top5 to see
An Austin icon and why people first settled in this area, many describe the springs as the soul of Austin. The water bubbling from the Edwards Aquifer at 68 degrees feels oh so good on a hot summer (or spring, or fall, or winter…) day. After paying an entrance fee, there’s a historic bathhouse for showering and changing (note that the bathhouse is expected to undergo restoration in 2019). Even if you don’t plan to swim, it’s worth a stroll with Zilker Park and the Umlauf Sculpture Garden nearby.
Austin boasts a population of 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats, the largest urban bat population in the US. From about June to about September, the bats pour out from under the bridge at about dusk to eat 10 to 15 tons of yummy insects. Prime viewing spots are on the eastern side of the bridge (center to south), the south side of the bridge down by the river, or on one of the many boats that specialize in touring the bats. If it’s raining or threatening rain, the bats take a raincheck…
Yep: It’s taller than the nation’s capitol building, so there! A beautiful building made of pink granite surrounded by a lovely park. Tours available. The address below is to the visitors parking garage, a mere block away from the capitol grounds. Be sure to also stop in at the old General Land Office building, now a museum, on the southeastern part of the grounds.
A big part of Austin is music. Do you see that local walking by? There’s a 101.3 percent chance that person is in a band. Sixth street is the main artery (or colon?) of Austin’s entertainment district (it’s our Bourbon Street), but there are a couple worthy (and more adult friendly) offshoots, including Red River north of sixth, Rainey Street south of first, and sixth (and other streets) east of I-35. The local liberal rag, the Austin Chronicle, is a good way to see what’s going on in the clubs.
Austin has several iconic murals to gawk (and selfie) at:
Greetings from Austin: 1720 south first street
i love you so much: 1300 south congress avenue
you’re my butter half: 2000 east martin luther king jr. boulevard
hi how are you? 2100 guadalupe street
Hope Outdoor Gallery: 1101 baylor street (which is now closed)
top5 to hear
The Spoke is the classic boot-scootin’ joint in town. Saved from development by getting enveloped by development, the Spoke is still going strong, low ceilings and all.
the continental club
Now an historic landmark, the Continental Club has been an Austin icon for many a decade on SoCo before SoCo was SoCo. Specializing in rockabilly, swing, and roots rock, there will be east coasting on the dancefloor if there’s room…
The great gran-pappy of live music venues, Antone’s is often credited with starting Austin’s music scene. Focused primarily on blues, at least historically, the club has extended its oeuvre a bit.
Yes, it’s a bbq joint (bbq = okay…), but it is also a destination live music venue with a small stage/bar inside for local bands and a large multi-thousand outside venue out back for roadshows. Stubb’s tends to pull in name bands to play out back. Note that many of their big outdoor shows often start and end early. We’ve seen many a startled music fan showing up just as the show ended.
This is where Austin City Limits is filmed as well as a medium-sized well-designed live music venue: it’s a great spot to hear bands. There’s not a bad seat in the house (but, as in any place, some seats are better than others). Plus, the Willie Nelson statue keeps watch out front.
Austin bills itself as the Live Music Capital of the World, and for good reason: there are often over a hundred live shows on any given night with amazing musicians. Find something that sounds interesting, and go for it! The Austin Chronicle is a good place to check for what’s going on.
top5 to taste
our five favorite restaurants
With so many great places in town, it’s so hard to choose a top five, but here we go:
(1) Aviary: For an all-around great experience, great food, and great wine, aviary is our current favorite. Call it a mid-price point place.
(2) Barley Swine: We consider this the best restaurant in Austin. Locavore, cliched small dishes, but attention to detail and not so froofy to not bring you a small spatula to scoop up every last bit. Call it a high price-point place (although happy hours have great prices).
(3) Ranch 616: It doesn’t make the other top lists, but the Ranch is a stalwart in the scene and has a slightly hip Texas atmosphere. Home of the Ranch Water. Mid-to-low price point.
(4) Dai Due: We included the Due in our top five when Jesse slung up chow from a trailer at the farmer’s market. He’s now safely encamped in a cozy east-Austin brink-n-mortar and his cooking has only been elevated.
(5) Justine’s: This oddly-located french bistro with a strong New York abstract art vibe is the all-around deal. A truly special place.
chef’d up: barley swine
There’s a long list of fantastic chef-led restaurants in Austin, but at the top of the horseradish heap sits Barley Swine led by five-time James Beard-nominated Bryce Gilmore. This is world class eating where the details are labored over by a crew of tweezer-bearing chefs. It’ll set you back, but we highly recommend the chef’s tasting menu along with the wine pairing option (always-always-always pick the chef-picked wines). If your wallet isn’t quite that thick, sit at the bar and order a couple-few tasting dishes while enjoying the mixology. You will not be disappointed.
other good options: So many other good options, but Pitchfork Pretty comes in a close second to Barley Swine, Uchi or Uchiko (sushi), Aviary Wine & Kitchen (wine, tapas, laid back, and friendly), Olamaie (upscale southern), a personal fave Dai Due (local and meaty), Juniper, Ramen Tatsu-Ya or Kemuri Tatsu-Ya, Lenoir, Foreign & Domestic, and Odd Duck are all good choices. For a slightly bizarre experience, Justine’s is also a fave.
barbecue: franklin barbecue
After reading Aaron Frankin’s barbecue book “A Meat-Smoking Manifesto”, I can honestly say that I’m in love with him. He’s the zen master of bbq and an all around good guy. Oh, and his brisket is the best, not only in town, not only in Texas, not only in the United States, but in the world (and quite possibly the solar system). He’s earned four stars from Texas Monthly (and those mofos are stingy with their stars) and an on-again-off-again top rating from the same, is one of the top 50 restaurants in the country (according to Bon Appetite), and one of the few James Bearded food slingers in town. Now going to Franklin’s is a committment. The line starts as early as 8am, three hours before the joint opens up (Tuesday and Wednesday are the easiest days). We’ve even seen people camping out from the night before. And in Central Texas, you wanna get brisket because brisket is king. Ideally, bring a chair and enjoy your time chatting with locals or other visitors.
other good options: It used to be you had to drive at least 40 minutes out of town to get good cue, but Aaron Franklin has opened up a floodgate of good smoking in town. Coopers downtown is one of our faves (and their spicy mac-n-cheese is unbelievable) but there’s also La Barbecue (one of Texas Monthly’s top 50 BBQ joints), Micklethwaite Craft Meats (one of Texas Monthly’s top 50 BBQ joints), Stiles Switch (one of Texas Monthly’s top 50 BBQ joints), Terry Black’s BBQ (one of Texas Monthly’s top 50 BBQ joints), and Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ (yet another of Texas Monthly’s top 50 BBQ joints [and you can get a two-fer here: a brisket taco!]). If you’re looking for a Hill Country drive, you can head out to Driftwood to partake of the Salt Lick. And for the love of Hey-Zeus, if I catch you at a County Line, I’m kickin’ yer ass!
texmex: (the original) chuy’s
Opinions around here on TexMex are as strong as opinions on politics. Each part of town and each generation has their own favorite spot. We recommend the original Chuy’s on Barton Springs because of its Austin vibe and good food. Having lived five years in New Mexico, we’re partial to Chuy’s because they serve up green chile (although not the same way as in the old country). Chuy’s isn’t as special as it used to be because of their push for world domination, but the original is something special. Jenna Bush was busted in the bar for underage drinking (a big reason my mama wanted to go [“Leave that college girl alone!” was my thought).
other good options: Trudy’s (again with the green chile), Polvo’s (big with south Austinites), Matt’s “Famous” El Rancho (old skool TexMex), and Fonda San Miguel (more Mex than TexMex and the dining is fine, but one of our better restaurants). Maudie’s has been resurgent, and Eldorado Cafe is the new kid on the block (and quite good).
Everyone in town has their favorite taco joint, but hands down, for us, it’s Torchy’s. Get a Trailer Trash (extra trashy) and/or a Dirty Sanchez (which will allow you to return to Omaha and say to your friends “I went to Austin and got a Dirty Sanchez!”). Just as their tagline yelps, these are some damn good tacos. Similar to Chuy’s, the Torchy’s empire is expanding, so this is not as special a stop as it used to be, but if you have never been, oh dude, you in for a treat! Sadly, the original trailer recently (May 2018) shut down, and the original brick-n-mortar isn’t that special (although Obama made a memorable stop there one time; it shut down in late 2019).
other good options: Our top three fave taco joints include Torchy’s, Tacodeli (get an Otto), and the little-known-but freakin’-delicious Dos Batos (get a pollo pirata). Other good choices include Veracruz All Natural, Tacorrido (they have an AMAZING mushroom taco), and Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ.
texas continental: ranch 616
What is Texas continental, you ask? Fancy Texas-style food. And our favorite place for that is Ranch 616. The Ranch pitches itself as a South Texas-style icehouse which allows it to have beef, seafood, Mexican, and straight-up Texan on the menu. Order a Ranch Water and be sure to enjoy a fried pie (praying beforehand that it’s chocolate and banana night).
other good options: Lambert’s is fancy bbq in an historic building right downtown, Contigo serves chef’d up ranch food, our highly recommended Dai Due is an omnivore’s and locavore’s delight, Odd Duck, and Jack Allen’s Kitchen,
pizza: via 313
Pizza ain’t exactly Texan, but, being a college town, we have a slew of great pizza joints. Our go-to neighborhood pizza is East Side Pies (thin crust, pepperoni, and green chile that leaves you snakebit), but the truly special ‘za in town is the Detroit-style pizza joint called Via 313. [Cue the long record scratch]: Say what? Detroit-style pizza? In Texas? Take my word for it, this pizza will change your life. We are partial to thin crust, but this savory thick-crust pizza lathered with rich tomato sauce and baked in squarish steel pans that started life degreasing auto parts in some coal-smoked factory will leave you gapjawed. Start with the Detroiter for a proper introduction.
other good options: The aforementioned East Side Pies is good, Bufalina and her sister Bufalina Due sling chef’d up pizzas on Italian brick ovens and consistently make the best-restaurants-in-Austin lists (that’s all restaurants, not just pizza), for an authentic Austin neighborhood experience and New Jersey style pizza, head to Little Deli & Pizzeria and Home Slice are all good choices.
asian-texan: the peached tortilla (also loro)
french: justine’s (also june’s all day)
french-texas fusion: lenoir
japanese-texan: kemuri tatsu-ya
japanese hotpot: dipdipdip shabu shabu
japanese ramen: ramen tatsu-ya
mexican (oaxacan): el naranjo
thai: dee dee
vietnamese: le bleu
top5 to drink
the roosevelt room
top5 to shop
Soco means South Congress, and it’s our go-to place to take visitors shopping. Soco has cool stores, live music, good restaurants, great people watching, and a stunning view of downtown and the state capitol building. The Heritage Boot Company is a great place to start for walking up the hill, looping, and heading back down.
2nd street district
Centered on city hall and hi-rise living is a developing shopping district that has food (fine and not), coffee, clothes, a pet store, boutiques, grocery, furniture, knickknacks, a toy store, and a library.
6th & lamar
This is another walkable part of town with a number of cool stores, including Bookpeople, the flagship Whole Foods (or should I say ‘Amazon Groceries’; if you are into Whole Foods history, the originalish Whole Foods is nearby and now occupied by GoodWill Boutique), Whit Hanks Antiques, and much-much more.
Across from the university with food, books, Urban Outfitters, art, coffee, dragworms, and lots of burnt orange stuff.
If you seek a microcosm of Dallas, then the Domain is for you! Located on the north side of town, this shopping Disneyland features Macys, an Apple store, Neiman Marcus, nightlife, and overdressed locals. Food too! Although I am vaguely slagging the place there’s a (guilty…) part of me that likes it since it’s a great experiment in ground-up mixed-use planning. The city considers it a second downtown.
top5 texasy stores
The Spanish word for “treasures” is “tesoros”, and indeed this store is full of them. The best import store in Austin, it holds loot galore for all budgets and is a must-see if you’re looking for trinkets from south of the border and beyond. Located on SoCo.
Out-of-state visitors are often disappointed that there aren’t a bunch of boot-n-hat wearin’ folks staring wistfully over the skyscrapers toward a faraway ranch while chewing contemplatively on a stalk of wheat. That’s not to say you won’t see a cowboy hat or two in town (especially during UT football games or legislative sessions), but it just ain’t that common round these parts. Nonetheless, if you want to boot-n-hat up, Allens Boots is the place to go. Located on SoCo, it’s in the middle of a bunch of other things to see and do. Just remember that we have a saying here in Texas: “All hat and no cattle.”
waterloo records & video
Despite the arrival of the digital age, Waterloo Records has found a way to survive, in large part by supporting local artists. If you’re looking for recordings of Austin or Texas music, this is the place to go. Check their calendar for in-stores.
Up in NoBu (North Burnet), atown presents quite an array of fun local wares and Austiny things.
Despite the arrival of the digital age, Bookpeople has found a way to survive, in large part by supporting local writers. If you’re looking for books by Austin or Texas authors, this is the place to go. Check their calendar for in-stores.
top5 to muse
Located on the southern edge of the UT campus, I’ll call this our best art museum. Without the oil money of Dallas, Fort Worth, or Houston, we are shamefully light on the Big Art side of the museum ledger, but the Blanton has been a nice addition to the community. A unique holding of the museum is the Elsworth Kelly building installed next door.
interwebs; 200 east martin luther king jr. avenue; (512) 471-5482
The Contemporary is the financial fusion of the Jones Center and Laguna Gloria. Both places are worth a stop to admire art but to also to gawk at the architecture, one a modern masterpiece in downtown Austin and the other a beautiful Italianate mansion along the Colorado River. Laguna Gloria has limited exhibit space but a fantastic sculpture garden.
Laguna Gloria: interwebs; 3809 west 35th street; (512) 458-8191
the bullock texas state history museum
The Bullock is a history museum that offers an experiential tour of Texas including rattling chairs and an IMAX theater. The bookstore is a great place to pick up Texasy souveniers and peruse books about Texas.
Despite all the changes downtown, the Mexic-Arte has remained, remaining focused on contemporary Mexican, Latino, and Latin American art. It also sports a fantastic museum store of Mexican folk art.
One of Lady Bird Johnson’s legacies is the creation of the Wildflower Center, a research facility floating in a sea of wildflowers in the spring. On the south side of town, this is a good stop to build in with lunch or dinner at the Salt Lick or at the cafe at the Center.
top5 to fest
When we first moved to Austin, wristbands for SXSW were easy to come by and cost only $9. My, have things changed! Wristbands are a pain to get these days and run $225! The good news is: You don’t need any stinking wristbands! There are so many free (or inexpensive) off-festival shows that you don’t need to tap into officialdom to enjoy the festival. Off-festival shows start at (no joke) 6:30 am and run all day and deep into the night. Nothing wrong with going official (badge it if you can), but you don’t have to. If there’s an official showcase you really need to see, get in line early to try and get in (it’s always worked for us).
interwebs; all over town
One of our favorite festivals! Think punk marching bands where brass and drums from all over the country march across town blowing and going.
interwebs; all over town
eeyore’s birthday (last saturday in april)
An Austin tradition since 1963, Eeyore’s birthday started off as a pre-finals week blowout before turning into a hippie subcultural event. Today its Austin’s version of Burning Man with no Burning or no Man (but with a lot of uninhibitedness [and all proceeds benefitting non-profits]).
east austin studio tour (november)
This is another fave of ours: touring hundreds of artists’ studios all over east Austin. There’s no way to see them all, but with two weekends to peruse, you can see plenty!
interwebs; all over east austin
acl fest in not our bag (we prefer small venues), but oodles of poodles from all over the country love it (and we went [along with 51,000 of our closest friends] to see the Pixies when they first got back together [and still regret not going to see Massive Attack…]).
top5 to natty
top5 to sport
top5 to burn calories
lady bird lake
hyde park gym
top5 to near
fredericksburg & wine country
san marcos springs
top5 to weird
museum of ephemerata
An odd collection of whatnot and performance art that wouldn’t be out of place in a warped version of a P.T. Barnum traveling circus show. Generally open for viewings on Saturdays.
cathedral of junk
Vince Hanneman has created the most unique piece of art in the city with his Cathedral of Junk. If he’s there, and he’s in a good mood, he’ll let you in his back yard to see this gorgeous thing.
The all grrl roller derby renaissance started in Austin, and we now have two (count ’em: two!) roller derby leagues, one flat track and one banked track. Flat track is more fun since you might get your teeth knocked out by ladies named Miss Conduct, Helena Handbasket, Polly Urethane, or Ali Mony if you sit too close. Punk rock at intermission rounds out the mayhem.
chicken. sh!t. bingo!
the chopp shopp
How much dick would a Dick Chopp chop if a Dick Chopp could chop dick?
File this under “too good to be true (but true nonetheless)”. Austin’s go-to doctor for vasectomies is none other than Dr. Richard Chopp. That’s right: Dr. Dick Chopp (and he does indeed go by “Dick”). Stop in for a card, a photo with the sign, or (ahem) a little work on the plumbing…