A productive way to spend an afternoon in Austin is to visit any one of the city’s many cultural attractions like the state capitol, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, or the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. At night you can go to one of the numerous live music shows that descend upon the River City. There are countless day trips to quaint Hill Country towns that are easily accessible from Austin. In fact, the city has become a popular tourist destination, especially during March when college kids are on Spring Break and the annual South by Southwest Music Festival is in full swing. However, as a member of an increasingly rare tribe, the so-called Austin native, my favorite thing about Austin is that it’s the perfect place for . . . well, for doing nothing. Richard Linklater, after all, popularized the term “slacker” with his film of the same name that was dedicated to doing nothing in Austin. Read on to learn about my ultimate Austin weekend—and true to Austin slacker fashion, there’s absolutely no schedule, order, or crowds.
During the late fall, there’s nowhere better to be than outdoors in Austin. And going to see the famed Mexican free-tailed bats that live beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge is an Austin tradition. The thousands of bats that roost there soar into the air every evening around sundown to forage and hunt (but they won’t be around much past mid-November). While they are worth seeing, the bridge will be crowded with tourists, so here’s an alternative: Take a walk on the hike and bike trail around Town Lake and plan to be in the vicinity of the bridge at dusk. You’ll still see the bats, but with a picturesque backdrop of tree boughs and tranquil water instead of the gaping hoard of onlookers that line the bridge.
Do some dinner foraging of your own at Magnolia Cafe (2000 S. Congress Avenue), which offers a distinctly Austin bohemian atmosphere. Magnolia is about simple fare, with good all-day breakfast options, unusual offerings like the Martian Landscape (chunky potatoes and vegetables smothered in cheese), and more ambitious dinner specials such as spinach gnocchi. Then head back outdoors to walk around the South Congress Avenue area—a perfect way to enjoy Austin’s peak fall weather. While this part of town has become trendy in the past few years, longtime locals have been hanging out in this bastion of cool galleries and vintage shops for years. On the first Thursday of every month, the proprietors on the quirky stretch of avenue stay open late—until at least ten o’clock. For vintage clothing, antiques, and other fun items, pop into New Bohemia, Rue’s Antiques, Toy Joy, and Uncommon Objects.
I’m loathe to publicize one of my secret favorites, but Dario’s in East Austin (1800 E. Sixth Street) can’t be beat for great migas, tacos, enchiladas, amazing chalupas, and all the greasy Tex-Mex classics. Austin’s east side, which is much overlooked, houses many hidden gastronomic treasures—a whole day’s worth of meals can easily be devoted to trying out lesser-known gems. For breakfast, check out Cafe Mundi (1704 E. Fifth Street), offering the likes of waffles, pastries, and killer java in quintessential coffeehouse style, with kitschy, cool artwork and furniture.
My unequivocal favorite place for lunch in Austin is Azul (1808 E. Cesar Chavez). Sandwiches range from a delectable roasted chicken and havarti on tangy cranberry bread to eggplant with potato, roasted red pepper, and goat cheese on a baguette. Located in a pretty restored two-story house, Azul also has amusing knickknacks and plenty of funky toys to keep you occupied. Take your sandwich outside to the shabby-chic back yard for a picnic-style lunch amid lawn furniture and garden art—and the occasional friendly visit from Betty, the owners’ dog.
For a midnight snack, Sam’s Bar-B-Cue (2000 E. Twelfth Street) serves up tender brisket, ribs, chicken, and juicy sausage until three in the morning Sunday through Thursday and until 4 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Add sides of potato salad and beans, and you have a classic Texas barbecue experience in a decidedly no-frills atmosphere. (With barbecue this good, who needs ambience.)
While there is a plethora of trendy, new shops and restaurants in the downtown area, I recommend hitting Sixth and Lamar—not the brand-spanking-new “524” Sixth and Lamar shopping center—for Austin classics like Waterloo Records, Amy’s Ice Cream, BookPeople, and Emeralds. Browsing at Waterloo Records (600 N. Lamar)—famous for its vast selection of local music and frequent in-store performances by local musicians—is more fun with ice cream. So first stop by Amy’s (1012 W. 6th Street), Austin’s answer to Ben and Jerry’s, for a cone of homemade ice cream with your choice of “crush-ins” (Mexican vanilla with chocolate chips and strawberries has been my favorite for fifteen years). No matter the season, there’s usually a queue out the door (okay, this is the one place where you will definitely find a crowd), but the tongue-in-cheek servers will entertain you (or annoy you, depending on your perspective) with their ice cream acrobatics while you wait. Next, walk over to Emeralds boutique (624 N. Lamar) for stylish clothes, shoes, home accessories, and jewelry from local and national designers. Across the street at BookPeople (603 N. Lamar), you’ll find plenty of comfy reading areas and a wide array of books from almost every imaginable genre.
After all that perusing and browsing and shopping, you’re sure to be hungry (ice cream is only an appetizer, after all). Just a few doors down and across the street, you’ll find the G-M Steakhouse (626 N. Lamar), a diner-style spot that has been around for a long time. The proprietor, Gus Vayas, serves up classic, fifties-style pancakes, French toast, cheeseburgers, and irresistible tacos (chock-full of eggs, sausage, potatoes, and jalapeños). Or head across the street to Shoal Creek Saloon (909 N. Lamar), a casual place to recoup and catch a relaxing creek-side beer.
A weekend in Austin wouldn’t be a great weekend in Austin without getting at least a peek at the nightlife scene. Avoid the Sixth Street bar district at all costs. It’s overrated, overcrowded, and overpriced. The thriving warehouse district, on the other hand, does offer a few good downtown options like Alamo Drafthouse, Malaga Wine and Tapas Bar, and Ruta Maya Coffeehouse, but my favorite bars are remote from the city center. I affectionately deem them “dive bars.” Deep Eddy Cabaret (2315 Lake Austin Boulevard) features pitchers of beer, biker-bar atmosphere, and the best jukebox in town (come armed with dollar bills), and Lala’s Little Nugget (2207 Justin Lane)—with its Christmas decor year-round—has the second-best jukebox in town and a similarly laid-back atmosphere. At Ego’s (510 S. Congress) you’ll find a seventies lounge vibe, a darkened pool room, musical stylings by the likes of Bobby Doyle, and finger-paint art, which was created by patrons, adorning the walls.
Whatever you decide to do, remember you’re on Austin time, which means slow down and enjoy yourself. Of course, you could take a lawn chair out to Zilker Park and make yourself comfortable while you watch folks toss Frisbees, fly kites, and walk dogs. You know, do nothing.