Western fun, great food, bats, what else could you want in a city weekend trip? I visited Austin, TX for the first time last weekend and saw its potential. We weren’t there for a festival and the students were out of town, so I feel like we got to see Austin raw. What Austin really has to offer when you strip away all the out of towners. Here’s what we did, saw and ate in Austin, TX.
What We Did
I was in Austin with a girlfriend who is getting married in February. We wanted to take a girls trip with the caveat that these won’t be ending once she gets married 🙂 But she’s currently stressed and needed a little R&R. So we had envisioned bachelorette-type adventures and a ton of exploring the city. We ended up exploring Zilker park, South Congress, Rainey Street, the state capitol, and waiting for those pesky bats to fly out from underneath Congress Avenue Bridge.
Zilker Botanical Gardens/Park
List after list insisted Zilker Park was a must-see in Austin. We grabbed an Uber and headed to the Botanical Gardens there first. These grounds were pretty and felt very new, but apparently were founded in 1955. I have to say, winter is not its season. They charged us like it was any other time of the year, but much of the grounds were not in viewing shape. It was still nice to walk around the rose garden, the Japanese garden and the prehistoric sections. And the funny bug motels!
We didn’t see any butterflies or wildflowers, though. And, like most of Austin this time of year, we didn’t see any other people there either.
We had to go out to the main street to exit the Botanical Gardens and enter the park. The park looked quite large and there were a lot of people with dogs hanging out. This time of year, there is a Trail of Lights, a giant Christmas tree and carnival rides. We were there in the daytime, though, and none of it was running. We decided to keep going through the park to walk the path around Lady Bird Lake. Now THIS is where the people were. A lot of runners, bikers, walkers, etc. filled the path that goes 10 miles along the lake. It was nice, but crowded.
South Congress is a neighborhood south of downtown Austin. There are a lot of nice houses and a main drag with shops, hotels, restaurants and food trucks. We took our time walking through and exploring the shops. There’s a mix of flea market-type stores full of junk and trinkets, boot shops, expensive clothing with brands I’ve never heard of, and souvenir shops. I was expecting a bit more music-focused stores, but really didn’t see any.
South Congress also has a bunch of restaurants with rooftop bars and food trucks lining the street. There are several of the instagram-worthy street art mural walls on and around South Congress as well.
Overall, we thought it was fun to explore, but didn’t buy anything and didn’t end up eating on this street (there is a Torchy’s though!).
Rainey Street is one of the most well-known streets in Austin. We stayed on Rainey in an attempt to be where the action was. It turned out to be a street about 2-3 blocks long with pre-1930s houses converted into bars/restaurants.
We went to several of these bars and restaurants on Rainey. There’s a great selection of craft beers at many of them, with some boasting 50 taps of local Texas beer and another with over 50 taps of a mix of TX and other beers (but mostly TX beer). Other bars felt a bit trashier with the basic domestics on tap. They had one thing in common at this time of year: they were all empty! I don’t mean literally, but we were surprised at just how few people were in the bars on Thursday, Friday and Saturday night.
We really enjoyed Rainey Street, but it was a bit odd. Huge hotels and apartment buildings abut the street, with downtown skyscrapers only a block or two north. Directly across from Rainey is an IHOP and a major highway. Cool street, but it felt like a relic they’re trying to preserve. When I looked into the history of Rainey Street, I discovered that it was only in the 2010s that they converted these houses into restaurants/bars. Very strange as it really feels like you’re walking into an area that’s been there forever.
The State Capitol Building
Austin is, of course, Texas’s capital city. The capitol building sits in the heart of downtown Austin. It was raining, so we thought, why not take a tour? They’re free! A woman greeted us in the lobby and took us through the building. In the center of the building is an open rotunda that sits below the building’s dome. The tour guide told us that the Statue of Liberty could fit beneath the dome. On the walls are pictures of each governor of Texas through the years. You see Rick Perry and George W. Bush, as well as the two lady governors Texas has elected.
When you go upstairs, to the left is where the state senate conducts business and to the right is where the house does its thing. Being Christmas time and all, these rooms contained large Christmas Trees with dozens of presents on display. The rooms are quite gorgeous, and the senate’s seats are apparently the original seats that have been in there for over 100 years. One fun fact is that pictures of all the elected officials hang on the walls of the state capitol from term-to-term and in the middle are pictures of their kids. Apparently a few have gone on to become senators/house members and have gotten to put their grown up pictures in the frames.
Heading to the basement, there is a portion of the capitol that is the extension building which has offices and space to hold archives. You can get an incredible view of the dome through ceiling windows in the extension. It was raining, so we really didn’t get the view, but I could tell it would be stunning if we did. This is what it looks like from just above the extension portion.
Congress Avenue Bridge Bats
Another wildly popular event in Austin happens at dusk. Congress Avenue Bridge is home to 1.5 million bats, who take to the skies as the sun sets to hunt for food. Bats do not like rain, so we didn’t even try to see them on Friday night while it continued to drizzle. But Saturday was clear and sunny and promised a great sunset. We set off on scooters to get from Rainey Street to the Bridge just as the sun began to set. And we waited. And waited.
Who knew, other than anyone who actually looked it up, that bats migrate? Even from sunny, warm Austin? Over 95% of the 1.5 million bats head south by December. That left us with some 70,000 bats to try to catch a glimpse of. We could hear them squeaking away as the sky grew darker and darker. Finally, nearly an hour after the sun began to set, 3-4 bats flew above our heads. Watch for the bat guano! At least we saw some 🙂 And we got to take in the beautiful sunset while we were at.
What We Saw
Aesthetically speaking, I can’t say Austin is a great looking city (other than the views from Lady Bird Lake). The type of trees that line the streets are typically Southern Live Oak trees. Their leaves are close together and their branches look haphazardly placed all around. They look naturally unkempt somehow. There also is a ton of construction happening all over Austin, so there is trash, tractors, and equipment seemingly everywhere. I could tell the houses in residential areas had a style – a lot of craftsman and bungalow style homes. Exhibit A of Austin’s general aesthetic…
The food trucks add character to the otherwise somewhat bland style of Austin. On Rainey Street, for instance, there are two enclaves of food trucks. They all sit around a common area filled with picnic tables. In other parts of the city, they’re sitting on lots like a normal store would or creating huge parks like food truck cafeterias. They’re sitting in permanent spots. I liked the concept and the aesthetic of it all.
Austin also has some street art that it is clearly trying to use to lure instagram lovers and influencers. While we certainly found some with heart, they’re mostly hey! You’re in Austin!-type works, like the ones on South Congress. They’re well done and fun to see, so no judgment, but nothing like NYC 🙂
The most NYC-style street art we could find was locked behind a chain link fence topped with barbed wire. Called “HOPE outdoor gallery,” it’s a small hillside with what appeared to be the remnants of a building. Every square inch is graffitied and muraled. It looked beautiful…if we could get in. Apparently the whole project is moving. Okay, that’s fine, but the art itself isn’t, so why close it to the public? It was beyond us, but we took it in as much as we could behind the fence.
What We Ate
Breakfast Tacos/Tacos in General
According to one of our Lyft drivers, Austin is known for its breakfast tacos. He gave us three recommendations: Tacodeli, Veracruz and Torchy’s. We checked out Tacodeli and Veracruz, neither of which disappointed. Tacodeli is a traditional counter pick up taco joint. They had several vegetarian options and I got one filled with delicious cheese and one with equally delicious butternut squash. We were very pleased!
Veracruz is a food truck. I think there are a few locations, but we walked out to the one in East Austin. It was a cool walk because we got to see a residential area that had some really nice looking Victorian-style houses. For breakfast, I got a taco filled with spicy eggs and avocado and yummmm. I also ordered a taco with egg, cheese and potato. They were both really good! It was worth the trek.
Other Great Food
The food, to me, was one of the highlights of Austin. On Rainey Street, our favorites were Banger’s Sausage House and Beer Garden, and Emmer & Rye. Yes, a vegetarian just said Banger’s Sausage House was her favorite. That’s because they had three different types of veggie sausages!! One was beet-based, one was cheese-based, and one was kale-based. I had the cheese-based one (of course), and it was fantastic. We also had a pretzel there that was different, but delicious.
Emmer & Rye is a fancier place with kind of a cool model. They hand you a menu when you sit down that has 10-15 dishes on it. You’re supposed to pick a few tapas-style. They said 4 was good for 2 people. We picked 4 and thought we would be satisfied.
The dishes come out slowly and, as you’re waiting for what you actually ordered, someone comes around with a cart full of other small dishes that you can buy. The first cart had an avocado toast dish, with each ‘slice’ (they’re truly small) being $4. We got one each and Amanda also got a clam. Another cart had a hunk of bread with several different things to spread on the bread. The bread was $5 and the spreads were $6 (or the other way around). Taken with this whole concept, we got the bread, too. By the time the last cart came around, which had a salad and some other dishes, we were really too full. We declined that cart. This style definitely increased our bill, but even with wine, we were still around $150. The wine was fantastic by the way!
We also checked out Gus’s Fried Chicken, which was recommended to us by a bartender. It turned out they didn’t have any veggie options other than mac & cheese. The mac & cheese was okay – they basically filled a styrofoam cup with velveta mac & cheese. The fried pickles were fabulous, though, and Amanda liked the chicken a lot.
For dessert, we tried Tiny Pies and Amy’s Ice Cream. Tiny Pies has a couple locations; we went to the one on Lamar after strolling along Lady Bird Lake. Apparently this place usually has long lines, but we didn’t have any wait. I got a cherry pie, Amanda got a coconut cream and we both got a savory veggie bean pie. Though the ingredients were quite simple (mine had what tasted like canned cherry pie filling), they were really yummy. Amy’s was good too – it’s convenient on South Congress, but I can’t say it was anything special. We also checked out the well-known Hey Cupcake cupcake truck, but were too full to eat them!
Two other fantastic places we found — and yes, we ate a lot in Austin — were Paper Route Bakery and Forthright. We found Paper Route Bakery on our way to Veracruz. The scones are AMAZING. Not to mention the cookies…which they gave us for free… If I lived in Austin, I would have to live near this place. The scones were crisp and flaky and so delicious. Forthright was a little place we found on our way out of Austin. I had some really great yogurt and granola, not to mention the French press coffee and the pumpkin bread! All around, so satisfied by the food in Austin.
That’s pretty much everything we did in Austin! The city was odd so empty. I kind of want to come back when there’s a festival or in the summer when there is more to do outdoors.
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