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I spent nearly a month in Austin and I’ve already mentioned in my monthly round-up that I’ve got a huge crush on Texas’ quirky capital – who knew that a city in Texas of all places could sweep me off my feet the way that Austin did. I’ve done a fair amount of traveling in the U.S. during the past 6 years, including numerous road trips that brought me to dozens of U.S. cities – but I don’t think I’ve ever declared that I am so enamored with a place that I could see myself live there – that has always been NYC’s prerogative. But I think I might want to make an exception for Austin. Why? Well, let me share 33 of the things that I love about Austin…
1 The food trucks
Of course, for me as a foodie, a city with dozens of food trucks is a culinary paradise. Even if I had tried to eat at a different food truck every day during my month long visit, I wouldn’t have been able to cover them all. Which means I’ll have to come back to continue my quest to try all of them. My favorite so far? Gourdough’s Big.Fat.Doughnuts. Yes, I have a sweet tooth, and I don’t eat BBQ (or any kind of meat), so it’s a dessert food truck that takes the crown (for now). If you’re visiting Austin and are wondering which food trucks are the best, here are 10 food trucks you need to visit in Austin and if you still have room for more, 17 essential food trucks in Austin.
2 The weather
I don’t think any city could ever come close to how much I love New York, but Austin did impress me a lot – and one point where it wins over NYC is without a doubt the weather. While my friends in New York were still wearing scarfs and winter jackets at the beginning of May, I was sweating by the pool. And months of ice and snow? Not in Austin! It’s not rare to have temperatures in the 80s here during the winter months. Perfect.
3 An outdoors-y city
I read that Austin’s one of the most active cities in the US, and yes, I always saw people being active: kayaking, SUPing, swimming, rowing, climbing, running, cycling, hiking.. I love how many hiking trails there are within the city limits or just outside of them, and how many people were on the river doing some sort of water sport every weekend.
4 The Colorado River
Not only do I love the river that runs through Austin (although I could’ve done without the water snake that chased me while I was blissfully paddling on my board) but also how well developed its shores are. You can walk, run or cycle on each side for miles, there are bars and restaurants right by the water, and there are plenty of things to do on the river, as mentioned in #3. I love being by the water, and I ended up almost daily by the Colorado River – either running, walking or on the river.
5 The craft beer scene
Austin has an amazing amount of craft beer bars and microbreweries – and if there’s a way to my heart, then it’s with sugar and craft beers. I loved sampling local Texan beers and micro brews from all over the US while I was in Austin, and I feel like I only scratched the surface! But I don’t think it’s impossible to ever work my way through all the beers that I can try in places like Banger’s Sausage House & Beer Garden or Growler (both with over 100 craft beers on tap) or the Ginger Man (with over 70 taps). If you’re looking to try some of Texas’ best brews, head to Craft Pride, with over 50 Texan beers on tap! Other favorites include: Draught House Pub & Brewery, Pinthouse Pizza, the Black Sheep Lodge and Easy Tiger.
6 Decent pizza
After eating my way through many many of New York’s famous (and less famous, yet still fabulous) pizza joints, I have to admit that I’ve become a bit of a pizza snob. So it’s understandable that I was skeptical when I tried Home Slice, a pizza place that a lot of people had raved about. But guess what: It was definitely a good pizza! And days later I came across an article that the best pizza in all of Texas was actually coming from an Austin-based place as well: Via 313. This Detroit-style pizzeria has two locations in Austin and is well worth a visit.
7 Red River music district
The Red River music district, which basically means the live music venues on Red River Road, is THE place to be on weekends if you’re into live music. There are super famous venues like Stubb’s where bands like Metallica, Vampire Weekend or The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have played, but also smaller venues like Mohawk and Cheap Charlie’s which had amazing live bands and a great atmosphere every time I was there.
8 Speakeasy bars
Yes, I have a thing for speakeasy bars, and I was thrilled when I heard that Austin had several of these semi-secret, semi-hidden cocktail bars. I am still working my way through the lists of the best speakeasy bars in Austin, but I was impressed with the skillfully crafted cocktails at Midnight Cowboy (prepared table-side!) and I loved the sleek cocktails at the secret bar at the W hotel’s Living Room and ultra cool Garage. For more, check out 9 secret bars in Austin and how to get into each.
9 The sunset spot in Zilker Park
Zilker Park is Austin’s largest city park and not only that – it also offers great views over Downtown Austin. I loved the views from the little hill near the Rock Island, especially around sunset, when the high rises were bathed in a golden light.
10 Chicken Shit Bingo
Even though I never made it to the Little Longhorn Saloon, where people gather for Chicken Shit Bingo on Sunday nights, just knowing that such thing exists made me love Austin a little more.
11 The bats
Yes, you’ve read that right: bats! And Austin is not just home to a few bats, but 1.5 million of them, apparently (which is more than the city’s human population), making it the largest urban bat colony on the planet. Most of these bats live under the Congress Avenue Bridge and they fly out in huge droves every night just after sunset – a spectacular sight, because it takes over 30 minutes until all the bats have come out (you can’t help but ask yourself: where the heck are they all coming from!?). The flight of the bats is a tourist attraction, and while it gets fairly packed on top of the bridge and at a viewing area below every night, I think it is well worth joining the crowds. If you want to see this spectacle for yourself, here’s everything you need to know about the flight of the bats.
12 Unpretentious rooftop bars
Spending most of my time in NYC where rooftop bars usually mean feeling like sardines in a can and sipping on mediocre, overpriced drinks, I was amazed to see how wonderfully unpretentious Austin’s rooftop bars were. Sure, they’re lacking the views over Manhattan’s skyline, but Austin’s downtown buildings aren’t ugly either – especially lit up at night. The bars were barely ever crowded, not even on weekend nights, and drinks were reasonably priced. Some of my favorite spots were the Handle Bar, the Hangar Lounge and The Market.
13 Apartment complexes with kayak docks
Austin has the already mentioned Colorado River (#4), and it seems like many Austinites appreciate the river just as much as I did, with a lot of locals having their own kayaks and stand-up paddle boards. I loved that when I walked by the apartment complexes right by the river, I discovered that not only do almost all of them have communal swimming pools (you hear that, NYC?) and BBQ areas, but also kayak docks right outside the apartments, and often there were kayak storage racks on the property. Being used to tiny New York apartments, where storing a bicycle can already be difficult, let alone a kayak!, I promised myself that if I ever move to Austin, it would be in one of those buildings, and I’d buy a kayak right away.
14 The thriving coffee shop scene
As someone who doesn’t only love coffee, but works remotely and thus spends a lot of time in coffee shops, I was over the moon when I discovered that Austin had a number of excellent ones! And one thing I particularly enjoyed: that most of them doubled as bars, like one of my favorites, Radio Coffee & Beer or Halcyon. There were too many coffee shops to try (here are 12 worth a visit) – another reason why I need to go back!
15 Rainey Street
It seemed like 6th Street, Austin’s main bar drag, was frequented mainly by tourists, while the locals preferred other spots, such as the bars on Rainey Street which always attracted a large crowd of Austinites. The bars there are housed in little historic bungalows which have been fixed up and converted into cocktail bars. Most of them have big porches and/or backyards, which served as dance floors later at night. Plus, some of my favorite bars are on this street: the already mentioned Banger’s and Craft Pride, as well as the Container Bar, Javelina and Blackheart.
16 Pinball Arcades
One quirky thing about Austin are its old-fashioned pinball arcades – something I’ve never seen anywhere in this form: Large rooms filled with pinball machines, lined up side by side, ranging from vintage Metallica or Indiana Jones themed games to brand new Iron Man themed ones. Apparently such arcades used to be ubiquitous all over the U.S., but there are barely any left. Not in Austin though, where you can still spend a fun evening of pinball-ing and other games for only a few dollars in one of the city’s games arcades, most famously Pinballz. If you want to join the Pinball & gaming fun, here are five Austin arcades worth visiting.
17 Live music galore
I knew that Austin was a famous live music spot, but I had no idea that it had so many music venues. I got my fair share of live music performances while I was in the city and would come back for those alone. If you’re visiting Austin and want to enjoy some live music, check out this list of the 10 Best Places For Live Music in Austin (an excellent list) or The Guardian’s Top Ten Live Music Venues In Austin.
18 Public transportation
Okay, Austin’s public transportation is probably not perfect but it served me well. I happened to be in town when Uber and Lyft waved goodbye to Austin and wasn’t sure how I’d get around on boozy nights out after their departure (update 2018: Both ridesharing companies are back in town). One of my friends told me that buses were actually pretty good, running all night and only costing $1.25 a ride, or $2.50 for a day ticket. Like I said – whenever I needed to use public transportation, it was fast and easy – something I can’t say about all of the US cities I’ve visited. (That said, I was happy to have a car during my time in Austin because most places are very spread out).
19 Barton Springs Pool
This massive pool is over three times longer than a football field (amazing if you want to swim some laps) and is fed by Main Barton Spring, the fourth largest natural spring in Texas. Austinites pay only $3, and you can stay as long as you want. It is the perfect place for a refreshing dip on a hot Texan summer day.
20 The Alamo Drafthouse
I know, a movie theater that has full restaurant service isn’t something that you find only in Austin, but I love that there are four (!) Alamo Drafthouses, and I thought that the beer menu was larger than the beer menu of some bars I’ve been to (not in Austin, of course!). Plus, some of the theaters seemed fairly new, which I appreciated after spending way too many evenings in New York’s one and only comparable cinema, the old and worn Nitehawk Cinema (Update 2018: Brooklyn now also has an Alamo Drafthouse!). The best events in an Alamo Drafthouse theater aren’t the regular movies, by the way, but the sing-alongs, (80s and 90s themed? Yes!!) and quote-alongs.
21 Eeyore’s Birthday Party
A city that celebrates Eeyore’s birthday (yes, Eeyore as in Winnie the Pooh’s best friend!) in the form of a hippie festival – my kind of city, no question. At this festival, held in Pease Park on the last Saturday in April, you find hippies, weirdoes, kids, grandparents, and pretty much anyone who likes to dress up for a day. Everyone comes together to enjoy live music, games, food and drinks – and this has been happening since 1963!
22 Keep Austin Weird
That’s the city’s motto, so I don’t think I need to say more. But just a few things to show you how weird Austin is: #21, Eeysore’s Birthday Party, is a great example, but there is also a Museum of The Weird, a Cathedral of Junk, and for some reason, lamp posts that carry stuffed animals, a Christmas-themed bar (Lala’s Little Nugget), and the Museum of Natural & Artificial Ephemerata (another museum full of weird stuff, run by a family and housed in a private home).
23 There’s art… lots of it!
I love art, and frequent art galleries and museums on a regular basis. That’s why I was excited to discover that Austin has quite a few places that are a must for art lovers: the Blanton Museum Of Art, the Mexic-Arte Museum, the Jones Center (Contemporary Art, but currently undergoing renovations), the Umlauf Sculpture Garden, and last but not least the trendy Yard Dog art gallery.
24 Doug Sahm Hill
Take a date there to marvel at the skyline of Downtown Austin and try NOT to fall in love (with your date or with Austin, I’ll leave that up to you). One of the most romantic moments I had was on Doug Sahm Hill. For a similarly awesome view check out Lou Neff Point, right on the river, where I took the picture below.
25 Bike Sharing
Any city that has a bike sharing system is a good city, and Austin is no exception. Plus, Austin is a bike-friendly city in general but for visitors who want to use them: Bcycles can be rented for $8 per day with an unlimited number of 30-minute rides, or $15 for three days which is perfect for anyone who’s spending a weekend in Austin!
Update 2018: When I returned to Austin in 2018, I was happy to discover that several dockless bicycle and electric scooter companies have now taken over Austin. They are super cheap (I paid between $0.50 and $1 per bike ride, and between $2 and $5 per scooter ride) and make it so much easier to visit some of the further away food trucks, bars and breweries.
Austin is a city of festivals – In addition to Eeyore’s big birthday bash (#21), the city celebrates music – of course most importantly SXSW (see #33), but there are also a great number of other music festivals (like Austin City Limits), plus festivals dedicated to spam, hot sauce, kites,.. to name just a few. And then there are festivals like the Louisiana Swamp Thing and Crawfish Festival, the Austin Rodeo, various street festivals and so much more.
27 Cheap Parking
Yes, this is another one that comes from my NYC perspective, but being used to seeing signs advertising 30-minute parking for ‘only’ roughly $11 (yes, Manhattan, I’m talking about you!), I was delighted to find cheap parking everywhere around the city. I think the most I paid was $1.25 per hour, and I even got to park for free (for two hours) right by the river for my daily workouts and also on 6th Street, the touristy bar drag of Austin – mind blown! Imagine pulling up right by Central Park or on Broadway and not having to pay for it.
28 Hope Outdoor Gallery
I love street art, and I appreciated the big murals around Austin, but my favorite place for graffiti was the Hope Outdoor Gallery, an abandoned construction site turned ‘paint park’. What was supposed to become a condominium complex but was never finished is now a concrete wasteland covered in colorful graffiti, tags and murals, with aspiring artists coming here to practice their skills. I love the concept, and you can pretty much always look over an artist’s shoulder while he or she is working on a piece.
29 The Highball karaoke bar
This is not just your regular ol’ karaoke bar – this is a karaoke bar that will turn even the biggest karaoke grinch into an enthusiastic singer. The Highball is famous for its themed rooms (there are seven of them), including a Black Lodge (of Twin Peaks fame), a scary room (think The Shining), or a satanic room for Black Metal lovers. I don’t even like karaoke, but kinda wanted to move in there!
30 Voodoo Doughnut / Breakfast Tacos
Even though Voodoo Doughnut was born in Portland, their Austin branch is nothing short of amazing and deserves a mention (I am obviously a huge doughnut fan, see #1). What surprised me the most wasn’t how delicious the donuts were but how cheap they were! Thanks for keeping your prices adequate, Voodoo, even in what I guess must be a pricey location right in the center of it all on 6th Street.
If you prefer savory over sweet, you might want to change #30 to breakfast tacos, which were perfected in Austin. These days, you can get a breakfast taco in too many places to try them all, but if you’re up for a challenge, Austin Eater recommends 24 essential breakfast tacos in Austin to work your way through.
31 Proximity to nature trails
I’ve already mentioned that Austinites are outdoorsy people, but the possibilities for hikes and other activities don’t stop at Austin’s city limits – there are so many things to do around Austin, I don’t think I’d ever get bored! If you need a break from the city, some of the nature trails around Austin you can escape to are the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, Pedernales Falls, Hamilton Pool, Texas Hill Country which is great for road trips and has several wineries which can be toured, or San Marcos where you can float in a tube on the San Marcos River for hours., Bastrop State Park or Lake Travis.You’re not into hiking? No problem! There’s plenty of other stuff to do around Austin: the
32 Avocado Margaritas
Need I say more?! I love avocados and I’m never one to turn down a margarita – combine those two and you know you’ll have me at ‘hello’ 😉 There are several restaurants and bars that offer this fine drink these days, but the very best avocado margarita can be enjoyed at Curra’s Grill, an institution in Austin’s Tex-Mex food scene and home of the original avocado margarita! If you don’t like the idea of avocado in your drink, don’t worry: there are plenty of other margaritas on the menu, and everything is so affordable. And it’s not only at Curra’s – I was generally overjoyed when I paid for my margaritas, which is about half of what I pay for a margarita in NYC.
Yes, SWSX might be an industry event, but nonetheless it is one of the biggest music festivals in the US, with over 2,000 artists performing across 90 venues during four days in March. As a music lover, I love the whole idea behind SWSX and every year I find at least one new artist in the festival line-up that I adore (in recent years Emily Wolfe, Courtney Barnett, Sylvan Esso, Soak and Låpsley).