The Designer’s Travel Guide to Austin

Photo by Scott van Osdol

It’s where you can find an amazing selection of live music seven days a week. A million and a half bats living under one bridge. And a homeless drag queen. No wonder our motto is “Keep Austin Weird.”

Austin embraces individuality and all forms of creative expression and our design community certainly shows it. We are home to some internationally recognized designers. (Anyone ever heard of D.J. Stout? David Kampa? Marc English? I thought so.) Add to that list some who are well on their way to name-dropping status like Christian Helms and the gang at The Decoder Ring Design Concern or Curt Crawford’s team at Milkshake.

While we do have several design firms here, including a Pentagram outpost, Austin is really defined by it’s independent, one and two-person shops. That makes our local AIGA chapter the cornerstone of the community—a place for all the independents to connect.

With so many indies and with music being such an integral part of what makes Austin tick, it’s no surprise that some of the best work in town is about the sound. Performance posters, CD covers and other promotional items regularly find their way into the annuals. But you’ll also see amazing packaging work for hip local grocers like Central Market (imagine a Dean and Deluca superstore) or Whole Foods (yeah, I know you probably have one, too, but Austin had the original), as well as local non-profits.

Austin folks like to play as hard as we work. If you want to hang like a local, here are some places you don’t want to miss.

Check In
The Hotel San Jose
This former rent-by-the-hour crack hotel now epitomizes the Austin aesthetic: Clean, minimalist lines, polished concrete floors and groovy, organic grooming products that will definitely wind up in your bag for the trip home. Located on the hippest street in town, South Congress, the San Jose is a magnet for celebrities, local hipsters and the hip-adjacent. The courtyard is like the town square of Coolville, but without a trace of attitude. Make sure to borrow a copy of the documentary “The Last Days of the San Jose,” which chronicles the hotel’s transition from flophouse to destination.


Torchy’s Tacos
Morning should find you at Torchy’s, a tin trailer parked in a wide spot between South First Street and a small creek. The tacos are outrageously delicious (the green chile pork and the fried avocado are two particular favorites) and the people-watching can’t be beat.

The good folks at Lambert’s call what they do “fancy barbecue.” You won’t care what they call it as long as they keep bringing those plates of meats and sides. Come hungry, but, as we say in Texas, “Keep your fork. There’s pie.” Their coconut cream pie will change your life.

Mexican Food
No trip to Austin would be complete without a plate of tex-mex (locals just call it “Mexican food”). Everyone in town has a favorite. Use this as a conversation starter: “Where should I go for Mexican food?” You won’t be disappointed—with the food or the conversation.

Every city has its tourist traps and Austin is no exception. The following are definitely worth seeking out.

Barton Springs
Tucked away in a corner of Zilker Park, this is an enormous natural limestone, spring-fed swimming pool. The water temperature remains a constant 68 degrees year round, which makes this the perfect antidote to the Texas heat.

The Bats
Underneath the Congress Avenue bridge lives the largest colony of Mexican freetail bats in North America. Each summer night, as the sun begins to drop, about 1.5 million of the creatures take to the sky in a swarm. Thousands of people line the bridge and surrounding riverbank to watch the spectacle. You should, too.

Leslie. (If you can find him.)
How many homeless people do you know who ride around town in full makeup, wearing a halter top and thong bikini with matching pumps? Worth asking around for. And if you find him, strike up a conversation. He’s surprisingly articulate. In fact, he finished second in his run for mayor a few years back.

The night owl should be the official bird of Austin. If you like cold beer and good music, you’ll be in good company.

Continental Club
Just across South Congress from the San Jose lies an Austin institution, The Continental Club. No matter the night, check out the live music. This spot is one of the reasons they call us The Live Music Capital of the World.

Mean Eyed Cat
A former chain-saw repair shop that has been converted into a paean to Johnny Cash. What else do you need to know?

Cedar Door
Most Austinites talk about the quest for the perfect margarita like Crusaders talked about The Grail. The Mexican Martini at Cedar Door is right up there. Potent, flavorful and generously portioned, this is the way to end a hard day or kick off a long night.

Austin is full of locally owned, one-off shops. These three will give you something to take home, even if it’s just a new idea.

Heritage Boot
The cowboy mystique refuses to die in Texas. And when you see these amazing boot designs, all splashed of color and buttery soft leather, you’ll want to take up the cause.

Roadhouse Relics
Stocked with aged neon signs, carnival sideshow posters and other original artifacts, this place has “Austin” written all over it. Literally. Check out the mural on the side of the building.

Mellow Johnny’s Bike Shop
Lance Armstrong’s latest venture, this bike shop also serves as a commuter station for people who want to ride their bikes to work, with lockers, showers and a great coffee shop, Juan Pelota.

For the latest info on what’s happening during your visit, pick up a copy of the Austin Chronicle (the free, alternative weekly) and a copy of TRIBEZA, Austin’s local groovy rag. You should also know that Austin is an extremely casual city. Hardly anyone wears a jacket or tie out on the town. Jeans, shorts and flip-flops are perfectly acceptable at any of the places recommended here.

There’s also no such thing as a stranger in Austin. So sit down, say “hidey” (that’s Texan for “hello”) and enjoy the scene.