I’ve loved Austin for its weirdness since 2nd grade; way before it was considered cool. I’m proud to call it my hometown and we are lucky to travel back to Austin each Christmas to enjoy some of the best it has to offer. Having the good fortune to grow up in Austin, when I was a kid I thought that an abundance of great food, live music and celebrating Eeyore’s Birthday with the same intensity as Longhorn football were totally normal things. So while this is by no means an exhaustive list, this is truly an Austinite’s “must do” list for Austin. I hope you can visit and experience my favorite part of Texas.
Austin’s Best Park + Zilker Zephyr
Zilker Park is a large park in the heart of the city that is a nice oasis and makes Austin still feel like a small-ish town. From pick-nick tables and frisbee golf courses to play-scapes and an ice-cold spring-fed pool, it is a wonderful destination for anyone & especially families. In December, there is the Trail of Lights that bring the magic of Christmas lights to a whole new level -best experienced via the annual Fun Run and including a huge tree of lights that I would spin underneath every year as a child and then beg for hot chocolate.
However, my absolute favorite part of the park is the little train – named the Zilker Zephyr that makes its way through the park and is always filled with smiling faces and little waving hands. It’s about a 20 minute train ride and is an affordable adventure, $3 for Adults, $2 for kids and free for littles under 1.
First of all, I will acknowledge that it has been renamed Lady Bird Lake but I am stubborn and I grew up calling it Town Lake and just can’t seem to call it anything else. Town Lake is truly one of Austin’s gems; and is a part of any visit back home. Over the Christmas holiday, we will either do a family walk or run or catch up with old friends over a few miles. It’s always busy and it’s one of the ways people in Austin can keep eating tacos…It has evolved over the years, much of the improvements due to the effort and commitment of the Trail Foundation that makes incredible investments and improvements to the trails. It’s a trail for everyone, from families on walks to speedy runners. It’s a part of Austin that is not to be missed!
Austin’s Best Breakfast Tacos
In Austin you can spend a lot of time testing out different breakfast taco places but I’ve done the hard work for you! My absolute hands-down favorite is Tacodeli – it has a fantastic variety, organic ingredients and a killer salsa bar – try the Dona! My recommendations are The Vacquero, The Jess Special, and the classic Migas tacos. Now there are people who are think that Torchy’s are better but I am not one of them – Torchy’s is very good; but Tacodeli is great and they serve them all-day-long on weekends.
Another Austin original is El Arroyo – typically known for its witty signs that change on a daily basis. But what I love is that on weekdays they have a Taco stand with reasonably priced tacos and salsa packed for you take. During graduate school I would pop down a grab 2 small tacos for just a few bucks and it was a guaranteed great way to start the day. I also have to share my love of some old school East Austin breakfast tacos- often at small convenience stores they are sold out of coolers (to keep the warm) and are just a small part of what makes Austin great.
To this old-time Austinite, Franklin’s still seems “new” to me but it quickly became a foodie destination for good reason. The food is amazing and Aaron Franklin has a wonderful sense of equality – the line. Everyone needs to wait in the line (except for President Obamas – & I’m OK with that!) and you can’t just tolerate it- you need to embrace and enjoy it; make a morning/day of it. My recommendation is to divide and conquer with a group of friends or family. You need someone in charge of each of these key areas: 1) Coffee ’cause you’ve got to get there early, 2) Breakfast tacos – buy a lot so you can give some to your “line friends”, 3) Chairs and sun protection, and 4) Beer Cooler so you can transition after coffee. Get yourself all set up and enjoy the morning and slowing down a bit (a nice BBQ metaphor), and laughs and stories are sure to be shared. The shop opens at 11 AM and is open until they run out; they try to manage the line as best they can so you wait is worth it. It’s all good so just get a solid mix of everything – the brisket is amazing but you just can’t go wrong
The Austin food scene is wonderfully diverse and one of the all-time-best restaurants is Tyson Cole’s famous Uchi. Uchi means “home” in Japanese and the restaurant is in a little old Austin bungalow – the food is contemporary Japanese – so you must be prepared and open for the non-traditional. As our wedding anniversary is January 1st, we try to take advantage of Grandparent babysitters during our Christmas visits to Austin and celebrate a bit early. For the last 2 years we’ve been celebrating at Uchi and we have plans to celebrate there again this December. Uchi is delightful and refined without being too fussy and you can never have a bad meal there. It’s not the cheapest meal in town but they have a daily social hour with stellar specials. Reservations are a good idea and for our anniversary meals we arrive a bit early, get a prosecco from the bar and just enjoy the whole experience. Our not-to-miss dishes are the Hama Chili & Machi Cure – they will not disappoint.
Amy’s Ice Cream
Amy’s Ice Cream has been around for at least 30 years and perfectly captures the spirit of Austin. It was doing the mix-in thing before it was a thing and has always had a fun vibe and of course amazing ice cream. When I was little, they sold t-shirts that said “Life is Uncertain, Eat Dessert First” – and while it doesn’t take a lot to make ice cream fun, what Amy’s does primarily through the people who work there and the designs of the space is make it a special and exciting experience that is uniquely Austin. Amy’s will always have a special place in my heart because in 6th grade we did a year-long Social Studies project to learn about how societies work and it was called “Utopia” and of course Utopia needed businesses. So somehow our little team of 6th graders decided to sell Amy’s by-the-scoop during lunch and Amy was cool with it; i think we bought the huge barrels of ice cream just above cost and then marked it up to help “win” our social experiment.
The Driskill Bar
While Austin has an amazing food and beverage scene, I will always go back to the Driskill bar as the ultimate bar for Austin. It’s historic, dark, has some animal skin furniture, live music and a killer drink menu. It’s on 6th street in case you want to start out cool and then go wild but what makes it great is that while it feels special it’s not fancy in a ‘you don’t belong here kind of way’ which is really at the heart of what makes Austin, Austin. During the holidays it is beautifully decorated and just a wonderful place to be. So do yourself a solid and go get a drink at one of the best bars in the country, you won’t regret it
Hope Outdoor Gallery
During graduate school, I lived within walking distance of this community paint park and often would visit for a does of creative inspiration or a respite from studying. It is described as a place “to provide muralists, street artists, arts education classes and community groups the opportunity to display large scale art pieces driven by inspirational, positive & educational messaging.” Sadly, it is set to move locations later this year, but if you can make it there before it moves or visit the new site, I highly encourage it. There aren’t many public art spaces like this one and the beauty and positivity it offers is an Austin original.
South Congress “SoCo”
South Congress is a street full of commercial + food & beverage awesomeness – and it’s best experienced by parking at either the bottom or top of the street and spend a few hours exploring shops and hidden gems. Some of our favorites are STAG Provisions for Men, Service Menswear, Uncommon Objects, and Kendra Scott. Of course, you should also go with an empty belly should your shopping necessitate a margarita at Guero’s Taco Bar to recharge or a full meal at HopDoddy Burger Bar or at Vespaio. This is also the street that has the Insta-worthy “I love you so much” mural just outside of Jo’s coffee shop. So it’s definitely a destination worthy of spending a few hours supporting local shops.
If you are old enough to have ever seen the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan classic “You’ve Got Mail” you will remember the perfect Children’s Book Store – The Shop Around the Corner; well Terra Toys is like the Toy-Store version that never got shut down. It has remained local and awesome for years. In a world where it takes but a click to make a purchase, Terra Toys is classic, fun, beautiful and full of people who are passionate about toys. It is a true treasure and such a fun place to shop as they keep the magic of play alive. Even before Charlie was born it was a favorite shopping destination but now with our own child and more friends with children, it’s become a critical destination for any visit back home. On our last trip, we picked up two Uncle Goose block sets, one set with the Periodic table for our niece, and a set with nursery rhymes for our son & we may need to purchase the Mandarin set on our next trip home. If you can make the time, visit this gem of a store; you’re certain to feel a little more childish when you leave!
Peter Pan Mini Golf
Peter Pan Mini Golf is another Austin institution (since 1948!!) and a family friendly experience – that is close to Zilker Park. They have two 18-hole courses and it is just great fun in a great location & with the big head of Peter Pan it’s easy to find! Just note that they are cash only so come prepared and enjoy a true Austin classic. Some of my favorite childhood memories are from birthday parties held here.
You Should Visit Austin
While the above isn’t exhaustive, I hope my love for my hometown is apparent and that at some point you’ll have the chance to visit and help do your little part to “Keep Austin Weird”