Austin Guide: How to Embrace the Weird in the Hipster Texan Capital

The city's best tacos, barbecue pitstops, and cafes. | By David Whitley & Dan Westergren  
Austin Facial Hair Club Jimmy Fox
Jimmy Fox, aka Red, a member of the Austin Facial Hair Club, competes in beard contests around the country. Photo: Dan Westergren

Guttural roars escape from the death metal club across the road. The bartender hands out cans of beer to people who want to drink them in the street. Two guys with beards caked with pizza brought in from the food truck next door discuss whether to go and see ZZ Top tomorrow night. Queues mount outside a barbecue joint, responding to rumours of a secret gig by a big-name band that would usually be playing on a larger stage.

Wednesday night Austin feels woozily alive. Staggering slightly, but brimming with confidence and invention. Music oozes from its sweaty pores, genre an irrelevance as long as it’s live. It’s the fuel powering the city’s energy and its eagerness to teeter on the edge of irresponsibility. It’s Margaritaville with a few cans of Red Bull chucked in, easy-going good times laced with youthful adrenaline.

Shakey Graves Texas U.S

Native Austinite and folk musician Alejandro Rose-Garcia, better known as Shakey Graves, plays in his studio. Photo: Dan Westergren

The fastest growing city in the U.S. may be the capital of Texas, but it feels as if it’s in a constant state of rebellion against all that surrounds it. Austin’s charged liberalism and determined individuality kick and scream against the conservatism of Texan typecasting. “Keep Austin Weird” is a semi-official slogan; “Don’t Dallas My Austin” is a T-shirt and bumper-sticker clarion call against the sprawling big-business neighbour to the north.

It hasn’t always been this way. The transformation from cow town to capital of cool arguably began in 1987, when the South by Southwest festival was first set up here. Part creative industries trade show, part music gig epidemic taking over most of the town, it has spurred Austin’s ballooning festival calendar.

The University of Texas has always ensured a youthful presence, but the city has become fresh-faced with an influx of enthusiastic musicians, artists, and tech pioneers.

Eatery Austin Trailer Park Texas U.S

Locals and visitors alike patronise South Austin Trailer Park & Eatery, one of several stationary food truck stops in the city. Photo: Dan Westergren

Austin isn’t a place for rigid itineraries or working through checklists. It’s a place for acting on overheard tip-offs, for following instincts and whims.

Yet, once the sun comes up and the haze subsides, a pervading dressed-down relaxedness reveals the city’s charm and counterbalances the charge. Off-leash dogs loll in parks, mosquito-swatting canoeists glide past, and “y’alls” pepper conversations in a betrayal of the valiant fight against Texan roots.

Capital Cachet: Shop at South Congress Avenue, Swim in Barton Springs Pool

Barton Springs Pool Texas U.S

Early risers dip into Barton Springs Pool. Photo: Dan Westergren

South Congress Avenue If one street captures the Keep Austin Weird vibe, this is it. Just about every building flanking South Congress rewards the inquisitive. Shop signs are cartoonish neon artworks, cafés and food trucks provide prime people-watching opportunities, and fashion statements ranging from confidently individual to thoroughly absurd often strut along the sidewalk.

Barton Springs Pool Surrounded by Zilker Park abutting Lady Bird Lake, this is one of the greatest urban swimming venues on Earth. Its three acres of spring-fed waters are a constant 20°C all year, with the odd fish or salamander to tickle your feet. Watching college students try to impress each other with elaborate leaps from the diving board is half the fun.

Congress Avenue Bridge Up to 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats live under the bridge spanning Lady Bird Lake. During the summer and early fall, they go insect-hunting around sunset, creating a sky-filling, speckled black cloud.

Texas State Capitol The shape mimics that of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., but Texans’ typical one-upmanship ensured theirs was built 15 feet taller. Crafted from local red granite, the capitol provides free tours punctuated with quirky details about the building’s history and design.

Bullock Texas State History Museum Just north of the capitol, this museum gives a handy rundown of why Texas is what it is. Epic independence battles against Mexico, the birth of ranching, and the impact of the discovery of oil are all covered.

Harry Ransom Center Part of the giant University of Texas campus, this treasure trove of old documents and artefacts has two big hitters—an original Gutenberg Bible and, remarkably, the first known photograph ever taken.

LBJ Presidential Library Few presidents ushered through as many social reforms as native Texan Lyndon Baines Johnson, although he’s usually remembered for the Vietnam War. His presidential library offers an engrossing look into his life, work, and character—but also a snapshot of a transformative period in recent history.

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Austin style. This Sixth Street institution is notorious for its gloriously silly screenings, such as The Big Lebowski and Wayne’s World quote-a-longs, complete with comedy props.

Vinyl and Vintage: Waterloo Records & Uncommon Objects

Boots Allens Texas U.S

A Texas longhorn embellishes boots at Allens. Photo: Dan Westergren

Allens Boots It’s not so much a whiff of leather upon entering as a full-on nasal assault. Allens is Western-wear browsing with a wow factor (boots stitched with the Texas flag, anyone?).

Waterloo Records It’s what all record stores should be—with a genre-spanning collection, regular live performances, and late evening hours.

Whole Foods Market The massive headquarters of this healthy food store is a social gathering space complete with a wine bar, taco stand, and Italian trattoria.

Uncommon Objects Antiques, conversation pieces, miniature art displays—this warren of much loved old junk is a joy to wander through.

Insider Tips: Locals Take the Airport Shuttle

Vintage Studio Texas U.S

Vintage-style neon signs light up the Roadhouse Relics studio and gallery. Photo: Dan Westergren

Bang for a Buck Most people drive in Texas, but locals coming from the airport hop on the 100 bus, which handily drops off riders downtown and around the University of Texas campus. It leaves every half hour and costs $1.75/120.

Pick up the Paper The Austin American-Statesman is the main local newspaper, but the weekly Austin Chronicle has a steadier finger on the pulse.

Fest Prep Ahead Austin’s busy calendar has a downside—accommodation prices, which don’t tend to be budget-friendly in the first place, skyrocket when big festivals are on. Book months in advance for a good deal.

Get Some Shut-Eye: Austin Motel & The Hotel San José

Unless you want to spend a lot on taxis, aim for digs reasonably close to the action downtown, on South Congress Avenue, or near the University of Texas.

Austin Motel The somewhat phallic neon sign outside proclaims this motel to be “So close, yet so far out.” Along with an eclectic array of guest rooms boasting murals, the kidney-shaped pool, affordable rates, and free parking draw crowds.

The Hotel San José A favourite with many visiting bands, this spot in the heart of SoCo district features rainbow bathrobes and cowskin rugs that help you forgive the occasional lapse into too-cool-for-school minimalism.

W Austin Hotel This downtown property has rock-star swagger: living-room-style lounge areas, iPad chargers, and poolside cabanas.

Barbecue and Beyond: Torchy’s Tacos & Lamberts

White-tablecloth fine dining is an option in Austin, but it misses the point—this is a sociable burger, BBQ, and burrito town.

Tacos Texas U.S Torchy

The Scallywag—with coconut-battered shrimp, bacon, pickled onions, and habañero peach jam—is a speciality taco at Torchy’s. Photo: Dan Westergren

Torchy’s Tacos A brick-and-mortar child of the food truck scene, Torchy’s combines inventive ideas with local ingredients. Vegans flock here for tacos stuffed with fried avocados, portobello mushrooms, and roasted corn. The dark chocolate brownies are made from scratch.

Lamberts In the heart of downtown, this lively bistro serves a classier version of Texas smoked barbecue alongside comforting dishes of devilled eggs, fried green tomatoes, and baked mac and cheese. An upstairs lounge features live music most nights.

Vespaio This is the best bet for inspired Italian food, yet the atmosphere manages to remain in harmony with the go-your-own-way vibe of its South Congress Avenue surrounds.

Late-Night Merrymaking: Banger’s & Stubb’s

Bartender Texas U.S San José

Bartender Zack Flores pours a drink at the Hotel San José in the SoCo district. Photo: Dan Westergren

Austin’s historic Sixth Street is famous for bar crawls, but it attracts a young, student crowd that uses “party” as a verb. Head elsewhere.

Banger’s Rainey Street—where new bars pop up inside old houses seemingly every week—is infinitely more lovable. Banger’s, with its egalitarian Bavarian-beer-hall-style benches and 101 craft tap beers, is an excellent starting point.

Stubb’s A few blocks north of Rainey Street, the Red River District has a bar with live music for every conceivable taste. Stubb’s is the top dog—the guys behind the Austin City Limits music festival book the bands here and pull in big names.

Speakeasy Multistage, multi-bar Speakeasy is a reliable and central safe bet—whether you want to catch an up-and-coming math rock (rock music with complex rhythms) band or chill with an expertly mixed cocktail over the back-room pool table.

The Broken Spoke Cold beer, good grub, and real country music make this honky-tonk a standout. Two-step dance lessons are offered Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m.

Appeared in the December 2015 issue as “Austin Power”. Updated in January 2017.

Psst. Want a weekly dose of travel inspiration in your inbox?