The Ultimate Austin Travel Guide
You've heard the slogan -- Keep Austin Weird. The blue college bubble deep in the red-meat heart of Texas (clap! clap!) built its counterculture rep on the backs of patron saints like cross-dressing homeless hero Leslie (RIP) and green-lunged country legend Willie Nelson, who is thankfully immortal. Ask yourself: How fantastically bizarre must a Texas city be to earn a rep as the weird one?
But the times they are a-scaling. Austin's one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, which means the price of a taco on Airport Blvd has inflated 900% (from 39 cents!) and it's nearly impossible to find authentic Madonna pap smears for sale outside music venues anymore, dismaying fans of Richard Linklater's 1991 proto-Austin city guide Slacker.
Austinites are a protective lot, and most aren't happy about the afternoon hellscape of I-35 traffic and hour-long lines to enter Barton Springs (pro tip: go to the back entrance, or hit a luscious BYOB greenbelt swimming hole). But even the jaded contingent who believes we've jumped the locally sourced shark can't complain about the best entrepreneurial conditions outside of Silicon Valley, the deluge of world-class food, and the fact that the band playing your neighborhood dive bar today could well book a Tiny Desk Concert on NPR tomorrow.
The city has always been too cool for school, which is exactly why you need to visit now, before all the tourists ruin it! As we have elsewhere, we've got you covered. Each month this year, Thrillist will roll out a massive, comprehensive travel guide to another great American city. Having ambled around New Orleans, San Diego, and Miami, we're hitting the Lone Star State's shining capital. In this guide our writers will lead you around the city, into the greenbelt, and to barbecue meccas just outside city limits. We sussed out the best restaurants, bars, music venues, and things to know once you inevitably consider moving here, relying on local writers for the whole shebang. Treat it like you would a roadmap to the jewel of Texas. You'll find that, like a paper map, it's impossible to fold correctly.
First off, congratulations on making it out of the airport without getting barbecue sauce on your shirt. We understand you couldn't wait for a slab of fatty brisket. Brace yourself now for even better beef in your future.
Austin may be the barbecue capital of the universe, but these days you'd have to be smoking something other than post oak to think that's all there is to eat. Proximity to Mexico means we feast on tons of tacos, breakfast, noon, and night, plus muchos moles, tortas, and chilaquiles. Oh, and we rep two of the best sushi restaurants in the world. And Detroit-style pizza whose crust is somehow both crispy with caramelized cheese yet soft as down on the inside. And a buffet of James Beard-worthy New American restaurants making noodles out of pig face. And craft breweries spewing sours, stouts, and Pearl Snaps, an Austin Beerworks Pils that has become the city's official beer of record.
So bottom line, bring your appetite. And maybe a cooler to take home some of that brisket.
By ANASTACIA URIEGAS and DAN GENTILE
Amid a profusion of old-school salt-and-pepper rubs, not every stack of post oak-smoked brisket is worth waiting in line for. To separate the moist from the lean, we've compiled a list of the best barbecue you can find in Austin (i.e., the best anywhere). Click here for full article...
By DAN GENTILE
Narrowing down the essentials in one of the country's most dynamic food cities ain't easy. But we've got your essential cuisines that Austin does as well as anywhere, and the 28 restaurants, food trucks, and coffee shops that do them best of all. Click here for full article...
By DAN GENTILE
Nowhere in Texas takes kicking back with a Lone Star more seriously than its capital. The drinking scene is popping, whether you dig dives, like to dance with an LGBTQ crowd, or want to sip craft cocktails like a cattle baron. Click here for full article...
Where to Get the Best Waffle Fries You'll Ever Eat
Legendary for its exotic-meat hot dogs, Frank also rocks a monstrous side of fries dressed with melted Swiss, sauerkraut, corned beef, and Thousand Island. Click here for full article...
This Amazing Frito Pie Is the Ultimate Texas Comfort Food
Three types of chili (ancho! Chipotle! Cascabella!) mix with crisped ground beef and a handful of secret spices. Then the whole mess is poured into a bag of Fritos. Click here for full article...
Breakfast Tacos With BBQ Brisket Might Be the Most Austin Food Ever
This most formidable of breakfast tacos delivers fried eggs, refried beans, a slice of bacon, potatoes, and a decadent slice of mesquite-smoked brisket. Click here for full article...
You're going to need to fall into a food coma somewhere, and thankfully Austin's booming festival economy means our hotel and Airbnb capacity far exceeds most other mid-sized cities. Expect to pay significantly more during South by Southwest or Austin City Limits, especially at Airbnbs. But a new crop of Downtown hotels means plenty of options if you're into fresh towels and pillow chocolates.
When you book, consider that walking in Austin isn't a thing. The 30-minute walks customary in cities like New York baffle Austinites who don't exactly love standing on pavement in triple-digit heat. Staying in a neighborhood slightly off the beaten path might save a few bucks, but you'll likely spend them instead on a Fasten (yes, that's a car service. We have an "it's complicated" relationship with Uber and Lyft.).
Staying downtown is a no-brainer. It's the most central choice, with easy access to South and East Austin as well as the University of Texas campus, tons of things to eat and drink, and a nearby body of water to swim in (Barton Springs!). The Driskill is the classiest hotel in town that happens to be in the middle of the least classy street (Dirty 6th; more on that later). It's the place to stay if you want to roll like the late-1800s cattle baron who built it. For a hotel with a bar built for bad decisions, the W is the move. Or for new-school elegance, try the Hotel Van Zandt, which boasts one of the best rooftop terraces in town, even if its namesake folk singer would never be able to afford a room (he'd likely find himself at Firehouse Hostel).
The hip place to stay is East Austin, a gentrified playground of brewpubs, yoga studios, and artisan convenience stores. It's a wide swath east of IH-35 that comprises many smaller neighborhoods, with Cesar Chavez (1st St for those counting) being the most freshly flipped. Heywood Hotel is the boutique option there, whereas Hotel Eleven (on E 11th St, duh) puts you closer to Franklin Barbecue. Manor Rd (26th St) a few blocks north boasts a long strip of bars and restaurants, but no real lodgings. Thankfully it's a hotbed of… hot beds, in that Airbnbs abound.
Lady Bird Lake is where Downtown ends and South Austin begins. It's the epicenter of Weird and as local as it gets. Lamar, South 1st, and South Congress are the three main commercial drags, with South Congress boasting the most lodgings. Hotel San Jose was Austin's boutique hotel trendsetter and is a real bargain (with a great patio bar), while the company operates a more exclusive, higher-priced chateau called Saint Cecilia if luxury is the priority. The South Congress Hotel is a massive outpost of chic retail and restaurants (with a great rooftop pool and DJs in the lobby). The Kimber Modern is where to stay if you have an eye for architecture.
UT, Hyde Park, and North Campus
The University of Texas sprawls just north of Downtown (18th-30th St), so it's still a central choice for lodging if your visit is academic or footballic in nature. The AT&T Executive Center and Hotel Ella are the prime hotels. For a quieter neighborhood Airbnb experience the tree-lined streets of Hyde Park make a great choice and still offer plenty of walkable activities along Guadalupe St.
By KELLI MCDONALD
Every neighborhood here has its own distinct charm -- and more often than not, its own struggle in the face of this city's lightning-fast growth. Austinites explain their parts of town: how they used to be, how they've changed, and why they endure. Click here for full article...
OK, let's be honest, you're traveling here for SXSW/ACL/F1/some conference on microchip dog trackers, right? Despite our "Don't Move Here" T-shirts, we welcome visitors with open arms (and spare bedrooms on Airbnb). Now that you're in the 512, the easiest path to going local is to pretend you're as friendly as the average Texan. Expect a neighborly wave from the men who regularly ride their horses down Cesar Chavez Str and a personal two-step lesson from an 80-year-old cowboy at the Broken Spoke.
They're two reminders that no matter the cosmopolitan pedigree, Austin is the capital of a very distinct state. No one will pull an openly carried pistol on you for dissing our politics, but know that much of the population has the outline of Texas tattooed somewhere on their body. There's a good chance even the crustiest anti-establishment punk rocker can recite a chapter of Lonesome Dove from memory.
So show some respect for the Lone Star State. Being a good guest is important, especially during the 10 days of adult Christmas known as SXSW. We've got you covered on how to make the best of the trip (and not make the worst of it). But do your part and Don't Mess With Texas -- make sure that Shiner Bock empty ends up in the recycling.
The entire creative universe flies to Austin in March because of the tracers from the psychedelic cosmic cowboy music scene of the '70s and '80s. Music is a huge part of the city's DNA, and although plenty of vaguely employed blues and indie-rock musicians still loaf around coffee shops, they're seated next to bootstrapping entrepreneurs and app design wizards. Songs don't live and die in dive venues anymore. Instead, they anchor the soundtracks of Netflix shows like Stranger Things.
The film industry has also joined the party. During SXSW, a Bill Murray spotting is a rite of passage, be he bartending at Shangri-La or watching Ghostface Killah from the balcony of the Mohawk. Keep your eyes peeled for Friday Night Lights locations. And you might just see Andre 3000 on break from a TV shoot standing in line for a cappuccino and singing along to soul music from his iPhone speaker.
The city's boom has brought the inevitable stretch marks: horrendous traffic, rents that look unreasonable even to Manhattanites, and heavy gentrification. Historically IH-35 divided East Austin from West, with the east side home to the city's African-American and Hispanic communities. Rising property taxes and an influx of hip businesses have blitzed those neighborhoods, so much that we're one of the only major cities in the country whose African-American population is declining. It'd be hard to argue against the hashtag #AustinSoWhite, but the culture that remains is as fiercely proud as any other group in the city. We all bleed barbecue sauce here, and we all get equally misty-eyed when the moonlight glints off the 68-degree waters of Barton Springs during night swim (open until 10pm!).
By AUDRA SCHROEDER
South by Southwest is a blowout of secret-show rumors, hashtags, RSVPs, booze, brands, tacos, speakers, tech, barbecue, beer, and free stuff. So don't fall into one of these 10 pitfalls that'll make SXSW terrible. Click here for full article...
By DOYIN OYENIYI
Underneath the progressive vibes of SXSW and the musical options of Austin City Limits, Austin struggles to live up to its own hype. There's a reason one of the first things visitors ask is, "Where are all the black people?" Click here for full article...
By PAUL KNIGHT
Says the Austin Musician of the Year winner: "Austin has a long way to go in terms of diversity. Most of the people moving here have the same backgrounds. The same amount of money in their pockets." Click here for full article...
Austin's in the middle of Hill Country, which has inspired hardcore cyclists like Lance Armstrong, and discouraged casual bike riders like... you. But despite the hills, our B-cycle bike-sharing program is a great way to see the city. Just expect to glisten with sweat when you arrive at your destination.
Otherwise, you'll probably find Austin's transportation options lacking. Locals try not to rely on the bus system and light rail, and a regulatory showdown with ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft led those companies to shut down service. New ones popped up overnight, with Fasten and Ride Austin being the most popular. It's definitely possible to make due without a car, but if you want to make it to dinner at Barley Swine after dipping in Barton Springs without spending $50 on the ride, it's best to rent a vehicle.
So you've eaten your weight in brisket, seen a band that's 10 minutes from blowing up, and slammed a Lone Star in every neighborhood in town. What now?
Make like an out-of-date stereotype from Slacker and just wander around, that's what. Be it in Downtown, South Congress, East Austin, or just around Lady Bird Lake, you're bound to run into something that catches your eye. Maybe it's Waterloo Records, one of the nation's best places to buy a record, CD, or Willie Nelson biography. Or Birds Barbershop on the east side for a quick trim (and free beer!). On South Congress, Uncommon Objects is the ultimate browser's antique shop, and there are at least two places to be fitted for a pair of cowboy boots. If you prefer scanning listings to merely stumbling around, consult Do512 for the most comprehensive all-purpose encyclopedia of fun.
With any luck that wandering will lead to a body of water -- perhaps Barton Springs or Deep Eddy or a secret swimming hole. Always carry a swimsuit! The 100-plus-degree heat is physical and mental torture that subsides only when you submerge yourself in water. People swim literally every day during the summer, and locals all have their favorite spots. Most of these are in the greenbelt, a mythical patchwork of trails and swimming holes. Water levels are contingent on rain, so be sure to consult this handy Facebook group to see which spots have strong enough flow. And do bring beer, but discreetly, and use a koozie, as Austin PD likes to swim, too.
Once your shorts are dry, head to a music venue. Do512 also navigates the music scene, but the go-to local resource is Showlist Austin. The text-only layout lacks multimedia flashiness, but there's no easier way to learn which garage rockers will grace the stage of Hotel Vegas or which techno DJs are twiddling knobs at Kingdom. If you're just looking to soak in some vibes, walking Red River is the best bet -- venues like Mohawk, Cheer Up Charlie's, Beerland, Empire, and Barracuda host local bills with national headliners, and a quick chat with the doorman will be able to tell if you're about to see the next Gary Clark Jr. or Spoon. Hell, there's a good chance those guys might even be playing a secret show as we speak. You can't do any better than starting conversations with people. You'll tend to find Texans are big on talking.
By AUDRA SCHROEDER
In typical Texan understatement, Austin likes everyone to know it's the Live Music Capital of the World. With a claim like that, a city has to have the goods to back it up. Wouldn't you know, these 11 places actually do. Click here for full article...
By THOMAS ALLISON
Austinites tend to be guarded about revealing their favorite local nature spots. But what the hey, I'll let you in. Here are some choice cuts that other locals might not tell you about right away. Click here for full article...
By KELLI MCDONALD
In the past generation, "Keep Austin Weird" has become an unofficial slogan and battle cry. The weirdness is under threat, but these small businesses, oddball landmarks, and standout quirks still give this city its character. Click here for full article...
Throughout this year, Thrillist will be rolling out massive, comprehensive travel guides to great American cities, having tackled New Orleans, San Diego, Miami, Austin, Vegas, and now New York. Keep a lookout for a new travel guide coming soon.
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Writers: Dan Gentile, Audra Schroeder, Kelli McDonald, Doyin Oyeniyi, Leanne Butkovic, Paul Knight, Thomas Allison, Dan Jackson, Matt Patches, Anastacia Uriegas
Art direction: Drew Swantak
Photographer: Thomas Allison
Graphics: Jason Hoffman, Evan Lockhart
Production: Pete Dombrosky, Tanner Saunders, Amy Schulman
Video: Chas Truslow, Nezihe Soyalan, Dan Gentile, Emily Tufaro, Sarah Barry, Dave Infante, Julie Piñero, Molly O'Brien, Joe Orision, Zach Lapierre, David Monk, Dan Byrne
Special thanks: Bison Messink, Julie Cerick, Dan Reilly, James Chrisman, Rachel Freeman, Ben Robinson, Alex Garofalo, Gina Chavez
No thanks: Rick. Don't worry -- he knows why.