Having home-hopped around a handful of Texas cities and towns since the early 1990s, freelance writer Jill Coody Smits has called Austin’s Zilker neighborhood home for the past three years. Along with writing for various publications — from Psychology Today to Southern Living — she also works with trafficking survivors to help them write op-eds, and publishes family travel guides. When Jill’s not working, she can be found exploring Austin with her husband, their nine year-old daughter, and their two pooches. Today, she’s excited to share with us an extensive and jam-packed guide to everything Austin has to offer; just in time for the annual South by Southwest festival (which kicked off last Friday). Enjoy! –Sabrina
Photography by Jill Coody Smits
Some people in Austin love to talk about the good old days — the days when tacos cost a quarter, traffic was a Dallas phenomenon, and Californians lived in California. The hippy-dippy days before SXSW got too big for its britches, Antone’s was on Guadalupe and Jeffrey’s was pretty much the only “special occasion” place in town.
I loved that ATX, too — it was the Austin I lived in as a UT student in the 90s and as a young professional in the early 2000s. In that town, everything I needed existed within an affordable three-mile radius. On any given day, I could hear live music at Hole in the Wall, spend a glorious afternoon slurping down beers on the Crown & Anchor deck or ride my bike along Shoal Creek and up into Clarksville to pick out a cute top at Crofts Original.
These days, Austin is a big city with a small-town heart. And while there are real problems associated with rapid growth, much of what people loved about old Austin is alive and well in this new iteration. You can still find an authentic music joint, peaceful hiking trail, make-your-day taco and sublime spot on a sunny patio. In addition, though, you can get a killer cup of coffee in almost every neighborhood, enjoy great food that’s not a burger, and wander through some of the coolest local shops in the country. In spite of (dare I say because of) the boom, Austin is still Awesometown.
With new places opening every week, it’s impossible to stay on top of Austin’s exploding food scene. That’s a good thing, because it means there’s plenty of scrumptiousness to choose from, whether you can spend a lot or a little.
Breakfast culture is so institutional here that it’s hard not to wonder what all of these slackers do for a living, even as you’re sitting among them. It’s also hard to pick favorites, because the breakfast debate is almost as heated as the taco and BBQ wars (which I will spinelessly avoid altogether).
In South Austin, Radio serves Stumptown coffee and legit food in an indoor/outdoor space you’ll want to hang out in. Once Over brews local Wild Gift coffee with an old-school Austin vibe, and you can bring in a perfect El Primo taco from the trailer right outside. Patika is a tad more chichi in a pretty South Lamar shop with house-made pastries and a nice patio. Even further south, Strange Brew lives in an awesomely divey space, and houses Strange Brew Lounge Side, a shouldn’t-miss-it live music venue.
Heading northeast, Jo’s and its red and green “I love you so much” wall is an iconic SoCo favorite. I know plenty of Houndstooth loyalists, and Cherrywood Coffeehouse is a comfy place that caters to families on Sunday mornings. It’s easy to spend hours at a time at East Austin’s Cenote, and Bennu is conducive to sipping while you work near campus. Upper Crust Bakery on hopping Burnet Road is a bright neighborhood hub.
For a heavier brunch down south, I’ll start by preaching the gospel of Elizabeth Street’s breakfast bánh mì. Neighboring Bouldin Creek Café has something for everyone, and Gourdough’s is a decadent stop if you just ran a 10K. In Hyde Park, Julio’s slings one of my favorite breakfast tacos, and the quintessentially Austin Quack’s is right next door. Just off Burnet, Épicerie is a delight. On the east side, Cisco’s has been keeping Austin in migas for 50 years while the delicious Contigo, a newer mainstay, has an inviting patio.
Image above: Photo by Ryan Allen
Most of these places make the transition to affordable lunch and dinner, along with so many more. In Bouldin Creek, Thai Fresh is a quirky and unassuming coffee shop/Thai restaurant with Tom Kha Gai you’ll crave forevermore. I’m a regular at The ABGB, one of Austin’s many great places where folks from all walks of life enjoy good music, good beer and good food.
Just south of the busiest stretch of SoCo, Lucy’s Fried Chicken has excellent comfort food and a super-chill vibe. In a decidedly un-touristy stretch of I-35, the Whip In is a one-of-a-kind place to buy craft beer, fine rosé and…dhaba bowls. I dream of nearby Curra’s — and specifically their cal do Tlalpeño — while vacationing in places where there’s no Mexican food.
I must also mention Hopfield’s near campus for a great beer selection and upscale pub meal, and El Chile on Manor for salsa, enchiladas verdes and a ginormous schooner full of lip-tingling michelada. Fresa’s Chicken al Carbon has hella good sides like grilled beets with chimichurri and cotija cheese. Also, the Asian/Southern fusion bites at the Peached Tortilla and Noble Sandwich on Burnet are worth a trek.
For a post-lunch, pre-dinner cocktail, go see Pam at The Tigress on North Loop.
Further east, Whisler’s oozes atmosphere and has the added bonus of Thai Kun in the parking lot. On SoCo, the Hotel San José courtyard is a remarkable place, and South First’s Lenoir has a beautiful wine garden (and fabulous prix fixe menu).
If you’re looking for a dinner that will undoubtedly require a reservation, there is no shortage of finer dining in Austin.
Dai Due is the place to go for Texas wine alongside a huge, butchered-on-the-premises pork chop. All the meat that’s fit to eat. My favorite, though, is Odd Duck. Such perfect Moscow mules! Such inspired small plates! Olamaie and Jacoby’s both lean southern, but with very different and delectable bents. As my discerning friend says, Josephine House is pretty darn special.
In addition to the divine Uchi and Uchiko, Austin’s gaping sushi hole is gradually being filled by the likes of Kyoten and Fukumoto. Modern and beautiful Gardner offers a veggie-heavy menu of very pretty, creative food. Launderette is too gorgeous, and too good to miss.
There has always been a vintage-loving faction in Austin, as well as the earthy, Teva-wearing crowd, a handful of the casually chic and trendy, and a contingent of ladies in flower crowns, cowboy boots and flowy dresses.
Underpinning that anything-goes style, though, is a fierce love for the local artisan and shop, and you could spend a long weekend in Austin without hitting all of the unique and wonderful neighborhood places selling clothes, antiques, records, old books, greeting cards, fancy jewelry, weird knick-knacks, outsider art, wine glasses and shoes made for walkin’.
SoCo is a popular shopping destination for good reason, as there are fun shops to tempt pretty much everyone. Wandering up Congress from North to South, I always love checking out the diverse selection of Austin- and Texas-centric stuff in Parts and Labour.
A block up, the Gypsy Wagon has a really well curated, slightly higher-end collection of gifts, home goods and clothing. Next door, Creatures women’s boutique offers cute clothes, shoes and accessories to fit a wide range of budgets. Across the street, a cup of Amy’s Mexican vanilla ice cream is a good pit stop on the way up to Stag, a hip store for the fellows.
A block or two up and over, I’d like to buy up the entire collection in the Yard Dog folk art gallery, and Uncommon Objects has never let me down on a quest for the perfect birthday gift. Monkey See, Monkey Do and Big Top Candy Shop are a winning one-two for kids and adults alike. My old favorite, Crofts Original, is up there, as well.
Just a few blocks west, South Lamar and South First are also worthwhile shopping destinations.
On First, Métier Cook’s Supply is a pleasure for pretty much anyone who likes to cook, eat or drink. Nearby, Flashback vintage and Amelia’s Retro Vogue and Relics have been a part of the Austin scene for ages. Record lovers will emerge from End of an Ear hours (and hours) later, and Stitch Lab has fabrics that will inspire you to make that long-planned window seat cushion.
On Lamar, I love spending time in Mockingbird Domestics, where I can get lost in all of that aspirational stuff. Down the street, Moss is the place to go for high-end consignment clothing. Spartan has a beautiful collection and JM Drygoods will make you want to move to Marfa, or maybe Oaxaca. BookPeople is truly one of the best bookstores on the planet. Be sure and walk across the street to Waterloo Records, because you haven’t really been to Austin if you don’t go in. Further down Lamar, Whole Earth is a beloved Austin staple for all things outdoors.
In the 2nd street warehouse district, you’ll be enticed by the weird and wonderful things in Toy Joy, regardless of your age. You can find unique gifts and ACL souvenirs at Austin Rocks, along with cool tees from local makers like Moontower Designs.
More than a decade ago, we lived slightly further north in the Crestview neighborhood, and the joke was that you could find everything from organic coffee to a taxidermist on nearby Burnet Road. Today, the area is in the midst of a renaissance, and you can spend the better part of a day vintage store-hopping from Uptown Modern to Vintaj to Room Service to Rave on Vintage to Antique Marketplace.
There’s more than just vintage, though, and if you are in Austin long enough to drink the earthy footwear Kool-Aid, Karavel Shoes can totally hook you up. Every child’s fantasy, Terra Toys is up that way, too.
On Tillery, East Austin Succulents and Tillery Street Plant Company will inspire your green thumb. Friends & Neighbors in an old house on East 7th is the perfect combination of shop, coffee bar and backyard hangout. There’s also a totally cool collective on Cesar Chavez that houses Farewell Books, Flat Track Coffee and Las Cruxes gallery and boutique. It’s all so darn inspired.
All of the usual hotel suspects exist in Austin, and there is an ever-growing number of destination places to stay in the central core.
East Austin’s Heywood Hotel on Cesar Chavez is cute, modern and cozy, and would be a great home base for experiencing the city. Kimpton’s brand new Hotel Van Zandt is well located near Rainey Street, and word on the street is that in-house restaurant Geraldine’s is delish.
Also brand new, the South Congress Hotel is in the thick of all the good stuff on SoCo, and also houses new retail and restaurants like Revival Cycles, Central Standard and Paul Qui’s soon-to-be-famous Otoko. If you plan early and can score a reservation at the Hotel San José or Hotel Saint Cecilia, by all means do it. Both are splurge-worthy. The Austin Motel is a local treasure and really is “so close yet so far out.” Also, its Snack Bar is a good breakfast stop.
The Driskill and Stephen F. Austin are downtown classics closer to the capitol, and the W Austin has an enviable spot next to the Moody Theater, the newish venue for Austin City Limits. Located in the 1900s home of one of UT Austin’s founders, Hotel Ella is a more traditional option close to campus.
Also, if you are an AirBnBer, Austin’s central areas have a plethora to choose from, thanks to big events like SXSW, Austin City Limits Music Festival, The X Games and F1.
As obvious as it may be, any guide on what to do in Austin should start with Barton Springs, because it really is magical. Sit on the lawn, jump off the diving board, observe the many humans in your midst, and spend at least five whole minutes soaking in the icy water. I guarantee you will leave feeling healthier, more relaxed and peaceful, and more tolerant of yourself and your fellow man.
If you’re here during the long, hot summer, you may be in the market for other watery places. Deep Eddy is a more traditional, but still spring-fed pool that is great for people-watching. Stand-up paddle boarding or kayaking on Lady Bird Lake will get you just wet enough, and provide a great view of downtown. Depending on how much rain we’ve had, there are several great spots to wade in along the Barton Creek Greenbelt. Campbell’s Hole is one of the closest to town, and just a short hike up from Barton Springs.
There are many pretty places to hike and bike right in town, including the trail around Lady Bird Lake. Used for exercise and commuting, it’s the heart of Austin and connects with numerous other urban paths and trails. For a bit more adventure, hike or bike the eight-mile Greenbelt end to end, or do a shorter out-and-back for a small taste. One of the prettiest sections starts at an entrance on Scottish Woods Trail Road and takes you down the “Hill of Life” to Sculpture Falls.
I don’t know if Austin is actually the “Live Music Capital of the World,” but it is true that pretty much any place with a spare corner will eventually be filled with someone playing a guitar. And there are so many great bands from here — Riders Against the Storm, Max Frost, Gary Clark, Jr., and Wild Child are just a few.
The Threadgill’s outdoor stage on Riverside is one of my favorites — especially when Shinyribs is playing. In East Austin, the Scoot Inn really is historic, and has a bigger space where you might catch musicians like Shakey Graves. Ditto Stubb’s and the Mohawk on Red River — both great venues. The Saxon Pub on South Lamar is one of Austin’s best small rooms, so try and get there soon in case rumors are true and it moves to St. Elmo Road… then go there, too. Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon on Burnet is just the place to have a Lone Star beer and see Dale Watson. On campus, so much great music has been played in the Cactus Cafe, you can almost imagine that Townes Van Zandt will walk out on the stage.
Though it’s now wedged between two modern apartment complexes, the Broken Spoke is the real deal. Go on a Wednesday and take free two-step lessons from the awesome Terri White. The White Horse is another fun, old school place to dance or see live music.
If you’re into a different kind of culture, Austin has several small but lovely museums, including the Umlauf Sculpture Garden across from Barton Springs, the Elisabet Ney Museum in Hyde Park, and the gorgeously situated contemporary art museum at Laguna Gloria. On campus, the Harry Ransom Center has amassed a mind-boggling collection that is mined to create fascinating exhibits. The HOPE Outdoor Gallery isn’t a traditional museum, but a unique place to check out as you run around town.
Austin’s craft beer scene continues to boom, and you could spend more than a few hours sampling in tasting rooms around town. In addition to ABGB, there are plenty to choose from, including Hops & Grain, Zilker Brewing Company, Live Oak Brewing, Austin Beerworks, Independence Brewing Company, Blue Owl Brewing and South Austin Brewery.
Finally, with the Hill Country a quick drive up the road, there is an abundance of worthy day trips around Austin. One of my favorites, though, is a pilgrimage to Blue Hole in Wimberley for a picnic (bring your own or make a tiny detour to Rolling in Thyme and Dough in Dripping Springs) and dip into a picturesque swimming hole; followed by a leisurely stop at Jester King Brewery and pastrami or pizza at Pieous for dinner.