Having it All in Austin: An Active Getaway for Those Who Like to Indulge
Austin, Texas, probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind when planning an active, outdoorsy getaway. Sure, it’s the birthplace of Whole Foods, but it’s also the fourth largest city in the state and the self-proclaimed “Live Music Capital of the World” (next weekend marks the conclusion of the famed Austin City Limits Music Festival, featuring 8 stages, 130-plus bands, an Art Market and an ACL Eats Food Court, fyi). This is the time to visit, now that the summer heat and humidity have dissipated, and the weather is sunny and mild.
Austin is brimming with nationally-acclaimed barbecue joints, honkytonks, bars, restaurants, and America’s most vibrant food truck scene. There’s also excellent museums, historic sites, boutiques, and galleries, as well as funky neighborhoods ideal for on-foot exploration. Not exactly a recipe for resting, recharging and recreating, but to quote a food editor I know, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”
“Everything in moderation, including moderation.”
Austinites are, in fact, just as devoted to mindful living and wellness, as evidenced by the miles of hiking and biking trails, their passion for river recreation (a dammed-off portion of the Colorado forms Lady Bird Lake, a few blocks from downtown), and dozens- upon dozens of yoga studios.
Here are my suggestions for a deprivation-free weekend in Austin, no car required.
The swanky, sexy Hotel Van Zandt opened last November at the top of the Rainey Street Historic District (adjacent to Lady Bird Lake). The 319-room property has a modern, boutique vibe offset by whimsical, music-themed art (chandeliers made from trombones; a flock of birds cut from vinyl LP’s). If you can book a Lakeview room, they feature decadent soaking tubs overlooking the water. Melting into a bath at sunset (cocktail optional) is an experience I highly recommend. The Van Zandt’s signature restaurant Geraldine’s has become a destination in its own right, thanks to witty, well-executed regional-driven cuisine (pig-face candy bar with cheese crackers and Dijon, anyone?) and an equally Texas-centric bar program.
Rainey Street Historic District
Rainey Street is comprised of several blocks of renovated historic homes that have been turned into some of Austin’s buzziest restaurants and bars. The sound of live music floods the streets, and clusters of food trucks offer sustenance if you’re not up for a sit-down meal.
I like The Blackheart for its whiskey selection and laid-back ambiance and punk-rock vibe, and Craft Pride, which specializes in regional Texas Brews (I’m also insane for the Detroit-style pizza at the Via 313 food truck, parked on the patio).
Austin is perfectly situated for outdoor pursuits. Downtown is several minutes’ walk from the 10.2-mile Lady Bird Hike and Bike Trail (if you’re not a hardcore cyclist, hop on one of the hotel’s complimentary cruiser bikes, instead). This multi-use recreational path is beloved by Austinites; you’ll see people using it at all hours, and parts of it take you through tangles of greenery and wooded areas, making it hard to believe that the skyscrapers of downtown are just blocks away.
One street over from the Van Zandt is outfitter Congress Avenue Kayaks. Take a leisurely paddle up to Barton Springs, admiring the abundant bird life, or explore other loops on the Lady Bird Lake Paddling Trail.
If you’d prefer to be in the water rather than on it, Barton Springs Pool is a three-acre, natural-fed riverside swimming spot with a depth of 18 feet (note it closes for the season October 31st). The pool is part of Zilker Park, the 351-acre “crown jewel” of Austin.
In addition to hiking trails and canoeing, it’s home to the Botanical Gardens and site for festivals like ACL.
There are also (seasonal) swimming holes and waterfalls located within the Barton Creek Greenbelt, which features over 12 miles of hiking and biking trails, as well as limestone bluffs popular with climbers.
Once the sun sets, Austinites considers two-stepping a legit recreational activity. Check out the Continental Club, ACL Live at the Moody Theater, the Broken Spoke or The White Horse for great live music and dancing. Even if you’re traveling solo, be prepared to make friends and have a memorable time.
EAT & DRINK
Sure, you can eat clean in Austin- there’s no shortage of food trucks, juiceries and cafes specializing in local/organic/gluten-free/vegetarian/vegan fare. But you’re in Austin, so live a little. I’ve found the way to prevent a food coma or depleting my bank account is to graze throuought the day so that I can hit lots of places, and intersperse the decadent with something healthy. Case in point: the macrobiotic menu at Casa de Luz, a community center near Barton Springs, is popular for its daily-changing lunch and dinner menus- and its location makes it a great place to refuel post-activity.
While food trucks are a key part of the Austin experience, some restaurants are worth the splurge, among them Olamaie, for its contemporized takes on Southern classics, and Counter 3.Five.VII (try the $30, 3-course bar bites menu, and take advantage of the newly established cocktail program, which is just as thoughtful and intelligent as the food).
One of Austin’s most acclaimed restaurants is the blissfully unpretentious Emmer & Rye, on Rainey Street; chef/co-owner Kevin Fink is a 2016 Food & Wine Best New Chef. The eclectic menu celebrates ingredients sourced from regional farms and ranches, enhanced with house-milled heritage grains that are showcased in everything from exquisite pastas (the Blue Beard durum wheat spaghetti with Challerhocker cheese is as sexy and decadent a dish as one could wish for) to brunch pastries (Oklahoma winter wheat pecan sticky bun with figs and cream cheese frosting).
Fermented foods also pay a starring role, along with daily specials in the form of “dim sum” offered to diners from a cart.
Breakfast tacos are a way of life in Austin, and the best I’ve found are at Veracruz All Natural- a truck located on the East Side.
Also excellent and hangover-busting: Tamale House East, a brick-and-mortar Austin institution, and brunch at Launderette, a stylishly renovated former laundromat on the East Side’s residential Holly Neighborhood (the cocktail program is also aces, if you’re going the hair of the dog route).
A weekend in Austin may leave you a bit short on sleep, but it’s a city that nourishes the soul in more ways than one. That’s the kind of wellness weekend we can all use more of.
Laurel is a Basalt-based food and travel writer, cheese consultant and the editor of Edible Aspen magazine. When not sitting in front of her computer in her pj's, Laurel can be found enjoying the outdoors, or backpacking around the world eating street food and acquiring new and exciting tropical diseases.