The State Capitol of Texas, Austin’s tagline of sorts is “Keep Austin Weird” – same as Portland, actually? I’m not sure how this weird reputation began, but my weekend in Austin was certainly eclectic. From history museums to urban bats to streets packed with unique, independent shops, there was lots to explore. After my few days in Houston, I hopped on another bus to travel a few hours to Austin for four days. The first and last were spent working again, but I had a full weekend to check out the city!
Texas State Capitol
The first thing I did when I went out exploring on Saturday morning was get a Tex-Mex brunch. Since I had lots of good food this weekend in Austin, I’ve made a whole sub-section below about where I ate! After breakfast, I walked over to the Texas Capitol building. Austin was fairly walkable in general, from where I was staying in Downtown, which was a win for an American city.
The State Capitol building is a huge piece of architecture with a domed roof, much like most State Capitols, I believe! This is one of the largest in the country though. The reddish-coloured granite made it quite unique too, definitely reminiscent of a Southern desert. A large grassy park surrounds the building, full of trees and benches, as well as a few statues and memorials. I roamed around, stopping to read about some of the memorials. They offer free tours inside, but I don’t understand enough about American politics to think I would’ve enjoyed it. It was definitely impressive enough from the outside still! It was also swelteringly hot though, so I needed an indoor break next…
Bullock Texas State History Museum
If you’ve paid attention, you’ll notice I haven’t been to many history museums during my USA trip. Sometimes because there wasn’t the option, others because I was already history-saturated. I did also find some of the tours and historic sights, especially back in New England, were geared towards Americans who already have some knowledge of their own history. Versus me, a Brit with very limited US history! Anyways, the Bullock Texas State History Museum had good reviews and I was in dire need of cooling down inside, so I decided to check it out. I was very glad I did in the end, as it was a very thorough museum, that was very easy to follow and understand!
It was particularly interesting because Texas is so large and has been part of Mexico and the USA at different times. I knew Mexico used to own several of the Southwest USA states, so learning what actually happened was really good. Plus, you can definitely still see the cultural influence today! The museum has a natural route through it, progressing chronologically as you ascend the floors. I always appreciate when history museums frame themselves like this, as you walk through the story they’re telling. Once I’d thoroughly exhausted the exhibits, I stopped in the cafe for a late lunch before braving the heat again.
Downtown Austin & East Sixth Street
Heading south from the museum and Capitol building, I made my way into Downtown Austin again. My intention had been to visit the Mexic-Arte Museum next, but it was closed for an exhibit change. Instead, I roamed around a little, checking out some of the many street art murals. There’s also a cool mix of small, older buildings interspersed with the newer glass towers.
I ended up on East Sixth Street, not far from my accommodation, Firehouse Hostel. This is all older 19th-century commercial buildings which now house an eclectic mix of restaurants, bars and music venues. It’s one of the most popular areas of Austin, a bustling entertainment district borne of hipster gentrification. While it was fairly busy by day, it gets more packed at night. I had dinner here this evening but didn’t go out late at night at all during my weekend in Austin. I did have a few hours to kill before my last activity today though, and went back to my hostel instead. It had a hidden speakeasy next to reception, where you push the bookcase aside to enter a dimly lit, 1920s-inspired basement bar! I had a couple of cocktails, until it was late enough to go out again.
South Congress Bridge Bat Colony
Forsaking the noise and crowds I could see forming on East Sixth, I followed Congress Avenue south to where it crosses the Colorado River. On the water below, boats were starting to moor, and people were lounging on their stand-up paddleboards. Crowds were gathering on the bridge and over in the park on the southern shores. Why? Because Austin is home to the largest urban bat colony in the world. Tucked away resting under the South Congress Bridge by day, at night they emerge en-mass to go hunting.
You can actually check online here to find out their expected flight time window, which is around sunset, but of course, it can’t be predicted exactly. I think I arrived 5-10 minutes before the start of the window, and only waited about 15 minutes before they emerged. And oh wow, were there a lot of them! I had expected a decent sized swarm, but nowhere near as many as there were! They poured out from under the bridge for minute after minute. Some of them were already way off in the distance beyond the buildings while others were still only just emerging. The black clouds of bats against the pink skies were very pretty as well. Once the flood eventually ceased, I lingered a little longer, enjoying the dusk over the river, before turning and heading in for the night.
Colorado River Walk
The next morning of my weekend in Austin was as bright and sunny and hot as the first. Like many of the city locals, I headed to the river for the cooler air. Stopping for brunch along the way and passing the curved exterior of the Google building, I followed the waters west. Most of the Colorado River in Austin is surrounded by parkland on either side, with trees casting shade over the trails. It was far too hot for serious hiking, but a riverside amble in the shade was very pleasant. I followed the north shore west until I reached the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge, crossing the river which was full of paddleboards and kayaks beneath me. My path then veered south, following the banks of Barton Creek as it entered Zilker Metropolitan Park.
If you want to cool off in the Texas heat, there’s no better place than Barton Springs. Yes, it was busy on a weekend, but I still had space to relax and lounge! Fed by a spring and fenced off from the rest of the creek, this is as close to a natural swimming pool inside a city as you’ll likely to get. There’s a small entrance fee but then you can stay as long as you like. Just don’t forget to get a unicorn stamp to come and go – important, since there’s no food allowed inside.
I walked a lap of the pool when I arrived, sussing out a spot to sit and exploring the roughly hewn rocky circumference. The shores are grassy slopes, some steeper than others, with trees to create shade, so it’s a case of plopping down on your towel. I started off in the sun but later moved to the shade when it got too hot! The pool floor is also rock, naturally sloping to create a deep and shallow end. It can be pretty slippery in places from the algae though! There’s lifeguards all around too, and a diving board in the middle, which has a constant stream of divers of varying skill levels. I spent a few hours alternating between cooling off in the water and lounging on the shores, reading and people watching. A pretty great way to spend a summer’s day really!
South Congress Avenue
Eventually, it was time for coffee and a snack, as I left the springs and wandered back towards Congress Avenue. I was on the southern banks of the Colorado River now though, in a different part of the city to yesterday. It was a pretty long walk, and I downed my iced coffee very quickly in the heat, but I like walking cities to get a feel for them when possible. I also routed myself past the “Greetings from Austin” mural along the way too. Anyways, I eventually arrived at South Congress Avenue, another popular street, filled with restaurants and fun shops. I don’t buy much stuff when I’m travelling, since I always need to pack light. But I spent an enjoyable hour or two just browsing the many shops, including the outdoor market stalls.
I also found one of Austin’s most popular street artworks here, the “i love you so much” mural, on the side of Jo’s Coffee. After sneaking a quick photo without anyone posing in the way, I took a seat in Jo’s. It’s all outdoor seating here, with fans thankfully, and is a good spot to people-watch. It was too late in the day for more coffee, so I let myself be tempted by their frosé instead. Afterwards, I wandered back down South Congress again to find somewhere for an early dinner, before trekking north over the river to turn in for the night.
Mexican is one of my favourite cuisines, but as I learned in Mexico, a lot of what we know as Mexican food in the UK is actually Tex-Mex. I still enjoy both though! As mentioned, I’m putting all my food stops from my weekend in Austin here:
Snooze, an A.M. Eatery (East Fifth). This is specifically a breakfast restaurant so it closes in the early afternoon. It’s got a bit of a vintage diner vibe to it as well and can be found all over Texas. My order was vegetarian breakfast tacos with an iced coffee. It was a pleasant surprise to have so many plant-based options in BBQ country!
Iron Cactus (East Sixth). A Mexican restaurant with a few branches in Austin and San Antonio, this was my first dinner spot. As is often the case as a solo diner, they seated me at the bar to avoid any waiting! Taking a taco break, I opted for the veggie enchiladas this time. Plus a prickly pear margarita, which is now my new favourite margarita flavour!
Jo’s Coffee (West Second). As well as their “i love you so much” spot, Jo’s has a few other venues, one of which was my Sunday brunch stop. This was another retro-style diner vibe, and thankfully, wasn’t too busy, so I got a seat inside. I tried some of their breakfast tacos, going for the potato and the beans & cheese options.
Torchy’s Tacos (South Congress). Look, I really like tacos, ok? Last but not least, this modern diner was my last dinner stop. They have a pretty extensive taco menu, all with fun names, and I tried their plant-based options. One fried avocado and one ‘Mofaux’ (Beyond Beef), which were delicious!
A Weekend in Austin
After one more day of working in Austin, it was time to hop on the train to San Antonio, my final Texan city. I ended up really enjoying my weekend in Austin, and it surprisingly still stands out as one of my favourites from my USA trip! I talk about the vibes and atmosphere of places I visit a lot, and whether they resonate with me. Austin seemed very laidback, friendly, fun and I definitely got a few hints of its weird, quirky side! I wouldn’t necessarily say there’s a huge list of tourist things to see and do. For instance, I didn’t get up early on my last day to go out before work as I didn’t think there was anything I’d missed. But instead, it was a really nice city for a more relaxed few days and I just had a fun time in Austin overall!