When Austinites wring their hands over how their city has changed, South Congress is one of the neighborhoods they point to. Out-of-towners may not be aware of the avenue’s rich history or the hotly debated gentrification the past two decades have ushered in, but they do know that visiting the area is often touted as a must-do for shopping, dining, and people-watching. South Congress is an ever-evolving strip, and the pace of change has been especially brisk over the past few years, as a bevy of new shops, hotels, and restaurants have opened (and a few old-school favorites have disappeared).
Perhaps it’s worth taking a wider view. Starting just south of the Ann Richards Bridge (you know, the one with the bats), the broad thoroughfare has gone from sleepy to skeevy to showy. In the 1850s, it served as a postal route before it became home to a trolley line in the early 1900s; it was the first paved road in Austin. South Congress hosted a fair number of shops and shoppers until the 1960s, when Interstate 35 was built and served as a more efficient route for north–south motor traffic. From the 1970s through the 1990s, the area went through a period when it was frequented mainly by prostitutes and drug addicts, but it was also home to a rising creative class because of its affordability. Hotelier Liz Lambert is often credited with having brought change and gentrification to the avenue in the mid-’90s—whether that is a good or bad thing is often questioned—as she took the run-down San José Motel and turned it into the glittering Hotel San José. Since that time, SoCo, as realtors and marketing types often call it, has been revamped with funky vintage shops, an artisans’ market, music venues, cafes, restaurants, glossy murals, and more hotels. In the last couple of years, it’s seen even more changes with a high-end, commercial feel, thanks to the arrival of the members-only club Soho House, the celeb favorite Equinox gym, and—most shocking of all—a forthcoming Hermès store.
One thing hasn’t changed: that picture-perfect view of the Capitol building, which has led many a passerby to risk stopping traffic as they step into the street to frame the shot just right. And along with the pricey chains, there have been quite a few exciting and locally owned additions, proving that South Congress hasn’t fully submitted to the dreaded L.A.-ification. Plus, there are a few old-school haunts that keep hanging on. Take that, Nike store.
Lambert’s legacy lives on in some ways through the Hotel Magdalena, which opened in 2020. Even though Lambert is no longer part of the Bunkhouse Group, which operates the boutique hotel, the feel of Magdalena hews close to her beloved vintage-chic aesthetic. Sitting on a redeveloped block called Music Lane, the spot features 89 rooms, bike rentals, and a pool with a bar. Farther afield but still on South Congress is Colton House Hotel, which is perfect if you want to stay away from the crowds. It has its own pool as well, a coffee and cocktail bar, and extended-stay suites if you become really enamored with Austin.
Dine + Drink
If you do decide to stay at the Hotel Magdalena, you’ll have no excuse not to hit its restaurant, Summer House on Music Lane. The Mediterranean-tinged menu and ample patio seating both give off vacation vibes, even if you’re just going to lunch. Nearby Aba has similar cuisine but a bit more of an upscale sensibility, and has attracted stars, including Queer Eye’s Fab Five. There are plenty of breakfast options along the strip, including Miami import the Salty Donut, with such fancy flavors as affogato and pineapple upside-down cake; local Teal House Coffee and Bakery, known for its colossal cinnamon rolls; and Little Brother, which slings cortados and kolaches from a cute window. Stock up on curated provisions like pecan butter and beer at Tiny Grocer, and shop for natural wine at the Meteor, a bike shop and bodega. Just off South Congress and Riverside, you’ll find the Cidercade, which is exactly what it sounds like: you can play air hockey and shoot hoops while sipping hard cider from Dallas-based Bishop Cider. Bonus points for the patio that faces Lady Bird Lake and the downtown skyline.
South Congress offers an almost overwhelming amount of trendy stuff to buy, from custom-adorned cowboy hats at Maufrais to statement earrings at Nak Armstrong’s flagship. Men’s stores are ample along the strip, with options like Houston-based Manready Mercantile and Austin’s Howler Brothers. Both feature apparel including graphic tees and bandannas as well as accessories. Noah Marion, an Austin artisan known for his leather wallets and key chains, expanded from South Lamar to a larger space on SoCo in 2021. Letterpress Play serves as both a shop selling gift-y items and stationery and as a museum housing vintage letterpress machines.
Fortunately, SoCo also still has places to visit if you’re more interested in a taste of “old Austin.” Tune into live music at the historic Continental Club, the live oak–shaded patio at Tex-Mex restaurant Güero’s, and the more intimate C-Boy’s Heart & Soul. Or, if you prefer to take the mic into your own hands, Ego’s, a hidden dive bar (its entrance is tucked away in a parking garage), features karaoke every night of the week. Afterward, a hot slice of pepperoni at Home Slice—preferably scarfed from a paper plate while sitting on the curb—is a satisfying late-night treat. In the morning, you’ll often find a group of people clustered around Jo’s Coffee (another Lambert original)—some are ordering a Turbo iced latte from the window and others are patiently waiting for their turn to pose at the “I love you so much” mural spray-painted on its wall. A newer, almost-as-beloved mural sits two blocks south at Elizabeth Street. “Willie for President,” on the exterior wall of men’s store STAG, has a slogan and image we can all get behind. As far as dining, it doesn’t get more classic than lasagna at Vespaio, a local favorite since 1998, followed by a scoop of Mexican vanilla from Amy’s Ice Cream.