We love Austin for its loud bars, its excellent and cheap food, and its amiable locals. And more, we love that the city has a specific look, that its neon signs, low craftsman-style houses, and distinctly throwback-y flavor could exist almost nowhere else. Here are six of our favorite places in Austin — all of which show different sides of this utterly original city.
1. Antebellum-Style Opulence
You probably think of Charleston or Savannah as the places for sprawling historic homes, but Austin has one that easily competes — and you can stay in it. Hotel Ella, which opened in 2013 in a Greek revival mansion, doesn’t feel stuffy or pretentious, either. The hotel’s interiors reflect a modern take on a traditional aesthetic. Think artfully distressed mirrors, tufted velvet in bright colors, and modern sculpture by the pool. In fact, our favorite spot on the property is the ultimate mix of old and new: a classic set of wrought-iron chairs, perfect for an outdoor cocktail, that sits under a tree hung with an enormous glass chandelier. Locals and out-of-towners alike flock here in high season for weddings, so book early if you’re staying April through September. Rooms average about $279 per night.
Saver tip: Stay before the end of the year. We found some midweek rooms in October, November, and December going for as low as $219 — a great price for a luxury property.
2. Taco Truck Kitsch
You can hardly say you’ve been to Austin if you don’t spend some time stuffing your face at one (or several) of the city’s taco joints. Our favorites included Torchy’s Tacos (for the food) and Guero’s Taco Bar (for the ambiance). For a solid combination of both, head to Chuy’s, a chain restaurant with its roots in the city that offers heaving portion sizes, velvet Elvises on the wall, and bottomless chips and salsa.
Saver tip: None of these places will set you back more than $15 per person (excluding alcohol), but if you’re looking to avoid service charges and enjoy a truly budget-friendly meal, the city’s endless supply of food trucks should fit the bill. Download this free app to track them around the city.
3. Grandma’s Attic Throwback
Saltwater taffy. Taxidermy. Vintage cameras. Pristine first editions of books by David Foster Wallace and Kurt Vonnegut. You’ll find all of it on South Congress Street in a short row of shops that can take an entire day to fully peruse. Big Top Candy Shop has an old-fashioned soda fountain with a rack full of syrup flavors, while Off the Wall and Uncommon Objects are the must-visit spots for artful oddities. Lit buffs should head straight to South Congress Books for the aforementioned first editions, and a lovingly curated selection of more widely available and affordable reading material.
Saver tip: This area can be touristy, so you’ll be hard pressed to find a true scavenger’s bargain at a place like Uncommon Objects. Off the Wall offers slightly better prices, but they’re still not rock bottom. If you want all the ambiance of these higgledy-piggledy stores, drop in, window shop, and move on to the next one. (Note: Uncommon Objects doesn’t allow photos, but the other shops generally do.)
4. Midcentury Mod
Perhaps our favorite enclave of Austin is the leafy Clarksville neighborhood, which offers a swath of peaceful breakfast spots along a strip of West Lynn Street. We also love the area’s charming midcentury-inspired (or in some cases actually midcentury) look. Galaxy Café leads the charge here with its starburst signage, sleek interiors, and good French press coffee. Zocalo Café, just next door, leans more modern than midcentury with its acid green décor. For the genuine item, head to Nau’s Enfield Drug, which has been in operation since 1951 and is, in fact, a functioning drugstore. Head all the way to the back and grab a seat at the counter for a true greasy spoon breakfast.
Saver tip: Grab a coffee to go and take a walk through the surrounding neighborhood. Brightly painted single-story homes are hedged in by trees and wildflower patches, and guarded by the occasional garden gnome.
5. Hipster Hideout
Rainey Street, situated in an unlikely spot near downtown, is home to a strip of bars that are built into… well… homes. Or they were private homes at one time. Now, this area thrums with nightlife on most nights of the week. During the South By Southwest festival each March, the whole area is more or less closed to the public as the bars become “venues.” Any other time of year, stop in for a drink in one, and then bar- (house-?) hop to the next. Some bars even have food trucks setup in their “backyards.”
Saver tip: Parking in downtown Austin is scarce, so lots tend to be expensive. For free on-street parking, arrive early. You won’t find any if you get there after 7 p.m., or possibly even earlier, in high season.
6. Nature + Nurture
One of the best things about Austin is how easily you can escape it and head into relative wilderness to find excellent hiking, swimming, and biking. Our favorite nature spot, though, doesn’t even require that you leave town. The excellent — and excellently affordable — Barton Springs Pool is the perfect balance of nature in a controlled space. Plus, it’s as charming to look at as it is to actually swim. Cut into Barton Creek with neat walls, the pool offers three acres of calm water where you can swim without fighting the current. But this isn’t a slab of urban concrete. The actual riverbed is beneath your feet, and you’ll be surrounded by floating river plants, the occasional brave duck, and schools of fish. Entry costs $4 for non-resident adults.
Saver tip: If you don’t want to spring — pun intended — to swim in the pool, you can get your feet wet just outside the boundaries for free. Really, though, we encourage you to plunk down $4 for a full day of lounging and paddling.