The Budget Travel Guides are travel tips to help you save money and enrich your travel experiences. BBQ, the capital city of Texas, music, college town, and nightlife – everything is bigger and better in Texas! In this Austin Travel Guide, Darcie Connell shares her travel tips for the capital city.
Been looking for an Austin travel guide?
Well you’ve come to the right place.
The first thing to note is everything’s big in Texas.
Their BBQ, longhorn cattle, trucks, and cowboys.
Hell, even the state is the largest in the continental U.S.
And Austin is no exception.
According to CNN, Austin ranked five out of the 10 fastest growing U.S. cities with 51.1 percent growth from 2000 to 2010.
Chances are if you ask someone where they’re from, it won’t be Austin.
But that doesn’t mean the people haven’t lost their southern hospitality – where it’s not uncommon to have lengthy conversations with strangers and hear “how ya’ll doing” and “howdy” from people passing by.
Austin is home to the Texas capital building, The University of Texas, and South by Southwest (SXSW) festival breathing fresh life into a city like no other in Texas.
The independent and liberal thinking – from politicians, students, and techies alike – birthed the city’s slogan, “Keep Austin weird.”
And it certainly is. So before you head to the Lone Star state, be sure to read this entire Austin travel guide…
An Austin travel guide for budget travelers
This Austin travel guide offers advice and suggestions on transportation, lodging, food, activities, and connecting with the locals to show you how experience Austin without breaking the piggy bank.
Remember, everything’s big in Texas.
Well so is the city of Austin.
Chances are if you’re visiting Austin, you’ll be flying into Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, conveniently located under ten miles from downtown.
If you’re planning on staying within the downtown area, you can take a taxi, metro bus or hotel airport shuttle (sometimes for free) to downtown and simply walk everywhere. This might be ideal if you’re only spending a weekend.
However, if you’re staying longer and want to explore some of the attractions on the outskirts of town, a rental car is a good option… especially if you want to try the best BBQ in Texas located in Driftwood and Lockhart (more on that later).
Keep in mind:
- downtown Austin has parking meters,
- traffic is a nightmare during the rush hours,
- people in Texas drive VERY fast and tend to tailgate so stay in the slow lane if you’re not an aggressive driver, and
- some freeways collect tolls so carry cash when you drive.
Just like most large cities in the U.S. you’ll have a prime selection of hotels including The Radisson, Hilton Garden Inn, Hampton Suites, Hyatt, Four Seasons, and Sheraton. Prices range from $100 to over $300 depending on the star rating.
If you’re working on a budget, consider staying outside downtown for better rates and driving into the city for activities.
If you’re looking for an upscale and historic experience, stay at the Driskill which was built in 1886 as the showplace of cattle baron Jesse Driskill. It’s a landmark in downtown. Even if it’s out of your budget, stop by the hotel for a drink the Driskill bar or take a horse and carriage ride offered out front.
There are a couple hostel selections such as HI Austin and Firehouse Hostel that offer dorms at under $30. Be sure to call to make sure they have a room instead of booking online.
For other lodging ideas, check out craigslist.org, airbnb.com, couchsurfing.org or vbro.com.
Have you heard of those famous food trucks? Well, legend has it, they were invented in Austin. Not only are they a quick, inexpensive and delicious option compared to standard restaurant dining, but it’s a great way to have a picnic in the city. Check out austinfoodcarts.com for a list of trucks and locations.
Okay, now for the good stuff… BBQ…
Texas is known for its BBQ and the best places (in my opinion) are:
- The Salt Lick in Driftwood (25 minutes southwest of Austin) and well worth the drive. They have indoor and outdoor picnic style seating and live music on weekends. But perhaps the best part… it is bring your own bottle (BYOB) so you don’t have to pay a lot for your Shiner Bock (a traditional Texas beer)!
- Kreuz Market or Smitty’s Market in Lockhart (35 minutes southeast of Austin) offer a more traditional Texas style BBQ. These two BBQ joints used to be owned by one family but after a falling out, they split into two restaurants.
- Franklin Barbecue (900 East 11th Street, Austin) is conveniently located in Austin and always has a line out the door before it opens at 11am. Be sure to arrive before they sell out, usually around 1pm.
For natural foods – either groceries or deli food – head to Whole Foods Market located in downtown Austin (525 N Lamar Blvd.). The very first Whole Foods opened in 1980 in Austin and was a catalyst to healthy eating living around the world.
I typically don’t like recommending chain restaurants, but Ruth’s Cris Steak House (107 W. 6th St.) has the best happy hour ever! From 4:30 to 7:00pm daily they have $5 top shelf drinks and half off appetizers like crab stuffed mushrooms and escargot. It’s a budget travelers dream!
For other restaurant downtown, check out these options:
- Austin’s Pizza (800 W 12th St.) Pizza / Italian
- Cafe Josie (1200 W 6th St.) Carribbean / Seafood
- Chez Nous (510 Neches St.) French
- Fado Irish Pub & Restaurant (214 W 4th St.) Irish
- Hut’s Hamburgers (807 W Sixth St.) American / Burgers
- Sagra (1610 San Antonio St.) Italian / Mediterranean
- Thai Passion (620 Congress Ave.) Thai
- Wink (1014 N Lamar) American
For the serious foodies, book at Austin Eats Food Tour where you’ll be taken on a three hour food and walking tour of Austin.
Now for some fun in this Austin travel guide…
Austin’s a city full of entertainment and is known as “the music capital of the world” for its concentration of live music venues. So it goes without saying that most visitors want to party.
Let’s start with nighttime activities…
At dusk from March through April, over one thousand Mexican Free-Tailed bats (the largest population in North America) fly out from under the Congress Avenue Bridget to feed. Head over to the bridge to join other locals and tourists watch this wild phenomenon.
For late night fun, head to 6th street in downtown. The back-to-back bars compete for patrons by offering drink specials and live music… almost all for FREE! Warning: this crowd is usually younger students looking to party hard. Things can get rowdy, especially after 10pm.
If you want to skip the younger crowd, head to the Warehouse District which tends to be older, and more upscale. With that, also comes a higher price.
The Alamo Drafthouse Cinema (320 E 6th St.) offers a unique cinema experience where you can watch a movie and drink beer all under one roof.
Okay, now that your evenings are covered, let’s review some daytime activities…
One of the best and free activities is touring the Texas State Capitol Building (1100 North Congress) where you can see the Senate and House of Representatives rooms.
The Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum (605 Robert E. Lee Rd.) is a little park where you can admire the art work of Charles Umlauf.
Across the Colorado River is Zilker Park, which has some great walking, people watching and a free botanical garden. Be sure to get your picture taken with the famous Austin-born guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan. You can also rent kayaks and paddle the Colorado River.
Another free and educational activity is a walking tour of The University of Texas at Austin. There are also a lot of inexpensive restaurants around the campus.
Snap a shot of Austin’s cityscape from Mount Bonnell City Park – the highest point in Austin. It is six miles north of town and about a half-mile moderate hike to get to the top.
If you have kids, take them to Schlitterbahn water park for a full day of entertainment. It is 50 miles south of Austin in New Braunfels.
For more visitor activities, visit the Austin Visitors Center located in the Austin Convention Center & Visitors Bureau (209 E. 6th St.) from Monday to Fridays 9am to 5pm and Saturdays and Sundays from 9:30am to 5:30pm.
Connect with Locals
The best online resource for connecting with the locals is Austin360.com where you can get event, music, and recreation info.
On Saturday’s at 4th & Guadalupe in downtown there’s a local farmer’s market offering free samples of delicious cheese, chocolates, fruits and veggies. It’s a great place to people watch and grab some cheap eats.
Another way to interact with the locals is to watch a Texas Longhorns football game at The University of Texas at Austin. Just be sure you cheer for the Longhorns and sit on the home team’s side.
No Austin travel guide is complete without mentioning South By Southwest – a music, film and interactive festival lasting nine days in March every year. Literally there’s something for everyone. The only catch… it’s super expensive with the cheapest tickets started at $450. Better start saving.
One of my favorite ways to connect with the rough and tough local women (and men) is to watch a Roller Derby game at the Palmer Center. These girls throw punches, elbows and put on an action packed show.
With this Austin travel guide, you can enjoy the big city of Austin and help “keep Austin weird.”
Have you visited Austin? What are your travel tips and favorite things to do in the capital city of Texas?
Darcie Connell is the founder of Trekity.com – a daily newsletter for traveling women – and TravelBloggerAcademy.com. She had the pleasure of living in Austin for six months in 2012 and completely fell in love with the weird city and amazing residence. She has plans to return in the near future.