Austin and its suburbs have been the fastest-growing million-person-plus metropolitan area in the country every year this decade and shows no signs of letting up. Because of that before running down the city’s highlights, a couple caveats might be in order.
First, new things to do and places to go are sprouting up all the time, so take any “bests” below with a grain of salt, since by the time you visit, there might be something better.
Second, before making the trip, be forewarned: If you come to Austin, you might well want to stay. Heck, everybody else does.
BEST TIME TO VISIT AUSTIN AND WHERE TO SLEEP
The town is dubbed “The Live Music Capital of the World,” so it’s no surprise plenty of people flock to Austin to catch their favorite artists onstage.
If you happen to be in town for South by Southwest, now in its 30th year and running 10 days in mid-March from the beginning of the interactive portion to the end of the music festival, good luck finding a hotel — in fact, good luck finding room to walk down Sixth Street on St. Patrick’s Day. But even the late September/early October slightly more mainstream Austin City Limits Festivaland early November’s slightly less mainstream Fun Fun Fun Fest can present a challenge. So depending on your musical tastes, the nearby (and now 44-year-old) Kerrville Folk Festival from late May to mid-June could conceivably be a better bet — and you can camp out in a tent!
Another strategy, if you’re amused by the idea of competitive dachshunds, would be to forgo music and show up instead for the Weiner Dog Races in nearby Buda in April. Or maybe Wurstfest in nearby New Braunfels in November, if you prefer your wiener dogs with mustard.
The Texas Book Festival, also in November, is blast of the literary sort, but no matter when you come, consulting Airbnb might be a smart first step. If money is no object, the magnificent and allegedly haunted Driskill Hotel can’t be beat. Built in 1866, you should at the very least stop in for a drink just to see the place.
Verde Camp offers environmentally efficient guest houses in a couple different, conveniently located neighborhoods. And on happening South Congress just south of the Colorado River, there’s the quaint Austin Motel, complete with a ‘50s vintage swimming pool, cozy garden and a sign out front that you might deem obscene in a Rorschach test.
BEST PLACES TO EAT IN AUSTIN
People in Austin like barbecue, tacos and food trucks. A lot. In the former category, the Franklin Barbecueis pretty much the unanimous worldwide favorite, though you need to get there almost at the crack of dawn and wait in line for hours just to lunch on their succulent brisket. La Barbecue, whose pitmaster used to be at Franklin and whose ribs and rubs and pulled pork many swear by, should get you served somewhat quicker; Micklethwait Craft Meats, loved for its jalapeño cheese grits and pork shoulder sandwich, quicker still.
For after-midnight tacos, patio seating, counter service and beer at an adjacent bar, One Taco might be the ticket; try the Al Pastor or Norte, and make sure to get there by 2:00 A.M. For cheap, but generous breakfast tacos with a long list of ingredient choices (the bacon being particularly popular), a gigantic burrito or a breakfast bowl if you’re avoiding tortilla starch, Taco Shack will do ya. Veracruz All Natural has a few different trailer locations, not to mention migas and fish tacos people won’t shut up about. Tamale House East is the proper destination for chipotle migas, chicken mole tacos, margaritas and mimosas — not to mention a genuine parking lot and live music on Saturdays.
There are other food groups too, of course — often on wheels. Via 313’s Detroit-style pizza (fluffy, cheesy, rectangular, thick but soft-centered) can be found at both food truck and brick and mortar locations. Biscuits and Groovy will upend any long-held assumption that biscuits and gravy are a limited concept and provide you with vegetarian options and menu items named after disco stars like Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor.
Love Balls cooks up chewy, gooey (though sometimes crisp on the outside) handheld roly-poly Japanese street food with garlic or octopus, if that’s your thing. The Czech Benedict, mushroom sandwiches and kolaches of all kinds at Zubik House are a secret passageway from Central Texas to Central Europe. The po-boys, alligator and Hank Williams (jambalaya, crawfish pie and gumbo) at deep South Austin’s Evangeline Café, remind you that New Orleans isn’t that far away; just beware of the etouffee, which along with being delicious has a lot of heat in it.
WHERE TO DRINK
The Draught House Pub and Brewery is dark and rustic on the inside, often sunny and biergarten-like on the outside (or you can bring folding chairs and tailgate in the lot if you find a parking space) and has an incredible and constantly revolving beer selection, plus free bratwurst at 5:00 P.M. on Saturdays. (Be careful not to confuse it with the multi-location Alamo Draft House, where beer and meal menus come with a movie attached.)
Spiderhouse has the best and most expansive patio for people watching and all sorts of wacky sculptures and curios, more covert music stages inside and outside than you can keep track of, food trucks (including Love Balls), convenient record shopping just across the street at Antone’s and very slow servers, but you’ll be having so much fun you won’t mind. They also serve coffee as well as alcohol as does Cherrywood, which has tasty bistro edibles, a small stage and an enclosed patio for dogs or young’uns to run around in. Further south, there’s Radio and open-round-the-clock Strange Brew (which is many things in one, from a quiet study room on one end to a louder rootsy-music venue on the other.)
The most entertaining bathroom graffiti, all sorts of comfortable couches and chairs, vinyl spinning in the background, beer, coffee and pastries are available at Epoch, which has the added benefit of also being open 24 hours, not to mention being mere steps from Breakaway Records
Independence Brewery, tucked behind a business park in an industrial area seemingly in the middle of nowhere, lets you buy a glass for $10 and fill it three times with Stash I.P.A. or other suds of your choosing on the first Saturday of the month; in the summer, drinkers set up group-sized awnings outside the garage for afternoon shade while bands play.
WHAT TO SEE IN AUSTIN
You’ve probably heard that hundreds of bats fly out from under the Congress Avenue bridge nightly between spring and fall — the trick is to bring a picnic blanket and refreshments, show up before dusk, be patient and watch out for guano.
You might not know, though, that you can also make an appointment to see the Cathedral of Junk. It’s a three-story, circular-staircased folk art tower to the sun built from discarded bicycles, shopping carts, televisions, Mr. Potato Head dolls and computer parts, hidden in the backyard of a residential neighborhood in South Austin.
At the Hope Outdoor Gallerygraffiti park on Castle Hill, you can watch artists spray paint tags, murals and throw-ups on the walls of a steep-terraced abandoned ruin, then walk a couple minutes to Waterloo Records, Bookpeople, the planet’s oldest Whole Foods or Austin’s Amtrak Station when you’re done.
The Canopy, an east side gallery complex of artist studios with regular special events, is another entertaining place to view cool art. Better yet, visit during the West Austin Studio Tour in May or East Austin Studio Tourin November, and go door-to-door.
BEST PLACES TO HEAR MUSIC
Still, for country and blues and an outlaw cowboy vibe (or jazz upstairs), you won’t want to miss the Continental Club, which has been at it since 1957. For equally affordable bottled beer and much noisier guitars of several punky, garagey, metallic (and often local) stripes, try Beerland.
The rather ramshackle and barn-like Historic Scoot Inn attracts stoner rockers and skate punks and the music they love (among other types, hip-hop is included), and has been doing something of the sort since it was founded in 1871.
Further north, you can two-step to Dale Watson or relax on lawn chairs out back at Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon, though early Sunday evenings you’ll probably want to play bingo inside, where the board sits on a pool table and under a chicken coop, in which an actual clucker determines which bingo squares get occupied by, well, pooping on them.
But if that’s not your kind of thing, as you’ve seen, there are no lack of other options.