One of the great clichés of travel writing is starting a story with an overly dramatic sentence meant to draw in the reader, so I won’t begin by mentioning the explosives mishap or firing a shotgun at dead cacti. But such was my Fourth of July in Austin, part of my lifelong quest for the quintessential American experience. Could anything scream red, white and blue more than Independence Day in Texas? I’ll get to that later.
The capital city of Texas is one revered by many San Franciscans. Like Portland, Austin is hailed as a less costly alternative to our city, yet it offers much of the hip lifestyle and progressive thought with which we’ve grown accustomed. Portland and Austin both claim to be “weird.” San Franciscans are also pretty weird. I suppose we endeavor to be weird together.
If you’re visiting Austin for the first time, I’d recommend starting your adventure in Downtown Austin on Congress Avenue, the city’s central stretch. Here you’ll find the Texas State Capitol, an impressive historic building that’s worth a visit, particularly because it’s free but also because it’s architecturally stunning. Slightly north, there’s the Bullock Texas State History Museum which I highly recommend if you don’t know much about Texas history. The nearby Blanton Museum of Art has a superb permanent collection, as well as amazing exhibits (of Goya, when I visited). Check the websites for both museums to see when they have their free days. The Capitol building and the two museums can be enjoyed thoroughly within the same day.
Austin offers something for any traveler, whether you prefer culture, dining or outdoor adventures. It was here that Alamo Drafthouse, the cinema offering food and drink, was birthed. And Austin is surrounded by nature and all its gifts, from horseback riding (I went horseback riding for the first time) to river tubing. Within the city itself, the peaceful Ladybird Lake Hike and Bike Trail along the Colorado River is worth a visit if you’re looking to unwind.
Reputation precedes Austin in two culinary forms: barbecue and tacos. The city has arguably some of the best of both in the country. It goes without saying that the nationally famous Franklin Barbecue, La Barbecue and The Salt Lick are worth visiting. (Of the three, we chose Salt Lick as the wait wasn’t as long, though it’s located in Driftwood, outside of Austin.) I also really liked Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que, located in Downtown Austin, as there was barely a line and their brisket dissolved in my mouth. For tacos, I thoroughly enjoyed Torchy’s Tacos, no doubt insanely popular with most other visitors as well. A lesser-known spot is El Taquito. There was no wait at the East Riverside location and everything about the restaurant was very down-to-earth, a nice breather from all things trendy. Though I live in San Francisco, where we have our fair share of quality Mexican restaurants, I can safely say that the taco game in Austin is stronger.
Austin is a city renowned for its live music scene; it’s in this city that South by Southwest and Austin City Limits, two major music festivals, take place each year. This is particularly evident in the Sixth Street Historic District, the city’s most famous nightlife area, nicknamed “Dirty Sixth” for the row of riotous bars along Sixth Street offering cheap drinks and crazy times. It’s essentially the Bourbon Street of Austin. One of my favorite bars, Easy Tiger, happens to be along this stretch, though safely at the far eastern end by Interstate 35. Here you can grab a pint of local craft beer, a delicious $4 pretzel and sit by Waller Creek. I’d say it’s “picturesque,” but that’s another travel writing cliché.
I much preferred the atmosphere along East Sixth, the section of Sixth Street east of I-35. From the dive bars to the cocktail lounges to the outdoor beer gardens, this area felt a bit more adult. Some venues I really liked were Shangri-La (a cheap dive bar with an outside area), East Side Show Room (an awesome cocktail bar since closed but reopening as Ah Sing Den by the same team) and the Yellow Jacket Social Club (a popular bar with tons of outdoor space).
If you’re sticking to Downtown Austin, you’ve got to check out The Roosevelt Room for their budget-loving cocktail happy hour. HandleBar features an upstairs patio with games, a great place to catch the sunset over the city. Fadó Irish Pub is ideal for sports lovers (I watched the Italy vs. Germany Euro 2016 match here and it was nicely packed). If you’re craving a classier experience, check out the bar in the historic Driskill Hotel, a gorgeous building constructed in 1886. Need caffeine? Houndstooth Coffee, a craft coffee establishment located at the base of the stunning Frost Bank Tower, is a must-visit café for coffee lovers.
Located adjacent to the Colorado River, the Rainey Street Historic District offers a more laid-back, yet equally interesting, nightlife scene. What resembles a row of bars and restaurants built into a neighborhood, Rainey Street hosts craft beer bars (like Craft Pride), diverse culinary offerings and outdoor lounges.
West Sixth is much more upscale, leading the way west of Congress Avenue along Sixth Street to North Lamar Boulevard. Whiskey lovers ought to check out TenOak, as their collection covers the world’s offerings (you can even get a shot of the extremely rare Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year for $125). Kung Fu Saloon is worth checking out if you like arcade games, especially on Sundays when all machines are free (I learned that I’m pretty damn good at skee ball). The Ginger Man is a wonderful pub with an impressive beer selection and big, affordable pretzels, really all I require for a satisfactory night out.
In swanky North Lamar, along North Lamar Boulevard, you’ll find the Lamar Whole Foods Market, the company’s flagship store. “Do I really need to come here?” you ask yourself as I did. I would say a resounding yes. Imagine several Whole Foods Markets put together and add numerous food stations (tacos and barbecue included), a massage parlor, and a craft beer and wine bar. You can order an adult beverage to drink while you shop. While. You. Shop. And it doesn’t even need to be a selection from the bar; browse the walk-through refrigerator and pick a bottle of something for yourself (with a nominal corkage fee).
South of the Colorado River along Congress Avenue is the area known as South Congress (or SoCo). There are a number of restaurants here, including a really nice Torchy’s Tacos, as well as numerous places to lounge with drinks. During the day, we had a satisfying brunch at Snooze (an Eggs Benedict and Bloody Mary heaven), before which we had coffee with butter in it (yep) at Picnik. I would recommend both for morning recovery.
Another notable neighborhood is South Lamar, of which I know very little except that The Broken Spoke, a historic dance hall that hosted musicians like Willie Nelson and the Dixie Chicks before they were famous, is situated here. If you’re looking for food and drink in this area, I’d recommend Juliet Ristorante, a “new Italian cuisine” restaurant with impressive cocktails (they made one of the best Boulevardier cocktails I ever had). The ambience is also lovely with retro (think Sinatra) tunes, a sparkly interior and a spacious patio with a dedicated outdoor bar.
During my time in Austin, I stayed in the East Riverside area. If you happen to be in this neighborhood, definitely check out The Buzz Mill. In what resembles a log cabin, you’ll find both craft coffee and infused spirits served by tattooed hip dudes. It’s great for working during the day (free Wi-Fi) and also outdoor drinking at night. This was one of the coolest joints I frequented.
It should be noted that Austin is very hot in the summer (surprise). This makes walking long distances a pain, hence the need for public transportation or a car. Thankfully, the buses are easy to take and are relatively cheap. And while Uber and Lyft have, for the moment, been forestalled in the city, new options like Fasten (sign up and get credits for your first ride!) have emerged to fill their place.
So, at long last, we come back to the beginning as most stories go. I spent Fourth of July watching fireworks explode from the patio of a country house. I drank my fair share of Lone Star Beer and even witnessed a guy shoot flames from a “glove” he made with fireworks and a cardboard box. Then there was the rocket that went sideways instead of upwards, prompting everyone to leap to safety. And there were guns (because Texas). It was unlike any Fourth I’ve ever celebrated, and I’m grateful for having been a part of it and not losing an eye.
One of the cardinal sins committed by many American travelers is our obsession with the abroad. Often our sights are set on exotic locales far away, geographically and culturally, from our homes. But America is a large and diverse country with much to see, and the more I travel internationally, the more I appreciate what our country has to offer. I’m happy to add Austin to my collection of life experiences. It’s a fun city filled with wonderful people, and now I see the appeal.
Hover over photos/press and hold on smartphones for info…