About a half-dozen times per year, I have a friend from my past who is visiting Austin and looking for my personal recommendations on everything from best BBQ to dive bar to hiking trail. I always enjoy conveying my favorites that I’ve experienced in what is now over an entire decade in one of the nation’s favorite vacation destinations and fastest-growing cities, but I find I am constantly trying to rack my brain and come up with a new list for each person. Why not just write a blog post, and direct people to it?!
So, friends, family, long-lost acquaintances, here you are—my definitive list of great places to visit on your 2022 (or whatever year) visit to Austin, Texas. I started this article years ago and just came across the draft and realized how close it was to being publish-ready. Shame on me for letting it sit there for so long!
The first question everyone always asks is whether Franklin BBQ is really that good. The answer is yes, it really is! Is it that much better than some of the other places that it should justify standing in a three-hour line? Well, yes and no. I do think everyone should try it if they are in town, but not if it means killing half a day of a short visit. In a non-pandemic era, standing in line can actually be half the fun (okay, maybe like 15% of the fun). Bring sunscreen, a camping chair, a cooler of beers, a football to toss around, and it’s basically like tailgating, only leading up to the world’s best BBQ instead of a sporting event.
In 2012, old pal Colin visited from North Dakota and our visit to Franklin literally took up the entire day. We got there around 7:30am, stood in line in the sweltering heat consuming Lone Stars, finally got our BBQ and ate an unbelievable amount, then returned to my apartment where we were so tired from the sun and beer and BBQ that we napped until around 5pm. That was pretty much the whole day.
I have been to most every big name BBQ joint in town, and while Franklin is #1, there are other awesome spots including Terry Black’s, La Barbecue, John Mueller’s, and Stiles Switch. Stubb’s is good too, but they are known more for their legendary music venue and gospel brunch. We also love Interstellar BBQ up north for the best sides in town. The beans and potatoes are worth it alone. Rudy’s is pretty decent, but I actually prefer them for their breakfast tacos on-the-go.
And of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a day trip out to Dripping Springs to Salt Lick, where the BBQ is good, but the ambience and atmosphere and authentic Texas experience really brings it all together.
Right after BBQ, the next thing people want to know is where they can get some authentic Tex Mex cuisine. I will be honest, I think some of the better places are little hole-in-the-wall strip mall places. Most any guest we’ve hosted has been taken to Jardin Corona. Others love Maudie’s, Trudy’s, Chuy’s, Curra’s, Guero’s, La Cocina, or Enchiladas y Mas. It’s hard to go wrong.
It kinda comes down to what you’re looking for—food or margaritas.
For food, the winner is hands-down Eldorado off Mopac & Steck. There is a steak entree there that is the best in town… I will personally guarantee that! If you can sacrifice a little on the food, I believe Jardin Corona makes some of the best frozen margs in town (though a recent visit to The District off Anderson has since claimed that title). But if you’re simply looking for the best of both worlds, great festive atmosphere and great bang-for-your-buck, Chuy’s is a good crowd-pleaser. There are Chuy’s all over the US, though, so it’s less original, but they originated in Austin and the original restaurants here are the best.
I’m not sure I could come up with a complete list, but if you picked a particular fare I could narrow it down, but I did just tell a friend these restaurants recently.
For a really great high-end Chinese experience, go to Old Thousand. For sushi, it’s Uchi. For southern fare, we like Fixe and Moonshine. For home cookin’, Hoover’s. For burgers, Hopdoddy is pretty solid, but Casino El Camino is best if you can get past the very rough interior. The best pizza is either at Via 313 (Detroit style) or out at Jester King (Stanley’s Farmhouse). The best tacos are Torchy’s or Tacodeli. The best breakfast tacos are Veracruz. For fried chicken, Lucy’s. For hot chicken, Tumble 22. For Indian, Clay Pit… but we also really like our neighborhood spot Sangam. For Thai, Sip Saam (also right in our northern hood) is great. And Lauren and I have long been fans of Peche, a posh cocktail bar with great kitchen, and Easy Tiger, a German beerhall with great sandwiches. Not sure if it ever reopened after the pandemic, but Haymaker is a great spot for poutine, of all things! Contigo has a fun vibe and a rotating menu, and… okay, I have to cut this list off now.
If you’re with kids, there are handful of good spots that have playgrounds on-site, including various Phil’s Icehouse and Hat Creek restaurants, but overall playgrounds at restaurants are a rarity here. Oz Brewhouse out in the western burbs has a good playground and a serve-yourself beer model.
You know me and Lauren, we aren’t shy about tipping back a cold one every now and then. We’ve visited a lot of great cocktail bars in Austin, but these ones stand out. Midnight Cowboy is a great reservations-only speakeasy that has been around as long as we’ve been here, and Here Nor There is another speakeasy that’s so exclusive you have to download their app to even make a reservation!
Techo Mezcaleria & Agave Bar is another favorite downtown if you’re looking for something a little different. The Roosevelt Room is a fun spot downtown, but when they transform into a seasonal Christmas bar is the time to go. Firehouse Lounge, Whisler’s, and Floppy Disk Repair Co. are some others I’ve visited in the past and enjoyed.
Beer & Breweries
As you may have guessed, Austin is a great place for craft breweries. Our favorite is probably Jester King, located in the Dripping Springs area south of town. They are known for their farmhouse/saison ales, but the real draw is the venue itself. It consists of multiple buildings and seating areas out in the country on a large plot of land with lots of room for kids to run around and play. Very family-friendly.
We are fortunate that up north we have a big cluster of breweries with great seating areas and food trucks. On or near Metric Blvd. are a lot of great breweries, and most of them are suitable for bringing kids! Most breweries have either a small playground, a big stash of board games, or at least room for kids to run around. Dogs are allowed at most of them, too, though our days of toting around that mutt are long behind us.
In this little area shown below, I’ve been to, and would recommend, Oskar Blues, Circle Brewing, 4th Tap Cooperative, Adelbert’s Brewery, Celis Brewery, and Austin Beerworks. Austin Beerworks gets some bonus points for having a playground the kids love.
There are too many great ones to try to list them all, but my favorite is clear—Lala’s Little Nugget! This is a year-round Christmas bar. No, it never gets tiring. There is a big countdown timer behind the bar indicating how long until Christmas, little elves on a string that bob up and down when you open the bathroom door, a giant Santa chair for photo ops, and a year-round Christmas themed menu. And the best part, is it’s still a regular old dive bar with pool table, jukebox, and good happy hours.
One time a few years ago, my friend Bart and I were finishing up our podcast recording session, and popped into Lala’s, and it was a magical experience. For some reason, at that particular moment, I felt like Norm walking into Cheers. I looked around and I knew so many people at the bar. My coworker Eddie and his girlfriend were there. My nextdoor neighbors Chris and Dana were there with their friends. At another table was an old co-ed volleyball teammate. None of them there together, but all there at the same time. I’d never felt so at-home in Texas!
Another great one is Nickel City, a Buffalo, NY inspired bar that was right next to my old office (during the short time CA had an Austin presence). By design, it looks like it is straight out of the late 60s. As a graphic designer, I love looking at the paper menu—someone had a very specific vision in mind and they nailed it. I believe their specialty is boilermakers, and they have a great happy hour with super cheap and delicious burgers. At Halloween they do a great transformation into Moe’s Tavern! 10/10.
Others worth mentioning include Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon which features a weekly chicken shit bingo—yes, literally—and The Jackalope, The Liberty, White Horse, The Hideout, Grackle, Whitehorse, DrinkWell, and many, many, many more.
If there’s one social thing I am good at, it’s karaoke. I race straight to the karaoke host whenever I enter a bar and get my name in the queue. In Austin, there are no shortage of great spots. It just so happens I live right in a good karaoke area!
The best, most insane experience you will ever have at karaoke, though, is DK Sushi. They have karaoke only once a week, and you actually have to make dinner reservations to get in. The owner hosts, and opens the karaoke set with some very R-rated standup comedy. When it’s your turn to sing (you’ll only get one song in the entire night here, by the way), the host will comment on your appearance as you approach the stage. Every person in the entire restaurant is glued to you. There aren’t conversations going on. Karaoke is the main event. Everyone is singing along and swaying and very supportive. And after you’re done, you get to take a free sake bomb with the host. The night ends with a giant conga line.
The Water Tank and Shenanigans are great super dive bar karaoke experiences in north Austin, not far from each other, off McNeil and Pond Springs. They each have karaoke most every night. The Common Interest on Burnet is Austin’s original karaoke bar with private rooms for rent. Ego’s is another staple, just south of downtown, and features a very talented lineup of singers, so you’d better bring your A-game, and people will be dancing along with your song.
If it ain’t too damn hot, you can have a lot of fun outside in this area!
As an avid hiker, I have done just about every trail in the city and outlying areas, and there are some really great ones. My favorite—for a challenge—is River Place Nature Trail, just west of town. You will get a workout here. There are like 15,000 manmade stairs in this trail, which if you go the full in-and-out is about 5.5 miles. It’s mostly fully wooded, but occasionally you get some great views of Hill Country. Other good trails to consider, all of which I would say are suitable for kids, include St. Edward’s Park, Walnut Creek, Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve, Barton Creek, and Emma Long.
A place every tourist needs to visit is the famous Mount Bonnell right within the city limits. It’s a big walk up a staircase, but once you reach the top you get a great view of the river, Hill Country, and some fancy celebrity houses below.
Another favorite is the famous Barton Springs pool, a giant natural swimming hole that is fed through an underground spring that keeps the water temp around 68º year-round… a little on the chillier side. It’s deep enough for diving in some spots, and shallow enough for toddler to frolic around in others.
Other favorites include Hamilton Pool, a naturally occurring circular pool of water at the end of a hiking trail with big rock overhangs. It’s a decent little jaunt southwest of town, but well worth it. People seem to have a lot of fun hanging out on Town Lake/Ladybird Lake/Colorado River (it’s all the same thing) downtown. I haven’t done it, but I see a ton of people out there on paddleboards soaking up the sun. Zilker Park hosts a lot of major events, but people enjoy going out there year-round and hanging out in the sprawling meadows.
I’ve never been big into checking out live music. I would not be the person to ask. Google would be a better resource than me. But, I have been to quite a few places over the years, from the big Austin City Limits music festival to bands playing during SXSW to a number of bars. Some of the better concert venues for bigger-name acts include the Moody Theater, the Long Center, and Stubb’s BBQ. There is a new Moody Amphitheater outdoor venue on UT campus that is a great spot for outdoor shows too!
I’ve seen some good live music at Continental Club, Hole in the Wall, Momo’s, Ginny’s, Antone’s, Emo’s, and Elephant Room over the years. I don’t know if any of them are great, must-visit venues, but worth a shot!
Of course it’s all about the Longhorns here in town. The football stadium seats 100,000 and there is a brand new basketball arena in the works. UT baseball and softball are fun as well. In the decade we’ve lived here, I’ve been to just one football game, two women’s basketball games, and a baseball game.
The only pro team in town is Austin FC, the new MLS club who debuted in 2021 at a fancy new stadium not far from our house in the northern part of town. I went to two games—both in the fan cheering section where you have to stand the whole time—and had a blast despite the team getting shut out in both games.
The other teams are all minor-league. The Round Rock Express are the AAA baseball affiliate of the Texas Rangers, the Texas Stars are the minor league hockey affiliate of the Dallas Stars, and the Austin Spurs are the NBA G-League affiliate for the San Antonio Spurs. I’ve been to many Round Rock games over the years and it’s usually fun, just a bit of a hike getting up to far northwest Round Rock.
Where to Stay
I don’t really have a good answer here because I live here and haven’t really ever stayed at any local hotels or Airbnbs, but I could tell you which areas to stay in. I direct most people to downtown, of course, so everything is walkable, bike-able, or scooter-able. Or you can just hop on and off buses easily. Visitors will probably have the most fun in Zilker, Barton Hills, or East Cesar Chavez areas, but there’s plenty of good reasons to also try something up north. You could try a swanky hotel at The Domain and have lots of fun food and entertainment options very nearby.
When to Visit
Well, it should go without saying that if you come between June and September you’re going to fry. The heat is pretty unbearable for a northerner like me, and it never seems to get any easier. Depending on the year, April, May, and October can also be pretty rough. On the other hand, January and February can be pretty chilly with daytime highs in the 40s. March is usually good but the city will be overrun with SXSW festival-goers. I guess if you want my advice on ideal time to visit, from my perspective, I’d say April or November.
Alright that’s everything there is to know about Austin. Enjoy!