Austin: Exploring the City

butler trail austin

austin skyline at sunset

We loved Austin. Did I mention that when telling you about our eating and drinking exploits there? It may not seem like it from my other Austin posts, but we actually did a lot around the city that didn’t involve eating or drinking.

Running and Biking

dog and austin skyline

Lady Bird Lake, a dammed-up section of the Colorado River, snakes through the heart of Austin. Locals call it Town Lake, so of course that’s how we refer to it, because we are self-proclaimed honorary Austinites. Town Lake is looped by the Butler Trail, a scenic, flat, wide, popular, WONDERFUL soft-surface running/biking trail, used for exercise, sightseeing, and commuting. We assembled several runs from different segments of the overall loop (use the loop mileage chart on the Trail Foundation website to roughly calculate distances–Pecan Grove is just under a half mile from Pfluger Bridge), walked along the trail into downtown, and biked down the trail to East Austin for some barbecue. Being so close to Town Lake and the Butler Trail was my favorite thing about staying at Pecan Grove.

austin skyline and town lake

butler trail austin

Interesting Walking Neighborhoods

SoCo and SoFi

South Congress Ave (SoCo) and neighboring, slightly less densely commercialized South First Street (SoFi) are good stretches to wander, for people-watching and window-shopping, with lots of bars and restaurants for when you need a break. We found a couple pieces of the famous, quirky, often beautiful Austin street art while exploring SoCo and SoFi and snapped the obligatory pictures.

6th Street

The stretch of 6th Street from Congress Ave downtown east to Interstate 35 (known in Austin as IH-35–interregional highway), crammed with tacky, noisy, stale-beer smelling bars, mostly attracts college students and is known as Dirty Sixth. It’s not all fratty chaos–for a couple examples, one item on our to-do list that we didn’t get to was having a cocktail at the historic Driskill Hotel, and we popped in to see our true love Voodoo Doughnuts on the way home from an E 6th brewery–but we opted to walk through early in the evening to see what it’s all about without the crowded madness. It’s an important part of Austin’s culture, so I recommend at least visiting in the daytime.

East Sixth, after you pass IH-35, is a different animal. We visited a few times, during the day and at night, for a pleasant meander past interesting storefronts holding shops, restaurants, breweries, dive bars, and fancy cocktail bars. For details about where we ate and drank on East Sixth: I wrote about Zilker, Lazarus, and Hops and Grain breweries, Violet Crown Social Club, and Revelry in my Austin drinking post, and Via 313 pizza truck and tacos at Lazarus in my Austin eating post.

A Fasten driver told us the post-college crowd frequents bars on West Sixth (west of Congress), but we never made it over there.

East Cesar Chavez

dog at cat cafe

Just east of downtown, East Cesar Chavez is a stretch of commercial establishments similar to the other linear neighborhoods I’ve written about here, but perhaps a little grittier. There’s a cat cafe that Bugsy desperately wanted to patronize (“they serve cats???”), a barbecue joint on J’s list to try (they were sold out both times we went by), and a lovely cafe where we breakfasted on our last morning in town.

Rainey Street

Rainey Street Historic District, in the southeast corner of downtown, is a small, walkable cluster of old bungalows-turned-bars and restaurants, with some high-rises thrown in. Because so many of the establishments were houses, many have great patios and yards for fun outdoor dining and drinking options. We walked through during the day once to admire the architecture, and at night (after our excellent beer pairing dinner) to experience the happening live music scene.

Tarrytown

The quiet, shady streets of affluent Tarrytown, with its lovely houses, some of them riverfront, is a nice place for a stroll. We parked at the historic Tarrytown Pharmacy, zigzagged down to Scenic Drive, and cut through the trails at Reed Park on our return.

Culture: Historic, Educational, Artsy Austin

LBJ Presidential Library

lbj library archives

The LBJ Presidential Library is fascinating. It should be near the top of your to-do list when you visit Austin. We particularly enjoyed the temporary WWII exhibit, the permanent civil rights exhibit, replica of the LBJ Oval Office, Lady Bird’s actual office, and the overall immensity of the library and archives.

Texas State Capitol

texas capitol

We didn’t tour the Capitol, just walked around it while exploring downtown. It’s lovely and worth walking a few extra blocks from the main downtown commercial area.

University of Texas

dog at ut-austin fountain

The students were away, still on winter break, and we had a peaceful family stroll through the campus, admiring the Italian fountain, football stadium, academic buildings, and strip of student-serving restaurants and stores along Guadalupe Street known as The Drag. It’s no University of Virginia, but it’s nice. 🙂

Live Music and Dancing

Austin is known for its live music scene… but we AirstreamDoggers are known for going to bed early, so we didn’t really get to experience that part of Austin. We caught a bit of music at our favorite brewery in town, ABGB, and made it through two songs from a blues band on Rainey Street before having to call it a night after stuffing ourselves silly with Indian food and Texas beer. If you can stay up later than we can, live music options are everywhere in Austin.

I really wanted to go two-stepping in Austin, thinking I could convince non-dancing J to do it since it’s something we can’t do at home (we didn’t go). The White Horse honky tonk off East Sixth offers free two-step lessons on Friday and Saturday nights, and then you can stick around to show off your moves to the live music.

Art and Shopping

dr seuss gallery in austin

Art on 5th, a nondescript strip mall storefront, houses a wonderful permanent Dr Seuss collection. We also biked to a couple art galleries downtown, but the Dr Seuss exhibit was by far my favorite of the art we saw.

Austin has a busy farmer’s market schedule; we visited the Texas Farmers’ Market at Mueller on a sunny Sunday and came away with food truck lunch, raw dog food and spiced pecans.

I mentioned in my Austin Eating post that Austin is the home of Whole Foods. If you’re a WF aficionado like we are, you’ll enjoy a pilgrimage to the flagship store.

Culture: Weird Austin

Austinites are very proud of Austin’s weirdness. “Keep Austin Weird” is the city’s unofficial slogan, encouraging residents to patronize funky local businesses rather than bland corporations to maintain Austin’s peculiar charm. When I list these activities under Weird Austin, mostly I mean that they are unique and quirky… except the dog circus theater show, which was just plain weird.

austin graffiti park

The Graffiti Park at Castle Hill is an interesting spot to explore a mishmash of graffiti art–some professional grade, some not so much, some being created while you visit. You’re likely catch a photo shoot, as the outdoor gallery is a popular backdrop for shoots, and you’ll definitely see selfie-taking. The park’s high property value means it may not be around much longer, so go while you can, but parking is terrible so visit on a weekday.

dog and matthew mcconaghey

Speaking of public art, Austin is full of murals randomly splashed on the sides of buildings all over town. We made Bugsy pose in front of a couple we passed while exploring.

austin dog play

I picked up the weekly Austin Chronicle to see what was happening in town while we were visiting, and highlighted a few things that sounded interesting and unique, appropriately weird for Austin. One event which we loved was the Indian food and Texas beer pairing dinner that I wrote about in my Austin eating and drinking. The other event we picked from the Chronicle calendar was a play involving trick dog, circus stunts, and a kind of fairytale story. It was very strange, but definitely not something we’d ordinarily do, so I called it a success. The moral of the story is to try to find some activities that are unique to your temporary home when you’re traveling for an extra-memorable experience!

austin bouldering project

Austin Bouldering Project is a massive bouldering gym, regular gym, yoga studio, and cafe. We are not experienced climbers, and had a blast (and tough physical and mental workout) playing on the bouldering routes. Shoe rental is free on your first visit, and the entire floor of the bouldering area is covered in a thick mat, so you’re pretty safe, although it’s still scary when you get yourself stuck up high.

And finally, we didn’t get to see the famous Congress Avenue Bridge bats because they’re wintering in Mexico, but it’s on my list for next time. The largest urban bat colony in the world, 1.5 million strong, lives under the Congress Avenue Bridge, and on summer evenings they take to the skies around sunset.

In my Austin overview post, I said Butler Trail is my #2 favorite urban running loop and referenced my #1 favorite: years ago we lived in Charlestown, MA and ran most days (weather permitting) along the Charles River. It’s a glorious place to run.

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