutique coffee shop – very small, just one person working and a simple — but delicious menu. The walk to Vintage Heart is also great, with calming views of eclectic East Austin on the way there, and the ever-growing Austin skyline on the way back.
If it’s the evening, I’ll usually stroll along Ladybird Lake, a dammed portion of the Colorado River in downtown Austin. The trail around it goes for 11 miles, and in spite of how urban it is, it’s lush and rugged, and really gives you the feeling you’re in the middle of nature. It’s the perfect escape – albeit from a city that really doesn’t need escaping from.
“Austin is kind of like California in the middle of Texas.”
#4. One thing you would suggest packing when traveling to Austin?
A jacket. Whether it’s to combat Austin winters, which are way colder than you’d ever imagine, or because the air conditioning in the summer can be like an ice box, you might be surprised how often you need to layer up in Austin.
#5. What do you think makes the city so attractive to young creatives? What has changed since you moved here?
What was attractive about Austin in 2006 when I moved here is that it wasn’t the “next big thing” yet. It was still very affordable. And more than young creatives at that time there were a lot of hippies. I think what has changed about Austin is that a lot of the potential is in the process of being used, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but I think it’s the same message that attracts people. Maybe this sort of “go west” attitude that California had during the Gold Rush, I guess this is kind of the “digital gold rush”. I think now that prices in Austin are increasing, it’s attracting a different type of person. What I will say is that a lot of “old Austin” still exists, you just have to dig deeper to find it. I guess what I like is that I can go to one of my favorite coffee shops and have a really cheap and delicious breakfast served by some old hippy and then I can go downtown and go to happy hour at a really fancy hotel and look up at the skyscrapers. It’s cool that you can now have all these different experiences in the same city.
#6. Was there anything specific that started this influx of young, mostly progressive people or has Austin just always been “a bit different”?
Austin has definitely always been a bit different. The main thing that’s always drawn people to Austin is the University of Texas. Austin has always been a hub of creative and progressive thought in Texas. About 10 or 15 years ago, maybe after the tech bust but before the new tech boom, the city realized what they had here and they wanted to start drawing people here from other states. So you have a combination of people coming here for college and deciding to stay and then curious people from outside who wanted an alternative to these other creative hubs. It’s always been the same thing driving people here, which is the large population of young creative people, but there really has been a concerted effort on the part of the City of Austin, both in terms of drawing people to live here but also in terms of tourism. So many people come here, for example for SXSW or ACL or maybe just a vacation, and they literally move here afterwards. We have 150 people a day moving here now, it’s the fastest growing large city in the United States and it’s interesting because we’re a city that’s not really prepared for growth. Our transportation infrastructure isn’t very good, we live in a drought-prone region and have a very finite supply of water, so it’ll be interesting to see where that goes.
“A place where really people from all walks of life can come.”
#7. Do you think the city will continue to live true to its reputation as being open-minded and progressive?
I definitely think it’ll always be progressive, but I think there is some danger, because the prices are rising so much. When I first moved here, I was living at this beautiful apartment complex and you really had people from every economic level: you had lawyers, teachers, doctors, day laborers and recent graduates like me; a community of people who maybe in another city would have never met because of the social stratification. Now that prices are rising, it’s attracting people who are at a certain socio-economic level, who maybe have prejudice against people lower down on the food chain. These are realities when you come from this kind of bubble of wealth and affluence and I think that’s what’s in danger in Austin. It will always be progressive, but I don’t know that it will always be inclusive.
On the other hand, there are positive effects: nicer restaurants, more interesting nightlife spots, the skyline’s getting really cool and the city has more money to spend. For example, we have this lake downtown, which has had a trail around it about 11 miles long where you can walk or bike or take a hike, and now on parts of the lake they actually have a boardwalk, where you can go out into the water. They wouldn’t have the money for this if they didn’t have so many people and businesses moving here. Like any city, there is always a positive and a negative side when it comes to growth.
“Austin, because it’s so small, is a perfect city to just get lost in and explore.”
#8. What mistakes do you think people make when they visit Austin?
Austin has been such a hot place in the past years, there have been a few places that get more attention than others from tourists: South Congress Avenue, which has a lot of shopping and dining or the South Congress Bridge where the bats fly out from underneath or the State Capitol and Barton Springs, which are all great, but I think what happens is people go in with a set itinerary. Austin is a perfect city to just get lost in and explore and I think most people don’t take advantage of that. One new feature we have in Austin is an urban bike rental system called B-cycle, where you can rent a bike for a day or a few hours. There are so many little restaurants and bars and shops and if you just hit the big tourist places, you’re not getting that special Austin experience, which is this eclectic cornucopia of people who may not exist for very much longer. So I would say the main mistake people make is not getting out of their comfort zone and exploring enough.
#9. If you were a tourist in Austin, where would you stay? Any hotels you would recommend?
Austin has added about 40 new hotels in the past 2 years. For a budget traveler I would tell them to stay at the Firehouse Hostel downtown or the YHA hostel which is right on the lake. If they’re looking for a more boutique property, there’s a place called Hotel San Jose . It’s on South Congress, which is a very touristy area, but it’s a very special small hotel and it’s really become an Austin institution. Irrespective of their budget, there are the more interesting properties like the Driskill, which is actually a hotel from the 1900’s and one of the oldest businesses in Austin. It’s obviously a luxury hotel, and you’re going to pay a lot to stay there, but it’s a really unique experience because it’s such a historical hotel.
I think the main thing that prevents people from pursuing location independence is the pursuit of it. I think a lot of people spend a lot of time dreaming and hypothesizing and wishing and hoping but not a lot of people are prepared to take the action that’s required to achieve this. I think for me the first step was moving to China to teach English and removing myself from the US “bubble”. There are many pathways to location independence and to do that, you have to work very hard.
The other thing I think intimidates people about it is when they think of location independence, they think you have to be a nomad for the rest of your life when you do this when in reality, location independence doesn’t mean you live on the road, it means you CAN live and work wherever you want. In my case, I did the whole location independence thing, being on the road for a while, and now I choose to live in Austin and travel from Austin whenever I want. I think people assume it’s one or the other: you either have to be a complete nomad or you have to work a 9-to-5, when in reality, location independence is just the freedom to choose on a day-to-day basis how you live.
#11. What factors influence your choice of accommodation when traveling? What do you look for specifically when choosing a hotel or hostel, or do you prefer to stay with locals?
When I was in my early and mid-20s I stayed in hostels a lot because I was broke. Well I’m less broke now and I’m 30 now and I won’t share a bathroom with anyone else, I won’t sleep in a room with anyone else, unless they’re in my bed. So these days, if I don’t have a private bathroom and a private bedroom, I’m not staying there. I normally have a nightly budget in mind so that’s the first thing I look for. Obviously, location is also very important. I want to be in the center of a city or if I’m not in a city, be close to wherever I need to be going. I don’t necessarily need to be in a certain branded accommodation or a certain level of luxury but I want to be in someplace clean, I want to be in someplace safe and I want to be in someplace special. I have a big soft spot in my heart for really small boutique hotels or guest houses.
Questions about Austin? Ask Robert. Questions about hotels? Ask trivago.