When my husband and I moved to the South a couple years ago, we were excited by the prospect of exploring a whole new part of the country. So, when he was sent to Austin for work last week, I flew out on Thursday to meet him for a long weekend there. I didn’t know much about Austin, other than it’s a food and music city, so I wasn’t sure what we’d see or do once we got there. In the end, food and music filled most of our time there, along with lots of people watching and some much-needed catch-up time with old friends. Here are a few highlights from the weekend.
WHERE TO STAY
There are lots of stylish hotels to choose from in Austin, but after reading one rave TripAdvisor review after another, we booked the Kimber Modern through Tablet Hotels. It was perfect. The Kimber only has a handful of rooms, which gives it an intimate feel that you just can’t get at larger chain hotels. (Proof? We arrived in our room to find a hand-written welcome note from our host, Cassie, who was always on hand to offer up a restaurant reservation or sightseeing tip.) It’s also set back a block from South Congress, so you’re within walking distance of everything, but without constant foot traffic and noise.
The hotel uses a key-pad system, so you’re given a four-digit code to access it and your room, and you don’t have to worry about losing a key. There’s no check-in or check-out process, either—just show up, use your code to enter, and you’re in. The hotel, which centers around an interior courtyard, also has a beautiful wooden deck with sofas, tables and chairs, hammocks, and a sleek water feature that babbles all day long.
Just off the patio is a common room that’s stocked with a steady supply of coffee and espresso drinks, wine, beer, soda, and snacks, and, in the morning, breakfast goodies like bagels, fruit, banana bread, granola, and boiled eggs. And not a drop or morsel of it costs a penny extra! In my travels, I often notice that hotel lobbies and lounges are ghost towns, but guests at the Kimber Modern clearly enjoy using these two spaces. All day, guests (including ourselves) could be spotted lounging on the outdoor sofas, reading a books while sipping wine or coffee, or snoozing in a hammock. There’s also private, designated off-street parking—and it’s free. I can’t imagine there’s a more convenient hotel in town.
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
There are a lot of restaurants in Austin, and everyone’s got an opinion about where to go. I racked up some recommendations before we left Atlanta and made a tentative list of places to eat, but when I got there, all plans went out the window. We were tired and eager for a few relaxing days spent however we wanted. So, on this trip, we followed our noses and our stomachs to whatever spots looked good when the mood hit. Here are a few we hit up:
Güero’s Taco Bar, just up the street from the Kimber Modern. It’s right on the main drag and gets busy with pedestrians passing by, but we were there on a relatively quiet Thursday night, so we got a table outside and enjoyed our tacos (the fish tacos were delicious) and margaritas alfresco.
The next day, we walked along South Congress and stopped for lunch at Torchy’s Tacos (our spread is pictured above). If you go, I highly recommend the Baja Shrimp tacos (bottom dish, at right). I also ordered a Dirty Sanchez (not that kind—this one, shown bottom left, was filled with scrambled eggs, a fried poblano chile, pickled veggies, and cheese), but I was too full from our chips and queso and my first taco to eat it.
Friday evening, we met our friends at Whisler’s, which turned out to be my favorite spot of the trip. Whisler’s is set in what looks like an old garage (anyone know if that’s true?), with tables inside and out. They serve creative cocktails (I had two spicy, gingery Falling Leafs), but the best part is Thai-Kun, the Thai food truck that’s parked in a back corner of the patio. If you’re a veg, you can eat so well here—get the Grilled Bread with Peanut Curry Sauce, Cabbage Two Ways, Black Noodles, and Thai-Kun Fish Cakes if you’re a pescatarian like me. If you’re a carnivore, order everything. Whisler’s is dog-friendly, too, and cute pups were at almost every table.
After Whisler’s, we hopped in the car and headed toward our friends’ apartment, which is just across the street from a fun spot called Whip In. This place is interesting—it’s set in an old service station, stocks hundreds of kinds of wine and beer, and serves Indian-fusion food. Somehow, though we were still full from Thai-Kun, we ended up with a bowl of goopy Whip-Indianized Nachos (El Milagro chips, black beans, Austin Slow Burn queso, pico, cilantro chutney) at our table. Some things are just too good to resist. There, we spent the rest of our evening cozied up in a dark corner booth, drinking cocktails, beer, and cider and playing a raunchy, hilarious game of Cards Against Humanity (thanks to Abby and Jason for turning us on to it!). By now, we were loving Austin.
The next morning, we rolled out of bed and down the street to Jo’s Coffee for caffeine and a breakfast taco (because everything in Austin comes in taco form). The best I’ve ever had? No. But it was a great spot for people watching and the hot coffee went down fine on a cold, dreary morning. The South Congress location of Jo’s is where you’ll find the famous “I love you so much” graffiti (shown up top).
Saturday afternoon, after wandering along South Congress for a second time, we grabbed lunch at Snack Bar, which has a fun retro exterior and a great patio overlooking the busy sidewalk. This time, I opted for a light quinoa-avocado salad with pineapple and tofu, my husband had a pork taco board, and we shared a street corn appetizer. Locals would probably say that Snack Bar is “fine,” and it was, but with many other restaurants sporting lines around the corner, we were happy to walk right in and get an outdoor table—and a decent lunch—there.
Long before coming to Austin I’d been crushing on Hotel San José, so I was super excited to see that it was located just across South Congress from our hotel. Rooms were pretty pricey during our stay, so we decided to simply stop in for a cocktail in its courtyard before dinner. Service was a little slow, but it was a nice night and the patio wasn’t crowded, so we didn’t mind. As for cocktails? I had a Champassion (bubbly and passion fruit) and my husband had a Rosso Amaro, a mixture of prosecco and grapefruit. The hotel is a little oasis in the middle of South Congress’s madness, and it’s just as stylish as I’d imagined it would be.
That evening, after chatting with Cassie at the Kimber Modern, we decided to try Lucky Robot for dinner, since we both love sushi and Japanese food. And it didn’t disappoint! We ordered a few kinds of sashimi and nigiri (plenty of yellowtail for me, as always), and we shared a couple of rolls for our main (try the Hama Hama roll and the Atomic Crunchy Salmon). The standout dish was definitely my husband’s Chiki Toro (bigeye tuna, salt & time lardo, negi). It wasn’t until after I ate a melty piece myself and prepared to die happy that we asked our server where the dish’s delicious, smoky flavor came from. “A layer of pork fat,” she replied. Oops. Still, I have no regrets. It was that good. A couple of Sapporos and carafes of hot sake later, and we were good to go.
If you know me, you know I’m an ice cream fiend, and lucky for me, one of Austin’s most popular ice cream spots, Amy’s, is located just next door to Lucky Robot. Of course we stopped for dessert. Our order: A tiny-sized Thin Mint ice cream with Oreo crumbles, and a tiny Butterfinger ice cream with Chips Ahoy crumbles, which we devoured on a picnic table just across the street.
Finally, on Sunday morning before heading to the airport, we met up with our friends for one last meal—breakfast at Magnolia Cafe. This spot is open 24/7 and there’s pretty much always a line. Go early, around 8 or 8:30, to avoid the worst of it, and try to get a table on the rear patio. As for what to order, I recommend the Prima Dora omelette (sliced avocado with cheddar/jack cheese, topped with lemon sour cream, verde and chipotle sauces) and lots of hot coffee.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO
I fell in love with street art back in October when I visited Honolulu, so I was really excited when our friends told us about Graffiti Park at Castle Hills. Definitely don’t miss it, and wear sneakers so you can climb up to the top for great views of the city.
Another event you can’t really skip when you come to Austin is taking in some sort of live music. On Thursday evening, we headed to The Highball with our friends Abby and Jason to see Dale Watson and his silver pompadour perform. It was like being transported back in time, and it was a blast.
If you like to shop, South Congress has plenty of options, especially when it comes to antiques and consignment clothes. I loved Uncommon Objects for its randomness—they had everything from antique globes to giant state flags.
Of course, you can’t really stroll South Congress without walking into Allens Boots, which has more pairs than you’ll ever see in one place again, plus cowboy hats and other accessories. They even have heated hat sizers so you’re guaranteed a perfect fit.
Shops on South Congress are bursting with character, thanks to the knickknacks, antiques, and signs they carry. Even if you don’t buy anything, shop hopping is a fun way to kill a few hours.
Last but not least, if you’re a football fan, it’s worth driving to the UT campus to see the Longhorns stadium and walk around campus if you can find a place to park. I love seeing college campuses, but if that’s not your speed, you’ll do fine to stick to food and music in this Texas city that has plenty of both.
Have you been to Austin? What did you love about the city?