In 2015, close to 80,000 people flocked to Austin for South by Southwest, the city’s annual music and film festival. And there is no question the event permanently wins over a more than few hearts to the Texas capital each year. Proof positive: an estimated 110 new residents relocate to the Texas capital each day. But a visit here during SXSW is completely different from one during the rest of the year. While live music is a huge part of the city’s culture, Austin has also been making headlines for its cutting-edge food scene, and its temperate weather makes outdoor exploration a 12-month activity.
Start the morning out like a true Texan—with breakfast tacos. Though there are plenty of Mexican taco joints across the eastside, Veracruz All Natural, which serves a devoted clientele from trailers in the three locations, reigns supreme. Their migas taco, oozing with cheese and folded over chunks of fresh avocado, is practically an initiation rite, washed down with one of their fresh squeezed juices. But these handheld taste explosions aren’t just to sate your hunger; breakfast tacos are the best quick, portable breakfast to eat in line while waiting for barbecue. Seem extreme? Trust us, barbecue enthusiasts need to get a head start on obtaining smoked meats, particularly on the weekends (some folks even pack coolers full of beer and arrive with folding chairs).
Acclaimed Franklin Barbecue’s line can run four hours and the wait at La Barbecue is around two hours most days. The thick-cut, smoked-to-perfection brisket is essential at both spots but, after such an epic wait in line, you’ll probably want to pile your butcher paper-lined tray with every meat possible. Don’t skimp on the well-made sides either—like the spicy chipotle slaw at La Barbecue and the brisket-studded pinto beans at Franklin. Even if you don’t save room for dessert, the decadent banana bourbon pie at Franklin is worth getting to go.
Belly full, head to the State Capitol for your daily dose of Texas history. Free tours are offered daily, but you may take a self-guided tour during business hours. The grand rotunda is certainly a highlight—boasting portraits of every governor who’s every served in Texas. You’ll at least get a thrill out of the time-honored tradition of standing in its center, looking up into the center of the dome, and spinning.
Texas State Capitol
Photo: Flickr/Mr. Nixter
Next, walk south on Congress Avenue (which runs right into the Capitol at 11th Street). Just over the Congress Bridge, the South Congress shopping district begins. Allens Boots, an absolute mecca for cowboy boots of every color and style, is an essential stop. Uncommon Objects contains an astounding collection of antiques and curiosities (skulls, railroad spikes, bowls of old watch parts and keys, faded family photographs), and has been described as “your eccentric uncle’s attic on steroids.”
If you’re visiting in the warmer months (March through early October), be sure to head north to the Congress Avenue Bridge as sunset begins to approach. Austin is home to the largest urban bat colony, and over a million Mexican free-tailed bats live under the bridge. Crowds of people line the bridge and the grassy areas right underneath to watch a black cloud of bats emerge at sunset, taking flight in search of food. Several companies, such as Capital Cruises, Lone Star Riverboat and Live, Love Paddle also lead bat watching tours by riverboat or kayak.
Austin’s restaurant scene has exploded in the past couple of years, particularly in the downtown area. Just north of the Congress Bridge, Swift’s Attic features upscale yet playful dishes like edamame with chili oil and pop rocks, squid fries with garlic aioli and charred lemon, and a funfetti tres leches dessert. For one of the best seats in town, reserve their center “birdcage table” with velveteen bench seating placed right under a caged chandelier.
Photo: Natalie Paramore
James Beard Award (Best Chef: Southwest 2012) and Top Chef Texas champion Paul Qui’s highly acclaimed restaurant qui offers several different options, including a Filipino happy hour on the patio, price-fixed dinner menu (vegetarian available), and an innovative ticketed tasting room Wednesday through Saturday. Expect the unexpected here: truly innovative cuisine in a sleek but non-pretentious setting, with playful touches like artwork by Peelander Yellow, squirrel tail mug handles and custom neon Laguiole steak knives.
A trip to Austin isn’t complete without a stroll down Sixth Street, the city’s own Bourbon Street of sorts (minus the public drinking). Most weekends, the street is shut down to traffic, leaving the drunken masses to stumble from bar to bar. Be sure to make a reservation online, then seek respite from the Sixth Street chaos within the dark confines of Midnight Cowboy, a former brothel, where bartenders produce some of the best cocktails in town. Groups of four or more can reserve a private room where one only needs to “turn on the red light” for bar-cart service.
Of course, one should always plan on seeing a show while visiting the “Live Music Capital of the World.” Larger acts grace epic stages like ACL Live at the Moody Theatre and Stubb’s, the well-known outdoor amphitheater. Mohawk features three levels in the heart of the Red River District and, just around the corner, is the rough-around-the-edges Red 7. Both venues vary night by night and usually feature big acts on their outdoor stage and smaller acts inside.
Photo: Flickr/Do512-Ashley Bradley
But before stumbling to bed, make room for one last late night meal from one of the city’s iconic food trucks. Eastside King, known for its sweet chile brussels sprouts and fried beets with Japanese mayonnaise, has multiple locations with different Asian street food offerings. Kebabalicious, one of Austin’s oldest food trucks, still peddles Turkish-style wraps from several trucks and their brick and mortar on East 7th Street.