Austin is Texas’ proverbial Little Engine That Could. Thanks to more than a decade of breakneck population growth, the establishment of international, high-profile events like SXSW and the Austin City Limits Music Festival and universally positive press, this formerly sleepy college town has eclipsed its nay-sayers, without forsaking much of the trademark “weird” that’s made it so loved throughout its history. The good news is that even as Austin’s size and name recognition increases, it’s still compact enough to enjoy on a quick trip. Whether you come for a long weekend or to use your hard-earned PTO (paid time off), three days in Austin is all you need to fall in love with the capital of Texas.
Day 1: Austin 101
As you wait to check in at the charming Hotel San Jose, step out onto Austin’s South Congress Avenue—the newly-minted “Main Street of Texas”—and take in the sweeping view of downtown. Freshen up and enjoy a welcome cocktail by the hotel’s pool, then head out onto the street to begin your first day in Austin—freshman orientation, if you will.
Sleepy? Try the Belgian bomber—a 50/50 blend of black and creamy, sweetened iced coffees—at Jo’s Coffee, whose “I love you so much” graffiti wall has become the city’s de-facto selfie spot. Get your shop on at alluring boutiques like Uncommon Objects and Lucy in Disguise, then head down SoCo toward downtown, either on foot, or using Austin’s convenient B-Cycle bike rental system.
Stop just before crossing the bridge over Lady Bird Lake and follow the path down to the Hike and Bike Trail. If it’s near sunset—you’ll know by the brilliant oranges, pinks and especially purples, which give Austin its nickname as the “City of the Violet Crown”—stick around beneath the bridge to watch Austin’s iconic bats (North America’s largest urban colony of them) emerge from underneath the bridge. Otherwise, hang a right and enjoy Austin’s very own boardwalk, the 2014 extension of the trail which allows you walk out over the waters of the lake, which is actually a dammed portion of the Colorado River.
As night begins to fall on Austin, and the city’s growing skyline begins to slowly illuminate, head back up to bridge level and continue walking north on Congress. If you’re feeling festive, enjoy Austin’s plentiful nightlife—go left on Sixth Street if you’re feeling classy, right if you’re feeling a bit more trashy—or, if you can’t take your eyes off the state capitol building looming in the distance, enjoy the beautiful nighttime view of it, before returning to your boutique bedroom to rest up for tomorrow.
Day 2: Several Rivers Run Through It
In spite of the blazing heat—and, too often, the oppressive drought—that defines Austin’s climate most of the year, water is plentiful here. Spend the second of your three days in Austin on the water in whichever way you see fit. Many of Austin’s most magnificent waterways are right within the city.
If you fell in love with Lady Bird Lake during your twilight stroll last night, you could start at Congress Avenue Kayaks, and set out onto the lake via stand-up paddle board or, well, kayak. Alternatively, hang a right on Barton Springs Road as you coast down Congress toward downtown, then follow it to a public pool of the same name.
A natural cold spring—as in 68ºF cold—that feels refreshing during Austin’s brutal summers and balmy during its brief winters, Barton Springs seems like it belongs in the wilderness, but it so close to the city that you can see skyscrapers as you swim. Of course, if you’re craving a more remote feeling, you could continue past Barton Springs onto the newly-opened Violet Crown Trail, one of the gateways to one of Austin’s many urban greenbelts.
Or, if you’ve rented a car, head just out of town to visit wilder water treasures like Twin Falls, Jacob’s Well or Hamilton Pool, an otherworldly swimming hole formed by the collapse of an ancient underground river.
Day 3: Ends and Beginnings
Rise before the crack of dawn, then drive or catch an Uber (trust me, it’s worth it) to the Pennybacker Bridge, which crosses over Lake Austin just west of downtown, then hike up the trail to the top of the bluff. Although the sun doesn’t rise directly behind the Austin skyline, whose tiny size from this vantage point puts the seemingly modest Texas Hill Country into sobering perspective, the kaleidoscopic color show alone is worth skipping the snooze button.
You’ve had a busy first couple of days in Austin, so relax and take in a daytime movie at one of the city’s iconic theater. Whether you choose the rowdy Alamo Drafthouse or the smaller, more sophisticated Violet Crown Cinema, you can enjoy lunch and a full bar worth of booze, killing two birds (preferably, one of Austin’s obnoxious grackles) with one stone. Take a siesta back at your hotel, before following 35th Street westward until it dead ends at Mount Bonnell, a lofty park that overlooks both the eastern end of Lake Austin and the Austin skyline.
On the way up, you’ll not only work off some of the delicious food you’ve eaten before enjoying Austin’s most beautiful sunset—you’ve truly saved the best for last.