48 Hours In Austin, Texas
Soak up the scene (and the barbecue, of course) in the live music capital of the world.
The “Live Music Capital of the World” pairs cowboy crooners and blue-ribbon barbecue with a side of some down-home hospitality.
Named after the legendary Texan troubadour Townes Van Zandt, the Hotel Van Zandt has interiors as finely crafted as its namesake’s ballads. The premises boast a lobby that doubles as a listening lounge, a wild collection of modern art (including pieces by Townes’s son, JT) and a live music venue with acts expertly curated from in and around Austin. A complimentary can of Twisted X Austin Lager when you check in will make you feel particularly cool. At first glance, the dark interior is an odd choice, but you’ll find it provides an instant cool-down when ducking back inside to escape the sweltering Austin heat.
When the sun begins to set, it’s time to hit Rainey Street, conveniently located a half block away. Thanks in part to a 2004 rezoning and some brave entrepreneurship, what was once a residential pocket is now a series of detached bungalows, stripped down and transformed into individual bars, each with its own vibe. There is a no-cover-charge culture on Rainey, which means your evening will be commitment-free. Don’t like the band? Move on. You’re going to find something you love and probably sooner than you think.
Most of the bars are kitchen-less, so for a quick, warm meal head to the south end of Rainey, where you’ll find a small food truck lot that features a wide variety of late-night fare. You won’t be disappointed if you opt for a grilled cheese sandwich or a Korean rice bowl, but the lot’s crown jewel is the fried chicken served up by Ms P’s Electric Cock. The name may be juvenile, but the chicken is sophisticated: boneless, deep-fried in peanut oil and served with a side of sweet ’n’ tangy sauce for dipping. Expect a lineup on Friday and Saturday nights.
If you were out late on Rainey the night before, you’re likely in need of hydration and some sustenance. Grab a breakfast taco or two from the hotel café and (this is important) make sure to wash it down with a bottle of local favourite Topo Chico. It’s hard to put your finger on what’s so compelling about this Mexican mineral water. Maybe it’s the hint of mysterious sweetness or the way the retro glass bottle feels in your hand. Either way, stick a fresh-cut lime wedge in there and think of it wistfully the next time you drink a Canada Dry.
Once you’re feeling rejuvenated, head toward Congress Avenue and the Texas State Capitol Building. The site is rich with political history, but it’s worth the visit for the renaissance revival architecture alone. The building boasts ornamentation in the interior that is shockingly detailed. Everything from the glass transoms to the doorknobs feels crafted by masters. You’ll have to pass through a metal detector before heading inside, but the hassle is worth it.
After soaking in some history, leave the capitol site and head south for a barbecue lunch. Places like Franklin’s and La Barbeque tend to attract the most attention from Austin’s BBQ enthusiasts, but they sell out quickly and offer less-than-comfortable seating. For a more refined dining experience, head back down Congress Avenue, hang a right on Cesar Chavez Street and keep an eye out for Lamberts. Here you’ll find all the staples like brisket, ribs and pulled pork expertly prepared and delivered in quantities that won’t send you into cardiac arrest. Order a craft beer (Pearl Snap is the local standard) and offer a toast to all the tourists on the other side of town eating barbecue on a picnic table under the scorching Texan sun.
From Lamberts you can walk the multitude of riverside trails or do some light shopping, but make sure to be near the Congress Bridge just before sundown. There’s not much to see during the day, but when the sun sets North America’s largest urban bat colony pours out from under the bridge, flying into the night sky to feed. The whole event lasts less than an hour, but it could be the thing you talk about the most when you return home.
Once the bats have dispersed, you’re a short walk to the Continental Club. Featuring a hot-rod Americana aesthetic and tight musical acts that run the gamut of rock, jazz, blues and country, this iconic live music venue has been crankin’ tunes since 1955 and is a bastion of American music. The space is smaller than you might think so expect a dense crowd.
After staying out two nights in a row, it’s probably time to engage in some clean living. The Sandra Bullock-owned deli and flower shop Walton’s Fancy and Staple offers an elegant selection of healthy breakfast and brunch classics elevated by bright flavours and a restrained creative touch. Case in point: their avocado toast boasts a perfectly soft-boiled egg and a disciplined drizzle of spicy sauce. Being surrounded by the fragrance of freshcut flowers is a bonus.
Leave Walton’s and head back across the Congress Avenue Bridge toward South Congress to check out the lineup of oddball shops. Here’s a short list of things you’ll find for sale: Mexican wrestling masks, vintage nudie playing cards, taxidermied cats, taxidermied bats, postmodern pepper grinders (more expensive than you’d think!), taxidermied snakes (less expensive than you’d think!), sugar-skull moulds, bolo ties, vintage human anatomy charts, conch shells, belt buckles the size of your head and, maybe most importantly, more Topo Chico.
For your last Austin meal, Perla’s patio on South Congress is a top choice. Austin isn’t known for its seafood, but Perla’s grilled octopus is some of the best we’ve tasted. Pair it with the bright and crunchy Little Gem salad. Important: make sure to get a seat closer to the building, away from the giant tree that houses a gang of local birds known as grackles (think crows, but smaller). These birds don’t care that this is your final taste of Austin. They’ll use your table as a buffet and as an outhouse (we were bombed six times during our meal). Thankfully, Perla’s staff is quick to replace any spoiled food.
New Braunfels: A Musical Side Trip
Fifty minutes outside of Austin lies the surprisingly robust city of New Braunfels. Fiercely proud of their German-settler history, the town of 70,000 has a decidedly Deutschland flavour. But it’s the live music (and the wurst, and the craft beer) that make it a perfect getaway.
A modern, airy take on the traditional German beer hall. Save the beer for later (see below), but try the schnitzel or the impressive sausage platter.
A fearless brewing company, this small outfit is focused on new and interesting flavours despite the outcomes. They recently had the audacity to bottle a pickle-based brew that was as courageous as it was horrendous. Try the weird stuff, but enjoy their sours.
Home to Gruene Hall, Texas’s oldest dance hall. A place that commands so much respect that artists like Maren Morris, Lyle Lovett and Willie Nelson continue to play there, despite the small capacity. Stay out too late? The Gruene River Inn is a friendly accommodation just 10 minutes walk from the hall. (Photo: Heather Cowper.)