by Alexandra Richmond - 69 Reviews - 27 List
Though Austin has gone through many changes in recent years, there are constant natural and cultural elements that give it its charm. Most of these would be live music, and nature in the form of bountiful, naturally cool swimming holes. Becoming an Austinite takes a couple of years of residency and drinking of and swimming in the water, but using this short list as a guide will expose even the most far-flung traveler to the heart of Austin. (Photo: Shutterstock/Brandon Seidel)
Updated: August 31, 2009
This is one of Austin's most romantic spots. It is oft repeated that couples who make the trek up once will surely kiss; a second climb will result in their engagement. So don't make this climb with anyone undeserving of a total commitment. Or just purely enjoy one of the most gorgeous, tranquil sunset views in the county and be in the present moment.
One of the area's loveliest swimming holes, neatly tucked away in Zilker Park (an 358-acre experience in itself). Lush, green and around 68 degrees year-round. Adults pay just $3 to swim in the tranquil pool, which was completed in 1932--but never on Thursdays, when it is closed for cleaning. There are also yoga classes held on the lawn scheduled on certain days throughout the year.
While Austin is rife with swimming holes and chilly creeks, this is the only legally nude beach in the great state of Texas. Lose the laundry and relax; everyone is naked under their clothes. Please do not forget sun block, don't use cameras other than for self-portraits, nor is staring polite. Try to ignore the boats bobbing in Lake Travis; they probably don't have binoculars or the nerve to really rubberneck at the people beach. Or do they?
Scoff not at the inclusion of a movie theater. This is an Austin treasure, recognized among film geeks and rabid fans on a national level, and seeing a movie here is indeed an experience. From surprise screenings of blockbusters including Star Trek, which premiered here unannounced, to Q&As with renowned actors and directors, to sing-a-longs and quote-a-longs to film classics old and new, this is a cinephile's paradise.
House acts like Jesse Dayton and Dale Watson, the chicken fried steak and endless niches of archival photos and memorabilia are all reasons to visit this this veritable trophy case of a restaurant and venue. From the rusty, vintage tour bus out front to the vast, historic dance hall, every item has meaning, the attributes and praises of which are regularly sung onstage by owner James White when the bands take a break. The free dance lessons on Thursdays are an economic, entry-level way to get in on the scene --or take a dance lesson any Tuesday through Saturday night from 8pm to 9pm.
On Sundays, this lovely, rustic honky-tonk is the home of chicken sh*t bingo, also considered church for the Austinites who worship at the altar of live music, camaraderie, and beer. For the uninitiated, this is how it works: One buys a number or two (this ain't roulette; don't try to cover the board), then watches as a chicken is placed in a little cage near the front door. When the chicken, um, naturally marks the spot, whoever is holding the ticket with that number wins all the money. Sometimes perennial house act and local legend Dale Watson will offer the winner the money in his pocket over the money from the tickets. This is a crapshoot. Feel lucky on a Sunday? Go out and play. Spillover from the small bar usually results in a friendly tailgating party.
This was the longest continuously owned beer hall (a shack, really) in Austin until new owners took over in 2006. Since then, it's been a hipster bar with great live shows. This has been the spot to see fledgling national touring acts on the rise, longtime favorites up close, or to engage in super fun dance parties - the outdoor arena accommodates maybe 200 people and the room inside can fit less than 100. Think intimate, hot and sweaty good times. A freshly added vintage skeeball machine already has leagues in play, but at other times anyone can hop on. This is the sister bar to the Longbranch Inn, and is within hopping distance of many East Austin's fun dive bars.
Want a tour of Austin's music history, noteworthy shows and key power players? Spend some time here poring over the artifacts; a visual library of show posters, photos of gigs and portraits of artists whom have made a significant impact on music and culture both on a local level and far beyond. An outdoor mini-amphitheater is home to Roky Erikson's ice cream social during SXSW, and many live events throughout the year. Two stages inside allow diners to be serenaded while consuming classics like chicken friend steak, hefty po' boys and beer.
This would be the Don Juan, a secret mix of potatoes, egg, cheese and bacon, crammed into a flour tortilla, weighing almost two pounds on completion. This generous taco has been featured on many national food shows ranging from must-eat to competitive eating, and remains a local favorite. There is a wall of fame with photos of the rare few who have somehow eaten more than one of these mighty tacos--some have scarfed down five or more, which seems impossible. This challenge is open-ended; all are welcome to battle the logistics of stomach space vs will and consume as many Don Juans as possible without leaving the table. A good showing will garner a photo on the not-at-all crowded wall of fame.
Choosing one barbecue spot as Austin's best is best left to the individual, as there are many classic joints to claim as "best." There are as many factors that matter as there are dedicated smokers and pits. The loveliest and most Quixotic of them all is just outside Austin city limits in Buda: the Salt Lick. This family institution is tucked away in the airy woods, and features one of Texas' last indoor smoke pits, an amazing circular brick relic that produces sublime ribs, sausages, chicken, and brisket, all tender and juicy, with plenty of sauce (hot or sweet) on the side. A Polynesian influence is evident in the sides of tangy, vinegary cole slaw, and the smoky, rich potato salad, both mayo-less and flecked with toasted sesame seeds.