Greetings, Internet Stranger and welcome Austin in a day! When someone says Texas, certain images spring to mind: cowboy hats, rodeos, Matthew McConaughey, rodeo clowns, barbecue, perhaps mechanical bulls. Maybe you imagine you could see all of these things if you tried to explore Austin in a day.
But do you think of Whole Foods? That’s right, our nation’s premier paycheck-stealing purveyor of organic goods and services originated deep in the heart of Texas in the Lone Star State’s capital of Austin. There’s a reason people nickname this city “The People’s Republic of Austin”. It’s a little bit country and a little bit your freshman dorm. Come join me and we’ll spend a terrific Austin in a day eating, walking, and not buying expensive cowboy boots.
Austin in a Day
Where to Stay?
I can’t recommend the exact hotel where I stayed when I saw Austin in a day because I was on a tight budget and the hotel was a little sketchy. But I can recommend the area! You’ll want to stay in Downtown Austin. It’s where all the action happens, so if you want to catch a late-night movie at the Alamo Drafthouse or get up early to wait on line at Franklin Barbecue, you’ll be all set!
And if you want more guidance than that, I know where you can find over 800 hotels to explore in Austin, no matter what your budget. Just click here to see them all!
Austin in a Day
What to Pack?
You’ll need comfy shoes for all the walking we’re going to do today. It’s very frequently hot in Texas, though not always, so it’s smart to wear sandals. I love my special pink Birkenstocks. These aren’t your grandpappy’s Birkenstocks anymore. They come in every shade, and I always get compliments on my electric magenta shoes.
Also, don’t forget the sunscreen! The sun can get scorching! My favorite is the Neutrogena spray bottle because it’s so easy to apply. And as a solo traveler, I can actually use it myself on my own back. I just put it in my purse and re-apply throughout the day.
Finally, since we’re going to be out all day, you’ll want a battery for your cell phone. I always use the Anker charger. It’s light enough to fit in even a small purse. You don’t want to sling a heavy bag all around Austin. It will be too hard to fit on our hipster bike! Plus the Anker lasts for several full charges of a phone, so I’ll never run out of juice!
Austin in a Day
Morning: Zilker Park
I’m starting this Austin in a day guide with one of the loveliest places in the city. Zilker Park is a 351-acre urban oasis located just across Lady Bird Lake from Downtown Austin. It is a perfect place to go walk, read, stare at people, try to get lost by falling into a pit of scary rocks, or observe one-eyed owls. If any of those things appeal to you, head straight for Zilker Park. I can even give you tips on how NOT to fall into a pit of scary rocks if you are so inclined.
The approximately top 5: Zilker park and environs
1) lady bird lake
I recommend beginning your time at Zilker Park by strolling along the blue and gentle Lady Bird Lake. It is named after the yellow and gentle former First Lady of the United States, Lady Bird Johnson. You will be accompanied by approximately a jillion healthful Austinians jogging from the local Whole Foods to the nearest honky tonk. Just try not to kick them as they run past, and don’t let their bouncing ponytails spoil the view.
2) Enjoy the greenery of Zilker Park!
When you are done, it’s time to head into Zilker Park proper. It’s a great place to relax with a book and enjoy Austin’s very adequate skyline. Once you are satisfied with your glimpse of the most moderate skyscrapers that Texas has to offer, you have the many wonders of Zilker Park to entertain you. There’s the Botanical Gardens, a Sculpture Garden, and the world famous Barton Springs, which is a stunning natural pool and popular swimming spot for many Austinisians. (I don’t know what to call people from Austin.)
3) the austin nature and science center
My favorite part of Zilker Park was the Austin Nature and Science Center. It sounds like a natural history museum, but it’s actually more like an outdoor nature preserve. It is also completely free and not crowded, so I was able to go on a nature hike in a landscape that looked like something out of the zombie apocalypse while basking in the relative peace and quiet.
Just be careful while you are walking, especially if you have kids. The only other people taking a nature hike with me that day were a family with two young children and one of the small ones completely faceplanted while attempting to cross the pit of rocks pictured above because his parents were not holding his hand. I did not laugh aloud. I laughed silently in my head.
The Nature and Science Center is also home to rescue owls, including Barnaby the Scrivener, who only has one eye. Well, you know what they say, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed owl is king.
24 hour tip
I wanted to go to Barton Springs so badly! But sadly it was not open on the day I was visiting. Anyway, it was late December when I went to Austin, and even though it’s warmish in Texas then, I still would rather go to Barton Springs when it is warm enough to swim. In fact, I recommend following this itinerary in warm weather months because the sights of Zilker Park are more likely to be open and in bloom.
4) the mighty cone at the picnic
Read carefully because we are not going to have a picnic lunch. We are going to leave Zilker Park and eat lunch at The Picnic, which is maybe the most famous food truck park in the United States.
The Picnic had about ten local food trucks open when I was there, but in addition it has convenient facilities like a public restrooms and benches on which you can sit and enjoy your truck food. The trucks I saw offered everything from acai shakes to Turkish wraps.
I’m sure you won’t go wrong with whatever you choose, but I was very happy with my Chicken Cone from The Mighty Cone. This was a paper cone filled with strips of chicken tenders topped with mango-jalapeno slaw and a spicy ancho sauce. I loved this because of the fiery kick of the flavors combined with the perfectly moist and crispy bird.
5) hey cupcake
Of course, it’s illegal to operate a food truck part without a cute cupcake truck, and thankfully The Picnic has Hey Cupcake! to supply your small cake needs. I chose the “Mint Rushmore” flavor, which combined a dense and moist chocolate cake with refreshing minty ice cream.
Chocolate mint is my favorite chocolate combination. I could easily eat this cupcake every day of my life. (PS. I think if you’re in Texas, Mint Rushmore should be shaped like LBJ’s head. Or possibly just his ears.)
Austin in a Day
Afternoon: Explore Austin
If Matthew McConaughey were to read this article, I feel like this is the point at which he would say, “All right, all right, all right.” And then he would point out that Austin has a laid-back kinda groove and why get bogged down with some stick-in-the-mud itinerary? Why not just go with the flow, and see where the mood and the music take you, man? Fair enough, Imaginary McConaughey! Time is a flat circle, and I’m going to let you use that time to explore on your own. But I will help you out with…
Approximately top 5: south austin edition
1) Alamo Drafthouse
Though I adore going out to the movies, I do not usually bother to recommend movie theaters on this website. Is one AMC Theater really that different from another? But the Drafthouse is the very definition of a destination movie theater. The seats are divinely comfy-cozy, the no talking rule is enforced with a strictness, and the tickets are cheap at about nine dollars a pop.
The reason for this low price is that the Drafthouse makes most of their money by serving incredibly delicious snacks, from queso and chips to fresh-baked cookies. I sampled many of these delights during my time in Austin, and I encourage you to do the same. But since we had food trucks for lunch and are going out to a fancy dinner, don’t go overboard. Perhaps a simple peanut butter-chocolate milkshake will suffice.
24 hour tip
24 Hour Treasure
The previews alone are worth the price of admission. When I went there, the Don’t Talk spiel was done by Michael Madsen of Reservoir Dogs fame. I already don’t talk during the movies, but I feel like the threat of being tortured by Michael Madsen to the dulcet tones of Stealers Wheel is enough to silence the chattiest of Cathys.
2) south congress avenue
Ask any tourist to Austin what the first thing that springs to mind when they think of their time in Texas’s capital is, and their answer will probably involve the phrase “Keep Austin Weird”. This motto shows up on everything from magnets to bumper stickers to facial hair art.
I had so many questions about these three simple words. Namely: “Why is Austin weird? What is weird about Austin? Who is trying to stop Austin from being weird? Why are they trying to stop Austin from being weird? And how can we prevent this de-weirdening?”
Well, I didn’t get answers to most of those questions, though I do suspect “Greg Abbott” is the response to more than a few. But I did learn that a big part of what makes Austin weird can be found on South Congress Avenue.
South Congress is Austin’s everything. You can find music clubs, great restaurants, and fun shopping. If you want to hear honky tonk music, you should come to South Congress. If you want to eat a gourmet seafood dinner, you should come to South Congress. And if you want to buy a skull to put on display in your cubicle, you should definitely come to South Congress.>
3) allen’s boots
The biggest regret of my trip to Austin is that I did not buy a pair of cowboy boots at Allen’s Boots, which is the world’s premier cowboy boot emporium. Going to Austin and not buying cowboy boots at Allen’s is paying a grievous insult to all Texan-kind. You have been warned–Texans have been known to do dire things to those who mess with them.
4) tesoros trading company
My favorite store on South Congress was Tesoros Trading Company. Their specialty is international folk art and their prices are quite reasonable. My favorite travel souvenir is earrings, so I picked up a pair of lovely purple ones from a local Texan craftswoman. Buying local jewelry is the best because you can support the artist and get something cute for yourself at the same time!
Austin in a Day
Evening: Dinner and a Show!
My restaurant recommendation for you this evening is…a seafood restaurant in landlocked Austin! I found out about Perla’s from reading my beloved 36 Hours series in the New York Times. (Their itineraries are terrible because you can’t really follow them, but their restaurant suggestions are uniformly excellent.) I was tickled at the idea of eating at a fresh seafood restaurant in a city that is nowhere near any coast.
By itself, Perla’s does not look very quirky, it just looks like a classy beach resort restaurant with yellow and blue decor and striped deck chairs and umbrellas set up on the patio. But plop it down on the busy South Congress Avenue in the middle of Texas at the end of December, and the quirk factor definitely increases.
My adorable and helpful waiter walked me through the many options on the seafood heavy menu. I began with a selection of half a dozen oysters from the raw bar–or rather I let the waiter choose the best oysters for me. Don’t worry–none of the oysters were from Texas. They were all from Prince Edward Island, Massachusetts, or British Colombia, and they were all bursting out of their cowboy boots with flavor.
24 hour treat
I had a flawless bloody Mary to go with my raw oysters, and I suggest you do likewise. Bloody Marys and oysters go together like Austin and quirk.
My main course was the sumptuous bouillabaisse served with grilled baguette and a pungent saffron rouille. The rouille is the wonderful garlic mayonnaise that traditionally comes with bouillabaisse. It’s not really bouillabaisse without it! I was so impressed by the many types of seafood in my bouillabaisse–I found several different kinds of fish, shrimp, scallops…basically if it swims in the ocean, it was swimming in my soup.
After my food truck lunch and milkshake snack at the Drafthouse, I was too full for dessert. Next time I’ll just have to come back with a bigger stomach!
24 hour treasure: The Continental Club
There is only one option for an evening’s entertainment if it is your first time in Austin or on South Congress. You have to take in a concert at the legendary Continental Club. The Continental Club has nothing to do with Christopher Walken’s SNL character, The Continental. Amazingly enough, the Continental Club is even cooler than champan-ye. Everyone from Stevie Ray Vaughn to The Replacements have played there.
As soon as I read that a Texas swing band called The Hot Club of Cowtown would be playing the Continental when I was in town, I squished my cheeks in glee and knew I had to go. I do believe that a Texas swing band with the word “cow” in its name is the epitome of Austin quirk.
24 Hour tip
It is very easy to get into the Continental Club. You don’t buy tickets in advance, you just pay about a 10 dollar cover at the door, and they usually have one show around 8PM and another around 10PM. I didn’t even need to buy a drink.
Because the club is so popular, it was a rather tight squeeze and I had to stand up the whole time. I am an intrepid New Yorker and that didn’t bother me so much, especially because I loved the concert. The band played an interesting mix of both country music like “I’m an Old Cowhand” to standards like “Stardust” and even the famous Russian folk song, “Dark Eyes”.
Obviously I can’t promise that you would be able to hear The Hot Club of Cowtown or any other town when you are staying in Austin, but I can promise that you’ll have a blast. That’s the 24 Hour guarantee!
Further Reading: Austin in a Day
Are you ready to start booking your hotel in Austin? Then let me give you some further reading for your 24 hours in Austin! My favorite travel guide to Austin is by Moon Travel. In fact they make my favorite US travel guides because they are so detailed.
The LBJ Library and Museum is in Austin, so pay tribute to our largest-eared president and read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. The NY Times called it “the most penetrating, fascinating political biography I have ever read”, which surprised me because normally newspapers can’t read. But I’m not going to argue with The Paper of Record.
If you’re more of a fiction girl, get into the Texas spirit with Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. McCarthy is often called the greatest writer about Texas, but you’ll have to read this book to find out if it’s true. I think it’s pretty great, and that’s high praise from me considering I hate horses.
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY see Austin in a day. If you want to spend another Austin in a day exploring the food trucks, try this itinerary. If you can add 24 hours in San Antonio, add this itinerary. If you want a Texas Hill Country day trip, try this one.