I Went to Austin and Didn't Love It
Updated: Oct 9, 2020
Hang on, don’t break out the pitchforks just yet. Hear me out.
Austin has been on my US "city list" for a while. Everyone raves about it. The food. The music. It’s vibrant and kooky and just the best. When I finally bit the bullet and bought my ticket - and damn, flights to Austin are not cheap - everyone I told was rapturously excited for me. There was a solid plan in place too: a couple days in the city, plenty of time at parks like Zilker, then on to a day of hiking places like Hamilton Pools or Pedernales State park, with an afternoon exploring the San Antonio river walk and mission trail.
Just plug "Austin Texas Attractions" into a search engine, Google in this case, and poke around looking for scenes that strike your fancy.
So, problem one: the weather went to absolute shit. At first it looked to be cool and partly cloudy, and I can totally roll with that. I like to walk everywhere whenever possible, and Weather can make for some great sunrises/sunsets. As my departure grew closer, the forecast grew grimmer. By the time I was packing for the trip, it had shaped up to be cold and oppressively gray the whole four days. Like, really cold and really gray. Probably rainy.
Too late to turn back, I forged on. Not like I could change my basic economy ticket or cancel my AirBnB anyway, so I decided I would have to bundle up and make the best of it. Plus my cute clear-rainbow-dot umbrella would make a smashing accessory. I decided to wing it, hoping for at least one nice enough day to explore the excellent hiking promised nearby. Upon arrival at said AirBnB, the building immediately next door was on fire and it was hard not to see that as some kind of unfortunate omen. Yes, I jest - now anyway.
You can see the green edge of my building right next to the unfortunate piñata store: Austin kept it weird right out the gate.
Problem two: Hype. As often happens with destinations that positively explode in popularity, expectations (and prices) jump sky high. Hotels in Austin are insanely expensive - I’m talking NYC prices in the city center. Thankfully I snagged a basic but nice AirBnB in the East Austin area that only set me back a little over $100 a night. It was private but sans kitchen which meant eating out for every meal which I don't usually do. I fully realize this is a distinct first world problem, but I wouldn't class Austin as a budget destination especially for those traveling solo. And this was in late February, hardly peak season. Value is subjective of course, and not every destination even attempts that promise (Paris or Miami anyone?) but this was one that appeared at first glance to offer decent value. Yet, it fell flat on account of flight (from ATL) and lodging expenses which are typically the biggest chunk of any travel budget.
As the weather deteriorated (though thankfully it didn’t rain much, small favors!), I scrapped my hiking and San Antonio plans. I can totally handle cold and sunny or overcast and cool but it was a deep, damp, aching-bone cold and I didn’t have the hiking gear suitable for getting potentially caught out in a rainstorm. I also decided the San Antonio river walk wouldn’t really be worth the trek (and rental car expense) in such yucky conditions either. Obviously the weather is not Austin’s fault, it just meant spending my full four days in Austin rather than breaking it up a bit. Outdoor activities are part of Austin's pull, so not being able to enjoy them were a big disappointment for me.
Austin is a fairly small city, which is nice for walking around (public transport was pretty good too and Lyft was easy to catch) but there’s not really enough on offer to make four days sans-outdoor activities fully entertaining. There is excellent food, but with perhaps the exception of BBQ (which was truly legit) not enough to make Austin stand out even from other up-and-coming cities, not to mention long-established paragons of cuisine. I had some terrific ramen, devoured the famed La Barbecue (it was half a block from my AirBnB), and gorged on Indian. So self-professed foodies will be happy indeed! I just wouldn't pick Austin exclusively based on the food, as there are numerous small-mid sized U.S. cities with just as good or better chow scenes.
Find a list of where I ate at the bottom of this post.
The Blanton Museum of Art was a standout, and a great way to spend a couple hours, especially in light of lousy weather. If you're a die hard museum nerd like me, definitely make room for this on your itinerary. I also visited the interactive light installation at Hopscotch, and experienced a rare moment of lonesomeness in solo travel. It was interesting for sure, and made for some great abstract long exposure photography that I’m so fond of. Unfortunately in this case, it was definitely an activity best suited to enjoy with someone else rather than solo. Several exhibits needed two people to engage with, and somehow a lit-up ball pit just feels awkward on your own while everyone else is frolicking with a cohort. Yes, I know, cue the violins. Hopscotch has adjusted for Covid-19 safety measures, which you can find detailed on their website as you evaluate your entertainment options.
I also walked the Ann and Roy Butler Hike & Bike Trail, which was lovely in spite of the ick. I’m sure it's exceedingly delightful in nicer weather, as it runs along the south side of the river for a good distance. It boasts winding elevated boardwalks that peep out along the river with views of the skyline, and still had a fair number of joggers and bikers out.
South Congress delivered on quirk and murals, embracing the Keep Austin Weird ethos with gusto. The Austin Central Library is a great spot for architecture fans and to catch some peace and quiet.
It can’t be said Austin itself is no fun. But I found it to be a city best enjoyed with a companion (platonic or not) and in good weather. Four days is far too long for what’s available within the city limits. So no, I can’t say I’d rush back. But if you go, aim for late spring/early summer or the start of fall. If you snag some flight/hotel deals, grab your friends and hit up the Barton Springs pool, party on 6th street, and hit up the hiking spots less than an hour’s drive from the city I dare say you’ll have a blast.
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Launderette - had an amazing brunch here
G'Raj Mahal - truly enjoyed my Indian feast on their eclectic patio
Ramen Tatsu-Ya - multiple locations and some of the best ramen I've ever had
La Barbecue - I almost died their BBQ beef ribs were so good; definitely worth the wait!
Bufalina - multiple locations for well executed wood fired pizza
Gourdough's Big Fat Donuts - exactly as promised: big messy decadent donuts
Ann and Roy Butler Trail on Ladybird Lake
The historic Driskill Hotel in downtown Austin offers afternoon tea, gorgeous rooms worth splurging, and and old school style laden bar perfect to kick off the night with a drink or two