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Undiscovered Texas: Exploring Austin Beyond Barbecue

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things to do in austin
Undiscovered Texas: Exploring Austin Beyond Barbecue. Photo taken by Jessie on a Journey at the HOPE Outdoor Gallery

My trip exploring things to do in Austin was sponsored by the Holiday Inn brand. As always, all opinions are my own.

When planning out things to do in Austin, Texas you’ll undoubtedly be told by everyone you meet that you musttttttt try the barbecue, recommending Franklin’s, The Salt Lick and other notable establishments. While I’m not saying you shouldn’t savor barbecue — I was a big fan of Lambert’s brisket and quick seating — that’s not what this guide is about.

Austin is the barbecue and live music capital of the world. When visiting I wanted to touch on those aspects, but also immerse myself in the city beyond what many already know about it. So I wandered without a plan, allowing Foursquare, local advice and simply getting lost to guide me.

In the end I made a slew of delicious, boozy and fun discoveries.

On your next trip to Austin, make sure to go beyond the guidebook with the following Texas travel recommendations!

things to do in austin
Downtown Austin

Getting There / Airport Transport

I had been exploring San Antonio beyond the guidebook before heading to Austin. To get there I rented a car from Avis. The total cost for a 2-day rental with full coverage was $259.

Another option for getting from San Antonio to Austin is the Megabus, my favorite way to get around the USA on a budget. Costs vary depending how far in advance you book, but the fare is generally about $5 each way.

If you’re an adventurous traveler you can bike from San Antonio to Austin, which takes about 7.5 to 9.5 hours depending on your fitness level. Google Maps is a great app for helping you plan a smart biking route. Just choose the little biking dude symbol over the car, bus or walking dude symbol.

Once my trip was complete I spent the morning in downtown Austin and caught the #100 bus, which runs about every 30 minutes to the airport for $1.75. The entire ride from downtown to the airport took about 25 minutes.

Other options include Uber, Lyft, and SuperShuttle.

things to do in austin
Chillen at the Holiday Inn Austin Midtown Hotel


My trip to Austin was sponsored by the Holiday Inn brand, who invited me to stay at their Holiday Inn Austin Midtown property. The property features amenities such as an outdoor pool, an onsite restaurant, a cafe and bar, a free business center, comfortable common areas, free Wi-Fi, free parking and a 24/7 gym (where I was able to get my Bosu on!). Staff were also super hospitable, making some fun recommendations for what to do — they suggested I explore South Congress, which I talk about below — and gave me great instructions on the local transportation system and a $20 promo code off Fasten, the local ridesharing service.

things to do in austin
Exploring the Holiday Inn Austin Midtown : BOSU at the gym; a guestroom; relaxing in the bathtub; breakfast in the onsite restaurant

Speaking of public transportation, it’s worth noting if you’re staying at this property it is highly recommended to have a car, as it’s about six miles from downtown. Once downtown you’ll pay about $3-$10 per day in the big lots or you can find metered and free street parking. Austin doesn’t have Uber or Lyft, though Fasten and yellow cabs are car service options. There’s also a bus that comes about every 30 minutes that stops in front of the hotel (it ends around 11:45pm at night) and a train that comes about every 15 minutes that stops about 1 mile from the hotel and runs until about 6pm.

Starting rates: $86.70 per night.

Eat / Drink

things to do in austin
My Centro-Americano at Houndstooth

Have A Quirky Coffee At Houndstooth

As a digital nomad I’m an avid coffee shop explorer, bypassing Starbucks for more local finds. While there’s no shortage of great caffeine stops in Austin, one I really loved was Houndstooth Coffee in Downtown. The shop is simple and spacious with lots of natural light, located in one of Austin’s most architecturally stunning buildings, the Frost Bank Tower. When myself and a local friend wandered in for a caffeine boost the guys working the coffee nerd appliance-adorned counter immediately started cracking jokes, and we chatted with them our entire stay.

What truly drew me to Houndstooth, though, was the menu of quirky options I saw on Foursquare, like a Japanese Iced Coffee infused with green tea, and a horchata-like “Centro-Americano” made with espresso, rice milk, cinnamon and honey, red plum preserves and a burnt lemon garnish.

Note: While awesome, you may pay the price for the specialty drinks. My friend’s Americano and my Centro-American came to about $10.

things to do in austin
Hopdoddy also serves decadent virgin and adult milkshakes. Yum!

Eat Your Way Down South Congress On An Austin Eats Food Tour

I had such a delicious (and filling!) morning on the South Congress Food Tour with Austin Eats Food Tours — one of the best things to do in Austin, for sure. Andy, my guide, explained that South Congress was once the only way to get to San Antonio, but went into disrepair with the advent of highways. As we wandered the restaurant, antique shop and independent store-filled avenue, live country filling the air, it was clear along the way things had taken a turn for the better.

According to Andy he’s gained “40 pounds since starting his business,” with 10 pounds of it from one his favorite stops on the tour, Hopdoddy Burger Bar. Now, I’m not going to give away all the tour’s seven+ tastings secrets, but this stop was particularly delicious. First of all, the craft beers are huge 20-ounce goblets, and their juicy burgers source meat from humanely raised cows and come on homemade buns with homemade sauces like hickory barbecue and spicy honey mustard. Booze is all $9 or less — including fun and refreshing cocktails and boozy milkshakes — they have a patio, and proceeds from certain burgers go to charity. Delicious and ethical!

things to do in austin
Yumminess at Home Slice

Visit NYC In Austin At Home Slice

Another stop I learned about from Austin Eats Food Tours’ South Congress walk was Home Slice Pizza, a New York-style pizza joint with indoor and outdoor seating, local beers and international wines with menu recommendations for each pie. They’re dedicated to their craft, even going to New York City regularly for some “hands-on” education (hey, eating pizza is hard work, but someone’s gotta do it!).

I got to try three delicious brick oven-baked slices made with their three-day aged dough, which helps to bring out the full flavor of the yeast. These included:

  • Margherita made with diced Roma tomatoes instead of sauce as well as sharp provolone, fresh mozzarella, extra virgin olive oil, garlic, basil and Kosher salt
  • Sausage Ricotta laced with red peppers roasted in-house
  • A classic pepperoni and mushroom

I recommend trying them all!

things to do in austin
Snack Bar showcasing some of their tasty summer menu items

Travel The World — Including Pompeii — At Snack Bar

My last giveaway for the South Congress Tour with Austin Eats Food Tours is Snack Bar, a hip space with a retro diner feel — I loved the vintage lamps, old fashioned signage and sitting barside on plush round stools to chat with staff. The spot offers culinary as well as historical knowledge in each bite. For example, co-owner Bethany explained that in Pompeii they called snack bars “thermopolium” and one popular snack was ricotta with honey, which is why her and her husband Karl have a “Pompeii Ricotta” on the menu, though their version features lavender honey, fresh basil and mint on a baguette.

Our group savored a mimosa and a “Tamago Yoko,” Snack Bar’s take on Japanese Okonomiyaki, which transported me to my time eating my way through Osaka. Their take on the savory pancake staple features cabbage, leek, bacon, shrimp, fried egg, wasabi aioli, bonito, nori and sriracha, an un-Japanese element that gives it an extra kick.

Sit inside or out on their gorgeous patio.

things to do in austin
Goodall’s Kitchen eats. Photo via Jake Holt.

Creative Eats In A Historic Setting At Goodall’s Kitchen

As soon as I stepped into the beautiful Classical Revival structure — a former Mansion at Judges’ Hill in West Campus — I knew the evening would be amazing.

Also known as the Goodall Wooten House, the building holding Goodall’s Kitchen dates back to 1898 and is listed on the USA’s National Register of Historic Places.

Nineteenth-century touches like giant pillars leading to a wraparound wooden porch full of seating, a winding wooden staircase and big open rooms with lots of natural sunlight create a lovely history-meets-present ambiance.

I dined with a local food enthusiast, who declared his steak and bone marrow were the best he’d ever had in the city.

The brick chicken with blistered shishito peppers was heavenly, though what impressed me most was a unique carrot salad. Halved carrots are poached in olive oil and orange juice then seasoned with salt and pepper before being charred on one side for a crunchy texture.

Mixed with huge avocado chunks, crumbled feta, pickled red onion, cilantro leaves, chopped parsley, lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil and a garnish of toasted pumpkin seeds, it’s deliciously simple yet complex at the same time. Yum!

You’ll also find delicious dishes for eating vegan in Austin, Texas.

things to do in austin
A world of whimsy at Big Top

Feel Like A Kid Again At Big Top

Big Top is a bygone candy shop and soda fountain that makes you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. Nostalgia bursts from walls dangling vintage instruments and old photos and shelves showcasing scooping jars of Sno-Caps, licorice laces, sour gum balls and shelves of colorful belly jeans. As I’m from New York I had to get an egg cream — a classic Brooklyn-invented staple sans eggs or cream, featuring milk, seltzer water and chocolate syrup — from their old fashioned soda fountain. While I waited for my fizzy sweet treat I drooled over cases of truffles, bacon chocolates and bourbon caramel pecan bars.

things to do in austin
Scenes from my multi-course meal at Llama’s Peruvian Creole

Transport Yourself To Peru At Llama’s

Because Austin is so well known for its barbecue and tacos I wanted to try some of the ethnic cuisine. When I reached out to Llama’s Peruvian Creole — a parked food trailer with tables out front — co-founder Miguel Barrutia set up a multi-course menu tasting for me.

“Creole” actually stems from the word “Criolla,” which refers to the melting pot of cultures that influence Peruvian food. This is clear on the menu, from the Chinese-inspired stir fry to the addition of sweet Asian hoisin sauce to their pork belly sandwich to an Italian pesto pasta done Peruvian style with marinated tenderloin beef and grilled potato.

What’s clear is Llama’s doesn’t cut corners. Instead of dipping fries (salchipapas) in ketchup and mustard food is complemented with homemade Peruvian sauces, and they use real choclo Peruvian corn in dishes like grilled beef heart marinated in peppers and spices (anticuchos) and pork belly-laced Peruvian-style fried rice (arroz chaufa).

Enjoy your meal with an Inca Kola bottled in Peru or a sweet Chicha Morada made from purple corn. Save room for the locally-made ice cream featuring the Peruvian Lucuma fruit, something you won’t find anywhere else.

things to do in austin
Whimsical sweetness at Dolce Neve

Get In Touch With Your Sweet Side At Dolce Neve

Amy’s and Licks are where everyone seems to go in Austin, so I wanted to try something different. Enter Dolce Neve, a newer player in the cold treats department. Some flavor highlights when I was there included Cassatta, Buttermilk Strawberry, Whiskey Pecan, Cream & Nectarine, and a Neve Egg Custard with big sweet chunks of lemon zest. Have it in a cookie sandwich or even on a chocolate dipped stick. For a feel good twist, it’s nice knowing that $5 two-flavor cup features ingredients sourced from local farms like County Line Dairy and Good Flow Honey.

When you’re done, head to Art & People next door to peruse unique artisan creations like sunglasses made from recycled skateboard wood, bike spoke jewelry and hand painted cards.

things to do in austin
Having a speakeasy experience at Firehouse Lounge

Have A Speakeasy Experience At The Firehouse Lounge

You’ll enter this red-lit speakeasy-themed lounge through a bookshelf. It’s more laid back than posh (for instance, they don’t have table service and you’re allowed to stand). That being said you’ll still see plush leather seats, candlelit wooden tables, and sexy bartenders in vests and pageboy caps in a cool historic space that was once a nineteenth-century fire station. Their classic cocktails feature locally sourced spirits and ingredients, and on certain nights you’ll see live music.

things to do in austin
Double trouble at Easy Tiger

Pair Brews, Pretzels & Ping Pong On The Patio At Easy Tiger Biergarten

It’s at Easy Tiger that my active day of sightseeing got away from me, as my friend Nick of Nick’s Travel Bug and I met for “a drink.” It’s never just a drink though, especially at a breezy place like Easy Tiger, which has creekside outdoor picnic and ping pong tables, domestic brews, homemade sausages and fresh baked goods — including German pretzels with creamy beer cheese — made in their onsite bakery. It’s a great place to sit outside sipping the day away, especially during happy hour from 4:30 to 6:30 pm on weekdays when there’s $3 beers, bites and cocktails.

things to do in austin
Cheers-ing at Peche with Go See Write and Nick’s Travel Bug

Channel Beauty and the Beast At Peche

“Be our guest, be our guest, put our service to the testttt,” I sang in my head as I stepped into Peche, with its gorgeous mahogany bar backed by bookcase-like shelves of bottles and Beauty and the Beast-reminiscent ladders. I lead a cocktail tour in NYC, so I appreciate bars that have the proper drip equipment to make bohemian-style absinthe, where a sugar cube is lit aflame and carmelized on a spoon over the absinthe, ice water dripping over the granules to melt into and soften the liquid.

Nick and our friend Michael went here during happy hour (all night Sunday and Monday; 4-7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday), when classic cocktails like Sazeracs and French 75’s are only $5.

things to do in austin
Having a night out on Rainey Street

Patio Hop On Rainey Street

My local friends explained to me that the famous 6th Street — locally known as Dirty Sixth — is for tourists and students. For a fun night out, most of them preferred Rainey Street; and after a few nights patio hopping here it was easy to see why. The street is lively, with old houses converted into bars and clubs, most with decks for dancing and hanging out, giving you the feeling you’re partying in a local home.

things to do in austin
My delicious sake-paired meal at Ramen Tatsu-Ya

Turn Japanese At Ramen Tatsu-Ya

I walked all the way from downtown to Zilker to savor this ramen, highly recommended by my local friends. Growing up instant ramen was a daily staple, and when I became an adult and realized the oh so many possibilities one could do with this instant noodle comfort dish it truly became a beloved meal (bonus that it’s usually uber filling and cheap).

Ramen Tatsu-Ya puts a funky spin on traditional Japanese — not surprisingly, as the venue was opened by two former DJs — with urban decor and seven base ramens which you can add toppings and “bombs” (unique sauce and spice combos) to. As a hot head I loved the “Mi-So-Hot” with a pork bone and miso broth blend, goma pork, scallion, ajitama, Napa cabbage, bean sprout and corn. I paired this with a refreshing “Bae-Zilla” blending sparkling Thai basil lemonade and lemon seed, made boozy with sake.

things to do in austin
Photo via Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas

Mix Movies With Made-From-Scratch Cuisine At Alamo Drafthouse Cinema

I’ll admit I didn’t get to go to Alamo Drafthouse Cinema myself, though it was on my to do list (along with Esters Follies, a comedy venue). Sadly, there’s only so much a solo female traveler in Texas can feasibly do with limited time. Regardless, I wanted to recommend it as from the way my local Austin friends described it, it sounds like two venues I love in Brooklyn, Nitehawk and Syndicated.

The concept is movies, but with food and booze served during the picture. Write your order on a paper and a waiter will quietly take it and deliver for the full experience. I checked out the menu, and it looks like everything is made from scratch, from vegetarian pizzas to gooey chocolate chip cookies. Plus, there are over 30 beers on tap!

things to do in austin
My Freebird donut at Gordough’s

Gorge On Donuts For Dinner & Dessert At Gordough’s

Gourdough’s is heaven for donut lovers (and dirty humor enthusiasts). I’ve literally never seen so many sweet and savory donut-laced options on a menu. After being greeted by a “Size does matter” sign” alluding to the humongous size of their donuts (it’s very true!), the menu presented a slew of decadent and racy options, like “Blue Balls” with blueberry filling and icing and “Salty Balls” with cream cheese icing, salted butter caramel sauce and dry roasted peanuts. I went for the “Freebird,” with cheesecake filling, cream cheese icing, graham cracker crumbles and strawberries and blackberries, as the fresh fruit sounded like a nice addition to enjoy on their patio among the potted plants and an airstream trailer where the food is made.

Donuts range from $5 to $6.75, and you can add a scoop of vanilla to any donut for $2, a refreshing recommendation in the Austin heat! If you’re not craving sweets they have a full savory menu with options like donut sandwiches, salads served with hot garlic donuts, meaty entrees served atop hot donuts and a tasty sounding “Big Cheez” featuring fresh mozzarella wrapped in donut dough and deep fried.

Bonus: Gordough’s is also a public house with booze, live music and a fun Photobooth!

things to do in austin
Loving the space at Swift’s Attic

Savor An Elevated Experience — Literally — At Swift’s Attic

Enter at street level and walk up the stairs into a truly inspiring space with beaded curtains, exposed beams dangling modern art light focuses, lots of skylights and windows, birdcage-encased chandeliers and a mix of bare brick and sky blue walls. Furthermore, this spot is super reasonably priced for the quality and creativity of the cocktails and food, from salads topped with ricotta that’s cured with lemon to house-cured meats to brioche brunch delights topped with salted caramel-laced bananas.

Order a Negroni on tap or a craft cocktail from the leather-bound menu, and watch your bartender go to work amongst jugs of housemade infusions. If you’re on a budget head there at happy hour (Monday through Friday, 2-6:30pm) for discounted bites and drinks, including a $4 cocktail of the day and $4 corn fritters laced with rum raisin butter.

Whenever you go, save room for the Popcorn & a Movie, a crazy dessert popcorn concoction with butter popcorn gelato, homemade chocolate & peanut butter candy bar, caramel corn and root beer gel. The food is so good I literally (read: literally!) scraped my plate clean with my fork.

things to do in austin
Cheers-ing to bluegrass at Radio Coffee & Beer

Get Your Bluegrass On A Radio Coffee & Beer

This South Austin spot is where I ended my booze and bites-filled trip. It was a Monday night and live bluegrass filled the front yard. Locals danced and laid out blankets, drinking beers and eating brownies from the bar’s onsite bakery. Radio Coffee & Beer has a very festival-like atmosphere, especially with the Vera Cruz Mexican food truck shelling out homemade salsas and chips, meaty tortas and yummy tacos. The strings of lights illuminating the scene overhead provide a nice ambiance.

Burn Off Those Calories

things to do in austin
Exploring the trail around Lady Bird Lake

Hike Or Bike The Lady Bird Lake Trail

As a city girl, one stereotype I hate is that urban dwellers aren’t into nature. Soooo not true. And the Lady Bird Lake’s Eastside Loop is proof of this. Now I’m not saying you need to do the entire 10-mile waterside trail to prove your love of Mother Nature — though it’s definitely doable if you use the local BCycle. You’ll find stations on both sides of Congress Avenue Bridge, popular entrances to the path. This is definitely a nice way to wake up.

things to do in austin
My shadow and I at the top of Mount Bonnell

Take In The View At Mount Bonnell

“Climb the 100+ steps up this beloved landmark,” stated the Austin Insider Guide the Holiday Inn brand had provided me. For some reason, 100 sounded really high. In reality it took me about two minutes to climb, and the view of the Hill Country and Lake Austin is beautiful. You can grab lunch to go at the nearby Hula Hut — touted as a favorite for tacos by many locals, though their own patio is pretty stellar, too.

If you like hiking I veered off the stone steps into one of the dirt paths jutting off, though full disclosure it was to pee since I didn’t see any bathrooms here. You’ll definitely be enveloped in lush greenery. If you type Mount Bonnell into Google or Apple Maps it comes up as a location (Mount Bonnell Covert Park), so it’s easy to locate when driving.

things to do in austin
The I Love You So Much mural in Austin’s South Congress neighborhood

Snap A Photo With Austin’s Iconic I Love You So Much Mural

While NYC and Philly have the LOVE sculpture, Austin has the “I Love You So Much” mural. In Austin, “I Love You So Much” isn’t just something locals say to their significant others; it’s actually somewhat of a tagline for the city. This mural resides in the South Congress neighborhood on the wall of Jo’s Hot Coffee, and is a popular spot to snap a photo. According to my guide of Austin Eats Food Tours, local musician Amy Cook sprayed the saying on the wall to one of the Jo’s owners, a beautiful declaration for all to enjoy.

Other iconic murals I explored include the Hi How Are You Mural on the side of Thai, How Are You? and the Greetings From Austin popular postcard mural at S. 1st and Annie. Here’s a look at some other iconic street art works in Austin.

things to do in austin
HOPE Outdoor Gallery

Get In Touch With Your Inner Graffiti Artist At The HOPE Outdoor Gallery

The HOPE Outdoor Gallery was hands down my favorite for things to do in Austin. It’s an outdoor multi-level paint park you can climb, managed by the non-profit HOPE Events. The park is meant to inspire, and allows experienced and novice artists alike a place to express themselves. You can actually climb to the top to dangle off (be careful!) or paint some works yourself with the many spray cans lying around. Moreover, you’ll enjoy beautiful views of the city. I visited the Austin attraction every day of my trip!

things to do in austin
Exploring Zilker Metropolitan Park

Have An Urban Hiking Adventure In Zilker Metropolitan Park

This over 350-acre park is an outdoor enthusiast’s heaven. Pretty much the entire time I was exploring I forgot I was in a city. Along with having access to the Lady Bird Lake Hike & Bike Trail mentioned above — which I thoroughly enjoyed — you can walk over beautiful bridges above Barton Creek, view themed gardens at Zilker Botanical Garden, see the Umlauf Sculpture Garden, play volleyball and frisbee, picnic and attend fun festivals.

Note: It’s $5 to park for the day.

Foursquare suggested I also check out “Rock Island,” which was a cluster of rocks overlooking downtown Austin that honestly wasn’t that exciting. Instead, a local recommended paddling out to Red Bud Isle, where you can hike and fish. I personally didn’t have time to do this, but you may want to.

While it was closed due to flooding while I was there, the park is connected to Barton Springs. My local friends touted this as pure paradise, a 3-acre natural spring that reaches 18 feet in depth and stays at around 68-70 degrees and is ideal for swimming and sunbathing — not to mention trying to catch a glimpse of the endangered Barton Springs Salamander.

things to do in austin
Photographing the Blue Hour at Congress Avenue Bridge

Take Photos From Congress Avenue Bridge At Sunset

Austin is home to the world’s largest urban bat colony, and at sunset about 1.5 million of them fly out from under Congress Avenue Bridge. I attempted twice to see them. The first time they didn’t come out. The second the bats were so small and fast I could barely see them. It was very underwhelming — as my local friends said it would be — though I’m still happy I gave it a go; plus, I got to photograph Austin’s beautiful skyline during Blue Hour, one of the best times of day to capture scenes on camera. Well worth the trip!

Note: If you want to explore Texas beyond Austin, Plano is an amazing place for solo travelers.

What are your favorite things to do in Austin that take you beyond barbecue?

This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of Holiday Inn. The opinions and text are all mine.

About Jessie Festa

Jessie Festa is a New York-based travel content creator who is passionate about empowering her audience to experience new places and live a life of adventure. She is the founder of the solo female travel blog, Jessie on a Journey, and is editor-in-chief of Epicure & Culture, an online conscious tourism magazine. Along with writing, Jessie is a professional photographer and is the owner of NYC Photo Journeys, which offers New York photo tours, photo shoots, and wedding photography. Her work has appeared in publications like USA Today, CNN, Business Insider, Thrillist, and WestJet Magazine.

Jessie Festa standing in front of grafitti wall

Hi, I’m Jessie on a journey!

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1 Comment

  1. Brian on at 11:30 am

    Looks like Austin is an amazing city with so much to do! You could spend weeks there and still not do it all. Thanks for sharing!

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