10 Things I Did in Austin Before It Was Cool

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I spent two of my favorite years of my life in Austin, Texas. Though writing this post makes me miss it terribly, I’m also quite happy in my current location and I’m assured by my Austin-ite friends that the city isn’t as cool as it used to be. I don’t know if that’s actually true, but I’ll keep telling myself that. Here are a handful of recommendations for anyone visiting this fun-loving and sometimes “weird” city.

capitol building in Austin, Texas

The Alamo Drafthouse

The Alamo Drafthouse is not exactly one of the city’s best kept secrets, but I do recommend that anyone visiting make a trip to one of their six Austin locations. You can see a movie or have a more unique experience by attending a dance party or quote-along. Some of my personal highlights have been the “Master Pancake Theater” in which comedians make fun of classic (or just terrible) movies, watching Napoleon Dynamite with the actor who played Uncle Rico, and asking questions of Barry Williams (AKA Greg Brady) after making it through A Very Brady Christmas on the big screen. I also made the Alamo my weekly spot to view the series, “Lost,” in which some theater-goers wore Darma Initiative themed costumes.

There are a couple of things to note before you go. First, go hungry. They have a fairly large food & drink menu (including alcoholic drinks), and you can both order and receive your food while in the theater. Just make your selection, write it down, and insert it in the metal bracket in front of you. Your waiter will then surreptitiously take your order and bring your selections later in the movie, without you hardly noticing. Secondly, do not talk during the movie and put that cell phone on silent. The Alamo is known for enforcing these rules and often even has funny warning messages sprinkled throughout the previews.

South Congress Bridge

The South Congress Bridge is best known for its bats; underneath is home to the largest bat colony in the world, which are best viewed from March to the early fall after sunset (around 8:00 PM). You can either view the bats taking flight from the top of the bridge, or head to the small park below. If you plan to sit in the park, bring a blanket, and possibly a hat or umbrella if you’re particularly adverse to getting pooped on.

park under South Congress Bridge

While on top of the bridge, make sure to look north toward the capitol and snap some of the best photos of downtown Austin.

View of the Capitol from South Congress Bridge

On a leisurely morning, head farther south to find Jo’s Coffee, an outdoor coffee spot where you’re sure to see a variety of hipsters, dogs, and possibly some live music.

Walking around Lady Bird Lake

One of my favorite Austin pastimes is walking around Lady Bird Lake (formerly Town Lake) with my now husband. There are miles of trails to walk or bike, with a number of stops to rent boats along the way. Find a map of the trails here.

While in the area, you may also want to take a dip in Barton Springs Pool, a man made pool sourced with natural spring water. This is one of the most popular spots to spend a hot day, though you canĀ brave swimming in the winter months as well.

Mozart’s

Mozart’s is one of my all time favorite coffee shops, located on Lake Austin. Though the picnic tables on the enormous patio offer the best seating, I’ve also been on a rainy day and have loved sitting inside watching the raindrops hitting the lake. This is some of the most relaxing, meditative coffee shops you’ll find. They also roast their own beans and they have live music Thursday through Sunday nights.

If you need a bite to eat before or after, check out Hula Hut next door. It’s incredibly kitschy but the food is good and you can’t help but feel like you’re on vacation while in there (whether you are or not). Split a ginormous drink with someone to walk away with a funky souvenir glass.

Cactus Cafe

The Cactus Cafe is a hidden gem music venue located on the University of Texas campus. For those who like a small, intimate show focused on every note, the Cactus is your place. If you’re set on a show, buy tickets early, as the space is quite small and can easily sell out. Go for an open mic for a nice, low-key weeknight. I also really enjoy supporting this venue because they’ve nearly shut their doors on more than one occasion and I can’t imagine Austin without it!

UT Tower
The University of Texas (UT) Tower, near the Cactus Cafe

SXSW (South by Southwest for the uninitiated)

theresa andersson
Theresa Andersson plays SXSW in 2009

Though I hear that SXSW continues to change every year, I do have four years of experience plotting how I can see the most music and get the most freebies (e.g., food, drinks, canvas bags of stuff I don’t need) without any wristband or pass. Nothing compared to being at the right place at the right time and seeing amazing musicians play a few impromptu songs for a tiny audience. I know that lines are increasingly long and free shows are harder to come by, but here’s my best recommendation: skip buying a wristband unless you’re dead set on seeing certain musicians, make a list of the free or cheap shows you’re interested in (more than you need in case lines are long or venues are full), and be flexible. You’ll likely have a great time without spending much money, and you may even experience some surprises along the way (example: free tacos).

She & Him at SXSW
She & Him at SXSW
court yard hounds
Court Yard Hounds (a Dixie Chicks side project) at SXSW
view of 6th street
6th Street on a SXSW afternoon

BBQ Revolution

Ok, so I may have discovered this one after it was cool, but I had to include BBQ Revolution on this list for my vegan readers. This food truck proves that BBQ isn’t just for carnivores, with mouth-watering options such as tempeh ribs, no bull brisket, smoky soy curls, and potato salad. They even let you make bulk orders for holidays- yes please!

Toy Joy

Though I’m still getting used to Toy Joy being on 2nd Street as opposed to their original location, this is a quintessential Austin experience for both locals and visitors, children and adults. Nerd out on eclectic toys and novelty items that are hard to find anywhere else. To get the gist, some of the shopping categories on their website are figures, wind-ups, Japan, science, and tarot decks. They used to give a small free toy on your birthday, though I can’t confirm whether or not they still do this.

Chuy’s Children Giving to Children Parade

curious george

If you’re lucky enough to be in Austin mid-November, make sure to check out this parade and bring an unwrapped gift to donate. At some point during the parade, the floats will stop and collect the donations from the crowd. Donations benefit Operation Blue Santa, which gives holiday gifts to children in need in Central Texas. In addition to this being a great cause, you may feel like you’re at a mini Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade because of the plethora of balloons.

Tears of Joy

Tears of Joy is a hot sauce shop on the touristy, bar-laden 6th Street. Though 6th Street can look pretty dead during the daytime, step into this storefront to sample some of the spiciest local hot sauces and salsas you can find. This is a great place to grab a souvenir for that person in your life who swears they can tolerate any level of heat.

Since there are new places opening every day in Austin, please help me out by commenting about your favorite spots below!

Painted Guitars in Austin, Texas

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