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Trip Guide: Downtown Austin

The beating heart of the Capital City.

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As one of Austin’s original neighborhoods, downtown has long been the city’s beating heart. Other areas—like East Austin and South Congress Avenue—may get more play in the press, but, as I wrote about in my October 2014 column,  there are a number of diversions to explore along and around the broad thoroughfare that is (north) Congress Avenue, a.k.a Texas’s Main Street.

To celebrate its hundredth anniversary, in 2015, the Paramount Theatre installed a new, thirty-three-foot-tall blade above its marquee.
The stage, with its original curtain, at the Paramount Theatre, which celebrated its hundredth anniversary in 2015.

Photograph courtesy of the Paramount Theatre/Paul Bardagjy

SEE + DO

Barton Springs // The cold, crystalline waters that burble forth just south of downtown from the Edwards Aquifer have drawn crowds for eons. The banks of the popular swimming hole, which always hovers around 68 to 70 degrees, are ideal for sunning, napping, and howling at the moon. 2201 Barton Springs Rd, 512-867-3080

Contemporary Austin // Along with its sister site at Laguna Gloria on the shores of Lake Austin, this downtown museum offers rotating exhibits of modern and contemporary art as well as lectures and a rooftop film series. 700 Congress Ave, 512-453-5312

Texas Capitol // You needn’t be a political junkie for the imposing pink-granite statehouse to stir feelings of reverence every time you stroll toward it along the tree-lined Great Walk. So too will its magnificent interior dome inspire feelings of childlike mischievousness when you stand in the middle of the rotunda and clap to hear the ceiling’s echo. Official guided and self-guided tours are available, but Paul Burka’s “highly subjective” tour is a great resource as well. 1100 Congress Ave, 512-463-0063

Paramount Theatre // Austinites have been entertained at this resplendent theater since 1915 (and yes, that’s the original curtain that hangs across its stage). The intimate venue is an ideal setting in which to listen to Texas singer-songwriters, guffaw at the annual Moontower Comedy and Oddity Fest, gawk at celebrities arriving for SXSW premieres, or watch your favorite classic movie for the umpteenth time. 713 Congress Ave, 512-472-5470

Violet Crown Cinema // Indie flicks and documentaries are the primary fare at this four-screen movie house in the Second Street District on the western edge of downtown. In addition to the requisite theater treats (popcorn and candy), you can snack on spring rolls or truffle fries or other fresh nibbles from the cafe, not to mention cocktails and local draft beers. 434 W. 2nd, 512-495-9600

The interior of Scholz Garden, established in 1866.
The interior of Scholz Garden, established in 1866.

Photograph by Sarah Lim

EAT + DRINK

The Backspace // Two of chef Shawn Cirkiel’s four establishments are downtown: Parkside, a gastropub, is a haven of sophistication amid Sixth Street’s legendary strip of semi-seedy bars, and, behind it, you’ll find this Neapolitan-style pizzeria, a cozy nook for lunch for dinner (read our latest review here). (Cirkiel’s other spaces are Olive & June, which offers family-style Southern Italian fare, and Bullfight, his newest venture, which offers a modern take on Spanish small plates.) 507 San Jacinto Blvd, 512-474-9899

Jo’s  // As a coffee shop with a cult following (not to mention full breakfast and lunch menus), this Second Street District outpost is usually populated with locals (and local celebrities). The Frito Pie, anchored by a bed of pulled pork, comes highly recommended. 242 W. 2nd, 512-469-9003

Scholz Garten // Beer drinking and conversating have been encouraged at this popular biergarten since 1866. Given its proximity to the UT campus, game days are particularly lively. 1607 San Jacinto Blvd, 512-474-1958

Second Bar + Kitchen // The ground floor of the Austonian (which is the tallest building in town—for now, at least) is occupied by David Bull’s casual eatery with a shaded patio, wrap-around bar, and a long list of “shareable” snacks and pizzas that you won’t want to share at all. (Read our latest review here.) 200 Congress Ave, 512-827-2750

SHOP

BookPeople // A local institution since the seventies, this independent bookstore is a two-story repository of books, magazines, and gifts. Book signings (often by very well-known authors), children’s story times, and lively discussions fill the calendar each month. 603 N. Lamar, 512-472-5050

By George// Alexander Wang, Celiné, Dries Van Noten, Isabel Marant, Thakoon: the fashionable gang’s all here at this men’s and women’s clothing boutique, first hatched by a husband and wife duo back in 1979. 524 N. Lamar Blvd, 512-472-5951

Waterloo Records // Regarded as one of the best record stores in the country, this 6,400-square-foot outpost is a browser’s paradise. Not only is it stocked with offerings from a wide range of artists (with an added emphasis on Texas music), but you can listen to any album before you buy it. 600 N. Lamar Blvd, 512-474-2500

Whole Foods // As much a tourist destination as a frequent haunt for locals, the flagship location of the beloved grocer is, at 80,000 square feet, one of Whole Foods’ largest stores. 525 N. Lamar Blvd, 512-542-2200

Wildflower Organics // Located on the edge of downtown, this eco-minded home goods shop was one of the city’s first “green” retailers. Nearly everything is organic, from the fine linens and clothing to the mattresses made of natural materials. 524 N. Lamar Blvd, 512-360-0449

The Romanesque Revival lobby at the Driskill Hotel.
The Romanesque Revival lobby at the Driskill Hotel.

Photograph by Sarah Lim

STAY

Driskill Hotel // The Romanesque Revival hotel has been seducing its guests since 1886. Built by a cattle baron for cattle barons, it’s still as opulent as ever, done up in an indulgent Old Ranch World motif, which means there’s an abundance of tanned-leather couches, pressed-tin ceilings, and cowhides (and heads). Its 189 guestrooms and suites got an $8.8 million facelift in 2015. 604 Brazos, 512-439-1234

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