At the heart of Austin lies the Hotel San José as a tropic sanctuary in the bustling South Congress area, just 1.4 km (0.9 miles) from the Congress Avenue Bridge and its bats. Entering the hotel grounds is like being transported into another world from the gleaming skyscrapers and high-rises of downtown Austin. The hotels outside walls are covered in greenery and once inside the compound birds are chirping, squirrels are roaming and the outside world could just as easily be an another continent.
It’s within walking distance of the rest of South Congress as well as the downtown area (including Sixth Street), but slightly beyond an “easy city stroll” if you’re going to the Capitol or Franklin Barbecue.
Hotel San José started its life as a motor court in 1936, but the signs of this are hard to find. Look closely and strip away the lush vegetation and you can picture this, but as it is now it’s totally transformed. The 40 rooms are all connected through a series of garden courtyards where it’s possible to experience the special atmosphere.
The rooms themselves are minimalistic with polished concrete floors, rustic handmade furniture, pop art decoration and quirky but thoughtful details, like the custom made kimono bathrobes. They project a sense of calm, but not a plush or cozy calm, more like japanese restraint paired with Southwestern hipsterism. On the hotel grounds is a pool and a lounge, but no real restaurant. They follow the same theme as in the rooms and courtyard, a wacky combination of greenery, minimalism and pop art, making them unique but also inviting. The staff are all the definition of U.S. hospitality, very friendly and helpful.
The closest place to get something to eat is Jo’s Coffee just outside the main gate by the street. I don’t know if it’s the best coffee in Austin, but it’s definitely international class cappuccinos with patisseries and other light dishes to match. Perfect for breakfast or in between meals while recuperating from barbecue overload. There are lots of places to eat in the area but few destination restaurants, cheap or expensive.
One of the great benefits of being an old motor court is that there’s a great dedicated parking lot just behind the hotel.
We stayed in a Grand Suite ($409-$511 per night), a 41 m2 (450 sq. ft.) open floorplan suite with a big lounging area, a dinner table, king bed and bathroom. The Grand Suites all face the shared garden. Our plan was to only stay for one night but when we arrived during our Southwest road trip we really liked the place and felt we could use another day to recoup a little in civilization. Since our booking was for only one night in a standard room and they were out of these for the second night they bumped the first night to the Grand Suite as well.
One downside of the minimalist approach and sliding door to the bathroom is that toilet noises are not exactly contained in the bathroom, if you’re itsy about that kind of thing. The room feels solid and the exact opposite of a McHotel or the generic clean and minimalist approach that “design hotels” take. No furniture or textile feels generic, there’s no detail that just happened to be that way. Sure, the day lounging area might not be the best workplace (and the kitchen table might work better), but I can’t get away from how well put together the design is.
The service and attention to detail at Hotel San José is just what you expect from a luxury hotel, always there when you want the staff but otherwise out of the way. But where they set themselves apart is that it they are warm and genuinely friendly with a hotel that has a real personality. There’s no bling or over-the-top services – and I do think there’s a place for that as well – but a restraint and wackiness that suites the modern vagabond. Luxury in the 21st century is about the experience, and the Hotel San José provides a high class but totally unique experience in an unexpected way.
$256.50-$285 for standard room. Reservation recommended. 1316 South Congress Avenue, Austin, Texas. http://www.sanjosehotel.com/