Austin has more live-music venues per capita than any other US city, and from October 8 through 10 it hosts Austin City Limits, one of its two major music festivals (the other is South by Southwest in March). This year’s lineup includes the Eagles, M.I.A., the Strokes, Sonic Youth, the Flaming Lips, Vampire Weekend, Norah Jones, and Washington’s own Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. You can buy a day pass or stay for all three days. This year’s festival is sold out, but tickets are often available through sources such as StubHub.com.
Here are a few ACL Festival tips from a veteran: Bring water, wear sunscreen, avoid steep atm fees by bringing cash, don’t bother bringing a chair, don’t plan to see back-to-back bands—you won’t make it from one stage to another in time to get a decent spot—and instead of driving, take the shuttle from downtown or rent a bike.
What to Do
Even when Austin isn’t in festival mode, live music saturates the nightlife scene. The Elephant Room hosts live jazz in a dark basement bar with a Prohibition-era feel. The Continental Club—the self-proclaimed “granddaddy of all local music venues,” having opened in 1957—has multiple bands every night. South Congress Avenue merits a stroll anytime, but go the first Thursday of the month for a block party of Texas-size proportions, when stores stay open late and restaurants and bars offer drink specials. On Tuesday and Friday, head to Donn’s Depot to see some serious Texas two-stepping while Donn and the Station Masters play live.
Austin is a bike-friendly city, and one of the best routes is Lady Bird Lake Trail, with views of the lakes and the city skyline. You can also station yourself on the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge over the lake around sunset to watch North America’s largest urban bat colony take flight at dusk (512-416-5700 ext. 3636).
Home to the University of Texas, Austin has a wealth of eclectic bookstores. BookPeople is the biggest independent, BookWoman specializes in feminist titles, MonkeyWrench Books is a progressive shop with film screenings, Resistencia Bookstore hosts political forums, and Whole Life Books is full of spiritual and metaphysical volumes.
The Harry Ransom Center is a University of Texas museum with a Gutenberg Bible and the first photograph ever, taken in 1826.
Austin is a great destination for vintage shopping. Try New Bohemia for classic dresses; Cream Vintage for upcycled and repurposed pieces; and Parts & Labour for clothing designed by local artists.
Where to Eat
Tex-Mex connoisseurs love Austin. For great enchiladas, tacos, and hand-shaken margaritas, head to Guero’s.
Another local favorite is Eastside Café, with such dishes as sesame catfish and artichoke manicotti in a sun-dried-tomato cream sauce. The cafe grows its own organic produce in a back-yard garden.
The Salt Lick, named America’s tastiest barbecue by the Travel Channel, is worth the drive to Austin’s outskirts for heaping portions of beef, sausage, and pork ribs.
For breakfast or a late-night bite, nothing beats Magnolia Cafe, which is open 24 hours and serves everything from gingerbread pancakes to Mag Mud, a concoction of black bean, queso, and avocado.
Food trailers dot the Austin landscape, with many headed by former sous chefs from top restaurants. A local favorite is Odd Duck, which bases the menu on whichever farm-fresh ingredients come in on a particular day—think quail and potatoes or pork-belly sliders. It’s open for dinner only. Next door, Gourdough’s makes doughnuts such as the Funky Monkey (with grilled bananas and cream-cheese icing) and the Flying Pig (maple icing and bacon). Cutie Pies offers a buttermilk pie that’s to die for, and East Side King has an Asian-infused menu with beet home fries and pork-belly steamed buns.
Austin is home to the flagship Whole Foods market (525 N. Lamar Blvd.; 512-476-1206). This center of all things organic has an overwhelming number of food stations as well as a winter ice-skating rink on top.
Where to Stay
Hotel San José is low in price and high in charm, with Spanish-style bungalows and courtyards as well as bike, typewriter, and Polaroid-camera rentals. Rooms from $95.
Hotel Saint Cecilia offers studios, suites, and bungalows, some with fireplaces, private backyards, and pool-view porches. Some accommodations are inspired by the works of Andy Warhol, William S. Burroughs, and Hunter S. Thompson. Rooms from $295.
The Driskill is a lush retreat with marble-and-leather opulence. Rooms from $189.
The Mansion at Judges’ Hill is in a former mansion with tall French doors, antiques, and a wraparound veranda. Rooms from $169.
This article first appeared in the October 2010 issue of The Washingtonian.