Known for its independent shops, great food and neon signs, South Congress is dedicated to keeping Austin weird.
Open 24/7, the Magnolia Café is a classic diner with a twist, where you can pick up traditional American food like mac ’n’ cheese, as well as sturdy Tex-Mex cuisine. Guero’s Taco Bar offers straight up Mexican munch, with vegan and gluten-free options, and Home Slice Pizza is great if you’re after food in a hurry, with a takeout slice hatch as well as a sit-down restaurant and the finest pizza in town. Feeling flush? Then sophisticated Japanese spot Otoko is the one for you.
Gather in the cool courtyard of the Hotel San Jose for wine and micheladas or head to Perla’s for cocktails on the patio. If you’re after something with no frills, kick back with a cold beer at the Continental Club and drink like a local.
With its historic ’30s-era bungalows, Rainey Street is as picturesque as it is buzzing
Street food fans rejoice – there are food trucks and late night eats aplenty here. Banger’s serves up 101 beers and nearly as many sausages on its huge patio, while down the road at Craft Pride you can pick from a selection of 50 Texan craft beers. When you’ve worked up an appetite choose from G’Raj Mahal, an outpost of a former food truck that serves tasty Indian fare, or Art of Tacos where traditional Mexican tacos are the order for the day. Pizza trailer Via 313 is also worth a visit.
Rainey Street is great for bars and many of them are found in gorgeous old converted wooden houses – often with huge garden patios – and the artfully dilapidated Lustre Pearl is a must-visit. For the full experience, order Black Eyes: local beer with a shot of Jack Daniel’s. Cocktails abound at craft cocktail haven Half-Step (check out the Floradora – gin, lime and raspberry) and the velvet-clad Lucille, with a menu of signature Martinis.
The three districts (Sixth Street, West Sixth Street and East Sixth Street) pack in a whole lot of different vibes
The branch of Alamo Drafthouse on East 6th Street is just one of six in Austin; the independent cinema offers cult classics, new films and endurance-testing filmathons and themed events – with great food and drink on tap to keep you going throughout. Austin also becomes the film capital of the world during SXSW Film Festival, which takes place in March every year in the run-up to the madness of the music event.
You’re never more than a few metres away from a bar on 6th Street, but if you need a little help finding the perfect spot, we suggest starting at the Midnight Cowboy speakeasy – if you can find it – and then winding your way down to hipster dive Shangri-La for happy hour on the outdoor patio before classy sake cocktails at Ah Sing Den.
Austin is well known for its delicious way with BBQ meat. Veggies look away now, but if you’re into brisket, pulled pork and all other barbecued delights, then hit up the Rollin Smoke truck for their house special, the Playboy sandwich. Other 6th Street food trucks worth a visit are Baton Creole, for Louisiana street snacks like fried jambalaya on a stick, and for Asian fusion delicacies that vegetarians will love, look no further than East Side King.
The music leg of SXSW spreads itself all over Austin every March, but the bars and venues of 6th Street are the perfect place to start if you’re feeling a touch overwhelmed by the huge scale of the yearly event. From the swanky Driskill Hotel to the rooftop deck of Maggie Mae’s, there are brilliant bands all over the bustling city hub. 6th Street is also a serious destination even when SXSW isn’t in full swing. Austin is, of course, the Live Music Capital of the World® and you can find bands playing nightly up and down the strip at Parish, The Belmont, Flamingo Cantina and, NME’s personal fave, Hotel Vegas, which is one of the city’s quirkier venues.
Three blocks packed with barbecue joints, courtyards and banging live music
Austin institution Stubb’s Bar-B-Q isn’t just a place to get unbelievable barbecue food, it’s also one of Austin’s best gig venues, with indoor and outdoor shows from acts including Catfish & The Bottlemen, who appear in May. The nearby Mohawk is another essential bar and venue, with a year-round programme of bands. Find more local bands in Beerland, a great little dive with cheap drinks.
Lively nights are guaranteed on Red River. Hit Barbarella for a packed dancefloor, a labyrinth of dimly lit rooms and an alternative music policy, or head next door to Swan Dive to relax. Or check out Cheer Up Charlies for a huge, lively bar with indoor and outdoor areas, kombucha on tap and live music framed by a natural limestone rock wall that borders the outdoor stage.
The high-rise heart of Austin’s business district has plenty to offer tourists, too
Austin enjoys long, hot summers, meaning you’ll need somewhere to cool off. Walkable from Downtown is the 351-acre Zilker Park, home to popular swimming spot Barton Springs Pool.
The Moody Theatre is home to Austin City Limits Live, which birthed the annual Austin City Limits festival and offers huge-name performers in a modern venue with state-of-the-art lighting and sound, plus a statue of Willie Nelson outside. The xx are playing there soon. Elsewhere, you’ll find nightly jazz and excellent craft beer at the neon-lit, underground Elephant Room and open-air gigs amid the skyscrapers at Cedar Street Courtyard.
Zilker Park is home to Austin City Limits, the giant music festival in the heart of the city that takes place over two weekends every October. This year’s line-up is yet to be announced, but previous performers include Kendrick Lamar, Radiohead and Mumford & Sons. So pretty big.
If you can get past the security (a keypad under a sign reading ‘Floppy Discs Repaired’), Red Headed Stepchild is a wild, weird speakeasy, with taxidermy, a ouija board and purple drank on the menu. Its owners have quirky form – they also own the moustache-themed Handlebar.
Out of town
If you can tear yourself away from the city, there’s plenty to see and do
Every year country legend Willie Nelson opens up his ranch Luck for a mini festival. Sound on Sound is a seriously good music festival hosted in Sherwood Forest and set to return this year – full line-up announced soon.
California isn’t the only place in the States that knows good wine. You can weave your way through local vineyards and wineries in Hill Country and sample all the delights of the Texas Wine Trail.
Head just outside of the city and you can go hiking, biking and more. NLand is the US’s first artificial surf park, so you can catch some waves even though you’re nowhere near the beach. There are plenty of inspirational walking trails if you don’t fancy getting wet. Get on your bike – or hire one – for action-packed cycle trails through Walnut Creek and Slaughter Creek.
Austin is home to the Formula One United States Grand Prix. You can find the Circuit of The Americas in Elroy, where the annual event takes place. Taylor Swift even played her only show of 2016 by the track.
Other great bits to check out
Things to see
The ‘Hi, How Are You’ mural – a giant frog painted by local hero and cult musician Daniel Johnston on the side of a building in the university district – is a must-visit. The unofficial emblem of the Keep Austin Weird campaign, Jeremiah The Bullfrog was also a favourite of Kurt Cobain, who had it on a T-shirt. Other highlights include the Cathedral Of Junk, a building made from bikes and surfboards.
You could argue forever about which place does the best BBQ in Austin, but Franklin Barbecue is one of the most famous – expect to queue almost as long as it takes to smoke some pork. The brisket is totally worth it.
For more information on Austin, visit austintexas.org.
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