I moved to Austin in my early 20s, mostly lured by the city’s famous live music lifestyle, a deal sweetened by the promise of plentiful bartending gigs to help me get by. I only spent nine months there, but I have been back many times since to visit the friends who became family. Visiting Austin (as opposed to living there) is like visiting summer. It’s all about long, lugubrious days that melt from lazy morning coffees to afternoon margaritas to evening strolls and then end in a whirlwind of live music, dive bars, and gourmet food trucks under a citywide network of fairy lights.
Every year, as summer begins, I start thinking about maybe heading back to Austin. I set a price drop alert for airfare deals and start scanning the summer concert calendars at the Continental Club, the Mohawk, Stubb’s B-B-Q, and so many other venues. This year, a trip seems unlikely, even as travel starts to open up again. Luckily, with a little creativity, anyone can recreate the city’s vibe at home (and maybe support some of your favorite ATX businesses to ensure that they do reopen eventually).
Set the scene
You’ll need a record player, fairy lights to string up in your backyard (or, barring that, anywhere you’ll be hanging out), and 90-plus-degree weather. Don’t have 90-plus-degree weather? Remind yourself that the weather in Austin is hot outside, but everywhere enclosed by four walls and a roof is air-conditioned to a frigid 68 degrees.
If you really want to go the extra mile, throw one of the Hotel San José’s paisley duvet covers on your bed. Hotel San José and the other properties in Liz Lambert’s Bunkhouse Group have nailed “Austin cool”—San José features red wooden floors, stark white walls, and black-framed concert posters. It even helped cement the bold, colorful aesthetic of the South Congress neighborhood with the “I love you so much” mural on the side of Jo’s Coffeehouse and the nostalgic pop-art renovation of the Austin Motel (and its iconic, phallic sign).
Buy now: From $250, sanjosehotelstore.com
10:30 a.m. Wake up hungover
No judgments here, you’re on vacation and last night was epic. And the only meal for circumstances such as these is breakfast tacos and iced coffee (and a very large water). You can’t get to Vaquero Taquero or Veracruz All Natural right now (unlike the lucky locals who can get their breakfast tacos delivered), but the genius of the breakfast taco lies in its simplicity and variability. You’ll need tortillas (flour or corn, but flour tends to be the wrap of choice in the morning), eggs, and anything else that might taste good mixed with those two ingredients. You could go for the classic eggs, bacon, shredded cheese, and potato. Then there’s the crumbly chorizo, egg, and black bean taco. For the vegans, perhaps a tofu scramble with avocado? I, myself, am a diehard fan of an egg, black bean, and avocado breakfast taco with salsa. Just be sure to heat the tortillas on a griddle with a little bit of oil first—it’s the key to keeping them supple.
Pair your meal with an iced coffee, with or without milk or milk alternative; remember, it’s probably pushing 85 degrees already.
Soundtrack: Gary Clark Jr.’s eponymous 2014 live album in the background is the perfect way to emerge from a late-night night. The album slowly lurches into life with the opening chords of “Catfish Blues,” and by the time it’s ramped up to the rollicking “Travis County” just 12 minutes later, you’ll have caught up—more or less.
11:15 a.m. Battle breakfast FOMO
Shoot—hadn’t you wanted to go to Franklin’s for barbecue today? Pull up the famous spot’s Instagram page and scroll through glamour shots of brisket, spare ribs, and sausage, wondering if it’s worth waiting in line an hour or more. Then remember that Franklin’s opened 45 minutes ago and so is definitely completely sold out already. Resolve to go tomorrow.
11:30 a.m. Head to Barton Springs
Time to digest breakfast and while away the hottest part of the day. Grab your towel, sunscreen, and sunglasses (if you’re not already wearing them) and head outside. If you don’t have a front or backyard, you might try a porch or balcony. Or just set up a lawn chair in front of the window in your place that gets the most direct sunlight.
Next, fill a tub or bucket with cold water and stick your feet in it. This is your Barton Springs for the day. Sure, it’s no three-acre, natural pool that maxes out at 18 feet deep and maintains an eternally cool 68-70 degree temperature all year, but you can add ice to your water if you need and you won’t have to deal with crowds.
Lie down and pretend to read. Maybe you’ll pull out your phone and scroll through the Austin Chronicle looking for things to do in the evening. Maybe you packed a collection of short stories by O. Henry. (While usually considered a New York writer, Henry spent his early writing years living the society life in Austin, and locals claim the jailbird, along with his witty, irony-laden work, for their own.) But really, just focus on sleeping off your hangover for a bit.
Buy now: $22, bookshop.org
2:00 p.m. Sweat some more
At this point, choose your own adventure: Are you blissfully happy sleeping in the sun right now or would you rather work in a little workout? If the former, carry on. If the latter, you have a few options. Black Swan Yoga, a donation-based yoga studio that started in Austin and now has locations in other cities, offers live-stream classes as well as a free, seven-day trial to its library of over 600 yoga videos. Library access is only $8 per month after that first week.
If yoga isn’t exactly your thing, consider a YouTube class with Esquina Tango. So much more than a dance studio, Esquina Tango has a devoted following and offers language, music, and exercise classes as well. Or join a virtual Workout! With Erica Nix. The queer and trans-inclusive, body-positive classes are available set to a ’90s soundtrack and vintage aerobics wear is encouraged.
3:00 p.m. Margaritas and thrifting
Whoops! It’s already 3 p.m. and you haven’t had lunch. But the good news is that it’s officially margarita time. Pour a margarita, and pull out the chips and queso (you can swap guacamole for queso if you’re so inclined). There are almost as many variations of the margarita in Austin’s restaurants as there are opinions about the best way to make one. You may very well find a splash of orange juice or pimento-stuffed olives in your margarita. These two recipes published in the Austin Statesman do a good job of distilling the two essential margarita recipes, one frozen and the other on the rocks. But I’ll always be a die-hard fan of La Condesa’s margarita.
And no trip to Austin would be complete without a big bowl of queso at one of the city’s beloved diners, Magnolia Cafe or Kerbey Lane—Kerbey Lane even serves a vegan queso, so no one has to miss out. Neither establishment has shared its recipes with the world (though Kerbey Lane sent its never-before-published recipe to the moon aboard the SpaceX Falcon in 2019), but you can find an Austin Diner–Style Queso recipe on Food 52, excerpted from Texan food writer Lisa Fain’s book Queso!.
One of the perks of experiencing Austin from home is that you can take your cocktail with you when you go thrifting. (You might also want to crack a Topo Chico mineral water too, just to stay hydrated in this heat!) Many of the city’s vintage clothing stores and pop-ups have a strong online presence, pandemic or no, and during lockdown, many of them started posting collections of available apparel in their saved Instagram stories, to make shopping even easier.
Check out Passport Vintage for graphic tees and denim, Prototype Vintage for progressive styles from the past and the occasional vintage designer shoes, Room Service for serious steals on retro homeware, Prisma Vintage for statement pieces, and Charm School Vintage for dusters and jackets that drip with personality.
Wrap up your shopping by virtually flipping through the new and vintage vinyl at Waterloo Records, an independent record store first opened in 1982.
Soundtrack: Hotel San José isn’t just great duvet covers. The hotel’s lounge is a fine place to sip afternoon cocktails among a stylish happy hour set. Tap into that mood with the music of Hotel San José playlist, put together by the Bunkhouse Group.
5:30 p.m. Movie time at the Alamo
Aim a BarcaLounger at your TV, grab a cold beer or pour yourself a glass of wine, and sprinkle some truffle salt on popcorn—movie night at the Alamo Drafthouse is extra fancy. Sure, the theater chain has gone nationwide at this point, so you might even have an outpost in your town. But it started in Austin, where it challenged the moviegoing experience with drink service, cabaret style seating, and novel programming, which included second-run showings, cult classics, silent films accompanied by local bands, and theme nights.
The Alamo Drafthouse now has its own on-demand streaming service with a curated collection of rentable films you’d expect to see on one of its marquees. Browse festival favorites or obscure horror films. Or maybe just transport yourself to ATX by rewatching Richard Linklater’s iconic Dazed and Confused, which is set in the city. (It’s not currently on the Alamo’s streaming service, but you can find it on Hulu, Amazon Prime, and other streaming services.)
7:15 p.m. Second taco-based meal of the day
As you emerge from the Drafthouse in Austin at 7:15 in the evening, your night might go in a few different directions. The summer days in this city may move slowly through the blistering heat, but when things cool off even a little at night, everything starts to happen. You might make a reservation at a hot new restaurant. You might realize that you only have 45 minutes to get to the concert you have tickets for, but you’re hungry and need to grab something quick and deeply satisfying from one of the fleet of food trucks dotting the city. You might stray into a nearby bar then completely forget to eat (again) until 9:30 p.m., at which point you’ll turn to one of those food trucks since restaurant kitchens are closing.
Get a little of all of that with Peached Tortilla’s cookbook. The Peached Tortilla opened as a Southern-Asian fusion food truck in 2010 that could often be found on weekend nights in the West 6th neighborhood. Now there are a few trucks, and two brick-and-mortar restaurants, the Peached Tortilla and the new Bar Peached. Get the recipe for its Bahn Mi taco in the Peached Tortilla Cookbook. Eat it now, or save it until late night.
8:00 p.m. Watch an Austin City Limits concert
It makes sense that a city that practically guarantees live music also hosts the longest-running music series in television history. Austin City Limits (ACL) is filmed at the Moody Theater, which is both the taping location of the show and a live music venue in its own right. Scoring tickets to an ACL taping is no easy feat, but you can watch full episodes from the last few years on the website. And there’s also a classic B.B. King episode from 1983 available.
10:30 p.m. Lose yourself to the nightlife
The night is still (relatively) young! Put on some punk rock records and crack open a tall boy of Lone Star and pair it with a shot. Or start mixing strong lowballs with your cheapest alcohol like they do at the best dive bars, then get on a Zoom call with a few friends to talk through the meaning of life (or, you know, crash Zoom calls and make new friends). Austin’s club scene is slowly starting to reopen, and some spots, like Barbarella and Cheer Up Charlies are still hosting livestream dance parties and DJ sets on their Instagrams. Remind yourself of what a dance floor felt like with Coconut Club Austin’s Instagram highlights from its “laser pit.” Don’t forget to test out all the photobooth filters on Instagram that you can find.
2:30 a.m. Flop onto your bed and wonder how you possibly stayed up so late
Don’t forget to hydrate before you hit the hay so you don’t wake up hungover tomorrow. But then, today was epic, after all.