10 places we loved in Austin

Okay, so there are a lot of cool bars and entertainment venues in Austin, but I’m writing here about places that were not part of a SXSW showcase.  I’ve already expounded on the merits (or detractors) of the many venues we visited, and although we were nearly laser-focused on the next band we wanted to see, we did manage to have some fun outside the festival.  Here are a few of our favorite Austin finds that we would definitely revisit if given the chance.

Craft Pride (61 Rainey Street) – You get a lot of free drinks at SXSW, but every once in awhile you really want some quality beer in a chill environment.  And Craft Pride provides that in spades.  At the south end of the stretch of bars and pop-up restaurants on Rainey Street sits Craft Pride, which sports 54 taps and two casks of Texas brews.  They have something for everyone in a serene setting, and with friendly staff.  An oasis for beer lovers and those seeking respite from the madding crowd.

Casino El Camino (517 East 6th Street)  – Oh. My. God.  The burgers here!  It’s hard to get more divey than this dive bar, and when you enter you feel somewhat relieved that it’s so dark, because you may not really want to know how clean the place is.  But this dark neighborhood bar does offer up the best burger I’ve eaten in years, a mind-boggling selection of deep cuts on the jukebox, and a super cool crowd.  So cool I felt like I would be too much of a nerd to take a photo of my insanely good burger.  I did manage a photo of the Mesoamerican themed courtyard in the back of the building where we inhaled the delicious food though.

Courtyard at Casino El Camino

Courtyard at Casino El Camino, replete with dragon staircase and murals of pyramids.

Hatbox (115 East 6th Street) – Austin has more than its share of hipsters, so it is no surprise that the population supports a wonderful little haberdashery right on 6th Street.  Hatbox has a wide selection of hats for men and women, at an equally wide range of prices.  If you have ever wanted a hat but didn’t really know your size or the style that would look good on you, go see the super-capable staff at Hatbox.

Wild About Music (115 East 6th Street) – Next door to Hatbox (although weirdly at the same address) sits the aptly named Wild About Music.  From cheesy trinkets to gallery quality music-inspired art and photography, Wild About Music has nearly anything you could possibly want related to music.  It’s fun to wander through the store and marvel at the array.  Definitely a good place to pick up unique gifts for the music lovers back home.  Be sure to see the gallery area in the lowest level and appreciate some of the one of a kind art.

Waterloo Records (600A North Lamar Blvd.) – I have to admit, when I walked in and saw most of the store devoted to CDs, I was a little bummed.  But once I started methodically scouring the used vinyl stacks, I was really quite overjoyed with some of the gems I picked up for a very reasonable price.   It is a deceivingly wonderful store.  Check out Waterloo if you are in town, and especially if they are hosting an artist signing or impromptu concert (which appears to be quite often, if you look at the event page of their website).

Waterloo Records is a treat for vinyl enthusiasts.

Waterloo Records is a treat for vinyl enthusiasts.

Counter Cafe (626 North Lamar Blvd.) –  This small diner enjoys a returning clientele devoted to their fabulous eggs benedict creations and award-winning hamburgers.  Just steps from Waterloo Records, it serves up much-needed sustenance after hours of browsing through the stacks.

Counter Cafe, a modern twist on a traditional diner.

Counter Cafe, a modern twist on a traditional diner.

Town Lake Trails (south side of downtown) – Austin is bisected by the Colorado River, which has been dammed downstream to create the long, serene Town Lake.  (By the way, this is a different Colorado River than the one that runs through the Grand Canyon, in case that last sentence confused you.  I know I was a bit befuddled until I looked at a map when I got home.)  Austin has created an amazing network of paths, bike trails and pedestrian-only bridges, to encourage residents to access this gem of a park.  Strolling around the south bank, you come across the Stevie Ray Vaughn statue and Auditorium Shores, where you can also find pedal-boat rentals and river cruise tours.  The water is nearly glassy, making it a draw for crew teams, swimmers and lots and lots of dogs.

Looking at downtown across Town Lake, from a shady spot in Auditorium Shores.

Looking at downtown across Town Lake, from a shady spot in Auditorium Shores.

Mai Thai (207 San Jacinto Blvd.) – One of the many things we learned during SXSW, is to go west from the convention center to find food.  Sure, there are good pop-ups and food trucks if you go east or south, but the throngs of people really get to you and everything is so dirty.  For the same price you can sit down in a clean, air conditioned restaurant (that was never more than half-full), and get a huge plate of delicious curry or noodles.  We loved it so much, we went back a second time.  Free wi-fi, clean bathrooms, and delicious food.  Why was this place not packed?

Downtown Art Installations (all around downtown)  – It’s hard to see all the little details that make Austin so great when you are surrounded by wall-to-wall people.  So we were happily surprised to discover public art in various nooks and crannies of downtown when we wandered around after the festival ended.  If you only come to Austin during SXSW, you are likely missing out on all the little things that make the city so vibrant.

One of many guitar art installations downtown.

One of many guitar art installations downtown.

Rainey Street – Rainey Street is a neighbourhood in flux.  Just southeast of the convention center, this street just a few blocks long is transitioning from a neighborhood of small bungalow dwellings to intimate bars, restaurants and entertainment venues.  It is odd and wonderful, with the homey feeling of a low density residential neighborhood.  While many of the little buildings have been converted (like Lucille or Craft Pride), others have been moved and replaced with bold architectural statements.  The newest venue, Container Bar, was literally being finished as we arrived in Austin, and is comprised of various shipping containers arranged around a courtyard. This little area has all the funkiness you associate with Austin, without the crush of people.

Congress Avenue Bridge Bat Colony – The best free show in town is not in a bar.  Although it was a bit early in the season, we did get a chance to see the Mexican free-tailed bats fly out from the underside of the Congress Avenue Bridge one night.  Onlookers tend to start gathering a little before sunset, and for a period of about 15 minutes all you see are throngs of bats flying out from under the bridge and heading east down the Colorado River.  The peak of the season is in August, when up to 1.5 million bats take flight each evening.  A truly spectacular experience.

Bats heading east from Congress Avenue Bridge at sunset.

Bats heading east from Congress Avenue Bridge at sunset.

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