How to Spend a Perfect Day in Austin, Texas
The capital of Texas is a city of ideas, live entertainment venues, world-class art, and food.
Spend a day in Austin and you may feel as if you’re in the Choose Your Own Adventure book series. For all its relaxed, come-as-you-are hospitality, the capital of Texas is a city of ideas, live entertainment venues, and world-class art. It’s also a place that loves its food.
During my recent visit, I faced tough decisions at every turn: Did I want classic Tex-Mex with extra queso—or pasta at the new Italian hot spot? Was the barbecue at The Salt Lick as good as I remembered, or should I go to Ironworks, Stubb’s, or Franklin’s for my smoky meat fix?
No matter what you choose in Austin, the outcome is bound to be a great time—as the 150 people who move here every day surely can attest. Here’s how I spent one perfect day in Texas’ capital of cool:
I start at Josephine House (the sister restaurant to tony Jeffrey’s), a small blue cottage with cheery white walls and southern ambience in the city’s historic Clarksville district.
I’ve heard its weekend brunches—serving up sticky buns, huevos rancheros, lemon-ricotta pancakes, and more—are a madhouse, but, as I suspected, a weekday breakfast has all the charm without the crowds. My menu pick: avocado toast.
Fully fueled, I make my way to the Blanton Museum of Art, which sits on the campus of the University of Texas and turns out to be one of the best small museums I have ever visited.
On current exhibit is “The Brothers Grimm” by Natalie Frank, an intense and sometimes spooky look at the classic tales. But what grabs my eye is an oil painting titled “George Gershwin in an Imaginary Concert Hall,” which puts the viewer right on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in 1932. The work was commissioned by the famous American composer and painted by Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros, a contemporary of Diego Rivera.
I’ve reserved the afternoon for a foodie-focused e-bike tour, but art makes you hungry. So I snag some chips and queso on campus at Kerbey Lane Cafe (as Tex-Mex as it gets), then head over to meet John Dawson, co-owner of Rocket Electrics.
I hop on my purple e-bike and start pedaling. It feels almost too easy—not like a moped or scooter, rather like riding a bike, but with extra support—and soon becomes my new favorite way to get around. I pedal as much or as little as I like by revving up the battery on the handlebars. Not only am I seeing Austin; I’m experiencing how more and more Austinites now choose to commute.
“We’re growing exponentially,” Dawson tells me. “E-bikes aren’t replacements for bicycles, they’re replacements for cars. I started tours and rentals to introduce people to them. You get this burst of freedom, like you’re a kid again.” Dawson’s oldest customer is 93 years old.
The day is hot, but traveling by e-bike is pleasant and breezy. We cover many miles, biking along the boardwalk next to Lady Bird Lake, then over to Doug Sahm Hill for the view.
“It’s rare for a midsize city to have so many residential buildings downtown,” Dawson notes as we survey Austin below. And it’s true, the city has a lived-in quality. I don’t feel the downtown deadness here that plagues other American cities; instead, the Texas capital exudes a dynamic energy.
When we reach Castle Hill, I see old concrete walls and foundations that have been covered with graffiti—an echo of Berlin, a city known for its colorful street art. At this popular attraction, officially known as the HOPE Outdoor Gallery (HOPE stands for Helping Other People Everywhere), the emphasis is on positive, inspirational themes by local artists.
We cycle on to East Austin, on the other side of I-35, where microbreweries are drawing crowds and culinary trends constantly are being tested. I inhale a chocolate-chip cookie-dough cupcake at Sugar Circus, a bakery funded by Kickstarter that offers traditional and vegan treats. Then it’s a stop for charcuterie, cheese, and beer at Salt & Time, a butcher shop and salumeria known for its high-quality meat from Texas ranches.
Dawson, who gets my vote for Austin tour guide of the year, soon is steering us back to Rocket Electrics, where I return my bike. I’m ready to recharge in my digs at the just opened South Congress Hotel, a boutique property ideally located on perpetually hip South Congress Avenue. My room comes with hardwood floors, a bed dressed in crisp white sheets, and a freestanding bathtub that overlooks cowboy-boot mecca Allens Boots.
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For dinner, I am overwhelmed by choice. Sushi king Uchi still reigns, though Sway Thai remains terrific three years in, and newbies Arro and Italic are packed.
Ultimately, however, I enjoy a predinner drink at brick-walled Swift’s Attic downtown, then drive to a residential neighborhood a few miles north for a classic Mexican meal at Fonda San Miguel.
The vibrantly decorated hacienda-style restaurant, centered around a long bar meant for ordering a margarita or two, has been serving traditional Mexican dishes—Yucatecan to Veracruzan—for 40 years. This perennially top-rated eatery is exactly what I want for an only-in-Austin feel; I quickly decide I’ll have to return for its legendary all-you-can-eat brunch.
After dinner, I consider going to the beloved Continental Club, on South Congress, to listen to live music jam on. Instead, I find my way to Rainey Street, a historic district packed with bars and restaurants, and find a spot at Banger’s Sausage House and Beer Garden, known for its large wall of tap beers and hand-crafted bratwursts served with quirky and cool Austin warmth. It’s small-town serenity meeting global grooviness—the perfect expression of this capital town in central Texas.
Annie Fitzsimmons is Nat Geo Travel’s Urban Insider, exploring the cities of the world with style. Follow her adventures in Texas on Twitter @anniefitz and on Instagram @anniefitzsimmons.