There are cities you go to visit an important landmark, to see a show, to lay on the beach and catch the sun rays all day long… Austin is not one of those cities. You go to Austin to experience it.
A capital of Texas, Austin is a true melting pot of cultures. Diverse architecture, eclectic live music, a cornucopia of culinary wonders on every corner, and always-friendly people who love their city. What’s not to love about Austin? (Ok, hay fever that gets me every time would be one, but that is all on me. :D)
All of these different flavors of Austin only intensify during SXSW (South by Southwest), one of the biggest technology, music, and film events in the world, which is held annually in March. SXSW attracts more than 70,000 people each year and the entire city turns into one big festival venue. Austin during SXSW, and I was lucky enough to experience it three times so far, is crazy fun. So fun that locals just try not to be there. 😀
But no matter if you find yourself in Austin during SXSW or in any other time of the year, this “Live Music Capital of the World” and home to the world-known barbecue has a lot to offer. In this post, I will focus on experiences that I don’t think you can find anywhere else.
Of Rock & Roll and Saloons – The Sixth Street
Often considered synonymous with Austin, the 6th street is certainly its most picturesque part. Here I am referring to what is popularly known as the “Dirty Sixth”, E. 6th street from Congress to I-35, because it truly gives homage to the “Keep Austin Weird” motto. Nobody I asked knew to tell me the origins of the Dirty Sixth moniker, but over the last few years it became part of the vernacular. Most believe it is due to the litter left behind the weekend party-goers, mostly college students. Either way, it’s a different kind of experience.
It’s like you have been transported 50 years back, in a good way. Imagine a street lined with bars on both sides, each with slightly different musical choices, decor, and the overall feel. During SXSW, each and every one is either rented for a private party or brimming with people. My definite favorites are:
Pete’s Dueling Piano Bar
A place where I heard the best rendition of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. At any moment, there are two musicians, or better yet – maestros, singing and playing on the instruments. Sometimes, they play two instruments at the time. Musicians compete between each other on the best cover of the song of your choice. There are slips of paper for song requests on every table; you write your song choice down and give it to a musician. We asked for Bohemian Rhapsody and, oh boy, did they deliver. We paid 10 dollars for entry, but if you want your song to cut the line, you have to give the tip there as well. No food, drinks only.
A local favorite, Easy Tiger is a hip bakery and bar with an outdoor garden. If you want to try chocolate beer or beer with lemons, this is the place to go to. They serve both snack food and drinks. We haven’t tried the food (except for some very tasty croissants) but we were delighted with a wide range of available draft beers.
Chupacabra and Jackalope
Right next to each other and both serving great food. Chupacabra serves Tex-Mex while Jackalope has one of the best burgers in town. What many people don’t know is that, while these two locales serve different food and cater to different audiences, they share an owner and a kitchen.
Interested in best places to eat in Austin? Check out my 10 top picks.
Warehouse District, 2nd Street, and Rainey Street
Spending all your time in Austin in and around the E. 6th Street, notwithstanding how awesome it is, will give you a skewed impression of Austin. Trust me, I would know. 😀
On the other end of the 6th street, you can find the Warehouse District, often described as “the upscale cousin of the 6th”. Over the years, this part of the town became the destination of visitors interested in live music bars and upscale restaurants housed in, as the name of the district suggests, renovated, antique warehouses.
I also suggest you find some time for the 2nd street as well. It’s home to mid to high-end boutiques if you are up for some shopping and great restaurants. (p.s. If you don’t want to break the bank, I recommend going to Barton’s Creek mall for shopping :D) There is this great Italian place called Numbero 28. The 2nd Street is really lovely and a completely different experience from both sides of the 6th.
Another street worth visiting? What can I say, Austin likes to keep their streets themed, and the theme of Rainey Street is ‘small and charming’. Rainey street has a lot to offer for such a small area. It’s like a small neighborhood of good restaurants, charming houses and twinkling tree lights. It’s worth a stroll, especially if you decide to try out El Naranjo and the best dark mole in the world!
And Then the Sky Went Dark…
… or so they say. 🙂 Austin is home to a bat colony that numbers more than 1.5 million Mexican Free-Tail bats. Before winter starts they migrate to Mexico, and they return with the first warm days of spring, around mid-March. Their habitat in Austin is the underside of the Congress Bridge and they say that in the dusk, when the bats start coming out from under it, the sky turns black from the sheer number of them.
There are two great spots to watch for the bats – the Congress Bridge or by the river below the Four Season’s hotel.
We tried to see the bats several times but with no luck. It just wasn’t warm enough for them. We managed to get some great pictures though and enjoy the twilight. Maybe you will be of greater luck! If so, please share your experience in the comments section. 🙂
Austin Rodeo – ProRodeo and Concert
If you are lucky enough to be in the city during the Austin ProRodeo, which is also held in March, don’t miss it! It’s an amazing cultural experience, especially for a girl from a small Europea country that had no contact with anything similar except in the movies. It’s a different kind of living, and I was happy I got to experience it.
Count on spending at least five hours on the rodeo and plan your mode of transportation in advance as its outside the city and getting back in the evening can be a challenge. Ticket prices depend on the seats and make sure to book them well in advance if you want good ones. We purchased tickets on the spot and they amounted to about 30USD per person. We were seated a bit further in the back, but the rodeo arena is not that big so you should be able to see well no matter where you are seated.
Aside from the ProRodeo (the contest in cattle roping, bull riding…) and a big country star concert (Cole Swindell in our case), you will have access to the Fairgrounds and the Carnival, so you will need some time to see it all. Especially if you make a stop at the petting zoo like we did. Also, don’t miss out on trying out the local fast food. We did out best to try everything between the four of us and were fairly successful (and a couple of kilos heavier as a result).
The Ultimate Cinema Experience
I don’t often recommend people to stay indoors and watch a movie during their vacation, but this is a must!
If you find the time, plan a fun night at the Alamo Drafthouse. According to Buzzfeed, big-shots like Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater, and Elijah Wood, consider it the best movie theater in the world, and I get their thinking. Aside from having their screening schedule a mix of new releases and classics like Harry Potter or LOTR marathons, they also serve food. Good food. And not just the regular stuff like nachos and popcorn but pizzas, burgers, and strawberry milkshakes. 😍
Austin is unlike any other city I have been to. In part, this is due to the creative madness that is SXSW, but a larger part is due to the city itself and it’s unique personality that is carefully nurtured. No matter how many times you visit, there is always something new to explore so feel free to share your suggestions!