Austin: An insider's guide!

It’s time to set the record straight. As one of the few remaining natives left in Austin – seriously, we’re like unicorns – I feel it’s my responsibility to share a true local’s guide to the city. I’ve lived here for over 28 years, agreeing to leave only for college and two ill-advised years in Dallas.
If you are thinking of a fun fall, winter or spring North American getaway this year, Austin should be near the top of your list.

Austin has lots of bling....

Editor's Note:

Dacyl Armendariz on a sunny patio in Austin.

When I knew I was heading to Austin earlier this year I asked Dacyl Armendariz, External Communications Manager, for car2go (whom I met at the 2014 Calgary Stampede) if she might have a few insider tips.  She sent me a very comprehensive list of suggestions, that even in two  weeks I couldn't possibly do.  When I asked her if I could post her email to me as a guest blog, she said, "Yes, but I will need to rework it a bit to make sure I have included a few things I left out."  

The following are Dacyl's wonderful insider tips to Austin.  

DA's Insider Tips

If you’ve read any “Best Places to Live” article in the past decade you’ve probably heard of Austin, TX. Apparently people take those lists and their glowing recommendations seriously, because there are now more than 150 people moving to Austin each day in search of breakfast tacos and near-constant warm weather. It would be a Texas-sized understatement to say that the state’s best-kept secret is out.

The influx of newcomers is exciting and is largely responsible for the revitalization of some of Austin’s oldest neighborhoods as well as a booming food scene. But beware – it also means there are hordes of people who just moved here and can’t wait to point you in all the wrong directions based on their limited, albeit enthusiastic, exploration of the city. Bless their hearts – they just want to help. But the truth is, there are too many new Austinites out there who might send you to Guero’s on your quest for the best Tex Mex. My personal sense of Southern Hospitality just can’t allow that.

It’s time to set the record straight. As one of the few remaining natives left in Austin – seriously, we’re like unicorns – I feel it’s my responsibility to share a true local’s guide to the city. I’ve lived here for over 28 years, agreeing to leave only for college and two ill-advised years in Dallas.

I’ve watched Austin evolve from a sleepy city in the middle of Texas to an international destination.

Yes Austin is fun, funky, quirky and many say weird....

I was here before Trader Joe’s was a fixture, I went to the inaugural Austin City Limits Music Festival and I can actually remember a time where traffic on I-35 didn’t convert it to a parking lot.

As much as I love being in Austin, I do travel quite a bit. When I visit a new place my goal is to eat the best food the city has to offer and get a taste of the culture and activities the city is known for. With that approach in mind, the following guide focuses on Austin restaurants, live music venues – we are the live music capital of the world – and a selection of some of our best swimming spots.

If you visit between the months of April through October you’ll understand why there’s a section dedicated to swimming and you’ll thank me. For good measure, I’ve thrown in a few other treasures.

As much as I will playfully beg you not to move here, I really do want you to love my city as much as I do. If you stay away from Guero’s and hit up the spots in my guide instead, I feel confident you will.

 Music Venues

Austin has fun retro element to it....

The Continental Club – 1315 South Congress Ave

An Austin institution since 1957 on one of our best streets. Live music every night.  Expect to hear blues, country, rockabilly and loud rock music here. Make sure to check out The Continental Club Gallery, an upstairs lounge with art, jazz and cocktails. The Gallery doesn’t have clear signage, head a couple of doors north of the main entrance and up the stairs.

The boys can play...

Elephant Room – 315 Congress Ave.

A basement bar where you will find a different jazz combo playing every night. Rarely a cover, always a good crowd.

Broken Spoke – 3201 S. Lamar Blvd

The quintessential Austin honky tonk. Some land developers actually purchased the land where the Broken Spoke is located and threatened to tear it down, but there was an extreme uprising from Austinites and it escaped unscathed. You’ll see the contrast of the new businesses and condos all around this Austin mainstay as evidence. This is a great dive bar where a band plays country music almost every night of the week and they have two-stepping lessons Wednesday – Saturday from 8:30-9:30 for the uninitiated so you can be prepared when the music starts. If you do the dance lessons get there by 8:00 to sign up!

P.S. there are always a handful of regulars – older gentleman who go every night to dance. They are part of what makes the place great so if they ask you to dance be sure to take them up on the offer!

She can sing and dance...

The Mohawk – 912 Red River Street

This is one of the newer venues that have become a favorite for Austinites. The music lineup is eclectic and includes Austin mainstays as well as some of the best musicians passing through town.  

Guero’s Garden Bar – 1412 South Congress Ave.

I know this seems like a confusing recommendation, give the warnings above. I stand by those warnings. Do not eat at Guero’s, no matter how many “Austinites” tell you it’s a must. The food is mediocre at best, but they have a great garden area next to the restaurant where there is always a steady stream of live music. The link above is to the music calendar so you can pick something out. They have a bar out there so you can enjoy a margarita with the free chips and salsa bar provided. This is a popular venue on sunny weekends, get there early to snag a table.

Saxon Pub – 1320 S. Lamar

Saxon Pub has been a fixture of the Austin music scene since 1990. There’s music every night of the week. Expect a cover for the night shows, but there are also free happy hour shows, weekend matinee shows and late night performances.

Austin is full of surprises...

Strange Brew – 5326 Manchaca Rd.

This is a coffee shop, a bit off the beaten path, that also has a lounge where you can find nightly live music. You’ll pay a cover, but you’ll also see some great music in a setting that most tourists miss. I highly recommend it! The link above is for their live music calendar.

C-Boy’s Heart and Soul – 2008 South Congress

A great, slightly divey, bar where you’ll find performances from some of Austin’s best musicians. If the company you keep truly says a lot about you, consider the fact that Gary Clark Jr, Leon Bridges, Larry McMurtry and Jimmie Vaughn are often seen occupying one of C-Boy’s barstools. If you’re headed there for music, check their calendar before you go, they do have the occasional off night, but they have a band in residence playing every Tuesday night and they have live music every Thursday – Saturday like clockwork. Expect to hear blues, rock, country, jazz or soul music. If you are looking for a quieter place to get a drink, head upstairs to their cozy, red-lit lounge for a more intimate vibe.

Green Spaces

Town Lake is actually a reservoir of the Colorado River in Downtown Austin. It was renamed Lady Bird Lake in honor of the late Lady Bird Johnson, but any true Austinite will tell you it’s still Town Lake to them. There’s a beautiful trail with several entry points and spots to rent kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddle boards along the way. Visiting Town Lake is an Austin must.

Lady Bird Lake is a lovely oasis...

Zilker Park – 2100 Barton Springs Rd.

Zilker is our most well-known park. It’s right in the heart of the city with lots of space to roam, ride bikes, lounge, picnic, etc. The park is the site of the Austin City Limits Music Festival each September/October. Town Lake is also part of Zilker Park so you could easily fit both of these Austin icons into an afternoon.

A great time to visit is in early March for the annual Zilker Kite Festival.  The festival attracts hundreds of Autinites who fill the air with colorful kites.
Link: Austin's Kite Festival: Cheap, Colourful, Chaotic & Crazy
  One of the best festivals I have ever attended and its free... .

One of the best festivals I have ever attended and its free....

Zilker Botanical Garden – 2220 Barton Springs Rd.

A beautiful botanical garden in the heart of downtown.

Umlauf Sculpture Garden – 605 Robert E. Lee Rd.

A garden featuring sculpture artwork from a wide array of artists. They also offer events and free yoga.

Mount Bonnell

A great spot for gorgeous views of the city. Be warned there are A LOT of steps to climb to get to this spot – 102 to be exact. If you don’t want to tackle the climb you could also take advantage of the same views with a stop at Dry Creek Cafe & Boat Dock (4812 Mount Bonnell Rd.). The name is misleading, the only food they have are bags of assorted chips and there’s not actually a working boat dock, but this dive bar has a patio that provides the best spot in Austin to watch a sunset. Ignore all those people who tell you to head to the Oasis, that’s where you find a huge crowd, mediocre food and overpriced drinks. Instead, enjoy your view with a $2.00 beer at this dive.

Swimming Holes/Pools

Swimming gets its own section because when it gets hot in Austin – which is most of the year – you don’t want to be outside unless you are in or around the water. Some of these spots are not IN Austin proper, but the ones outside of our city limits are short day trips and totally worth the drive.

City Centre 

Barton Springs Pool – 2201 Barton Springs Rd.

This is my absolute favorite place in Austin. It’s a pool fed from an underground spring with an average year-round temperature of 68-70 degrees Fahrenheit. There are always interesting people here and if you use the South gate entrance (700ish Robert E Lee Rd.) rather than the main entrance (2201 Barton Springs Rd.) you’ll see a collection of colorful Austinites – drum circles, people practicing acroyoga with a partner, hula hoopers and topless sunbathers. Barton Springs is synonymous with Austin. Entrance fee for non-residents of Austin is $8.00, but if you tell them you live in Austin the entrance fee is just $3.00. They never verify residence so you might as well save yourself $5.00 because when you are in Austin you become an honorary resident!

In Austin

Lake Travis or Lake Austin

You can rent boats/jet skis or even hop on a charter boat for a tour. If you’re not in the mood to swim you can also just head to one of the many restaurants/bars that offer beautiful views of these lakes.

 In Dripping Springs (50-minute drive from Austin)

Hamilton Pool Preserve – 24300 Hamilton Pool Rd., Dripping Springs, TX

A gorgeous spot where a lagoon is fed by a small waterfall. It’s about a 15 minute walk down to the water, but it’s worth the effort. If you make the trip be sure to get there early – a limited number of people are allowed in so the lines get long in the afternoon when they start their one in, one out admission.

In Wimberley (45-minute drive from Austin)

Blue Hole – 100 Blue Hole Rd., Wimberley, TX

Hands-down one of the best swimming holes in Texas, Blue Hole is lined on both banks by cypress trees. There’s also a great rope swing if you’re so inclined. Be warned though, the local teenagers grew up on this rope swing and the tricks they perform for their swimming audience could make your attempt scream “rookie.” Blue Hole is open seasonally for swimming so check the website first for the hours.

In Spicewood (45-minute drive from Austin)

Spicewood – 404 Krause Spring Rd., Spicewood, TX

There are 32 springs and two pools for swimming as well as a lovely butterfly garden


The Austin restaurant scene has blown up and there are tons of great choices. The key items to make sure to eat are breakfast tacos (an Austin staple), Tex Mex and Barbecue. Austin is hugely lacking in good Asian and Italian food, so keep that in mind if anyone makes recommendations in that vein.

Breakfast Tacos

If you’re not yet familiar with the glory of breakfast tacos, prepare to be indoctrinated. See below for a list of the best breakfast taco joints in Austin. Don’t forget the salsa – each of the places below have several options to try. Most of these are also great options for lunch/dinner tacos!

**An important note about breakfast tacos – unless you are gluten intolerant, breakfast tacos are meant to be eaten on flour tortillas.

  Tacos are everywhere...

Tacos are everywhere...

Polvo’s – 2004 S 1st

In Austin, Tex-Mex – along with barbecue – is religion. There are tons of places to get your fix, but Polvo’s is my favorite. They have a killer salsa bar with lots of choices of varying heat levels. Make sure to try the queso here – it comes with accoutrements for you to add to your liking. My favorite item on the menu is the fish fajitas, but you can’t go wrong with anything you order here.

An important note about queso – If your previous experience with queso has anything to do with a jar or the description “cheese sauce,” that means you’ve never had queso. You’re about to have your mind blown. Pace yourself.

Other good Tex-Mex options: Tamale House East, Habanero (cash-only), Mi Madre’s, Vivo

For additional inspiration check out Austin Monthly’s recent Ultimate Guide to Tex-Mex

La Barbecue – 1906 E Cesar Chavez

You’ve likely heard of Franklin Barbecue – it’s nationally recognized as one of the very best barbecue places out there. The New York Times just did this story on it. People start queueing up for their amazing brisket starting around 6:00 AM every single morning, but if you want barbecue that’s equally great with a much shorter line, head to La Barbecue. The brisket is mandatory.

Other good barbecue options: Micklethwait Craft Meats, Stiles Switch BBQ, Freedmen’s, Lambert’s

  Austin has an amazing patio culture....

Austin has an amazing patio culture....

Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ – 7612 Brodie Lane

Valentina’s is the house of worship located at the intersection of the tex-mex and bbq religions. The menu spans breakfast, lunch and dinner. You’ll walk away wondering how you’ve lived this long without pairing brisket and traditional taco fillings.

Launderette – 2115 Holly St.

This is my favorite restaurant in Austin right now. Small plates – perfect for sharing – that facilitate trying a lot of the menu in one meal. If you like cheeseburgers, try theirs. It is perfect and simple. When the dessert menu comes fight the urge to order one of the fancier desserts and get the birthday cake ice cream sandwich. You can thank me later.

Uchi – 801 South Lamar

If I had to choose my last meal in Austin it would be the chef’s tasting omakase from Uchi. A sushi restaurant started by now famed chef Tyson Cole, Uchi is an innovative take on traditional sushi. The focus on traditional rolls is diminished in favor of next-level small plates. Please be warned, there is always a wait for this restaurant so make a reservation if you plan to go. Another note of warning – this restaurant is also very spendy, but worth every last penny.

East Side King – Several locations, see website

Originally a food truck opened by Top Chef winner Paul Qui and Moto Utsunomiya (fun fact – both were Tyson Cole’s protégés at Uchi), East Side King now has two locations in Austin that serve the incredible original menu – one food truck at the Liberty Bar and a brick-and-mortar on South Lamar Blvd. The East Side King family also has two recent additions called Thai-Kun that serve a playful Thai menu that is not to be missed - a food truck at the very cool bar Whisler's and brick-and-mortar in The Domain's new "Rock Rose" district.  My favorite of these spots is the original East Side King food truck behind the delightfully divey bar, The Liberty Bar, on East 6th. However, if the idea of sharing a picnic table outside, with a group of hipster strangers who are smoking American Spirits and sipping whiskey doesn’t appeal to you, hit up the brick-and-mortar location on South Lamar.

Dai Due Butcher Shop & Supper Club – 2406 Manor Rd.

Dai Due’s commitment to serving regionally sourced ingredients runs so deep that even the beer and wine list is stocked exclusively with options from Texas. The food is as good as the menu is imaginative and everything tastes like it was prepared just for you by someone who cares. Head here for thoughtful service from knowledgeable servers who act as your guide through the innovative menu.

Contigo – 2027 Anchor Lane

Contigo describes its menu as farm-fresh Texas fare. That’s not all that descriptive, but all you need to know is that the food and cocktails are great and the ambiance is quintessential Austin. What does that mean? It means that all of the seating is outside – only the kitchen is held within four walls. This qualifies as quintessential Austin because it’s warm enough here 95% of the year to get away with that. They have a great Happy Hour including $1 fried chicken on Thursdays starting at 5:00 PM until they run out!

  Austin is great for BBQ...keep your hands off...

Austin is great for BBQ...keep your hands off...

Additional Austin Treasures

South Congress Avenue

South Congress is one of the best streets in Austin. Lined on either side with shops, restaurants, music venues and galleries, you could basically spend a full day walking up and down the street and never run out of things to do. On the first Thursday of each month – aptly called “First Thursday” – the shops stay open until 10:00 PM. My favorite South Congress spots include, but are not limited to:

  We loved all of the vintage neon signs that were scattered around Austin...

We loved all of the vintage neon signs that were scattered around Austin...

 Parts and Labour – a great place to pick up gifts to take back to jealous friends at home, a new eclectic piece of jewelry from a local artisan or some concert artwork from one of the many amazing acts that have performed in Austin. Parts and Labour only sells goods from local Texas artists, designers, etc.

 Jo’s Coffee – stop by to order an “Iced Turbo” and take your photo by the now famous “I love you so much” graffiti on the side of the building. Show up on Sunday from 12:30 – 3:00 to check out their weekly “Sinner’s Brunch” to listen to great (FREE) live music with your coffee & breakfast taco. However, if you want to be true to the name, order a beer along with your coffee.

 Maya Star – this boutique jewelry store stocks one-of-a-kind pieces from some of the most creative designers out there. They also have a selection of adorable clothes and accessories at affordable prices.

 STAG Provisions for Men – stop in and enjoy a free Shiner Bock beer while you peruse their selection of high-end men’s clothing and accessories.

 Big Top Candy Shop – a circus-themed old fashioned candy store and soda shop where you will lose track of time while you’re reminded of all the classic candies you loved as a child.

Link: Austin: Kid In A Candy Store

Big Top Candy Shop is really really big...

Alamo Drafthouse

The world’s best movie theater chain got its start right here in Austin. Book your reserved seats on the website and prepare to enjoy the best movie-going experience of your life. Alamo has a menu of pizza, sandwiches, snacks and an excellent selection of beer and cocktails to enjoy during your flick (servers bring your order during the movie – quickly and silently like ninjas). In addition to showing new releases, Alamo offers screenings of repertory films you never thought you’d see on the big screen and incredible themed events. Think Beyoncé sing-alongs and film themed feasts.

A note about Alamo Drafthouse – this theater was founded with the mission of keeping the film watching experience sacred. If you show up late for your movie you will not be let in (so you can’t disturb everyone who made it on time) and if you talk or text during the movie you will be ejected without a refund. They take these rules seriously – don’t test them.

Harry Ransom Center

Located on the University of Texas at Austin campus (UT), the Harry Ransom Center is a library, archive and museum that exhibits rotating collections of art, manuscripts, photography, etc. Recent collections ranged from art and costumes from Gone With The Wind to a collection of art and correspondence from WWII.

Bonus – if you go to the Harry Ransom Center you’ll also get a chance to check out the UT campus where you’ll see the latest in backpack fashion and ask yourself “did I look this young when I was in college?” no less than 10 times. 

Last Word 

There you have it, Dacyl's insider tips. Enough Said!

  If you go to Austin, be sure to have a car2go membership as it is the best way to get around...transit is not great...

If you go to Austin, be sure to have a car2go membership as it is the best way to get around...transit is not great...