Having home-hopped around a handful of Texas cities and towns since the early 1990s, freelance writer has called Austin’s Zilker neighborhood home for the past three years. Along with writing for various publications — from Psychology Today to Southern Living — she also works with trafficking survivors to help them write op-eds, and publishes family travel guides. When Jill’s not working, she can be found exploring Austin with her husband, their nine year-old daughter, and their two pooches. Today, she’s excited to share with us an extensive and jam-packed guide to everything Austin has to offer; just in time for the annual (which kicked off last Friday). Enjoy!
Photography by Jill Coody Smits
Some people in Austin love to talk about the good old days — the days when tacos cost a quarter, traffic was a Dallas phenomenon, and Californians lived in California. The hippy-dippy days before SXSW got too big for its britches, Antone’s was on Guadalupe and Jeffrey’s was pretty much the only “special occasion” place in town.
I loved that ATX, too — it was the Austin I lived in as a UT student in the 90s and as a young professional in the early 2000s. In that town, everything I needed existed within an affordable three-mile radius. On any given day, I could hear live music at Hole in the Wall, spend a glorious afternoon slurping down beers on the Crown & Anchor deck or ride my bike along Shoal Creek and up into Clarksville to pick out a cute top at Crofts Original.
These days, Austin is a big city with a small-town heart. And while there are real problems associated with rapid growth, much of what people loved about old Austin is alive and well in this new iteration. You can still find an authentic music joint, peaceful hiking trail, make-your-day taco and sublime spot on a sunny patio. In addition, though, you can get a killer cup of coffee in almost every neighborhood, enjoy great food that’s not a burger, and wander through some of the coolest local shops in the country. In spite of (dare I say because of) the boom, Austin is still Awesometown.
With new places opening every week, it’s impossible to stay on top of Austin’s exploding food scene. That’s a good thing, because it means there’s plenty of scrumptiousness to choose from, whether you can spend a lot or a little.
Breakfast culture is so institutional here that it’s hard not to wonder what all of these slackers do for a living, even as you’re sitting among them. It’s also hard to pick favorites, because the breakfast debate is almost as heated as the taco and BBQ wars (which I will spinelessly avoid altogether).
In South Austin, serves Stumptown coffee and legit food in an indoor/outdoor space you’ll want to hang out in. brews local Wild Gift coffee with an old-school Austin vibe, and you can bring in a perfect taco from the trailer right outside. is a tad more chichi in a pretty South Lamar shop with house-made pastries and a nice patio. Even further south, lives in an awesomely divey space, and houses , a shouldn’t-miss-it live music venue.
Heading northeast, and its red and green “I love you so much” wall is an iconic SoCo favorite. I know plenty of loyalists, and is a comfy place that caters to families on Sunday mornings. It’s easy to spend hours at a time at East Austin’s , and is conducive to sipping while you work near campus. on hopping Burnet Road is a bright neighborhood hub.
For a heavier brunch down south, I’ll start by preaching the gospel of breakfast bánh mì. Neighboring has something for everyone, and is a decadent stop if you just ran a 10K. In Hyde Park, slings one of my favorite breakfast tacos, and the quintessentially Austin is right next door. Just off Burnet, is a delight. On the east side, has been keeping Austin in migas for 50 years while the delicious , a newer mainstay, has an inviting patio.
Image above: Photo by Ryan Allen
Most of these places make the transition to affordable lunch and dinner, along with so many more. In Bouldin Creek, is a quirky and unassuming coffee shop/Thai restaurant with Tom Kha Gai you’ll crave forevermore. I’m a regular at , one of Austin’s many great places where folks from all walks of life enjoy good music, good beer and good food.
Just south of the busiest stretch of SoCo, has excellent comfort food and a super-chill vibe. In a decidedly un-touristy stretch of I-35, the is a one-of-a-kind place to buy craft beer, fine rosé and…dhaba bowls. I dream of nearby — and specifically their cal do Tlalpeño — while vacationing in places where there’s no Mexican food.
I must also mention near campus for a great beer selection and upscale pub meal, and on Manor for salsa, enchiladas verdes and a ginormous schooner full of lip-tingling michelada. has hella good sides like grilled beets with chimichurri and cotija cheese. Also, the Asian/Southern fusion bites at the and on Burnet are worth a trek.
For a post-lunch, pre-dinner cocktail, go see Pam at on North Loop.
Further east, oozes atmosphere and has the added bonus of in the parking lot. On SoCo, the courtyard is a remarkable place, and South First’s has a beautiful wine garden (and fabulous prix fixe menu).
If you’re looking for a dinner that will undoubtedly require a reservation, there is no shortage of finer dining in Austin.
is the place to go for Texas wine alongside a huge, butchered-on-the-premises pork chop. All the meat that’s fit to eat. My favorite, though, is . Such perfect Moscow mules! Such inspired small plates! and both lean southern, but with very different and delectable bents. As my discerning friend says, is pretty darn special.
In addition to the divine and , Austin’s gaping sushi hole is gradually being filled by the likes of and . Modern and beautiful offers a veggie-heavy menu of very pretty, creative food. is too gorgeous, and too good to miss.
There has always been a vintage-loving faction in Austin, as well as the earthy, Teva-wearing crowd, a handful of the casually chic and trendy, and a contingent of ladies in flower crowns, cowboy boots and flowy dresses.
Underpinning that anything-goes style, though, is a fierce love for the local artisan and shop, and you could spend a long weekend in Austin without hitting all of the unique and wonderful neighborhood places selling clothes, antiques, records, old books, greeting cards, fancy jewelry, weird knick-knacks, outsider art, wine glasses and shoes made for walkin’.
SoCo is a popular shopping destination for good reason, as there are fun shops to tempt pretty much everyone. Wandering up Congress from North to South, I always love checking out the diverse selection of Austin- and Texas-centric stuff in .
A block up, the has a really well curated, slightly higher-end collection of gifts, home goods and clothing. Next door, women’s boutique offers cute clothes, shoes and accessories to fit a wide range of budgets. Across the street, a cup of Mexican vanilla ice cream is a good pit stop on the way up to , a hip store for the fellows.
A block or two up and over, I’d like to buy up the entire collection in the folk art gallery, and has never let me down on a quest for the perfect birthday gift. and are a winning one-two for kids and adults alike. My old favorite, , is up there, as well.
Just a few blocks west, South Lamar and South First are also worthwhile shopping destinations.
On First, is a pleasure for pretty much anyone who likes to cook, eat or drink. Nearby, vintage and have been a part of the Austin scene for ages. Record lovers will emerge from hours (and hours) later, and has fabrics that will inspire you to make that long-planned window seat cushion.
On Lamar, I love spending time in , where I can get lost in all of that aspirational stuff. Down the street, is the place to go for high-end consignment clothing. has a beautiful collection and will make you want to move to Marfa, or maybe Oaxaca. is truly one of the best bookstores on the planet. Be sure and walk across the street to , because you haven’t really been to Austin if you don’t go in. Further down Lamar, is a beloved Austin staple for all things outdoors.
In the 2nd street warehouse district, you’ll be enticed by the weird and wonderful things in , regardless of your age. You can find unique gifts and ACL souvenirs at , along with cool tees from local makers like .
More than a decade ago, we lived slightly further north in the Crestview neighborhood, and the joke was that you could find everything from organic coffee to a taxidermist on nearby Burnet Road. Today, the area is in the midst of a renaissance, and you can spend the better part of a day vintage store-hopping from to to to to .
There’s more than just vintage, though, and if you are in Austin long enough to drink the earthy footwear Kool-Aid, can totally hook you up. Every child’s fantasy, is up that way, too.
It’s hard to know where to start with all of the cool people opening cool places in East Austin. , and are just a few shops to check out on East 11th.
On Tillery, and will inspire your green thumb. in an old house on East 7th is the perfect combination of shop, coffee bar and backyard hangout. There’s also a totally cool collective on Cesar Chavez that houses , and gallery and boutique. It’s all so darn inspired.
All of the usual hotel suspects exist in Austin, and there is an ever-growing number of destination places to stay in the central core.
East Austin’s on Cesar Chavez is cute, modern and cozy, and would be a great home base for experiencing the city. Kimpton’s brand new is well located near Rainey Street, and word on the street is that in-house restaurant is delish.
Also brand new, the is in the thick of all the good stuff on SoCo, and also houses new retail and restaurants like , and Paul Qui’s soon-to-be-famous . If you plan early and can score a reservation at the or , by all means do it. Both are splurge-worthy. The is a local treasure and really is “so close yet so far out.” Also, its is a good breakfast stop.
and are downtown classics closer to the capitol, and the has an enviable spot next to the , the newish venue for . Located in the 1900s home of one of UT Austin’s founders, is a more traditional option close to campus.
Also, if you are an AirBnBer, Austin’s central areas have a plethora to choose from, thanks to big events like SXSW, Austin City Limits Music Festival, The X Games and F1.
As obvious as it may be, any guide on what to do in Austin should start with , because it really is magical. Sit on the lawn, jump off the diving board, observe the many humans in your midst, and spend at least five whole minutes soaking in the icy water. I guarantee you will leave feeling healthier, more relaxed and peaceful, and more tolerant of yourself and your fellow man.
If you’re here during the long, hot summer, you may be in the market for other watery places. is a more traditional, but still spring-fed pool that is great for people-watching. Stand-up paddle boarding or kayaking on Lady Bird Lake will get you just wet enough, and provide a great view of downtown. Depending on how much rain we’ve had, there are several great spots to wade in along the Barton Creek Greenbelt. Campbell’s Hole is one of the closest to town, and just a short hike up from Barton Springs.
There are many pretty places to hike and bike right in town, including the trail around Lady Bird Lake. Used for exercise and commuting, it’s the heart of Austin and connects with numerous other urban paths and trails. For a bit more adventure, hike or bike the eight-mile Greenbelt end to end, or do a shorter out-and-back for a small taste. One of the prettiest sections starts at an entrance on Scottish Woods Trail Road and takes you down the “Hill of Life” to Sculpture Falls.
I don’t know if Austin is actually the “Live Music Capital of the World,” but it is true that pretty much any place with a spare corner will eventually be filled with someone playing a guitar. And there are so many great bands from here — , , ., and are just a few.
Don’t miss the on South Congress, which was awesome way before SoCo was called SoCo. If you’re lucky, you might catch , , or .
The outdoor stage on Riverside is one of my favorites — especially when is playing. In East Austin, the really is historic, and has a bigger space where you might catch musicians like . Ditto and the on Red River — both great venues. The on South Lamar is one of Austin’s best small rooms, so try and get there soon in case rumors are true and it moves to St. Elmo Road… then go there, too. on Burnet is just the place to have a Lone Star beer and see . On campus, so much great music has been played in the , you can almost imagine that Townes Van Zandt will walk out on the stage.
Though it’s now wedged between two modern apartment complexes, the Broken Spoke is the real deal. Go on a Wednesday and take free two-step lessons from the awesome Terri White. is another fun, old school place to dance or see live music.
If you’re into a different kind of culture, Austin has several small but lovely museums, including the across from Barton Springs, the in Hyde Park, and the gorgeously situated contemporary art museum at . On campus, the has amassed a mind-boggling collection that is mined to create fascinating exhibits. The isn’t a traditional museum, but a unique place to check out as you run around town.
Austin’s craft beer scene continues to boom, and you could spend more than a few hours sampling in tasting rooms around town. In addition to ABGB, there are plenty to choose from, including , , , , , and .
Finally, with the Hill Country a quick drive up the road, there is an abundance of worthy day trips around Austin. One of my favorites, though, is a pilgrimage to in Wimberley for a picnic (bring your own or make a tiny detour to in Dripping Springs) and dip into a picturesque swimming hole; followed by a leisurely stop at and pastrami or pizza at for dinner.