After my last handful of trips to Austin, here’s what I’ve realized: you can’t go wrong wherever you go, whatever you do in Austin. I can’t say that about many cities I’ve been to. It’s really the perfect vacation city. Others I might put in this category: Charleston, Newport Beach, and San Francisco.
Every time I go, I do something new and love it just as much, if not more, than the classic spots. For example, on this last trip for SXSW, I discovered a whole new row of restaurants and cafes that is only a stone’s throw from the area I know well (South Congress).
Here I’ll offer you a little insight on how to tackle all Austin with your eyes, mouth, and heart wide open! Also check my Austin City Guide for a more extensive list of hotels, restaurants, and activities.
HIT UP THE FOOD CARTS
I won’t go as far as saying my favorite meals come from food carts, but they are absolutely exceptional. Every time I try a new one, I’m shocked at how well-rounded and flavorful the meals are. The creators put a lot of pride in their food. Above, I’m waiting in line for a super delicious Kebab at a cart in the 2nd Street Parking Lot downtown. The cart had no appeal from the outside so I wouldn’t have just walked up to it on my own without a referral. What I’m telling you now is to try them all. Don’t be afraid!
As you would expect, a lot of the food is bad for you but oh so yummy. You can try to imagine how good Gourdough’s (S 1st Street) made-to-order donuts are on the left, but you wouldn’t be close to understanding how sweet and savory each bite is. On the right, is the total opposite extreme. My super light and fresh fish tacos from Turf and Surf Po Boys (2nd Street) hit my healthy spot one night.
My favorite food cart spots:
- South Congress
- 2nd Street downtown (where you’ll find a perfect cappuccino at Patika like I did above)
- 1st Street (Bouldin Creek)
Beware: the food carts lined up downtown at night have not been as good in my opinion. Go here for a more detailed list of quality carts. You can download a free app that will help you while you’re in town too!
TABLE HOP AROUND TOWN
Following your belly really isn’t a bad way to explore Austin. Each restaurant takes you to a different neighborhood.
As much as I love food carts, there are some amazing chefs in Austin you absolutely should try. There’s a great place for every single meal, so it all depends on what you’re in the mood for. Again, I’ll refer you to my Austin City Guide for lists broken down by cuisine, and then point out a few favorites here:
- Uchi & Uchiko – home of Tyson Cole and Top Chef winner Paul Qui (respecitively). Both offer one of my favorite meals in the world. Japanese food that will blow your mind. You’ll need a reservation and a serious budget. For an easier and more affordable option, try out Uchiko’s social hour from 5-6:30pm where dishes are ridiculously cheap.
- Eddie V’s (Downtown) – hands down my favorite crab cake on the planet. Sit at the bar!
- Bouldin Creek Cafe – While I love Magnolia and Kirby Lane, this place serves up a healthy breakfast AND perfect lattes. Plus, they don’t usually have a wait.
- Elizabeth Street Cafe (S 1st Street) – Solid Vietnamese food in a cozy, eclectic cafe setting. Exceptional bahn mi. Great patio for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. You’ll also see Gourdough’s is right next door as well as new BBQ place across the street everyone is raving about.
- Stubb’s – the only place for great music AND late night BBQ.
- HEALTHY!! – If you’re looking for quick and healthy food downtown, hit up Whole Foods which has a massive food court inside or Snap Kitchen that provides organic meals on the go.
- Tex-Mex – I’m sorry to say I have yet to find a place I LOVE for Tex-Mex in Austin. But I know you’ll be jonesing, so try Maudie’s, Guero’s, or Polvo’s.
- Haddington’s – This large tavern serves up really good food in an old school atmosphere. Mixologists rule the bar so be adventurous.
WHEN IN DOUBT, SOUTH CONGRESS
In my opinion, this drag of restaurants and shops south of the river is the place to go when you have no clue what to do. There are food carts galore, several great restaurants (Perla’s, Guero’s, Home Slice, Vespaio), and the Continental Room which always has awesome local bands playing.
The other area I would recommend, especially at night, is W 6th Street where you can eat at Ranch 616, Star Bar, Kenichi, and the Belmont. You’ll find more bars and live music around here.
If you’re over the age of 25, I’m going to tell you to pass up central 6th Street. It’s full of college kids and drunks. However, if you’re in the mood to get into trouble, that’s your spot.
ROCK OUT Y’ALL
There are countless local bands and visiting artists playing around town, you really can’t go wrong trying out a few you don’t know. So don’t hesitate to just walk into a bar and see who’s playing! Zeale is a local I discovered at SXSW. His pop hip hop will blow your mind and get you moving! Venues I’ve enjoyed: The Parish, Stubb’s , 311, The Continental Club, and several more we just stumbled into.
The new W Hotel downtown supposedly has the best venue in town. As the new home of Austin City Limits, it was strategically designed to have amazing sound and apparently there isn’t one bad seat in the house. Make sure to see who is playing there.
Check out Austin360 for concert calendars and events.
LOVE THE LOCALS
The locals fuel the energy in town so take advantage. Ask anyone their opinion if you’re wondering something and they’re happy to send you in the right direction. Plus they’re a young artsy bunch (those that live in town) so keep your eyes open for great people watching.
You’ll find all kinds of hotels and motels (see my guide for my favorite), but if you’re on a tight budget or staying for a while, rent a room or an apartment. This last trip the Saint Cecilia was fully committed to Bruce Springsteen, so we rented a townhouse for our extended SXSW stay. I loved it! Use AirBnb or HomeAway as your resources to find the perfect place for you.
Walking is the key to discovering the best parts of Austin, but if you’re not in the mood, hop on a pedicab downtown. You’ll get a local guide and a ride to your next destination.
Forget your usual go-to vodka and order Tito’s. It’s made nearby, cheap, and super smooth for its low price.
You know it wouldn’t be a guide from me if I didn’t offer you notes on exercising. While I prefer golfing or cycling (rent bikes from Bicycle Sport Shop on Lamar) while in Austin, I do really enjoy Pure, a gym in downtown Austin (across the street from Whole Foods), for a solid hour of exercise. Their classes are great and well worth the $20 per day fee.
Again, for more on activities and other things to do in Austin, check my city guide here.
The bottom line, what I want you take away from this post, is that you will have fun no matter what you do in Austin!!