Known for its thriving live-music scene and “Keep Austin Weird” motto, the Texas capital is blessed with natural beauty in the surrounding hills, rivers and lakes of central Texas. The New York Times even called Austin one of the greenest cities in America.
While Texas may conjure up images of sprawling highways and pickup trucks, downtown Austin has made great strides to become a much more walkable, bikeable capital in recent years. The city council even has a Bicycle Master Plan to increase bike use and regularly holds community walk-and-bike events.
Austin has seen a huge population surge over the past five years, but the boom phase has transformed it into a more cosmopolitan city, while still holding on to its unique, funky vibe and friendly culture. Check out our locals’ guide to downtown Austin and experience the “Live Music Capital of the World” for yourself — all while getting in your quota of steps.
Downtown Austin: Politics, Jazz and Spa Time — With a Side of Guac
With an impressive Walk Score of 90/100, downtown is the most walkable neighborhood in Austin. Add in the availability of easy B-Cycle bike rentals and the plethora of pedicabs for end-of-day (or night) exhaustion, and you have a central district waiting to be discovered on foot or by pedal power. Downtown has several very distinct neighborhoods within itself, each with something unique to offer.
Start your day on Congress Avenue, the main thoroughfare downtown, with the hard-to-miss dome of the Texas State Capitol at one end and Lady Bird Lake at the other. You can fuel up for the morning at The Hideout Coffee House and Theatre, the oldest independent coffee house downtown, serving fresh-brewed beverages and baked goods from local makers. If you come back in the evening, you can take your refreshments (which include beer and wine) upstairs to the theater to enjoy a live performance.
From there, stroll through the leafy Capitol grounds and make your way down Congress, stopping in at shops and galleries, such as the Mexic-Arte Museum, a collection of traditional and contemporary Mexican art with a fantastic shop, and Wild About Music, where you can get your fix of all things melodic and harmonic. Don’t miss all the Gibson guitars dotted around town — each one created by a different local artist as a public art project. You probably noticed them on display in the baggage claim at the airport. You can find “Vibrancy” by Craig Hein in front of Frost Tower at 4th and Congress for a great photo op.
From Congress Avenue, head west to the Second Street District, a bustling mixed-use area with upscale dining, locally owned movie theater Violet Crown Cinema and the new home of the Austin City Limits soundstage — don’t miss the bronze Willie Nelson statue out front. Second Street is also a shopper’s paradise, with high-end retail boutiques mixed in amongst funky Austin favorites like Toy Joy, a zany throwback of a toy store that might be more popular with adults than kids.
Time for lunch yet? Austin natives love their barbecue, but it’s also a health-conscious city and offers plenty of veggie-focused foods and other delicious options. Check out MAD Greens for a hearty Buddha Grain Bowl or a Thai-inspired Siam I Am salad. Take your lunch to go and enjoy a picnic along the shores of Lady Bird Lake as you soak up the Texas sunshine. For a midday splurge, La Condesa is a local favorite for authentic, modern Mexican cuisine; here you can go as light and healthy — or as all-out indulgent — as you choose.
After lunch, take a break from city life and rejuvenate with some pampering. Head to Hiatus Spa + Retreat on West 5th Street. This oasis of rejuvenation offers a peaceful respite with a full menu of body treatments. Check out its monthly retreat specials. Re-up afterwards with a smoothie from the original Whole Foods just down the street on Lamar Boulevard — the chain was founded in Austin in 1980.
As it gets toward evening and you’re ready to rock, start by exploring the Sixth Street Entertainment District, or “Dirty Sixth” as the locals call it. This is where you’ll find all the bars and live-music venues that Austin is famous for — and where many of the most popular festivals and events, including the SXSW Festival every year in mid-March, take place. In between the busy bars and clubs, you’ll also find the beautiful Driskill Hotel, a piece of history dating from 1886 (and often said to be haunted). Stroll through the lobby of this “Grand Dame” to admire the stunning stained-glass dome, marble columns and original bank vault.
For dinner, check out Parkside Restaurant from beloved local chef Shawn Cirkiel, who introduced the farm-to-table concept to Austin long before it was a buzzword.
Time to indulge in some of that famed live music? Your choices are nearly endless (and overwhelming), so consult the ever-reliable Austin Chronicle for suggestions. You can’t go wrong at the venerable Antone’s, known as the epicenter of Austin’s live-music scene, Stubb’s (also famous for its barbecue) or the Elephant Room, a basement jazz lounge.
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About the Author
Shelley Seale is a freelance writer based in Austin. She loves books, dogs, travel, yoga, indie movies, food and wine, though not necessarily in that order. Follow her on Twitter @ShelleySeale.