Everything’s bigger in Texas, but what if you only have a short amount of time to visit? How can you cram all that southern fun into just a few days? There are thousands of restaurants and bars, kitschy stores, etc. how can you pick the right place to maximize your time? Luckily for me, I had a few local experts (read: friends and family) to lead me to some top notch spots in Austin and San Antonio. I’m sure there are plenty of other fabulous places I didn’t have the opportunity to try out, but here is my list of great experiences do in Austin and San Antonio.
Waking up late, day drinking, eating copious amounts of eggs and bacon – what’s not to love about brunch? How about adding a gospel group or a brass band? Austin goes all out for this tasty hybrid. I recommend Banger’s on Rainey Street’s Big Band Brunch. Not only do they have homemade sausage and 104 craft beers on tap they also have “manmosas” which are mimosas served in those giant beer steins you usually associate with Oktoberfest. That’s an entire bottle of champagne in there, friend. Plus Rainey Street is a cool part of town in general. According to Wikipedia, there are 31 structures all built before 1934 and the area is on the national historic register. While being on the register meant that they couldn’t tear the houses down, that didn’t mean that people took care of them. But after a commercial rezoning restaurants and bars moved in, fixed up the houses and open their businesses. Now it’s super trendy and almost every house has found new life bringing food and booze to hipsters and tourists alike.
After your buzz wears off, get a little history in and visit the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library on the University of Texas’ campus. $8 for adults and $3 for students (I always have my student ID on me, even though I graduated in 2009) and 3 floors of ephemera accounting for LBJ’s life and career in public service. He was a politician for 30 years, so there’s a lot to cover. There was a lot going on during his presidency starting in 1963, so the museum also focuses on what was happening during that time. The tenth floor has the actual furniture from his Oval Office setup which is really cool. Take your time with this one, we didn’t give ourselves enough time and after about an hour and half were literally being kicked out because they were closing. Not to say that the staff there (security here are actual police officers) weren’t friendly, they just wanted us to leave.
Another option to get your culture in is the Bullock Museum of Texas History and a tour of the Capitol Building. They are within a few blocks of each other so you can get some fresh air and walk between them. The Bullock is $13 but I found it to be a very nice museum. The exhibits are interesting and pretty interactive. It’s interesting enough for kids, if you happened to have any with you. They also have an IMAX theater which is always fun. It’s an extra cost but I highly recommend watching them if you’ve never seen one before. Plus they show feature films in the IMAX theater, which I think is the best idea ever. I wonder how I can convince the LA Science Center to do that… The Capitol Building looks like a pink version of the US Capitol Building but this one is a few feet higher. (Are you surprised?) They offer free tours given by docents or you can follow a self guided tour. They offer several times throughout the day, with a few different variations. When I visited they had a “Women of the West” and “Heroes of the Texas Revolution” tours.
In the evening, the South Congress Bridge over Lady Bird Lake (looks like a river but dammed at each end so it’s a lake, I guess) becomes a destination to see the millions of tiny bats that live under the bridge come out and eat. There will be few hundred people lining the bridge, but the best way to see them is from below. If you can grab a spot on the south bank just below the bridge (where Barton Springs Road meets S. Congress) there’s a grassy area with a parking lot and you can get a pretty good view for free. Another way is actually from the water – you can rent a kayak or paddle board, or take a boat tour. The tour is a nice relaxing way to get a little more information about Austin, and see the skyline from a different perspective before heading to the bridge just after it gets dark. The boats shine a red light on the bridge which is supposed to simulate the sun setting for the bats. The white light of day time hurts their little bat eyes so they stay under the bridge until nightfall. It can be a little difficult to see them because they are smaller than the palm of your hand and it’s dark outside, but when they start flying out in big groups it’s pretty cool.
My favorite part about the tour we took was seeing the graffiti on the train bridge that crosses the Lake. On the side facing away from the city there are three large pieces of graffiti that you can see. Apparently the city took down the walk ways along the side of the bridge thinking that it would help cut down on graffiti. But instead, someone still got to it anyway and after the city (probably publicly the story wasn’t super clear as to how) made some comment wondering how it was done, the same artist responded with a huge display that reads, “I’ve got Ninja Style and Kung Fu Grip.” There was also a beautiful proposal tagged to a lucky lady name Erin. (not me although I would’ve totally said yes to that) There’s also, strangely, a statue of Stevie Ray Vaughn on the south side of the lake, on the shore of Butler Park. There’s a bike trail surrounding the lake where you can get a selfie with Stevie and catch a glimpse of the graffiti if boat tours aren’t your thing.
Between Austin and San Antonio is a tiny little town called Gruene. Technically a part of the larger city New Braunfels, Gruene is on the National Historic Register and has most of it’s original buildings still in perfect condition. When I mentioned to my coworker that I was going to Austin, the first thing out of her mouth was, “You should go to Gruene!” So I googled it and immediately put it at the top of my to do list. When I start researching things to do in the city I’m visiting I always try to find a museum or some old building I can tour. So an entire town on the historic register is definitely my kind of tourist attraction. Gruene (which is the German word for Green but pronounced like the English word) was the land Ernst Gruene, a German farmer, bought because all the land in New Braunfels was taken. After being successful for many years the town was basically abandoned after the Depression, but was resurrected in the 1970s becoming a national landmark and reopening the buildings to new stores and restaurants. I definitely recommend stopping here on your way between Austin and San Antonio. If you have more time, they have live music almost every night, and some pretty big names play the Gruene Hall. Check out their website for more information.
If you’ve ever seen Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, (or you know, taken a history class) then you’ve heard of The Alamo. This was the one thing I wanted to see in San Antonio. If you can, give yourself more time than you think to visit the museum. Most people know the mantra, “Remember the Alamo!” and that Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie were there at some point. But the story of the Texas Revolution is both complex and interesting so unless you’re super familiar with it, there’s a lot to learn from the exhibits. They give tours too, but they stop giving them after 4. Good news is that I can guarantee you that you can see both the church (the part of the Alamo you always see in pictures) and the exhibit in an hour. Bad news is if you stay until closing they will follow you out of the building so you leave. But the docent I spoke with inside the church was extremely informative when I asked him just one question and he took that opportunity to give me a five minute lecture. I appreciate docents who know their stuff and enjoy telling others.
Another great historical stop in San Antonio came at the suggestion of the docent I just mentioned. If you didn’t know, The Alamo was the first mission built by the Spanish in Texas. (I didn’t know this until I visited – yay for learning!) But there were four more missions built and all of them are still standing and available to visit! We chose the Mission San Jose which was just lovely. Almost all of the original site is still intact, thanks to a restoration project by the WPA in the 1930s.
So now that you have gotten through this list of great things to see and do between Austin and San Antonio, I know what you’re thinking. Where is all that food you promised me at the beginning? Don’t worry. I’ve got the goods. I never turn down a good meal, and I was indulging, probably too much, on this quick trip. But hey, when in Rome right? Ok, here goes:
Rudy’s Country Store and BBQ – Austin, New Braunfels, San Antonio
We ate here twice in two days – it’s that good. Apparently every Rudy’s is a little bit different but they all offer the same basic things. Brisket, smoked turkey, pulled pork and ribs and a ton of hot and cold sides. I will now have cravings for brisket, coleslaw and creamed corn that will be hard to satiate. They are also the first place I’ve seen in about 15 years that sells Big Red soda.
Shady Grove and Coat and Thai – Austin
There’s a section of Barton Springs Road that has a cluster of restaurants and bars. They are all really popular and I think it’s both because they have great atmosphere and also because the food is great. Shady Grove has a very nice outdoor seating area that is lit up with Christmas lights and a projector playing old black and white movies, very trailer park chic. I had the Hippie Chick Sandwich which is a vegetarian sandwich with chicken on it. I saw vegetarian dishes called “hippie” in several places which is basically like adding avocado to a burger and calling it “Californian”. It’s amusing. Anyhoo, check this place out.
One of my favorite things about Austin is their collective affinity for food trucks. In California, popular food trucks move around and make their customers work to get a meal. All around downtown Austin there are plots of land with small collectives of food trucks that live there permanently. On Barton Springs Road there such a spot known as The Picnic. There are 5 or so trucks, including the truck voted best by the city several times, surrounding a bunch of picnic tables. Austin is BYOB so you and your friends can make a night of eating at food trucks and drinking (responsibly) in public. We got into the city late and Coat and Thai (obviously food truck selling thai food) was the only one still open. Their pad thai was delicious though.
Maiko – Austin
Before leaving for the airport, I met up with my cousin for sushi at Maiko in downtown Austin. I have high standards for sushi, because I know what good fish tastes like. If you aren’t from California and think your local sushi is good, just ignore me and keep reading. I’m a bit of a snob but if I’m going to spend a lot of money on raw fish I want it to be good. Anyway, Maiko was a great suggestion and I recommend it not only because the taste was up to par, but because they have happy hour almost all day and it includes a ton of stuff, not just your everyday california and hawaii rolls. They also have tapas and a full bar so you can get a little day buzz going with your mercury.
Ocho – San Antonio
After getting kicked out of the Alamo, we met a friend for dinner. She is a new SATX transplant, is super trendy and works in social media, so when we asked her to pick a place she recommended Ocho. Attached to the Havana Hotel all the way at the very end of the Riverwalk, Ocho is a long room lined with floor to ceiling windows, blue velvet booths and huge chandeliers making it a gorgeous place in which to eat delicious food. I was pleasantly surprised with how good the burger I had was. Everyone else was satisfied with their meals and we had a wonderful time chatting and catching up. They also have a happy hour Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 4 – 6pm.
I had a great time in Texas. I got to see family that I haven’t seen in years and meet some new cousins we recently located via the internet. I ate A LOT of food, and added another state to my list. I’d like to go back someday, there is still a ton to explore both in Austin/San Antonio, as well as the rest of the state. Have you ever visited Texas? What would you recommend? Let me know in the comments!