Our guide to the best and most unusual things to do in Austin with handy hipness rating
We love Austin. It is a city that has a contagious enthusiasm. One that is certainly a result of the Austinites themselves, who seem vocally excited and incredibly proud about everything they do and everything their city is. The pride and the excitement creates an atmosphere, one that isn’t limited to the main street or city park, hip bar, or bbq joint, but one that permeates the city.
Notably, Austin manages to cater to a number of niches very well. A jumbled mix of seemingly opposing cultures exist here in equilibrium. Tattooed hipsters (or is it Yuccies now?) clutching PBR cans rub shoulders with Southern Belles enjoying an evening cocktail. Families soak up the sun on the public beach volleyball courts alongside the shirtless college students. Older european tourists share a couch with a group of bros at a music hall. Sorority sisters line dance with denim-clad, cowboys at a honky-tonk bar. Everywhere you look locals, expats and tourists are throwing themselves into the varied offerings of the unique city culture.
Despite this diversity of culture, Austin feels homogenized. Only the ubiquitous taco trucks give away hints of the huge Latino population living here. The accessible surface culture of the city, to me, seemed very… well… white. Different stripes of that culture, sure, but, all white, all affluent, and all very “cool”.
While they may lack a little in cultural depth, what they do, they do different and they do well. Extremely well. Be it, innovative food trucks or Texan BBQ steeped in tradition, their lauded live music scene, or an outdoor culture to challenge nearby Coloradans, Austenites bring their A-game to everything.
Maybe it is this meticulous excellence that has given rise to the cooler than thou hipsters that have proliferated here. While it doesn’t feel like the venues or activities are off-limits, there can be a feeling that you are an outsider or somehow ‘doing it wrong’. It is an attitude that can be exasperating, but ultimately it is a small price to pay for the level of attention to detail that hipsters undeniably bring to their chosen craft.
The unofficial city slogan, plastered to bumpers and toilet stalls, is ‘Keep Austin Weird. While it might be a very specific type of weird, the local self-appointed bastions of cool are doing a pretty good job keeping it that way.
During a weekend in Austin, we tried to tick off a few of the best and more unusual things to do in Austin and see how they stacked up. We’ve also included a handy hipness rating to help you pick where to be or not to be, depending on your own hipness aversion or appetite.
Unusual things to do in Austin: Food
Lining up for food might as well be a city-wide pastime here in Austin. If it’s worth doing it’s worth queuing.
Austin is to food trucks and hip eateries what Berlin is to nightclubs. While we lined up I had time to ponder if the queue played a part in people’s enjoyment of the experience as a whole. Was it comparable to the queues for nightclubs in Berlin where the psychology of the four-hour line and the risk of getting turned away at the end plays so heavily into the experience? Perhaps more to the point, who isn’t going to enjoy a meal at the end of a six-hour queue?
We decided not to baulk at this extreme approach to casual dining but instead throw ourselves into this Austin tradition. We picked a couple of the most highly recommended food options with the biggest queues. Psychological or not, I was surprised to find that I came away from the experience glad I tried it rather than enraged by the ridiculous concept. Maybe it’s not something I would be doing every weekend if I lived here, but we were glad we tried it while we were here.
Veracruz All Natural Food Truck
Our first queuing experience was for breakfast tacos at Veracruz All Natural Food Truck. This was a moderate way to ease into queuing culture. A forty-five minute queue to order, followed by a half hour wait for tacos.
The tacos are slung from old, rusting school bus. The menu is simple but varied. It straddles the line between traditional and unique beautifully with tantalising combinations of classic tex-mex ingredients. The staff are friendly and efficient. The eating area is a simple garden with picnic benches and umbrellas.
The wait was long and hot. After queuing for forty-five minutes we were advised there is a half-hour wait from this point. We had come this far. I got some chips and salsa to tide us over. The salsa is a good indication that the tacos are worth waiting for.
Finally our buzzer erupted.
The payoff? Hands down the best tacos I have ever eaten, it’s not even close.
We ordered a couple of different breakfast tacos the Migas Originales and the Migas Poblanas. Tacos are a religion in Austin and the breakfast taco, a tex-mex creation, is revered. Both are delicious.
We also grabbed a couple of traditional tacos, Fajita Steak and Al Pastor (pork and pineapple). While the breakfast tacos were very, very good, these two individual tacos are the best I have ever eaten. I briefly contemplated getting back in line.
Overall score 10/10
Hip Score 5/10
I’m torn, on the one hand, this place is so unpretentious. On the other hand, it is so hip people are lined up out the door. Perhaps this is a place capable of catering to the hipster and the anti-hip equally well.
Buoyed by our success at Veracruz All Natural Food Truck, we researched our next culinary queuing adventure.
Franklin BBQ is routinely found on lists and publications announcing, Texas’, America’s, and the world’s best BBQ. The trick here? A four-hour queue on weekdays, which increases to six hours on weekends.
We cleared Saturday’s schedule and headed over to Franklin BBQ at daybreak. By 6:15 am we were there, ready to take our place at the front of the line. Not a chance. The line was already 40 or 50 deep…before 6:30 am.
While we queued, I made coffee and breakfast in the van. We got out our camping chairs (FYI the restaurant supplies a number of camp chairs for people there in time to snap them up).
While we waited, we did some work on our laptops, chatted with our fellow queuers, and read. This is to say, we were well prepared.
Psychologically we were prepared as well, we had read up and knew full well what we were getting ourselves into. Because of this preparation we were not too worried about the queue. Of course by the time the restaurant opened, and the queue started moving we were starting to get hungry. It did seem as though the final hour of the wait went particularly slowly.
At around 9 am a server came around to take preliminary orders to check they would have enough food for the people in line. Around this time the restaurant building (and toilet) was opened. Self serve refreshments of ice tea and water were also provided.
By 11:00 am service began. The queue began to inch forward. People were not messing around either. Tables of three or four people gathered around heaping platters of brisket, ribs, sausage, and turkey. We began to worry that our measly one kilogram (2 lbs) order of meat wouldn’t be enough.
By 12.15pm it was our turn. In a moment of panic, we added a last-minute order of pork ribs to our planned order of brisket and beef rib, pinto beans, potato salad and coleslaw. Our total bill was $60 USD.
12:45pm we have our charred, BBQ’d goodness in hand. We start to devour the mini meat mountain. It is the best BBQ I have ever eaten, although BBQ is not something I eat particularly often. It is also worth noting that it is as rich as it is delicious.
At 1pm Aaron Franklin, the pitmaster showed up. Clearly a hipster. While only his thick black glasses and stubble beard betrayed him outwardly. His meteoric rise through the ranks of pitmasters to one of Texas’ most lauded BBQ artists put him firmly in the stratosphere of the hip.
By 1.15 pm the BBQ had started to turn on us. The rich, juicy, smoked meat which had waited so long for was becoming harder and harder to stomach. On we go.
Finally at 1.30pm we conquered the meat pile. We rolled ourselves into the van and headed to the park for a lie down in the shade.
Overall score 9/10
Very, very good BBQ, but, so rich that after we had gorged ourselves we were forced to go and lie in the park for three hours (some will argue that this is on us but those people haven’t been to Franklin BBQ). This brings our total time devoted to this meal to around ten hours. For this, we are deducting one point.
Hip Score 10/10
Are you kidding me? This is hip even without the perfectly retro decor, hipster/savant pitmaster and trendy staff. Any place that can motivate hundreds of people to queue for hours for lunch DAY IN DAY OUT is crazy hip. This one is off the scale.
Unusual things to do in Austin: Cafés
I should preface that coming from Australia and having spent time in plenty of Melbourne cafes I have a pretty high tolerance, appetite even, for hip coffee culture. It would have been a big ask to out hipster Melbourne in this regard. But, in Austin, could it be possible?
Cuvée Coffee Bar
We settled on Cuvée Coffee Bar to give us some insight into Austins Café scene.
Texas’ first craft coffee roaster, check. (Good) Espresso and draft cold brew coffee, check. Moustachioed, tattooed barista, check. Underground hip-hop, check. Craft beer check. Latte piccolo on the menu? No! Distressed red brick interior of a reclaimed 19th-century textile factory? No! Hidden address on graffiti riddled lane? No!
WaitAre those ikea stools?!
Oh Austin! Such high hopes.
Cuvée hits the seemingly key details out of the park. But it lacks extreme attention to detail especially when it comes to atmosphere and aesthetics. That makes it hard for me to believe I am in the coolest cafe in the world. Therefore it is difficult to believe I am the coolest cafe aficionado in the world…Thanks for nothing.
Overall Score 8/10
As a place to get good coffee at reasonable prices, and get some work done in reasonable comfort Cuvée Coffee scores high.
Unusual Transport in Austin
Transport was a little underwhelming in Austin. Like much of the US, traffic is problematic and public transport lacking.
Trams, or perhaps steam trains that might fit with the cities determined retro counter-culture are conspicuously absent.
Modern solutions like city bikes and city scooters have been applied haphazardly and honestly detract from the city. The saving grace for Austin was its walkability.
Abandoned e-scooters and e-bikes litter the streets in Austin. They are undergoing penetration by companies jostling for positions in the rent-a-bike/scooter market. The brightly colored, slogan-wearing machines can be found laying throughout parks, sidewalks, walking trails, and bike pathways.
Never the less we decided that we couldn’t really write them off without trying them. One evening we grabbed a couple of scooters from the park, signed up online, and rode a couple of miles to Congress Street, figuring we’d save some money on an Uber and get some fresh air. The streets are not designed for scooters and it’s illegal to ride them on the sidewalk, making the trip feel pretty dangerous.
On arrival we were pretty shocked to find the ride had cost us $18 USD for the two scooters for less than half an hour. We were left scratching our heads as to what the upside to these things was.
Thankfully many of the things worth seeing in Austin are within walking distance and there are plenty of green spaces and corridors throughout the town to make that walk enjoyable.
Of course, you have to be aware that at any moment, a horde of twelve years olds might scream by on their electric scooters.
Like many American Cities, traffic is an ever-growing issue here and one that isn’t adequately addressed by a suitable public transport system. Thankfully much of the city is walkable.
Hip score 0/10
Scooters and abandoned bicycles just don’t fit here (it’s not Amsterdam). Maybe a steam powered tram or hot air balloon rental station would suit a little better.
Unusual Things to do in Austin: Live Music
Known as the live music capital of the world it is said Austin has more live venues per capita than any other city. It is also home to globally recognized music events SXSW and Austin City Limits. Austin is known for its country, blues and jazz, with some rock and latin music thrown in for good measure.
It was the 4th of July and we decided to forego fireworks in the park to get a taste of what Austin’s live music had to offer.
We decided to head to one of Austin’s most fabled venues, the legendary Continental Club. Unfortunately, we bungled this evening pretty badly, not even making to the famous music hall.
Firstly we rode the aforementioned scooters. Setting the tone for the evening.
We pushed on to the Continental Club. You couldn’t miss the huge neon sign. We found what appeared to be the door and climbed the stairs. We had done a bit of research online and we had read that there was no cover charge before 10pm. It being 9.30pm we were a little confused that cover, was in fact, $5. As we entered we were a bit puzzled that such a tiny attic style venue had such an incredible reputation. And so few people (on the 4th of July no less).
We paid for a couple of Lone Stars (local Texas beers). The beer was awful. Undeterred we settled in to watch the band. The old-timey swing, jazz and blues wasn’t exactly our cup of tea, but that’s ok we were here to experience new things. Through the widows the free July fourth firework display was just visible above the cities dramatic skyline. We caught the band’s last two songs.
Wanting to get a little bang for our buck, we decided to grab another beer and watch the next band. Until the doorman wandered up to us and asked to pay cover again. He explained to us that cover had to be paid each time a band took the stage and that this was a totally normal Austin practice.
Why wouldn’t he have told us when we arrived that we were paying $10 to watch two songs?
I’m not sure, perhaps it’s just one of those things you know or you don’t.
Confused and irritated we declined to fork over another $10 each. We were graciously allowed to stay and finish our beers under the watchful eye of the doorman.
Walking outside we immediately realized we hadn’t been in the Continental Club at all, but something called the Continental Gallery. We lined up immediately next door. Peering in it was painfully obvious that this was the famous venue we had been trying to visit. By the time we reached the door, it had just turned 10pm, cover was now in effect and we were to be the first to pay $20 USD to get in.
We walked the three miles back to the van.
Overall Score n/a
We did not enjoy our night out to experience Austin’s live music but that’s our fault. If we had had more time we would have given it another crack.
Hip score 10/10
We did feel we got a bit of a read on the hipness of it all and whewee Austin, even a little taste was much too hip for us.
Unusual Things to do in Austin: Bars and Nightlife
On our second night in Austin we decided to sample the local bar scene. We opted to keep it relaxed and headed out to explore the casual bars of East Sixth Street.
A cocktail bar at heart, Whisler’s has something for everyone. It offers, two bars downstairs focused primarily on cocktails, and a mezcal bar upstairs. The chic interior decor is juxtaposed with the relaxed informal patio set-up outside. Plenty of seating including intimate tables inside as well as long picnic tables outside mean it’s just as suited to date night as a drink out with friends.
This buzzing bar is a great place to start the night or grab a post-dinner drink. We were impressed with the quick and friendly service despite the busy bars. People were relaxed, friendly, and out to have a good time with friends.
Apparently, their cocktails are great but the limited number of beers was a letdown for us.
Overall score 8/10
This cool cocktail bar with cozy indoor decor and ample outdoor seating is a great place to start a bar hop or wind down with an after dinner cocktail.
Hip score 6/10
Is it a cool place to grab a cocktail or beer? Without a doubt. But with no secret whiskey bar behind a bookshelf, no leather apron sporting cocktail master nor a single PBR on the menu, theres nothing over the top hip about this place.
The White Horse
After wetting our whistle it was time to mosey on over to The White Horse. This was the real deal. A classic honky-tonk bar that has been adopted by college kids, cowboys and hipsters looking to get there fix of cheap whiskey, PBRs and some live music on a weekend.
Dance lessons, pool tables and nightly live music mean there’s always something to do and always some people ready to cut the rug with you.
We had a great night people watching both outside in the beer garden and inside in the dark dance hall. Maybe our toes tapped a little too.
Overall score 8/10
Cheap drinks, loud music and great people watching, this is great night out.
Hip score 9/10
This honky-tonk dive bar in East Austin is the real deal. It’s everything you love about hipsters, the eclectic, the vibrant, the offbeat, and without any of the pretense. The White Horse really encapsulates a lot of what Austin is really about.
Unusual things to do in Austin: Parks and Rec.
Austin is small (by Texan standards). The state capital is situated in between the sprawling, bustling metropolises of San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas.
In these large neighboring cities, tangled flyovers and stark city skylines announce the beginning of the concrete jungle long before you reach the city limits. Not so in Austin, where you scarcely realize you are upon the capital as you descend on it through the lush green hill country.
Concentric rings of greenery made up of national, state, and city parks surround the city, making it look from many angles an overgrown abandoned civilization. The gorgeous green Colorado River winds through the city bringing the greenery right to the edge of the CBD.
Austin has done a great job not just in preserving these natural spaces but also in maximizing them for public use. Hiking and biking trails wind their way through state forests, parks, and along the banks of the Colorado River. Parks are decked out with every bit of equipment you could hope for.
Austin hasn’t forgotten about their spectacular Colorado River either. Any given day but particularly on the weekends, a colorful and spectacular array of paddleboards, kayaks, and canoes take to the water.
McKinney Falls State Park
McKinney Falls State Park is just outside the city. It offers a great opportunity to camp, swim and picnic, right on Austin’s doorstep.
The highlights of the park are the upper and lower falls which both offer spectacular swimming holes complete with waterfalls, rock overhangs, and pebble beaches.
The park also has fifteen kilometers of hiking trails however the hiking is pretty underwhelming.
Entry costs six dollars ($6) per person and allows road access and parking close to the upper and lower falls. Plenty of picnic tables, toilets, and hot showers.
Overnight camping with watered and powered sites are available for tent and RV camping for twenty dollars per night.
Overall Score 7/10
While the hiking was a let down, McKinney Falls offers great swimming holes, and picnic areas as well as good facilities if you are overlanding or camping. The park is just ten miles from Austin’s CBD.
Hip Score 0/10
Put it down to being outside of Austin proper but this state could have been anywhere in the US nothing too weird about this one.
We spent a fair amount of time in this amazing city park. For starters, we camped here for three nights in our van in the large public car park.
The inner-city park covers a whopping 351 acres of inner-city green space. It includes a botanical garden, huge open park space to play frisbee, soccer, or spikeball as the locals do. There are volleyball courts, outdoor gym equipment, a disc golf course as well as hiking , biking and running trails in case you are looking to sneak some exercise in between meals. There are plenty of picnic tables, and grassy areas to throw down your picnic rug. You will also find the impressive Barton Springs Municipal pool here.
The park borders Lady Bird Lake, a 416-acre reservoir in the middle of the Colorado River. Motorized boats are not permitted. Any given weekend the water is literally swarming with every kind of personal watercraft paddling up and down the impressively green water.
The park is home to a number of local festivals and events, and most weekends there is something going on here. Often it is live music events, such as the Austin City Limits festival but it can be anything from the Zilker Park Kite Festival to Austin’s 4th of July fireworks.
Overall Score 10/10
Zilker Park is a truly impressive addition to a city that already has so much to offer.
Hip Score 5/10
This is a pretty cool park but how hipster you get here is really up to you.
Where to Stay in Austin
Van Life and Overlanding Spots
Camp in Zilker Park. We parked on both sides of the river. Camp in one of the Zilker park car parks for nice quiet undisturbed camping. And camp at Edward Rendon Sr. Park to be walking distance to the bars on East 6th Street.
The comfortable yet cool Hotel Van Zandt will appeal to the hipster in you as much as the straight-laced suit your mother always wanted.
The Austin Motel – This Historic motel is keeping the weird alive with a retro kitsch makeover featuring vintage and psychedelic elements direct from the ’60s.
Hopefully you found some interesting things to keep you busy on your next trip Austin! Got a question or a comment? Why not drop us message below?
Looking for more quirky American cities to explore? Check these out!