A city for musicians, artists, hippies, entrepreneurs, hikers and bikers
The capital city of Texas is a lively and eclectic metropolis, where tech entrepreneurs rub elbows with musicians and artists, and hippies who have lived here since the Sixties sit on barstools next to recent hipster transplants. They have one thing in common: a mission to 'Keep Austin Weird'. Situated in the heart of Texas Hill Country, the city is cradled in a beautiful natural environment that draws outdoors lovers, especially bikers, hikers and watersports enthusiasts.
At the same time, the popularity and growth of Austin in the past two decades has brought a sophisticated cosmopolitan sheen to the city, and a boom of hot restaurants and nightlife spots that share patrons with old-time favourites that have enjoyed legendary status for decades. Austinites prize individuality, quirkiness and local authenticity above all else – and they love a good time – so there’s plenty to do in a weekend break (or longer).
Hot right now . . .
Shelley Seale, our resident expert, offers her top tips on the hottest things to do and places to eat this season.
The food scene in Austin is having a huge moment, nabbing eight James Beard semifinalist spots this year. Austin chefs also took three of the top five finalist nods for the Best Chef Southwest award for the first time in history, including Bryce Gilmore of Barley Swine (6555 Burnet Rd; 00 1 512 394 8150) – his seventh consecutive. You’ll want to experience Barley Swine’s ever-evolving menu, completely sourced by local farmers.
Make your way over to Launderette(2115 Holly St; 00 1 512 382 1599) to dive into the sumptuous creations of Laura Sawicki, who was named a Beard semifinalist for Outstanding Pastry Chef. While you delight in your apple streusel tart or Sawicki’s creative take on Girl Scout cookies, enjoy the fun digs of this converted laundromat-turned-foodie heaven.
Becoming Texas is a new exhibition at the Bullock Texas State History Museum (1800 Congress Av; 00 1 512 471 5482) that takes visitors on an immersive, one-of-a-kind journey through more than 16,000 years of Texas history.
48 hours in . . . Austin
Start downtown with a stroll through the Texas State Capitol grounds (1100 Congress Av; 00 1 512 463 4630), or stop inside for a free tour. From there, make your way down Congress Avenue, the heart of the city, checking out the oversized Gibson art guitars at Sixth, Fourth and Second streets (each was created by a different artist).
Stop in atFareground Food Hall(111 Congress Av) for breakfast tacos or lunch, where you can choose from multiple restaurant vendors (ramen, burgers, pasta and more) and people-watch from the plaza while you eat.
Head down to the Hike and Bike Trail that circles Lady Bird Lake (Congress Av & Cesar Chavez; 00 1 512 495 9163) to Zilker Park (2100 Barton Springs Rd; 00 1 512 974 6700) for a walk with a view: water on one side and the city skyline on the other. This is where Austinites come to run, bike, walk their dogs and simply enjoy this urban oasis. If you’re up for an outdoors adventure, rent a stand-up paddleboard or kayak from one of several companies along the trail.
Cross Congress Avenue Bridge and you’ll be in SoCo(South Congress Avenue), where you can treasure hunt for vintage finds or shop upscale boutiques. Enjoy the street performers that are always found along the 'Hip Strip', and take advantage of the many Instagrammable street art installations. For vintage duds check out Prototype or Feather's, or head to Kendra Scott Jewelry or Parts & Labour for boutique shopping.
When hunger strikes, eat like a local at one of the plentiful food trucks; or for something more upscale, head to nearby Uchi (801 South Lamar; 00 1 512 916 4808) for sushi, or Lenoir (1807 South First; 00 1 512 215 9778) for light and fresh dining in an impossibly romantic setting.
You’re in the Live Music Capital of the World, so of course a show is in order.The Continental Club (1315 South Congress; 00 1 512 441 2444) is a local legend for rockabilly and blues, with a cool 1950s vibe; or if you want to experience a true Texas honky-tonk, look no further than the Broken Spoke (3201 South Lamar; 00 1 512 442 6189). For more than a half-century, folks have been boot-scooting on the dance floor of the Spoke to country music greats such as Willie Nelson and Dale Gilmore. Even if you aren’t normally a fan of Country Western, this is an experience not to miss – and you can even take dance lessons from the owners’ daughter, Terri White.
The Second Street District is fun, eclectic and highly walkable for grabbing a coffee at Jo’s (242 W 2nd St; 00 1 512 469 9003), shopping at local favourites likeAustin Rocks (301 W 2nd St; 00 1 512 983 0929) and Toy Joy (403 W 2nd St; 00 1 512 320 0090), and soaking in the Austin vibe. Don’t forget to say hello to Willie Nelson – Austin’s beloved local legend has a statue at Second and Lavaca, right in front of the Austin City Limits studio. Pop in to see if a show is filming while you’re in town and nab some tickets.
Treat yourself to brunch at Arlo Grey (111 E. Cesar Chavez; 00 1 512 478 2991) downtown in the new LINE Hotel (Chef Kristen Kish is a Top Chef winner), or head to the hip, funky East Side for lunch or brunch at Launderette (2115 Holly St; 00 1 512 382 1599). While you’re in East Austin, take time to check out the art galleries and vintage stores that fill this lively neighbourhood; check out Charm School Vintage (1111 E 11th St; 00 1 512 524 0166) for clothing and BLK Vinyl (2505 E 6th St; 00 1 512 220 6536) for records.
If you’re a fan of craft beer, you’re in the right place. Dozens of micro-breweries can be found in this area of town alone, and it’s easy to walk or bike in between them, though another fun option is a brew pedal tour like those offered by Hipside Peddler (1901 E 4th St; 00 1 512 710 8801).
If you want to continue the quirky Austin vibe, check out the Museum of the Weird (412 E 6th St; 00 1 512 476 5493). If fine arts is more your thing, you’ll want to visit the Blanton Museum of Art (200 E. Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd; 00 1 512 936 4629), making sure not to miss Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin, a beautiful piece of installation art behind the museum. Or get an interactive introduction to the story of Texas at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum (1800 Congress Av; 00 1 512 471 5482). It’s also home to the city’s only IMAX Theater for a thrilling cinematic experience.
When night falls, Austin wakes up – it’s definitely a town where people know how to have fun. Though locals call the famed Sixth Street strip of bars 'Dirty Sixth', it’s an absolute must for at least a walk down for the people-watching alone. If you want to catch live music at a true local institution you won’t want to miss Antone’s (305 E 5th St; 00 1 512 814 0361), a club pulsing with energy where musicians from Stevie Ray Vaughan to B.B. King have taken the stage.
For something more intimate, head to Townsend (718 Congress Av #100; 00 1 512 887 8778), a beautiful cocktail lounge with a mid-century vibe and a small listening room in the back where live music plays most every night. Fun fact: Kathy Valentine of The Go-Go’s is an owner-investor and the music program consultant.
Where to stay . . .
The chic Kimpton Hotel Van Zandt has a pure Austin vibe, with a prime spot in the city. It has a hip style, from the open spaces, contemporary rooms and specially curated house music throughout. There’s a 'living room' lounge that welcomes guests to hang out, with complimentary beer, wine and margaritas during happy hour. The large roof deck has a pool and outdoor fireplace that overlooks the Austin skyline.
Doubles from $199 (£163). 605 Davis St; 00 1 512 542 5300
Heywood Hotelis an urban hotel in a desirable location in the heart of the hip Eastside. Many guests seek out this neighbourhood for its creative, independent vibe. The custom architecture and locally made furniture put a modern spin on the building, a renovated original Craftsman bungalow. The owners’ thoughtful approach and attention to detail show in every corner, from the handmade beds with Stearns & Foster luxury mattresses to the minibars full of local treats.
Double rooms from $179 (£139). 1609 E. Cesar Chavez St; 00 512 271 5522
Contemporary, accessible and high in energy is the essence of Aloft Austin Downtown, located near the bustling Congress Avenue. Rooms are small but bright and breezy, with bright pops of colour here and there, including murals of Austin landmarks as artwork. Dining and socialising are definite highlights of the hotel, with Caroline Restaurant the anchor, serving traditional American cuisine with unique local touches and made-from-scratch bakery items.
Doubles from $159 (£119). 109 E 7th St; 00 1 512 476 2222
What to bring home . . .
If you really want to get your cowboy on, there’s no better place to outfit yourself with a pair of boots thanAllens Boots (1522 South Congress Av; 00 1 512 447 1413), a local spot since 1977.
For cool finds like your own 'Keep Austin Weird' T-shirt and other local (and locally made) clothing, home décor, jewellery and crafts, head to Atown (5502 Burnet Rd; 00 1 512 323 2533).
When to go . . .
One of the great things about Central Texas is that winters are mostly mild, with only a few really cold snaps annually, making it a good destination year-round. Summertime, however, can be intensely hot so be prepared if you are not used to temperatures approaching 40°C (104°F), or even more.
Spring and autumn are the most pleasant times of year, when the weather is generally perfect. Those are also peak tourism seasons, and when some of the biggest festivals take place. The South by Southwest Festival in March brings more than 100,000 people from around the world, while two weekends of the Austin City Limits Music Festival in October draws equal crowds. Both are incredible to attend, but if you aren’t heading to Austin specifically for them it’s best to plan around those events.
Know before you go . . .
Tourist board information: Visit Austin, austintexas.org; 00 1 512 474 5171
Emergency fire and ambulance: 911
Emergency police: 911
British Embassy: British Consulate General Houston, 1301 Fannin St, Suite 2400, Houston, Texas; 00 1 713 210-4000, gov.uk
Flight time: 9 hours, 15 minutes London to Austin
Currency: U.S. Dollar
International dialling code: 1
Local laws and etiquette
Tipping culture: Restaurant and service tipping is generally 15 per cent for good service, up to 20 per cent for excellent service.
Public transport: Capital Metro provides both bus and light rail service throughout Austin; however, it’s not as comprehensive as public transport systems in most European cities.
Taxis:Taxis are safe in Austin and plentiful in the central areas, though in the farther reaches of the city will have to be called ahead of time. All are metered so there are no rate surprises. Ride sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft are extremely popular and safe here, and provide a good (and usually less expensive) alternative. Pedicabs are also plentiful in the downtown area, and a fun way to get around.
Etiquette when self-driving: It is legal to turn right at a red traffic light (provided you come to a complete stop first, there is no oncoming traffic and no contradictory sign saying "no turn on red"). Be extra observant of one-way streets in the downtown area.
Greetings: Handshakes are the customary greeting when meeting someone, but Texans are a friendly bunch, so don’t let a hug surprise you.
LGBTQ+ travel: Austin is an extremely progressive city, and LGBTQ+ friendly.
General points of safety: Austin is a very safe city overall, though there is a relatively large homeless population downtown. Exercise the same caution you would anywhere, especially late at night.
Shelley Seale is a native Texan, and moved to Austin in 2002 for its creative scene, music, and gorgeous Hill Country setting. She lives on the east side where she can walk to life’s essentials: breakfast tacos, food trucks, micro-breweries and farmers' markets.