In a city hosting nearly 80 festivals annually, how can you possibly do everything in just two days? As surprising as it may seem, you’ll be able to see many of the top attractions and dine at some of the best restaurants, even if you’re limited to 48 hours. With some advance planning and by using this guide as a reference to leave out the guesswork, you’re on your way to a fabulous, albeit brief, trip to one of the best cities in America. Here then, is a practical guide to what to see and do if you have 48 hours in Austin.
With more than 275 hotels and over 33,000 rooms with 8,000 in downtown alone, Austin offers something for everyone. On the high end are phenomenal luxury boutique hotels like Hotel Ella, Kimber Modern, Hotel Saint Cecilia and the historic Driskill, all located in downtown Austin. Most of the mid-priced hotels in the same area are primarily national chains, but others like Hotel San Jose in the South Congress neighborhood and the Fairview in River South City are distinct exceptions. Similarly, lodging under $100 are mostly chain hotels and motels, although all of the area hostels like the Firehouse Lounge and Hostel, HK Austin and Drifter Jack’s Hostel are all highly rated.
Downtown Austin features more than 200 restaurants, ranging from high end to low cost burger joints and food trucks. Among the several excellent choices for fine dining in downtown Austin are III Forks, Eddie V’s, TRIO and Driskill Grill, as well as other extraordinary spots like Qui in East Austin and Uchi Restaurant in South Lamar. In the middle of the price spectrum are even more choices: Emmer & Rye, Odd Duck, Moonshine Patio Bar & Grill and Launderette. On the affordable side are a wealth of great spots like The Liberty, Fresa’s and Habanero Mexican Cafe, along with amazing food trucks like Garbo’s Lobster, Chi-Lantro and East Side King. Of course, Austin also hosts several world-class BBQ restaurants, including Lambert’s Downtown, Stubb’s Bar-B-Q and John Mueller Meat Company and the worth-the-wait Franklin Barbecue, both in East Austin.
What To See
Texas State Capitol
The most recognized structure in Austin is the towering Texas State Capitol building. One of the tallest state capitols, and even larger than the U.S. Capitol, the historic structure houses the office of the governor and the offices and chambers of the Texas State Legislature. Free guided tours from the visitor center are held daily, although visitors with just 48 hours might opt to explore independently. Also located on the 22-acre grounds of the Capitol are the Supreme Court of Texas and several notable statues, including Disabled American Veterans of Texas, Roosevelt Rough Rider, Heroes of the Alamo and the Texas Ranger. Located across from the southwestern border of the enormous complex is the Governor’s Mansion.
Visited by more than 1.5 million people annually, this scenic spot is the most popular recreation area in the city. Yielding splendid views of the city skyline and the surrounding area, the trail extends 10 miles and includes the 1.3-mile Boardwalk Trail at Lady Bird Lake, named after Lady Bird Johnson, wife of the 37th President Lyndon Johnson. In addition to hiking and biking along the trail are boat rentals and fishing, in addition to scenic cruises from operators like Lone Star Riverboat. Further west along the lake are several more notable attractions, such as the Long Center for Performing Arts, the statue of legendary blues-rock guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn and Zilker Park, the site of the Austin City Limits Music Festival.
Located a half mile north of the Texas Capitol is the enormous University of Texas at Austin campus, one of the largest in America. Home to more than 50,000 students, UT Austin also has one of the nation’s largest student enrollments and its academic program is so highly regarded it’s often known as one of the “Public Ivies.” Founded in 1883, it’s the oldest unit of the University of Texas system and features several noteworthy attractions for visitors, including the LBJ Presidential Library, Blanton Museum of Art and the Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, home of the Texas Longhorns football team, where thousands of fans can display their “hook ’em ‘horns” hand signals. Visitors to UT Austin might also want to stop by the Bullock Texas State History Museum, which also features an Imax Theater, near the southwestern border of the campus.
With more than 250 live music venues and a host of world-class music festivals, it’s easy to understand why Austin is widely known as the “Live Music Capital of the World.” For those with limited amounts of time, the downtown area is the primary place to be for entertainment, with such noteworthy places like Austin City Limits Live, the priceless Paramount Theatre, the Elephant Room, with live jazz music every day of the year, and Clive Bar. However, visitors who want to stop by the city’s best and most famous honky-tonks such as the Continental Club, Broken Spoke and the White Horse will have to travel a few miles from the city center. Of course, Austin is not without larger concert venues like Bass Concert Hall, Frank Erwin Center and two of the newest venues, Austin 360 Amphitheater, named the world’s best new major concert venue by Pollstar in 2013, and the Skyline Theater at the Long Center.
Although restaurants were already covered, Austin’s dining experience really deserves a second look, especially because of its sizable collection of award-winning celebrity chefs. Moreover, the list of the best-known chefs and their restaurants doesn’t necessarily translate to high end cuisine and pricey wine lists. Indeed, last year’s James Beard Award winner for Best Chef: Southwest was Aaron Franklin, owner and master pit master of the acclaimed but far from luxurious Franklin BBQ. Although long lines are to be expected, the famed BBQ spot has earned several other distinctions, including best BBQ Joint in America by Bon Appetit and tops in Texas from Texas Monthly Ranks. Then there’s Paul Qui, another James Beard award-winning chef and winner of Top Chef Season 9, who operates his line of East Side King food trucks and upscale restaurants like Qui and Otoko. On the high end is yet another James Beard winner: Tyson Cole of Uchi, often regarded as Austin’s best restaurant, and his sister property, Uchiko. The list of celebrity chefs in Austin certainly doesn’t stop there, with other talented individuals like Bryce Gilmore of Barley Swine, Jack Gilmore of Jack Allen’s Kitchen, Sonya Cote of Eden East and Shawn Cirkiel of Olive & June also in the city.
Randy Yagi is an award-winning freelance writer covering all things San Francisco. In 2012, he received a Media Fellowship from Stanford University. His work can be found on Examiner.com