Known for its legendary live music scene, burgeoning food culture, and keep it weird attitude, Austin is an easy city to love. Home to some of the country’s best restaurants, world-renowned festivals, and an oasis of outdoor activities and other unique happenings, Austin’s sights bring in more than 22.6 million domestic visitors annually. While one could easily spend a lifetime exploring this city and finding new things to do, there’s also much that can be seen in a short period of time. With our home offices located in the heart of the city, we are constantly asked, “what should we do,” by visitors and customers alike. To answer this question and help you make the most of your trip, we’ve compiled our favorite activities, restaurants, and sites in this Austin travel guide to help you explore this great city and fall in love with the place we are lucky enough to call home!
Take a Stroll Down South Congress Avenue
South Congress Avenue, also known as SoCo, is an iconic Austin street littered with restaurants, shopping, bars, and a constant supply of live music. Start your day off at Jo’s Coffee for your obligatory “I Love You So Much” photo, a taco, and a cup of coffee, or enjoy heavier fare with a hearty breakfast plate from Austin standbys, Magnolia Café or South Congress Café.
Following breakfast, spend your morning browsing the abundance of eclectic shops that make this street unique. South Congress Books will suit your literary needs, while Uncommon Objects is the place to be for antique finds. Pop on into St. Vincent de Paul for some vintage thrifting, and into Allen’s Boots to get your cowboy boot fix. On weekends, you’ll find parking lot booths with vendors offering homemade jewelry and crafts, but you’re sure to find some treasures here any day of the week. With a plethora of shopping options, there’s a little bit of something for everyone on South Congress.
Once you work up an appetite, pop on in to Home Slice Pizza for an authentic New York-style pizza pie, or walk up to the window next door for a hot and tasty slice. For another cheesy delight, Burro Cheese Kitchen is always a good choice, and for dessert, Austin staple Amy’s Ice Creams can’t be beat. If you’re around for dinner, Perla’s Seafood and Oyster Bar is a local go to, or head on over a few streets to South 1st for some of our staff’s favorite eats.
Come twilight, the place to be is on or below the South Congress Bridge, where you’ll watch over a million bats take flight. One of the quirkiest Austin attractions, between the months of March and November, it’s one that definitely should not be missed.
After the bats take their leave, head on back up the street to some of South Congress’ most iconic bars, where you will find live music almost every night of the week. The Continental Club and Ego’s are SoCo staples, while Guero’s Oak Garden offers excellent people watching and a fun outdoor party.
Photo Credit: austintxapartmentsforrent.com
Make a Day of Zilker Park
Zilker Metropolitan Park is a 350 acre playground for those looking to spend a day outdoors. With hundreds of acres of well-maintained land, Zilker gives visitors a combination of sun and skyline, mixed with plenty of shade and seclusion. The park offers volleyball courts, grills and picnic areas, disc golf, swimming, soccer areas, an off-leash dog park, and gardens and museums.
Nestled on Lady Bird Lake, Zilker makes a great launching pad to walk or bike Austin’s 10.1 mile Lady Bird Lake trail, and is an ideal starting point for exploring the water by canoe, kayak, or stand up paddle board. For another exciting way to explore Austin waters, no trip to Zilker would be complete without a dip in Barton Springs Pool. This three acre man-made pool is fed by a natural spring that keeps the water at a cool 68 degrees year round, and is by far the best place in the city to stay cool. For a more natural swimming experience, take a hike on the Barton Creek Greenbelt, and make your way to one of the creeks many great swimming holes.
If you’re looking to spend a more leisurely day at the park, take a stroll through the Zilker Botanical Garden, or Austin Nature and Science Center, ponder some art at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum, or attend one of the many great live events that Zilker hosts throughout the year. In the fall, Austin City Limits is the place to be, and come December, you won’t want to miss the Austin Trail of Lights. If visiting in the spring, the Zilker Kite Festival makes for a fun afternoon affair, and in the summer, the free concert series, Blues on the Green, and the free summer musical at the Zilker Hillside Theatre shouldn’t be missed.
While Zilker Park itself doesn’t offer much in the way of dining, special events always host a plethora of food truck opportunities, and on any other day a trip to The Picnic food truck park, or Austin’s favorite juice and smoothie bar, Juiceland, is just a short walk away. At The Picnic, a sandwich from Hey! You Gonna Eat Or What? shouldn’t be missed, and the kimchi fries from Chi’lantro are an Austin favorite.
Photo Credit: fortwortharchitecture.com
Take a Swim
We’ve already mentioned Barton Springs Pool and Greenbelt swimming holes, but Austin and the Austin area is home to so many other great swim spots to cool down in on a hot summer day. The oldest swimming pool in Texas, Deep Eddy Pool, is a great spot located in the center of town, and if you’ve got a little extra time, Krause Springs, Hippie Hollow, Jacob’s Well, Pace Bend Park, Hamilton Pool, and Wimberly’s Blue Hole are all worth a short drive.
Visit a Museum
If museums are your thing, Austin is home to a few that shouldn’t be missed. The Bullock Texas State History Museum is excellent for history buffs and novices alike. Just three blocks from the Texas State Capitol (more on this below), this museum is an excellent place to brush up on your Texas history. If you are more into art museums, be sure to hop across the street and view the impressive collection of Renaissance, Baroque, modern American and Latin American, and contemporary art pieces at the Blanton Museum of Art. Lastly, with over 54,000 objects donated by President and First Lady Johnson, their family, close friends, and associates, the LBJ Presidential Library is a wonderful place to learn more about the life of our 36th president, Lyndon Johnson.
Enjoy Some Free Sights
Staying true to that “Keep Austin Weird” vibe, the city itself is Austin’s greatest sight. With grand murals, prime people watching, and beautiful trails and views all around town, one could easily enjoy their whole visit to Austin without spending a dime on entertainment costs.
A great way to start your visit to Austin is with a quick history lesson. Located in the heart of downtown, the Texas State Capitol is an excellent place to learn more about the history of Texas or to enjoy some magnificent Renaissance Revival architecture. Tours are free, and are offered seven days a week.
Following your Capitol tour, head on down the street to the Disney World of the health foods stores and explore the flagship location and world headquarters of Whole Foods. I know it seems funny to recommend a grocery store as an attraction to visitors, but this Whole Foods does not disappoint!
Head to the bar in back and grab a drink from the tap, or pick a single from the massive walk in cooler to enjoy as you venture around the store. If you’re hungry, this is an excellent spot for dinner or lunch, as there’s no shortage of food choices (think pizza, tacos, BBQ, sushi, Italian, subs, salads, and so much more – and don’t even think about skipping dessert) or spots to enjoy your meal. The rooftop terrace is my personal favorite, or the shaded outdoor patio downstairs also makes a nice choice.
Once you finish exploring this health food heaven, head a few blocks north and browse the vast collection of graffiti art at the HOPE Outdoor Gallery at Castle Hill. This three-story art project was developed to provide muralists, graffiti artists, and community groups with an opportunity to display large scale art pieces driven by inspirational, positive, and educational messaging, and is one of the largest outdoor galleries in the USA.
Finally, there’s no better way to cap off a free day of fun than with a sunset from the top of Mount Bonnell. This prominent point alongside Lake Austin provides excellent panoramas of the city, lake, and surrounding Hill Country. After taking in the beauty of Austin, head back down and into town and treat yourself to some fabulous Austin dining with all of that money you saved!
Eat Your Way Around Town
In a town where 100+ new restaurants open a year, eating becomes one of its greatest attractions. Austin’s thriving food scene offers a cultural melting pot of flavors, and its numerous taco shacks, BBQ joints, and award winning restaurants are an attraction not to be missed.
For breakfast, tacos rule (as they do for lunch and dinner), and no trip to Texas would be complete without a giant slab of barbecued beef. Farm to table is a term you’ll see often (and for good reason – the Austin area is home to some of the best farms in the state), and anytime you see the word fusion on the menu, it’s probably a really excellent choice. Bahn Mi tacos anyone?
While I could easily devote this entire post to food, instead, I feature a large handful (it was too hard to pick just a few) of our staff’s favorite picks, and give you a few pointers on what to order along the way.
One could easily spend their entire trip to Austin eating nothing but BBQ, and while no good Austinite would frown upon this, it might be better for your cholesterol to stop at just one or two BBQ joints. No matter where you go, brisket should always be ordered, and if you feel like channeling your inner Flintstone, do as the locals do and gnaw on a pound plus beef rib. House made sausages are always a good choice, and though not the traditional Texas meat, most places usually do a pretty good job smoking up some pork.
Franklin Barbecue is famous for their two (or three, four, or five) hour wait, but visitors and Austinites alike love it. Some even say the wait is half of the fun. If you want equally as good barbecue and much shorter lines, grab a spot in line at La Barbecue and enjoy live music and free beer (weekends only) while you wait. Their brisket and beef ribs are great, and if eating pork, a side of their pickled onions is a must.
Lastly, if fancy barbecue (wait – that’s a thing? It is, and it shouldn’t be missed) is more your style, make yourself a reservation at Lamberts for a meal you won’t soon forget. I mean, who could not love oak smoked brisket massaged with a brown sugar and coffee rub? And their spicy deviled eggs? Don’t even get me started. Noms…
Tacos and Tex-Mex
As mentioned above, tacos in Austin are a suitable meal any time of the day. Try a taco for breakfast, lunch, and dinner – we won’t judge. While everyone in Austin has their favorite taco and place (which likely varies depending on the time of the day), there’s one Austin staple that shouldn’t be missed: Torchy’s Tacos. Come for the tacos, stay for the queso. The taco of the month is always a good idea, and try The Wrangler for breakfast or Crossroads for lunch if you’re looking for your daily brisket fix. Other great options include the Baja Shrimp or Fried Avocado, but no matter what you choose, with Torchy’s, you really can’t go wrong.
Locals also love Tacodeli, or breakfast from Juan in a Million or Tamale House East. Veracruz All Natural is also an excellent choice, and our staff also really loves Taco Shack and Maria’s Taco Express.
For a good plate of Tex-Mex, head on over to the original Chuy’s on Barton Springs, or go and enjoy the fish fajitas and marinated carrots from the expansive salsa bar at Polvos on South First. La Condesa downtown offers a vast selection of contemporary Mexican dishes, and their excellent selection of flavorful tequila and mezcal cocktails are not to be missed.
Photo Credits: (top left to bottom right) Austinnot.com, Andrewzimmern.com, Franklin Barbecue, Craft Beer Austin
While one could easily spend their whole time in town eating BBQ and tacos, Austin offers a variety of other restaurants that are well worth your time. Easy Tiger on 6th offers a nice environment for beer and German fare, while a sausage and beer from Bangers on Rainey Street is equally as fun. Rainey Street itself is a sight to see, and Banger’s fried chicken sausage and extensive beer list are reasons enough to make me return every day of the week.
A meal from one of Austin’s numerous food trucks is never a bad idea, especially if it’s Beet Home Fries or Poor Quis Buns from East Side King, or a Flying Pig Donut (maple syrup icing and bacon strips – need I say more?) from Gourdough’s donut truck.
The pastries, banh mi, buns, and pho are all excellent from Elizabeth Street Café, and the beef fried rice from Sway is top notch. For a meatless meal where you won’t miss the meat, try a plate from Bouldin Creek Café, and for seasonal and farm fresh selections, enjoy a dish from 24 Diner or Eastside Café.
Other notables include brunch from Bacon, a sandwich from Noble Sandwich Co, dinner at Ramen Tatsu-Ya, Qui, The Oasis, or The Salty Sow, pizza from Bufalina or East Side Pies, and a meal any time of the day from Odd Duck, Moonshine, or Jacoby’s Restaurant and Mercantile.
For dessert, try some innovative ice cream flavors such the Cilantro Lime from Lick, or Goat Cheese and Wild Cherry gelato from Dolce Neve. Or, if baked goods are more your thing, try the Harlow’s Honey Baklava Cupcake from Sugar Mama’s Bakeshop, or have the best of both worlds with an ice cream sandwich from Moojo on Guadalupe.
Enjoy a Drink
Austin is home to a plethora of breweries and an even larger number of great bars and coffee shops. When it’s time for a midday break or your evening wind down, there’s no shortage of places to choose from. Mozart’s Coffee is great for a cup of Joe with a view, and Radio Coffee is an excellent choice for when you can’t decide between a beer or a brew. Cuvee Coffee Bar and Houndstooth Coffee know how to pull a mean shot, and Halcyon Coffee Bar and Lounge and Thunderbird Coffee are other great options for when you might just need both coffee and a pint.
ABGB, Jester King, Hops and Grains, Zilker, Live Oak, Austin Beerworks, Independence, and 512 breweries are all great spots to try a local brew, or to try them all, a trip to Craftpride is a must.
For a good cocktail, Icenhauer’s, Whislers, Weather Up, and Half Step all know what’s up, and according to our PrintGlobe Vice-President of Sales, the Huckleberry Margarita from The Roaring Fork is not to be missed.
Photo Credit: austinnot.com
Catch a Show
As the live music capital of the world, no trip to Austin would be complete without catching a live show. Saxon Pub and the 121 Bar both offer plenty of easy parking, and host a number of quality Austin original bands. Threadgills and Strange Brew are also well known Austin originals, and Emos and Stubbs are known to host great touring bands almost every day of the week. There’s almost always a great show happening at Moody Theater, and you’re likely to find live music at almost every bar on weekends on both 6th and Rainey Street.
If you’ve had all of the music that you can handle (but how could you?), Austin is also home to a number of other great entertainment arenas. Cap City Comedy Club or Esthers Follies are both great for a laugh, and The Long Center for the Performing Arts and the Zach Theatre are excellent spots for watching a musical, play, or ballet. If you want to watch a film while enjoying full dinner and drink service at your seat, there’s no better place than the Alamo Drafthouse, which has locations scattered all around town.
Get Out of Town
Lastly, if the weirdness of Austin proves to be too much, hop in your car and take a quick trip out of town. As the second largest wine region in the United States outside of Sonoma and Napa Valley, the surrounding Austin area, known as the Texas Hill Country, is home to dozens of excellent wineries that are certainly worth a few hours or a couple days of your time. Driftwood Estate Vineyard offers incredible vineyard views and delicious wine, and is only a half hour drive from town. Its neighbor, Duchman Winery, also makes a nice trip, and its restaurant Trattoria Lisina is worth the trip alone.
For more wine and a great day destination, take a drive West to the adorable German town, Fredericksburg, stopping at the Deep Eddy Vodka Distillery and a handful of wonderful 290 Wine Trail wineries along the way. William Chris Vineyards is a great choice, and the Becker Vineyards property is a must see.
For some outdoor fun around Fredericksburg, take a hike up the giant granite dome, Enchanted Rock, for amazing Hill Country views, and then reward yourself for the climb on your way back to Austin with a delicious glass of local wine.
If you’re interested in exploring the area South of Austin, take a short drive to the town of Gruene for an unforgettable meal at the Gristmill River Restaurant and Bar (don’t forget to order a plate of onion rings) and an afternoon of antiquing, or continue on further south for a day at our nearest big city neighbor, San Antonio.
Photo Credit: thedoodlehouse.com
No matter what you choose to see or do in Austin, it’s impossible to visit and not have a great time! Everyone who visits Austin these days leaves with something positive to say, and by following these sight and restaurant suggestions, we trust that once you leave you’ll only do the same!