Photo Courtesy of John Rogers
The capital of Texas isn’t much like the rest of the state at all. It’s a vibrant city that lacks almost any hint of the conservative South. It is an ecofriendly city where cowboys are hard to come by but cowboy boots are still the norm. The legendary music scene combined with a young, healthy, and …hip culture makes Austin a hot destination for travelers of nearly every taste. Raising comparisons to Silicon Valley, Austin’s dynamic entrepreneurial and tech scene has been a huge part of the city’s growth for the past two decades. SXSW (South by Southwest) and ACL (Austin City Limits), among others, have made the town a festival hot spot, and now the big-little city is a foodie’s paradise as well, with TexMex and barbeque inflected with every type of ethnic flair. If that weren’t enough, it’s almost always sunny here!
Early spring is one of the best times to visit Austin. Hotel prices are more reasonable, since the SXSW out-of-towners have mostly left, and the bars and restaurants aren’t nearly as crowded. And it’s not blazing hot yet—a plus. Reasonably priced hotels for impromptu trips to Austin are darn near impossible to get in February (Austin Marathon), March (the SXSW film, music, and tech fest ), throughout the UT football season, and during the Austin City Limits Music Festival (October), so plan far in advance (at least six months) for visits in these periods. It’s also a good idea to make reservations for rental cars and popular restaurants as soon as you know you’re coming to town. The weather between June and August is undeniably hot, which can make for a pretty limp vacation, unless you just sit in Barton Springs all day.
Austin Bergstrom International Airport (AUS) is six miles southeast of the city center and is served by most major carriers. You have a selection of buses (including the MetroAirport, $1.25 to downtown), taxis, car shares, hotel shuttles, and car rentals to get you into town and back. Taxi fare to downtown Austin is approximately $30. If arriving by train, you’ll alight at the Austin Amtrak station just west of downtown, which is served by the Texas Eagle Line. Austin sits on one major freeway (I-35) and several regional highways, and its outskirts are reached by several tollways.
Generally, seeing Austin by foot is very difficult. However, if you’re content to see only downtown Austin (Sixth Street, the Second Street District, the Capitol) and you’re in good shape, it’s possible to explore these downtown areas on foot. There are many attractions within a one- to two-mile walk from most downtown hotels. Just be prepared for potentially oppressive heat during the summer months. Driving is not too difficult if you’re used to living in a large city. The car-share program Car2go provides a fleet of free-floating, low-emission, self-service smart cars distributed all over the city. Biking is a great way to get around year-round and the weather is usually agreeable from mid-October to mid-April. In addition to the non-profit Austin B-Cycle bikeshare program, there are multiple bike rental outfits in town. The public bus network, Capital Metro, has inexpensive neighborhood, express, and downtown routes. Visitors can also get around on the Capital MetroRail commuter train, which operates on weekdays between Downtown and Northwest Austin. The Capital Metro website has a trip planner that can find public transport options between two points in Austin. After a bit of legislative drama, Uber and Lyft both currently operate in Austin. During the lull in service, a nonprofit local rideshare called Ride Austin emerged and is still popular with locals, though nearly unknown by most visitors. Taxis can’t be hailed on the street. Find a cab stand, ask the front desk at your hotel to get you one, or call one of the companies ahead of time.
While Austin has many high-end destination restaurants, you can also find high-quality, unique, and inexpensive restaurants where the locals eat, drink, and socialize every day. You’ll have no shortage of options, from Texas barbeque to Tex-Mex to local brewpubs and cafés. In the past decade, an influx of Asian restaurants has introduced new flavors to Texan palates and unassuming neighborhood joints have begun getting national press for their innovations, often riffs on traditional regional dishes. The city has always been at the forefront of the food truck trend and don't be surprised if some of the best meals you'll eat here are served out of a truck window.
Austin is the capital of Texas, and the Texas State Capitol is a must-see. A great source of pride for both the city and the state, the beautiful State Capitol building, wrapped in Texas pink granite, is free to visitors.
There are, of course, the well-known events such as Austin City Limits, South by Southwest, the Texas Book Festival, the Austin Film Festival, and the Austin Food and Wine Festival, but lesser-known gatherings are also catching on and well worth the trip. The Zilker Park Kite Festival, for example, is the oldest continuous kite festival in the United States. Hundreds of kites will dance in the sky the first Sunday in March.
- Bring your pup: The city council recently passed an ordinance permitting restaurants to allow dogs on their outdoor patios. You’ll find 12 leash-free areas set aside in city parks, with Mutt Mitt boxes so owners can clean up after their pets. - And here’s a secret about the famous Austin bats: While it’s way cool to watch them leave at dusk, it’s even more cool to watch them come back in the morning. Arrive about 30 minutes before sunrise. As it gradually gets lighter, you’ll start to see thousands of them diving down under the bridge.