I’ve been threatening to write a travel guide to Austin for about a year and with the game about a month off… I guess it’s time to do it. For those of you who don’t know me, I am a lifelong Cal fan and Texas graduate who has lived in Austin since 1994. What follows below are my opinions on what’s good and a few things to miss but if you disagree with me on any of my recs, I am right and you’re wrong. Trust me on this…
About the University of Texas
Opening its doors in 1883, UT-Austin is the flagship school of the University of Texas system. Fun fact about the Permanent University Fund, which is the primary endowment that UT (and other state schools in Texas) has. Originally, the state swiped the land adjacent to the railroads the university had received as part of a land grant and "traded it" 1 million acres of land, mostly in West Texas. Then they found oil out there and UT was able to extend a solid middle finger to the state for their perfidy. The state got their revenge though and ensured the funds used from the oil rights are monitored and approved by the gov’mint. I was told that the reason that UT is constantly building new structures is because if they don’t, the state will have the right to cut their funding or some such. Don’t know if that is true but it makes for a good story. Anyway, UT has $7 billion plus in endowments, more than any other public university in the US.
There are approximately 50,000 students at UT and the school has an increasingly strong academic reputation. Accounting, Architecture, Latin American Studies and various engineering programs (especially petroleum engineering) are among the best in the country. Education and the Pharmacy school are also exceptional. The business school is top 10 and the Law school has cracked the top 15. It ain’t all about football on the Forty Acres.
The school is primarily located between Martin Luther King Blvd. (old 19th St.) on the south side, Dean Keeton St. (old 26th St.) on the north, I-35 on the east and Guadalupe St (pronounced ‘gwa-duh-loop’) on the west. Guadalupe also has its own mini (REALLY mini) version of Telegraph Ave called "The Drag". Its only a couple of blocks long but has some cool stuff.
When I came to Austin in ’94, it was a smallish city on the verge of a boom. The population of the greater metro area has more than doubled since then and I am stunned to discover that Austin is now the 11th largest city in the US (just under 1 million) and the greater metro area is now about 2 million people. The growth isn’t stopping any time soon either, with projections that Austin will have doubled again in the coming decade or so. Great for the value of my home, not so much with my already 75-90 minute commute each way every day.
Unfortunately, I’ve always wondered if the City of Austin went out of their way to hire people from the City of Berkeley because for a long time an attitude of "if we don’t build any roads, no one will move here" has permeated. The city is woefully short of infrastructure so traffic really sucks. The roads are being built now but it’s probably too late for the sanity of everyone.
Austin Bergstrom International airport is SE of downtown. Unless you plan on staying downtown the entire time you’re in Austin, you’ll need to rent a car because…
Really, really SUCKS. Capital Metro runs the buses… and what few trains there are will likely be useless for you foreigners coming to visit (the single route runs from NW Austin to near downtown). The buses don’t have a great rep either
The major freeways run North/South. Interstate 35 runs right on the east edge of downtown and the UT campus but I recommend avoiding it at all costs. It is generally a clusterfuck of epic proportions, especially on game days. Mopac/Loop 1 is west of downtown and travels most of the length of the city. It sucks less than I-35 and should probably be used if possible.
Where to stay
If possible, I recommend staying in or around the downtown area. Downtown is primary bordered by the river/ Cesar Chavez (old 1st St.) on the south, the capitol building/ 11th St. on the north, I-35 on the east and Lamar Blvd. on the west. This is where most of the food, bars, music, etc is and the UT campus is not far away. It’s doable to stay downtown, attend the game, eat, drink and do whatever without needing a rental car. That said, game weekends in Austin are insane with an estimated hundred some thousand people coming to Austin for the festivities every game weekend. If you haven’t gotten a hotel room yet, you might be fucked… so check out Airbnb or any of the hotel clearance sites like Hotwire or Hotels.com.
If you have a car, getting a hotel is easier and there are a bunch near the airport and on I-35 that would work.
What to do- day trips
If you’re in town for more than just game day, here are a couple suggestions.
Check out- The Texas Hill Country. Unfortunately, Wimberley was badly damaged in the floods from a few months back but about 75 minutes west of Austin is Fredericksburg. Yes, the downtown area is very touristy but you’ve got solid shopping, a bunch of wineries (more on that later), a couple of WWII museums (birthplace of Chester Nimitz! Museum of the Pacific War!) and plenty of folksy Germanic heritage. For those of you who enjoy hiking, Enchanted Rock is 8 miles north of town, it’s a pretty amazing place. Overall, a day in the Fred is an entertaining diversion, IMO.
The Texas Wine Country. It ain’t Napa, obviously, but Central Texas has undergone a vineyard boom in the past decade or two. There are currently about 40 wineries within 90 minutes of Austin, many of them on the way to Fredericksburg. The quality varies widely, of course, but Becker (in Stonewall on the way to Fredericksburg) and Duchman (near the Salt Lick southwest of town) are 2 of my faves.
Skip- San Antonio. Unless you really, really want to spend an hour in the Alamo. There’s nothing wrong with SA its just that it’s not very interesting, IMO. Good food down there but…
Waco- for obvious reasons. Unless you really, really want to see Dr. Pepper and the Texas Ranger museums, Waco is a shitty, awful place and people who like it (all 6 of them) are bad people.
What to do- around Austin
Culture! The campus has the LBJ Presidential museum and the Texas Memorial Museum, which is primarily natural history and is a very, very cool visit. On the other side of campus is the Blanton Art Museum (never been there) and across the street is the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, which is also worth a look.
Without trying to describe any and every way to get drunk and watch music, I suggest checking out this website. This will give you recs, locations, venues, reviews, etc. Basically, if you want to keep things simple, stick to 6th Street (between I-35 and Congress Ave.). If you’re older than 25, venture into the Warehouse district (2-5th Streets west of the primary 6th St zone. Those of you of a more alternative lifestyle will find the gay clubs in the Warehouse district as well. That said, the entire area between the river and 8th Street is pretty much jammed with bars, restaurants, music venues and the like. Wandering around and going into places that look interesting will do you just fine.
I do recommend checking out the UT campus. I visited recently with my daughter on a campus tour and was blown away by the facilities and money that have been put in since I went there in the mid 90’s. It’s not Cal beautiful but there is a lot of really cool stuff on campus and the 6 pack (original 6 buildings) still holds a spot in my heart (they are located in front of the infamous Tower, of Charles Whitman sniper "fame"). Also, see the Confederate statues that are being moved before its too late! Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis will thank you.
Where to eat
Before I suggest the obvious barbeque and Mexican places, I’ll knock out the rest. This is by no means a comprehensive list…
I hope no one is coming to Austin to eat Asian food but if you must, Uchi is supposed to be one of the 20 best sushi places in the US. There are no prices listed so assume $$$. Sway is an upscale Thai place that is very good also.
Sunday morning brunch- for downtown visitors, I’d suggest Moonshine. It’s been years since I’ve been there but it was amazing back in the day. THE legendary brunch place in Austin though is Fonda San Miguel. Its north of downtown by a considerable margin but if you’ve got a car and love you some brunch, it’s off the charts good.
For pizza choices, there are a multitude of good places if you drive but the best near downtown is Home Slice. East Side Pies is supposedly awesome and I have a special spot in my heart for the Pepperoni rolls at Double Dave’sfrom my college days. If you feel like driving out to Dripping Springs for any reason (like visiting Jester King Brewery), Stanley’s Farmhouse pizza is really, really good. Also, my daughter works there so feel free to tip heavily.
You’d think steak would be king in Austin but the best places are primarily chains like Perry’s or Ruth’s Chris. TRIO and III Forks are also real good. I am rather partial to the Roaring Fork as well.
Skip Vince Young Steakhouse, it had a decent rep for a while but I have had 2 friends have dietary issues after eating there so yeah, no.
Burgers! I thought my life was over when Mike’s Pub closed a few years back but there are a variety of quality choices to be had out there. For greasy deliciousness, Dan’s is tough to beat. Freddy’s is solid. Mighty Fine is pretty good.
Skip Hopdoddy. It has a massive reputation and lines are consistently out the door at all of their locations. But is the wait worth it? I haven’t found that to be true. That’s just me though.
Ok, Mexican food! You almost literally can’t through a stone anywhere in Austin without hitting a Mexican place but here’s a few to think about (or miss). There are so many good places its impossible to list them all.
Chuy’s is an Austin institution. I call it "Gringo Mex" instead of Tex-Mex. It doesn’t quite feel authentic to me and the crowd is pretty pale but its really good. Maybe I’m just a racist. My family swears by the jalapeno ranch sauce that they dump on everything. They also own Hula Hut (Hawaiian Mex? Website is screwy so here's some Yelp) on Lake Austin Blvd. A nice place to spend an afternoon next to he water and look at girls in various states of undress. The Thai BBQ chicken fajitas are to die for too.
Trudy’s falls into the Gringo Mex definition too. I originally started going there for their Mexican Martinis. Pretty much everyone has them now but the food is solid.
On 6th St, the Iron Cactus is pretty solid. A bit chainy and definite Gringo Mex but convenient and tasty.
The best cheese enchiladas I’ve ever had (by a wide margin) are at Enchiladas Y Mas. A bit of a drive up to Anderson Way but so so so good.
Billions of good taco places but I love me some Torchy’s Tacos. Some people claim that Tacodeli is better (and its good, no doubt) but for me, Torchy’s is amazing. Give me a couple Trailer Parks, Trashy and I’m a happy boy (fried chicken, onions, peppers and pico drowned in queso).
Skip- Matt’s Famous El Rancho. Incredibly mediocre and overpriced, if someone tells you it’s a must visit, punch them in the face and end your friendship. Just not worth it when there are so many better choices available.
Skip- Guerro’s. Convenient to downtown, it has a big rep for authentic interior Mexican food. Maybe its because I’m not a huge interior Mexican food kind of guy but it is so much meh.
BARBECUE. Austin has gone through a BBQ renaissance in the past half dozen years and now has dozens of good to great options. Below are a few options for in town eating. No Taylor, Lockhart or Lexington spots here (no matter how good they are)
Franklin has a huge rep and allegedly has the best brisket in Murica (and therefore the world). Is it worth waiting in line for 4-5 hours? Is anything worth that? Beyond the brisket, everything else falls into the "good" category so if you brave the line, brisket is a must.
La Barbecue is fantastic. Its only a 2 hour wait but the pork ribs and brisket are NOMS
If you don’t want to wait in line, Brown’s BBQ (no website so some Yelp)is a food truck outside the Corner Bar on Lamar. Absolutely fantastic brisket and beef ribs (best beef ribs I’ve ever had)
Freedman’s is great but its definitely a different kind of place. Great food and a pretty unique whiskey bar make it a different kind of experience. Highly recommend and its close to the UT campus.
On the north side, Stiles Switch is really good.
Skip- The Salt Lick. Actually, this is a conditional skip. If you are just looking for the best BBQ you’re ever tasted, then skip. If you are going for the atmosphere, location in Driftwood and good BBQ, the Salt Lick is still a solid choice. Whereas it was once the best in Austin, now it doesn’t even crack the top 10. Still good though and the potato salad remains my favorite side dish ever. That’s a lonnnnggggg drive for good though.
Skip- fast food BBQ. While Rudy’s is actually pretty good (and is a good choice if you’ve got the meat shakes), places like Pok-e-jos and Bill Miller BBQ are awful and you should punch yourself in the face if you eat there.
So that's what I got. There is a ton I left out for space reasons so if anyone has any questions, let me know and I will respond as soon as possible. Enjoy your visit to Austin!