The first thing I do when planning a vacation is conduct exhaustive research on the best local eateries and hangouts. My planning for a weekend in Austin, TX, started much the same way. However, I quickly came to realize that there are a plethora of locally owned restaurants, shops, venues and quirky activities to keep you busy, which is no wonder considering Austin is listed as Forbes’ 8th Fastest-Growing U.S. City in 2018. I had a hard time choosing where to spend my time, my money and my appetite, but choose I did! I’ve narrowed down all of Austin’s amazing options into my perfect 48 hours in Austin.
First things first. Whatever you do, don’t eat before landing in Austin! You want to arrive hungry so you can take advantage of each spot recommended here. When you arrive, head straight to Hotel Van Zandt, a boutique Kimpton hotel at the end of Rainey Street. Its rooms exude understated luxury and are appointed with generous views of downtown Austin. If you get in before 1:30 p.m. or so, hop in a Lyft and visit Launderette for lunch. With healthy eats like the Sunshine Bowl (hummus, sprouted beans, pickled beets, quinoa, butternut squash and tahini dressing) and indulgent treats like the Fried Egg BLT (served with avocado and pimento cheese), everyone will find something to their liking. Whatever you do, don’t skip dessert. Their birthday cake ice cream sandwich (sadly only served at dinner) is rightfully world-famous, but every single sweet treat and pastry on their menu is life-changingly delicious. Take note of the time, though, as several of the better lunch places in town shut down between 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to prep for dinner.
After lunch, head to South Congress (SoCo) to experience some authentic Austin charm. The funky SoCo neighborhood is brimming with locally owned shops, galleries and eateries. You’ll be sure to work up an appetite while window shopping and people watching the afternoon away. Don’t miss local treasures South Congress Books and Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds. If you need an afternoon pick me up, stop by Jo’s Coffee and order a Belgian Bomber (half cold brew, half creamy hazelnut coffee served over shaved ice).
Or, if you’re feeling ambitious, go ahead and visit the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum on Friday afternoon. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, you’ll be well-served to beat the Saturday morning crowds and enjoy a leisurely self-guided tour of the life and times of our 36th President. Don’t skip the recorded private phone conversations — especially the one with his tailor!
By now you likely need a catnap so head back to the hotel to settle in before getting ready for the evening. Once you’re rested, head downstairs to Geraldine’s Bar in the hotel lobby. Even if you’re tired, skip the convenience of having dinner here, and just enjoy their well-crafted cocktails. Your better bet is to walk over to neighboring restaurant Emmer & Rye for a fine meal crafted by former Noma and French Laundry chef Kevin Fink. The staff is beyond friendly, and the food, mostly small plates and dim sum, is divine. Standout dishes are the all-but-standard Cacio e Pepe and Green Emmer Johnny Cakes.
Luckily, you’re right there on Rainey Street so you’re within walking distance of 20+ charming locales should you want to enjoy an after-dinner drink. Once a residential area, the Rainey Street houses have now been renovated into charming bungalow bars. You really can’t go wrong with any of the spots, but a few recommendations are the Clive Bar, Container and Lucille Patio Lounge. We won’t judge you if you stop by Little Lucy’s mini donut food truck before night’s end, too! Alternatively, back at the hotel, Geraldine’s hosts live music every night, so you can also head back for a show closer to home.
You’re best advised to sleep in on day two so you’re fully prepared for a jam-packed second day in Austin. Order breakfast from the hotel’s 24-hour room service menu, or grab a quick bite at Cafe 605 in the Hotel Van Zandt lobby. If you have time, enjoy a dip and lounge at the hotel’s rooftop pool called The Deck.
I’m including two different itineraries for how to spend this day. If you’re a BBQ fan and interested in having the best in Texas, then head to Lockhart for the day. If you’re more keen to stay within the Austin city limits, we’ve got plenty of suggestions for you as well.
Either try your luck with a long-haul drive via Uber or Lyft, or use a Zipcar (sign up a few days before your trip to make sure you’re approved) for the day to drive the 40 minutes to Lockhart. There are three BBQ joints all within walking distance of each other — Kreuz Market, Black’s and Smitty’s. There are a few “don’ts” that you need to know prior to ordering: don’t ask for sauce, don’t order a lean cut, don’t ask for a sandwich (you order by the pound, and it’s sliced right in front of you), and don’t bother with the sides. Be prepared for eating with no forks at some establishments. I could recommend certain cuts of meat at each place, but really, they’re all good. The best bite of the whole day was the brisket at Black’s, but it was also the first bite of the day and pre-meat sweats, so take that recommendation with a grain of salt.
If weather permits, head to nearby Zilker Park first. You can hike on the Lady Bird Trail or try your hand at stand-up paddleboarding or kayaking in Lady Bird Lake. Barton Springs Pool, an underground springwater-fed pool also located in Zilker Park, is a popular spot for locals and tourists alike. As such, it can get quite crowded. If you want to experience swimming holes without the masses, find another one along the Barton Creek Greenbelt. Local student Serene Nguyen launched a helpful tool called Greenbelt Now, which lists the local weather conditions and water levels at eight spots around town so you know which ones are safe to swim.
If you’re back in town by dusk, be sure to catch the South Congress Bridge Bats between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., March through November. You can watch their nightly aerial show from the bridge or from nearby grassy areas. SB Tip: Wear a hat. You know why.
Onto dinner for Saturday night. Reserve a table at Red Ash, a wood-fired Italian restaurant, way ahead of time, or try your hand at bar seating (it worked for us, but we were lucky). Every single dish is worthy, so order whatever your heart desires. I personally enjoyed the red snapper crudo and the giant white prawns a la plancha. It was the perfect antidote to a day full of red meat consumption in Lockhart. Shockingly, I had room for dessert and highly recommend the olive oil cake — it’s hard to beat!
After dinner, take in some of what Austin is best known for — live music. Here’s a guide to Austin’s local music festivals by month and check this local calendar for up to date live music happenings. If you can catch an act at Moody Theater or The Continental Club, do it! If you’re curious about two-stepping, check out The White Horse or Broken Spoke for some of the best moves in town.
Sadly, your three-day tour of Austin is coming to a close, but you can’t leave town without trying one of Austin’s epic brunch options. Try either Le Politique, a classic French brasserie, or Caroline, a delightful all-day downtown eatery (if you’re still in party mode, head upstairs, literally, to Upstairs at Caroline for patio games and free-flowing libations). If you want to stay closer to the hotel, Banger’s on Rainey Street has a Big Band Brunch every Sunday that won’t disappoint.
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