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Austin, Texas Travel Guide: Where to Stay, What to Eat, and More

Austin likes to call itself the “live music capital of the world,” and the Texas town does its best to live up to the moniker. On a summer weekend night, you might find over 100 acts playing at venues across town, with the strains of Indy rock, funk, folk, blues, bluegrass, tejano, zydeco, and myriad other sounds filling the parched skies over south-central Texas. Of course, there’s much more to Austin than music. Food trucks, barbecue, microbreweries, arts festivals, spring-fed pools and a rather substantial bat population all play a part in luring travelers to one of the best-loved cities in the Lone Star state.

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Where to Stay

The vibrant shopping and dining district of South Congress area makes an excellent base while visiting the city. You’ll also find some gems downtown as well as in East Austin.

Best SoCo Stay: Austin Motel

First opened in 1938, this South Congress Ave. sleeper was best known for its phallic sign and aging rooms before Bunkhouse Group gave the place a dramatic makeover a few years back. Today, the 41-room motel boasts plenty of color and whimsy — like retro lamps and radios, vibrantly hued wallpaper and a kidney-shaped pool that plays host to nighttime pool parties. There’s a good all-day Tex-Mex restaurant on site, and there are plenty of good eating and drinking options just a short stroll away.

  •  Nearest airport: Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS)
  • Time: 12 minutes by car
  • Distance: 9 miles

Best Downtown Digs: The Driskill

Austin’s oldest operating hotel is set in a grand Romanesque Revival building downtown that dates back to the 1880s. The lobby bar is a swanky hangout spot, though a pure abomination for vegans: Think cowhide barstools, oversized leather couches, and wall-mounted heads of Texas longhorn peering down at you while you sip a glass of local Sisterdale whisky. Rooms aim for a look of classic timelessness, and the best have elegant balconies with skyline views.

  •  Nearest airport: Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS)
  • Time: 13 minutes by car
  • Distance: 10 miles

Best Luxury Hideaway: Saint Cecilia

Named after the patron saint of music and poetry, Saint Cecilia plays muse to anyone lucky enough to overnight in this stylish beauty in the Travis Heights neighborhood. The secluded property has lush grounds with a 50-foot heated lap pool open 24 hours a day, and the individually designed accommodations (five suites, six bungalows, and three studios) boast loads of style. Rooms are kitted out with Rega turntables and Geneva sound systems and you can borrow LPs (as well as poetry anthologies) for leisurely listening whenever the mood strikes you — like when you order an in-room spa treatment for instance. You can also grab a bike for a quick spin over to South Congress Ave., just down the road.

  • Nearest airport: Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS)
  • Time: 11 minutes by car
  • Distance: 9 miles

Where to Eat

The dining scene in Austin is as vibrant as ever, with creative ethnic eateries, legendary barbecue, and New Texan standouts showcasing all things locally sourced.

Best Food Trailers: The Picnic

Just one block from the entrance to Zilker Park, the Picnic is Valhalla for food truck lovers. You’ll find nine top names in the mobile food game, including Cannone Cucina Italiana (and its sister truck serving up heavenly gelato), Coat & Thai with its fiery curries, and the Mighty Cone, famed for its tasty breaded chicken, shrimp, and avocado snacks that are served up in a tortilla cone.

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Best Brisket: Franklin Barbecue

Serving up some of the best brisket on the planet, Franklin Barbecue has a rather sizable following (NY Times restaurant critic Pete Wells is a fan). In other words, the line is absurdly long — some queuing diners might have to wait up to four hours before sinking their teeth into that smoked perfection. Barbecue lovers say it’s worth the wait (just come prepared, bring a chair, coffee and/or beer, some shade for the hot sun and some snacks!). There is also a way to avoid the long wait. You can pre-order up to six weeks in advance; simply show up within that 30-minute window, grab your food, and go. The catch: There’s a three-pound minimum and you can’t eat on-site, so bring a serious appetite, a few famished friends and picnic plans (Lott Pocket Park is an easy stroll from the restaurant).

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Best Tex-Mex: Güero’s Taco Bar

A South Austin classic, Güero’s whips up the city’s best tacos, which taste all the better in the rustic oak-shaded garden. It’s set in a former feed and seed store from the 1800s, which makes a fine backdrop to the live music happening Wednesday to Sunday. The bar is also a fine spot for quality margaritas just about any time of day.

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What to Do

Downtown Austin

The gridlike streets of downtown have a mix of high-rise office buildings as well as abundant amusement (bars and live music clubs) along 6th St. You can also check out America’s largest state capitol, a striking red granite building where you can have a peak inside on a guided tour. Nearby, you can delve into Lone Star lore at the Bullock Texas State History Museum, which covers everything from Neolithic peoples and early Native American settlements to Civil Rights and the space program. You can also catch some excellent works of art at the behemoth Blanton Museum of Art. Don’t miss Ellsworth Kelly’s “Austin,” a kaleidoscope of a building that opened to much acclaim in 2018.

South Austin

Head across the Colorado River to reach the painfully hip SoCo district — short for South Congress, which is what most locals call it. Much of the action is along the eponymous avenue, which is lined with funky boutiques, edgy art galleries, patio cafes and bars, and quirky hotels — plus seemingly limitless dining options. West of South Congress is leafy Zilker Park, home to Barton Springs Pool, a massive swimming spot fed by an ice-cold spring. It’s a much-loved destination on hot days. You can also hang out in the forest-lined springs just outside the pool.

Winged Wonders

For a glimpse of Austin wildlife, stake out a spot south of the Congress Avenue Bridge just before dusk. Every night from spring through autumn, a vast swarm of Mexican Free-Tailed bats takes to the sky. Their numbers can reach over 1.5 million by the end of the season.

Festivals

Austin has a packed festival calendar, with South by Southwest (SXSW) in March among the city’s best-known events. On the first two weekends in October, Austin City Limits festival features a stellar musical lineup. This year you can catch Billie Eilish, Erykah Badu, Rüfüs du Sol, Miley Cyrus, Jon Batiste, and dozens of other artists. The festival quickly sold out, though you can still score resale tickets on the website.

How to Save Money on Your Trip to Austin, Texas 

Experiences

While it is popularly known for its music, Austin, Texas, can offer so much more than that. From exceptional museums and top-notch ballet performances to numerous restaurants and a one-of-a-kind shopping experience, it is difficult to fit all of these in a day or two, especially with limited time and budget. So it’s best to prepare your itinerary and accommodation ahead of time (but if you want to be spontaneous, why not?). Good thing, there are multiple apps and websites to help you maximize your stay and keep you on your budget during your trip. Airbnb.com offers a wide variety of options when it comes to rentals and hotel accommodations, depending on whether you want to be near some good eating spots or some peaceful and relaxing atmosphere.

Hotels

It is not so wrong to feel like a local in Austin whether you’re just visiting for the weekend or planning to come for an event. With the rise of the hotel industry, experiencing the city first-hand is now made more convenient, even at the comforts of your own rental place. From retro to Romanesque revival, each hotel has plenty to offer while showcasing what the city is known for: Arts and music. If you’re still undecided on where to stay, check out Hotel Tonight, Airbnb.com, and Kayak.com as they offer just about the right place for you to stay in Austin, Texas without breaking the bank.

Vehicle Rentals

Sure, there are accessible cabs in Austin, Texas but isn’t it nice to roam around the city without the hustle and bustle of public transportation? There are a lot of places to visit in Austin that having a car to go from one place to another will be convenient to maximize your stay and save some cash. Kayak.com is the best way to look for some of the best deals for car rentals.

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