WHAT TO DO
Austin is booming and for good reason. The capital of Texas has so much to offer, from its world famous music scene and celebrated foodie destinations to its abundant green space and easygoing hospitality. There is a great vibe in town which makes it almost impossible to not have a good time. Many of the places you will visit are within walking distance in and around the downtown area. To get anywhere beyond walking distance, use Uber.
Downtown Austin is the best starting point for seeing the city's sights and is home to several of them, including the Texas State Capitol. This majestic building was completed in 1888 and constructed from limestone and sunset red granite. It's the largest state capitol (everything is bigger in Texas) in the country and provides commanding views from atop its dome. Take a peek inside and appreciate the rotunda - be sure to look up at the impressive dome. Grab a self guided tour brochure and stroll the 22 acres of surrounding grounds and historical monuments. Next, head a few blocks north on Congress Ave to the Bullock Texas State History Museum. A must visit for history buffs, it shows off the Lone Star State's past on three floors of galleries and covers everything from the Texas Revolution to oil drilling and space exploration to pop culture. Currently on exhibit (and not to be missed) through the end of July 2017 is the amazing Pride & Joy: The Texas Blues of Stevie Ray Vaughan. Curated by his older brother Jimmie, it offers an in depth look at the iconic career of the legendary bluesman. Stevie Ray Vaughan was the most significant guitar player of the post blues rock era. Based out of Austin, SRV and his band Double Trouble attracted blues and rock fans during the 1980s, thanks to Vaughan's dazzling concert performances and out of this world guitar solos. Tragically, Stevie Ray Vaughan died at the age of 35 in a helicopter crash in 1990. On display are personal artifacts including: photographs, original stage outfits, handwritten lyrics, concert posters and many of SRV's guitars - including his famed "Number One" Fender Stratocaster. Across the street from the Bullock Museum is the southern end of the massive campus belonging to the University of Texas at Austin. I'd recommend walking it for a short while. Start at the Blanton Museum of Art, it is one of the best university art collections in the country. It houses everything from Renaissance paintings to film and video, from art of the American West to modern and contemporary art. A few of my favorites are The Charge by Frederic Remington, St Cecilia by Simon Vouet and Farrah Fawcett by Andy Warhol. From the Blanton Museum, go check out Texas Memorial Stadium - home of the Texas Longhorns football team (they really like football in Texas y'all). Then head over to the University of Texas Main Building - when the school wins a sporting event, the tower is lit orange - the school color. Before leaving the UT campus, go snap a photo of the Hi, How Are You Mural. This bug eyed frog was created by Daniel Johnston and is located at the corner of 21st and Guadalupe St.
From campus, head over to Lamar Blvd and two of my favorite shops in town. Located at 603 N Lamar Blvd is Book People. It is the city's largest independent bookstore and whatever you are looking for, they will have it. They also have a funky little cafe to chill. Just across the street at 600 N Lamar Blvd is Waterloo Records. This large independent shop is an Austin institution that's been an integral part of the local music scene since 1982. It has an outstanding selection of CDs and vinyl and free in store concerts. Make your way south over Lady Bird Lake (looks more like a river) and shoot some more pics of another famous Austin mural. Located at the corner of S 1st and Annie St on the south side of the Roadhouse Relics building is the Greetings From Austin Mural. This wall sized postcard was recreated by Todd Sanders and is an Instagram favorite. From there, walk a few blocks east to S Congress Ave and the trendy SoCo District. This ten block stretch reflects South Austin's bohemian counterculture and wildly creative style. There are several colorful stores, coffee shops and food trailers - all "Keeping Austin Weird". A few must visits Include: Allen's Boots, Lucy In Disguise and Uncommon Objects. Located at 1522 S Congress Ave (with a large red boot above the door) is Allen's Boots. A South Congress landmark for decades, it sells rows upon rows of traditional cowboy boots and other Western wear. Lucy In Disguise With Diamonds is at 1506 S Congress Ave and it's over the top with its selection of costumes, vintage clothing, masks and props. Uncommon Objects offers an eclectic array of quirky antiques, gadgets and toys. It is located at 1512 S Congress Ave, do visit. After you've had your fill of shopping, take a break at Jo's Coffee - just up the street at 1300 S Congress. It's a classic Austin hangout with a shaded patio, darn good coffee (try the turbo) and another popular mural to take a picture of - I Love You So Much. I also love ice cream and across the street from Jo's is Amy's Ice Cream. It's yummy, especially on a hot Austin day. Sample the Mexican Vanilla, es muy bueno.
A great way to walk off (or bike) those added calories is to explore Austin's great outdoors. Rent a city bike at one of the several dozen Austin B Cycle locations ($12 for 24 hours) and follow nature. Start on the south side of Lady Bird Lake and head west towards Zilker Park along the Hike and Bike Trail. Do not miss the Stevie Ray Vaughan Memorial located at the intersection of Town Lake Hike and Bike Trail at Auditorium Shores. The bronze sculpture is the work of Ralph Helmick. Continue biking along the water until you reach the pedestrian bridge over Barton Creek. Take it south until you reach the glorious Barton Springs Pool. Draped with century old pecan trees, this natural spring pool is a great place to relax and cool off (don't forget your swimming trunks). After your dip, head into the 350 acre Zilker Park for nature at its best. The park is lined with hiking and biking trails and is home to festivals and Zilker Botanical Garden. Take a stroll through the lush gardens and admire the natural grottoes, a Japanese garden and a fragrant herb garden.
After becoming one with nature, walk the Congress Ave Bridge north over Lady Bird Lake towards downtown. If you happen to be in town during bat season (March to November) and the sun is starting to set, stay put on the southeast side of the bridge for a bat show. Every year up to 1.5 million Mexican free tailed bats make their home upon a platform beneath the bridge, forming the largest urban bat colony in North America. It's become an Austin tradition to watch the bats swarm out to feed on insects at night. It looks like a fast moving black cloud and is a sight to see. For entertainment of a similar sort, walk up Congress Ave until you reach the infamous 6th St. Turn right and walk east on 6th St towards I-35 and take in the sights, sounds and smells it has to offer. Whether you love it or loath it, 6th St is one of the most iconic streets in Austin. You can get a beer, a shot and a tattoo all for a pretty good price on Dirty Sixth, it's kind of like a mix of Bourbon St in The Big Easy and Lower Broadway in Music City. Be sure to stop in at The Driskill Hotel Bar, Buffalo Billiards, Maggie Mae's or catch a late night showing at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz. For a modern day speakeasy, hit the reservations only cocktail bar, Midnight Cowboy.
The city's official slogan promotes Austin as "The Live Music Capital of the World" - a reference to the many musicians and live music venues within the city, as well as the long running PBS TV concert series Austin City Limits. I will discuss some of my favorite venues later on, but wanted to mention 2 of the world famous festivals that take place in Austin every year. South By Southwest (SXSW) is one of the American music industry's biggest gatherings. It takes place every March and has now expanded to include film and interactive media, along with a ton of live music. The Austin City Limits Music Festival is not as big as South By, but it attracts big name acts and sells out months in advance. It takes place every October and is held in Zilker Park.
WHERE TO EAT
Austin is one of the great food and drink towns in America. It has everything from humble food trailers to multi course tasting menus and dive bars to laid back cocktail lounges. The first thing that comes to mind when I think of food and Texas is barbecue - the first thing that comes to mind when I think of barbecue and Austin is Franklin Barbecue. Located at 900 E 11th St, this famous barbecue joint only serves lunch (opens at 11am) and only until it runs out, usually well before 2pm. Your best bet is to join the long line around 9am and make some new friends (my line friends were visiting from Austria). It's a rite of passage that visitors to Austin should try at least once. While you wait, you can buy beer from a cooler toting server and folding chairs are usually available near the front of the line. When your moment of glory arrives, go for the delicious fatty brisket courtesy of Aaron Franklin. Another Austin institution is The Salt Lick, actually it's in Driftwood - about 20 miles southwest of town. It is located on a beautiful farm with picnic tables and a massive outdoor barbecue pit. Be sure to do the family style all you can eat option for $25. It's cash only and BYOB.
It is estimated that there are more than 1000 mobile food vendors in Austin. Food court trailer parks are a phenomenon in town where multiple trailers gather to create a dining destination. I visited several places and would like to share my top 5 mobile delights. La Barbecue is located at 1906 E Cesar Chavez St and each meat is smoked to perfection and served on butcher paper. Try the brisket, spicy sausage and buttermilk bacon potato salad. Micklethwait Craft Meats is at 1309 Rosewood Ave and serves up hearty barbecue along with made from scratch side dishes. Veracruz All Natural is located at 1704 E Cesar Chavez St and has the best migas breakfast taco in town. Another killer taco joint is Torchy's Tacos. The trailer is in South Austin at 1311 S 1st St and it's a long time favorite in town. Get the green chile pork, fried avocado and the crossroads tacos. My final favorite food trailer is Via 313, conveniently located at 61 Rainey St in the backyard of the beer bar, Craft Pride. They do a solid version of the thick Detroit style pizza pies.
A super cool place called Easy Tiger overlooks Waller Creek at 709 E 6th St. It's an inside/outside bake shop and beer garden that has a friendly communal vibe. In the morning, enjoy a cup of coffee and a tiger claw (pastry with spiced pecan filling) for $5. From lunch onwards, the beer garden serves pretzels, charcuterie and a dynamite pastrami sandwich on homemade bread. Enjoy one of the many local craft beers on tap outside on the patio. Next, head west on 6th St and stop by Voodoo Doughnut. Originally from Portland, this shop of sweet treats gets wildly creative (try the bacon maple bar doughnut) and is open 24 hours. If you're in the mood for some exotic tastes, try Elizabeth St Cafe at 1501 S 1st St. Classic Vietnamese dishes such as pho and bun share the menu with French inspired items like crepes and baguettes at this casual spot. For tremendous Thai cuisine, make your way to Sway at 1417 S 1st St. It's a modern spin on classic favorites set in a stylish communal setting. Try the tiger cry (hanger steak) with blue crab fried rice and wash it down with a kosmic salty dog. For some tasty Mexican grub, La Condesa on W 2nd St serves up flavorful chicken with mole and crabmeat tostadas. There is also a lengthy tequila and mezcal menu at this contemporary eatery. For a more traditional setting, Licha's Cantina on E 6th St is the perfect choice. This authentic cantina (an old house with a great patio) has a scrumptious bone marrow on corn flatbread, not to mention an extensive cocktail and tequila list.
I would now like to discuss some of the places I particularly enjoyed in Austin. Emmer & Rye is located at 51 Rainey St and does fantastic farm to table small plates and dim sum in a relaxed setting. Standouts included the corn johnny cakes with pork sausage and the roasted beets with gorgonzola. Save room for the delicious desserts like the Meyer lemon tart. Southern cooking takes center stage at Fixe, located at 500 W 5th St. Solid comfort food indeed paired with some fine whiskey. You must get the biscuits, deviled eggs, fried chicken and don't forget the grits. Launderette is a trendy East Austin hot spot. This converted laundromat is now a bright cafe that excels in New American fare. I recommend going for lunch and getting the fried egg BLT with avocado. Chef Tyson Cole has 2 amazing restaurants in town. Uchi is located at 801 S Lamar Blvd and has some of the best sushi I've ever tasted. It has a sleek interior and draws a large following so be sure to make reservations in advance. After dinner, take a short walk down S Lamar for some yummy ice cream at Lick or a few cocktails at Backbeat (hit the rooftop patio). Uchiko is chef Cole's second child and it too is outstanding. Located at 4200 N Lamar Blvd, this chic space describes itself as "Japanese farmhouse dining & sushi" and reservations are highly recommended. I saved my best for last and they both belong to chef Bryce Gilmore. His first project started in a food trailer and is now a restaurant located on the exact lot the trailer once stood, 1201 S Lamar Blvd. Odd Duck wows diners with innovative dishes using only locally sourced goods. It's open for lunch and dinner and the shareable plates range from red beans & rice to grilled quail and roasted carrots. The specialty cocktails deliver, try the Bitter Dandy. Chef Gilmore's other masterpiece is Barley Swine, located at 6555 Burnet Rd. This popular foodie gastropub offers an eclectic (snout to tail) selection of local ingredients and of course some great cocktails, I enjoyed the Texas 35 and Magdalena. The chef's tasting menu is the way to go - it allows you to try a wide variety of seasonal items that range from pompano ceviche with popcorn custard and chicken skin with deviled egg to pork belly with gulf xo sauce and glazed duck ham with fried duck egg.
Austin has a plethora (el guapo) of fine drinking establishments and live music venues. I've already mentioned a few and would like to conclude with some favorites that should not be missed. I spent a good amount of time most evenings on Rainey Street. Just south of downtown, it's a two block stretch (davis to river st) of old bungalows turned drinking joints. At night, white lights illuminate cocktail row and there are several top notch food trailers if you happen to get rumbly in your tumbly. Start at Clive Bar, it has chandeliers and a friendly bartender. All the drinks are $8, try the Old Fashioned with house made pecan syrup. Next, head to Icenhauer's where several of the cocktails have lady names - I enjoyed The Jennifer, cucumber infused gin and lime. The Blackheart is across the street and does a mean Sazerac. End the evening at Half Step, it's a cozy space with dark wood booths and it might have the best cocktail in town - Floradora is gin, lime, ginger and raspberry syrup. An added bonus is Little Lucy's Mini Donuts is stationed just outside.
There is live music all over town and a number of iconic venues that are definitely worth a visit. Stubb's is located at 801 Red River St and is the most highly touted venue in Austin. Not only does it have a cool outside space, it also has a Bloody Mary bar and some tasty barbecue. Just up the road at 912 Red River St is Mohawk. This multilevel, indoor/outdoor venue with three bars and two stages is beloved for its strong pours and great indie rock shows. The Hawk has a rad rooftop deck and is one of the best live music venues in town. Another solid venue is Emo's, located at 2015 E Riverside Dr. For some true Texas honky tonk head to Broken Spoke at 3201 S Lamar Blvd. Opened in 1964, this legendary dance hall has live country music and a classic chicken fried steak. If you're in the mood for some great jazz then the Elephant Room is your salvation. Tucked underground at 315 Congress Ave, this longstanding venue offers cool jazz plus more than 20 draft beers. There's no better place to end your visit than at Austin's home of the blues, Antone's. Located at 305 E 5th St, this historic nightclub is now a few blocks from its original location on 6th St. It has hosted an impressive number of blues legends including Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
WHERE TO STAY
Austin has several notable places to call home during your stay and there are 2 that I especially enjoyed. Both are landmarks in prime locations that provide modern amenities along with an entertaining past. You can't go wrong with The Driskill or Hotel San Jose.
For over a century, The Driskill has been the crown jewel of Austin. Opened in 1886, it is known for its rich legacy, historic architecture and unique character. Located at the corner of Brazos and 6th St in the heart of the downtown music and entertainment district, this impeccably restored hotel is pure Texas. The grand lobby is highlighted by vaulted ceilings, decorative columns and chandeliers. The elegant rooms are decorated with old photos, the bathrooms are old fashioned and WiFi is complimentary. The Driskill Grill and 1886 Cafe & Bakery are both worth a visit, but the famed Driskill Bar is a must. It has wall mounted longhorns, leather couches, nightly live entertainment and some darn good drinks - try the Lady Bird or The Batini.
Hotel San Jose is right in the middle of the action on South Congress and is the epitome of South Austin cool. This stylish property is a revamped 1930s vintage motor lodge. Set in a modern, minimalist style adorned with tropical vegetation - the bungalow rooms have concrete floors, handmade furniture, flat screen TVs and free WiFi. There is a small but lovely bamboo fringe pool and the garden courtyard bar is totally chill. Enjoy the house specialty Frose or maybe a Tokyo Mule. An added bonus is Jo's Coffee (mentioned earlier) is just next door and many good eateries are a brief stroll away. Most importantly, the totally rad Continental Club is across the street. Be sure to stop in for a drink and some outstanding live music.
Austin is exciting, diverse and genuine. Keep it weird.