Often regarded as a "blue island" in the conservative red sea that is Texas, the Lone Star State's capital city of Austin is also the 11th-largest city in the country (population nearing one million and growing rapidly). Just an hour-or-so north of San Antonio (it's well worth trying to spend time in both places when in the region), Austin is one of the top destinations in the South and Southwest among gay and lesbian travelers, owing in large part to the city's liberal mindset, creative vibe, collegiate presence (it's home to the main campus of University of Texas), and outdoorsy appeal - it's worth noting that Austin's Hippie Hollow Park is one of the most popular gay - and clothing-optional - beaches in the country.
Austin's hotel landscape has been in a boom phase for some time now, and it shows little sign of slowing down. Right in the downtown core, where several shiny skyscrapers have gone up in recent years, you'll find a number of noteworthy, stylish properties, from historic old-world hotels that have long been popular with visiting dignitaries and politicos to swanky newcomers; additionally, most of Austin's gay bars are downtown. Across the river, around the hipster-minded South Congress neighborhood, you'll find a number of distinctive, gay-popular options, from affordable motels to design-y boutique hotels to gorgeous B&Bs. Other relatively central pockets of both hotels and inns include the I-35 corridor north of downtown (toward University of Texas campus), and another long stretch of I-35 several miles farther north, extending from the junction with U.S. 290 north to around Rundberg Lane. In this area, you're just a 10-minute drive from downtown, but you'll find far lower rates. In northwest Austin, around the Arboretum area and a 15- to -20-minute drive from downtown with traffic, you'll find a number of mid- to upscale business-oriented hotels. Well west of downtown out in the Hill County and around Lake Travis (and aforementioned Hippie Hollow), there are a handful of outstanding resorts, inns, and even additional chain options.
Another helpful resource for learning about accommodations in the area is the Austin CVB Lodging site, which lists more than 200 properties in the region.
The endearingly old-school Austin Motel (1220 S. Congress Ave., 512-441-1157) is one of those family-owned, low-frills, independent "tourist courts" that proliferated throughout the country during the mid-20th century and is now, at least in most big cities, a rarity. This particular 41-room motel opened in 1938 and retains its vintage vibe. Its rooms contain old-fashioned tile bathrooms, hardwood floors, offbeat murals, framed paintings, and unpretentious but well-chosen antiques - no two rooms are quite the same, and the staff is welcoming and friendly. The motel is situated along one of the trendiest stretches of indie-spirited retail, bar-hopping, and dining in the city, South Congress - dozens of fun hangouts are within walking distance, and it's just a 15- to 20-minute walk across Lady Bird Lake (the Colorado River) to the heart of downtown. Accommodations range from small, simple, and extremely affordable standards with one bed to larger units with two beds to about 10 fancier and larger suites. Some suites open directly to the pool and sunning area, while some have unusual features, like Saltillo-tile floors and substantial sitting areas. Rates for the simplest rooms start at around $150 per night. On-site amenities include bike rentals and Joann's Fine Foods, an open-air eatery serving creative brunch, lunch, and dinner fare - there's a notable cocktail, wine, and craft-beer list, too. Here's a bit more about the Austin Motel.
It may be in the heart of downtown Austin, steps from hip restaurants and gay bars, but the elegant Four Seasons Austin (98 San Jacinto Blvd., 512-478-4500) feels surprisingly peaceful and almost resort-like with its location on Lady Bird Lake (the Colorado River) - its leafy grounds overlook the lake and offer direct access to the pedestrian trail along the water, as well as Congress Avenue Kayak, where you can rent both kayaks and paddle boards. Also in this peaceful area behind the hotel, guests can swim in the hotel pool, relax on the patio, and enjoy an alfresco meal at the outstanding Ciclo restaurant, which serves three meals daily - featuring seafood and steaks - one of the best happy hour deals in town, and a great Sunday brunch. Furthering the luxury-hideaway vibe is the 5,500-square-foot Spa at Four Seasons Austin, an expansive, beautifully designed space with eight treatment rooms. The 291 generous-sized rooms overlook the city or lake and have undergone an extensive recent renovation. Rooms are outfitted with terry bathrobes, iHome alarm clocks, DVD players, and L'Occitane bath products; many have small balconies. Austin's Four Seasons opened in 1987 and has been a favorite address of visiting politicos and dignitaries ever since.
Downtown Austin upped its glam-factor greatly when the sleek, 37-story W Austin Hotel (200 Lavaca St., 512-542-3600) opened in 2010, just a few blocks north of Lady Bird Lake (the Colorado River) and a few blocks south of the gay-bar strip in the Warehouse District. Like other members of Starwood's design-drive W brand, this glitzy urban resort is a blend of ultra-cushy amenities, bold color schemes and patterns, decadently comfy guest rooms, and buzzy and fun public spaces. Rooms align with the city's techie-rocker-hipster mindset - think plush beds with soft white goose-down duvets and Sferra throws, leather headboards, and LED lights. Amenities include iPod docks and high-tech work desks, and the dapper bathrooms are stocked with Bliss spa products. Super-chic suites come with massive sitting areas and deep soaking tubs. Of course, you're in Austin, so it's an open question as to just how much time you're going to spend in your room. The W has some of the most playfully-invented common spaces of any hotel in the city, including a long rectangular 4th-floor pool with poolside Kasbah and Cabana rentals available. On the same floor, you'll find the serenely inviting but unfussy AWAY Spa, with an extensive range of treatments that include what may be the best combination spa offering in town, the rock-themed, 105-minute "Over The Hills and Far Away" treatment, that includes full body massage, coconut-sugar scrub, full-body dry-brushing, parafango wax, a mini facial, and a few more happy moves. Off the lobby, the inviting Living Room comprises several natty social spaces, from a Records Room decked with 8,000 vinyl LPs and warmed by a fireplace, the Tequila Bar, the cozy Secret Bar, and the breezy Screened Porch, which is really the street-side patio of the W's exceptional restaurant, TRACE, where you can nosh on superbly crafted mod-Texan cuisine, from wild game to local artisan cheeses.