A City Guide to Austin, Texas
Austin, Texas. Is there anywhere in the world with a cooler sounding name?
Austin was my favourite of all the cities we visited in the US last summer and it turned out to be even cooler than I expected. How often does that happen…that something exceeds your expectations?
This was the city where we had the most relaxing time on our trip and where we felt the most at home immediately. This was also the city where we had the most incredible vegan food and, in the US… home of the Beyond Meat Beast burger, that’s a high bar.
What really made me fall for Austin though was that, compared to some of the other cities we visited, it never felt like it was trying to overwhelm you with cool or intimidate you with cool. It didn’t feel pretentious. It just welcomed you in with all your weird shit and sat you down for a beer.
Everything we did and saw there was so different from anywhere else. Austin was so Austin, in the way that all the best cities are uniquely themselves. So many shops, bars and restaurants we visited were proudly using locally sourced ingredients, selling local products, serving vegan food, donating profits to charities, organising local events, supporting great local musicians- but without sprinkling it with bullshit.
It was cool, it was scrappy, it was beautiful, it was fun, it was deep fried, it was delicious, it was a smooth ‘y’all’, it was hotter than hell and we loved it. How could you not love a city where a bend in the river is turned into a swimming hole and a Leave it to Beaver street of houses is turned into a series of incredible bars?!
The food we loved:
Voodoo Doughnuts is top of the list for two reasons- a whole shelf dedicated to vegan doughnuts (including iced doughnut boobs) and the 24 hours/7days a week opening times. We tried the chocolate iced doughnut (below) and an apple fritter and holysweetsugar they were amazing. If I lived here, I would be organising midnight snack runs every week.
Bouldin Creek Café is a great place if you feel like you need to eat your body weight in vegan food (the sandwiches and wraps are particularly good) or if you just want an iced coffee and somewhere to while away a few hours. It’s a mishmash place, every wall and shelf crowded with art and stuff, the kind of place that a million other cafés are modelled on. Starbucks wishes it was this genuine. The food is tasty, piled high and usually accompanied with fries and pickles.
Arlo’s food truck gave us one of the best vegan burgers I have ever tasted, and a burger unlike anything I’ve had before or since. I had to go and ask what the burger patties were made with because I couldn’t figure out what magic I was eating- ‘millet and some other stuff’…my guess would be black beans and millet. Whatever it was the burgers were crispy, chewy and full of flavour, topped with melted orange ‘cheddar’ and tempeh bacon. Incredible.
Side note- there are hundreds of food trucks in Austin and just about every one looked amazing. Seeing them dotted around street corners, in the gardens of bars, filling up empty lots and parked on busy streets made the whole city feel like everyone was busy working hard, cooking and eating and enjoying themselves.
Brunch would be my purpose for living if I was a billionaire. I would just travel the world eating brunch. I would be the brunch expert, DR BRUNCH PhD. I would do something less selfish and egotistical after brunch…ahem…anyway, brunch in Austin is big deal, as it should be. We tried two places and I can recommend both for different reasons.
First off, Kerbey Lane Café. There are several Kerbey Lane’s dotted around the outskirts but we chose to go to the South Lamar one so that we could wander over to the Broken Spoke for a beer afterwards. Kerbey Lane was a perfect family brunch experience- crowds waiting on benches by the door for a table, simple formica and bright colours, oval plates full of food, sticky jugs of syrup, separate plates with pats of butter. Classic family chain restaurant run by a local family. The vegan brunch was pretty good although the best part was absolutely the pancakes so next time I would probably just get a huge stack of those and be done. Worth it to for the bustling family feel and for the nearby Broken Spoke (more on that later) and the cheap and plentiful books at Half Price Books a few shops walk away. Brunch + books = joy.
Second, Counter Culture. The whole menu at Counter Culture is worth investigating, they are incredibly inventive with their vegan food and combine fried cheesy goods with healthier fare in a way that suits me perfectly. I couldn’t leave Austin without having a breakfast burrito and this one was excellent. My heart beat a little faster when I saw the huge choice of vegan desserts….they all looked good but I can definitely vouch for the cashew cheezcake.
It’s not unique to Austin of course, but if you want groceries or a really great buffet for take out food so that you can go and sit by the river, Wholefoods North Lamar has a vast array of self-serve options, some of the best coffee I had on the trip and a really nice patio to sit and eat.
There are a so many places we DIDN’T get a chance to try in Austin that I pretty much wanted to book return flights as soon as we left. Red Hot Vegans has a great exhaustive list if you want even more options. I’m hoping to use it soon and tick off a whole lot more places.
The bars we drank in:
We did go to Dirty Sixth…of course we did. If you’re in Austin and you want to go out then you should see Dirty Sixth (or Sixth Street, officially) on a Friday or Saturday night. It rivals anything that New Orleans’ Bourbon St has to offer, although with more cowboy boots and less Mardi Gras beads. We went along for a few drinks early in the evening and then headed away from the rabble-rousing to hang out on Red River St, which has a couple of great chilled out bars. A few of good places on Dirty Sixth- BD Riley’s Irish Pub, Buffalo Billiards for billiards and pool, Maggie Mae’s for music and the rooftop bar.
There are a couple of great bars on Red River, but we ended up at Cheer Up Charlie’s every time and always really enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere, the great IPAs on tap and the absolute hodgepodge of bands on offer inside. Compared to the nearby Swan Dive and Stubb’s BBQ, Charlie’s seemed more fun and easy going, although the other two are also worth a look, especially if you eat meat or are looking for more serious live music. Crucially, Charlie’s was also attached to Arlo’s food truck- a match made in heaven.
Down the other end of Sixth St, the East side, there are some much more scuzzy, cool bars that cater to the musicians, students and geeks in the city. If (WHEN!) I lived here, this is where I would come for a drink with friends most weekends- The Liberty for it’s friendliness, Ah Sing Den for it’s amazing decor and cocktails, and The White Horse because it feels like drinking in Twin Peaks- we wandered in at 1 in the morning and watched a band set up to play honky tonk bathed in red light.
Oddly, one of the bars we fell upon one very sweaty afternoon and enjoyed was the bar attached to the YETI flagship store! YETI’s in case you don’t know…and we didn’t…are beautifully designed (expensive) coolers. We were walking to South Congress bridge ready for sunset so that we could see the bats (see below for an more on bats!) and spotted the YETI shop which has a shaded outside bar on the porch out front. We pulled up a cooler and enjoyed perching for a while drinking ice cold cans of Live Oak Pilz, a really good Austin beer. (P.S: While I understand the ridiculous privilege behind the concept of high-end coolers, I have to say that all of the design for YETI was stunningly good and a pleasure to look at.)
Rainey Street. I have never seen anything like Rainey Street. A couple of different people told us to check it out and I imagined, much like Red River, that it would be a street of dive bars full of heart. Instead, we arrived and looked down at several blocks of what looked like Disney suburban homes. As we walked closer we realised that each of the family homes had been turned into an incredible bar, each with it’s own theme, and gardens filled with people drinking and eating.
We went into pretty much every house and each one had great beer, great decor and great food. Our favourites were The Blackheart for their back garden stage, Unbarleviable for the completely nuts circus theme including astro turf back garden, hula hoops and outdoor DJ (although we later read about this…), and finally Craft Pride which had a mind-blowing list of regional beers that you could buy as normal pints or in tiny pint glasses so that you could try lots of different ones. As lovers of tiny versions of anything, the tiny pint glasses kept us very entertained as we got drunk on the 8% Austin IPAs.
All the photos I have of Rainey St (below) are blurry and terrible…which just goes to show what a good time we were having.
Where we had coffee the next day…
During our few days in Austin, we relied pretty heavily on Lyft to get us around as we had booked an Air BnB out in South Congress and didn’t have a car. We were happy walking whenever possible but had underestimated both how far away certain places would be and how impossible it is to cycle anywhere in the Texas heat.
Our Air BnB was excellent- a really cool Airstream in a quiet yard in a quiet residential street only half an hour’s walk away from South Congress’ main string of shops, and it would be perfect if you had a car or planned on renting. When we go back however, I think we would stay somewhere in central Austin so it was easier to walk to most places.
Nevertheless, we managed on a couple of mornings to head out and get coffee and when we did, one of our favourite places was, unexpectedly, Tom’s… as in the ethical shoe company. Turns out that they have a cleverly designed shop on South Congress that has a café overlooking a garden through some really beautiful windows (see below!). So, after a hot walk from our Airstream, and a wander around a few of the shops nearby, we headed into Tom’s and had a coffee to cool down and use the internet.
The other café we liked was near the Capitol Building. We spent about two hours on a self-guided tour of the Capitol, which was excellent, and then walked down Congress Ave towards Sixth street and stopped off at The Hideout Theatre for coffee and cake. As The Hideout is a theatre and comedy venue, the café was filled with watchable people and had great vegan snacks.
The places we can’t wait to go back to:
The Broken Spoke is technically a bar but that’s a small word for a big experience. The Broken Spoke is a honky tonk bar and dance hall, pretty much unlike any other from what I can tell. So many great country stars have played, sung, drank, and danced there that they have a separate room for memorabilia.
We went along after brunch on a Sunday and found that the bar and dancehall were closing soon to make way for a film crew. So we made the lucky decision to return on Tuesday evening… locals night. The front bar was pretty quiet, just a few bristly looking guys sloped over the bar, but the back dance hall was filled to bursting.
We paid $5 and walked through double doors into a huge long room filled with a central dance space covered in swirling dancers. Either side of the dance floor there’s a platform filled with tables so that you can rest your beer and sore feet. With careful timing so as not to get run over by spinning couples, we jumped into the dancing and span ourselves round and round until we couldn’t keep up with the guy ahead of us wearing dungarees tucked into cowboy boots. The band played non stop for a solid three hours and hardly anyone stopped to rest. Life is apparently too short not to two-step till your legs fall off.
The Continental Club is historic landmark in rock, country and blues, so if you are music fan, it’s worth going for that alone. It’s also a bar and music venue and it seemed pretty good at both when we visited. The main reason we want to go back is for the crowd and the atmosphere. We saw The Peterson Brothers play at 6.30pm on a Tuesday and the audience were dancing, singing, and hollering.
Bat Bridge (my nickname) is really South Congress bridge, an average looking concrete bridge over the river leading into central Austin from South Congress. But every night between 5pm and 7pm, at sunset, the bridge suddenly becomes the best place to watch about 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats rise up from sleep into the dusk. Strange, beautiful and completely bewildering.
Barton Springs Pool is the bend in the river that I mentioned right at the beginning. Where the river is wide and curves through Zilker Park (another great reason to explore this part of the city) a deep pool formed and the city blocked it off create a safe swimming pool for locals. We turned up in our swimming gear with towels and snacks, paid $8 each, not sure what to expect, and loved it.
The water is clear cold fresh water, and the river bed is rocky and occasionally slimed with algae so that it feels more exciting than swimming in any regular pool. The banks were covered in people lounging and picnicking- families, students, tourists, locals, all ages, and nationalities- and we spent most of the afternoon going in and out of the water until lightning broke the heat and the pool was off limits. I never got up the guts to jump off the diving board into the scary deep part of the pool where the water was black blue and bottomless…I’m still not sure I could, even when we go back…I CAN’T WAIT TO GO BACK.