The first time I was in Texas was a few years ago, and while I wasn’t specifically going to the Austin region, I made it a point to rearrange my schedule so I could see what the hype was all about. For years, it had been built up in my head that it was just like Boulder (a comparison still to this day I do not understand) and it’s one of those hip cities that’s impossible not to love (case in point: they’re one of the only other millennial cities growing faster than Denver).
While I was there less than a day and by myself (Austin’s really a place I feel you have to roll with a squad and I am a frequent solo traveler), I crammed as much possible into 24 hours so I could get a feel for the city. After bopping all over town waiting to be wowed, my initial reaction was much like I had in New Zealand — that’s it? While their whole mantra is “Keep Austin Weird,” it felt more dirty than quirky in the streets like a rough Vegas bender. My initial impression was they were trying just a little too hard to force a city into a college town or vice versa, awkwardly jigsawing frat row next to the capital. A vibe that just didn’t jive with me, I left wondering what everyone else saw that I didn’t.
Personally, I just seem to be underwhelmed by places everyone else is fangirling over these days. I also generally want to run the other direction when there are crowds as festivals are not my scene. But if live music is your thing, Austin is more likely to be your jam. When Hai Hospitality group invited me back to experience Austin in a totally different manner (aka. the bougie way), I had to see if my initial hunch held true or if it was a place that could grow on me.
While it’s still not completely my cup of tea, I do think it can be a fun girls or guys getaway if you’re looking for that kind of trip. It checks a lot of boxes if you’re rolling with a deep crew and have a lot of personalities to appease. The nightlife is roaring and the food scene is exceptional. There are plenty of things to do during the day if you want to explore, but it’s also totally acceptable to get a little R&R and hibernate until the sun goes down. If you’re heading to ATX, here are some of the not to miss photo ops and food stops.
’Cue it Up
Food is Austin’s #1 redeeming quality and while Texas is generally known for producing massive meat sweats, the capital has a more refined palate. Of course, barbecue is still big business with the line at Franklin regularly exceeding 4+ hours. If you don’t want to get up at 6 a.m. and agree with the mindset, “Ain’t nobody got time for that,” there is a life hack. Loro’s, an Asian smokehouse, is a collab between James Beard Award winners, Chef Tyson Cole of Uchi and Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue. While they only have their famed brisket at night, the smoked turkey, charred pork belly, and Malaysian chicken coconut rice bowls were to die for. Paired with a midday mango sake slushy, I was a much happier camper than I would’ve been hangrily waiting for hours on end (plus, they have those outdoor egg chairs which makes for a great photo op).
Food Trucks & Food Halls
Austin hasn’t gotten nearly as into the food hall scene as Denver, but Fareground is their first foray. Aesthetically, it’s set up more like a modern food court on the first floor of an office building, but make no mistake; the vendors are almost all offshoots of Austin’s best restaurants. Don’t miss local purveyors like Contigo for burgers, Dai Due for tacos, and Easy Tiger bakery.
What Austin lacks in food halls, it makes up for in food truck clusters. The Rainey Food Truck Park is one of the most popular for location alone (especially after dark). Visit Ms P’s Electric Cock and White Girl Asian Food to snicker at the names and snag some mini donuts from Little Lucy’s around the corner. Other clusters worth visiting: Pangea Lounge on 6th, 500 Burnet, South Austin Trailer Park & Eatery (where Torchy’s got their start), Spider House, East Riverside, and the Picnic near Barton Springs.
Food porn is plentiful in Austin so if you’re looking for shots specifically for the ‘gram, here are a few bites that are just a bit extra. The boozy shakes and homemade choco tacos from Holy Roller are divine, a sweet cream and birthday cake ice cream wrapped in a homemade waffle cone topped with ganache and cookie crumbles. The small plates (hello caviar beignets), floral drinks, and even the bathroom at Arlo Grey (Top Chef winner Kristen Kish’s spot) are all photogenic as hell. You also don’t want to miss the macarons from Elizabeth Street Café, outrageous ice cream creations from Cafe No Sé, Lick’s, or Cow Tipping Creamery, homemade Twinkies from Drink.Well, donuts from Gordough’s, and freakshakes from Peached Tortilla.
Michelin doesn’t publish a Texas guidebook so while no Austin restaurants are technically star-worthy, there’s still plenty of celebrity star-power. A number of local chefs have been recognized by the James Beard Foundation and taken home other accolades.
Called the “best sushi this side of Japan” by the Wall Street Journal, Uchi is regularly regarded as one of the hottest tables in town. A local institution, they proved Texas can do haute, refined cuisine with the best of them. We were served nigiri and uni with our hands because you’re supposed to eat it as one perfect bite – no soy necessary as it’s already seasoned exactly how it’s supposed to be (most of their sushi is actually grazed with sea salt to replace the soy flavor without overwhelming the fish). And that was just the beginning of our education in Japanese etiquette (more than I got when I actually was in Tokyo). After opening offshoots throughout the Lonestar State, they’re finally expanding beyond state borders with Denver their first new market (super exciting since I’ve often bemoaned our lack of culinary diversity).
While Uchi is the more upscale, traditional dining experience, I actually preferred their sister restaurant, contemporary Uchiko, better. We were fed tasty bites of pork belly and raw and cooked fish, but it was the veggies that really stood out. The sweet and salty Brussels sprouts generously coated in fish caramel and curried cauliflower really wowed, and the buttered crab and fried milk dessert were also worth writing home about. Depending on how much time you have in Austin, other posh tables to seek out include Odd Duck, Barley Swine, Emmer & Rye, and Jack Allen’s Kitchen.
When You’re Ready to Cool Off
The Texas heat and humidity is no joke so after chowing down, finding a watering hole should be your first order of business. Ladybird Lake (formerly known as Town Lake or Zilker Park) runs through the city and while it looks like a river, is technically a reservoir. There are docks to rent kayaks (singles and doubles), canoes, SUP boards, and other non-motorized vessels (including swan pedal boats, which are obviously the best for the ‘gram).
Barton Springs is the most accessible option for in-town watering holes, while Jacob’s Well (the longest underwater cave) and Hamilton Pool Preserve (grotto and waterfall) are further afield. You actually need advance reservations at both since they’re so popular and are trying to protect the natural habitats. Both really require having a rental car but are well worth the effort if you can get there. NLand Surf Park is another unique way to cool off and get active, the country’s only in-land surf park with man-made waves and lessons.
For the Shutterbugs
Austin was one of the OG street art hubs and with dozens of famous murals; you could easily spend the day chasing photo ops and good light. Some of the iconic ones to seek out: the Greetings from Austin postcard (720 S. 1st St.), Love from Austin with the outline of Texas state (920 S. Congress Ave.), You’re My Butter Half (2000 E. MLK Jr. Blvd.), Willie Nelson for President (1415 S. Congress Ave.), Will Ferrell’s homage to Anchorman (1603 S. 1st St.), and Historic Sixth Street (6th & I-35). The I Love You So Much mural (1300 S. Congress) is also crazy popular, but I bet you didn’t know there is also an I Hate You So Much hidden inside one of the bars on Rainey Street… if you’re the more the jaded type or just into irony.
The Hope Outdoor Gallery (Austin’s outdoor graffiti park) is another popular photo spot but was a bit rougher around the edges than I was expecting. If you’re keen on checking it out, be aware it is littered with dodgy characters, garbage, and broken glass. To reach the pieces at the top, you have to scamper up a steep dirt hill/dilapidated building. The outdoor art park is a cool concept, but I’d suggest waiting until they move to their new space and revamp, which is scheduled for later this year (or at least don’t wear flip-flops like I did). For an epic skyline photo, head to the 360 Bridge Overlook (aka. Pennybacker Bridge) on Lake Austin at sunset. It’s a short, but steep 10-minute hike to the top.
Do Your Part to Keep Austin Weird
I’m sure you’ll stumble upon plenty of questionable sights just wandering 6th Street after hours, but there are some experiences you can seek out to contribute to the city’s beloved stereotype. Make it a point to see the largest urban bat colony in North America that appear in droves over the Congress Bridge at sunset in the summer. When you’re ready to tip one back, the Little Longhorn Saloon has chicken shit bingo on Sunday’s or you can celebrate Christmas year-round at Lala’s (although I was rather disappointed there was no eggnog). There is also the Museum of the Weird dedicated to all things weird, wacky, and WTF.
How to Get Around: Scoot, Scoot
“Microtransportation” is the new buzzword in town and the topic Lyft drivers want to talk your ear off about (how they’re such a disgrace and ruining the city lol). This means those green Lime or black Bird electric scooters you can pick up on just about every street corner, rent for a few bucks via an app, and discard whenever and whenever you’re done. Really, they’re a fun (albeit slightly sketchy), cheap, and efficient way to zip around town.
Where to Stay: the LINE Hotel
Very rarely do I consider myself a laze by the pool kind of girl, but the Line had me convinced there was no need to ever leave the hotel. The see and be seen spot in town, their lounge chairs are mattress thick and overlook the river so you can people watch to your heart’s content. The whole place is really #designgoals and one of my new favorite boutique hotel chains for it’s thoughtful sleek touches.
Content Produced in Partnership with Hai Hospitality Group. As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own.
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