Dispatch, Austin: A day planner

AWAUSTIN200x115Travel Weekly Editor in Chief Arnie Weissmann is in Austin, Texas, a city where he once lived. His third and final dispatch from the city follows. Click to read Arnie's first and second dispatches. 

There are a few cities in our country that don't have many specific tourist attractions, but are nonetheless great cities to visit because the local culture/lifestyle is distinctive and attractive.

Portland, Ore., is one of those cities. You don't go there to see tall buildings, stately museums, theme parks or cosmopolitan nightlife. You go there because, for a few days, you can live like a Portlander.

Austin is another. It's deep in the heart of Texas, is the state capital and seat of a large public university, but it isn't in the same class as, say, New Orleans or Santa Fe, as a Southern or Southwestern tourist destination.

Nonetheless, it's still a great place to visit because, despite all its official ties to the state's establishment, the dominant spirit is that of a Texas counterculture.

The challenge with visiting a city whose attractions are more subtle than, say, a theme park, is that it isn't always obvious what to do once you've arrived. Here are some suggestions you might pass along to clients headed to Texas' capital so that they, too, can take full advantage of the city and, for a few days, live like an Austinite.

1. The Hike and Bike Trail around Lady Bird Lake. Don't take the name too seriously: This is not a hiking trail in its more rugged sense, and it's too crowded for a satisfying bike ride.

Furthermore, it's along a river, not a lake. But if you're staying at a downtown hotel, it's easy to join the trail for a pleasant walk or run of 2.5-7 miles along this segment of Texas' Colorado River (not to be confused with the Colorado River that carved out the Grand Canyon).

Austin-LadyBirdLakeUnlike Riverwalk in San Antonio, there are no commercial developments here — it's a path with trees on one side for most of its length, the river on the other. It cuts right through the center of the city, and each day thousands of Austinites head there for exercise.

The trail also is very much a social scene for most of its length — many of the runners/walkers are in pairs or groups, and even though I haven't lived in Austin for 10 years, I almost always run into someone I know when I'm on it.

It's most crowded right after work, but I like to go early in the morning, before the temperatures get too warm (watching the sun rise over downtown from the southern bank is a beautiful sight).

2. Breakfast tacos. After you've worked up an appetite, it's time for breakfast, which in Austin is likely to mean breakfast tacos.

You can find them everywhere, served from the windows at food trailers, a small chain called Taco Shack or any number of Mexican restaurants that are open for breakfast.

My current favorite is Janitzio, 600 Martin Luther King Blvd., near the University of Texas campus. Its owners are from Michoacan, and in addition to the standard list of ingredients to choose from (egg, bacon, beans, cheese, potatoes, rice) they offer succulent and meaty carnitas tacos, as well as a few less common stuffings such as cactus and chorizo. (If you don't see carnitas on the menu there, just ask — they almost always have them available.)

Popular alternatives to breakfast tacos include migas (scrambled eggs with tortilla chips, cheese, jalepenos, onion and tomatoes) and chilaquilas (tortilla strips with cheese), either rojos (spicy red salsa) or verdes (green tomatillo sauce).

3. Harry Ransom Center. Perhaps because the city hosts some interesting federal and state museums (the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library & Museum and Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum), it hasn't bothered to gather and house its own world-class collections.

But the University of Texas' richly endowed Harry Ransom Center, a humanities research library and museum, has an astounding trove, featuring everything from a Gutenberg Bible to the world's first known photograph.

A current exhibit focuses on Tennessee Williams' early years (the center owns the "papers" of hundreds of celebrated authors and artists). And if you can present yourself as a legitimate researcher, there are treasures in the stacks that exist nowhere else on Earth.

4. Hula Hut. After exploring the Ransom Center and strolling though the campus, you should be ready for lunch. This will be a very tough choice.

You could hit a few of the food trailers, go for barbecue, or be satisfied at any of a dozen truly great restaurants in the downtown or campus areas, but my recommendation would be to eat at Hula Hut.

This "Texa-nesian" restaurant is just 15 minutes from downtown on Lake Austin (again, a river pretending to be a lake), but most visitors don't know about it unless they're brought there by a local.

It has a completely different atmosphere from any other restaurant in town, and the Tex-Mex/Polynesian fusion cuisine works surprisingly well. And, anyway, it's time for your first margarita. (Be sure to ask for seating on the pier.)

5. Shopping SoCo. You are now sufficiently fueled to check out the shops on South Congress Avenue (SoCo), beginning just a few blocks south of downtown.

There are lots of interesting and funky shops on this street, including one of my favorite stores in the world, Tesoros.

Tesoros stocks an enormous selection of folk art from around the globe, from fun and funky cheap trinkets to very fine art, and I like that the owners have taken a "fair trade" approach to the artisans they buy from in developing countries.

Austin-BartonSprings6. Barton Springs. Drop your purchases in your room and put on your swim gear — it is very hot outside at this point, and it's time to hit the city's primary swim hole, Barton Springs.

It's also centrally located — less than 10 minutes from downtown by car, or you can even walk there via the Hike and Bike Trail. The northern edge has been squared off with concrete for lap swimmers, but the southern edge has been left "natural," bordered by rock. There's a diving board in the middle, near where the spring water bubbles up.

Barton Springs is enormous. It can, and does, hold hundreds of people comfortably, and it's another site that blends social activity with fitness — there are often more people sunning and chatting on its grassy banks than in the water (this might have something to do with the fact that the water feels VERY cold (68 degrees Fahrenheit year-round).

A (slightly) warmer option is Deep Eddy pool, at the southern end of the Hike and Bike Trail. Less known, you'll find only locals at this enormous spring-fed pool, but it lost some of its charm in recent years when many of the large, old trees providing shade along the perimeter were taken down. But it's an excellent choice for families, with a large area of water less than a foot deep.

7. Sara's Dry Creek Cafe. While all the other tourists are headed out to the Oasis, Austin's most famous sunset-watching spot, go instead to join the locals on the roof deck of Sara's Dry Creek Cafe on Mount Bonnell Road (about 25 minutes from downtown).

Though it's called a cafe, I don't know anyone who has actually eaten there — it's really a no-atmosphere saloon whose roof offers a beautiful spot to watch the sun set over Lake Austin and the Hill Country. You walk in, buy a bottle of Shiner Bock (you will be sharply reminded to bring the bottle back down with you) and climb up for the view.

Austin-Bats8. The Bats. If you're in Austin from mid-March to mid-November, you'll be there when the world's largest urban bat colony has returned to its summer quarters under the Congress Avenue Bridge, on the southern edge of downtown. As an alternative to Sara's, take up a position on the eastern sidewalk of the bridge as the sun begins to set and watch as 1.5 million Mexican free-tail bats vortex out from under the bridge, doing their part to reduce the local mosquito population. I've seen it dozens of times, and never tire of it.

9. Sam's BBQ. If you were a resident, you would now head to either Whole Foods or Central Market to buy provisions for dinner. Whole Foods started in Austin as a hippie grocery/health food store, and Austin is now the site of its enormous flagship store, which is as entertaining a grocery store as you're likely to find.

However, for actual shopping (should you have access to a kitchen, or better yet, a grill), I prefer Central Market, another homegrown chain from which the folks at Whole Foods learned a lot when they decided to go big.

If you thought lunch was a tough choice, you'll find even more places open for dinner. But if I were forced to choose just one place to recommend, it would be Sam's BBQ, 2000 E. 12th St. in Austin's small African-American community.

Most tourists wanting to sample Texas barbeque will be pointed in the direction of the Salt Lick in Dripping Springs, a large venue in a small Hill Country town about 40 minutes outside of Austin, but I prefer Sam's. It's small — most people simply pick up rather than sit down — and for about six dollars you'll be tackling a large plate of brisket, chicken, sausage or mutton with a truly inspired sauce. There's not really any scene or atmosphere here — this is about the food.

10. Continental Club. Austin is the self-proclaimed Live Music Capital of the World, and indeed, Austinites and visitors both revel in this aspect of Austin life.

After dinner, most tourists are directed to Sixth Street, Austin's answer to Bourbon Street, but take a look at the Austin Chronicle, a local free weekly (its owners started and manage SXSW, the annual spring music/multimedia festival) in either its print or online version, and you'll find a comprehensive look at who is playing where, all over town. Austin-TheContinentalClub

If you're not familiar with any of the artists, it's hard to go wrong if you head to the Continental Club on South Congress. The Continental Club is really why developers began to see South Congress as a place sufficiently hip to revitalize. The venue has nurtured many of the great artists associated with the Austin music scene. If you have any doubt about where to go, head to the Continental.

Music in Austin tends to start late, so music is likely to be the last event of the night (especially if you caught the sunrise from the Hike and Bike Trail). So from there, it's back to your hotel, though I will note that Sam's BBQ is open until 2 a.m. on most nights, should you be feeling a second wind. But as my grandfather used to say: Sleep fast. Though it's short of tourist attractions, there'll be a lot more to see and do in Austin the next day.

I'd like to stress that the list above is one man's opinion of what to do in a day. I'm quite certain others would disagree with my choices (and on certain days, I might disagree with these choices). Feel free to add to this list in the comments below.


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