My friends are all probably sick of hearing me talk about Austin by now. As I alluded to in my last Odds & Ends post, the Texas state capitol never used to be on my radar as a city I wanted to visit, much less live in. I never had family or friends in Texas until relatively recently, potentially correlated with the city’s shift from “up-and coming” to THE best place to live in the States. No combination like Texas-sized job growth, and Texas-style tax breaks for a booming economy, right?
All that to say, in the past few years more and more of my friends came back raving about Austin – the live music everywhere, thriving food scene, and how it was, in one word, chill. Maleah and I have enough “go-go-go” in our lives, so it was our perfect “adult spring break”. Four days of enjoying sunshine, good food, and catching up with our old friends is exactly what we needed.
In mid-April it was sunny and 70s, with just one rainy morning and a brief freak storm (more on that later). Spending time on the river, hanging out at Zilker Park, and exploring the South Congress area where there aren’t many tall buildings, made me almost forget we were even in a city! I loved how much green space and fresh air there was, but with still so much to do (and eat). I wanted to try this “travel diary” style post for photos and memories’ sake, so it’s a long one… but you can find my recommendations in bullet form at the end!
I left my office at 4:30pm on Wednesday and didn’t land in Austin until Thursday. I’ll spare you the details, but that time and frustration spent going to BWI is not worth saving $50 on a plane ticket. Get you a friend like Eric, who will scoop you from the airport after midnight and take the couch even when he has work the next day! <3 By the time Maleah and I made it to our Airbnb the next morning, we were ready for coffee and sustenance – enter Elizabeth St. Cafe.
The restaurant is an adorable French-Vietnamese fusion place with a quiet patio, a few blocks over from South Congress Ave. Maleah ordered the Banh Mi with fried egg, crispy pork belly, and avocado (on the left, pictured above), and I ordered the chicken & kaffir lime laap. We ended up doing a switcheroo though, because the laap (lettuce wraps) were really spicy! Our waitress told us their croissants were “the best in Austin,” so I got a chocolate one. It wasn’t anything life changing, but satisfied my sweet tooth before heading out to explore South Congress on foot.
We popped into random art galleries, boot stores, boutiques, and book stores in between our self-guided mural tour, taking a zillion photos at the different murals that Austin is known for. South Congress was pretty quiet on a Thursday morning, drastically different when we returned over the weekend. Even the professional photographers knew that was a great time for photos. We kept running into an entourage of makeup artists, stylists, videographers, and equipment people for a professional shoot going on for Lee jeans!
Across the street from Jo’s Coffee (where the “i love you so much” mural is) was a juice truck by Juice Austin. There was also a grilled cheese truck, and I later found out that it happened to be National Grilled Cheese Day! After walking around for hours in the sun though, the juice was certainly the better option.
Amy’s Ice Cream is right by the food trucks, but the line was insanely long and we were still full. We opted to cross the Congress Bridge to their location downtown, where there was no line and plenty of seating. It wasn’t until we ventured downtown that we started to see the signs of life – people getting off work early and heading to happy hour, grocery shopping, etc.
Walking around so much really helped me get a lay of the land, but by dinner time we were ready to just chill. We picked up some groceries from Whole Foods downtown to take back to our Airnbnb for a few meals and snacks in, and called it a night. (Has anyone else noticed that the garden decorations outside of the Whole Foods is like a mini Supertrees garden from Singapore?!)
Friday morning was rainy and humid, so we took our time reading and sipping on coffee at Nate’s Baked Goods and Coffee until the sun came out. On the way to check out Central Library, we walked past a ton of what I thought were ginormous aloe plants…. only to find out later that it was actually agave. Oops!
Central Library has a rooftop garden with incredible views of the river and the city. There are huge windows for a ton of natural light inside too – an amazing place to study! I think somehow I only ended up with a video of it on Insta stories… but I certainly recommend the library as a place to get some work done if you find yourself working from Austin.
Speaking of studying, we explored the UT Austin campus and fit right in with our workout clothes and backpacks on! For either of us to seriously consider going to grad school anywhere, we had to check out the gym… and wow, this place has Fetzer beat. I could totally get used to having an outdoor lap pool more than 1 month out of the school year. While the campus is beautiful and I love that big state school vibe, all the burnt orange would take some getting used to…
Song La, the Taiwanese food truck on the Drag, was sadly out of the braised pork rice by the time we were hungry for lunch. We both got Taiwanese fried chicken instead, but I’ve had better in Nova. Later, we stopped at Cream Whiskers bakery for matcha lattes. I ended up liking the giant matcha cream puff more than the matcha latte, which was a bit powdery.
For dinner, we finally had our first Texan tacos at Torchy’s Tacos on Congress Ave. The Tipsy Chick (that bacon bourbon marmalade has me drooling just thinking about it) and the Crossroads (smoked beef brisket with grilled onions and avocado) were the best tacos I’ve had in my life. Pretty much everyone insisted that we also try their green chile queso. Verdict? Chipotle should be ashamed of themselves.Just note that the South Congress location of Torchy’s doesn’t have a liquor license, due to its proximity to a school. We sat at the bar anyway for quicker seating, otherwise we would’ve waited quite awhile for a table.
After dinner, we met up with McKenzie and her friends on Rainey Street. Rainy is a popular area to go out with hip bars and restaurants that were remodeled from historic homes. We started at Lustre Pearl, which has a yard area with games like cornhole, giant Jenga, and giant Connect Four. We were enjoying the breezy weather at the picnic tables when out of nowhere, a freak sandstorm swept through. Everyone was being blinded by the dust and sand and squeezing inside (violating all kinds of fire codes). I’m still unclear whether that’s a normal Texas thing, but nobody seemed terribly concerned. It was chaos for what must have only been like, 15 minutes and then it was over. While inside, we met these foreign guys who tried to convince us they were a professional tennis player and his manager who made lots of money – also unclear if that ever works for them, but… there are definitely all sorts of people in Austin!
I noticed right away that the Rainey Street demographic was much more mixed than the bars I usually end up at in DC. I didn’t have anything to drink at Icenhauer’s, but the people watching was incredibly entertaining. Leave it to Adeline to befriend literally everyone, including an Air Force officer with the best (worst) dance moves, a former LSU football player, and our server at brunch the next day…
Instead of starting our day with a workout as planned, we ended up brunching at this cute little place in East Austin called Cafe Cultivo. Our server, who happened to also own/run the restaurant, was so sweet she practically gave Adeline the clothes off her back. Okay – it was an apron. And she gave Adeline her spare, but still – it’s amazing what gushing about an apron that’s “like a dish towel but for your whole body” can do for you in Austin!
Free apron situation aside, I thoroughly enjoyed my French toast made with a French baguette instead of toast, and the coffee kept coming. It was much windier/chillier than our first two days, but we still sat outside to enjoy the sunshine and got to pet some adorable pups. Later, we joined some of McKenzie’s other friends who were playing volleyball at Zilker Park. No joke, Austin is the most dog-friendly city I’ve ever been to. There were off-leash doggos everywhere, of all shapes and sizes, running around having the time of their lives. I pretty much decided right then and there that I want to be an Austin dog mom. (This is what I mean if you’ve heard me talk about my 5-year plan…)
The HOPE outdoor gallery is a graffiti park that’s supposed to be torn down soon. Luckily, it was still there for us to admire the always-changing art with a view of the city. To get to the top, you have to climb up a steep hill with loose gravel everywhere – watch your step!
Lots of people brought their own spray paint and were tagging the walls with random stuff, some more sophisticated than others. It truly makes for a cool effect with all of the different walls stacked up the hill. The gallery is a bit out of the way/not close to anything, but we were lucky to have McKenzie drop us off there. On the way back, we Ubered to refuel with acai at Blenders & Bowls, pick up chapstick for my insanely sunburned/windburned lips, and then meet back up with Eric for a caffeine boost at The Hideout Coffee House.
I wasn’t about to leave Texas without some bomb barbecue, so Eric took us to Terry Black’s BBQ that evening. It’s cafeteria style, where you go down the line to pick up containers of sides like green beans and mac’n cheese, and then order your meat at the counter. I asked for ribs thinking they were going to be baby back ribs, but I should’ve known better… everything is bigger in Texas! The butcher looked at me like I was crazy for wanting a whole rib to myself. No regrets about getting the brisket instead – 100% worth the line. I can’t even imagine barbecue that would be so much better than Terry’s that it would be worth waiting HOURS for, like at Franklin Barbecue.
That night, we went for the “Dirty 6th” experience, famous for cheap shots and dive bars, just to do it once. That kind of nightlife is admittedly not usually my scene. But I happily relived the college-y vibes at Buckshot and dancing on the rooftop at Maggie Mae’s with a group of Eric’s friends. Buckshot has quite the extensive menu of crazy shots like the “dirty girl scout” and other things less PG than I’d prefer to write on the blog. Within minutes of my being there, some girl drunkenly spun into me and knocked my drink out of my hand – if that tells you anything about the crowd. I also vaguely remember some guys not wearing pants, undoubtedly part of some “risky business” date party theme. I saw a bride and groom leaving Maggie Mae’s, which was interesting because I was not getting “wedding venue vibes” from anywhere on 6th Street! It was a fun night, but I’d choose Rainey over Dirty 6th without question.
My favorite meal in Austin was on our last full day, at Cafe Josie. “The brunch experience” (bottomless small plates) is just $25 a person! After trying each dish, Maleah and I kept asking each other to re-evaluate what our favorite was so far. And it kept changing because everything was amazing! If I had to choose though, my favorites were the brussel sprouts, smoked salmon bagel, and the Mexican vanilla parfait.
We were seated outside (right away, I might add), where we could enjoy the live music. It was incredibly relaxing to brunch with no crowd waiting around, no customers two inches away to shout over, and no rush whatsoever. It seems to be in a quieter part of town, so may be more of a lesser-known gem. Their menu changes seasonally, but the service and food was all so exceptional I ‘m sure I’d go back any time of year!
To walk off our food comas, we did a leisurely stroll back to South Congress to meet Eric at Jo’s Coffee, one of his regular weekend hangout spots. On the way, we stumbled upon the most Texas thing ever- the Yeti flaship store. The store is surely a case study in brand activation, complete with an actual stuffed bear (shot by a Yeti ambassador), full-sized sports bar, and a poster infographic of all the different cuts of meat from a cow. It seemed more like a shrine to the backwoods-hunting-with-your-beard-and-dad-and-dog lifestyle, than a store.
By the time we got to Jo’s over an hour later, Sunday afternoon in South Congress was in full swing. Every patio was packed with people enjoying brunch, drinks, iced coffee, tacos, ice cream – you name it. There were couples swing dancing at Jo’s to the live music, and well-behaved pups everywhere. Just your average Sunday afternoon in Austin! After our long walk in the Texas heat, I couldn’t turn down a passionfruit popcicle from Steel City Ice Pops.
Later that afternoon, we rented standup-paddleboards from Waller Creek Boathouse to take advantage of the perfect weather. Well actually, we got one SUP and a double kayak because I made the stupid mistake of not bringing my ID. They keep one for each piece of equipment you rent, so I couldn’t rent a SUP board 🙁 I think there are other places you can rent SUP boards in Austin, but this location has the best view of the city! When you get tired of being in the sun, you can just paddle under a bridge and chill in the shade for awhile.
While Eric went to pick up another friend from the airport (we’re not special lol), Maleah and I watched an episode of Black Mirror with his roommates. I’d only read the premise of some episodes before, and didn’t want to watch it alone – so dark and twisty! I get why people are strangely fascinated with the concepts, though. What a day to be alive.
Our last meal in Austin was at Lucky Robot Japanese Kitchen on South Congress. I later realized that I always see Austin food bloggers post photos here with the light blue tables, but didn’t notice at the time since we were seated indoors at night. We got one of the fun swingset tables, though! The “nomnomiyake pancake” I ordered for the table was an incredible twist on traditional okonomiyaki Japanese cabbage pancakes. Lucky Robot’s was served with pork belly, tonkatsu, aruugla, and a sunny side up egg. A meal in itself, honestly. My main was the rising sun bowl, with similar ingredients but a rice and veggie base. It was a perfect pre-red-eye meal. Substantial, but not to where you feel bloated and gross.
On my way to work the next morning (after a 5am flight and a delayed train from BWI… ugh), I realized how refreshing it was to have witnessed no self-important suit-clad men talking through their Apple Airpods. In fact, I hardly saw anyone in suits at all in downtown Austin, even during the week. And not once did I encounter anyone frantically typing away on their laptop in a cab (guilty of doing this myself). People in Austin seemed to be genuinely content with their pace of life, and not take themselves too seriously. I think it would be really good for me to be in that environment at some point – Austin, I know I’ll be back!
WHERE TO EAT & PLAY IN AUSTIN:
- Cafe Josie ($25 bottomless brunch)
- Torchy’s tacos (get their queso)
- Terry Black’s bbq (worth the wait…not for crazy people like Franklin)
- Cafe Cultivo (east Austin)
- Lucky Robot (Japanese)
- Elizabeth St. Cafe (French-Vietnamese)
- Cream Whiskers (cream puffs and coffee)
- on my list for next time:
- Hank’s Austin
- Mozart’s Coffee
- Le Politique
- leave your mark at the Hope outdoor gallery
- do a self-guided mural tour
- rent stand-up paddleboards and/or kayaks at Waller Creek Boathouse
- listen to live music at Jo’s coffee on Sundays
- play giant Jenga at Lustre Pearl on Rainey St
- join a beach volleyball game at Zilker Park
- run a loop of the Ladybird Lake Trail