Journey by Design: Austin, Texas
With a robust arts, design, food, and live music scene, and relatively affordable to boot, this city sits pretty at the top of many people’s list of great places to live and visit. We’re talking about Austin—the Texan capital whose unofficial slogan, "Keep Austin Weird," along with its official slogan, "The Live Music Capital of the World," help paint the picture of a city that has a thriving, engaged community, tons of green spaces and swimming spots, an ever-evolving food and music scene, and a unique and local design vibe.
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Originally settled in the mid-1800s, the city grew throughout the mid-19th century when it became an important center for government and education as Texas’s state capital. These events led to the construction of the Texas State Capitol and the University of Texas at Austin, and have helped the city emerge from the economic struggles of the Great Depression towards steady development into the 1990s as a technology and business center.
Since then, Austin has only continued to grow, and its architecture showcases the changes that the city has undergone since its establishment, from grand Greek Revival mansions of the 19th century and early 20th-century cottages and bungalows that populate its residential neighborhoods, to turn-of-the-century office and university towers, and sleek and modern buildings downtown.
Through all of this, Austin has had to navigate its change and growth while keeping what people loved about "old" Austin alive and well—and you’ll find that the city is still brimming with authentic music joints, mouth-watering tacos and plentiful food trucks, shops selling just about every kind of vintage clothing or houseware item you can think of, and a vibrant arts and design district. Read on as we present a few of our favorite local businesses, eateries, accommodations, and more for an authentic Austin experience.
What to See & Do
Take In Austin’s Iconic Murals
Austin’s street art is just about as famous as its live music scene, and the city is peppered with murals—sometimes in unexpected places. From declarations of love on the wall of a local coffee shop to homages to the late songstress Selena, these murals are a great way to get a taste of the diversity and local flavor that is Austin. And better yet, they’re free and publicly accessible.
Wander Through the Design District
Sited along the West 6th corridor between Lamar Boulevard and extending across MoPac onto Lake Austin Boulevard, Austin’s Design District is jam-packed with talented designers and business owners who have set up shop in the area. You’ll find everything from antiques shops to vintage clothing stores, and housewares boutiques to furniture studios with in-house designers.
Visit the Blanton Museum of Art
The Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art, located at the University of Texas at Austin, is one of the largest university art museums in the United States. Its nearly 200,000 square feet of space are devoted to temporary exhibitions and their permanent collections that range from ancient Greek pottery to abstract expressionism. Recently, the museum opened a chapel-like structure by late contemporary artist Ellsworth Kelly.
Catch a Live Show
As the "Live Music Capital of the World," you can’t leave Austin without hearing some great live music. One of the most famous spots is the Continental Club, known as the "granddaddy" of live music venues and open since 1955. Since then, it’s become a home for everything from swing to blues, rockabilly to country, every night of the week. You can’t miss the entrance—marked by a classic neon sign and a bunch of vintage cars out front—and you won’t forget the music you hear, either.
Stop by Women & Their Work Art Gallery
Austin abounds with art galleries, and one of our favorites is Women & Their Work, a contemporary art gallery founded in 1978. The gallery showcases work created by women living in and working in Texas and beyond, and has been a leading force in the city's art scene for decades. Their exhibitions, performances, and educational workshops have helped develop the careers of more than 1900 artists. Pop in for a bit and see what's on at the moment!
What to Eat & Drink
If you hear a heated argument about food in Austin, it will likely be about tacos or barbecue—two dishes that the city has a passion for. Among the many restaurants that border the Colorado River lies ATX Cocina, a popular (and particularly well designed) modern Mexican eatery under executive chef Kevin Taylor. The interiors, designed by architect Michael Hsu, feature a beautifully arched, vaulted ceiling of hemlock and pine hovering over a dining space filled with natural light from the glazed facade. Other elements include dark, wire-backed chairs and woven stools; a black-and-white tiled accent wall; expressive marble countertops; and custom-made concrete pendants.
Recently reopened after renovations, Le Politique gives a subtle nod to Austin as the state capital, as well as its upbeat, French-inspired design, in its name. With blue and pink brasserie tables and a marbled raw bar, the interiors are textured, but kept clean and simple. Its modern interior design is by New Waterloo and architect Melanie Raines, while identity and graphic design are by FÖDA Studio. The menu was also recently revamped, and features a range of traditional French staples like steak frites and moules; they also have a patisserie that sells baked goods and lunch boxes.
Shop the Look
Food truck parks are one of the best ways to explore Austin’s food scene without going broke, and there’s plenty to choose from (fun fact: Austin is second in the United States for number of food trucks per capita). Whether you’re looking to partake in Austin’s tacos and barbecue or veer into the breakfast territory (another area of cuisine that Austinites take very seriously), you’ll be able to find just what you’re looking for at one of the city’s many food truck parks, where multiple trucks gather together in a specific location. Feast away with this list of favorites compiled by Thrillist—many are in old school Airstreams or other vintage, design-oriented trucks.
If you’re in need for a great, ethically sourced cup of coffee in a carefully designed space, look no further than Greater Goods Roasting. With two cafe locations in Austin, husband-and-wife team Khanh Trang and Trey Cobb have woven charitable efforts into their business model, and selected Austin architect Michael Hsu to design their flagship space that operates as both a cafe and roastery. The light-filled, airy space is a perfect spot to find a nook and sit down and relax with friends or a good book.
Where to Stay
Family-run since 1938, Austin Motel underwent a renovation by Austin hotelier Liz Lambert and her hospitality company, Bunkhouse, that gave the funky motel a fresh appeal. The updated hotel’s 41 rooms, new bar, kidney-shaped pool, and front desk-cum-general store balance midcentury-inspired, modern, and fun. Each room is distinct and features bold and bright colors with a retro sensibility.
South of Lady Bird Lake, a slew of design-oriented hotels have opened, among them the prestigious South Congress Hotel, designed by prolific Austin architect Michael Hsu along with Dick Clark + Associates and Studio MAI. The hotel is more of a complex than mere lodgings—its 83 rooms are accompanied by a bakery and coffee shop, a cafe, bar and grill, a Japanese restaurant, a sustainable nail salon, and a vintage motorcycle shop. This quirky blend of quality and fun is uniquely Austin, and guests can expect to find hardwood floors, custom-designed furniture, bespoke Matteo bedding, C.O. Bigelow bath and body products, and a lobby proudly showcasing Austin–based artists.
Looking to stay in a spacious home during your stay in Austin? Look no further than this getaway, an expansive, five-bedroom home that regularly hosts reunions, anniversaries, birthdays, and other group events. The home is located just five miles away from busy downtown Austin, and was designed in 2008 by architect Scott Specht with the homeowner’s aunt, Barbara D’Arcy, completing the interior design. The home features a striking color scheme inside a modern exterior that weaves around more than 50 historic trees and a saltwater, infinity-edge pool on the property.
If you visit Austin but ultimately decide that you’d like to spend your nights away from the big city, Elsewhere Retreat's cabins are a great option. Located 30 miles north of Austin, the company has started building small cabins that are "close enough for spontaneity, far enough to disconnect completely." The cabins feature modern designs that are full of thoughtful but space-saving details, plywood-clad walls, and simple materials.