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top five guide: austin, texas

Updated: Sep 7, 2023

Boiling Austin, Texas down into five small bullets has been a gargantuan task. Austin is my hometown and my favorite city in the world, so naturally I have quite a lot to say about it. Growing up with this city as it itself has grown has helped me understand what it means to experience the "real" Austin. If you stick to these five categories, I can guarantee a near-perfect weekend here. Just don't be surprised if you contemplate moving in afterwards.

Also, please don't come during the summer. It is too damn hot, even for locals.

Here are my top five tips if you plan to visit Austin:

Austin TX South Congress Avenue Joann's Sign Guac My World

1: south congress avenue

South Congress is considered to be Austin's tourist ground zero, and for good reason. While it has certainly evolved over the years, locals and visitors alike come here to sample a little of everything our city has to offer: food (Perla's $$$, Aba $$, Homeslice $), drinks (coffee at Jo's Coffee, cocktails at Hotel San Jose's courtyard), live music (Continental Club, Guero's Taco Garden, C-Boy's Heart and Soul), and shopping (Tecovas, Noah Marion, Maufrais).

Austin TX live music venue Stubb's stage

2: live music

Austin is the “Live Music Capital of the World,” hosting internationally known events such as South by Southwest in the spring and Austin City Limits (ACL) Music Festival in the fall. No matter what time you visit, there will be music happening nightly across the city. Red River is the best street packed with venues, and keeps a great calendar of show dates. Check out Stubb's (pictured) for bigger shows, or see smaller acts at Mohawk, Antone's, Cheer Up Charlie's, or Empire Control Room and Garage. My favorite local artists are BLK ODYSSY, TC Superstar, Calliope Musicals, CAPYAC, Mobley, and Bob Schneider.

Austin breakfast tacos Veracruz migas

3: tacos, tacos, tacos

While many people may think of barbecue as an Austinite's food of choice, that is actually not the case. While we do have some bangin' brisket (Franklin's line is famous for a reason), it is usually reserved for special occasions, while tacos - not burritos - are suitable for every meal. I would pass up touristy places like Torchy’s in favor of Veracruz All Natural (pictured - get migas), Taco Joint (their bacon egg potato cheese is the best hangover taco), Granny's Tacos (everything is good), or Valentina's (where they actually put brisket INSIDE your taco...and that's beautiful).

4: water time

Austin is HOT in the summer as noted above, but temperatures can reach as high as the 80s year-round. That means regardless of when you visit, you will likely need to cool off. The great news is that there is a lot of water nearby to help you. A cheap, easy way to enjoy the water downtown is by renting a paddleboard on Lady Bird Lake (aka "Town Lake" if you're local - thanks to my husband and pup for being models in the pic) or taking a dip at Barton Springs Pool. If you’re willing to spend a bit more and travel a bit further, a boat or barge on nearby Lake Austin or Lake Travis is always a good time.

Austin Texas Margarita Tex-Mes ATX Cocina

5: tex-mex: old and new

You haven’t legally been to Austin until you have had margaritas and queso. And yes, this is intentionally a separate category from tacos, as tacos are a more casual affair while a Tex-Mex dinner is usually the start of the best night of your life. The old-school classics beloved by locals (with a laid back, fun vibe) are Matt's El Rancho and Polvo's. Licha's is a great mid-range option with more emphasis on Mexico City cuisine, and for a more upscale, new-school experience, try ATX Cocina (pictured: my favorite marg in town), Suerte, or Comedor.

BONUS: Bar Talk

Austin is a young town with a strong bar culture. There are no less than five distinct bar districts to romp around, and here are my honest thoughts on each from west to east (as a 29-year-old that has spent considerable time in each, at one point in my life or another):

  • West Sixth Street (west of Congress) is mostly filled with recent grads and has a general yuppy vibe, with some of the bars offering bottle service. Lots of Chads and Brads. Dirty Bill's is the exception to this rule. Little Woodrow's is a fun spot to watch a game. Don't visit Unbarlievable under any circumstances.

  • Fourth Street is a mix of LGBTQ+ bars, cocktail bars, and clubs. A overall fun area that bridges West Sixth and "Dirty" Sixth. Coconut Club is a great spot, as is the speakeasy Red Headed Stepchild (aka "Floppy Disk Repair Co.").

  • "Dirty" Sixth Street (from Congress to I-35), also known as Austin's version of Bourbon Street, is the famous stretch of bars that you might have already heard of. The cheap, loud, and somewhat trashy bars here have been popular with tourists and UT undergrads for decades, though it's not my cup of tea, and the area has gotten more dangerous in recent years. My advice is to walk through this area if you feel the need to check the box, but there is no need to stay. The exception would be visiting one of the two speakeasies here, where you can escape the madness: Midnight Cowboy and Firehouse Hostel.

  • Rainey Street used to be a hip, low-key street of historic bungalows-turned-casual bars with ample outdoor space that were ideal for day drinking. Thanks to its popularity, many of those bungalows have been razed to make way for giant high-rise towers, a perpetual point of complaint among "old" Austinites. Even though the street is more commercial and fratty than it once was, it can still be a fun spot to spend a day (or night). The brunch man-mosas at Banger's are iconic, and I love hanging around the patios at Lucille's, Half Step, and Clive Bar. Again, please avoid Unbarlievable.

  • East Sixth Street (east of I-35) is my personal favorite bar district as a local, and has the lowest-key vibe relative to the areas mentioned above. Be sure to hit up breweries like Zilker Brewing or Lazarus Brewing Co. during the day, grab a cocktail at Whisler's or La Holly at happy hour, and spend the rest of the night lingering in “fancy dives” like Shangri-La or The Liberty. The combo bar-venue of The Volstead Lounge and Hotel Vegas is a great spot to drink a Lone Star and catch some local music.

Have a great trip! Feel free to leave a comment with your own favorites. You can also find these recommendations (and more!) in map format by following me on the Out of Office app.


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