How to Spend 4 Days in Austin, TX: The Best Food, Activities & More!
October 25, 2020
Austin, TX is one of my all-time favorite cities. It has amazing food, great outdoor activities, a quirky atmosphere and remains affordable. With a motto like “Keep Austin Weird,” you’ll find food trucks on every corner, the only nude beach in Texas, unique artwork and a vibe that is casual and fun.
There is also great nightlife (for when the pandemic is over) and so much live music - it is known as the ‘Music Capital of the World!’ There are so many great places to eat and visit in this city - I’ve broken down my favorite places by neighborhood to help you plan your trip!
If this is more information than you need, check out my list of the top five things to do in Austin!
Where to Stay
I typically stay in an Airbnb when I am in Austin. There are many Airbnb options throughout the city - I’d recommend looking for somewhere centrally located in East Austin, South Austin or Downtown. Most areas are very walkable and the city is small enough that you can get around quickly and affordably with rideshare.
Here are some Airbnb options I like:
- A bright and cheery home in South Austin close to S 1st St.
- A downtown home in walking distance of Lady Bird Lake.
- A house with a pool right next to Rainey Street.
- A tiny home in East Austin with a hot tub!
If you want to stay in a hotel, check out the Driskell for a downtown hotel right on 6th street. It is over 100 years old and has beautiful historic architecture. It is also known to be haunted!
For a great stay in SoCo (South Congress), consider staying in the iconic Austin Motel or Hotel San Jose. The Austin Motel opened in 1938 and has a colorful and funky style that is quirky and fun. Hotel San Jose is a little more expensive, offering bungalow style rooms that are sleek and minimalist.
Austin is well-known for breakfast tacos and BBQ! Be sure to look for these while you’re here. I’ll recommend some taco places throughout this guide. For BBQ, I’ll write about some restaurants with a BBQ influence but not traditional BBQ places because I am a vegetarian. If you are looking for the traditional Austin BBQ, be sure to check out Franklin’s, Terry Black’s or Valentina’s!
Austin Four Day Itinerary
Spend a day exploring East Austin and downtown.
East Austin is one of my favorite neighborhoods. It’s full of an eclectic mix of food, culture and murals! The neighborhood is fast growing so try to support the businesses that have been around a while where you can!
- Flat Track Coffee serves delicious coffee and food from inside a bike shop! Grab some fuel here for an exciting day of exploring.
Also first, tacos for breakfast:
- Veracruz All Natural is a taco food truck with many accolades, such as ranking as one of Food Network’s Top 5 restaurants! Veracruz has a few locations and the East Austin location on Cesar Chavez is the oldest. They serve a wide variety of breakfast tacos along with meat and veggie tacos. My favorite is the Migas Poblanas - a migas tacos with a little extra. Everything from this popular food truck is delicious.
- El Chilito is another place I love for their tacos! Their East 7th street location has copious outdoor seating under bright umbrellas. They have so many breakfast tacos (and otherwise) to choose from.
- Juan in a Million is an East Austin staple that opened in 1980. They are also mostly known for their breakfast food, serving a variety of breakfast plates and breakfast tacos. They describe themselves as no frills, keeping recipes simple and homemade. You can’t go wrong with anything on the menu.
Enjoy some Pizza
- Via 313 serves one of my favorite styles of pizza - Detroit style. The thick and bready square shaped slices are wonderfully greasy. Via 313 also offers vegan and gluten free options!
- Bufalina is a higher end pizza restaurant that serves neapolitan style pizzas in complex and unique flavor combinations. Try the Garden Pizza, which changes based on the freshest seasonal ingredients (currently features beet puree and roasted sweet potatoes).
Grab a Drink:
- Blue Owl Brewing is an intimate brewery with a large selection of sour beers (my favorite!). I love the ‘Van Dayum!’ and also enjoyed the ‘Wee Beastie’ for something unique. There is a limited amount of outdoor seating here, so you may want to visit off hours to get a seat. They also offer brewery tours.
- Drinks Lounge is a little blue dive bar with great drinks and a good selection of food. They have a good amount of outdoor seating and a chill and relaxed atmosphere.
- Stay Gold is a destination for craft cocktails and live music. The vibe is divey once again and you’ll find food trucks in the courtyard.
For a special occasion:
- Kemuri Tatsu-ya is a high end Japanese Texas fusion restaurant with excellent service. They offer a nine course omakase menu that combines smokey Texas flavors with Japanese cuisine. I had the vegetarian version and it was incredible. The smoked BBQ eggplant in the bento box had perfect flavors, the crispy rice and pimento miso was perfectly crunchy and the Ichigo Blonde cocktail was super refreshing. I cannot recommend this place highly enough!
Activities near downtown
Lady Bird Lake
Lady Bird Lake looks like a river running straight through downtown Austin, but it’s actually a reservoir that was created by the Longhorn Dam in 1960. On a hot day, you’ll see 100’s of people out on the water kayaking, paddle boarding and boating.
While exploring by water, you get to experience beautiful views of the Congress Avenue ‘Bat Bridge’ and downtown Austin. There is no shortage of rental options for paddling. Check out Congress Avenue Kayaks for an option that is close to South Agree Avenue, but you can’t really go wrong.
To experience Lady Bird Lake without getting wet, there are miles of walking and biking trails surrounding the water. Visit the Boardwalk section for a unique vantage point of the Austin skyline or the Auditorium Shores at Town Lake Metropolitan Park for wide greenspace to enjoy a picnic.
The Texas Capitol Building is modeled after the Washington Capitol and designed in Renaissance Revival Architecture. It’s a beautiful building and offers free guided tours (not currently running due to the pandemic). If you’re interested in Texas history or architecture, it’s a great place to visit. Fun fact - it is also the largest state capitol building outside of DC. (no one is surprised)
For an immersive art experience, visit the Skyspace on the University of Texas campus. This art piece by James Turrell titled ‘The Color Inside’ has a light sequence that is best viewed at sunrise or sunset. It involved a slow progression of color changes that morph with the sky creating a peaceful and almost out of body experience. Be sure to make a reservation in advance as space is limited.
I absolutely love James Turrell and am always on the lookout for his incredible work with light. If you like modern art, definitely check this out.
Austin is home to the largest urban bat colony in North America! From about March to October, over a million bats ascend from under the South Congress Bridge and into the sky. You can watch this phenomenon laying in the grass in the Statesman Bat Observation Center or take a riverboat cruise to watch the flight from the water.
Bar Hop Downtown
If it's your first time in Austin, bar hopping in downtown Austin is definitely a must when it’s safe! Sixth Street is the most famous (or infamous) area to have a night out. It is nicknamed ‘the dirty sixth’ and the city closes the street on Thurs-Sat nights so you can walk around freely. The vibe is a lot like Bourbon Street in New Orleans - very lively with lots of live music.
Here are some places to visit on Sixth Street:
- Make a reservation for the speakeasy cocktail bar Midnight Cowboy. With an unmarked facade and a unique rotating menu, it’ll feel as if you’ve transported far away from the dirty sixth. Reservations are required and all of the cocktails are super unique. They even make some of them right in front of you on a bar cart!
- Choose a song on the jukebox in the grungy-feeling Casino El Camino. They are also known for their delicious burgers.
- Make your way behind a bookshelf in Firehouse Hostel to find Firehouse Lounge, a sleek bar with live music and classic cocktails. The lounge has a retro feel, great cocktails and often has live jazz bands.
- Have a shot of whiskey at the dive bar The Jackalope; it is adorned with a giant jackalope sculpture and was featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives!
- If you’re craving ramen, be sure to visit the delicious Asian Bistro Koriente. I absolutely love this restaurant - the vegetarian curry is incredible and the staff is super friendly.
- If you get a late night sugar craving, head to VooDoo Donuts for a huge variety of treats. The original location of the famous shop is in Portland, OR, but the donuts are still delicious at the Austin location. They serve everything from vegan donuts to unconventional flavors like Cap’n Crunch and churro.
Another downtown area where you can enjoy a night of bar hopping is Rainey Street. On Rainey Street, bars live in bungalow style homes. The street is really cute and the vibe is a little less dirty and more preppy than Sixth Street.
While on Rainey Street, check out:
- Little Brother is a tiny bar with a retro atmosphere and cocktails served in aluminum cans. You’ll find VHS tapes, a vintage feeling tv and intense red light in the restroom. I love this place to relax and look out at the bustling Rainey Street.
- Sit outside and enjoy a game of giant jenga at Bungalow. You’ll also find a taco truck and the ‘I hate you so much’ mural to take a photo with.
- Cozy up inside of one of many shipping containers at the Container Bar. This unique bar has a large open space that often has live music and shipping containers to explore.
Explore south of the river on day two, visiting South Congress Ave, 1st Street and South Lamar Street.
South Congress Ave
Stroll down the vibrant South Congress Ave (also known as SoCo) for great food, shopping, murals and more.
Eating in SoCo:
- Have an iced turbo from Jo’s Coffee! Jo’s serves up a variety of iced coffee and breakfast tacos. Their iced turbo is a deliciously sweet hazelnut blended coffee. On the side of Jo’s, you’ll find the famous ‘I love you so much’ mural that is a top photo destination in Austin!
- Walk by Austin Motel and read the unique saying on their vintage sign. The hotel has been open since 1938! Visit their restaurant Joann’s Fine Foods for cocktails or shareable bites.
- Lucky Robot is a bright and fun restaurant inspired by the lights of Tokyo. They serve sushi, dumplings and asian tacos.
- Guero’s Taco Bar is a popular mainstay on South Congress Ave. The restaurant is large with plenty of indoor and outdoor seating, and they serve great margaritas and have several vegan and vegetarian options. They also have a salsa bar and their salsa is incredible!
- June’s is an American restaurant and wine bar in SoCo with a modern and clean interior. They don’t have a lot of vegetarian options but their breakfast food, wine and cocktails are great.
- Cosmic Coffee and Beer is a bit further down on South Congress (a short drive but a long walk) but it is one of my favorite places in Austin! It’s all outdoors and serves a variety of drinks with food trucks around the perimeter. There is beautiful landscaping here too, with little ponds and lush greenery. Be sure to get a taco from the Pueblo Viejos food truck - they have some of the best migas tacos!
Shopping in SoCo:
- Browse Tesoros Trading Company for a wide selection of art, jewelry and gifts from around the world. I always find something unique and beautiful here, from unique figurines to throw pillows and blankets.
- Parts and Labour is a large store full of art and goods made by Texas-based artists. Some things I’ve loved here include embroidered magnets, unique greeting carts and beautiful prints. You’ll see screen prints, clothing, jewelry and lots more.
- Keep an eye out for a succulent cart on the street corner! The cart called Flowers on the Fly is owned by the Succulent Native plant shop and is super cute to see.
- Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds is an incredible costume shop! It’s really fun just to browse and see all of the incredible clothes here, and if you need a costume, they’ve got you covered.
Make your way over to South Lamar for some of my favorite restaurants in the city! I may be biased because I stayed in this area for a month - but South Lamar is a really great neighborhood with some incredible food.
More food than you can eat on South Lamar:
- Moonlight Bakery is a family owned bakery with a huge selection of sweets, breads, kolaches and more. I had the jalapeno cheese scone and an eclair and both were delicious.
- The eclectic Maria’s Taco Xpress has a giant statue of a woman with her hands in the air (now wearing a mask), unique decor throughout, delicious breakfast tacos and margaritas. They are expecting to close at the end of 2020 and open a food truck, so keep an eye out for their future plans. If the South Lamar location is still open when you visit, run don’t walk! It’s an incredible atmosphere with great people.
- East Side King offers Japanese Texas fusion and has an incredible veggie bento box, it's packed with flavor! Originally a food truck in East Austin, this is their brick-and-mortar location. They are also known for their fried chicken sandwiches.
- Matt’s El Rancho is a popular Tex-Mex spot that has been open since 1952. You’ll find all the Tex-Mex favorites here - tacos, enchiladas, margaritas and large portions. The food is really good but expect crowds!
- Loro is an Asian Smokehouse and bar that is an Austin staple. The restaurant was born out of a partnership with Aaron Franklin and Tyson Cole, two Austin restaurant icons, so of course the food is incredible. As a vegetarian, I love the Crispy Szechuan Tofu Bowl, the sesame rice noodles and crunchy corn fritters.
- Gourdough’s Public House is all about the donuts. They serve donut burgers, donut grilled cheese, donut croutons and a huge selection of sandwiches that incorporate the treat. The savory donut meals work surprisingly well and unsurprisingly the deserts are great too. I recommend the Freebird for a sweet and tart dessert with cream cheese and strawberries.
- Easy Tiger opened a new location on South Lamar in fall 2020 with a large outdoor space, views of Texas Hill Country and a great menu. They are known for their fresh baked bread. The soft pretzels are perfectly soft and delicious.
South 1st Street
If you find yourself on 1st Street, take a photo with the colorful and fun ‘Greetings from Austin’ mural by Todd Sanders.
Eating on S 1st Street:
- I first had Summer Moon Coffee in Frisco, TX, but the original location is here in Austin on S 1st Street. They are known for their signature cream called ‘Moon Milk’. It’s deliciously sweet and compliments their coffee perfectly.
- Elizabeth St Cafe is a Vietnamese cafe and French bakery that serves up Vietnamese coffee, a great brunch, noodles and banh mi in a beautiful space.
- Visit the Churro Co food truck for perfectly crispy churros topped with ice cream and a variety of other toppings.
- Another place to satisfy your sweet tooth is Sugar Mama’s Bakeshop - this charming bakery serves mini pies, cookies, cakes and cupcakes. They were even named a winner of Food Network’s Cupcake Wars!
Activities in South Austin
One of the most popular things to do in Austin in the summertime is to visit Barton Springs Pool! This is a municipal swimming pool created entirely by spring fed water. I recommend going on a hot day because the water is chilly year round.
Note that you have to pay for parking and admission (out of town visitors pay extra). If you want to save some money, you can actually still swim in Barton Creek outside of the public pool area for free! There just aren’t as many areas to lay out and water level may vary.
My favorite part about visiting Barton Springs was watching a man and his dog (outside of the actual Barton Springs Pool as pets aren’t allowed in the public swimming area). He threw the dog’s ball into a current of water over and over again and the dog would ride the wave of the water, fetch the ball and bring it back. I’m pretty sure the dog could do this for hours!
McKinney Falls State Park
McKinney Falls State Park is right outside of the city and is a great place to hike or swim. I wrote a separate blog post about it that you can read here!
Cathedral of Junk
The Cathedral of Junk is essentially an art gallery in a man’s backyard in South Austin. The artist Vince Hannemann began building the phenomenon in 1988 and visitors have been admiring it in awe for many years. Be sure to call ahead and make an appointment for viewing the masterpiece. The cathedral is three levels and includes three staircases to climb up.
The level of detail put into the Cathedral of Junk is incredible. It doesn't feel like it was just thrown together - everything is artistically laid out by category or color. You could probably spend days in here and still not notice everything.
If you like antiques, visit Uncommon Objects for an incredible selection of well curated items. This store is so beautiful and gave me a lot of inspiration. You’ll find artwork, furniture, gadgets, taxidermy and more.
Explore the northern part of Austin!
The North Loop
Visit the North Loop for a great selection of vintage shopping! I love this neighborhood because it feels a lot less touristy than South Congress and down to earth.
For shopping, check out:
- Room Service Vintage has a fun selection of vintage decor, furniture and more to shop. If you’re looking for vintage furniture, this is the place to go. If not, it is still really fun to browse.
- Blue Velvet is a vintage clothing shop with a great variety of options at decent prices.
- Revival Vintage offers mostly furniture with a little bit of clothing and decor mixed in. You can find some gems here!
- Breakaway Records has an amazing collection of vinyl! There is also a good range of prices and the staff is super friendly.
- Flourish is super cute and full of beautiful greenery. If you’re shopping for plants, check it out.
- Monkeywrench Books is a volunteer-run bookshop and cafe that has a great mission. There is a wide selection of books and zines with a focus on activism and a friendly store cat!
For coffee and treats:
- Epoch Coffee serves delicious coffee and has an outdoor patio space to relax in.
- Sweet Ritual Ice Cream is an all vegan ice cream shop that serves shakes, ice cream, ice cream sandwiches and ice cream cakes. The ice cream is delicious and they rotate flavors on a seasonal basis.
Activities North of Austin
For a beautiful view of Lady Bird Lake, hike to the highest point in Austin! Mount Bonnel is located in Covert Park and has 102-stairs to climb with the view. At the top, you’ll have a great view of Hill Country. It’s especially nice at sunrise and sunset.
Wonderspaces is full of immersive and interactive artwork. Walk through a sea of hanging lights, experience virtual reality and more in this creative space. Social distancing was easy in this warehouse sized space. Advanced reservations, temperature checks and masks are all required. I loved exploring this space!
Oasis on Lake Travis
The Oasis on Lake Travis is a huge multi-level restaurant that overlooks Lake Travis. They serve Tex-Mex food and alcohol with plenty of outdoor seating to spread out. If you get the chance, the sunset over Lake Travis is stunning and a must-see.This place is really popular so be prepared to wait if you come during sunset.
Take a day trip to enjoy some of the beauty of Texas Hill Country!
Day Trips from Austin
If it’s your first time visiting this area and you have enough time, I highly recommend getting outside of the city a little bit to see the incredible beauty of Texas Hill Country! Here are the day trips I recommend most within an hour drive from Austin.
This isn’t enough for a full day trip but consider combining it with one of beautiful parks. Jester King is a brewery, restaurant, inn and farm located 20 minutes outside of Austin! I absolutely love this place - they have delicious pizza (try the odisha with spinach curry, potato and paneer!) and a huge selection of sour beers.
You’ll even find a herd of goats wandering the property! To visit, make sure to make a reservation ahead of time. You can pick your reserved seating area for more or less walking from the bar - I recommend the beer garden! But no matter where you sit, it’s outdoors and spaced out.
Hamilton Pool Preserve
Hamilton Pool Preserve is 40 minutes outside of Austin and features a cave and waterfall with a swimming hole underneath. The scenery is stunning. This was the first true piece of Texas Hill Country nature I visited so it’s really special to me. It feels like a beautiful hidden oasis.
Reservations must be made in advance and they fill up quickly so book early! Normally swimming is allowed, but it is closed in 2022 due to falling rocks. However, you can still walk around the pool and cave to take in the views.
West Cave is another hidden oasis, also 40 minutes away in Hill Country. The guided walk leads you to a canyon covered in lush plant life and a 40-foot waterfall emptying into the pool below. It is expensive, but this is how they make sure the area is protected. It is worth it to see the incredibly lush paradise here.
Pedernales State Park
Pedernales Falls State Park is located one hour outside of Austin, in the heart of Texas Hill Country. It’s known for 300 million year old limestone ledges containing pockets of water and mini waterfalls.
The park has a variety of hiking trails and spots to swim or tube. Surrounded by smaller towns, the park feels secluded and is an amazing place to relax and explore. Read more in my Pedernales Falls guide!
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