Rob and I were standing awkwardly in the corner of a very unfamiliar bar.
The venue had been recommended to us by a friend of a friend when we mentioned that we’d be in Austin for New Year. As he’d previously lived there, he supplied us with ideas of where to celebrate.
Inside the divey bar was a large open space with a band playing country tunes in the corner. The wide variety of people who filled the bar were obviously regulars, and included everything from classic Texan stereotypes with cowboy hats and rodeo-boots to men in business suits and ties.
For the two of us (an Australian couple who’ve been living the NYC life for the past year and a half), it was wildly different from anything we’d experienced before. It felt 100% weird, and we were loving every second of it.
Over the next few days, we discovered that Austin was a cultural city full of coffee shops, casual eats, outdoor dining, chill bars, and live music. People had told us that Austin was a great city to visit, and it was absolutely true. We couldn’t get enough of it.
If you’re heading to Austin for SXSW or even just to check out the city for a few days (like we did), here are 12 essential activities for a weekend in Austin + a fun video of us bringing in the New Year!
Where we stayed:
We stayed in an Airbnb in East Austin near E Cesar Chavez St. The place was a tiny house in someone’s backyard, which we found both novel and awesome! This location was great for us to base ourselves as it had plenty of street parking but was still fairly close to the city.
As minimalists, we loved the tiny house which was a little more compact than our NYC apartment. I also noticed that a lot of people have vintage Airstreams (camper trailers) in their backyards which they rent out on Airbnb. Definitely a unique way to stay in Austin.
1. Drink loads of coffee
If there’s one thing Austinites are great at, it’s making a damn good cup of joe. I usually have a soy or almond milk latte once a week, but with so many good coffee shops in Austin, I was having one every day. May as well treat-yo-self, right?
My favourite was Seventh Flag Coffee in South Austin, as they had their own house-made almond milk (I know, I’m hipster AF). And while I didn’t try the brew, we did walk by Jo’s Coffee on South Congress Ave which features the popular ‘I love you so much’ mural on the outer wall.
2. Hang out in South Austin
South Congress Ave in South Austin is a great place to hang out. This area has some lovely boutique stores and also the famous Allen’s Boots, where you can stock up on your cowboy/cowgirl gear.
The best thing to do in South Austin is eat as there are loads of food options. Our Airbnb host recommended South Congress Cafe, which turned out to have a fabulous brunch menu and refreshing cocktails.
We also sampled veggie burgers and some freakin’ delicious truffle fries at Hopdoddy Burger Bar. This place also had a great selection of craft beers, and apparently it has mind-blowing milkshakes. Hopdoddys is insanely popular, so expect a long line in peak times.
Another place to check out is Homeslice Pizza, which serves New York style pizza late into the night.
One last thing to do in this area is check out some Austin murals. My favourite was the ‘Greetings from Austin’ mural on the corner of West Annie St and South 1st St. I’ve been seeking out these murals all over USA, and this one has so far provided the best photo op. If you’re interested in seeing some more street art, do an Austin mural tour!
3. Eat at a food truck
Eating at a food truck is not a difficult thing to achieve in Austin, as food trucks are seemingly positioned on every corner. You’ll even find little collections of food trucks on empty lots about the place, and outside many bars. If you want to see them all, you can even do a food truck tour on electric bikes!
We stumbled upon the Via 313 food truck on Rainey St, where we consumed a killer Detroit-style pizza (similar to a Chicago deep dish but square shaped and 100% more delicious).
Another food truck that we were recommended but didn’t get the chance to try is Torchy’s Tacos. This famous taco truck has numerous locations all over the city. It is expected that you consume a breakfast taco at least once while in Austin.
4. Visit Rainey St Historic District
We didn’t really expect that the ‘historic district’ would be a place to bar hop, but surprise! It is! Rainey Street is located on the outskirts of downtown Austin and is where many of the young people go for nightlife.
The patio of Craft Pride was our fave hangout in this area. This bar had a large range of craft beers which were sorted from light to dark on the menu above the bar.
Unfortunately we chose the day after new year to visit so it was rather quiet, but I imagine on a regular weekend night this area would be pumping. Just take a walk down the street, pick a bar, buy yourself a cocktail, and enjoy your beverage while sitting in one of the outdoor patios.
5. Go bar hopping in East Austin
If you haven’t had enough of all the bars just yet, then head over to East Austin for some more. You do these bars on your own, or do a beer and brewery tour.
We spent New Year’s Eve at The White Horse, which is the bar I mentioned earlier. It was a great place for us to get acquainted with the Texas bar scene and watch couples doing the ‘Texas two-step’ to country music.
Another drinking hole in East Austin is Blue Owl Brewing. This is actually a brewery and not a bar, but they have a “tasting room” (ie. a bar) at the front where you purchase a branded glass which includes 4 tastings of their sour beers.
There’s also Stay Gold, which we didn’t get to try out but walked past plenty of times and it looked rather nice. To find more bars in this area, walk along E 6th St or E Cesar Chavez St.
6. Try the local specialties
There are a few foods that we were told we absolutely had to eat in Austin, and queso was the first. I’d read online that Kerbey Lane Cafe was the number one spot to get queso in Austin, so we drove to one of the locations to consume the melted cheese dip.
It turns out that every other person in Austin also wanted to go to the cafe on New Year’s Day, and the wait time was 1.5 hours. As I am not nearly that patient, we gave up and tried a different location the next day where we waited only 20 minutes for a table. The queso was pretty good – nearly as good as the one that we normally get at our favourite cinema in New York.
Aside from Tex-Mex (to state the obvious, it’s Texan-Mexican fusion), the other local specialty that you should try in Austin is Texas BBQ. As you might imagine, vegetarians don’t fare well when faced with loads of meat so we didn’t attempt it.
7. See the state capitol building
As we’d already ticked off 3 state capitol buildings on our southern US road trip (Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana), we decided to top it off with the Texan State Capitol.
The Texas Capitol Building is located in the middle of downtown. It has a large grassy park surrounding it and the exterior architecture is very photogenic. We didn’t go inside but there was a great long line of people waiting to go in, so I guess it’s pretty nice in there, too.
After we left, I found out that you can go up to the base of the dome for awesome views of the city. D’oh! Missed an opportunity there – now I have a reason to go back to Austin.
8. Wander around downtown
Most major cities in the US have an interesting downtown area to explore, and Austin is no exception.
Be sure to stop in at The Driskill Hotel. This historic building was constructed in 1886 and has a guest room on the 5th floor which is rumoured to be haunted. Take a quick wander through the lobby and check out the grill on the mezzanine level as the interiors are decorated with marble, leather chairs, and gold trimmings – it’s all very lavish.
If you continue walking east along 6th Street, you’ll come across some bars, restaurants, and a few shops. In my opinion, the best thing to do around here is to grab a Voodoo Doughnut. We discovered this donut chain back when we were in Portland, and have been addicted ever since.
9. Explore Zilker Park
I never expected that Zilker Metropolitan Park would be such a highlight of our trip to Austin. This park is huge, and has plenty to do. Here’s a few options:
- Explore the Botanical Gardens.
- Walk through the Umlauf Sculpture Garden.
- Visit the Nature and Science Center.
- Rent a canoe to paddle around the lake.
- Rent a bicycle to explore the park.
- Do some paddle boarding.
- See a concert or Shakespeare in the Park at Zilker Hillside Theatre.
10. Go swimming
Swimming is a staple activity for any trip to Austin, and the best swimming hole in the city is Barton Springs Pool in Zilker Park.
Entry is free for most of November to February, or $8 at all other times of the year. The swimming hole is fed from underground springs and was refreshing even in the winter (though the water was a tad cold for my liking!).
If you’re keen to get out of the city, then head to Hamilton Pool as apparently this natural spring is a really neat place to go swimming. If you decide to head out, check the website first as sometimes the pool can be closed due to weather, and during the summer the wait times can get pretty long.
11. See the bats
Unfortunately we visited Austin at the wrong time of year to see this, but from April to October you might be lucky enough to see the daily flock of bats that fly out from under the Congress Avenue Bridge just before sunset.
12. Visit HOPE Outdoor Gallery
Austin has one of the weirdest and coolest street art displays I’ve ever seen. The HOPE Outdoor Gallery is an empty lot on a hill with a bunch of crumbling concrete walls that are literally smothered in graffiti. It’s very odd and weird and colourful. I really loved it.
There were plenty of artists decorating the walls with spray paint when we visited. If you walk up to the highest point in the lot, you’ll also be treated to some nice views of the city.
*Update 2019: Apparently HOPE is moving to a new location – I’m not sure of the status but just check the website before you go!