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Our Favorite Places to Eat, Sleep, and Explore in Austin

From line-dancing to the best menus.

<p>RYAN KYTE / Getty Images</p>

RYAN KYTE / Getty Images

As one of the fastest-growing metropolitan cities in the United States, Austin, TX vibrantly combines laid-back charm and urban sophistication. It’s a city newly flush with transplants and rife with history, and the Lone Star State is constantly defining and redefining itself.

Located in the central southeastern part of the state, this mid-sized capital city booms with sports, nightlife, outdoor activities, breweries, restaurants, and more. In addition to its rapidly growing population, the city also hosts plenty of events, from technology conferences to music festivals—notably South by Southwest and Austin City Limits.

Each neighborhood and district has a distinctive feel, despite Austin’s vibrant, cohesive personality, so you’ll want to tailor your visit with that in mind. You’re likely to see a sign or two shouting “Keep Austin Weird,” a quirky nod to the city’s eclectic mix of personas. Whether you prefer gritty family-run barbecue stands or inventive Michelin-starred fusion concepts, there’s an experience sure to make you want to book your next flight back immediately.

In the same vein, embodying the tenet that everything’s bigger in Texas, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed if you don’t have a few core ideas of what you’d like to do while passing through the city. Without further ado, here's a list of our favorite places to check out the next time you're in Austin, Texas.

Where to stay

As an ever-growing metropolis, Austin is full of tempting properties ranging from timeless escapes to sophisticated urban home bases situated within the most active areas of the city.

Now, Austin has a reputation for locals complaining about the city changing. With such a city-specific culture, the nostalgia for older fixtures and institutions is understandable. To experience the Austin of old, consider one of the few hotels established before the 1990s in the city: The Driskill. Established in 1886, the grand marbled columns and stained-glass dome evoke straight Texas glamor, complete with modern amenities like a 24-hour gym, same-day laundry, and an in-lobby café serving delicious Texan comfort food. If you and your companions are on the hunt for some music and dancing in the Live Music Capital of the World, the on-site bar is your spot.

For another downtown selection near Rainy Street, you can’t go wrong with Hotel Van Zandt. Modeled and themed after a local musician, the property is an ode to the arts and culture of the city. The property also features a variety of small, hidden pleasures, ranging from an underwater sound system in the pool to free loaner bikes to a free daily happy hour with local beer and house-made margaritas. You can even request an in-room vinyl record player. Best of all, it’s only a 5-minute walk to Lady Bird Lake.

On the other side of the lake is The Loren at Lady Bird Lake, your best bet for stunning skyline views across 108 luxury rooms. Its attentive service, contemporary furnishings, and award-winning Milk + Honey Spa make it a chic option for any city slicker. Most notably, its dining room, Nido, has a reputation for elevated dishes and creative cocktails.

If you prefer a more peaceful retreat after exploring such an energetic town—or even not to leave the property at all—then Commodore Perry Estate offers a refreshing oasis only 10 minutes north of downtown. Sandwiched between Cherrywood and Central Austin, the 10-acre resort mimics the swanky splendor of a residential estate. Sunken gardens, a lush pool, and European interiors make it especially dreamy. Pro tip: You will want dessert from Lutie’s.

Similarly, just a stone’s throw away from the university (four blocks to be exact), Hotel Ella embodies the best of the boutiques. Having previously been a dormitory, sorority house, and rehabilitation center, the homey mansion combines accessible convenience with intimate hospitality. The parlor bar and airy porch sweep you away to another time, and the food is consistently tasty. Do note that you’ll need to valet your car.

Where to eat

Austin’s a food town, and boy, will you want to eat your way through it. Right off of Rainy Street, modern American joint Emmer & Rye racks up well-deserved awards, including Executive Chef Kevin Fink’s Food & Wine Best New Chef designation in 2016. The kitchen works directly with ranchers, farmers, and foragers for a daily-changing seasonal menu utilizing whole-animal butchery, extensive in-house fermentation, and up to 15 different types of grain milled on-site. In other words, you’ll want to visit this time, and again and again—because it will always be unique, and it will be excellent.

Brunch lovers, be sure to have Paperboy on your radar. From chorizo, potato, and cheese empanadas to a mouthwatering chicken and biscuit entrée, this A.M. favorite consistently hits it out of the park. Plus, it has plenty of vegetarian options.

In East Austin, discover Tex-Mex to die for at De Nada Cantina, with handmade tortillas, slow-braised meats, and handcrafted margaritas (which you can even get to go). Colorful bar stools, an all-day happy hour, and friendly service make it a favorite of locals and visitors alike.

While you might not associate Texas with seafood from the get-go, Perla’s on South Congress Avenue (a must-see for its lively music, shopping, and walkability) offers an impressive array of oysters and fresh fish, flown in daily. If the stacked wine menu doesn’t win you over, the happy hour shrimp and fish ceviche—complete with avocado and homemade tostaditos—will.

Of course, you’ll want to structure your trip around getting some barbecue. Open Wednesday through Sunday, LeRoy and Lewis Barbecue is your best bet. Billed as “new school barbecue with old school service,” the dinner here is a sell-out risk, with unusual sides remixing each dish. Visit here and Barton Springs on the same day; nestled slightly south of the city, they’re less than fifteen minutes apart by car.

If you’d like to go a little further out into the country, consider Jester King Brewery, which has 165 acres of picnic grounds and hiking trails (and, for that reason, is a popular wedding venue). While the picnic tables and white string lights offer a humble, romantic vibe, the farm-fresh food and drink are anything but. The animal pens and relaxed feel make it an especially excellent spot for those with kids.

While Austin’s breweries, distilleries, and vineyards are worth the tour, the city’s also notable for its stylish nonalcoholic bar, Sans, located smack-dab downtown for the sober and the curious.

If you’re on the go during your stay, Bird Bird Biscuit’s a great option to have on your radar for speedy pickups. Its chicken sandwich is a crowd-pleaser.

Things to do

If you’re staying downtown or on the waterfront, Lady Bird Lake is a haven for water lovers and long-walkers. Miles of trails, stand-up paddleboard rentals, and kayaking options can maximize your time in nature—whether you’ve got 20 minutes between itinerary items or want to spend a whole afternoon blissed out on the lake.

Nestled within the 351 acres of Zilker Park below the lake, Barton Springs Pool is also fantastic to have on your radar for water-centric activities. Located a short drive from downtown, this outdoor swimming pool offers a refreshing respite from the heat year-round, with consistent temperatures of 68 to 70 degrees from the four springs flowing into it. Keep in mind, however, that it’s open on scattered days throughout the week: Tuesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. (Maybe pick up a new read from BookPeople, the state’s largest independent bookseller since 1970, before you head over.)

While you’re in the “live music capital of the world,” you (or more accurately, y’all) should absolutely make sure that line dancing is on your agenda. Opt for The White Horse or Broken Spoke for a true Texan experience beyond the live music options along Rainey Street. Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks, and other famous country artists have danced through their halls. Yes, there are lessons available at each.

If you need a custom pair of cowboy boots for the occasion, outfitters like Heritage Boot Co. and Texas Custom Boots are your best bet for some shopping, both located below the lake. That entire avenue—South Congress Ave.—is a prime spot for fantastic vintage shops, big-name brands, live music, and good food. You could spend your whole trip shopping in SoCo without missing a beat.

Don’t forget to snap a few pics at one of the many murals bedecking the city. You can even follow a self-guided tour of the art throughout the city if visiting the popular Blanton Museum of Art isn’t your style. Your next Instagram brag is likely right behind your new favorite taco truck.

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