Planning a trip to Austin, Texas? Here’s where to eat, drink, and stay, and what to see and do.
In the middle of Texas sits a neon blue oasis fluent to a litany of desires. Whether it’s delicious food, nature, or dancing, Austin ebbs and flows with an array of easily accessible, oftentimes historical, always singular options. The city possesses a rich history that stubborn locals refuse to forget and those passing through are constantly attempting to unearth. Despite its recent boom in popularity as a bachelorette location and tech hub, Austin remains a foodie and music lover’s paradise. From delicious Tex-Mex, to vibrant spots for honky-tonk and two-step, Austin’s charm extends from the bats flying over the South Congress Bridge to the fresh aquifer water deep underground. If you happen to have a few days in Austin, TX and plan on seeing, doing, and eating as many amazing things as possible, here are a few-not-to-be-missed places to check out.
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Where to Eat and Drink
If there’s a food that epitomizes Austin, it’s breakfast tacos: a bunch of great ingredients—egg, bean, cheese, bacon, and chorizo—all wrapped up together in a warm tortilla. And while there is no shortage of fantastic breakfast taco spots in Austin (shout out to Juan-In-A-Million, Rosita’s Al Pastor, Tacodeli, and Torchy’s), Maria’s takes the cake for having a story that defines the state of Austin today.
Due to drastically increasing property taxes, Maria’s almost sold the space in 2017. The community rallied around them, they rebounded, but they are up for sale again as of writing this article. It’s a problem Austin has seen before: The institutions that built the tight-knit communities Austin is known for are frequently forced out, as the neighborhood becomes increasingly popular. There is solace to be found in supporting this local institution. Unwrap some egg and chorizo tacos from their foil amidst the outstretched arms of the jumbo statue of Austin’s taco queen herself, owner Maria Corbalan.
Even if you’re lactose-intolerant, the Bob Armstrong Dip at Matt’s El Rancho is still worth it. The classic queso with an Austin twist is inimitable, and not for lack of trying. Matt’s opened their doors in 1952 and generations of Austinites have poured through to indulge in sizzling platters of fajitas and ice-cold pitchers of margaritas. The Mexican Martini, which comes in a shaker with the tequila of your choosing, might best the margaritas here, but you can’t go wrong with either.
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Chances are you’ve already heard about Franklin’s (if you haven’t, you should go there too!) And while Austin’s BBQ is some of the best you’ll get in the south, my favorite way to experience it is in true Austin fashion: rolled up in a taco. That’s right, at Valentina’s they serve Pulled Pollo, Beef Brisket, and Carnitas tacos in fresh-made flour tortillas. Lather some BBQ sauce on them and smell the cedar smoke flow from the truck nearby. Yes, this is what heaven tastes and smells like.
P.S. Heaven also has breakfast tacos until 11 a.m.
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If you’re vegan, or have heartburn from too many breakfast tacos and too much BBQ, head to Bouldin Creek Café. Swing open the sticker-covered door to find a punk-rock vegan establishment that’s the kind of vegan that doesn’t mention its vegan-ness every five seconds. A pro-order is The Slacker’s Banquet, a classic Austin staple that’s a mash-up of smoky red and black organic beans on a bed of forbidden black rice (definitely add the house-made vegan cornbread for $1.25 extra). If you’re in the mood for tamales, get the Farmer’s Plate. It comes with three grilled sweet potato and pecan tamales, avocado mash, warm tortillas, and house made salsa. Wash it all down with a Thai Take Off, a signature drink with espresso and condensed milk served over ice, and take a walk around the block. Who knows, you might run into someone famous…
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Amy’s has over 350 rotating flavors but renowned Mexican Vanilla and Belgian Chocolate are a can’t-miss. You can always create a mash-up and invent your own flavor with any amount of mix-ins. But what really makes Amy’s special is that they’ll toss you a scoop across the street. I put this to the test last time I went and while the ice cream only made it ¾ of the way across, it made the (remade) ice cream I had that much sweeter. They’ll also throw it into the air and behind their back, if you prefer not to go outside.
If you’re looking for a good place to sit outside and pet dogs or stare at babies, Radio might be the perfect spot for you. If you just want to drink beer (or coffee!) and listen to bluegrass, even better. The sprawling patio is scattered with picnic tables and twinkle lights, but before you sit and relax, head inside and grab a coffee or a beer from their rotating tap list. At night, live music floods the patio, sometimes trivia takes center stage, but breakfast tacos always abound. Veracruz, the taco truck outside, is perfect for an early morning migas taco with your coffee, or if you work up an appetite square dancing under the stars, opt for the chicken mole. I’m normally a fan of flour tortillas, but their handmade corn tortillas are the stuff of legend.
What to See and Do
At first glance, Barton Springs is a public pool. But when you dive in, you’ll feel the same chills that ran down generations of Austinites’ spines—from state legislators to free-spirited, topless sunbathers in the ‘70s, to those still hanging around to this day. The pool is fed from underground springs that keep the temperature at 68-70 degrees, perfect to cool off in during the dog days of summer, and not too terrible during an Austin winter. The pool is also a federally protected habitat to the Barton Springs Salamander. There’s no alcohol allowed but then again, you don’t need it.
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“South Congress is changing,” said every Austinite, ever. While a few homespun stores still remain—head to famous Allen’s Boots for cowboy boots, South Congress Books for vintage books, Tesoros Trading for funky home-goods, Parts & Labour for handmade art, jewelry, and t-shirts from Texas-only artists, and Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds for a packed to the brim costume store—they’re not wrong. Many of the unique artisanal places have closed, replaced with the Madewell’s and the Warby Parker’s of the world. The famous “I Love You So Much” mural is here, right around the corner from Jo’s Coffee, which slings delicious iced turbos and is a great spot to sit and watch people up and down the avenue.
Just eight minutes from downtown is Barton Creek, a lush greenspace filled with limestone rock (and sometimes water). Join Rock-About or Austin Ascents and learn how to rock-climb just minutes from wherever you’re staying. The natural land surrounding Austin is what makes it unique, and what better way to experience it than by sending some routes.
Where to Stay
Named after the patron saint of music, Hotel Saint Cecilia is the Chateau Marmont of Austin. The outdoor, 50 foot, always-open pool is lit by a fabulous neon SOUL sign, and each of the rooms—there are five suites in the Victorian house, three studios, and six poolside bungalows—comes equipped with a minibar stocked with local delicacies, a record player, and a Geneva sound-system. Check out a vintage LP from the lending library and sit on your very own Turkish rug as night turns into day, and day into night at this absolute gem.
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If you’re looking for something a little less luxe, but still far-out, check out the Austin Motel on South Congress. It’s not a hotel, it’s a motel, but it’s the best motel you’ll ever stay in. Pull-in past the iconic (and phallic) retro neon sign, and find the façade of a 1930s era white stucco motel. The rooms are a blend of retro and minimalist. Sometimes minimalist to a fault (they don’t have closets), but still charming and true to the 1938 building. The walls are lined with Rolling Stone lips wallpaper, the room is filled with bright colors, and there’s a kidney bean shaped pool. They have bingo on Mondays, if you want to immerse yourself further in the era.
The LINE, totaling 428 rooms, may seem gargantuan in comparison to the first two hotels, but it still feels intimate and homey. The building used to be a jazz recording studio, and that feel lives on. The hotel restaurant, the Arlo Grey, is run by Top Chef winner Kristen Kish and is a can’t-miss, as is Dean’s One Trick Pony, which serves up food, booze (they have a frozen Aperol Pink Lemonade Cocktail known as the Pink Pony), and has free shuffleboard and billiards. Post up at P6, the rooftop lounge overlooking the lake, for cocktails and Mediterranean small plates. The only problem is, you might not want to leave the hotel.
Austin Lodging, various prices on Airbnb
Or explore your Airbnb options in town.
Header image courtesy of Getty Images / Joe Daniel Price