As we prepare to leave the great state of Texas, I admit I will be sad to lose my proximity to Austin. One of the most dynamic, diverse cities I’ve ever visited, full of flavors and colors and textures, Austin is one of those places in which I could see myself living someday. The entire city has a personality — artistic, yet entrepreneurial; health-conscious, yet ready to have fun and let loose; with Texas its warmth and West Coast style, there’s a niche for everyone.
Last weekend we took a final trip to Austin to say our farewells to our favorite haunts and spend some time with an old friend, Heather. As a local, she was able to point us in the direction of some new attractions we wouldn’t have found on our own (hello, Rainey Street!) while we shared a few of our Austin must-haves that she hadn’t yet discovered (waffles at 24 Diner!). With my fourth trip this year under my belt, I think I’m finally equipped to share my travel guide to Austin, or how to spend a weekend in a city that has everything for everyone.
Two of the biggest attractions in Austin are the music scene and the food. Local venues draw in bands large and small, and at least three major music festivals take place in the city each year. The first show I saw in Austin was a Sigur Ros concert at Cedar Park, and it was the most incredible event. If you’re stopping through on a weekend, check on any big concerts or festivals — you may want to attend or just avoid that part of town for the traffic — but make sure to stop in at the little dive bars featuring local musicians and a smaller crowd. Sixth Street and South Congress always have something going on.
The food is the main attraction to Austin, in my opinion. Food carts spring up like mushrooms on every corner, representing nearly every cuisine imaginable. You can get Greek food, Indian curries, gourmet doughnuts, tacos, barbecue, wraps, vegan food, vegetarian fare…there is quite literally something for everyone. Little colonies of food trucks are scattered all over the city, but most notable are the lots on 1st Street, Rainey Street, at the 2nd Street farmers market on Saturdays, and those scattered all along 6th Street. Some of my favorites include: Torchy’s Tacos, La Barbecue (INCREDIBLE BBQ) and Gourdough’s. Go to Gourdough’s if you want a hot, gooey, decadent doughnut made with maple syrup and bacon in the middle of the night. It’s ridiculous.
The food carts are not the end-all-be-all. Local restaurants have a thriving presence in Austin and embody much of the ethnic and cultural diversity found in the food cart population. This is a city that loves to eat — fancy dinners, quick lunches, brunch or breakfast at midnight. Some favorites include:
Magnolia Cafe – an Austin staple for breakfast or brunch. The food was pretty good but the service was impeccable. Get here before 9:30 a.m. on weekends if you don’t want to stand in line. Try the migas with fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice.
24 Diner – for brunch, or anytime, really. They’re open 24 hours and look like a typical greasy spoon on the outside, but serve surprisingly upscale meals. They’re committed to sourcing local and ethically raised produce, meat and eggs, and you can truly taste the difference in their attention to detail. I love their Sweet Potato Hash with house-made sausage, serrano peppers and local eggs. Andrew adores their Yeasted Belgian Waffles and French-pressed coffee. [600 N. Lamar Blvd]
Uchi – an upscale, gourmet Japanese restaurant, perfect for a fancy occasion. The first time we visited we waited about an hour to get a seat, but enjoyed edamame and roasted peppers with sake as an appetizer in their outdoor garden. The wait was entirely worth it for the flavors, the inventive presentation of the tasting menu, the fresh fish and the storm of umami that rained down upon my taste buds. [801 S. Lamar Blvd]
La Condesa – a more gourmet twist on typical Tex-Mex, this restaurant is decorated with an artful mix of Southwestern rustic and LA glam, and has THE BEST cocktails. I still dream about El Cubico, with whole leaf tobacco-infused cazadores reposado, vanilla infused brandy, lemon, grilled pineapple juice, mezcal essence and a volcanic-saffron-infused salt rim. [400A West 2nd Street]
Clay Pit – at this Indian restaurant I had the most velvety, satisfyingly rich dish of Lamb Rogan Josh, and so far all other interpretations of the dish have fallen short. The food is authentic and flavorful with a moderate price range. [1601 Guadalupe St Austin]
Lick – not a restaurant, but a destination in itself. They specialize in gourmet ice creams made from locally sourced ingredients including high-quality milk with a ridiculous butterfat content. With flavors like Salted Caramel Lick, Too Hot Chocolate, Dark Chocolate with Olive Oil, Cardamom Pear Cake or Candied Tomato, Basil & Balsamic, their ice cream is as inventive as it is delicious. [2032 S. Lamar Boulevard]
G’Raj Mahal – not quite a restaurant, and yet not quite a food truck, an assembly of exotic tents and outdoor furniture does this eatery make. It’s casual — your food comes on paper plates and patrons are instructed to BYOB — but the wait staff is friendly and attentive, and the location is a half block from Rainey Street, where all of the newest, coolest bars are located. [91 Red River]
Other notable restaurants that were recommended to us but that we never visited include: Hopdoddy, a famous burger joint on Congress; Whip-In, an Indian restaurant; Hula Hut, a Mexican-Hawaiian food hybrid; The Iron Cactus, Leaf, Moonshine and East Side Showroom
Finding the quirkiest cafes is one of our favorite games to play when Andrew and I travel together. This time around, we hit the jackpot. We found Juan Pelota [400 Nueces St] by accident, and it ended up being the perfect spot to enjoy Stumptown Coffee and gluten-free treats. Located in Lance Armstrong’s bike shop, the service is friendly and the location is blissfully removed from the hustle and bustle of Sixth and SoCo. Halcyon [218 W 4th St] is another 4th Street find, although this is less of a quiet coffee spot and more of a racous gathering place — they serve “all your vices in one place,” from specialty coffee drinks, to liquor, to cigarettes and cigars plus and tableside make-your-own-s’mores experience. Walton’s Fancy & Staple [609 W 6th St], part charming French country cafe, part floral shop, is owned by Sandra Bullock. Here, you can find comfort food brunch, delicate pastel macarons, and an oasis of calm on Sixth Street. Picnik [1700 S. Lamar 400-B] is a place I discovered while at Paleo f(x) this year. Devoted to serving gluten-free and Paleo-friendly meals, snacks and coffee drinks, Picnik is set up much like a food cart but is instead stationary, built into a refurbished freight trailer. There you’ll find the only Bulletproof-esque coffee in town, and other drinks with creative twists sure to satisfy the primal palate and promote ketosis. Our friend Heather sent us to The Buzz Mill [1505 Town Creek Dr] to check out the themed interior and the handmade bar. The coffee was pretty good, but the attention to detail was incredible in this woodsy, lumberjack-inspired space. Not just a coffee bar, The Buzz Mill also hosts flapjack brunches on Saturday, live music in their courtyard on the weekends, and specialty infused-liquor cocktails at night.
It is incredibly easy to stay Paleo on a trip to Austin. Most restaurants are committed to sourcing local ingredients, and using pastured or grass-fed meats — and they’ll tell you, right on the menu. As with any dining out experience, you as the customer have the freedom to customize your order, but at least in Austin you can add nitrate-free bacon to your frittata without getting the evil eye from your server. At the very least, Whole Foods offers Paleo-friendly snacks (EPIC bars, dried fruit or nuts from the bulk bins, fresh fruit or veggies, sliced meat from the deli counter) and a hot breakfast bar with eggs prepared every way, should you not find a satisfactory meal in the area.
But don’t be afraid to branch out a little and try things that would normally be off your Paleo radar. Vegan restaurants, for example, can be excellent places to pick up a snack — their commitment to dairy-free often bleeds into a commitment to gluten-free, like at ThaiFresh on Mary Street, where you can find gluten-free treats and homemade coconut ice cream at the coffee bar. Incredibly, restaurants of all kinds are providing gluten-free options for customers, often going so far as to provide an entirely gluten-free menu. Always ask, and never be afraid to ask for what you want, but do so with kindness and humility.
We didn’t get out to too many bars, so if you’re looking for a cheater’s guide to Sixth Street, you won’t find it here. We did love Easy Tiger [709 E 6th St] , Star Bar [600 W. 6th St], Craft Pride [61 Rainey St], and I’ve heard that Crow Bar on Congress and Gibson Bar on Lamar are also noteworthy.
For shopping in Austin, it is key to stay authentic. Keep away from the big stores and hit up the many well-curated vintage stores, like Feathers [1700 S. Congress Ave], Laced with Romance [1601 S. 1st St]. The Whole Foods Market HQ on Sixth and Lamar is a must-see, as is the tiny, quirky South Congress Book Shop.
Lodging in Austin can be conventional or out-of-the-box. I recommend you research your options and find what’s best for your situation, but if at all possible try to stay at an Air B&B to glean all of the knowledge of a local host. If staying in someone’s spare bedroom weirds you out, try the Hotel San Jose on South Congress. It is a quirky, boutique located right in the middle of all of the action, and will afford an authentic Austin experience (but with a hefty price tag).
There’s plenty to do in Austin without planning an itinerary — heck, most times we’re just content to sit on a patio and people watch with a drink in hand! But for those long afternoons that call for a little something more, I encourage you to visit the Bullock Texas State History Museum and the Blanton Museum of Art on the edge of the University of Texas campus. The History Museum is small but packed with information, and the impressive Blanton hosts artists from Picasso to local state crafters and everyone in between. On a nice day, take a run or a walk around the Lake Travis trails or have a picnic at Zilker Park. With all that beautiful public space, it’d be a shame to let it go to waste.
But most of all, Austin is a great place to wander, without many plans or places to be, free to stop at any interesting thing along the way. It is generally a safe place in which to walk around, even at night, and the people there are friendly and willing to help out with directions if necessary.
It is, however, a super-stylish town. When you visit, wear comfortable, sturdy walking shoes, but make sure you leave the fannypack and visor at home. Locals can sniff out a tourist a mile away, and if you can blend in with some tattoos and cool hipster duds, all the better for you. Take heart that you can also wear your cowboy boots here and still feel at home.
Please add your favorite Austin spots in the comments if you have any, or feel free to ask questions. I’d love to hear your recommendations for this and future trips, for current and future travelers.