Soaking in the holidays and Austin’s history at the iconic Driskill Hotel

December, 2021
Christmas at the Driskill

The Christmas tree stands at the center of the main lobby at the Driskill Hotel. Pam LeBlanc photo

I grew up in Austin, so my memories of The Driskill go way back. 

As a teenager in the 1970s, my best friend and I volunteered one summer as waitresses when the Heritage Society of Austin ran the 1886 Lunchroom. In the 1980s, I stayed a night at the hotel and inadvertently got locked inside my room while my date waited outside to take me to a wedding. While covering the filming of “The Alamo” in 2003, I watched Billy Bob Thornton, Dennis Quaid and Tommy Lee Jones film a scene at the hotel.  

In recent years, my husband and I make a point to spend an evening at the Driskill Bar during in December. We love to sip fancy cocktails and soak up the holiday ambiance. So when the hotel recently invited me for a stay in one of its newly renovated suites, I couldn’t wait.  

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We timed our visit well. When we checked in on Nov. 23, the 16-foot, real Christmas tree had just gone up in the lobby, although the twinkling lights hadn’t been lit. The whole place smelled like a pine forest. 

Driskill Hotel at Christmas

The Primrose Suite at the Driskill has been remodeled. Pam LeBlanc photo

Up on the fifth floor, we swung open the doors to the Primrose Suite and danced a little jig. The room was beautiful –– light and airy with its own private balcony and a bathroom decked out in subway tile the color of natural linen. We sipped a Topo Chico and looked out over Sixth Street, then decided we needed a cocktail. 

Pam LeBlanc looks over Sixth Street from the Driskill balcony

Pam LeBlanc looks over Sixth Street from a suite on the fifth floor of the Driskill Hotel. Chris LeBlanc photo

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Exploring the hotel’s history

If you’ve never visited the hotel’s bar during the holiday season, do yourself a favor and make the trip. We settled in on cowhide chairs at a table under the watchful eye of a mounted longhorn head. Whiskey seemed appropriate, so I ordered a Blackberry Old Fashioned. My husband got a Ward Eight, made with bourbon, citrus and cherry. The bar hosts live music nightly, and we tapped our toes to a ragtime musician. 

While at The Driskill, take some time to explore the storied halls. From the bar, walk down the sweeping staircase to the grand lobby, which sparkles in lights and greenery this time of year. There, look for the mural of Jesse Lincoln Driskill, the cattle baron from Tennessee who built the hotel. The Driskill opened in 1886, just 14 years after Austin became the permanent capital of the Lone Star State. 

paintings at driskill

Take time to look at the artwork hanging at the Driskill Hotel. Pam LeBlanc photo

Driskill died of a stroke in 1890, a few years after going broke and selling the hotel to his brother. The hotel ran through a series of owners, briefly closed a few times, expanded, added a barbershop, then was almost demolished in 1969. The community rallied to save it. It secured its place in downtown Austin when officials declared it a National Historic Landmark. Today, the Hyatt operates the hotel.

The hotel’s history is intertwined with politics. Several of the state’s governors, including William Hobby, Ma Ferguson and Ann Richards, held their inaugural balls at The Driskill. Lyndon B. and Lady Bird Johnson convened for their first date in the dining room. The bar is still known as a meeting spot for politicians. 

During December, the hotel hosts occasional holiday teas. It also works with local non-profit organizations –– it partners with Dell Children’s Hospital to make a gingerbread village and sells cookies as part of its Cookies for Caring event that benefits the Austin American-Statesman’s Season for Caring fundraiser.

If You Go

Getting there:

The Driskill is located at the intersection of Brazos and Sixth Streets in downtown Austin.  

Stay:

Room rates at the Driskill start at about $180, depending on the date. Go here to book.

Do:

During the holiday season, stroll up nearby Congress Avenue to see the Christmas tree in front of the Capitol. While you’re downtown, visit the Trail of Lights and the Zilker tree.  

 

Eat & Drink:

Head to the Driskill Bar for pork belly tacos or burgers topped with bacon onion jam. The 1886 Café & Bakery serves chicken and waffles, quiche, and an array of sandwiches for brunch. (Don’t miss Helen Corbitt’s cheese soup and the 1886 chocolate cake.) If you’re into donuts stacked high with stuff like Cap’n Crunch cereal or grape-flavored frosting, Voodoo Doughnut is just a few doors down. 

Info:

Save some time to stroll the hotel’s hallways, admiring the artwork. And if you’re into ghost stories, look for a supposedly haunted painting of a young girl on the fifth floor. For more information go to https://driskillhotel.com/.

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