In October 2016, I went to Austin, Texas for the first time. I spent the first two days on my own, and the next two days with my friend culminating in seeing Taylor Swift at Formula One before heading down to have lunch in San Antonio and visit another friend in Corpus Christi. It was too short a trip, but it was the perfect 6-day getaway. This is a monster post of everything to see, do, and explore if you go visit!
Austin First Impressions
I like Austin. Every time I go to a new city, I compare it to other places I’ve been. From my four nights in Austin, I felt that I got a good sense of the energy of the city. It feels kind of like a mix of every American city I’ve ever been to, minus New York. There’s definitely some L.A. vibe, with southwest charm, and a little Baltimore and Philadelphia in terms of the downtown area. I expected to have to hunt for the cool things in Austin, but most of what I’ve seen of Austin is pretty cool. It’s definitely a real city, with a tech scene, and passions for sports and music that don’t seem at odds with each other. Even the most edgy, punk looking bartenders and shopkeepers are sugary sweet, and the pace is relaxed, though not quite the dazed ‘all the time in the world’ chill of southern California. Unfortunately, this is a city that I probably couldn’t live in because the public transit system, while in existence, isn’t usable for every day. That said, it’s a nice place to visit.
What to Do in Austin
What to See
Capitol Building: This active government building is free to visit with beautiful grounds to wander. Free tours are offered regularly throughout the day. I went on the Women in Texas History tour (where I learned about a female governor in the 1920s, saw where Wendy Davis famously filibustered in the congress room, and loved the custom wood and lone star themed decor from around the world. Lunch at capitol cafeteria was serviceable.
Blanton Museum: While the permanent collection was under renovation when I visited, the gallery space and the Andy Warhol exhibit were fantastic. The posh cafe across the way was airy and looked like a great place to grab a quick bite.
Other things to do:
- Barton Springs Pool and Zilker Park
- Bats at the Congress Bridge
- Lake Austin
- Hope Outdoor Gallery
Where to stay
I checked into the Firehouse Hostel on a Tuesday night. I can’t recommend this hotel enough. It’s across the street from the famous Driskill Hotel, around the corner from Dirty 6th, and right in the middle of every neighborhood and attraction worth visiting. When my friend came, we checked into the Hyatt Place using her points, which was a gorgeous and comfortable hotel with a great breakfast and just a few blocks away from the Firehouse.
Neighborhoods to Explore
I’d recommend spending most of the time in Austin exploring these neighborhoods. Walk around, pop into shops, and get a feel for the city.
Downtown & Dirty 6th
Austin has a typical downtown area like you’d find in any other American city. The bars and restaurants are all much cooler than you’d expect though – they all feel new and well designed. That’s with the exception of Dirty Sixth street, the infamous tourist stretch, which isn’t very dirty, but filled with dives and sports bars promoting terrible live music wafting out the open front doors. Even this touristy area is not really detestable, there’s something to be found for everyone, and it’s pretty sterile considering it’s name. There are definitely some good restaurants along this strip, like the speakeasy at Firehouse Hostel, gourmet sports bar Eureka, and bakery/beer garden hybrid Flying Tiger. The rest of downtown, specifically west 6th, has more upscale bars, and 2nd street has a modern shopping and eating district with trendy chain stores and celebrity chef restaurants. The squid fries at Swift’s Attic are to die for.
This neighborhood, centered along South Congress Avenue, is the part of Austin that reminded me most of Santa Monica in L.A. combined with New York’s SoHo. This is where you’ll find Gypsy Warrior, Warby Parker, and an array of high-priced boutiques selling independent designer clothes, vintage, Etsy-like crafts, tex-mex souvenirs, and cowboy boots. A spacious, sprawling street, you’ll find restaurants (slowly gentrifying – the kitschy half-outdoor restaurant we ate in was bought by a hotel chain), the best grilled cheese from a truck, the famous Amy’s ice creams, and the infamous “I love you so much” mural at Jo’s Coffee for your instagramming delight.
East Austin is like a tumbleweedy suburban lovechild between Bushwick and Santa Monica. Definitely the cool place to be, there are tons of hip bars with outdoor seating and food trucks, tattooed salespeople in vintage shops, and exotic, expensive restaurants adorned with street art or vintage signage. Mostly, on a Thursday afternoon, East Austin felt like a sleepy suburb for artsy liberal hipsters and yuppies. I really enjoyed chatting up a waiter and people watching over empanadas at Buenos Aires Cafe during lunch time. I imagine that on nice nights, the outdoor bars are packed with diverse young people chilling in hammocks or at picnic tables with tacos or banh mi under the twinkle lights, and the indoor cocktail bars are filled with interesting and creative folk having a good time.
“The Drag” is like any other college main street, but bigger. That’s because the University of Texas in Austin is gigantic. You have your chains like Chipotle, fashion boutiques, the giant Coop with a great discount art supply store, and just behind the Coop a little park with food trucks. I recommend Monkies Vintage for affordable clothes from the 60s to 90s.
This is the coolest street for drinking. Rainey street is a few blocks long and full of houses turned into bars, each with a different theme. Most have outdoor seating and many have live music. We crawled our way down the street, stopping at some of the many food trucks along the way. The crowd is friendly, laidback, and fun, mostly 20 and 30 something young professionals. Top choices are Icenhauers, The Blackheart, Bangers for a beer garden vibe, and the cocktail bar Half Step with a mini doughnut stand outside (though expect Manhattan prices at that one). Really though, the best bet is to start at the end of Rainey by the river and work your way up the street, stopping in every bar that strikes your fancy.
Should you go to Austin solo?
Absolutely, yes. There is enough to do to keep you busy on your own, and people are friendly enough to not be lonely. There are great hostels in town and the city feels totally safe to walk around in. While Uber and Lyft don’t operate in Austin, car sharing apps like Fasten and Ride Austin are available to get you from place to place on the cheap. Have a great trip!