In honor of my brother-in-law and his wonderful girlfriend getting engaged two weeks ago, today I am posting a flashback post about our first vacation with them to Austin, Texas! We had such a fun time exploring Austin together and cheering on the Florida Gators against the Aggies at Texas A&M in College Station, Texas. Congratulations Max and Samantha! I hope we can take another trip together soon!
If you haven’t been to Austin, I think the most important takeaway is that you should plan on eating a lot when you are there. From BBQ to Tex-Mex and everything in between, portions are hearty and truly live up to the saying that “Everything is bigger in Texas!”
One of Alex’s and my favorite way to research good restaurants and interesting things to do is to search for the city we are visiting on our DVR and record shows on the Food Network and Travel Channel. This method hasn’t steered us wrong yet, and surprisingly, a lot of the places featured aren’t as touristy as you might think. We watched several shows about Austin before our trip, including Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, Man v. Food, BBQ Pitmasters, and Top Chef. At the very least, this always serves as a fun way to learn a bit about the city we are planning to visit and never fails to get us excited for an upcoming vacation!
Lunch (all of the recommendations for lunch are casual dining options)
Our first meal in Austin was a cheeseburger at Casino El Camino. If you like spicy food, I highly recommend the Amarillo Burger. Featuring Serrano chiles, jalapeno cheese, and cilantro mayonnaise, it definitely has a kick. Another of Casino El Camino’s other specialties is the verde chili fries, served with tomatillo verde salsa and smothered in melted cheese. The burgers are huge, so sharing one burger and an order of fries was more than enough for both of us. What to order: Amarillo burger and verde chili fries.
Another great stop for lunch is Noble Pig Sandwich Co (also open for breakfast and dinner). The line may be long, but the food is excellent and the prices are very reasonable. Every item on the menu sounds delicious, but the namesake sandwich is a winner. With spicy ham, pulled pork, and bacon, you get pig three ways on one sandwich. Topped off with provolone, spicy mustard, and mayo, you cannot go wrong. What to order: Noble Pig sandwich.
Finally, if you’re in Austin for a weekend, it is worth the 45 minute drive for bbq at Salt Lick BBQ and Cellars. To this day, Salt Lick has, hands down, the best bbq I have ever had. When people talk about great bbq, I generally take it with a grain of salt, but this bbq is seriously out of this world. You can actually see the meats being smoked and they are not stingy about the serving sizes! It also doesn’t hurt that Salt Lick has a winery and live music on the beautiful property. Salt Lick BBQ is a wonderful place to spend an afternoon. What to order: Anything, really!
If you’re a big fan of Top Chef like Alex and I, I highly recommend Paul Qui’s restaurant Uchiko. We had a truly fantastic meal from start to finish. First, we were brought a complimentary dish of brussels sprouts in a sauce I have been trying to recreate for two years! The meal was capped off with a dessert of fried milk three ways (trust me, it’s amazing!). What to order: Hama Chili, Bacon Tataki, Tiger Cry with waygu beef. (Also, if you are a fan of Paul Qui, check out his other restaurant, Qui!)
My favorite meal in Austin was at Contigo. Modeled after a family ranch, the restaurant evokes the feeling of a big family barbecue. With all outdoor seating (picnic tables under string lights and some under a cover with fans), the atmosphere is friendly, casual, and highly conducive to drinking craft cocktails and sharing dishes with friends. What to order: White bean dip with duck fat, rabbit and dumplings, and a Moscow Mueller.
If you are looking for Tex-Mex, Matt’s El Rancho was a great spot! I was thoroughly satisfied by my meal and especially enjoyed the beautiful courtyard and property. Matt’s El Rancho also has a great story, which always adds to the experience in my opinion; it was started in 1952 by Matt Martinez, who started his restaurant career selling tamales from his fathers restaurant. Matt’s El Rancho has been a local favorite ever since. What to order: Mole enchiladas, tacos al pastor.
If you can handle dessert after all of the bbq and Mexican, Amy’s Ice Cream is a delicious place to stop for dessert or a cold snack (something I discovered that you need a lot of in Austin!). Amy’s ice cream is all hand-crafted and features over 350 flavors. Amy’s also offers dairy-free fruit ices and frozen yogurt. What to order: Amy’s signature Mexican Vanilla, Avocado, or pretty much anything else on the menu. You can’t go wrong!
As for drinks, there are a few different neighborhoods to explore. One of the more famous areas is 6th Street. With bars like Shakespeare’s Pub with its liquor pitchers and people watching and Pete’s Dueling Piano Bar with its sing-along piano parties, 6th Street is very reminiscent of Broadway in Nashville, but a bit less country and a bit more quirky. 6th Street is the live music epicenter of Austin and offers performances of nearly every musical genre, including jazz, rock, country, blues, and hip-hop. The scene is generally full of UT students, out-of-towners, and a mix of local folk.
The Rainey Street area is a bit more subdued than the 6th Street area. Many of the bars are located in old homes with porch and deck seating. It feels like you are visiting a friend’s house for a house party. The crowd is quieter and seems to be full of locals. Unfortunately, our favorite Rainey Street bar, Lustre Pearl, is currently closed. But don’t worry, a new location will be available soon! If you visit the new location, make sure you order their famous moonshine lemonade!
If you are looking for a day drink, the Hula Hut is a tropical oasis overlooking Lake Austin. Hula Hut offers “Tiki-Mex” cuisine (Tex-Mex with a Polynesian twist) and encourages dancing a drinking between the tiki torches on the deck. Hula Hut is the perfect place to beat the heat and enjoy the feeling of being in the islands
There are plenty of activities to fill your days in Austin. If you are looking for history, I highly recommend starting at the Texas State Capitol and Visitors Center. There, you can learn a lot about the history of the second largest state (by land) in the United States. There are also plenty of interactive exhibits for kids (in age or at heart) to enjoy.
Walking around University of Texas at Austin is another nice way to spend an afternoon. The campus is beautiful and is right at the center of Austin. Also on campus, the Blanton Art Museum is fantastic and has a diverse collection of art ranging from paintings from Renaissance and Baroque art to the American West to works in new media. The art museum is open Tuesday through Sunday and is free on Thursdays.
Another piece of history is the Driskill Hotel. Built in 1886 by a successful cattle baron, the Driskill hotel is a beautiful example of opulence and luxury. The hotel is convenient to downtown Austin, but even if you aren’t staying in the hotel, the staff has no problem allowing visitors to admire the marble floors and striking stained-glass dome.
One thing I didn’t realize about Austin before I visited was just how hot it was. I have to say, for as much as I loved Austin, I don’t think I have ever felt hotter than when I was there. After a day in Austin, we got to the point where we just could not handle the heat anymore. Fortunately, if that happens to you, there are great ways to cool off. The Barton Springs Pool is open to the public and is a large pool for laps, jumping, or just generally cooling off in the 68 to 70 degree waters. Only $4 for non-residents, it is quite an economical way to cool off. Another option is a boat trip on Lake Austin. A boat trip and stop at Hula Hut would make for a great afternoon away from the heat of downtown.
Finally, a must-do activity is viewing the Congress Ave Bridge Bats at sundown. Each night at dusk, a small crowd gathers on the bridge to watch the world’s largest urban bat colony emerge to feed. The Mexican free-tailed bats spend their summers in Austin. It is an indescribable experience that you are unlikely to see anywhere else!
Austin definitely lives up to its “Keep it Weird” reputation. It is a fun, eclectic, and delicious town and I highly recommend a visit. I hope to return one day for the SXSW festival. Have you ever been to Austin? If so, what are your favorite memories?
BONUS: COLLEGE STATION
Since the reason we visited Austin was to attend a football game in College Station, I also want to mention a few things about our visit to Texas A&M. If you ever visit for a game at Kyle Field, try to arrive to watch the Midnight Yell the night before a home game. We weren’t able to go to the practice, but the tradition is highly recommended for visitors because it is such a unique university experience! If you’re looking for a place to tailgate or watch other games, the Corner Bar and Rooftop Grill is a fun bar right on the edge of campus. Rudy’s BBQ is a fun family style restaurant for dinner after the game.
And with that, I will see y’all next time to share details from my trips to the United Arab Emirates and South Africa. Can’t wait to tell you all about the trips!
Casino El Camino, 517 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78701
Uchiko, 4200 N Lamar Blvd, Austin, TX 78756
Noble Pig, 12233 Ranch Rd 620 N #105, Austin, TX 78750
Contigo, 2027 Anchor Ln, Austin, TX 78723
Salt Lick BBQ and Cellars, 18300 FM 1826, Driftwood, TX 78619
Matt’s El Rancho Mexican, 2613 S Lamar Blvd, Austin, TX 78704
Amy’s Ice Cream, 3500 Guadalupe, Austin, TX 78705
Rudy’s BBQ, 504 Harvey Rd, College Station, TX 77840
6th Street bars, Austin, TX
Corner Bar and Rooftop Grill, 401 University Dr, College Station, TX 77840
Shakespeare’s Pub, 314 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78701
Pete’s Dueling Piano Bar, 421 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78701
Hula Hut, 3825 Lake Austin Blvd, Austin, TX 78703
Rainey Street bars, Austin, TX, Lustre Pearl, 97 Rainey St, Austin, TX 78701
Texas State Capitol and Museum, 112 E 11th St, Austin, TX 78701
Blanton Art Museum, 200 East Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard, Austin, TX 78712
Driskill Hotel, 604 Brazos St, Austin, TX 78701
University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX 78712
Barton Springs Pool, 2201 Barton Springs Rd, Austin, TX 78746
Congress Ave Bridge Bats, 305 S Congress Ave, Austin, TX 78704
Kyle Field, 161 Wellborn Rd, College Station, TX 77840