The Essential Austin Bars Every Visitor Should Check Out
The measure of a great city isn't just its barbecue or natural beauty. Both of those are great, but wouldn't mean a thing without a place to score an adult beverage afterwards, and Austin has a wealth of such fine establishments. World-class cocktail bars complement brewpubs that boast dozens of rare craft beers. Austin being Austin, there are still dusty country dives galore, as well as the stretch of college dumps we lovingly refer to as Dirty 6th.
The pure glut of bars around Austin, especially Downtown, means you should pick your spots with some care. If there's one thing Austinites take very seriously, it's kicking back with a drink, even when it's not a Lone Star.
The anatomy of an Austin dive bar crowd: one part UT slacker, one part barely employed musician, and a bearded cowboy whose boots are older than the two former patrons combined. Top it off with a jukebox, Lone Star beer, and a cheap-whiskey-on-the-rocks chaser.
Austin's legacy of hole-in-the-wall joints is long and storied. Development might have devoured some old favorites, but a ton of great dive bars still survive for you to spend an unforgettable, if barely remembered, evening.
A tried-and-true Capitol dive: Bartender Beverly Pruitt has seen more quasi-legal lobbying than an extra on House of Cards. She's the longtime matriarch in charge of the Cloak Room, conveniently located a half-block from the state capital and a notorious watering hole for legislative types. Don't expect anything the least bit fancy -- the closest thing to a cocktail is a Jack and Coke -- but like its government patrons, the bar maintains its decorum, however shady it may be.
For new-school two-stepping: The terms "hipster" and "honky tonk" don't often collide, but the White Horse is that type of place. Live country and rhythm and blues provide the soundtrack for two-stepping, which takes place without a hint of irony (even if your partner is more likely to be a highly paid graphic designer than a cowboy).
A touch of December any time of year: It's Christmas year-round at Lala's, a dive off Burnet Rd that clings to string lights and ornaments even in the 100-degree heat of summer. (If you've ever been to Texas in July you know how alluring that fantasy can be.)
Like every other city these days we have our share of Edison bulb-adorned Negroni dens, but a craft cocktail in Austin doesn't mean paying $15 for a martini from an aloof bartender wearing vintage suspenders. By now the city's craftier cocktail joints have realized that what they're really serving is hospitality, and that guiding patrons to their perfect drink is critical to the job.
In local spirits, Tito's is the king of vodka. Smaller brands like Deep Eddy and Dripping Springs also make wildly popular products, including popular sweet tea versions. For gin, try award-winning Waterloo or newcomer Austin Reserve Gin. If you can find it, Garrison Brothers boasts the status as the first all-Texas whiskey, and up the road in Waco, Balcones has won just about every whiskey award imaginable. Given Austin's proximity to Mexico, anyone in town will make a killer margarita (often using Paula's Texas Orange liqueur), but mezcal has also made a big impression in the past few years, with small mezcal bars popping up across the city.
One word of warning. Given the ludicrous heat, it's wise to stay hydrated between rounds. The best way to do it is with a Topo Chico mineral water from just south of the border in Monterrey.
A reservations-only speakeasy: Before 2012 people went to Midnight Cowboy Modeling on East 6th looking for an entirely different type of good time. The erstwhile massage parlor was long rumored to double as a brothel, but it's now been transformed into a reservation-only speakeasy serving some of the city's best cocktails. Call ahead to reserve a table (the place is small, so no parties over eight), look for a red light over the door, and hit the buzzer for "Harry Craddock."
A beloved mescal patio with a food trailer: While most of the city's fancier cocktails are stirred in dimly lit lounges, Whisler's breaks out with one of East 6th's most vibrant outdoor spaces. The drinks still shine, with spot-on classics like Old Fashioneds and Boulevardiers, plus seasonal signatures like the Stem and the Stone (mezcal, mango, cardamom, orange, lime, Angostura). The patio also boasts one of the city's most beloved food trailers in Thai-Kun, plus a secret upstairs mezcaleria.
Classy cocktails on Congress: One of the few spaces in town that feels truly sophisticated, The Townsend combines classic and cool to create one of the best damn cocktail bars you'll find anywhere. The vibe is plush black booths and leather-bound books. The cocktail list is creative without steering too far from tradition, and it also serves an expansive food menu starring a burger topped with red miso mayo. The attached music venue, appropriately, features one of the best-sounding rooms in the city.
It seems like every week a new brewery pops up on the Austin beer scene. OGs like Live Oak, (512), and Independence paved the way in the early aughts for now-classics like Austin Beerworks and Jester King, plus niche operations like trendy sour-slinger Blue Owl. The town is chock-a-block with hoppy IPAs, crisp Pilsners, and lemony hefeweizens, and plenty of taps to sling 'em.
You can't miss by asking the bartender to steer you towards the local iteration of your favorite style, but when all else fails, go ahead and order a Pearl Snap. The German-style Pilsner from Austin Beerworks has been crowned the official beer of Austin.
A Texas pint epicenter: With a wooden state outline on the ceiling, a Lone Star on the floor, and more than 50 local beers, it doesn't get much more Texas than Craft Pride. The beer menu features the best of the booming craft scene, including canonized classics like the Live Oak Pilz and limited nitro rarities like the Sweep the Leg peanut butter stout. It's happy to pour flights, so there's no better place to take a tour of Texas brews. The backyard is also home to a trailer of one the city's finest pizza joints, Via 313.
An old-school Indian brewpub: Convenience stores in Austin are more than just places to snag a six-pack. Perched on the IH-35 access road near Oltorf, Whip In combines a corner market with an Indian restaurant, a music venue, an expertly curated wine section, and a brewpub. In an era when similar corner store bar concepts are popping up on the east side (like the great Quickie Pickie), Whip In earns points for being an Austin original founded in 1986.
A craft beer trailblazer: The ultimate neighborhood beer bar, Draught House is where generations of Austin beer nerds have received a hop education. It feels like a classic pub torn straight out of Europe, with weathered wood throughout, dartboards hanging perilously near an exit, and a patio that has expanded over the years to consume what once was a parking lot. The taps range from rare seasonal locals to limited special releases from iconic breweries. Draught House also brews its own suds, so be sure to try at least one of its beers (only $3 on Thursdays!), and tip your hat to Constance Cichon, one of the city's most revered lady bartenders.
A maxim of jaded locals is that you aren't an Austinite until one of your favorite bars has closed. Despite Austin's changing landscape, a long list of classics still testifies to the city's history. We have beautiful Downtown hotel bars that hark back to another century, dance halls that confirm every cowboy stereotype, and college bars that seemingly cannot be destroyed. If these walls could talk, they'd do so with a twang.
The ageless campus legend: Unbowed by time or development, this dingy honky tonk has been pouring cheap pints for burnt-orange crowds since 1974. The list of performers and celebrities who have graced the venue is legendary; iconic Austin bands like Spoon and Trail of Dead began their careers on the small stage that looks out onto Guadalupe. Mercifully it has made a few updates over the years, most notably a kitchen out back that serves Japanese bar food.
A historic hotel haunt: Downtown is rich with hotel bars, from the revelrous W to the rooftop of the Hotel Van Zandt, but none epitomizes Austin quite like The Driskill. If it feels like it was built by a cattle baron in the late 1800s, well, that's because it was. Cracked leather sofas, busts of longhorns, and a huge bronze statue of wild horses fill the main bar room, where a piano player often tickles the keys. It's not the hippest scene in town, but there's no better place to feel like a time traveler. Just be on the lookout for ghosts: The hotel is reputedly haunted by a pair of women who committed suicide on their honeymoons, 20 years apart, in the same room.
For cowboy boots and chicken fried steaks: The White Horse is the place to two-step with a graphic designer, but the Broken Spoke is the spot where the real cowboys go for a dose of quick-quick-slow. Surrounding condos be damned, once you walk into this vintage dance hall you'll be in Middle of Nowhere, Texas. The floor is typically full of serious dancers, but novices are always welcome, especially for the nightly 8-9pm lesson. Pitchers of Lone Star provide the confidence, revered country musicians like Dale Watson play the soundtrack, and when you wear down, one of the city's most monstrous chicken-fried steaks awaits.
For years Austin's bar scene was defined by the rows of college bars along 6th St between IH-35 and Congress. On weekends the police block off traffic, turning it into a pedestrian zone, and although you can't consume in public like on Bourbon or Beale Streets, the road still becomes a Walking Dead-like scene of college kids emerging from bars in a pizza-crazed stupor. Even though Austinites over the age of 25 have graduated to the hipper east side, yuppier West 6th, or Rainey St, or just keep it weird in South Austin, no visit to the city would be complete without a stumble down Dirty 6th.
Doormen scream out specials and live music blasts from most bars, so the best bet is to just stroll down the block and see what catches your eyes and ears. Even a dip into Peckerheads or Bikinis is worth a few laughs and a cheap mixed drink. Then once you've crawled through one or two random spots, hit one of the following Thrillist-approved bars.
A playful creekside brat house: Waller Creek runs through Downtown and banks against Easy Tiger's patio, and although there won't likely be much water (there's currently a multimillion-dollar renovation underway), it still adds ambience to the city's best German beer garden. The 33 taps include the likes of AleSmith and Avery -- they pair perfectly with an oversized pretzel dipped in beer cheese, and if you're hungry for a meal the kitchen serves platters of brats and other Bavarian staples on bread baked fresh upstairs in the bakeshop. The patio ping-pong scene is surprisingly competitive.
A burger oasis where you need it most: Right in the heart of Dirty 6th, Jackalope is a dive that has stood the test of time. The burgers might not match those of neighboring Casino El Camino, but they're still worth devouring. Tiebreaker goes to the ambience: velvet pin-up paintings on the wall, oversized padded couches, and a shaded smoking patio out back.
A delightfully sloppy make-out spot: Technically located on Red River between 6th and 7th, Barbarella represents the best of Downtown debauchery. No dance floor gives you a better shot at making out with a stranger, which means it's a favorite destination of bachelorette parties or #squads just looking for trouble. The music is never pretentious, spanning decades ('60s soul, '80s cheese, '00s emo) and demographics, including one of the city’s longest-running LGBT parties, Tuesgayz.
As a liberal bubble inside a notoriously red state, Austin has been particularly friendly to LGBT communities. Historically the gay epicenter was on 4th St between Lavaca and Colorado, but over time it has spread to other corners of Downtown via less-traditional, gay-friendly bars such as The Iron Bear and Cheer Up Charlie's. Expect drags shows and DJ sets heavy on queer artists, but don't be intimidated. As Austin's gay bars pride themselves on offering a safe place for LGBT individuals, their spirit of inclusiveness extends to everyone who walks in the door.
An LGBTQ creative hub: Cheer Up Charlie's began as a trailer hawking fresh coconuts. Somehow it morphed into one of the city's most vibrant places to hear music, queer-leaning or otherwise. A bright-pink parachute covers the outdoor patio, under which the city's hipster masses sip Golden Tickets (whiskey, ginger, kombucha) and take in nightly shows -- storytelling events like Greetings from Queer Mountain or expertly mixed DJ sets from crews like Deep Inside. Patrons often let their freak flags fly, but more conservative visitors shouldn't be dissuaded. The carefully curated musical lineup makes Cheer Up a destination no matter your sexual orientation.
Always in drag, never a drag: Perhaps the oldest gay bar in the city, Rain anchors the informal gay district on 4th St. The event programming spans the gamut from drag classes to anything-goes dance parties, and an infectiously enthusiastic crowd makes it near impossible to go to Rain without having a good time. If the vibe isn't right, Oil Can Harry's and Highland are just a few doors down.
Big, bold and queer: Proudly welcoming all "bears, cubs, otters, wolves, leather, and fetish," The Iron Bear serves as a haven for those looking to explore the more alternative side of LGBT subcultures. Trivia nights, poker, and karaoke distinguish this from more dance-focused venues, but there's still a good chance you'll walk into a DJ playing Sylvester. The bartenders swathed in bondage gear are friendlier than they look.
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