Austin Travel Guide

Austin Travel Guide

With an internationally acclaimed live music scene, passionate culinary culture and sunny, outdoor allure, it’s hard to resist Austin’s overwhelmingly charming, small-town appeal. Our advice? Let Austin lure you in. Despite the city’s undeniably rapid growth and newfound popularity, Austinites remain a down-to-earth, sometimes quirky yet always hospitable bunch, proud of their roots and eager to share their city’s highlights. Austin might be the capital of conservative Texas, but this liberal haven is one of America’s most gay-friendly cities, with gorgeous gay bars, world-renowned gay festivals, and inclusive, open-minded, fun-loving vibes for all. And while the entirety of Austin is gay-friendly, a notable cluster of gay-popular establishments dot East Austin and 4th Street (the best of which we’ve outlined below.)

The best hotels in Austin

Experience Texas hospitality at its finest at Heywood Hotel, an original 1925 Craftsman bungalow turned luxurious East Austin Inn. Old meets new in each of the seven rooms, where historic and uber-local elements seamlessly combine; original longleaf pine hardwood floors and one-of-a-kind handicrafts from nearby studios are but a few of the creative, bespoke details. Complimentary bicycles make it a cinch to explore the eclectic, independent shops and eateries in the surrounding Eastside. Over in the heart of SoCo (ultra-trendy South Congress Avenue) is the aptly named South Congress Hotel. Minimalist design takes centre stage here, with exposed brick, hardwood floors, and large floor-to-ceiling windows keeping things airy and bright. A bevvy of funky boutiques, vintage shops, and food trucks punctuate SoCo’s trendy streets that surround the hotel. The minibar holds a lovely collection of unique, local offerings, but it’s the idyllic rooftop pool where you’ll find us enjoying a stiff cocktail.

Photo: Ilya Ilford

Photo: Ilya Ilford

At boutique Kimpton Hotel Van Zandt, chic sophistication meets a playful musical edge to create a stay that is entirely befitting of Austin’s effortlessly cool vibes

At boutique Kimpton Hotel Van Zandt, chic sophistication meets a playful musical edge to create a stay that is entirely befitting of Austin’s effortlessly cool vibes—making it a must for any gay Austin guide. On-point details like a custom-made trombone chandelier, one-of-a-kind art pieces by J.T. Van Zandt, and dark wood and bronze accents feature throughout. Nightly live music performances at in-house restaurant Geraldine’s and specially curated music enhance the overall theme. The boutique hotel’s central location on hip and happening Rainey Street means you’ll be just steps away from many of Austin’s premier restaurants, entertainment offerings, and area attractions. Also drawing inspiration from the arts is Hotel Saint Cecilia, named after the patron saint of music and poetry. Tucked away in a wooded enclave of South Congress, the flamboyant design of each suite, bungalow, and studio at Saint Cecilia embodies the daring experimentation of rock and roll artists from the ’60s and ’70s. Markedly retro details like vintage posters, burgundy leather sofas, and a glowing, poolside ‘soul’ sign all feel decidedly classy rather than campy. The intimate locale coupled with five-star service and extravagant amenities certainly doesn’t hurt, either.

Escape it all at Hotel Granduca Austin, an opulent Tuscan-inspired villa picturesquely planted within 38-acres of verdant Texas Hill Country. The high-end retreat offers guests a heated, outdoor saltwater pool, an excellent al-fresco Italian restaurant, and lovely rooms full of antique furniture and state-of-the-art amenities. It would be all too easy to think you’d traded in Texas for Italy—if top Austin sightseeing highlights weren’t just a short drive away, that is.

Photo: Cynthia del Rio

Photo: Cynthia del Rio

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Recommended hotels in Austin
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Photo: M.J. Tangonan

Photo: M.J. Tangonan

Things to do in Austin

Texans are mighty proud to call the Lone Star State home; one of the best ways to understand why is with a visit to the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. State of the art, interactive exhibitions offer a glimpse of Texas’ time-honoured past, from its early days as part of Mexico to becoming an independent nation and, later, part of the Union. Whether or not you walk away agreeing with Sam Houston’s quote etched at the entrance (“Texas is the finest portion of the globe that has ever blessed my vision”) you’ll undoubtedly leave with a newfound appreciation towards what it means to be Texan. Another must-visit Austin museum is the UMLAUF Sculpture Garden & Museum, a fascinating showcase of contemporary sculptures by renowned American sculptor Charles Umlauf. Throughout the six acres of serene gardens, discover representations that cross a broad range of styles, with everything from whimsical animals to striking nudes on display.

Photo: Faith D.

Photo: Faith D.

Austin is the live music capital of the world, and we would be remiss not to mention The Continental Club, a historic landmark and one of the oldest continually running clubs in Austin

Austin’s sweltering heat can be a smack in the face to those of us not accustomed to a subtropical climate. The solution for any sweaty situation? The Barton Springs Municipal Pool, a 3-acre spring-fed haven that promises ~70-degree water all year long. Spend a day here cooling off and people watching before a riveting evening of epic entertainment. Austin is the live music capital of the world, after all, and we would be remiss not to mention The Continental Club, a historic landmark and one of the oldest continually running clubs in Austin, with over 60 years of performances—including the likes of Bill Carter and Stevie Ray. Grab a seat at one of the intimate tables nestled alongside restored ‘50s murals and discover a premier country, blues and rock act as they hit up the stage. Then there’s the Paramount Theatre, a 1915 building that serves as both a live music venue and a movie theatre. Of particular note is Bye! Felicia, a celebration of LGBTQ comedy pride delivered by first-rate comedians.

You’ve tried fashionable mezcal and tried-and-true tequila, but what about the cousin to the beloved agave spirits: sotol? America’s only sotol distillery, Desert Door produces world-class sotol from the native West Texas desert spoon plant, delivering a one-of-a-kind imbibing experience that is also 100% Texan. Desert Door distillery offers expert-led tours, along with a cosy tasting room complete with a working fireplace, comfy couches, and art exhibitions from regional talent. We suggest sipping their signature Desert Paloma, a sumptuous mix of sotol and grapefruit juice.

As one of America’s most gay-friendly cities, it comes an as little surprise that Austin offers a medley of gay festivals throughout the year. Always a fan favourite is Splash Days, a nonstop, nonprofit gay party held over Labor Day weekend at Hippie Hallow Park—the only clothing-optional beach in Texas. OUTsider Festival showcases spectacular queer art, while aGliff is a long-standing LGBTQ film festival. QueerBomb, a glittery parade down Austin’s “straightest” street, and the Austin International Drag Festival are also worth checking out, as is the obvious go-to: Austin Pride.

Barton Springs | Photo: Tomek Baginski

Barton Springs | Photo: Tomek Baginski

One of America’s most resplendent state capitol buildings, a visit to the Texas State Capitol provides a stately glimpse into Texas’ treasured past

What to see in Austin

One of America’s most resplendent state capitol buildings, a visit to the Texas State Capitol provides a stately glimpse into Texas’ treasured past. Take a free tour to appreciate opulent architectural details modelled mainly off the U.S. Capitol Building, or simply stroll through the 22-acres of manicured grounds and gardens. Also in the heart of downtown Austin is Lady Bird Lake, a coveted outdoor recreation centre where locals flock to jog, kayak, stand-up paddleboard, and otherwise enjoy the shaded trails and calm waters. From March – November, don’t be surprised by the massive flock of bats (North America’s largest population) that emerge at dusk and glide across the horizon in search of their evening meal; spotting these creatures is always a favourite Austin thing to do.

Pennybacker Bridge is an iconic Austin landmark, arching over the glittering Colorado River and making an appearance in most Austin travel guides. For one of the best views and an indelible picnic area, take the short hike up from the Highway 360 shoulder to the Pennybacker Bridge Overlook. You’ll quickly stumble upon a rocky outcropping, where sweeping sunsets and romantic stargazing opportunities await. Befitting of Austin’s bonafide cool demeanour, the city boasts a plethora of bold, vibrant street art and murals, of which South First’s ‘Greetings from Austin’ might just be the most Instagrammed. Other popular murals to keep an eye out for while traipsing around town include “You’re My Butter Half” on East MLK, and “Till Death Do Us Part” on East Seventh.

It’s no longer any secret that Texas wines can hold their own and with over 50 wonderful wineries just a stone’s throw from downtown Austin, a day trip to discover the regional varieties always makes for a pleasant afternoon in Texas Hill Country. Pedernales, Westcave, and Driftwood Cellars are constant crowd-pleasers, the latter of which specializes in otherwise hard to find Italian varietals like Aglianico and Montepulciano.

Texas Capitol | Photo: David Hertle

Texas Capitol | Photo: David Hertle

Pennybacker Bridge | Photo: Ryan Barron

Pennybacker Bridge | Photo: Ryan Barron

Expect unpretentious, damn good eats largely devoid of snobbery—whether at a centuries-old barbecue joint, a hip food truck, or even a fine-dining affair

Where to eat in Austin

Austinites are a passionate bunch, and this intense dedication to quality is certainly evident in the local food scene. Expect unpretentious, damn good eats largely devoid of snobbery—whether at a centuries-old barbecue joint, a hip food truck, or even a fine-dining affair. Now, let’s continue this gay Austin guide with an obvious choice for sophisticated Southern cuisine: Jacoby’s, a “ranch-to-table” dining experience in a rustic-chic space that boasts lovely Colorado River views. True to its motto, much of the menu here features ingredients from Jacoby’s ranch, elevating the family-owned, hyper-local experience. Don’t miss the chicken fried steak with a side of out-of-this-world Mac n’ Cheese. Another must-visit for classic Southern fare is Odd Duck by James Beard Award finalist Bryce Gilmore. This no-frills food truck turned Austin mainstay dishes out elevated takes on Texas favourites. Expect inventive items like chicken fried fish head, antelope tataki, and redfish ceviche, all of which are excellent washed down with Odd Duck’s signature Draft Paloma. Also by Bryce Gilmore is Barley Swine, an Austin favourite featuring a seasonal American menu and creative takes on haute Texan cuisine, with tangible global influences from the likes of Mexico, Italy, and Thailand. The small plates are always a surprise (but consistently delicious) and best accompanied with a beer from Barley Swine’s crazy extensive list.

For seasonal American cuisine served Dim Sum Style, head to Emmer & Rye. It’s here Chef Kevin Fink (recent recipient of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs award) serves up a locally inspired fare, with an emphasis on ingredients they mill or ferment in-house. Trading in menus for circulating carts allows Emmer & Rye to keep things fresh, with many products arriving in the kitchen that very morning. Jeffrey’s is one of Austin’s most upscale eateries, a posh New American restaurant located in historic Clarksville. The 35-day dry-aged Texas porterhouse steak is an undeniable crowd pleaser. Not in the mood for all the pomp and circumstance? Grab a seat at Jeffrey’s gorgeous walnut bar for a speciality cocktail that leaves a lasting impression.

Barley Swine | Photo: Richard Casteel

Barley Swine | Photo: Richard Casteel

If you’re in Austin, then you must check out the tacos—and Torchy’s Tacos original location on South First Street is the place to do it. With names like The Republican and The Trailer Park, each taco is custom-made to order, and best enjoyed with a whopping dose of gooey, velvety queso. Continue your Austin food tour at The Picnic, the city’s premier food trailer park. Here you’ll find eight well-known food trucks, including Austin favourites like Hey Cupcake! and Coat & Thai. There’s a little something for everyone here, with amenities like air-conditioned restrooms and large dining pavilions to round out the experience. No mention of dining in Austin is complete without mentioning Hillside Farmacy, a charming bistro that’s all vintage tile and original cabinetry, a distinct nod to the restaurant’s drugstore roots. You can’t go wrong with a visit any time of day, though we particularly love the weekend brunch—especially when Hillside Farmacy’s Wasabi Bloody Marys are involved.

Hillside Farmacy

Hillside Farmacy

Barley Swine | Photo: Richard Casteel

Barley Swine | Photo: Richard Casteel

Unleash your inner cowboy with a pair of handsome, handcrafted cowboy boots from Austin landmark Allens Boots

Shopping in Austin

Few stores capture our imaginations—and empty our wallets—like Stag – Provisions for Men. With everything from stylish menswear to vintage gifts to fabulous grooming lines, Stag is the self-proclaimed ‘modern-day general store for every man’ that we can’t get enough of. American-designed menswear that finds the perfect balance of classic and modern lines, surprisingly intriguing taxidermy, and antique books and artwork are just a few of the items you’ll find here. The rest, we’ll keep a surprise. Then there’s ByGeorge, another excellent option for menswear in Austin that boasts contemporary labels in a slick, design-savvy shop. With 40 years under its belt, ByGeorge knows how to stay ahead of fashion trends, bringing new styles to regulars who have longed sought-out ByGeorge for boundary-breaking fashion and lifestyle inspiration.

Uncommon Objects is precisely that—random objects collected by twenty-four antique sellers all displayed under one roof. From kitschy to quirky to classy, each item is one of a kind and, in most cases, offers a compelling glimpse into Texas history. It’s the perfect place to find that conversation starting souvenir or simply to gawk at the many curious wonders around you. Another sweet spot for gifts is Take Heart, an understated boutique with a special emphasis on home accessories by local, U.S. and a handful of international artists. Each object that makes its way into Take Heart is carefully curated to support small businesses and entrepreneurs. We love the style line ‘built on the premise of discovery, exploration, and transit’—a motto perfectly befitting any discerning gay traveller.

Unleash your inner cowboy with a pair of handsome, handcrafted cowboy boots from Austin landmark Allens Boots. With some 4,000 boots on display (and a track record for helping countless celebrities slide into their perfect match), there’s a rugged cowboy boot for all shapes and styles. Whether you go bold with vibrant colour and pattern or keep things neutral and practical, Allens Boots are designed to last a lifetime.

Photo: Andreas Dress

Photo: Andreas Dress

The Roosevelt Room

The Roosevelt Room

Austin Nightlife

No Austin gay scene guide is complete without a list of the hottest nightlife options. Since opening its doors in the ‘90s, Oilcan Harry’s has held onto its legacy status as a gay Austin institution. This gay club is not ‘see and be seen’; rather, locals and travellers alike flock to Oilcan Harry’s for famous Texas hospitality and a rootin’ tootin’ gay old time. You should, too. With its glitzy disco balls, intimate back patio, occasional bingo nights and regular drag queen performances, Rain on 4th is one of Austin’s premier gay clubs. You’ll find it right next to Oilcan Harry’s in the heart of the city’s gay neighbourhood. The weekends see a mixed crowd joining in on the dance floor, and the vibe is always stylish without being pretentious. Passing between Oilcan Harry’s and Rain on 4th, keep your eyes peeled for Sellers Underground, a gay-popular bar for all preferences. Cocktails and service are some of the best in Austin; don’t miss their signature Cajun Cucumber, a clever combination of cucumber vodka, lime, and jalapeno-infused simple syrup. Finishing up this Austin gay bar guide is Cheer Up Charlies, with its sweeping pink-parachute tent that promises a large outdoor patio. Organic juice cocktails like a kale lime gingerita and kombucha on tap dole out definitive hipster vibes, though anyone is welcome.

You’ll likely need a reservation, but the advanced planning is well worth a seat at The Roosevelt Room, one of Austin’s hottest craft cocktail bars. The award-winning venue uses fresh ingredients to create innovative concoctions, all in a beautiful, chic-industrial space. Don’t miss the pool table and balcony in the moody, upstairs lounge area. It’s easy to overlook the Garage, a small, intimate bar actually hidden inside an industrial parking garage on Colorado Street. But once inside, the impressive menu proves well worth the effort of finding this up-and-coming Austin locale. As expected, cocktails steal the spotlight here, but be sure to arrive hungry; the food upends any preconceived notions of ‘bar food.’ Extinguish any lingering thirst at The Firehouse, a lovely bar tucked away inside Austin’s oldest-standing fire station. There’s a notable emphasis on classic cocktails, but you’ll find an extensive range of libations perfect for cosying up in the swanky leather chairs.

The Roosevelt Room

The Roosevelt Room

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