Ultimate Guide to Eat, Drink & Do In Austin, TX
Just left of center, always weird.
How To Get There: Austin airport.
Soundtrack: Gary Clark Jr, Beck, Willie Nelson.
Best For: Cheap eats, live music, staying young.
Tips: See the bats at dusk on Congress Bridge. Take a pedi cab to get around downtown.
Good to Know: How to pronounce street names (Guadalupe, The Drag, Dirty Sixth, San Jac).
Attire: Flip flops, leather jacket, screen printed shirt, patterns.
Austin, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Having spent nearly a decade in the greatest place on earth, my heart will always call this magical city home.
If you ask anyone who lives there if they like Austin or not, they’ll without hesitation say “yes”. And, when you ask people what they love most about Austin, it’s nearly impossible to list just one thing.
The people are friendly, the drinks are cheap (and cold) and the food is so good you will be in a “foodcoma” after only a few hours (even on just a layover). There is live music everyday (and everywhere, including the airport) and there is no shortage of things to do (many of which are free and accessible). There is ALWAYS something going on there and leave it to Austin to find any excuse to celebrate or throw a festival (Yes, even Eeyore’s birthday, it’s a thing y’all).
Having worked for the Austin Chronicle, (the weekly news and events publication and Austin bible), where I marketed and promoted events for a living for 3 years, I tend to think I know a thing or two about the city. But Austin is growing quickly and changing by the day as newcomers discover the secret of how awesome it is (I don’t blame them). High rise condos and new hotels are springing up to accommodate, making the skyline almost unrecognizable to what it was a decade ago.
Luckily, I listen to Austin public radio every day, read Austin blogs, and have lots of friends there who keep me up to date with the latest and greatest.
Disclaimer: this is in no way an exhaustive or list (it would be a full time job to keep it up to date) but it is a pretty good short list of the “best of” classics (mixed in with a few newbies).
GETTING TO AUSTIN
Austin, TX is smack dab in the middle of Texas, so the best (and perhaps only) way to get there is via plane. ABI Airport has 150 non-stop flights daily to nearly 50 destinations (including Mexico, putting the International in ABI, Ole!). But if you are going to rent a car anyway (and don’t mind an hour drive), San Antonio is a nearby (sometimes more affordable) option.
Once you get there, you can cab, shuttle or take the Airport flyer bus that will run you downtown for a couple bucks (but it’s limited times & stops so check the schedule before you go). While in the Austin City Limits, you have a few options of transportation:
B-Cycle – Bike sharing programs are popping up in cities all over the country. It made its Ausyin debut in March 2014. Still fairly new, there are only a handful of stations. But being a bike-friendly place already (with bike-friendly weather year-round) it can be a fun way to see Austin “as a local.”
Cabs – For a city of its size, you’d think you’d be able to hail a cab in Austin easily. But don’t be surprised if you end up waiting (awhile) for one. Especially during peak travel times (aka SXSW, ACL, Football games). I’ve spent hours on hold for a cab and ended up being stranded or walking.
INSIDER TIP: If you are near a hotel, go to the bell stand and get in line (even if you are not staying there). It’s must faster than calling (or Ubering as the kids do these days).
BONUS TIP: If you have a large group (or don’t care about cost) the Kareoke Cab is hands down the Best. Thing. Ever. I mean, a van with a pole, disco lights, and a catalog of music to sing along to in route to your destination? Yes, please. Do it (and thank me later). And if you do, please let me know about it! Daytime Service 512-917-7637. Nights & Weekends: 512-626-8294.
Car2Go – This car sharing program (see above) is based in Austin, so there are plenty of smart cars around, but keep in mind you must have a membership – so sign up ahead of time.
Pedicabs – If you are too lazy to ride your own bike, this is a fun alternative to cabs and biking. But don’t expect them to take you to Mt. Bonnell (they have restricted boundaries). And they work (hard) for their money, so don’t forget to tip your driver. Some even come equipped with music or covers in the off chance it rains (or snows).
Public Transportation – Not the most reliable….unfortunately, so I wouldn’t recommend this unless it’s a last resort. Mass transit hasn’t quite made its way into the mainstream in Austin (not for lack of trying).
Walk – Most everything within the downtown footprint is walkable. So as a last (last) resort, you can always hoof it.
WHERE TO STAY
Book…early. Accommodations (short term or long) in Austin are hard to come by. Even though there are dozens of new big chains popping up downtown, they all fill up fast (and they spike their rates during events, which seems to be almost everyday now a days).
The real way to see Austin (in my opinion) is to stay at one of the city’s handful of boutique hotels or at an AirBnB (like this backyard cottage for $80/night). Here are a few of my favorites (if you don’t mind not using/getting reward points):
Austin Motel – A total dive but in the heart of South Congress walking distance to all the sights. They book (via phone only) up to 3 months in advance.
Heywood Hotel – A modern, new-ish bungalow house converted into a hotel on the east side.
Lone Star Court – The newest addition to the hotel scene. Very “Austin” and pretty affordable as long as you have a car and like shopping. (Since it’s up north near the Domain).
The San Jose or Saint Cecelia – If you want to treat yourself, stay at one of these two gems, both the brainchildren of Liz Lambert. Book early. These will fill up fast!
The W – Also a splurge but if you really want to treat yourself, it’s the creme de la creme in the heart of downtown with an amazing rooftop pool. (Dog friendly too, woof!)
WHAT TO EAT
From food trucks to fine dining, there’s something for everyone. So many options I don’t even know where to begin…so, let’s just grab a fork and jump right in. (I’m hungry just thinking about them all!)
Note: Unless otherwise noted, you don’t need reservations.
Chuy’s – The original location on Barton Springs, jalepeno ranch dressing (and Elvis)!
Hula Hut – On Lake Austin, fish bowl margaritas and bottomless chips with a view.
Trudy’s – A college tradition north of UT’s campus, known for their Mexican Martinis (2 per person limit, but that’s more than you’ll need anyway).
Guero’s – An Austin landmark, lots of celebrity sightings here. Usually a wait, but if you put your name on the list, you can drink ‘ritas in the beer garden next door, where there is usually live music too.
Maudie’s – There are multiple locations, Lake Austin Blvd or South Lamar are both great choices. Can’t go wrong with either one!
El Chile – One of my faves, get a michelada (or rita) in a schooner mug and don’t forget the queso flameada, yum!
Franklin’s – The ever popular, world-famous BBQ joint on east 11th (warning: you must get in line by 9-10am and then wait…a few hours. If you’ll lucky you’ll eat before 1pm (or get to eat at all before they sell out).
Stubb’s – Live music venue/BBQ sauce joint. Great for a casual bite before concerts or do the Sunday Gospel Brunch (reservations required).
Iron Works – On Red River, traditional style BBQ, one of George Bush’s favorites.
Lambert’s – More upscale, but one of my faves. Get the garbanzo beans, delish! (Make reservations). A great place to go before/after seeing the bats.
Whole Foods Corporate HQ – It’s like Disneyland for foodies with several cafes inside with every cuisine type imaginable. There’s even a bar to booze while you shop! Plan ahead and take a culinary class or just pop in to get a taste (and a souvineer).
Doc’s – Good pub food in an open air garage on South Congress. Dog friendly place to hang out. Several kinds of Micheladas (beer meets bloody mary).
Hut’s Hamburgers – A must for first-timers. Be prepared to wait for their famous burgers including gluten free buns and veggie options.
24 Diner – Award-winning chef’s food available 24/7? It exists..on South Lamar.
Elizabeth Street Cafe – Noodles, Bánh Mì & Boulangerie. Three things that you’d never expect to go together, but they nailed it! One of the best meal experiences you’ll have in Austin (if you get the chance).
Sway – Next door to Elizabeth Street, more traditional style Asian food (with a twist). Served tapas style at communal tables.
Uchiko – On north Lamar, one of the best sushi restaurants in the country, so it’s worth the trip to Austin alone, but is more of a splurge (unless you go for Happy Hour). Must make reservations!
East Side King – Try one of the original 3 food trailers on East 6th (see above) or one of the two brick & mortar locations: one in a dive bar (called Hole in the Wall near campus on “the drag”) or on the newest on South Lamar. Paul Qui’s restaurants (Top Chef Winner). Get the fried beets – amazing! Casual alternative to the other Asian spots.
Taverna – One word: mimosas. Two words: flat bread.
Takoba – Kill two birds with one stone: yummy Tex Mex and delicious drinks on a huge patio on the east side.
Max’s Wine Dive – Chicken and waffles located in a gastro pub downtown.
Lucy’s Fried Chicken – Another great place for a casual bite & fried chicken (or fried anything) on South Congress.
Magnolia Cafe – A classic with a little bit of everything (but for brunch, I’d get the Migas!) Two locations: Lake Austin Blvd or South Congress.
Moonshine – All you can eat, Southern buffet! It’s a must brunch spot (but usually a huge wait). So, enjoy in a rocker on the porch.
Clark’s Oysters – Small, trendy hot spot in Clarksville & sister restaurant to Perla’s (another nice seafood option on South Congress).
Josephine House – A newer, trendier place for a nice meal in a small house in Clarksville.
Uchi – They don’t take reservations so plan to wait, but it’s worth it for this James Beard award-winning chef (and one of Food & Wine’s top rated restaurants in the world!)
Barley Swine – Opens at 5pm for dinner only. And it only has a handful of tables, so again, be prepared to wait for this award-winning spot which is popular by celebrities and locals alike.
Amy’s Ice Cream – They have multiple locations around town (including the airport), but go to the original on West 6th. And, if you are up for a challenge, get them to toss your scoop across 6th street traffic – if you can catch it, you keep it!
Gordoughs – A food truck on South 1st, infamously known for their delicious doughnuts!
Austin Java – There are several locations around town now, but the original on 12th and Lamar is local Andy Roddick’s favorite.
Joe’s – An outdoor spot and Austin establishment. Get it to go or sit on the outdoor patio and people watch. (Don’t forget to take your photo with the “I love you so much” sign – see below).
Tom’s – The newest addition to the Austin coffee culture, get your caffeine fix and give back (yes, it’s the same Tom’s as the shoe company).
WHAT TO DO
Shop – The best bet for one-of-a-kind finds is on “SoCo” (South Congress). In addition to Allen Boots (floor to ceiling cowboy boots), there are a number of vintage shops and cool boutiques. Oh and Kendra Scott’s HQ. Another great shopping spot? The new 2nd street district (see below).
Live music – Almost every restaurant or bar downtown plays live music of some sort 7 nights a week. They don’t call it the “Live Music Capitol of the World” for nothing. Pick up a Chronicle at the airport or when you get to town to see who’s playing where (unless it’s at a major venue, they’re usually free or a small cover charge). The best iconic locations to see local acts are Continental Club on South Congress and Broken Spoke on South Lamar both have music nightly. The Cactus Cafe is another classic but a less frequent show schedule.
Be one with Nature – From April to October see the Bats on Congress bridge (stroll along the bridge or book a bat boat tour and BYOB), rent a stand up paddle board or kayak (see above), walk or bike along the hike & bike trail on lady bird lake, or take a dip in Barton Springs pool. They all require a little more time though, but definitely worth it!
WHERE TO DRINK
Rainey Street – A newer pocket of bars (near Red River and 1st street). Basically it’s a bunch of old houses (or shipping containers) turned into bars. Great laid-back vibe and cozy atmosphere. If you go there G’rage M’hal Indian food trailer across the street is amazing – it’s BYOB and fresco/outdoor seating only.
West 6th – West of Congress with lots of young professionals and locals in that area. I recommendKey Bar, The Ranch or Kung Fu (complete with arcade games).
6th Street – The main area between Red River and Congress. It’s the touristy part of 6th street. (Think Bourbon street sans beads). If there is a festival (or it’s the weekend) this chunk of downtown will be blocked off. (See above)
2nd street – Walk by the ACL theater (see the honorary “Willie Nelson Blvd” and Willie statue). Good people watching from La Condesa or the Trece bar at the W (adjacent to the ACL Live theater).
East 6th – If you’re feeling adventurous head east of I-35. It’s a little gritty, up-and-coming area. Cool dives and less touristy, more locals and hipsters.
SIGHTS NOT TO MISS
The Capitol – An obvious, but not so sought after destination. Tour the inside or at least get a photo op since it’s so convenient.
UT Campus – I might be partial to this one, but it’s worth a drive by. Shop on the drag (aka Tyler’s) and get some flip flops and burnt orange souvenirs.
“I love you so much” sign – Located on South Congress it’s quickly becoming the “go to” photo op spot (along with the “Greetings from Austin” sign outside Roadhouse Relics, see above).
IF THERE’S TIME…
Chicken Shit Bingo – Ginny’s Little Longhorn in North Austin hosts this Sunday tradition. Grab a bingo spot and a beer, enjoy live music and wait for the “magic” to happen.
Esther’s Follies – A variety show twice a night Thursday-Saturday on 6th street. A good place to get a laugh, see some talent and learn a little too! (Don’t sit near the front or you might be called on to stage). Book tix in advance.
Alamo Drafthouse – The home to the original food/drink and a movie experience. The Ritz downtown shows more one-off films or the newly renovated South Lamar is also a great option to catch a flick.
The Highball – The owners of the Alamo, bring you this bowling meets karaoke bar. Great for special occasions and/or bigger groups.
Lake Travis – It’s a hike but jump on Highway 2222 and escape into the hill country from the city. Get pampered at one of the spas or views the “lake” from the Oasis restaurant.
Whew, so there you go. The best of Austin, and I barely scratched the surface! Ca you believe it? Overwhelmed? Don’t be, I’ve mapped it all out for you!
In conclusion, you really can’t go wrong when it comes to Austin. No matter where you are staying, what time of year you go, or who you’re with. Visit Austin, and you’ll fall in love…guaranteed!