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Outdoors, Music, and Tacos: The Austin City Guide

Austin, Texas, may promote itself as the “Live Music Capital of the World,” but that’s just scratching the surface of what there is to do in the capital of the Lone Star State. One of the fastest growing big cities in the country, Austin has developed into a regional powerhouse attracting young and creative people. It’s home to the University of Texas, world-class barbecue, and enough outdoor adventure to thrill anyone who enjoys hiking, mountain biking, trail running, or boating. Take a zip line ride or float in a city pool that’s measured in acres. When you’re ready to relax, you’ve got an incredible restaurant scene, art galleries, museums, and, of course, more live music than you could ever hope to hear.

You won’t be able to do it all, but it sure is fun trying.

History

Located close to the center of the state, Austin is just over an hour from San Antonio, two and a half hours from Houston, and three hours from Dallas. It began as a settlement along the Colorado River, consisting primarily of immigrants from Germany, Sweden, and Mexico. The town was originally called Waterloo, but was renamed for Stephen F. Austin soon after it became the state capital in 1839. The University of Texas at Austin was founded in 1883, and Driskill Hotel, where you can still stay today, opened in 1886.

A fire destroyed the original capitol building, and the new one was completed in 1888, becoming the signature feature of the city’s skyline. (Since we’re in Texas, the Capitol building was designed to be taller than the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.)

Texans are intensely proud of their history, and you have lots of options for learning more on a trip to Austin. Go on a free tour of the Capitol building, take one of several historic walking tours of the area, or visit the Bullock Texas State History Museum, which is filled with artifacts, photographs, and special exhibits that tell the story of the state.

Outdoor Adventures

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Whether it’s hiking, paddling, or cycling, there are plenty of adventures to find in Austin. Johannes Schneemann

With more than 300 days of sunshine a year, Austin is a great city for spending time outside—and it’s filled with options for those who love the outdoors. The Barton Creek Greenbelt is an easy place to get started. Its 13 miles of trails through the city offer a scenic route for running, hiking, and bicycling.

Lady Bird Lake was created by two dams on the Lower Colorado River, and it has become a recreational mecca for the city. Motorized boats aren’t permitted, meaning it’s the perfect spot for kayaking, canoeing, and stand-up paddleboarding, and you’ll find several options for renting boats. The 10-mile Butler Hike and Bike Trail and Boardwalk runs along the shore of the lake and is the most popular way to get outdoors in Austin. It attracts 2.6 million visitors a year to enjoy the scenic natural environment, whether you’re out for a run or a romantic walk after dinner.

In Zilker Park, you’ll find the Barton Springs Pool, one of Austin’s favorite local spots to cool off. The 3-acre pool is fed from underground springs, which brings in water that’s consistently 68 to 70 degrees year round.

Culture

It’s no surprise that a city known for attracting artists is filled with venues dedicated to creative endeavors. The Blanton Museum of Art is one of the top university art museums in the country, known for its collections of modern contemporary American and Latin American art and Italian Renaissance and Baroque paintings. Also at the University of Texas, the Harry Ransom Center houses a Gutenberg Bible, the Watergate papers, the Gone with the Wind collection, and the world’s first photograph.

You can spend a day exploring the galleries around town, such as The Contemporary Austin at the Jones Center, or explore the regions cultural heritage at the Mexic-Arte Museum or the George Washington Carver Museum. Keeping with the theme of “Keep Austin Weird,” a slogan you’ll undoubtedly see around the city, the Cathedral of Junk delivers on its promise with more than 60 tons of, well, interesting found objects.

The Texas Performing Arts Center is known for its touring Broadway shows, dance troupes, and classical musicians. (Hamilton arrives in May 2019, but good luck getting a ticket.) The Ballet Austin performs five different shows a year, including The Nutcracker over the holidays. Finally, most of the time you visit Austin there’ll be some kind of festival going on. The biggies like the Food + Wine Festival or the SXSW Music, Film, and Interactive Conference draw people from around the world. But you might just find a smaller local option as well highlighting a particular neighborhood.

Food

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Tacos are a must when visiting Austin. Heather Schwartz

You’re in the heart of Tex-Mex country, so you should be sure to take advantage of the incredible food offerings in Austin. Start the day with breakfast tacos at a place like Juan in a Million, whose Don Juan El Taco Grande is a must-have for many Austin visitors. But you’ll find quality Mexican fare all over town. Some other favorites include Manuel’s (which features a Sunday jazz brunch) and Polvos, known for its salsa bar.

If you want to eat on the water, the Hula Hut (aloha y’all!) features Hawaiian cuisine with a Tex-Mex twist with an incredible deck sitting atop Lake Austin. The Oasis on Lake Travis serves contemporary American fare with live music and sunset views.

Of course, you can’t come to Austin without getting barbecue sauce on your fingers, and some of the favorites include La Barbecue in East Austin—you’ll usually notice the line coming out of the store. Franklin Barbecue, Micklethwait Craft Meats, and Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ are among many that vie for the title of the best barbecue in the city. Be ready for an argument if you dare bring it up.

Don’t forget Austin’s food trucks, of which there are hundreds. Be on the lookout around town, or stop by a place like the Picnic food truck trailer park, where many of them congregate.

Music

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Austin attracts some of the biggest names in the music business. Dane Deaner

Hearing live music is part of the Austin experience—and you often don’t have to work very hard to hear it. In the airport, grocery stores, and city parks, it’s a part of everyday life. Austin City Limits and the SXSW Festival have popularized the city as a musical destination, but you can find more than 250 live music venues throughout the city. The toughest part of your trip will be deciding where to go.

The Broken Spoke is one of the mainstays for classic country, while the Continental Club is a cool throwback that features roots, rockabilly, and swing. The Saxon Pub has a smaller space, but it’s known for attracting nationally known signers to play its intimate room. The Cactus Cafe is known for its acoustic performances, while the Elephant Room has jazz in a cozy atmosphere. We could go on and on, but as we said—250 venues. You’ll have no trouble finding a place that fits your musical tastes.

Craft Beer and Cocktails

In addition to music, Austin is also known for its craft beverages. From wineries and vineyards to brew pubs and distilleries, you can find a locally made beverage that will suit your taste. When it comes to craft beer, Hops & Grain, Austin Beerworks, and Adelbert’s Brewery are all excellent options. The Black Star Co-Op Pub & Brewery is the country’s first cooperatively owned and worker-managed brewpub, which fits into Austin quite well.

If you enjoy cocktails, Drink.Well features an extensive selection of spirits, including more than 75 American whiskeys. The Deep Eddy Vodka Distillery and Tasting Room makes tasty cocktails with its handcrafted vodka, while the Argus Cidery features hard ciders created from apples picked right in Texas.

Written by Jeff Banowetz for Matcha in partnership with DuFrane Watches.