Austin’s world-class music festivals attract hundreds of thousands of people every year, but even outside of SXSW and Austin City Limits, the city is buzzing with live gigs. As any Austinite will tell you, that’s only the tip of the city’s attractions. The Texas capital has a flourishing food scene (including some of the best BBQ joints in the country), great shopping—and a thriving bat population! Experience it all with 10 of our favorite things to do in the city.
The excitement I felt when I found out my spontaneous travel destination was Austin, was palpable. It's as if Time Out New York and Booking.com knew that Austin, Texas was my spirit animal. If you know my brand, Eat Travel Rock, at all; you're aware that I love to combine food and music...and of course travel, in any situation. Well this was the ultimate trifecta. Good times were about to be had—by one. I have traveled solo many times but for quick work trips. I have never traveled on a solo vacation before, and I must say that I was pumped. No one other that myself dictating when and where to go, what to see, what to eat. The decision making began the evening before my flight when I actually found out that Austin was my destination. I immediately went on the Booking Now app on my iPhone and began to search. The ease and functionality was superior to any travel app I'd ever used. Since Booking Now is for travel less than 48 hrs out, I was a bit worried that desirable accommodations might not be readily available. Incorrect. The most luxurious hotels in town, as well as unique and boutique hotels were easy to find...and more importantly, affordable. Many of the hotels even had discounts that were just for Booking.com and Booking Now customers. I booked a gorgeous room at the JW Mariott in a matter of a minutes and I was all set. Ready to wing it in Austin!
When I arrived in Austin, and after I got settled into my glorious city center accommodations with a stunning view of the Colorado River I got my game face on. Fortunately, Time Out New York and Booking.com wanted me to explore the musical culture of the Live Music Capital of the World. This was going to be fun, to say the least. My first challenge was to "bear hug the unknown", and seek out a local record shop...one that is hidden or known only to locals. I decided to walk down South Congress, or as the locals call it, SoCo. I didn't let the 100 degree heat sway me from my mission. I found a tiny little spot called Friends of Sound, and believe me, it was hidden. I shopped a bit and of course picked up some old school Country tunes like pre-outlaw Waylon Jennings and the Best of Johnny Cash. I then cozied up to the manager to see if he had any great recommendations for where to see some live music. He and a fellow shopper gave me some great tips for where to find some great live shows that evening.
I ventured out for my first ever solo "night out on the town.” It was great. Amidst the hustle and bustle of buzzing 6th Street in downtown Austin, I hardly felt alone. The vibe was electric, and music was pouring out of every doorway and corridor. I was headed toward the Red Eyed Fly and it reached me before I reached it. The music was loud! I asked the door guy to fill me in and he said the Death Metal show on the outside patio was $10. Sold! Now, I'm usually very non-discriminating when it comes to rock music. I love it all. But death metal has always been an enigma to me. Well, I let go of all that and head banged with the best of them with a Lone Star beer in hand. Next up, I wanted to venture even farther from 6th Street. I found this tiny little club called Beer Land. They had a surfer-esque garage band on stage and they were totally my taste. I sat back and realized how fortunate I was to be experiencing something so magical. Not even 24 hours before, I didn't even know I'd be in Austin. Now here I am, sipping on a cold beer and soaking up one of the coolest musical scenes on the planet. Bless your heart Rock N' Roll.
My final challenge was to find an iconic spot in town where a part of musical history occurred. After some research, it became clear where I needed to visit. Arlyn Studios is a place where music history has been made; over and over again. This recording studio is not only the home studio of Willie Nelson, but many of my all-time favorites have recorded here: Waylon Jennings, Sublime, Neil Young, Snoop Dogg, Gary Clark Jr., Phish and Merle Haggard, just to name a few. Their history is rich, but even more impressive is what the music is made with. Arlyn Studios possesses one of the few Neve recording consoles in existence. As the gracious owner of Arlyn, Lisa Fletcher, explained to me, “It's like the Bentley and Rolls Royce of sound boards coming together." I was lucky enough to have Lisa give me an after hours tour of the entire studio. It was an experience that will last a lifetime.
After all of my musical challenges were completed, it was time to eat. Many recommendations came from locals as well as Time Out Austin. Lonesome Dove Western Bistro was first. Wow. Chef Tim Love's latest adventure in on point. The menu is eclectic and the food was outstanding. I would definitely say the best piece of fried catfish I'd ever had. The staff was accommodating and friendly. It was my happy place.
You can't go to Texas without filling up on tacos. Torchy's Tacos was all I’d been hearing about. I took an Uber to this little lot and there was Torchy’s, a cute little food trailer in a dusty parking lot surrounded by red picnic tables. It was taco heaven.
Finally, I had brunch at Odd Duck. I could not hear enough about this James Beard Award nominated hot spot. Everything they serve is locally sourced and sustainable. I sat at the bar right next to farmer Chris, the chicken farmer from whom they directly source their eggs from. It was one of those authentic experiences that can't be described, only felt. I knew I was in a special place, away from the tourists and the hustle, where I could feel the true sense of this remarkable city.
Needless to say, traveling solo may be my new favorite thing. Not only was I able to learn so much more about Austin, the music and the culture, but I was able to learn more about myself. My sense of adventure is alive and well, and people and places (and music) that once seemed foreign or intimidating, are now welcomed and appreciated. I'm so grateful for this quick journey, and even though I’m back in Chicago—in my comfort zone—Austin is already calling me back.
Top 10 things to do in Austin
Rock out on the Dirty Six
Austin has more live music venues per capita than anywhere else in America (a ground-shaking 250 at last count). This is a city that prides itself as the creative hub of the Deep South, and there’s plentiful cutting-edge music to choose from every night. Make straight for 6th Street (a.k.a. Dirty Six), the colorful, chaotic main thoroughfare, and seek out venues like Gypsy Lounge at No. 1504 (512-243-6118) and Parish Underground at No. 214 (512-494-6078).
Pig out on Texas BBQ
Kansas City, Memphis, the Carolinas: Don’t Mess With Texas. When it comes to BBQ, Texans consider themselves America’s true connoisseurs—and there are plenty of outstanding restaurants here flinging fuel on that particular fire. Standout stars include Lamberts (401 West 2nd St, 512-494-1500), which operates out of the town’s lovingly restored 140-year-old general store and spices things up with its signature brown-sugar-and-coffee-rubbed brisket. Meanwhile Stubb’s (801 Red River St, 512-480-8341) is a full-fledged institution, renowned for its Sunday gospel brunch, while Franklin Barbecue (900 E 11th St, 512-653-1187) remains so popular that the line usually forms outside before it opens at 11am. It’s always best to get there early though, since the delicious food is only served until it runs out (the Tipsy Texan sandwich is awesome).
Bone up on the Lone Star State
From the Alamo to the Kennedy assassination, Texas—the only state that was once a full-fledged country—has had a pretty extraordinary history. The Bullock Texas State History Museum is dedicated to telling that story. More than three floors of artifacts (including a 400-year-old shipwreck that has been restored and is now on permanent display) and hands-on multimedia exhibits chronicle the tumultuous tale, from Buffalo Soldiers and Irish settlers right up to the Bush presidencies and the state’s role in space travel innovation. Houston we have a problem: The best Texan museum is right here, on Congress Avenue.
Go to bat on Lady Bird Lake
Austin has a population of 1.3 million people—and 1.5 million bats. The majority of the latter (and occasionally a few of the former) sleep under Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge and come swarming out to spectacular effect at sunset (there’s even a Bat Fest in August, where live bands play as the bats take flight). Bat-viewing tours are extremely popular, and the best ones are on the water since it’s hard to see as clearly when looking down from the bridge. Plus, it’s a great way to enjoy the Austin city lights from afar. Your best vantage point is either from the comfort of a motorboat chugging toward the bridge or—for those after a more intimate (and energetic) experience—from kayaks or stand-up paddle boards. Local company Capital Cruises offers all of these options and more.
Join the shopping party on SoCo
For those with a keen style eye, the finest shopping in Austin is concentrated on South Congress Avenue, a.k.a. SoCo. The best time to hit this hip strip is on the first Thursday of every month, when many of the stores are open until 10pm and live music and free drinks are laid on while you shop into the night. Hunt down Stag (No. 1423, 512-373-7824) or ask for Service (No. 1400, 512-447-7600) to peruse an excellent selection of American and European menswear labels from Filson to Oliver Sweeney. For women’s fashion, the quirky Maya Star (No. 1508, 512-912-1475) and the ever-popular Creatures Boutique (No. 1206, 512-707-2500) both specialize in spotting small independent labels from around the world.
Have dinner and a movie at the Alamo Drafthouse
Eat and drink to your heart’s content while watching the latest blockbuster on the big screen at Austin’s most famous movie theater. The original Alamo Drafthouse was founded in 1997, but graduated from Colorado Street to its current prestigious position—at the Ritz—on 6th Street in 2007. The cinema-eatery concept has proved so popular, the company now has a total of five locations in Austin and 19 nationwide. The founders—husband-and-wife team Tim and Karrie League—also established the geek Valhalla that is Fantastic Fest, which takes place in Austin over eight days each September, showcasing offbeat horror, fantasy and sci-fi movies.
Get arty at Laguna Gloria
Have your favorite Instagram filters at the ready for a visit to the sculpture park at Laguna Gloria, a nature reserve owned by Austin’s Contemporary Museum. An extraordinary collection of permanent outdoor art installations await, including a recent addition—Tom Friedman’s towering steel statue Looking Up, 2015—which has already become something of a social media celebrity. Seek out Tom Sachs’s mischievous Miffy Fountain too, as well as his more recent Tower of Power. And if that isn’t enough to whet your creative appetite, the Contemporary has an urban site to explore too, at the Jones Center on Congress Avenue.
Be serenaded on an electric bike
Forgot your electric guitar? No problem: Hire an electric bike to explore Austin’s music scene instead. Local company Rocket Electrics offers a number of themed Austin tours on its fleet of supercharged two-wheelers, including the popular Private Music Tour. Hosted by a local musician, you’ll ride through a medley of the city’s musical hot spots before finishing with a live performance from your guide on a rooftop overlooking Austin at sunset. Applause—and beer—inevitably follows.
Dive into Barton Springs Pool
Nestled in the heart of Austin’s sprawling Zilker Park, Barton Springs Pool is a natural gem: a three-acre lake fed from underground springs. Robert Redford learned to swim here as a five-year-old visiting family, and countless thousands of Austinites have followed suit over the years. The water is warm (an average temperature of 68 to 70 degrees), making it ideal for year-round swimming. Between April and October, the best times to take a dip are either early morning (between 5am and 8am) or at the very end of the day (after 9pm) when admission is free and the inevitable crowds have dispersed. During peak summer hours, there is a $4 entry fee for adults.
Bar-crawl on Rainey Street
Appearances can be deceiving here in the capital of weird. At first glance, Rainey Street looks like a sleepy suburban avenue with quiet wooden verandas and picket fences, but at night it really wakes up. In recent years, at least a dozen of the wooden ranch-style homes have been gutted and converted into disheveled-chic bars, all creaking floorboards, swinging lamps and moonshine cocktails. The creative force behind this transformation is local designer Bridget Dunlap, who owns a number of the shiniest diamonds-in-the-rough, including Bar 96 (No. 96, 512-433-6604) and Container Bar (No. 90, 512-320-0820), which, as you might have guessed, is constructed from shipping containers. Another local favorite is Bangers (Nos. 79–81, 512-386-1656), which serves up an unbeatable combination—and incredible selection—of beers and sausages.
Top-rated hotels on Booking.com
Rated 8.8 on Booking.comThe Austin Convention Center hosts some of the city’s biggest events, including SXSW, and this 31-floor hotel sits right next to it. It’s worth booking judiciously here—for sweeping downtown views, choose an executive or skyline room, or a suite; a room on the 25th or 26th floor will grant you access to the Executive Lounge, offering free continental breakfast and hors d’oeuvres in the evenings. In addition to ample meeting space, the Hilton has two restaurants, a café and a spa. Don’t let the many business amenities distract you from its standout recreational asset: the sleek rooftop pool, which even has its own tiki bar.
Rated 8.6 on Booking.comOnly a mile from downtown Austin, the glamorous Four Seasons is planted right on the green shores of Lady Bird Lake, with winding trails, hammocks and a heated saltwater pool. And if you want to explore the environs with a four-legged travel pal, the pet-friendly property lets you check in with a dog (or cat) under 60 pounds. Earth-toned rooms—many of which look straight out to the water—have L’Occitane toiletries and free Wi-Fi. A complimentary evening chauffeur delivers guests to the downtown area, though why you’d ever want to leave this lush compound is beyond us. After aromatherapy in the spa’s eucalyptus steam room, savor bone-in rib eye at upscale grill TRIO, then pull up a wingback armchair in the lobby for live jazz. The perfect end to the night? S’mores on the back lawn.
Rated 9.0 on Booking.comThis mid-priced property is packed with amenities and services. Whether you’re in town on business (the Austin Convention Center sits a block away) or leisure (a downstairs sports bar features 24 taps—one for every TV screen in the joint), you won’t have to search hard to find ways to fill your time. There’s an indoor pool with accompanying gym, plus an on-site Starbucks and a convenience store (with ingredients you can actually cook in your suite’s kitchen). Breakfast is thrown in for free, as are evening socials three nights a week, where guests can mingle over wine, beer and snacks.
Rated 7.8 on Booking.comUnlike trendy boutique properties or luxe resorts, extended-stay hotels are designed to make you forget you ever left home in the first place. And at this mellow budget compound, longer-term Austin visitors can settle into low-key, apartment-style suites fitted out with full kitchens, roomy living spaces, fireplaces and private patios. The rate includes a daily cooked breakfast, plus access to a pool, basketball court and gym, and even a weeknight social hour (Monday through Thursday) with light bites and drinks.
Rated 8.8 on Booking.comLocated next to upscale open-air shopping center the Domain (you might want to leave extra space in your luggage), this modern 341-room property is an ideal landing spot for out-of-towners with a penchant for frills. The grounds feature the acclaimed Spa Réveil, with a Turkish steam bath and pampering treatments that range from hydrotherapy to, yes, gold facials (in-room treatments can be arranged, too). There’s also a heated outdoor pool, a sizable gym and a modern grill serving burgers and fish tacos.
Rated 8.6 on Booking.com
Evoking the feel of a private estate, the Renaissance is nestled in parklike surroundings and attached to an open-air mall 10 miles from downtown Austin. Renovated in 2013, the rooms and public spaces are dignified, with rich mahogany paneling, muted beige tones and dark leather armchairs. A soaring atrium lobby offers three food-and-drink options: Banderas (a Tex-Mex bistro), SteeRnorth (for cocktails), and @ustinbytes, a deli-style café serving made-to-order pizzas. Be sure to wander the grounds, which include a glass-enclosed indoor pool and a cypress-lined courtyard with sculptures and a fountain.
Rated 9.1 on Booking.comThis sleek 34-story tower—the largest JW Marriott in America—breathed fresh life into the downtown hotel scene, especially among the convention set, when it opened in February 2015 with 1,000-plus rooms, 45 event rooms and three restaurant concepts (Italian, Texan and a throwback burger takeout window). But there’s nothing dry and corporate about the design: Rooms are business-casual, with elegant granite-top desks, oversize chrome-and-leather headboards, and gloriously huge bathrooms with slate showers. Architecturally, the spaces are fluid and contemporary, notably in the outdoor pool deck with its runway-like stretch of sun loungers and breezy cocktail bar.
Rated 8.2 on Booking.comTravelers should show up in Austin with at least the intention of catching some live music, and the Wyndham’s casual lobby, lined with custom portraits of Austin-bred singers and strummers, helps get guests in the spirit. The theme continues with a menu of “musically inspired” burgers at ReVive! and there’s also a festive lounge featuring Texas-brewed beers and a terrace for winding down the day. Among the amenities are an outdoor pool and gym, plus in-room mini fridges and 42-inch HDTVs. For even more convenience, reserve one of the “casitas,” which have kitchens and private patios opening straight onto the pool.
Rated 8.2 on Booking.comAustin’s celebrated downtown scene is a hoot at night, but if you prefer more serene environs, consider bedding down here. SpringHill is set in south Austin, removed from the lively bars and riverside promenades (though there is a free evening shuttle downtown, if you get the itch). Set along the I-35, it’s just seven miles from the airport, and the bright, unfussy rooms come with free Wi-Fi, separate living rooms and kitchenettes. In the afternoon, relax by the indoor pool, and be sure to cash in on the free breakfast, including scrambled eggs, pastries and yogurt.
Rated 7.8 on Booking.comA roadside block with warm, modern rooms, this solid option targets business travelers, families and anyone on a budget who’s in town for an event or convention. The University of Texas is nearby, as is the Highland train station. The fitness room stays open 24 hours a day, and there’s a sizable outdoor pool with plenty of sun loungers for soaking up rays. Free Wi-Fi? Free breakfast buffet? On-site, all-day restaurant with an adjacent lounge? Check, check, check.