Travel: 3 Days in Austin, Texas

Just before COVID-19 took hold on the country, Brandon and I spent a long weekend in Austin, Texas. It’s the state capital, home to South by Southwest (SXSW), and well known for its eclectic music scene. While I have been to Houston and Galveston, this would be a first for me. And let me put this out there: everyone had rave reviews.

We arrived at our hotel, the Westin, extremely early on Friday, and immediately headed to breakfast at Stella San Jac. Rumor has it, you can’t visit without breakfast tacos. (The rumor was right.) I had the chorizo and potato tacos, with white cheddar, creme fresca and roasted salsa. Brandon, on the other hand, had ricotta lemon pancakes with blueberries. And while the tacos were very heavy, both meals were worth repeating.

After breakfast, we set out to explore the city. We walked towards Congress Avenue Bridge, where bats overtake the city at sundown during bat season (March to November). But that wouldn’t be on our itinerary, as they have since migrated. We briefly walked along Lady Bird Lake, which would be perfect for running.

Afterward, we stopped into the historic hotel, The Driskill, and then made our way to the Texas Capitol. It’s free, and there are tours every 30 to 45 minutes that will guide you throughout the building. We listened in on a few areas, namely where the House of Representatives and Senate members meet, respectively. We finished up the late afternoon getting another Texas staple: Tex-Mex. We opted for Pelons, which has adorable outdoor dining. But, being December, we ate inside. The food was good, but not overly remarkable. We finished the day with coffee on the rooftop of a nearby hotel and took in the city skyline.

… And that’s when concern started to set in. (Stay with me; the story comes full circle.) Our first day ended and it felt as though we had seen everything there was to see. With the exception of getting barbecue, those were the items I had on my “to do” list. And we plowed through them in a matter of hours. So, that night, we made the spur-of-the-moment decision that we would rent a car and visit San Antonio the next day.

And we did. And we loved it.

After quick planning, we started our day off at the Pearl District. The main building itself is a brewery that has since been turned into a charming, historic hotel, Hotel Emma. Around the main building, there are restaurants, shops, and a large square that happened to have live music playing while we were there. Not only that, but there was a farmers market going on too. We were immediately impressed and in our element. We had lunch at the Southerleigh Fine Food and Brewery. Once we were fueled by pretzel sticks and chicken and waffles, we made our way to the Alamo.

Now, I don’t know about you, but the pictures of the Alamo look like it’s set by itself on a rustic, patch of land. I can’t say I expected, nor appreciated the complete chaos it really is. Set across the street from tacky gift shops and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum, I instantly felt the experience deflate. Long lines immediately steered us away. Instead, we walked the grounds, which were packed with tourists. It’s worth a quick peek, if for historical purposes itself. But as far as remarkable landmarks go, it really doesn’t resonate with me. I’d much rather steer someone to Colonial Williamsburg (Virginia) or Washington D.C. for a historic destination trip.

And, with that, we set off for the River Walk. Again, much more our speed. There’s so much to take in. It’s attached to the mall so you can shop, or you can stroll or take a boat along the river. The only caveat I’ll mention, of course, are there are many areas that do not necessarily have handrails. It can get crowded and you have to walk at the pace as others. After a dinner at a chain eatery (I know, I know…), we headed back thrilled with our decision to take a quick day trip.

We also arrived back in time to catch a true honky-tonk night back in Austin. The Broken Spoke came up several times in my research as a recommendation. The front is an unsuspecting restaurant that opens into a large dancehall, complete with neon lights, folding chairs, and picnic tablecloths. They have dance lessons before the music starts and becomes a dance floor. And you know what, I absolutely love that we checked it out.

For our third and last full day, we spent a majority of the morning exploring Congress Avenue shops. Remember when I said it would come full circle? Well, this street more than makes up for it. There were plenty of cute restaurants, shops and places to explore. I suspect this will only continue to get better and better, with the amount of construction that was going on. But, we had one final task on our minds: real Texas barbecue.

Now, the one word that comes up time and again is Franklin. Franklin. Franklin. Franklin. But, you see, we were there for three days, and standing in line for barbecue just wasn’t worth a five-hour wait. So, I carefully selected an equally appealing choice, sans the extensive wait and opted for Terry Black’s BBQ. And even though there was some wait, it was worth every second. This, this is the must-do. Sample a little bit of everything!

We then took our electric scooters to the University of Austin, where we walked around and explored until it was time to eat… again. We had pizza at Bufalina, which was delicious and extremely intimate. Seriously, it’s candlelit and a handful of close-knit tables. We then capped off our evening with a trip down Rainey Street. Here, you’ll find everything from Banger’s to the Container Bar. It’s primarily craftsman houses turned into chic eateries and bars – perfect for a night out.

And, on our final day, we couldn’t miss the infamous 6th Street. Known for being, well, quite dirty… Well, it is. Yes, it is. But it’s also home to VooDoo Doughnuts. Although my eyes wished it could have taken in the entire case, my stomach could barely do two. The Old Dirty Bastard (Oreo cookies drizzled in peanut butter) and a true staple, the Voodoo Doll (raspberry jelly-filled doughnut topped with chocolate frosting). And as if our bellies weren’t full enough, we had to catch one last glimpse of Congress Avenue. Although it’s no Chicago-style pizza, Home Slice was quick and delicious bite before our flight.

Overall, it was a really good trip. But, as far as cities go, I’m spoiled. Chicago sets a very high bar when it comes to things to do and see. Austin lacked an extremely wide range of things to do, especially if you didn’t have a car. And although Austin definitely kept it weird, it had a lot of homelessness. And I mean everywhere. There were tents along Lady Bird Lake and people were along all major streets begging.

So although I probably won’t have it on my list to visit again anytime soon, I hope you find some of these places helpful in your visit.