A couple of weeks ago, I got the chance to spend a long weekend in Austin, Texas!
Austin has been on my travel wishlist for years. Chris and I originally planned to visit during our cross-country road trip, but we didn’t end up making it there. So when my best friend Megan (who was there for work) asked if I wanted to join her for the weekend, I said, “UM, DUH!”
Austin is known for being the blue dot in a deep red state. Home of the SXSW tech conference and the University of Texas’s flagship campus, it’s also the land of live music and breakfast tacos, street art and food trucks and swimming holes. Austin is, in a word, FUN. 6th street, the main drag that runs through the center of downtown, is lined with bars on both sides—most of which have rooftops and patios opening out to the street, making it feel like one big, never-ending party. (No wonder we saw at least 15 bachelorette parties in matching T-shirts roaming around.) Choosing a place to eat can be overwhelming, with endless options that run the gamut from traditional Texas staples (barbecue) to the trendiest ethnic/organic/local fare. The Colorado river also runs right through the center of the city, and is surrounded by miles of parks that are full of Austinites jogging, paddleboarding, kayaking, biking, swimming, strolling, doing yoga, etc. etc. This is a city that knows how to have a good time.
I arrived Friday evening and flew back to North Carolina on Monday afternoon, so it was a short visit. But we still managed to pack a lot in—in between cheering on our Heels in the NCAA tournament, of course. (#NATIONALCHAMPS WHAT UP!!!)
On Friday, we spent the night out at a couple of sports bars on 6th street, cheering our Tar Heels to victory and catching up over some local IPAs (of which, naturally, there are plenty to choose from. Might I suggest Infamous Brewing Company‘s IPA, or Karbach Brewing’s Hopadillo?)
We started off Saturday on the right foot with breakfast tacos from Torchy’s…
…then we met up with friends for a day trip to Hamilton Pool Preserve, a beautiful natural water feature that’s about 30 minutes west of Austin.
Unfortunately, it’s become such a popular spot that even in March (two months before peak season, when permits are required to visit), it was full by the time we arrived around 2:00pm and we weren’t allowed in. Womp womp.
Thankfully, we had a Plan B: Westcave Cellars Winery! Because who needs hiking when you can drink wine instead, right? Just two miles down the road from Hamilton Pool, Westcave offers a peaceful, sun-dappled patio and surprisingly decent wine. (My favorite was the Vermentino, a nice crisp white for sipping outside on a hot afternoon.) We even wandered among the rows of grapes and spotted some longhorn grazing nearby.
Next, we checked out nearby Jester King brewery and tasting room. It was more of a campus than a typical brewery—an enormous, sprawling lot with multiple buildings, pop-up tents, and fields full of picnic tables. The beer list was overwhelmingly long, but only certain tents were selling certain brews. Honestly, it wasn’t really my jam…too confusing and crowded with hordes of people, dogs, and kids. (Okay, the dogs were great, but too many humans for me.) Plus, their specialty is sour beers—also not my jam. But I hear they’re great sours, if that happens to be your thing!
We capped off our day of glutton by stuffing our faces with Texas barbecue at the famous Salt Lick BBQ. Continuing the theme of “everything’s bigger in Texas,” the place was HUGE—at least three rooms packed with picnic tables, plus an enormous patio space. But despite the impressive seating capacity, they’re still so popular that a wait time is inevitable. Luckily, they’ve figured out a way to work that in their favor: by offering a waiting area with picnic tables in the shade, a playground for the kids, and a casual BYOB policy. We relaxed outside for about 45 minutes before we were seated at yet another picnic table, where we happily inhaled as much slow-cooked meat as we could manage. I’ll always be partial to NC-style barbecue (what can I say; I’m loyal), but those pork ribs were GOOD.
On Sunday, after french press coffee and a delicious Croque Madame at Forthright Cafe (recommended by a local as a good brunch spot away from the tourist crowds), Megan and I set off to tackle my favorite pastime when visiting a new city: wandering around aimlessly!
We walked across the river, where I learned about the world’s largest urban bat colony (!!) that lives under the Congress Avenue Bridge. From there we checked out the YETI flagship store that just recently opened, then strolled through a good portion of Butler Park where we attempted to stay out of the way of cyclists and jogging strollers. Eventually we crossed over the pedestrian bridge before Lamar Street.
On Lamar, I found my mecca: Book People, one of the best independent bookstores in the country.
While not quite as large or maze-like as Powell’s City of Books in Portland, OR, Book People has two full stories packed with every genre imaginable, plus all kinds of paper goods and quirky Austin gifts. (Looking for a souvenir? Go here.) There’s also a coffee shop tucked into the back corner, and a rotating schedule of signings, lectures, book club meetings, and other events. It’s always great to see a thriving independent bookstore—I could have spent years in there. Instead I bought a Jon Krakauer paperback and my new favorite tank top…
…and we continued wandering through downtown for the rest of the afternoon.
That night, we splurged on a FANTASTIC sushi dinner at Uchi, where I ate unagi (barbecued eel) for the first time and loved it. It’s definitely not a cheap place, but if you want traditional Japanese-style sushi with innovative flavor combinations, I highly recommend it. (Just make sure to get reservations!)
Finally, we ended the day by meeting friends to share some over-the-top doughnuts at Gourdough’s (pronounced like “Gordo’s”). By “over-the-top” I mean literally over the top, since their thing is piling decadent toppings on their fresh doughnuts. My fave was the one with Nutella and strawberries, obviously.
On Monday, with Megan back at work, I grabbed an acai bowl from Blenders & Bowls, then walked across the river to get my morning coffee from Jo’s—the famous little green hut with the iconic “I love you so much” graffiti scrawled on the wall.
Before catching a ride to the airport with my Ride Austin app (Uber was voted out of Austin last year), I spent the rest of my lazy morning exploring the funky shops on South Congress street, a.k.a. “SoCo.” I already had all the souvenirs I needed, but with cowboy boots, southwest-style art, outlandish costumes, ironic souvenirs and more, this has got to be one of the best places in the country to window shop.
Altogether, Austin is a mashup of the trendy, hipster vibe—there was literally a mustache-themed bar called “HandleBar” two blocks from our hotel—and a classic country Texas feel (think all-you-can-eat brisket, cowboy boots, and honky tonk).
It reminded me of Portland, but more centralized. And with an extra dose of sun and down-home Texas cheer.
Next time I visit, I’d like to give Hamilton Pool another try (only this time, I’ll go on a weekday and early in the morning). Also on my list is catching some live music, spending some time exploring the shops and restaurants on East 6th Street, and going for a dip in Barton Springs Pool. And of course, stuffing my face with as much food as I can manage (again), because literally everything we ate was delicious.
Have you ever been to Austin? I’d love to hear what you recommend—or what you’d like to do/see/eat when you visit. There’s just too much fun to be had in Austin, and I can’t wait to go back. Thanks for the invite, Megan!