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Live music. Smoky BBQ. Colorful murals. Millions of fuzzy, flying little bats. Uhh, what was that last bit?
Let me first start off by saying that bats are adorable. Like, scroll through this post and tell me that you think bats are scary. You want to know what’s scary? Austin’s most famous serial killer, the Servant Girl Annihilator. Yes, that’s the word they used: annihilator. Look at a cuddly, fuzzy little bat in its giant, adorable eyes and tell me it looks like it could annihilate anything other than my heart. Also, yes: I am biased because my dog totally looks like a bat in the face.
Whoops, I’m getting really off-subject. Austin, Texas is one of the most beloved cities in the USA. A city that defies expectations, is totally and wonderfully weird, and has everything to offer a visitor on a 3-day weekend! Austin is so iconic that I sometimes refer to my beloved hometown, Louisville, as “the Austin of Kentucky” (mostly when talking to people in California).
Although I’ve visited Austin a few times, most of my recommendations involve an overly aggressive defense of bats and a drooling description of the best BBQ I have ever eaten (which was at Salt Lick, FWIW). So I tapped someone with a LOT more expertise: a local!
Today’s Guest Poster lives in Austin and knows all of its ins and outs, and she’s created the perfect itinerary for a weekend in Austin. So without further rambling, take it away, Shelley!
Psst: Planning a trip to the South? Here are some other posts that you might find helpful:
All About Austin, Texas
As a native Texan who fled to the haven of Austin nearly 20 years ago (it’s not anything like the rest of the state, y’all), I love coming back home here whenever I’m not traveling elsewhere in the world. It’s a fun city with a unique vibe.
I’ll admit the city has changed a lot over the past 10 years, it has experienced a surge of growth as it hit “best places to live” lists in magazines, newspapers, and websites over and over.
The Austin we know today started out as a town called “Waterloo” in the 1800s, back hen it was a buffalo-hunting region occupied by the Tonkawa and Comanche.
In 1839, it was selected by scouts as the site for the permanent capital of the Republic of Texas and renamed to honor Stephen F. Austin, father of the republic (and I have to admit, sometimes Texans still act like we’re living in our own republic!).
Just a few decades ago, Austin was still a sleepy college town with a large hippie contingent and major quirky factor. That atmosphere still persists in spite of the fact that it’s grown into quite a cosmopolitan city! That said, some of that growth has been negative (mostly the traffic, and when you visit you’ll hear locals bitch endlessly about this, as well as lament the “old” places that have closed to give way to new, hip spots).
But with its magical mix of artists and entrepreneurs, hipsters and hippies, musicians and high-tech professionals, Austin is still an amazing place to live and visit, and has a lot to offer for everyone.
To begin with, the setting is beautiful, in rolling Texas Hill Country and with abundant parks, green spaces, and outdoor recreation. It’s not called the “live music capital of the world” for nothing (a moniker, by the way, that we gave to ourselves): on any given night some 75 musical acts play around town everywhere from major stages to small coffee houses and even the supermarket.
The creative culture here is vibrant and infuses everything, from that healthy music scene to the visual arts, working studios and galleries, museums and cultural events.
If you have only three days to spend in my hometown, here is the weekend in Austin itinerary I would suggest to fully experience the capital city that’s so different from the rest of Texas!
When to Visit Austin
Honestly, Austin is a year-round destination. The spring and fall are the most pleasant times to visit, with mostly gorgeous weather. It’s also the most crowded/popular, with major events like the South by Southwest Festival (March) and the Austin City Limits Music Festival (October).
Winters are pretty mild, although we do get several cold snaps and even freezing weather — but they’re brief and two days later we might be in shorts and t-shirts again.
Summer is fun and there are lots going on then, but non-Southerners need to understand that Texas summers are hot. I mean, hot. July and August will routinely break 100 degrees daily; but everything is air-conditioned, and the city has tons of places to keep cool, like natural swimming holes! (Note from Lia: This is my favorite swimming hole near Austin.)
Where to Stay in Austin
Austin has a killer variety of accommodations — from the fun and quirky and from budget to splurge.
If you love boutique hotels, you can’t go wrong with Heywood Hotel, a gorgeous renovated 1920s bungalow on the happening East Side. Also in that neighborhood is the affordable and super-chic East Austin Hotel.
If you’re trying not to spend big bucks, you don’t have to sacrifice the cool factor. We have some incredible hostels: check out the ultra-hip Native Hostel, a gathering place of creatives and thinkers, that offers everything from live music to yoga (locals love it, too!). The hostel is perfectly situated at the intersection of Austin’s artsy East side and the downtown entertainment district.
Located squarely downtown is Firehouse Hostel, which was created in an actual historic fire station; a bonus is its cocktail bar, which is hidden speakeasy-style behind a rolling bookcase.
Although there are AirBnB restrictions in Austin, there are a handful of excellent places to stay.
- This airy artist’s retreat in East Austin is not only gorgeous and well-located, but ethical as well: part of every reservation is donated to cultural and environmental community organizations in Austin.
- This gorgeous spot near South Congress/SoCo includes a stunning heated saltwater pool surrounded by tropical plants.
- This stylish cottage – and its resident chickens and goat – are located right on South Congress, walking distance from several spots on our itinerary.
How to Get to Austin
The Austin-Bergstrom International airport recently expanded with a second, small terminal, and every month we get more and more nonstop flights from around the country and world.
There isn’t really another good way of getting here from farther away in the country or globe (unless you’re ready for a really long ride); but if you’re coming from elsewhere in Texas or a nearby state, you could also take a look at Amtrak’s train schedule, Megabus or Greyhound.
How to Get Around Austin
If you aren’t familiar with Texas, it’s not the most public-transportation friendly area of the country. But one of the ways Austin differs from the rest of the state is that Austin does have a pretty decent system with Cap Metro, which operates both a city-wide bus system and a light rail that runs between downtown to Leander, way north of the city.
You may not even need the bus, though. If you’re staying in one of the concentrated neighborhoods of Austin — downtown, Eastside, South Congress/Lamar, the University area or Midtown/North Central — they are pretty walkable.
Austin is also a huge bicycling town, with lots of bike rental companies in town along with the ubiquitous electric scooters.
And if all else fails, there’s always ride sharing (Uber and Lyft, etc) and taxis.
Now that you have all the when, where and how logistical tips, let’s get down to the fun part: What should you do with a few days in the Lone Star State Capital City?
Austin Weekend Itinerary: Day 1
For your first day in Austin, you’ll explore Austin’s history and culture, get in touch with the city’s weird side, and meet its most famous resident critters. Let’s get started!
Let’s start this 3 days in Austin itinerary off right, with one of Austin’s most famous delicacies: tacos! Yes, for breakfast! If you’ve never had tacos for breakfast before, you’re in for a treat. The taco is practically the state dish of Texas, so much so that we eat them any time of the day.
Breakfast tacos aren’t that different from any taco, in that they can be filled with a nearly endless variety of ingredients; but they are typically a soft taco rather than crunchy, and fillings like egg and potatoes are common.
Start your day off right by heading over to Austin institution Jo’s Coffee and grab a cup of java along with the choice of a wide assortment of breakfast tacos – we recommend the Migas. They have a location downtown, or hit Jo’s on South Congress and get a pic at the iconic “I love you so much” wall.
Learn about Austin’s History & Culture
Once you’ve fueled up, start exploring the heart of Austin at the State Capitol, where you can take a free tour. You’ll see the legislative chambers (yasss, democracy!) as well as historical artifacts.
Directly across the street from the Capitol, you’ll find the Texas Governor’s Mansion, the oldest continuously occupied executive residence west of the Mississippi. Discover more of Texas’ colorful history on a free guided tour, available Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m.
Afterward, your history lesson, stroll down the tree-lined Congress Avenue to the Mexic-Arte Museum, showcasing contemporary Mexican, Latino, and Latino art and culture. After all, Mexican heritage is the foundation of Texas.
Now that you’ve been sufficiently historic and cultural, it’s time to dive into modern-day Austin and head to the Museum of the Weird around the corner on 6th street. The name of this old-timey dime museum says it all: you’ll find an array of curios & oddities, from Bigfoot to shrunken heads, a cyclops pig, a hand of glory (supposedly the dried and pickled hand of a man who has been hanged), a two-headed chicken. You’ll learn about the legend of “The Minnesota Iceman” and even see a live sideshow – just be sure to tip the performers.
After that – if you’ve still got an appetite for lunch – head a block away to the historic Driskill Hotel, the oldest hotel in Austin. There you will find one of Austin’s best lunchtime spots, the 1886 Café & Bakery, which serves homemade gourmet sandwiches, soups, and salads – but the real draw is the sinful desserts, like their famous 1886 Chocolate Cake. I’ve run into local celebs there like Matthew McConaughey and Robert Duvall, as well as TV travel host Samantha Brown filming a segment!
Explore South Congress (SoCo)
After lunch, work off that chocolate cake by heading across the Congress Avenue Bridge to South Congress Avenue. Known as SoCo to locals, this stretch (between Academy & Annie Streets) is home to numerous vintage stores, boutiques, restaurants, and clubs, as well as street performers and pop-up artisan fairs.
The best way to experience South Congress is just by walking and stopping at absolutely anything that looks interesting!
- Parts & Labor: A boutique store featuring gifts and art made exclusively by Texas-based artists.
- Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds: A fantastic and quirky costume and vintage shop. Save room in your luggage for wigs!
- Amy’s Ice Cream: This locally beloved institution is said to have the best ice cream in Austin – if not all of Texas! With over 350 rotating flavors, you’re bound to find something new.
After a few hours of wonderfully aimless browsing, it’s time for dinner. There are a few excellent places to get dinner in SoCo:
- Funky Guero’s Taco Bar serves up down-home Austin Tex-Mex – this was Bill Clinton’s favorite restaurant in town.
- Famous Austin taco institution Torchy’s Tacos has a South Congress location Tacos for breakfast, tacos for dinner… welcome to Texas, I say.
- There are also plenty of food trucks in the area, all of them good. (Seriously, I’ve never had one bad food truck meal in Austin). Take your pick!
- For something a little less casual, I recommend South Congress Café.
Meet the Austin Bats
Before or after dinner (depending on the time of year), gather at the Congress Avenue Bridge for one of the most unusual, magnificent sites in the US — the bat flight.
You see, this bridge hides a secret: underneath it lives the world’s largest urban colony of Mexican free-tailed bats, 1.5 million of them to be precise. Yes, I said million.
Every night at sunset from March through November, the bats leave the bridge en masse for the night and fly east across Lady Bird Lake – a sight so awesome that it draws hundreds of spectators each evening. It’s a quintessential Austin experience that you absolutely can’t miss!
- Travel Tip: Experience the bat flight from a whole new angle on a sunset kayaking tour! You’ll get a front-row seat to the show, plus a taste of Austin’s outdoorsy side. Prefer to be above the bats rather than below them (I get it)? Take a bat-watching bike tour instead!
Dance the Night Away
After the sun goes down and the bats head off to munch on mosquitos and do other adorable and helpful things (bats are the cutest, don’t @ me) head back to South Congress to the famous local institution, the Continental Club — because surely you came to Austin to hear some music!
With a rockabilly 1950s décor and a decades-long history of top musical acts, a night out doesn’t get much better than this. It’s hard to know what kind of music will be playing that night: it could be rock, country, jazz & blues, local bands, or someone famous! But no matter what, you’ll definitely have a good time.
- Travel Tip: Want to experience MORE live music in Austin? This live music crawl led by a local Austin musician will take you to three iconic clubs and up-and-coming venues to experience the best and most authentic live music Austin has to offer!
Austin Weekend Itinerary: Day 2
Today, you’ll get outdoors and soak up at the sun in Austin’s giant city park, followed by an afternoon choose-your-own adventure: touring or museum-ing.
Enjoy Zilker Park
To fuel up for your day, grab some coffee and breakfast tacos at Austin Java downtown or Torchy’s near Zilker Park. If you’re taco’ed out but still have room for delicious, over-the-top southern comfort food, hit up the Biscuits & Groovy food truck on Barton Springs.
Once you’re sufficiently fueled, it’s time to take advantage of Austin’s natural beauty and explore the great outdoors – within the city!
Head to Lady Bird Lake and the sprawling oasis of Zilker Park, the city’s green crown jewel with 358 acres spread through the heart of Austin!
One of the most refreshing things to do in Zilker Park when it’s warm outside is to swim at Barton Springs, a natural underground spring-fed pool that stays a cool 68 degrees year-round.
Or, just enjoy Lady Bird Lake! You can rent kayaks, stand-up paddleboards or paddleboats at several places along the lake (which is actually just part of the Colorado River), such as Live Love Paddle or EpicSUP. If you are made of muscle, you can even take a SUP yoga class.
Prefer to stay dry? Rent a bike – or book a bike tour – to explore the park on the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail and Boardwalk. The complete route makes a 10-mile circuit around stunning Lady Bird Lake.
Option 1: Museum-ing at the University of Texas
After a morning spent outdoors, the afternoon presents a perfect opportunity to visit one of Austin’s museums.
Head towards the University of Texas, and take advantage of being on campus by having brunch or lunch at Kerbey Lane Cafe, one of the locals’ most beloved eateries (open 24 hours). Their queso played a role in Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood, and there’s even a mural on the restaurant documenting Austin’s love affair with the melted cheese dip.
When you’re sufficiently ready to museum, art vultures can visit the Blanton, our premier fine art museum that showcases regional artists to international exhibits; and history lovers can take in the Bullock Texas State History Museum, an interactive and immersive experience in learning the story of Texas.
Option 2: Take a Tour of Austin
If yesterday was enough museums for you or you’re up for even more time outside, the perfect way to spend your day today is to take a tour of Austin!
Guided tours are a fantastic way to explore a new place because you learn a ton of local history, get to see a side of the city you never would’ve known even existed, and have a whole bunch of fun (and, frequently, food).
Here are a few suggestions:
- Secret Austin Food Tour: Navigate past the tourist traps and into the best restaurants in Austin as you learn about the city’s history and quirks, see cultural landmarks, and of course, eat a bunch of incredible food! As you taste dishes dating back to Austin’s Aztec days, you’ll learn how the Aztecs, as well as our immigrants, have shaped the flavors of this modern metropolis.
- Keep Austin Weird Scavenger Hunt: Get to know the weirder side of Austin by completing wacky missions all over town while learning about this unique city’s best-kept secrets, quirks, conversation pieces, local secrets, points of interest, fun facts, history, art, culture and more! Plus, as a bonus, you can aggressively compete against your loved ones.
- Weird Austin City Tour: How did Austin get its “weird” reputation? Why is Willie Nelson worshipped like a king? What’s the deal with all the bats? Why are locals getting into bar fights over the best breakfast taco? You’ll learn all the weird and wild tales of Austin on the Weird Austin City Tour, which includes enjoying live music, sampling local foods and beers, and the perfect street art & skyline photo ops.
- Texas BBQ & Winery Tour: This tour takes you into stunning Texas Hill country to 2 local wineries and one of the best BBQ joints near Austin, Salt Lick. You’ll start before noon by filling up with insanely good BBQ, then get progressively more wine-drunk. Aww hiss. Note: this is totally doable as a self-guided tour if you have a car and a DD!
- Brewery Tour (with BBQ!): Breweries, BBQ, and local history – need we say more? Psst: if you prefer a brewery tour without the BBQ, here’s another option!
Live Music on Downtown Sixth Street
When night falls, Austin wakes up — it’s definitely a town where people know how to have fun. If you’re a party animal you’ll want to check out famed Sixth Street, an absolute must for at least a people-watching walk (though locals call it “Dirty Sixth” for a reason).
For dinner, head to Manuel’s down the street for upscale and authentic Mexican food. Or, for a more intimate dinner – and drinks – head to Townsend, a beautiful cocktail lounge with a mid-century vibe and a small listening room in the back where live music plays almost every night.
Afterwards, catch some live music at an authentic local standby: Antone’s, a club pulsing with energy where musicians from Stevie Ray Vaughan to B.B. King have taken the stage. Also, fun fact: Kathy Valentine of The Go-Go’s is an owner-investor and the music program consultant.
Austin Itinerary: Day 3
Today’s the day to explore the artistic hipster haven of East Austin, chock-full of restaurants, craft brewpubs, vintage shops, and coffee houses. You’re in my home neighborhood now, and the hardest decision to make is where to go!
But before you start exploring, it’s important to note that East Austin wasn’t always the colorful, mural-splashed, Instagrammable hotspot it is today.
For over a century, East Austin was a center for Black culture, one of the few in the state of Texas. The city’s oldest university was founded here in 1877, and the historically Black university provided higher education for freed slaves after the Civil War. In the 50’s and 60’s, East Austin – especially around 11th street – was a thriving business and entertainment district for the city’s Black residents, not unlike Beale Street in Memphis.
Today, this important and historic area is a prime example of gentrification and urban renewal – read the full history here. Thankfully, the heritage and history of the area, which has the unique distinction of being the only Black cultural district in Texas, is being preserved by the Six Square Cultural District in Central East Austin, a nonprofit organization working to highlight the achievements of local African Americans while educating the population about our painful history.
As you explore East Austin, let that context frame your experience as you explore both the old and the new in East Austin.
Explore East Sixth Street
Cesar Chavez and East Sixth Street are both highly walkable and bikeable thoroughfares that are lined with colorful murals, wacky yard art, food trucks, vintage shops and working artist galleries where you can often see makers in motion. You’ll be spending today exploring the area!
For breakfast or brunch, I recommend Counter Cafe, a laid-back diner with some of the best eggs benedict and steak-and-eggs in town.
Then, it’s time to wander. Explore! Roam (if you want to)! Here are a few suggestions to guide your wanderings:
- Street Art: Austin has fantastic street art, and you’ll see it all around East Sixth St. There are plenty of detailed guides to Austin’s street art, like this colorful wall guide (with over 80 walls!), this “Instagrammable” photo op guide, and this mapped-out guide. But we recommend this self-guided mural tour of East Austin created by the Six Square Cultural District, which highlights meaningful murals that speak to the soul and history of the neighborhood.
- Breweries: Austin is famous for its craft beer – we’ve got over 65 craft breweries in town, and that number keeps on growing. Yes, we are #blessed. In this part of town, you can walk to 4 of then: Zilker Brewing, Lazarus Brewing, Blue Owl Brewing, and Hops & Grain. Or, book a guided tour: this brewery walking tour in East Austin takes you to 4 local East Austin hot-spots with plenty of history and local insight along the way. Check out this East Austin brewery guide on Big World Small Girl for more brewery suggestions!
- Cultural Heritage: If you’re looking for the original flavor of East Austin, you’ll find it in Central East Austin and just south of Sixth Street in East Cesar Chavez. Visit the George Washington Carver Museum, Cultural and Genealogy Center to learn about Black culture in Austin and the celebration of Juneteenth – admission is free! Here’s a guide to a few more places of historical note in Central East Austin. I also recommend the Tejano Walking Trail, a 5 mile self-guided walking or biking trail that features 22 culturally significant sites. This area was historically home to Austin’s Hispanic residents, many of whom were displaced by urban development, and the trail preserves these neighborhood treasures despite the onslaught of gentrification.
- Self-Guided History Tours: Preservation Austin has a free Historic Austin Tours series available through the Otocast app! These self-guided audio-visual tours explore the city’s heritage through narrated histories and historic photographs. I recommend the East Sixth Street Tour, including the Driskill Hotel and Alamo Ritz, or the African American Austin tour. (There’s also a Congress Avenue tour!)
You’ll be spending all day exploring, which means you’re gonna get hungry for lunch – and I know just the place. Besides breakfast tacos, Austin is known for its barbecue. While Franklin’s is the most well-known, lines are often hours long and they’re usually sold out by 11 am.
But equally as good is my go-to, La Barbecue, run by LeAnn Mueller of the Mueller “barbecue royalty” family. Try their mouth-watering Central Texas-style smoked brisket or ribs, all home-smoked in a custom-built smoker. The restaurant is located in the Quickie Pickie store and cafe — you’ll thank me later.
- Travel Tip: If you’re here on a Sunday, the HOPE Farmers Market is always fun, featuring live music, and yoga along and kid’s activities as well as a selection of farmer’s stalls and prepared food vendors. If you happen to visit Austin in November, check out the East Austin Studio tour which happens over two weekends and invites the public into creative spaces to interact with the work of more than 1,000 artists.
Option 1: Hit Up a Honky-Tonk
The nightlife scene in East Austin is lively, with every block in the neighborhood boasting several spots. If you can stay out on East Sixth Street all day and make it into the evening, you’ll be rewarded with a uniquely Texan experience.
Head over to the White Horse to get your Texas honky-tonk on. There is live music and dancing every night of the week, from rockabilly and swing to blues and rock, and even dance lessons if you want. The vibe is hot and the drinks are cheap. This place is as Austin as it gets!
When you’re ready to wind down, my absolute favorite cocktail lounge is Ah Sing Den, named for Charles Dickens’ favorite London opium den and run by a mother and daughter team. Grab an aperitif and a small plate and, if you’re lucky, enjoy some more live music!
Option 2: Meet Some Ghosts
If three days of drinking and dancing in a row sounds like a bit much (Note from Lia: what up my over 30 crowd, hayyy y’all), take an afternoon siesta and then – when it’s nice and dark – emerge from your lair to meet some of Austin’s resident spooks.
No, I’m not talking about the bats. They are adorable and fuzzy and not at all scary. Plus, you already met them!
Nope, we’re talking literal ghosts. Murderous ghosts, at that! Intrigued? Terrified!? Little Column A, little Column B?
On this haunted walking tour of Austin, you’ll hear the historical tales of murder and mayhem that helped make Austin weird. You’ll explore Austin on foot with an acclaimed storyteller – and a small group – and see all of Austin’s supernatural nooks and creepy crannies, including a tour of the famous Driskill Hotel.
If your idea of a nightcap is a glass of wine and an episode of My Favorite Murder, take this true-crime walking tour of Austin, aka Murder Walk (ooh, sounds fun)!
Just listen to this description: “In the year 1885 America’s first serial killer stalked the streets and alleyways of the young, emerging city of Austin. More terrifying than any ghost story, this monster brutally and systematically hacked eight women to death using an ax. For one calendar year, he terrified a city and came to be known as the “midnight assassin”. He was never captured and his identity remains a mystery or does it…?”
Um, does anyone else have chills?!
The tour covers 2 miles of historic Austin including West 6th street, Guy Town, the Warehouse District and the iconic Driskill Hotel as you learn all about the theories surrounding the mystery of the midnight assassin.
Weekend in Austin: Summary
First things first: bookmark this page! You’re going to want to come back to get all the details.
That said, we did make things a little easier for you: below you’ll find all the details from above in a nice, tidy little summary. Enjoy!
About Our Guest Poster: Shelley is a wanderer and student of the world, yoga chick, voracious reader and dog lover. She pounds the keyboard as a freelance writer, author and publication designer from her home base of Austin, Texas when she isn’t traipsing around the planet. Shelley has written for National Geographic, USA Today, The Guardian, Fodor’s, The Telegraph and The Week, among others. Shelley has performed a catch on the flying trapeze, boarded down a live volcano, and was once robbed by a monkey in India. But, she doesn’t know how to whistle. Follow her at TradingPlacesGlobal.
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Are you ready to head to the live music capital of the world? Which part of our weekend in Austin itinerary are you most excited about? Drop us a comment below!
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