I Went to Austin … and did not love it
Now hang on, don’t break out the pitchforks just yet! Hear me out. It’s hard for destinations that become insanely popular to match the hype long-term. Austin has been a U.S. travel darling for quite some time now. It’s a mecca for creatives, outdoorsy types, foodies, and anyone with a quirk. With mild weather, and a youthful global vibe mixed into its down-home Texas roots, it seems ideal in many ways. I did find myself wondering though: Is Austin worth the hype?
Austin has been on my US “city list” for a while. Everyone raves about it. The food. The music. It’s vibrant and kooky and theoretically right up my alley. All signs pointed to yes when debating if Austin is worth it vs just hype. When I finally bit the bullet and bought my ticket – and damn, flights to Austin are not cheap – everyone I told was rapturously excited for me.
I had a solid plan in place too! It would include a couple days in the city, plenty of time at parks like Zilker, as well as a day of hiking places like Hamilton Pools or Pedernales State park. There would even be time for an afternoon exploring the San Antonio river walk and mission trail.
An Inauspicious Start
For starters: the weather went to absolute shit. Typically, even in winter time, Austin is not that cold. At first it looked to be merely cool and partly cloudy. I can totally roll with that! I’m the one known for saying “it’s not far, we can walk!”, and Weather can make for some great sunrises/sunsets. As my departure grew closer, the forecast grew grimmer. By the time I was packing for the trip, it had shaped up to be cold and oppressively gray the whole four days. Like, really cold and really gray. Probably rainy. It was too late to turn back. Both my basic economy flight and AirBnB were nonrefundable.
Even though I was unsure if Austin is worth it, no way was I okay with losing almost $800! There’s no sense in bemoaning things that can’t be changed, so I doggedly forged ahead. I would just have to bundle up and make the best of it. Plus, my cute clear-rainbow-dot umbrella would make a smashing accessory. I decided to wing it, hoping for at least one nice enough day to explore the excellent hiking promised nearby. Upon arrival at said AirBnB, the building immediately next door was on fire and it was hard not to see that as some kind of unfortunate omen. Yes, I jest. Now, anyway.
In keeping with the city’s quirky reputation, the fire was at a piñata shop – and my Airbnb is just behind it.
Is Austin Worth the Money?
As often happens with destinations that positively explode in popularity, expectations (and prices) jump sky high. Hotels in Austin are insanely expensive – I’m talking NYC prices in the city center. Thankfully I snagged a basic but nice AirBnB in the East Austin area that only set me back a little over $100 a night. Compared to most options, that was a bargain. But not having a kitchen meant my food budget would jump noticeably.
I fully realize this is a distinct first world problem, and these are absolutely not complaints. However, I can’t class Austin as an easy budget destination, especially for those traveling solo. And this was in late February, hardly peak season. Value is subjective of course, and not every destination even attempts that promise (Paris or Miami anyone?) but this was one that appeared at first glance to offer decent value. Yet, it fell flat on account of flight (from ATL) and lodging expenses which are typically the biggest chunk of any travel budget.
If you’re traveling with at least one other person AND snag a lucky cheap flight (or drive) you could consider this a reasonably priced destination. Snag a hostel bed starting around $40 (or share a room with friends for just over $100), and you just might enter true budget territory. So, to be fair, Austin can be worth the money. I just can’t say it was worth the money I had to spend to travel solo in off season. Sorry!!
Time to Recalibrate
Despite the icy temps and gray skies, at least it didn’t rain much – small favors! I decided to scrap my hiking and San Antonio plans. I can totally handle cold weather, but this was a deep, damp, aching-bone cold. Since I was flying carry-on, I didn’t have room for the right hiking gear. Getting caught out in an icy rainstorm does not sound like a good time to me. I also decided the San Antonio river walk wouldn’t really be worth the trek (and rental car expense) in such yucky conditions either.
The Ann & Roy Butler Trail runs along the river and was still enjoyable – in nice weather it would be amazing!
Obviously the weather is not Austin’s fault, it just meant spending my full four days in Austin rather than breaking it up a bit. Outdoor activities are part of Austin’s pull, so not being able to fully take advantage of them was kind of a bummer. Apparently winters can be icy in Austin. This was painfully demonstrated with the disastrous 2021 Texas deep freeze. That of course is not the norm, but my advice would be if you go in winter, book a shorter trip. This way if the weather turns, you aren’t stuck in a situation like mine.
Is Austin Worth More than 2 Days?
Austin is a fairly small city, but that’s an overall positive. It’s easy to walk around, but the public transportation served me well (and easily) when I needed a break. Lyft was reasonably priced and easy to grab. It’s also a city famous for its live music scene, from country to punk. The city is also known as the Live Music Capital of the World. A serious live-music junkie could easily make use of 3 full nights in Austin.
From holes in the wall to concert halls, there’s likely a venue for you, featuring a genre you love. I stopped off at the Driskill Bar (which is also a gorgeous hotel), where I started a low-key evening. It was fun to sip bourbon, seated at a disused piano and listening to an energetic country-folk duet. The interior of the bar is is cozily done in mahogany, leather, and an animal head or three.
However, if you don’t plan to gorge on live music, 3 nights and two full days is plenty to get an introductory fill of Austin. It would also make sense to splurge on a centrally located hotel and get the most out of a whirlwind trip.
Is Austin Worth it for Foodies?
Without a doubt, there is definitely excellent food. It’s fair to say this was actually the highlight of my trip. However, with perhaps the exception of BBQ (which was truly legit), it’s not enough on its own to send me running there JUST for the food. The bar has definitely been raised in recent years.
I did tuck into some terrific ramen, devoured the justifiably famous La Barbecue (it was half a block from my AirBnB), and gorged on Indian. So self-professed foodies will be happy indeed! I just wouldn’t pick Austin exclusively based on the food, as there are numerous small-mid sized U.S. cities with just as good or better chow scenes – like Chattanooga, TN or Birmingham, AL.
I have included a list of all the fabulous restaurants I ate at on my Austin trip. Because if you are stuck doing mostly indoors-only stuff, you might as well stuff your face. At the very least, I did so with aplomb. I’m still hunting for beef ribs on par with the one I got from La Barbecue.
Is Austin Worth it for Art Lovers?
The Blanton Museum of Art was a standout, and a great way to spend a couple hours, especially in light of lousy weather. If you’re a die hard museum nerd like me, definitely make room for this on your itinerary. The building itself is elegantly designed and the art is spaciously arranged. It made for a relaxing escape from the frigid gloom outside.
The Blanton Museum was a highlight – from its elegant architecture to it’s well curated variety of art.
I also visited the interactive light installation at Hopscotch, and experienced a rare moment of lonesomeness in solo travel. It was interesting for sure, and made for some great abstract long exposure photography that I’m so fond of.
Unfortunately in this case, it was definitely an activity best suited to enjoy with someone else rather than solo. Several exhibits needed two people to engage with, and somehow a lit-up ball pit just feels awkward on your own while everyone else is frolicking with a cohort. Yes, I know, cue the violins. Hopscotch has adjusted for Covid-19 safety measures, which you can find detailed on their website as you evaluate your entertainment options.
South Congress delivered on quirk and murals, embracing the Keep Austin Weird ethos with gusto. The Austin Central Library is a great spot for architecture fans and to catch some peace and quiet.
I Didn’t Love Austin, but I did Like Austin
It can’t be said Austin itself is no fun. But I found it to be a city best enjoyed with a companion (platonic or not) and in good weather. Four days is far too long for what’s available within the city limits. So no, I can’t say I’d rush back. Not when there are so many places I have yet to experience. But if you go, aim for late spring/early summer or the start of fall. If you snag some flight/hotel deals, grab your friends and hit up the Barton Springs pool, party on 6th street, and hit up the hiking spots less than an hour’s drive from the city I dare say you’ll have a blast.
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Places Worth Visiting in Austin
Launderette – had an amazing brunch here
G’Raj Mahal – truly enjoyed my Indian feast on their eclectic patio
Ramen Tatsu-Ya – multiple locations and some of the best ramen I’ve ever had
La Barbecue – I almost died their BBQ beef ribs were so good; definitely worth the wait!
Bufalina – multiple locations for well executed wood fired pizza
Gourdough’s Big Fat Donuts – exactly as promised: big messy decadent donuts
Austin Sights & Activities
Ann and Roy Butler Trail on Ladybird Lake
Congress Avenue Bridge – late spring to early summer you can see the bat colony take off for their nightly dinner hunt. It’s also a great spot for some photos of downtown Austin
The historic Driskill Hotel in downtown Austin offers afternoon tea, gorgeous rooms worth splurging, and and old school style laden bar perfect to kick off the night with a drink or two