Until recently, I had never been to Texas (my many layovers in the Houston and Dallas airports DON’T count), but I’ve always wanted to take a trip to Austin—you know, the place that hosts SXSW and considers breakfast tacos part of a well-balanced diet. So I finally booked a flight and immediately fell in love with the artsy, outdoorsy city. I found live music in almost every bar, a whole walking trail along the Colorado River, natural springs you could dive into to cool off, great BBQ food, and, yes, electric scooters EVERYWHERE.
If you ever want to come for a weekend (or longer!), definitely stay at the Kimpton Hotel Van Zandt, situated right by Rainey Street—the perfect place to hit up the aforementioned bars and take in the local bands that perform nightly. The Van Zandt is in just the right spot: close enough to downtown that you can walk (or Bird or LimeBike) there and far away enough that you’re not in the thick of the more touristy spots. (It also has a free happy hour that includes wine, beer, and margaritas in its massive living-room-like lobby every day from 5 to 6 p.m. Just sayin’.) In short, Austin is a good time all around, and it’s made even better when you can look out at the skyline from your fancy-ass bathtub at the hotel. Here, a rundown of all the things you gotta do while visiting.
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If you’re gonna have one pricey dinner while you’re on vacay, make it at Geraldine’s. I had some bourbon-glazed cauliflower and grilled short rib that I would eat a thousand times over if only my stomach could fit it all. (Pair it with a bottle of Austin Hope Cabernet Sauvignon, and your life will be complete.) The place has a spacious dining room, but it also has a casual bar setup if you just want to have a drink or two.
And true to the Austin spirit, Geraldine’s also has live music every night so you can listen and dance to local artists after dinner.
If you’re just gettin’ the night started, walk out of the hotel, take a right turn, and find yourself on Rainey, where you’ll run into every kind of bar all within a couple blocks of each other. Love kitschy circus vibes and arcade games? Go to Unbarlieveable. (You’ll know you’re there when you see the giant giraffe statue out front.) Love a low-key night? Find a second-floor corner with your friends at the Container Bar. (It’s literally made from shipping containers.) Love bougie cocktails? Get yourself to Half Step. Just wanna grab a cold beer and possibly bust some moves on an outdoor patio? Clive Bar is calling your name.
At the end of your boozy night, the Rainey Street food-truck lot is here for you. Get yourself a crepe, a grilled cheese, or some tacos at one of the many trucks, and ta-da! You can basically consider yourself a local.
Okay, now that your first night in Austin is done, you want to start fresh and actually explore, right? First stop is Congress Street, where you’ll find gift shops, music stores, and old-fashioned movie theaters, and at the very end is the Texas Capitol building. It’s pretty inside, but it also happens to look great in your pics of downtown.
Keep walking past the Capitol, and you’ll hit the University of Texas, which, like many other Southern college campuses, has a plethora of sports bars nearby. (If you want a photo op, check out the iconic “Hi, how are you” mural on Guadalupe Street adjacent to campus.) Not in the mood to watch a game? There’s also an eclectic place called Spider House Cafe and Ballroom that hosts (you guessed it) live music, DJs, and even comedy shows on its outdoor patio if you’re looking for a fun happy hour spot.
At this point, you’ll be good and sweaty thanks to all that walking under the hot Texas sun, so get back to the Van Zandt to take a dip in the pool and seek shade under an umbrella—preferably with a margarita in hand. The pool is right by Geraldine’s and has an impressive fireplace at the center. (It won’t be lit when it’s already sweltering outside, but it looks so chic, no?)
There are lots of seating areas and private cabanas if you’re with a larger group, and the views of the Colorado River are gorgeous, especially if you’re out on the pool deck while the sun is setting.
If the pool isn’t big enough, get to Barton Springs to feast your eyes on a huge natural spring. Tons of locals come on the weekends to hang and swim in the chilly waters—it stays 68 degrees year-round!—and it’s SO refreshing during the Texas summer heat. Parking is a pain, so walk there or get dropped off nearby—and prepare for some lines. But once you pay the $8 nonresident fee, you are in and can hopefully set up a spot in the shade.
Once you’re done swimming at Barton Springs, stay in the area and head toward the river. There’s a scenic walking/biking/running trail that weaves alongside it, and it also happens to be just as popular with dogs. There were seemingly hundreds of them in every direction, and I could have stayed for hours just watching them gloriously frolic in the water and dive off docks to catch their beloved tennis balls and sticks. (It’s worth noting, though, that now there’s a blue-green algae issue and several pups recently died from swimming in the river, so animals AND their owners should steer clear!)
Uhh, if you’re terrified of bats, then maybe skip this specific activity, but from March to October, you can see up to 1.5 MILLION Mexican free-tailed bats take to the skies around dusk. The best viewing point is basically anywhere you can get a clear vantage point of the bridge—there are walking areas underneath and on top of the bridge where you can stand and watch the lil guys descend from the structure and dive through the air. Exactly how many you’ll see (and how clearly you can see them) is unpredictable as they sometimes come out well after dusk, but watching the sunset reflecting off the river isn’t half bad either.
You might have already realized by now, but Congress Street is pretty much THE happening spot. You have the bats and the Capitol on one side, but go to its southern end and you’ll find so many cute stores, boutiques, and restaurants. And before an eventful day of shopping and eating, you should, well, eat some more and grab breakfast at Torchy’s Tacos on South Congress (there are a bunch of other locations too). You can’t complete your Austin trip without digging into its killer Miga and Dirty Sanchez breakfast tacos.
After you’re full of soft tortillas, scrambled eggs, and cheese, hit up the stores on South Congress—there’s even a cute farmers market on Saturdays. The legendary convert venue, The Continental Club, is on the same street, and a constant stream of artists plays there each night. I also totally recommend the retro aesthetic of Joann’s Fine Foods (and its frozen margs) as well as Amy’s Ice Cream, a local fave for dessert.
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