Austin seems to be on everyone’s lips these days. Austin City Limits undoubtedly helped put the city on a music map, and South by Southwest brings artists and innovators from across the globe to think, drink, create, and celebrate.
The raucous Sixth Street strip attracts more and more bachelorette parties and its thriving barbecue scene has created a cult following of smoked meat enthusiasts. Natives will tell you the bohemian days referenced by “Keep Austin Weird” T-shirts are long gone (and with condos rising as quickly as property taxes, they may be right). But in a city where Wendy Davis is nothing short of a hero and Willie Nelson has a street named after him, Austin’s still the belle dressed in blue at the red ball.
In Austin, brunch is a more than just another meal; it’s often a day-long, cocktail-fueled rite of passage. And, if anyone understands that, it’s the fine people of Maria’s Taco Xpress. The colorful South Austin eatery has been hosting Hippie Church each Sunday for the past twenty years. Tap your toes to live gospel music while devouring cheesy migas breakfast tacos, crispy tortilla chips, and a rainbow of homemade salsas. For an entirely different brunch experience, head up the road to Odd Duck, where playful dishes are crafted using ingredients sourced from over 40 local farms, ranches, and fisheries. Expect creations like pancake-battered quail with fried egg foam and spicy maple or a calzone stuffed with collards, smoky scamorza, mushrooms and pear butter— both equally delicious when accompanied by a beet Bloody Mary.
Local’s tip: For a quicker bite, opt for breakfast tacos at one of the family-owned taco joints around town. Veracruz All Natural has gained mass popularity (and the lines to go with it)—and for good reason. Their veggie-packed tacos and fresh-squeezed juices are just what the doctor ordered after a late night. But for delicious tacos without the wait, try Taco-Mex, Tacos Guerrero, Taqueria La Canaria, Rosita’s El Pastor, Marcelino Pan y Vino or La Fruta Feliz.
SOAK IT ALL IN
Ask a local about Barton Springs and they’ll likely wax poetic about the city’s spring-fed aquifer, a sanctuary which attracts a diverse crowd throughout the year. (Since the water remains a steady 68°F to 70°F, some devotees even swim laps during the winter.) There is no faster relief from the relentless central Texas heat than a plunge in the spring’s cooling waters. Barton Springs marks one end of the lush Barton Creek Greenbelt, a 7-mile network of hike and mountain bike trails, swimming holes, and limestone bluffs for climbing. Though most of the popular spots can be mapped online, going with someone familiar with the trail is best, as many of access points can be hard to locate.
Local’s tip: The best swim spots are the ones located outside the city, like breathtaking Hamilton Pool Preserve. Just a short drive from Austin, the natural limestone formation has created a 50-foot waterfall which spills into a reflective lagoon.
FIND THE BEST BARBECUE IN TOWN—WITH THE SHORTEST WAIT
Sure, Texans love their barbecue. But it’s hard to justify standing in an hours-long line for it when you actually live here. The good news is that there is no shortage of slow-smoked meats in town! While trailers like Micklethwait Craft Meats and Kerlin BBQ are both popular and centrally located, they’re still much more easily accessible than the likes of the highly publicized (though undeniably delicious) Franklin Barbecue and La Barbecue. Plus, they feature more unique selections outside the standard Texas trinity (brisket, sausage, and ribs) and standard sides (potato salad, beans, cole slaw). MCM handcrafts unique sausages (lamb tangerine, pork belly andouille, duck fig, bierwurst) and makes their bread and pickles in-house. And the brisket Frito pie is truly a regional delicacy, as are Kerlin BBQ’s artisanal kolaches filled with everything from pastrami and kraut to fontina and red pepper.
Local’s tip: Thanks to eastside food trailer BBQ Revolution, vegans and vegetarians can also experience this piece of Texan food culture. Enjoy plant-based dishes like No Bull Brisket (made with wheat roast) and tempeh ribs. Just north of downtown, and adjacent to UT campus, Ruby’s BBQ knows a thing or two about smoking meats; after all, they’ve been doing it since 1988. Regulars love their smoked turkey, Elgin sausage links, and tender brisket— plus the best étouffée in town!— all best enjoyed on their wood-paneled porch, plastered with show posters of years past.
EXLORE AUSTIN'S (OTHER) MUSIC SCENE
The “live music capital” attracts musical talent from all over the world to play on main stages like at ACL Live at the Moody Theater, Stubb’s, and Bass Concert Hall. But performances that exude the very essence of Austin happen weekly at some of the city’s smaller venues. The Broken Spoke, on South Lamar, is easily the city’s most iconic honkytonk, featuring some of the city’s biggest country musicians and a spacious dancefloor. Further north on flourishing Burnet Road, Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon draws big talent to its tiny stage and hosts weekly Chicken Shit Bingo, a Sunday afternoon spectacle which is not to be missed.
The White Horse is a more modern honkytonk on the eastside, as well-loved by hipsters as it is by bikers, with a range of country and roots music each night. Catch a wealth of bands from near and far playing garage rock, neo-psych, post-punk, indie pop and good old fashioned rock and roll at rough-around-the-edges clubs like Hotel Vegas, Barracuda and Beerland. Further east, break a sweat dancing to hip hop, funk, Brazilian, and West African music at the charmingly divey Sahara Lounge or slip into a booth at the Skylark Lounge, a gem of a blues bar that still hosts legendary performers like Miss Lavelle White.
Local’s tip: If it’s a dancefloor you seek, follow DJ Orion and the rest of Peligrosa, a DJ collective who consistently electrify dance parties with a blend of hip hop, salsa, cumbia, reggae, baile funk, and afro-beat at venues around town like The Volstead Lounge and Vulcan Gas Company. If you’re in town on a Monday, get low at Nasty’s, when DJ Mel takes over the turntables to spin hip-hop for the city’s longest running weekly party.
ESCAPE TO THE HILL COUNTRY
One advantage to living in Austin is how easy it is to escape urban sprawl. Drive west 40 minutes and you’ll be on your way into the picturesque central Texas landscape known as the Hill Country. One of the easiest (and tastiest!) ways to see the area is a trip to some of the area’s best local breweries and distilleries, many still within city limits. Jester King Brewery specializes in farmhouse ales made using local grown and malted grains, well water and native wild yeast. Take a tour of the brewery and then order beer in their tasting room and enjoy it on the dog-friendly grounds, where you’ll find live oak-shaded picnic tables, a spacious hay-filled barn, and Stanley’s Farmhouse Pizza which serves rustic, wood-fired pies.
Nearby, Argus Cidery opens their tasting room each weekend, offering variety of different ciders and fruit-based fermentables, with Revolution Spirits, and Last Stand Brewing Company right next door. A little further down the same road, Treaty Oak Distilling produces a number of small batch spirits (Red-handed Bourbon, Treaty Oak Rum, Waterloo Gin, and much more) on their 27-acre ranch. Begin with a distillery tour, then stay for cocktails on tap, yard games on their grounds, and creative dishes from the mobile test kitchen where their future restaurant will be. Plan for a safe trip home by calling an Uber or Lyft or arrange a tour with the Hill Country Craft Beer Trail or The Austin Tour Company, who specialize in brewery and distillery tours.
Local’s tip: If you plan a trip to Austin at the start of spring (late March to early April), you might be lucky enough to catch the brief, but magical, wildflower bloom. Take a day trip into the Hill Country at the right time and you’ll find yourself surrounded by dreamy fields of bluebonnets, black-eyed Susans, and Indian paintbrushes.
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Opening photo by Veronica Meewes, Odd Duck brunch by Richard Casteel, Hamilton Pool photo by Dave Mead, Micklethwait sausages photo by James Besser, Ginnys Little Longhorn by Leah Overstreet, Jester King Brewery photo by Wes Kitten, BBQ photo courtesy of Micklethwait Craft Meats