How to Spend the Perfect Day in Austin, Texas

Pack your day with breakfast tacos, murals, barbecue and, of course, music.
 

Barley Swine, photograph by Jody Horton.

The Texan capital sits at the crossroads of eccentric and high-tech, with a mix of artists and entrepreneurs. Here’s your guide to spending a perfect day in this quirky city.

Morning: Breakfast Tacos and Coffee

Veracruz All Natural Migas Poblanas, photograph by Jody Horton

If you’ve never heard of tacos for breakfast, you’re in for a treat. The taco is practically the state dish of Texas, so much so that they are relished at any time of the day or night, and are found everywhere from restaurants and food trucks to coffee shops and neighbourhood convenience stores.

The breakfast taco is a Tex-Mex concoction usually consisting of eggs, potatoes, bacon, beans and cheese, wrapped in a freshly pressed tortilla, but can include all kinds of delicious combinations. With so many spots to try this beloved dish, it’s hard to narrow down the choices, but Veracruz All Natural is a must-visit. This popular spot, co-owned by two sisters originally from Mexico, started out as a single food truck, but now boasts five locations around Austin. You can’t go wrong with any of the breakfast tacos but the gooey Migas Poblanas, a slightly spicy creation loaded with egg, tortilla chips, avocado, poblano peppers, saucy black beans and rich queso fresco, is a standout.

Jo’s Coffee, photograph by Jody Horton.

If you like coffee alongside your taco, head to Jo’s Coffee, an Austin institution. Order the Picadillo Taco, which is piled with ground beef, tomatoes, cheddar cheese and pico de gallo, or build your own creation and add anything from bacon to arugula. Near Jo’s Second Street District location, you can shop local boutiques and snap a selfie at the Willie Nelson statue in front of the famed Austin City Limits Live studio. Or, at the South Congress Avenue Jo’s, update your Instagram with a snap of its iconic I Love You So Much mural painted across the exterior of the shop.

Midday: Museums and Murals

The “Greetings from Austin” mural, photograph by Jody Horton.

Across the city, you’ll find a robust art scene that is the result of Austin’s effortlessly artistic vibe. Locals are eager to support the arts, from traditional to modern and quirky, and this is showcased through a variety of galleries, artist studios, pop-up exhibits and street art.

While there are plenty of amazing museums to explore, including the Blanton Museum of Art, with its massive collection of international works, and the Mexic-Arte Museum, which promotes Mexican and Latin cultures, the best way to experience the scene is on a self-guided tour of Austin᾽s public art and street murals. The city invests in local artists through its Art in Public Places Program, resulting in dozens of art projects of all shapes and styles.

The Mr. Rogers mural, photograph by Jody Horton.

Head to the corner of South Congress Avenue and Elizabeth Street in the Travis Heights neighbourhood to see the Willie for President and Mr. Rogers murals, continue down South 1st Street and you’ll come across the popular Greetings from Austin mural. Downtown, on the other side of the Congress Avenue Bridge, you’ll be greeted by several large statues of artist-rendered guitars along Congress Avenue leading to the Texas Capitol building.

A guitar along Congress Avenue, photograph by Jody Horton.

In the vibrant East Side area, you’ll find more colourful murals lining the streets, including along Cesar Chavez, 6th and 11th streets. In between the area’s food trucks, vintage shops and artist galleries, you’ll spot some of the city’s eccentric yard art displayed by homeowners who like to express their creative side—Austin-style. Yard installations range from dinosaurs to metal sculptures. Check out Kenny Dorham’s Backyard at 1106 East 11th St., a unique public arts space named for the late jazz trumpeter who grew up in the area. Full of murals and garden art, it serves as an outdoor venue that hosts a variety of live musical performances.

Late Afternoon: Urban Adventures

Lady Bird Lake, photograph by Jody Horton.

Austin is ranked one of the healthiest cities in the U.S., so it’s not surprising that the locals are an outdoorsy bunch. On any given day, you’ll find Austinites biking along the 190 cycle routes, hiking the urban trail system, or taking to the water on a kayak or paddleboard. Plus, many of the best green spaces are located downtown or nearby.

A trail system in Austin, photograph by Jody Horton

The jewel of the city, Zilker Park spreads across 350 acres and is home to Barton Springs, an underground spring-fed pool that stays a refreshing 20°C year-round. Join the locals and spend the day lounging and picnicking on the pool’s banks. From Zilker Park, you can access the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail and Boardwalk, which makes a 16-kilometre circuit around Lady Bird Lake. Rent a kayak, paddleboard or paddleboat from one of the vendors and take in the sweet views of Austin’s skyline from the water.

Congress Avenue Bridge, photograph by Jody Horton

As the afternoon draws to a close, head to Congress Avenue Bridge for the spectacular sunset. The bridge is also home to a secret: underneath it lives 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats, the world’s largest urban colony of its kind. Every night at sunset, from about March to November, the bats leave the bridge en masse, a sight so awesome it draws hundreds of spectators. For a bat-free experience, head to Mount Bonnell, a cliff bluff just west of downtown, where an easy stair climb rewards you with incredible views of the city skyline and the Colorado River.

Evening: Texas Cuisine, Reinvented

Barley Swine’s Bryce Gilmore and his grilled beef bavette, photograph by Jody Horton.

When it comes to food, Texas has a long association with barbecue. While it’s worth the hype—and the lineups—Austin’s food scene has much more to offer. In the last decade, the city has positioned itself as a major foodie hub, with celebrated chefs showcasing inventive cuisine that pays homage to the city’s roots and incorporates local ingredients.

At Barley Swine, owner and executive chef Bryce Gilmore takes local seriously. The eclectic menu at his restaurant changes regularly and is inspired by the ingredients produced by local farmers and ranchers. He also believes in using all of the resources available to him—whether that’s every part of an animal or collecting rainwater to irrigate his gardens.

Lenoir, photograph by Jody Horton

The result is inventive dishes such as fried duck leg, kimchi octopus and smoked goat neck. Delicious craft cocktails are garnished with herbs straight from the restaurant’s garden, and, as the Barley Swine name suggests, Gilmore also has a serious appreciation for beer and has stacked the restaurant’s menu with local craft brews.

Alongside hyper-local cuisine, international influences are continuing to find their way onto city menus. Husband-and-wife team Todd Duplechan and Jessica Maher serve what they call “hot weather food,” meaning everything is fresh and light, at their casual South Austin restaurant, Lenoir. Thai, Indian and Mediterranean accents are found throughout the menu, including dishes such as the antelope heart with sunchokes and cashew ginger soup.

Late Night: Live Music

The Continental Club, photograph by Jody Horton.

Austin whole-heartedly embraces its moniker as the “Live Music Capital of the World.” On any night, upwards of 100 acts can be heard in venues across the city playing every genre of music. Simply wander downtown’s 6th Street and you’ll hear music coming out of nearly every doorway.

To experience a music joint with thousands of stories in its bones and a rockabilly vibe, head to The Continental Club. Since 1955, this granddaddy of Austin’s music scene has seen everyone from Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughan to Robert Plant and Wanda Jackson perform in its intimate setting. Even visiting celebrities such as Johnny Depp have been known to jump on stage.

The Continental Club, photograph by Jody Horton

If you’re after a true Austin honky-tonk, the Broken Spoke is your destination. Run by James and Annetta White for more than 50 years, it’s so legendary that books and documentaries have chronicled its storied history. Musical greats such as Garth Brooks, George Strait and Ernest Tubb have graced its stage. And, while the live music and dancing are great (you can take two-step lessons), the Spoke is also famous for Annetta’s chicken fried steak, a Texas specialty of tenderized beef that’s breaded, fried and smothered in gravy.

[This story appears in the June 2019 edition of WestJet Magazine.]