Welcome to Austin! We don't know what the fuck is going on either!
The "Keep Austin Weird" bumper stickers pretty much only show up on sorority girls' 4Runners now, and a more common one these days is "Welcome to Austin, Please Don't Move Here." Everyone and their cosmic Cowboy uncle has an opinion on how Austin has changed; it will be the primary conversation you have with Uber drivers. For good or ill, that's open to debate. An area of town you haven't been to in a few months can still look completely different (condos, always condos), and the list of iconic establishments that are now but foundations for "boutiques" continues to grow. Black flight is a real thing here as the city becomes more homogeneous, with more and more design-focused white yuppies coming every day to take advantage of whatever they can.
The irony isn't lost on anyone. The same "authentic" things that made Austin appealing in the first place—the strange little blueberry in a cherry pie, the arts scene that's a shotgun wedding between hippies and cowboys, cheap housing, SXSW—are pretty much being smothered by progress and brands and the commercialization of a special thing. All the best and worst parts of gentrification. It's a mini tech corridor, still a proponent of music, and very livable if you make a few sacrifices.
The result is a town in flux, suffering growing pains and undergoing a learning curve. On the same street, you'll see start-up jocks, old Austinites of lore, hipsters, health food and yoga cultists, "gosh, y'all" Southern belles, and plenty of cowboy boots. It'll take you longer than imagined to find someone who's actually from here (everyone's so young!). In other words, it's a super interesting time to be here. It won't ever be like it was or how it's been advertised, but that's OK. This is the new-ish land of opportunity. Come on in, the water's fine enough.
NEIGHBORHOODS WE TOLERATE
In the midst of its rapid rise as a city of importance, Austin is still trying to figure out how to define itself, not just compared to other cities, but the areas that comprise it. Yes, everyone knows The Drag, and Dirty Sixth, and the other main booze-and-food strips people seem to frequent. And yes, while the city has its official list of "districts," you'll have to do better than saying "Old West Austin" or "Judge's Hill" when talking with others. Everybody knows Clarksville's where all the rich people live, and Hyde Park's classy in that old Austin way. But everyone seems to have a personal, and personally revealing, opinion about the Realtor®-friendly use of SoCo for South Congress. And do all the new shops on South Lamar mean that it counts as its own area now, too? More often than not, navigation and bearing-gathering revolves around singular places. This being a young person's town, those singular places are more often than not coffee houses, bars, or taco shops. Oh, you live by Paco's Tacos? Gimme 20 mins. Ugh, yes, traffic on I-35 just keeps getting worse.
Dirty Sixth/ Red River
No one with any sense actually likes Dirty Sixth. It is like every boorish, loud, overcrowded party street in every major town, complete with "shot bars," cover bands, and the kind of people you would never associate with in public or private. As if that weren't enough, the number of police who stand guard during the busy hours lend the street an extra sense of menace. Day time ain't much of an improvement, as it's taken over by the aggressively destitute (the homeless shelter is the next block over), and the aroma of stale piss is so strong as to overwhelm those simply driving by.
The area gets a little better just a few steps away from the drunken horde, with a few decent locations like the Southwestern-horror-punk bar Casino El Camino offering legendary burgers and Bloody Marys, as well as Easy Tiger, half a block from the highway that divides this downtown district from the East Side. Inevitably, you will find yourself on Dirty Sixth, often when some friends visiting from another Texas town will want to meet up in that area because they, like tourists, don't know any better. Just brace yourself and do what everyone else is doing: get sloppy drunk to dull the pain.
It's weird how things can change in just a few city blocks. All but capping off the horror of Dirty Sixth is Red River Cultural District, which, while still crowded and full of untouchables, is somehow, magically, ten times better than Sixth Street. Perhaps it's the fact that the city insisted on adding "cultural district" to its official name. More likely it's the Texas-favorite fare (pizza, barbecue, Mexican), and gay-friendly venues like Barbarella and Cheer-Up Charlies keeping everyone honest. Not to mention the fact that, unlike Dirty Sixth, drunk pedestrians must keep to the sidewalks, as people do in civilized societies. Not only can you spend an entire night on Red River without once stepping foot onto Dirty Sixth, it's much advised.
Photo by Ben Sklar
It's hard to put a finger on what makes Rainey Street both appealing and suspect. For one, it's an actual neighborhood. As in, every bar is a converted house. Just a few years ago, Rainey seemed like a small, boozy oasis, with a great BYOB open-air restaurant, G'Raj Mahal Cafe. Now, with high-rises being built on both sides, G'Raj having been turned into a glitzy brick-and-mortar spot, and more and more people flooding in on the weekend, the area can feel a little claustrophobic. There's not much difference between the various bars, although beer lovers gravitate toward Bangers and its massive tap selection. The crowd, too, is hard to describe. No one's unpleasant, per se, but if Dirty Sixth is where the dropouts and college sophomores go to party, Rainey is the spot where the preppier, upperclassmen go to get hammered.
East: 6th, Chavez, Manor
Austin doesn't really have "districts." Or rather, we haven't come to a unanimous consensus, due in large part to the fact that the city has developed so rapidly. We're still trying to get our bearings. But for simplicity, just about anything east of I-35, south of Manor St., and north of the river is considered "the East Side." Basically, those are the areas that the city used to force its ethnic populations to live, which are now being infested by yuppies.
East Sixth, of course, is the heart of hip Austin. But please-please-please don't make any references to "Brooklyn" while you're there. Yes, you'll see a higher concentration of hipsters here than any other area of town, but for a mostly young white crowd, it feels surprisingly diverse. Condos and boutique-looking businesses are sprouting up on any parcel of land big enough for an outhouse, so the area is likely in phase two of its "cool" demise. But the area is just the right size: bustling and busy without feeling cramped. And it includes a variety of watering holes, including local favorites like Violet Crown, The Liberty, and Rio Rita.
East Chavez is experiencing a sped-up version of East Sixth's development, and of Austin's in general. Traditionally a Latino neighborhood, a few remnants like the restaurant Juan in a Million remain. But when a local piñata shop was unceremoniously torn down by developers to make way for a goddamn cat cafe, Chavez became the evil poster child for the Austin's relentless gentrification. The area still looks rough around the edges, and the neighborhoods immediately around the street still look homely. At last one immediately popular bar has sprung up, Stay Gold, while a couple others that look suspiciously cat-friendly have opened recently. Maybe do a little something on that street, then meander up a few blocks to East Sixth.
While not exactly right nearby, Manor Rd., up near 22nd St., has that Austin-y feel of being a little worn-in yet working on reupholstering. Crowd-wise, it's kinda the hippish kids from East Sixth who finally made salary and don't feel like raging all night. The higher-end Salty Sow is there, catty-corner to El Sapo, a Tex-Mex burger joint in a converted gas station/auto shop. Then, of course, there's the famous Mi Madre's and the original, can't-lose El Chilito. The new-ish bars are relaxed if mostly forgettable, and every tattooed technophile packs into Thunderbird Coffee to steal the WiFi. Bike a few blocks south to the Austin Daily Press and Bennu Coffee (open 24/7) on MLK. And for the adventurous, go another mile south to the hip bar/cafe/grocery store Quickie Pickie on 11th.
Photo by Ben Sklar
Barton Springs Rd.
The neighborhood on Barton Springs Rd. is nice and pleasant in the way sociable people without any apparent vices who enjoy spending weekend afternoon frollicking in the park are nice and pleasant. It's a neighborhood for people whose favorite season is late spring.
Right next to Austin's biggest park, Zilker, Barton Springs just feels brunchy. The employees at Thom's Market, where you can buy cheese and wine for a picnic, are pleasant. The chill-out-on-my-front-lawn feel of The Shady Grove is also pleasant. The enclosed, brick-lined patio of the Green Mesquite BBQ is pleasant (its wings are more than pleasant). Even the Pecan Grove RV Park situated in the middle of the neighborhood looks like the most pleasant home-away-from-home ever. It's all so very—what's the word we're looking for here?—pleasant.
If you're feeling particularly chipper, stop in at Barton Springs Bike Rental, and set your iTunes to "Sunny." Whether you've taken along the one-hitter dugout or not, check out the nearby kayak and paddle boat rentals on Lady Bird Lake.
South Congress/ South First
There's an ongoing debate about what to call South Congress. SoCo just sounds so douchey and pretentious. But the name has become so ubiquitous that even longtime residents will use it, albeit with some sort of caveat or acknowledgement of how uncool it sounds. All of which is just another way of saying that SoCo is the result of those who've perfectly commodified the "Keep Austin Weird" aesthetic. The area feels a little quirky, but in that safe, harmless way that facilitates the purchasing of quirky stuff. It's the consumption district for people who claim to dislike consumption districts. The costume store Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds, and the curated antique store, Uncommon Objects, selling "eclectic oddities," are everyone's favorite places to window shop. Maybe grab some street fare at the always popular Home Slice? Naturally, you'll find a few vintage clothing shops, an art gallery, and a few upper-end diner and/or afternoon drink spots. All so eclectic! Yes, that "I love you so much" graffiti at Jo's Coffee is the same one you see on the profile of every single Tinder profile of every woman who's ever been in Austin, ever. A fine neighborhood to take your visiting parents.
South First hasn't seen quite the same boom as South Congress. A few boutiques have opened, and some restaurants are clearly newer than others, but the area still feels run-down and local in that good kind of way. Just a random collection of shops and food trailers! The neighborhood also has plenty of established Mexican restaurants for when out of towners want "Tex-Mex" and you can't be bothered to think too hard, although take those you really like to Elizabeth St. Cafe for Vietnamese fusion. More refined connoisseurs of taking-pictures-in-front-local-art will find the "Welcome to Austin" mural easily enough.
Photo by Ben Sklar
Hyde Park/ North Loop/ Airport
In terms of neighborhoods with that neighborhood feel, this collection is probably the best. Hyde Park proper has old, though moderately sized family homes, but its edges are loaded up with youngish, post-grad types in relatively cheap apartments. As a result, the amenities are accessible, although hardly dive-y. Dolce Vita is a popular hangout since it serves something for everyone: booze, gelato, coffee (for whatever reason, the terminally hip employees can be real fucking dicks, but whatever). And the cash-only Julio's Cafe is a neighborhood standby. Everyone, too, knows The Flag Store (you'll immediately understand its name), where it's got a huge pick-your-own beer selection and sell just about every knick-knack for your utility drawer imaginable.
Airport's, like, totally gonna be the next big thing. Thankfully, it's too far from the central hotspots to become the target of dick-swinging condo developers any time in the very near future. The Austin staple Tyson's Tacos is there, and The Grand is the kind of grimy billiards bar everyone can get behind. That said, the swanky Spanish-themed Bullfight restaurant just opened, and the annoyingly busy Kome Sushi Kitchen is every couple's favorite quiet night out spot. It's going to be the next Austin neighborhood you don't recognize in a few years.
North Loop is the real gem. One of those tiny neighborhood areas that feels like it won't ever expand too much. Everyone moves a bit slower here. There are a few small bars, a popular coffeehouse/workstation, one of the city's best vintage furniture shops, and some very specific food trailers (no kebabs here), among other treasures. There's also Phara's, a very strange-in-a-good-way Mediterranean restaurant with a belly dancer and plenty of hookah huffing. More could be said, but North Loop has probably already been jinxed.
Second St./ Warehouse Districts/ West 6th
You have money, a job, and maybe a hot-looking something. Congratulations! This area's for you. It's here where the high-rises are shooting upward like the jagged formations of some distant planet. When you've got clients in town, the Dirty Sixth is too dangerous, and East Sixth is far too young and hip, so you send them here. The streets have been scrubbed of refuse and riff-raff, the restaurants are both high-end and high volume, and the bartenders (though never snobby mixologists) are adept at making martinis. If this is more your scene, but you still want to walk down a bar strip, head over to budding West Sixth, which is starting to look like a slightly nicer version Dirty Sixth (no one's called it "Clean Sixth" yet). Fair warning, though. We've been making fun of the new Steampunk Saloon since before it even opened. So if you go there, tell no one.
West Campus/ The Drag
There's something uplifting about all the pretty young college kids going about their business on The Drag. Their lives have meaning! They seem so happy! Their futures are still ahead of them! The Drag's basically the bustling "main street" for the University of Texas crowd. So there's that. Daniel Johnston's famous "Hi How Are You?" graffiti has been religiously preserved, although it and the Hole in the Wall are about the only things left of the golden age of UT, that time when Richard Linklater made Slacker and the likes of Matthew McConnaughey and the Wilson brothers roamed the campus. Whatever. It still beats the main drags of other college towns.
West Campus, however, is a place of nightmares. Imagine if the lost boys of Neverland had been allowed to reach puberty, or the children of Pinocchio's Pleasure Island had moved away to get degrees in business or communications. It is a hodgepodge of co-op living quarters, cheap dorms, and run-down frat houses. No half-adult in Austin mentions West Campus without a tinge of disdain, born partly of fear. In other words: a fantastic area to roam at twilight in a stoned haze.
Tyson's Tacos. Photo by Josh Verduzco
WHERE TO EAT
Austin is known for tacos and BBQ, and for good reason—there are no shortage of options for those things, and even the worst ones in Austin are pretty good. But there's more to the food in Austin than just the Texican staples. In the past ten years, the rise of food truck culture gave aspiring chefs the chance to try out proof-of-concept menus that have evolved to some of the city's best brick-and-mortar restaurants. Meanwhile, the city's population boom has meant that cuisines that have typically been uninspiring in Austin—Thai, pizza, Japanese, and more—now finally have enough of a constituency that places are serving them up well. You'd be a dummy to come to Austin and not eat BBQ or have tacos for breakfast most mornings, but you'd also be making a mistake if you kept your Austin menu restricted to just those things.
You've probably heard about Franklin by now, because the place is fucking famous. It's famous because it has a long line, and it has a long line because it's genuinely the best brisket you'll ever eat. Initially our thought was to leave it off the list because you'll find it on every Guide to Austin ever written. But that'd have been dumb. The brisket is good because pitmaster Aaron Franklin sources only the best meat, which is also why it sells out so quickly, and why people start lining up at sunrise for a place that doesn't open until 11 AM. It's worth it, though—set an alarm, bring some lawn chairs, and just make a morning of it.
East Side King
Odds are pretty good you'll find yourself at an East Side King at some point during a trip to Austin, even if you didn't mean to, just because they're everywhere. The constantly-expanding Asian fusion food stand got its start as a truck with a menu created by Paul Qui—probably Austin's most celebrated chef—but now there's a combination of trucks, brick-and-mortar locations, and backyard setups at a half dozen bars serving pork belly buns, beet home fries, chicken kara-age, and brussels sprouts salad. Well worth the time.
Bouldin Creek Cafe
Basically every vegan in Texas ends up moving to Austin in their 20s, and they all do it because there are restaurants like Bouldin Creek Cafe. Every item on the menu is either vegetarian or vegan, and this place can swap out the regular cheese with vegan cheese for 50 cents. The staff aren't specialists in any type of cuisine—you can get pasta or enchiladas or fake BBQ or teriyaki stir-fry—but if you want to eat something extremely satisfying that involved zero animal suffering, you're in a good place.
Photo by Ben Sklar
Bowie BBQ at Whole Foods Market
If you can't do the line at Franklin, it's OK. It won't be nearly as cool to brag to your friends back home that you went to a fucking Whole Foods for some authentic Texas BBQ, but the flagship location on 6th and Lamar (which really has to be seen to be believed) has plenty of meat, no wait, and is near the top of the city's second-tier BBQ spots. It's not Franklin or La Barbecue, but it's a hell of a lot better than whatever slop they're passing off as BBQ wherever it is you're from. Get the moist brisket, watch a game at the bar, and try to pretend you're not at Whole Foods and you'll be unearthing a hidden gem.
Veracruz All Natural
There's so much delicious Mexican food in Austin, you're unlikely to go wrong with any of it. Like, if you just see some random Mexican restaurant five minutes away from where you're staying, it's probably going to have pretty good tacos. But if you're looking for the platonic ideal of the sort of Tex-Mex standards that people come to Austin for, Veracruz is the place to go. The menu is simple—breakfast tacos all day, steak or chicken fajitas, veggie tacos, quesadillas, aguas frescas, etc.—but Austin is a town of simple pleasures.
Tyson's Tacos. Photo by Josh Verduzco
Tyson's is kind of overwhelming for its sheer variety of tacos, all of which have rando names like "Wild Feminist" (egg, sausage, potato, avocado, pico) and the "Hippy Chick" (roasted tomatoes, corn, zucchini). A bunch of them are named after Star Wars shit, too, because Tyson is a nerd. He's also a nerd who leans hard into Austin's insufferable hipster image, promising free tacos to anybody who entertains the people behind them in line with a ukulele that the shop keeps in the window. Don't worry, nobody ever does that. Just buy your own tacos, but do it here, because these guys will deep fry egg yolks with bacon and cheddar, wrap that shit up in a tortilla, and feed it to you for three dollars.
Easy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden
Did you know that central Texas has a whole bunch of German people? It's true—the first German settlers started arriving in the 1840s, which is why so much traditional Tejano music uses accordions. That's the sort of fact you can drop while you're spending hours at Easy Tiger, which is a chill beer garden with a massive patio overlooking Waller Creek downtown, and a German-themed menu for beer and food both. The stars of the show here are the house-made sausages (the garlic beef is fucking amazing) and the giant pretzels, but everything from the upstairs bakery is a solid A-minus or better.
Easy Tiger. Photo by Josh Verduzco
Check out this unassuming, kinda shitty-looking strip mall and find a whole bunch of good food (soup, vegan soft-serve, and more)—but show up in the morning so you can get breakfast. The Omelettry has been around since 1978, and there's still have an hour-plus wait on weekends. The omelettes are all legit—there are 11 house omelettes, or you can build your own—but it also does the best pancakes/French toast/bacon breakfast in the city. It technically serves lunch too, but ignore that—the quality drop-off on that is severe—and just relive a youth of eating sugar and eggs for breakfast every morning.
Once upon a time, nobody in his or her right mind would eat sushi in Austin, Texas. (Look at a fucking map.) Uchi changed that game, though, by being one of the best restaurants in the country even though it's a sushi spot in mostly landlocked Texas. People in Austin are still kind of yokels when it comes to spots like Uchi, so you'll want to make a reservation so you're not waiting around for a table with a bunch of goofballs in Longhorns ball caps, cargo shorts, and flip-flops, but the tempura alone will make it worth it.
Cherrywood Coffee House
If you want your coffee served by peppy baristas who definitely toured with a punk band in the mid 2000s and are still halfway committed to their artistic lifestyle even though they're finally finishing their degree, Cherrywood is the spot for you. It's a legit neighborhood coffee shop, which means you'll see people who are there 4–5 days a week whenever you go in, but that just means it's less touristy than most similar spots. It also has a full lunch/dinner menu that—surprise twist—has one of the best burgers in Austin.
Daruma Ramen. Photo by Josh Verduzco
The conventional wisdom is that people don't come to Austin for ramen, they come for tacos and BBQ. That's not the whole truth, though—if you're coming from New York or San Francisco or something, sure, Daruma is a "maybe." If you're coming from East Dogshit, Texas, though, prepare for your mind to be blown. Daruma is a tiny noodle place in the middle of an otherwise-bereft stretch of Sixth Street that seats everybody family-style and serves four types of ramen (two of them come in vegan varieties). It's open for lunch and dinner every day—come for lunch and see people who work downtown enjoy the highlight of their workday, or come for dinner before going to a show on nearby Red River.
Austin's never had much reputation as a pizza town, and that's fair—most of what the city has to offer is fine, but nothing you'd ever go out of your way for in a city with actual good pizza. Via 313 does Detroit-style deep dish so well, though, that even if you're visiting from the Motor City, you might want to stop by. It started as a trailer, but by the end of 2016, it'll have two brick-and-mortars to match up the pair of trailers near downtown. Go to Via 313, where pizza snobs with significant beards will take your order, and the burnt edges of the cheese on the thick, square pizza with a dollop of sauce on the top will take your heart.
Amy's Ice Creams
This place is an Austin institution. If you've visited Austin at any point since the mid 80s, somebody probably took you to Amy's, or you got some at the airport. Good call! Amy's is fucking delicious, serving the creamiest of ice creams with a whole slew of cookies and candy and other junk to smash into it. The location on the tourist trap strip on South Congress has a mile-long line any day the sun is shining, which is like 360 days of the year, but any of the other locations will be easier to get in and out of.
There are plenty of great burgers in Austin, so if you're looking for where to get an all-natural, never-frozen sandwich, we'll direct you to the spot that is basically guaranteed to be within two miles of wherever you're staying, and where the burger costs $2.35 (add a quarter if you want cheese!). P. Terry's basically ignited a new trend for local fast-food chains that sell handmade, responsibly sourced shit that tastes better than McDonald's (think Shake Shack or In-n-Out or any other regional hamburger place that's a cut above), but costs the same amount, and it's still the standard-bearer for that group. With 12 locations all over the city and more probably opening soon.
Photo by Ben Sklar
Lucy's Fried Chicken
Fried chicken is a Southern thing, and like all Texans, Austinites will argue that they're definitely not "The South," but that's a boring argument for snobs—the real question is, is the chicken legit? At Lucy's, it is—this place does the usual parts, breaded and fried, but also gizzards and livers, fried green tomatoes, mac & cheese, chicken fried steak, and the rest of the best parts of southern cooking. It's a newer spot—there weren't really any straight fried chicken restaurants in Austin except for KFC and Popeye's until the late 00s—but Lucy's gets it right, which is all that actually matters.
Austinites love their food trailers so much, they forget the concept wasn't invented here (same with tacos). Regardless, there really is no better representation of the budding Austin scene than the hodgepodge of various cuisines hustling, cheaply, around the city. Franklin's, La Barbecue, and Chi'Lantro are just a few of now-popular brick-and-mortar spots that started with humble, trailer roots.
Some popular places are scattered around, like near the North Loop area where there's the all-vegan taco stand the Vegan Nom, and just a few blocks away Biscuit and Groovey. Ever jones'd for Creole Peruvian fusion? Llamas, right by Dirty Sixth, has you covered.
The best is when the food trailer parks coalesce around specific spots, so you've all the decadent choices of Nero's feast. The East Side Filling Station, in the heart of East Sixth, has exactly the kind of heavy drunk food you'd expect: There's Coat & Thai, and Wholly Kebab (self-explanatory), as well as Baton Creole, which includes fried jambalaya on a stick. Recently moved to just half a block east is Way South Philly, which offers the kind of greasy, disgusting Philly cheesesteaks that you only regret in the morning. The trailers at East Seventh Eats, just a couple blocks down, are for those drunk-munchers with slightly more refined palates. As with any food truck or trailer in Austin, tasty treats can up and leave with no indication of where they went. The solid Brazilian La Boteco is still there, but the city's best taqueria has since disappeared, like some drunkard's dream, replaced by a Asian-y looking place that looks respectable enough.
Photo by Ben Sklar
If you're more of the Saturday-in-the-park crowd, congratulations, you're body thanks you. And the reward is the Barton Springs Picnic and the nearby South Austin Social. The Picnic has laid down roots with a big, steel-and-concrete "roof" shading the picnic tables. The food's a bit higher-end and family friendly. The Mighty Cone sells friend (and sweet) things in cones. Turf N Surf Po' Boy's is a tad pricey, although generous on the portions, and Hey Cupcake! has a location there in case you somehow missed it on South Congress. Annoying in name, Hey! .... You Gonna Eat or What? does make up for it with some surprisingly complicated (and delicious) sandwiches that the staff will spend forever explaining when they drop it off (it's because they care). A block away, the South Austin Social is less fleshy, but it does include some variety you don't see at other spots, including the Spanish Boca, the Lebanese Beirut Austin, a vegan spot called, ugh, Unity, and, a place simple advertised as "Eurasia Food."
Known as "West Campus," this area of the University of Texas is what happens when college students are allowed to roam free, without any shock-collars. It is a terrifying place. Yet, among the rabble is Rancho Rio Eatery, with exactly the kind of variety you'd expect in a college cafeteria, but surprisingly better. There's a kinda-dodgy looking pizza trailer, Julie's Handmade Noodles, Korean Komfort, ATX Boudain Hut, MacDaddy's (mac 'n' cheese, get it). For dessert, there's (also) the cleverly named Holy Cacao for coffee and cakeballs (balls ... of cake!), and the Cow Tipping Creamery. The tables are nice pieces of concrete-and-tile art, and there's The Glassmithtrailer, which, obviously does not sell food, but is exactly what you'd expect in a drug den like West Campus.
Photo by Ben Sklar
WHERE TO DRINK
Texans have never really had a "drinking" or "party" culture like, say, Boston, New Orleans, or Los Angeles. But we're catching up quickly, especially in Austin. Travis County imbibes more than any other in the state, and alcohol sales saw a 50 percent jump in just the past seven years.
Part of it relates to Austin's unyielding growth. If we can't have cheap rents and "authenticity" anymore, at least give us places to drown our yuppie sorrows. There are a few "classic" bars still around, but the destructive Godzilla that is progress has seen more than a few places crumble. The local favorites that seem like they've been around forever are really just ten years old, if that, and the ever-evolving "us" would very much prefer the obvious "them" to stay away (they won't). Worse, all new places seem to come prepackaged for a johnny-come-lately clientele that, at best, wants "hip" and "dive-y" without any of the hassles. The drinking areas have developed like landing strips in certain neighborhoods.
Cynicism aside, there's never been a better time to be a drinker in Austin. Livers can be pickled without going broke, and those nights, if remembered, will be looked upon fondly as the best mistakes you could safely make.
The White Horse. Photo by Josh Verduzco
The epicenter of what you might-could call "New Austin," White Horse is where a local will take an out-of-towner to meet other "locals" (no one's from here any longer). It will be crowded and glorious, and you'll meet just about every type of Austinite— the vaguely fratty college kids adventuring away from "Dirty Sixth," the aging squares and old Austin hippies, the young kids in hipsterish threads, the annoyingly fashionable nouveau riche from the tech sector, some colorful weirdos. A condominium now looms over the building, and the owners recently replaced the piss trough with urinals (goddamn gentrification). That said, the bartenders bust hump, and the music, leaning hard on the honky-tonk vibe without ever feeling creaky, is rock-solid every night. A cowboy on an actual white horse might show up, someone will definitely be banging on the beat-up piano in the back, and there's a popcorn machine. Only assholes have a bad time here.
The Side Bar
The first few times you go to Side Bar, you will have forgotten you went to Side Bar. The notion'll be there, but the rest, a blur —if you're lucky. No one says "let's go to Side Bar" with any intention apart from being beaten senseless by their own youthful regrets. The inside is dim, even for bar standards, and booze spreads across the floor like blood in a slaughterhouse. Thanks to development, a 12-foot tall cinder-block perimeter was erected, which makes its patio look like a prison yard for college dropouts and kitchen hands. If you don't witness gravity taking revenge against at least one unsteady soul, you're in the wrong bar. Unless you like jail, or the clinic, this should be your only/last stop of the night.
Yellow Jacket Social Club
There once was an idea of what "cool Austin" was, and its spark was Yellow Jacket. Pretty much everyone there will have more tats than you, which is OK, since you're really just there to sit outside on the patio with an idyllic canopy of bamboo and trees overhead. Every third person in Austin has had one of their Tinder pictures taken beside the foliage. Needless to say, these people are not regulars, who all appear to, and might actually, be part of the coolest proto-psychobilly/punk-looking biker gang since The Wild Angels. These regulars are mostly indistinguishable from the staff members, who will pretty much look at you with a bored, thousand-yard stare, as is their right. For a place that specializes in cheap beer and well whiskey, Yellow Jacket has a surprisingly solid food menu as well. Like every other place in Austin, this old and odd missionary-style building beside the train tracks is now dwarfed on two sides by condos. No matter. Yellow Jacket is a great place, where day drinking inevitably turns into night drinking. Just don't be a dick.
Photo by Josh Verduzco
This is pretty much the one place on "Dirty Sixth" that doesn't suck. Despite being on the main party strip full of douchebag bars blasting bland rock music on the inside and annoying shot barkers advertising disgusting concoctions by the door, Jackalope keeps it real. And porny! Apart from the lovely and artistic erotica paintings lining the walls, the movies playing on the back-patio TV are the most violent, smut-oozing productions the world's finest cine-freaks have to offer. The attached New Haven–ish style pizza place with a street-side counter is pretty damn decent, and people swear by the burger inside, even after they sober up. In the hellish oasis of bland party bars full of bros and indiscriminate night-trippers, Jackalope has that rough and worn edge that feels like home.
It's only been around for a few years, and it's moved locations once, but Cheer-Ups has managed to become an institution for the young, artsy drinking class. There are two reasons for this: good music and good vibes. Cheer-Ups works super hard booking new and experimental bands, local and international. In addition, it's definitely been a proponent of the local scene in all its forms, particularly for the Ls of LGBTers. Oh, and it has kombucha on tap, because why not? As is proper in Austin, go outside where the spacious patio/stage area sits at the bottom of a massive limestone bluff. The one group you're allowed to hate on are the developers, particularly of the Hyatt Hotel, turning the area around Cheer-Ups into an ugly construction zone.
The sign of a good karaoke bar is (1) a solid MC (2) not explicitly advertising itself as a karaoke bar. Welcome to Ego's, motherfucker; sign up for a song before you take your first shot, because all the people here want their two and a half minutes of transubstantial fame, and that shit takes a long time. The place is different than your average karaoke bar, mostly because it skips past any notion of "Asian karaoke bar" and goes straight for what really matters in Texas: "singing drunk + getting drunk." The place is also different from other Austin establishments because, rather than being stand-alone, it's nestled, hidden almost, inside the bottom of a drab, 1970s-style office building (the table settings look like they were stolen from an old Dallas diner), with just a small sign out front. The songbook rolls deep, the nightly MC is a dead ringer for Det. Rollins on SVU, and she runs as smooth a ship as possible with drunks belting out their favorites. If there's one place where a group of friends can convince that one asshole who refuses to karaoke to actually step up, it's Ego's. Your friends'll be the only ones who really pay attention when you're up—the rest of the people are just on the edge of their seats waiting for their turns.
Photo by Josh Verduzco
Spider House Cafe & Ballroom
On the north tip of the UT campus, this is the spot if you're a young person and/or college student with a computer who needs to "work," or at the very least, convince yourself you're working while downing beers. The patio is spacious—with scattered, janky-ass tables and decorum that looks like it was salvaged from a Vegas junkyard, circa the 1960s. The cafe part is a converted house, so it's all hardwood floors and cozy inside, while the ballroom space in the front hosts all manner of hip entertainment. Then, of course, there is an adjoining tattoo parlor just in case you want to permanently imprint your bad ideas. Fair warning, though: The service can be downright terrible at Spider. It's like there's no system in place for, like, taking your order or dropping said order off. But the staff and clientele are always chill, and after a few rounds, none of that crap will really matter anyway.
Bar Lamar (in Whole Foods)
Austin used to be the "Capital of Live Music." No mas. It's now the capital of techsters, new millennial money and sell-outs (remember when SXSW wasn't a dumpster fire for corporate "brands"? Don't worry, no one does!). Which is why a visit to the original home and corporate offices of Whole Foods is perfect! The complex is huge, basically a whole city block. This is the Vatican for that whole eco-city lifestyle that people and their therapists have bought into. Stroll past the asparagus water and over-priced organic products to the back, where there is a wine/beer bar surrounded by the perfect summation of a transitioning Austin—a barbecue counter on one side and a sushi counter on the other. Go on a weekend afternoon or weekday around rush hour, have no intention of grocery shopping, but instead sit and enjoy a featured beverage while you observe the Austinite in its new habitat—the yoga ladies, the health-fad-conscious college students, people with respectable 401ks, well-off kids disguised as hippies and hipsters. Don't be too cynical, because you're one of them, too; fight it all you want. It's a beautiful sight, on par with people-watching from a Paris cafe.
Probably the most naturally diverse bar in Austin, precisely because it doesn't advertise itself as such. For a town that's all about the hot new scene, this place has no pretensions, and its clientele is the same. It's a neighborhood spot right in the newest "up and coming" strip on Airport Boulevard, but it's a well-settled pool joint in the best possible sense. The waitresses provide table service for those in the middle of sharking, the jukebox/PA system has a habit of playing lonely traveler songs like Dylan's "Tangled Up in Blue," and the regular barflies with their gin blossoms and softly-held mixed drinks aren't territorial. Pool's the great barroom equalizer, and The Grand is one of the few places in town you'll see Latinos, blacks, whites, wannabe pool pros with their travel sticks, and groups of amateur friends, all doing their thing without any kind of strutting. The comedians from the next-door comedy venue come by after their show to hang out in one of the poker rooms, and there's a cluster of small tables in case there's some sort of game on the big screen. It's all low-key until the "Rock Candy" shows on Sunday and Monday, in which it seems the town's entire hardcore punk population comes out from wherever they were hiding to listen to the a wild-haired DJ play records in front of some dart boards.
Photo by Josh Verduzco
One of last survivors from "Old Austin," this Fisco train-station-y themed bar doesn't appear to, er, be leaving the station anytime soon. The inside is what happens when the saloon set of a 1970s Western movie is abandoned before being turned into a cozy home by some industrious squatter. Donn himself, on his baby grand that has its own drink rail for customers, leads the band most nights. All wood beams and red shag carpet, the bar has sections, each divided into its own little area. It's great for groups, or even if you're alone, pretending that you're a red headed stranger contemplating that one last score to settle. The dance floor (more of a dance pit) really ties the whole ramshackle place together. There'll be lots of old timers there, many of whom seem like discarded characters of a Charles Portis novel.
There's not much around the area: mostly drab, state government buildings that turn from comatose to dead after 5 PM. But maybe go, if only because it's both an Austin and literary landmark. The restaurant itself sells the kind of barbecue and German-ish fare that's OK by normal standards but is altogether forgettable in Texas. The tap selection (German-ish, duh) is solid. More important is the brick-laid, tree-dotted patio that has the city's oldest operating bowling alley, built for German farmers to unwind in the 1800s. The place is a character itself in Billy Lee Brammer's The Gay Place, the second greatest novel (or tied?) about American politics after All The King's Men. Go for a couple drinks and imagine yourself getting hammered with the likes of LBJ himself, the greatest politician Texas has ever produced.
Hole in the Wall
Oh, you want the Austin experience and don't want to go to Hole in the Wall? Go fuck yourself. This place is a goddamn landmark. No, literally. It has its own entry on the Texas State Historical Association website. Somehow, this place, with an inside that stays true to its namesake, has fought off the steamroller that is time and progress, unmoved while Urban Outfitter-ers and yoga studios arise like little Mount Dooms all round it. Other great venues have fallen over the years, yet this booze-and-music-infused gem remains. Every band you love that you didn't realize came from Austin has played here. It's basically the poor musicians' version of the Grand Ole Opry. And being on The Drag, UT's main strip of student-oriented shops, its crowds can be transient, like a bus stop or army camp. What else do you need to hear? The decor and vibe is exactly what you'd expect at place that's been around forever (like 1974), and it's been fighting to survive since before you knew what cool was. Go pay your respects.
Photo by Ben Sklar
There's funny "haha" and funny "hmmm." Sliding closer to the latter is Barflys funny. It's hard to say what makes Barflys a little... off. Undoubtedly, it has something to do with the fact that it's a neighborhood bar on the north end of central Austin—no one can quite agree if the area qualifies as "north": It certainly doesn't have a specific vibe. The general hood includes a mix of better-off neighborhoods, kinda-slummy houses of long-time residents, and poorer young adults with steady paychecks. Whatever the reason, the barflies of Barflys love to get hammered and jabber on with strangers. Everyone has opinions! The results can be mixed. You might be forced into conversation with a vaguely menacing idiot sporting a neck beard, or get curious ideas while talking with the 21-year-old entrepreneur of a live-streaming sex-chat operation. Go there if it's close to your friend's house, or the sweet SXSW couch surfing deal you found on Craigslist.
A mainstay of the hip East Sixth District, Shangri-La is the Walmart of hipster bars. It's got plenty of space, always low-ish prices, and pretty much everyone goes there. Inevitably, people will describe, in detail, that one SXSW when Bill Murray came in and started bartending, as if they were there (they weren't). Good and proper Austinites judge their bars based on the patios, and in this regard, Shangri-La is a standard-bearer. Wide open with long rows of picnic tables, the outside sorta just demands that you meet and drink with new people. The drinks are cheap-ish, and the bartenders are attentive. A fine place for early evening drinks, or anytime, really.
If someone tells you that Hotel Vegas, many years ago, used to be a boarding house filled primarily with people who charge by the fuck, do not fact check it. For one, there still are depressing, cinder-block rooms being occupied on the second floor. Secondly, half an hour there on the weekend will convince you that some kind of nefarious juju still resides. Less of a melting pot and more of a liquor still for the young Austin horde, there's some kind of trouble for everyone. Maybe you'll do coke on the picnic tables outside, with no one around you paying any mind. Or maybe someone will mouth off to your friend, and you'll have to get his or her back. Maybe some Cross Fit nutjob will challenge you to feats of strength. Maybe some young thing will hop on your motorcycle, uninvited, and you'll drive him/her around until he/she yells into your ear that his/her partner is a cop. This is all theoretical, of course! The music inside is loud, and the conversations in the backyard patio are unwieldy. But, again, mostly innocent trouble is there if that's what you're looking for.
Photo by Josh Verduzco
Classy AF, and in a very Texas way. The whole area looks like an extended version of the drinking "study" you'd expect in some rich oil man's mansion. In other words, it's ornate, carpeted, and Western-themed. Those ladies you see hanging around, particularly when the state legislature is in session, or on Valentine's Day, are, yes, probably high-priced ladies of the night. The bartenders will always remind you of the one in The Shining. Famous people often stay at the equally ornate hotel, and men in suits go to the Driskill to discuss deals, or look burdened by their responsibilities, or whatever. Go there when you want to feel like what you're doing with your life is important and Texany. Order good whiskey, neat, and polish your cowboy boots beforehand. Bolo tie optional.
Living Room Lounge (Inside the W)
New money's a weird thing, and not in the same way as the tiresome "Keep Austin Weird." Anyway, the W is the perfect fancy place for people who think expensive and upscale means sophisticated. (Think obnoxious tech nerds with some fresh cash and a complete lack of social sense.) (Or the douchebags in finance who maybe have a DJing habit.) (Or the ladies who put on sparkly new cocktail dresses that best facilitate proper tequila shot technique.) The place butts up against the Moody Theater, where Austin City Limits is filmed, and it's surrounded by new restaurants that go for that fancier big-city vibe. But, hell, popularity is popularity, and the W is where the cool people with better jobs than you go to make believe. Go at happy hour with the good-looking suits and pencil skirts to avoid being slightly poorer after the experience.
Tiniest Bar in Texas
Yes, there's already an Alamo in Texas. But this is the Alamo of Austin bars. The bar really is tiny: The inside is a glorified liquor cabinet and two bathrooms. The rest of the place is the ultimate Austin bar: all patio. Like the Alamo, it's not just a quiet sanctuary, but the neighborhood's last barricade against fancy new condominiums literally towering over it, and the gyms and Whole Foods at the flanks. Not a whole lot to walk to in the immediate vicinity, but a perfect place for a quiet weekend day drink or three.
Stay Gold. Photo by Josh Verduzco
"Austin" is basically a brand at this point, and Stay Gold is one of its latest products. That's not an insult! It's one of several gentrifying buds that has sprouted on East Cesar Chavez in the past few years, and it's certainly not as bad as the recently opened "cat cafe" or the yuppie coffee-table bookstore that's pushed out those living and working in the historic Latino neighborhood. Stay Gold was an immediate hit when it opened about a year ago.That probably had a lot to do with the fact that it was the creation of owners from both Hole in the Wall and the White Horse. Their music calendar does not include amateurs. And the crowd is young, good looking, hip, and as upwardly diverse as any promo manager could ask for—basically all the easily appealing parts of the Austin brand. A fine place to make a friend-of-a-friend an actual friend.
East Side Showroom
Places in America with a kinda "Old Europe" feel are odd because Old Europe has working toilets older than our entire country. Still, people enjoy the vibe at East Side, which seems like a Paris absinthe bar from the Third Republic. Basically, its veneer of bohemian (it is on cool East Sixth), and its prices creep toward bourgeois. It's also for the pretty well-to-do who love Tom Waits and want to feel a little arty. A great drinking date spot! Fair warning, though: the booze shelf is "curated," like a vinyl collection, and the mustachioed barkeeps in their Bo-bo garb will be far better dressed than you. Just assume they'd prefer to be called "mixologists."
The gay bar for the rest of us, or at least those who want a nominal choice between just having a few drinks and going all in with the clubbing. Just off downtown Congress Ave., and removed from any immediate watering hole, the Iron Bear can be quiet by any bar standards, to say nothing of rainbow establishments. It's popular among the older Texas gentlemen, who look like they've survived the bad ol' days mostly intact. And, of course, in keeping with the name, there are plenty of sturdy, hairy men with stout drinks and a twinkle in their eye. Go for a few rounds, stay for the puppy play contest (or whatever event is running at the time).
Photo by Josh Verduzco
Oilcan Harry's/ Rain on 4th/ Halcyon
Gay bars aren't created equal, but they do sometimes cluster, which is why those wonderful-in-their-own-way places are lumped together. Probably the most gay-friendly city in Texas (OK, that's not saying a whole hell of a lot, though Houston has a bigger LGBT community), Austin's Fourth Street is the closest thing to a "gay district" available—it's the epicenter of the yearly Pride parade. Oilcan Harry's has been around since before Rick Perry's own sexuality was constantly called into question. Because of its landmark status, it and its clientele can have a very high opinion of itself. Expect tight quarters. Essentially right next door is the newer-ish Rain on 4th, which is "upscale," and its dance floor has colorful glass lights! Both promise some of the best dance fun you'll have in Austin, because duh. And for lower-key scenarios, across the street from both is the gay-friendly Halcyon coffee/bar/lounge, full of a general mix of good people and a variety of drinks. Day or night, it's a place that loves all.
You've got a crew revving to party, and y'all are as diverse and happy as the promo pictures from a university recruiting pamphlet. Time to go dancing at Barbarella. A weekend trip will do just fine, but TuezGayz is the best night for letting your fun flag fly high. Imagine all the best parts of hip and indie, combined with beats that'll roll your eyes back in ecstasy. DJ'd by fan favorite the Glitoris, TuezGayz is the most goddamn fun you'll have sweating booze and smelling of sex. Unbutton your shirt just a little lower, take a colorful, candied shot, and embrace the fabulous.
If there is hope that Austin won't be completely ruined by its progressive destiny and position on the "best cities to move to" list, it lies with Skylark Lounge. The extended, shack-looking bar sits back in what clearly used to be some kind of salvage or lumber yard, and the dark, cozy inside looks like it was pieced together from items stolen from bars of your childhood, when dad used to drink a lot. The secluded patio, just past the tiny bandstand, has the feel of a friend's back porch. What's particularly amazing is that the place is both new and old. The "Skylark" part is new, but it also used to be the local watering hole for the (mostly former) black neighborhood, and after that was a lesbian bar. In the best Austin way, it's "changed" without having really "progressed," in the development sense of the word. The music is still country and blues, and still played by true musicians. Preserved, in other words, without being surrounded in glass and glitter.
Photo by Josh Verduzco
From the highway, it kinda looks like a former El Pollo joint converted into an Asian liquor store. This is a ruse. Yes, it is a beer and wine store, but it's also a solid Indian-ish restaurant, a tap room (more than 60 options), and a wine bar. There's a little stage with a few tables about, which give the place a really settled, inviting vibe. An after-work spot for young professionals and office workers, there are always groups chilling, singles sipping, people munching, and general low-gear merriment. A fine place to wait out the hellish rush-hour traffic, a "this doesn't qualify as going out" night out, or to take colleagues you don't quite trust with hard liquor just yet.
Lala's Little Nugget
Lala's has managed to stay mostly unchanged since it was opened about a billion years ago (1970s). That's probably due to the fact that it's a neighborhood joint on the farthest northern edges of what most Austinites consider a reasonable distance to downtown. It's a small, simple place, and people swear by the jukebox selection. Oh, right, and it's Christmas-themed, year-round. All in all, underwhelming in the best possible way. A nice reality check and break, particularly if you arrive in town for SXSW.
It sounds like a bad idea, and half looks it, too, since there are absolutely no windows in this simple, concrete structure. But people, a surprising majority of them women, love this place. It really makes no sense, except this is a nice neighborhood dive for livers young enough not to actually need a neighborhood dive just yet. For whatever reason, the TVs inside are glued to rugby channels, and rugby paraphernalia doesn't so much line the walls as dot them. Everyone's in a good mood here, which might have something to do with the drink prices (don't get fancy, stick to beer and mixed drinks). And, again, for whatever reason, Nasty's is the epicenter for rockabillies on Saturday. Their ducktailed-hair bands have a long-standing engagement that night, and the women come decked out in the hottest 1950s fashion.
Photo by Josh Verduzco
Vic, who you just met a few hours ago, wants to keep going with his all-day bar hopping. But he objects to going "so far north" to the Carousel Lounge. Also, the Carousel Lounge is a beer and wine cash bar, with a BYOL policy, and liquor stores have long since closed. But when you get to the carnival-themed bar, an all-but-one lesbian band is rocking the butch crowd's socks off with classics from Guns N' Roses. Y'all get right up to the front of the floor-level stage and brandish devil horns with one hand, gripping Lone Star tallboys in the other. The "weird" Austin of yore, full of aging hippies just looking for a good time, still exists at such a place. You and Vic, now BFFs, will sit in a booth, watching semi-regulars get half-heartedly cut off, realizing the decision to go to Carousel, right at the edge of an unseemly part of town, was the best one you made all night.
The Butterfly Bar
Unlike all the other "new" bars that pop up fully-formed as douche monsters, the Butterfly Bar had a beautiful and lovely evolution. Originally just sort of a waiting area for those about to watch local alternative performance art in the adjoining theater space, the bar later served beer and wine with all the presentation of booze culled from the corner market. No mas. It is now one of the best (and quietest) places in town. In the large, rolling yard, pulled away from any main street, there's a sort of outdoor sun room that will most certainly be occupied by one lucky group when you arrive. It's OK. Lounge outside on the lawn or patios for a bit, and know that you are better than those kids at the nearby bars on Manor, watching big screen TVs and guzzling expensive sugar.
Photo by Ben Sklar
WHERE TO SHOP
During the two times a year that the media tries to crack the Austin code, the massive South by Southwest tech-film-music-kitchen sink conference and the two-weekend Austin City Limits takeover, national outlets often fall victim to one of the most confounding (and, yes, charming) things about the city: Everything feels like a hidden gem, but it likely isn't. It's the same reason that, in following this advice, you'll end up with sub-par tacos and swamped among hundreds of other tourists seeking Austin's essence of cool.
To commemorate your time spent in the Live Music Capital of the World, they'll direct you to stalwarts such as Waterloo Records, where University of Texas freshmen shore up their vinyl collection, or across the street at the giant, lovely, and shockingly thorough Book People, an independent bookstore where you'll pay entirely too much money for Tao Lin's garbage. To nail down your Southwestern swag, you could end up at South Congress's Allen's Boots to stomp off in your very own pair of shit kickers, or maybe grab a luchador mask along with other oddities and curios at folk art peddler Tesoros Trading Company.
And fellas, you can take your soon-to-be-blistered feet (boots take time to break in, y'all) farther up SoCo to Stag for all masculine provisions. Complete your ranchero look with a pearl snap shirt, or, alternatively, tap into Austin's hipster ethos. But keep on the boots. Ironic sartorial choices aren't just encouraged but celebrated.
Photo by Ben Sklar
Yes, these things are cool, but the locals know that they have counterparts outside of the downtown and South Congress clusterfuck that are equally deserving of your attention. For an afternoon-consuming selection of vinyl, head over to the East Side's Encore Records. Or if you're really looking to capture the music spirit (and also came with a fat bank account), you could grab your very own noisemaker at Austin Vintage Guitar in Hyde Park.
Just because you're in Austin city limits doesn't mean you need to be, er, limited to the same shit everyone else already knows about. Here are the places where Austin really keeps it weird.
Some of Austin's best shopping centers around vintage clothing, and Monkies is the best of the best. This store thankfully avoids one of the pitfalls of buying other people's hand-me-downs in its affordability: Monkies falls more in the Macklemore price range, but without subjecting you to Goodwill volume. But despite its close proximity to the University of Texas, it never seems picked over or barebones. It's not carefully curated by any means, but there are some real gems if you take the time to look through the racks of prints, where there seem to be an inordinate number of pearl snap shirts. Yeehaw, y'all.
Photo by Josh Verduzco
Have you ever said to yourself, "This outfit would look way better with a leather driving hat?" If so, have we got a store for you! Hatbox is your one-stop shop for all the hats that you can't find at Lids. So you might be out of luck if you're in search of a Spurs flat bill—but an upscale fedora and accompanying felt hat brush? These guys got you. Sure, there's something kitschy about the idea of having a modern haberdashery, but the sheer specificity of an entire store dedicated to things you can put on your head is reassuring if for no other reason than you know these people mean business.
We realized that Toy Joy had reached peak cultural saturation when two middle age women stopped us to ask for directions, but still, the whimsical toy store needs to be included. And, yes, we realize using descriptors like whimsical really isn't helping the store's selling point, but when it fits, it fits. You'll need a good hour to browse through the collection of games, novelty items (cat lady bandages?), and — you guessed it — toys (Hello Kitty fans will be in heaven). But even without actually buying anything, Toy Joy is just as much about the experience of waking up your inner child.
End Of An Ear
You know you're in a killer record store when the "Bill Callahan" section also redirects to "Smog." And that's the kind of music knowledge you should expect from this tiny shop on South First (some call it SoFi, but don't be that asshole). End of an Ear strikes the perfect balance between new and used vinyl, organized into oddly specific categories that will melt the heart of any music nerd. Visit the back room for your audio equipment needs, if you haven't spent all of your money on (very reasonably priced) records.
Hatbox. Photo by Josh Verduzco
If you're looking for best sellers or anything that has been even close to being stocked in Barnes and Nobles, keep on walking. Monkeywrench is a radical bookshop—and not the 90s "whoa, dude, radical" sense of the word. Think anarchist politics, feminist writing, and deep dives into race and class issues. The selection, though small, can be a bit daunting at first, but the friendly all-volunteer staff members are there to guide you through the books and zines they have available. The shop doubles as a community space, so you could drop in on a meeting or a film screening for various social justice issues. Stick around. You might learn something.
Do you remember the aforementioned expensive and highly curated vintage shops that Monkies is decidedly not? That's Feathers, but it's still worth a visit if you have the cash. The boutique is a mix between high-end vintage items, new designer items, and refurbished clothes under the store's own Feathers Original label. The owners look far and wide to find some of the most unique vintage finds in the city. The price tag reflects it, but at least you can drool over the full-length fox fur coat that you absolutely don't need in the Texas heat.
Gardens of the Ancients
Come for the kratom, stay for the smokeable wormwood. Actually, don't, because that shit is disgusting—but there are plenty of other things to hold your attention at Gardens of the Ancients, the "gift shop" of the Flower of Life Healing Ministries. While at this "church" "gift shop," you can browse through super typical holy items such as braided sweetgrass and orgonite, along with a staggering selection of oils, crystals, and herbs. Praise be! It's a wee bit of a trek (its address is technically in Manor), but if you're looking for where all Austin's hippies went, look no further.
East Austin Succulents. Photo by Ben Sklar
East Austin Succulents
Nothing says "Texas" and "I'm a really shitty plant owner" quite as fluently as a collection of cacti, and East Austin Succulents has got you covered. There's a ton of these spiny and smooth succulents for sale, either individually or arranged in terrariums by the staff, plus a lot of actually reasonably priced pots to nestle your new Instagram-able additions in. Plus, the two cats that roam around the grounds are just about as sweet and twee as the tiny pink-topped cactus you're going to end up buying.
Flag Store (Hyde Park Market)
Why the fuck would you want to visit a convenient store during your stay in Austin? Is there seriously that little for you to do here? Listen, at some point, you're going to need to go to store for either A) cigarettes B) gas C) beer or D) all of the above, and Hyde Park Market (known to locals as the Flag Store) has all of that and much, much more. Even if you don't need any of that stuff, a visit to the Flag Store reveals all sorts of wonderful weirdness (kombucha on tap, vegan brownies, a shocking selection of salami). But the real joy of the Flag Store is browsing the maze-like selection of beers you've never heard of (plus single tallboys of the cheap stuff for $2) while listening to classical music.
Photo by Ben Sklar
THINGS TO DO DURING THE DAY
Austin is famous for being full of people who don't wake up until at least noon, and by the time they've actually found pants (in the winter) or some variety of shorts (seriously, everybody wears shorts all the time the other eight months out of the year), it's practically dark out—so if you want to figure out what to do during the day, asking your cousin who lives in Austin is probably just going to get met with, "Uhh, I have an Xbox." Cool, bro, but you didn't go all the way to Texas to play Xbox.
Luckily, Austin is fucking beautiful, so there's plenty of outdoorsy shit to do during the day, if you're into that. If you're not into that—or if it's just 110 degrees outside, and you don't want to turn into a straight-up sweat puddle before you go out at night—that's cool. Indoor types have options that are a lot nerdier, but if you identify with phrases like "indoor type," that probably turns you on a little bit anyway. So either way, there's something for you to do—besides day-drink and stuff your face with tacos—before the shows start at night.
Photo by Ben Sklar
Austinites have been fighting to save Barton Springs so nobody builds a toxic waste dump or allows their semiconductor plant to drain all of its sewage directly into it for at least a generation. They've been fighting that battle for so long because Barton Springs is a goddamn treasure: It's a spring-fed pool right in the middle of the city that's 70 degrees all year round, which is kinda nice in the winter and a total shock to your system in the summer—either way, it's rad, and the massive lawn on either side of the pool has some of the best people-watching in the city. In the summertime, when the Austin sun beats down with the intensity of hell, alternating between the cold water and the lawn full of cool teens and old hippies celebrating a city law that allows women to walk around topless is a great way to feel like you're on mushrooms without spending more than a $3 admission fee to get into the pool.
Of course, if naked hippies are your thing, you can't beat Hippie Hollow, which is a natural swimming hole where rules governing public indecency have been suspended since "hippie" meant "super hot sex god" and not "smelly dude with a gray ponytail." You'll have to get in a car to get out here—it's about 20 minutes outside of the city on Lake Travis—but the clothing-optional park is definitely a part of the fabric of Austin culture.
Lance Armstrong Bikeway
You might be thinking, "It's 2016, how on earth is there anything still named after a disgraced cyclist with one testicle?" The answer to that question is—uh, honestly, we don't really know, and it's been a source of contention among local busybodies since the world learned that longtime Austin resident Armstrong was a cheater. Still, if the novelty of seeing the last remaining place in the world that honors a national hero-turned-national punching bag isn't enough to get you onto the trails, riding along a shade-covered, smooth bike path that runs along Lady Bird Lake in the middle of the city should hold some appeal, especially as it connects the eastern part of Austin with downtown and the rest of the city without having to deal with car traffic. Add to that the fact that the rest of the cycling you can do in Austin is hilly as fuck and in the scorching sun, and the Lance Armstrong Bikeway is still a champ, even if the guy it's named after isn't.
Cathedral of Junk
All sorts of hipster cities have "Keep ____ Weird" as an unofficial motto at this point, but that shit was born in early 90s in Austin, Texas, when some weirdo called a radio show and muttered the words in a half-awake daze. That's the local legend, anyway, and at any rate, what that phrase actually refers to is stuff like the Cathedral of Junk, which is exactly what it sounds like: It's a sprawling structure on a residential street in South Austin that is a monument to the sort of crap that people usually throw away. Other cities have planetariums and natural history museums and shit like that for tourists to check out—Austin has a house where the walls are literally built out of old bicycle tires, troll dolls, cookware, broken power tools, and 60-plus tons of whatever other junk owner Vince Hanneman could get his hands on. This is a thing that's totally worth doing if only to feel like you're living in a post-apocalyptic novel for half an hour, where we need to use old VCRs and car parts as raw materials to build our homes. And because it's not a public museum or gallery or anything, you have to plan ahead—call Hanneman (his number is easy to find) before you come down to let him know you want to check it out, promise him at least $10 if you want him to let you inside, and don't block any of his neighbors' mailboxes when you get there.
Before long, the Alamo Drafthouse isn't really going to be an exciting thing for visitors to Austin to check out, just because the rate at which these motherfuckers are expanding means there's probably going to be one in every city in America in like five years. The reason for that is that it's a perfect concept for a movie theater: Movies + programming by people who really, really love movies + drinking + food = a really great way to spend an afternoon. There are five Alamo Drafthouse locations in Austin as of early 2016—the sixth one will open on the city's East Side later in the year—that show a healthy mix of regular, current blockbusters, revivals, and rando events like a bunch of Selena music videos with the lyrics on the screen so everybody in the theater can sing along. The food is pretty good for a movie theater, with a mix of regular and vegan options (buffalo cauliflower is solid vegan junk food to enjoy during a marathon of every Studio Ghibli movie), and they've managed to perfect the art of having waiters come in and out of a theater dropping off food during a movie without being totally annoying.
Red Bud Isle
Swimming is cool, and we've already told you where to do it in frigid waters, or with a lot of old naked people—but what about if you want to go splash around with a bunch of other people's dogs? Red Bud Isle is the spot for that—it's a little peninsula in Lady Bird Lake with not enough parking, but a whole shitload of happy dogs running around and splashing in the water. There are signs everywhere warning visitors that people aren't allowed to get into the water, but feel free to ignore them—everybody else does—and instead have yourself a nice hour or two of swimming, throwing things for dogs you've never met before to chase after, and watching people try to get upright on stand-up paddleboards.
Photo by Ben Sklar
Bats at the South Congress Bridge at Dusk
You've no doubt heard about this, but it's something that only happens in Austin, so we'll recommend it here too. Bat watching! Back in the 1980s, the city built a fancy (at the time) new bridge across Lady Bird Lake on Congress Avenue. On the underside of the bridge, they built a bunch of small crevices for engineering purposes. And pretty soon, the local bat population—which migrates up from Mexico in the warmer months—saw all those crevices and decided that they had an awesome new place to live. What that means for you is that if you go sit on the lawn along the lake—or stand alongside the edge of the bridge—at dusk, you will see a thousand fucking bats come flying the fuck out of the underside of the bridge and into the night. The whole thing is creepy as hell and lasts a good five to ten minutes before the last straggler bat has emerged, and it's a pretty amazing thing to see before you go out and do the nighttime things that you came to Austin for in the first place.
Harry Ransom Center
Austin doesn't have a whole host of world-class museums, unless you're really into Texas history, in which case, yeah, there actually is one of those. But what it does have is the Harry Ransom Center, an archive and library at the University of Texas campus. The Ransom Center's collection is seriously impressive—it's got a complete Gutenberg Bible, one of only 21 in the world—and a banned first edition of Alice In Wonderland (one of 23). It also has the complete papers and original manuscripts of a whole bunch of your favorite authors, at least if you're a white dude in his 20s or 30s—you can see the materials acquired from Norman Mailer, Don DeLillo, James Joyce, Ann Sexton, and David Foster Wallace, if you make an appointment.
Photo by Ben Sklar
If you're from anywhere they have actual mountains, you probably have the wrong idea about Mount Bonnell. It's tall—775 feet above sea level—but it's not, like, a mountain. It's the easiest tall geological structure to climb you'll ever see, anyway, but from the top, you get a panoramic view of the city in one of the quieter, more secluded spots in Austin. Step carefully so you avoid the people doing yoga at the top, but don't miss the chance to feel like you're in the middle of nowhere even though you're right in the center of a major city.
Texas State Capitol
When they say "everything is bigger in Texas," they're specifically referring to the Capitol building, which is right smack in the middle of Austin, and which—in a spectacular display of good ol' fashioned Texas fuck-you to everybody—is taller than the US Capitol by a whopping 14 feet. The grounds of the building are a pleasant place to hang out, with a bunch of big trees and statues of long-dead, racist Confederate soldiers to sit under. Inside and outside the building, you'll find tourists from all over the world staring at portraits of George W. Bush and Rick Perry and wondering how they found themselves in a state that took those dudes seriously. The rotunda is impressive, though, and there's a surprisingly legit restaurant on the lower levels if you suddenly find yourself famished and in need of the same BBQ or tacos that the people who govern Texas eat on busy days.
Photo by Ben Sklar
MUSIC AND NIGHTLIFE
There's an on-going argument about whether or not Austin is still the "Live Music Capital of the World." The evidence against is that the city is becoming so gentrified and expensive that the musician class can't actually make a living here any more. Then there's the fact that all the go-to live music spots are being threatened by the condos being erected around them. You'll find as many noise complaints in Austin nowadays as you can the bands generating them. It's a shame.
The contrary evidence, however, is fairly deafening, with music at just about every spot in town. Come SXSW, it'll be every spot, corner, bedroom, from here to the county line. The main drag of Sixth St.—or Dirty Sixth, as it's known (see Neighborhoods We Tolerate)—is ground zero. On weekend nights, the street gets blocked off from traffic, so comparisons to Bourbon and Beale streets and the like are inevitable. Either way, it's a total clusterfuck, with the dregs of Austinites and mesmerized tourists going out on the prowl. Want to hear standard bar rock and blues? Literally just walk down the bar-lined street and pick a spot. Maybe try the Blind Pig Pub (really, they're all the same). The windows and doors for each place will be swung wide open for a preview. The dance clubs, with their light shows and bass, can be easily spotted by the young little things in their trashy best lined up at the door so deep they block foot traffic. A decent game of pool can be played at the massive Buffalo Billiards. True dullards can go to Bikinis Sports Bar and Grill, or, ugh, Coyote Ugly. No judgments to anyone who spends a few hours on Dirty Sixth at least once. But if you go there on the reg, the good locals will rightfully edge away from you.
The cross street that pretty much signals the end of the Dirty Sixth Chaos, Red River is significantly better. The best dance club in town, Barberella, is there, as is Cheer-Up Charlie's, one of the best music venues for up-and-coming bands that prefer experimentation, shoe-gazing, or really, anything remotely original. It is the preferred place for hip musicians. For the old punk-rockers—guys who still look not-too-embarrassing in leather jackets—Beerland is a simple Austin staple that is borderline iconic just by the sheer force of perseverance. And just up the block is Mohawk, probably one of the better venues for up-and-coming mid-sized acts (basically those with a "respectable fanbase"), and not only because of the stadium-ish concert viewing of your favorite bands that just graduated from dive bars. It also hosts events like beard-offs, launch parties for artsy magazines, and amateur wrestling.
If there is still one redeeming quality of the quickly changing New Austin, it's two-stepping. It's a rite of passage in Texas. You can do it anywhere, although it's particularly encouraged at a few older locations. White Horse, with an always-solid band is sort of carrying the torch, as young and old alike mix it up on the dance floor. The self-proclaimed "granddaddy" of Austin venues, however, which no one would dispute, is the Continental Club. All the people who can actually handle their instruments have played there (yes, this includes Stevie Ray Vaughn). It's been the venue of residence for Junior Brown, and one of the world's best country guitarists, Redd Volkaert, has a standing gig there. The crowd is decidedly relaxed and older, so there'll be plenty of time for friendly chatter and Lone Star beer-sucking between dances.
If you want your country and two-stepping to be a little on the kitschy side, go to The Broken Spoke. Well, go there regardless, because it, too, is a legendary venue that more than the others is being threatened, swallowed on all sides by fancy-ass condos. It's more than 50 years old and looks every bit of the roadhouse honky tonk it began as (they may even be playing it up a bit, for the tourists). All the obvious legends have played on the stage. Most of the venue is a dance floor, and if you missed the dancing lessons offered earlier in the night, the lovely waitresses providing table service, who themselves looks like they time traveled from old Texas, might show you how to get to shuffling. It kinda goes without say that this place is cash only.
Photo by Ben Sklar
Congratulations, you made it to Sunday, without getting arrested, punched, or both. Reward yourself with another Austin standby, Ginny's Little Longhorn Saloon. Fittingly for Sunday, it looks like a provisional church, steeple and all. Once threatened with closure, local musician/hero Dale Watson bought up the place, put some fresh paint on it, and kept the good times going. It's a Sunday staple because of Chicken Shit Bingo, which is exactly what it sounds like—a chicken gets brought out to a bingo-looking cage, and you bet on which square it will shit on. Being a local institution run by a musician, the band is always top notch. And crowded as the place will be (again, "Little"), there's always room for dancing. Fair warning to the fair young ladies who show up though: You will never have a chance to rest, as those old dudes love to court and boogie all afternoon.
A few intimate stalwarts of the live music scene remain as well. The Saxon Pub pretty much has music from before happy hour on, and if the names on the marquee aren't enough to make you do a double take while driving down the road, the to-be-discovered names will be more than enough to keep you entertained. Just expect that cover. The 12th Street/Weberville area used to be a town-within-a-town for black folks. And while Weberville residents haven't been completely kicked out yet, 12th Street now has a yoga studio. There's still great blues music (and more), however, at the Sahara Lounge, which is about as old school of a music joint as you can get, to say nothing of the Africa-and world-focused nights and events. Last but not least, yes, there is a place for you Jazzheads: The Elephant Room on Congress, unassuming from the outside, is all low basement lights and hep-cat cool in the inside.
Photo by Ben Sklar
The Big Shows
When you're not originally from a big town, it can be weird to see top-billing bands advertised so constantly in your new backyard. Even better, the big venues are about as downtown as you can get. UT's Frank Erwin Center is the place where all the national and international pop acts do whatever it is they do, their upcoming appearances impossible to miss thanks to the Las Vegas–worthy billboard screen over I-35. Moody Theater is the home of Austin City Limits, and it features a gianormous statue of Willie Nelson at its entrance, so you can pretty well guess what to expect: lots of bigger names in blues and bluegrass, and basically any band with an extensive merch table. If you want classy and/or coffeehouse music for old people, it's the historic Paramount Theater on Congress, a stone's throw from the Capitol building. It's also a popular spot for better comedians with a strong following (think all your smart favorites versus, say, Jeff Dunham's appearance at the Erwin Center). Everything's changin', man, and the same goes for Emo's. It used to be the go-to venue for punk rock, and anything with some goddamn teeth. But it moved from its old home on the Red River District to south and across the river, where it got a major facelift and is now an official venue for the likes of SXSW and Austin City Limits Festival. So you can surmise how much cred it still has among locals.
Austin has a surprisingly active comedy scene, one that began to develop before the national "craze" really took off (shout out to Master of None actress and Saturday Night Live alum Noel Wells!). The Moontower Comedy Festival seems to be picking up steam every year. Esther's Follies, at the edge of Dirty Sixth, is a long-running "vaudeville" show that's a bit corny and seems a bit touristy, sure, but sometimes that's what you need. Or, just go to the adjoining Velveteen Lounge, another Austin institution, the Cap City Comedy Club (Bill Hicks wuz here). All the up-and-comers into stand-up or improv seem to love the New Movement, the Hideout, and ColdTowne. Basically, if you want comedy, we got that shit covered.
For a super classy date night, there's Violet Crown Cinema in the bustling yuppie Second Street District. Essentially the same premise as Alamo Drafthouse (see: What to Do During the Day), except the premium is on fancier food and cocktails available at the counter/restaurant. An "art house" venue for people whose definition of that are those emotionally difficult, Oscar nominated movies, foreign and domestic.
A FEW WORDS ON SOUTH BY SOUTH WEST (SXSW)
Nothing in Austin is more divisive than SXSW. People love to hate the ten-day event that brings a smattering of extremely famous people and tens of thousands of wannabes to the city for the annual tech, music, and film conference. But they also love to make three entire month's rent in ten days of waiting tables, or slinging coffee, or delivering pizza to brand activation parties, or giving pedicab rides, or Airbnb-ing their living room to desperate out-of-towners willing to pay top dollar to sleep on a floor, or running sound at day shows, or doing whatever other odd jobs come about during the event each March. Mostly, the average Austinite's relationship to SXSW is kind of a grudging Cold War—it's cool to complain about the traffic, it's cool to be annoyed at all of the people in the tech and music industries who showed up ten minutes ago to treat the city like a toilet, it's cool to laugh at them for waiting around in line for Austin's most mediocre food (yeah, bro, it's totally worth standing in line for fucking Torchy's Tacos). But SXSW pays the bills, so most people recognize that Austin wouldn't be, like, a better city if it all just went away.
Photo by Ben Sklar
Instead, savvy Austinites take what they can from the festival, then get the hell out of the way of the rest. If they find out that Jay-Z and Kanye West are playing a secret show at an old warehouse somewhere and some random selection of 200 people who tweet the right hashtag to Doritos will get tickets? That's for amateurs. The fire marshall is probably going to cut off access early, and it's the randos who are going to be left out in the cold—and if you do get in, the sound will be terrible, and you'll be surrounded by assholes. Endless RSVPs and wrap-around-the-block lines are for suckers—but you can actually have fun if you stay out of the 6th and Red River area, look for shows where the less famous bands on your list are playing, and pay for your own damn BBQ and pizza (everywhere has free beer, so don't worry about that part).
The hardest part about SXSW is that a bunch of places that are normally pretty cool become something else entirely during SXSW, which is very confusing for locals who have to get used to the fact that there's this whole new second city that gets built right on top of their favorite bars/restaurants/secret parking spaces. If you're in town for SXSW, we recommend using all the suggestions throughout this list to maximize the best experience. If you're going to spend most of your time around the SXSW epicenter—Sixth Street and Red River—we suggest scrolling back up and reading the selections in those neighborhoods because they don't suck, even when what's going on there during this mostly insufferable ten days in March does.
Photo by Ben Sklar
In some ways, Austin is a decent city for getting around: It's pretty small, geographically, at least for the parts of town that a tourist would want to visit. In other ways, it's a nightmare: The train is a joke that runs once an hour and stops running entirely most days at 6 o'clock, along one sad little track that barely goes anywhere in the first place. The buses only run a little more frequently and inexplicably refuse to run east-to-west—or in a straight line going north and south. If you're coming from a city that has actual public transportation, then just assume that you will have no use for the buses and trains in Austin. It's cheap, at $2.50 for an entire day, but it's definitely an example of "you get what you pay for."
You can rent a car, although be prepared for Austin traffic, which is miserable. Austin was designed to be a sleepy college town where a part-time legislature meets every other year for a few months—but with a population that's grown by 50 percent in the past 15 years, driving from one end of the city to another can be way more stressful than anybody should seek out on a vacation. If you don't want to pony up for a rental car every day, but you also don't want to rely on public transportation or Lyft and Uber, there's also Car2Go, if you're in one of the dozen-plus cities where the company offers memberships—you can pick up a pay-by-the-minute rental all over the city.
Photo by Ben Sklar
The reason you might not want to rely on Lyft and Uber is because it's never totally clear how long they're going to exist in Austin. Basically since the companies entered Austin, they've been threatening to leave, and depending when you visit, it's possible that they won't be offering services. If they are, you're in good shape—both companies have plenty of drivers on the road when they're active, so if you want to get back to your hotel or Airbnb in a car driven by somebody with a bachelor's degree who thinks he's too good for his job, you'll have plenty of options. Otherwise, cabs in Austin are spotty—they take a long time, they're expensive, and they can be impossible to find downtown after midnight. The taxi companies in Austin launched their own ride-hailing app to help them compete with Lyft and Uber, but they still don't have enough cars on the road to be super reliable.
Depending where you're staying, though, you might not need to worry too much about motorized transportation. Austin's relatively small geographic size means that walking is an option to get from, say, the East Side to the Red River music district, or from downtown to South Congress. There are also bikes—Austin has a B-Cycle program, where you can pick up a bike at stations throughout downtown and at a handful of places you'd want to go like Barton Springs or the University of Texas campus, and drop it off at another station. You get a day pass for $8, or a weekend pass for $15, and that covers all of your rides, as long as you get each bike back to a station within half an hour. Keep in mind that Austin is hilly as fuck, though, so if you're from a flat city, you should plan on getting worn out by big hills. Also, drivers in Texas sometimes hate cyclists because they make 'em feel lazy and self-conscious, and they like to demonstrate their disdain by putting their lives in peril. Luckily, B-Cycle comes with a helmet, so hopefully you won't die if somebody in a car treats you like an asshole. Welcome to Texas!