National Geographic Explorer and Photographer Kiliii Yuyan is known for documenting the splendor of the Arctic. He's escaped collapsing sea ice, stalked polar bears, and found beauty at the northern edges of our world. But his latest assignment brought him down to Texas to experience Austin for the first time the only way he knows how—with an insatiable curiosity for people and a hearty appetite for adventure.
Japanese izakaya meets Texas swagger
Yuyan is someone who is drawn to new experiences, so it was no surprise that his first stop was Kemuri Tatsu-Ya, a Texas-meets-Japan izakaya in East Austin. An izakaya is a Japanese gastropub with a vibe that’s equal parts high-energy and super chill. It’s where friends and co-workers go to have drinks and enjoy a variety of delicious foods. Tatsu Aikawa and Takuya Matsumoto, chefs at Kemuri Tatsu-Ya, use Central Texas barbecue techniques to transform traditional izakaya dishes into fare that’s unforgettably Austin.
Yuyan had the chance to meet Aikawa and learn about the concept behind Kemuri Tatsu-Ya before tucking into some of the restaurant's signature dishes, including the ray fin jerky, brisket bento box, and tuna collar. Woodsmoke is a source of endless inspiration for Aikawa, and he’s a master at using it to create flavors with incredible depth and complexity.
Get a real taste of Austin at these hidden-gem hotspots
Kemuri wasn't the only place Yuyan was excited to check out in Austin. The city is full of off-the-beaten-path places—such as the Sahara Lounge—that are perfect for meeting and connecting with Austinites. One of the jewels of Austin's east side, Sahara Lounge is a beloved music venue with an outdoor patio and relaxed atmosphere. Swing by on a Saturday for Africa Night, featuring live music and delicious (and free!) family-style food. The lounge lays out a homemade buffet with giant Crock-Pots serving up spicy meatballs, chicken, beans, rice, and other dishes inspired by the flavors of Texas and Africa.
Bouldin Creek Café is another classic joint with deep Austin roots. The restaurant and coffee shop just south of downtown has been serving mouthwatering vegetarian cuisine to locals and visitors for more than 20 years. Just off of East 6th Street, don’t miss The White Horse, a local honky-tonk with one of Austin’s best taco trucks, Bomb Tacos. Or if you’re feeling a spring in your step, visit Sagebrush in South Austin. It's a welcoming, down-home place with three stages for live music and dancing, plus food trucks. You’ll see all levels of two-step, swing, waltz, and sock hop on the dance floor, so come ready to learn a new move.
There's more to explore on South Congress
One of the best ways to experience the bustling spirit of Austin, Yuyan learned, is by taking a walk on South Congress, one of Austin's biggest shopping and nightlife streets. It’s home to historic venues like the the Continental Club and C-Boy’s Heart & Soul and is filled with hip boutiques and shops. To buy an Austin memento, hit up Allens Boots for a perfect-fit pair of cowboy boots or get a custom-made hat at Maufrais Hats.
Another notable storefront on South Congress is Revival Cycles, a motorcycle shop and maker of custom leather accessories that is the epicenter of Austin’s motorcycle culture. To experience this culture first-hand, attend Revival Cycles’s monthly Gearhead Sunday event at their second location in East Austin, where motorcycle enthusiasts gather to display feats of design and engineering.
Venture a little farther off the main strip and you’ll find Blackfeather Vintage Works. The shop is a fixture for Austin’s creative community and a go-to place for eclectic clothing and gifts, from handmade pieces and vintage accessories to Austin artifacts and much more.
Explore the natural wonders of Texas without leaving the city
When you’re ready for a dose of tranquility, visit the UMLAUF Sculpture Garden + Museum. The garden houses a permanent collection of work from sculptor Charles Umlauf, as well as rotating exhibitions set among native plants, gentle streams, and waterfalls. It’s one of Austin’s most Instagrammable settings and a peaceful space to learn and reflect—right in the heart of the city.
For another chance to slow down and enjoy Austin’s greenery, check out the blooms at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin. It’s the official Botanic Garden and Arboretum of Texas and a great place to take in the scents, sounds, and sights of the state’s native landscapes.
A green space that’s evolving right now is the Waterloo Park and Greenway in downtown Austin. Once complete, the 35 acres of connected green space will feature gardens, rolling pathways, and event destinations, all linked by the pristine Waller Creek. This ambitious plan is being developed in three phases, and the first 11 acres is now open to the public.
Take to the water for a new perspective
As a traditional kayak builder, Yuyan was excited to visit Lady Bird Lake, which offers endless opportunities for day trips and water adventures. It’s a reservoir on the Colorado River that meanders through the center of Austin and blends the natural majesty of Texas with the energy of the city.
With no motorized boat traffic and long stretches of calm water, paddlers of all skill levels are free to explore. No worries if you don’t have your own gear—the Rowing Dock and the Austin Rowing Club are great places to rent kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards.
Swimming in Lady Bird Lake is prohibited, but there are two incredible spots nearby to take a dip or do some laps: Barton Springs Pool and Deep Eddy Pool. Both pools are fed by natural freshwater springs, which creates a one-of-a-kind swimming experience.
Zilker Park is another not-to-be-missed spot right off the shores of Lady Bird Lake. You can explore more than 361 acres and enjoy amenities like picnic facilities, bike rentals, and a disc golf course. It’s also home to major events like the Austin City Limits Music Festival and the Austin Kite Festival.
Bringing it back to Yuyan's stomping grounds, these ideas are just the tip of the iceberg. Austin offers bucket-list experiences around every corner and endless ways to create an authentic and unforgettable trip. There's something for everyone in this city, so follow Yuyan's lead and discover for yourself Austin’s fiercely creative and captivating culture—from the incredible food scene to its vibrant music venues and bustling shops.