Try This, Not That: An Alternative Travel Guide for Austin, Texas

After publishing my last post, about the steps and sites I frequently use to plan our vacations, a friend was surprised to learn that I don’t often look to travel guides like Fodor’s or Lonely Planet for advice.

“Wouldn’t it be easier to just start with one of their frameworks?” they wondered.

Well, yes. It probably would. But in my experience, a lot of things that make it into the guide books are popular only *because* they’re popular. But if you follow their advice, you often will end up solely in the touristy parts of a town, without ever getting much chance to meet actual locals or experience the places they frequent.

My friend wasn’t convinced, though. So I went ahead and pulled up Lonely Planet’s Top Things to Do for Austin and showed them how a lot of the entries were pretty overrated. It’s why I’m much more apt to trust bloggers, vloggers, and ‘grammers who know a destination well.

Which got me thinking — I’ve lived in Austin more than a decade now, and been writing this blog for more than three years — yet I’ve never done a “trip review” of my good ‘ol hometown. So without further ado, here’s my alternative list of places to visit in Austin that you won’t find in a standard issue guide book.

Round Rock Bat Bridge; Photo by Flickr user Henry Huey under a CC license.

The Round Rock Bat Bridge (instead of the Congress Avenue Bridge, as recommended by Lonely Planet & U.S. News)

Ahhh, the most touristy of all Austin activities, where on spring and summer nights, hundreds of tourists line the sidewalk of the Congress Avenue Bridge in hope of seeing a majestic show of the country’s largest urban bat colony streaming out for their nightly hunt.

But here’s the problem: over half the time, the bats won’t fly until after the sun has set, and standing on top of the bridge, you’ll be looking down at dark water instead of up and the still-light sky. That makes it damn near impossible to see the small dark flecks streaming out from the bridge. Moreover, you’re looking at at least a couple hour wait to get a good spot, standing in zero shade on a narrow sidewalk, as rush hour zooms by you on one of Austin’s busiest streets.

But just up the road 30 minutes in the suburb of Round Rock, there’s a much better option. A slightly smaller bat colony dwells beneath the Highway I-35 overpass at McNeil road, and there’s a nice grassy area where you can settle down on a camping chair or blanket to wait for the bat’s arrival. Few tourists means you won’t have to compete for a good spot. Plus, since you’ll be looking UP at the overpass, the bats will be much easier to see against the backdrop of the sky.

Make a trip of it and grab some happy hour wings and beers at the nearby Pluckers Wing Bar, and you’re guaranteed a better experience than you’ll get over on Congress Avenue.

LA Barecue; Photo by Flickr use Egoiste under a CC license.

LA Barbecue (instead of Franklin Barbecue, as recommended by pretty much everyone)

Yes, we know you’ve heard about Franklins. You saw the Visa commercial. You read about it in every travel article ever. We know. And if you want to get up and get in line around 8 am, go for it.

But if wasting a whole morning of your vacation in line for barbecue in a town positively swimming in barbecue joints doesn’t sit well with you, there’s another option, but it’ll require understanding a bit of Texas BBQ history. LA Barbecue is owned by LeAnn (hence the LA portion of the name) Mueller, granddaughter of Taylor’s famous Louie Mueller, and sister to John Mueller, Austin’s bad boy of barbecue and former boss/teacher to Aaron Franklin. Moreover, the pitmaster at LA Barbecue is John Lewis, who used to work at…guess where? Franklin Barbecue.

So you can just as easily head to the LA Barbecue trailer, not wait in line for 3 hours, and still get some outstanding Texas-style ‘cue.

Of course, if you really, REALLY want to go to Franklin’s? Pro-tip: you can order a whole brisket (enough to feed 6-10 people) exactly one month in advance of the date you intend to pick it up. If you do that, you’ll get to skip the line.

East Sixth Mural; photo by Flickr user 4ELEVEN Images under a CC license

East Sixth Street (instead of Dirty Sixth Street, as recommended by U.S. News)

Are you really excited at the prospect of drinking well liquor or mass-market domestic beers? No? You haven’t been since you were about 19? Yeah. Me neither.

“Austin’s Famous Sixth Street” aka Dirty Sixth is geared towards this kind of drinking, though. While there may be a few standouts establishments, most are there to serve a Fireball-swilling crowd while cover songs blast much too loud in the background.

Try East Sixth, the part of Sixth Street east of I-35 if you’ve outgrown the former scene. You can nab good cocktails or craft beer, nice drunk food, and avoid the amateur-hour type crowds.

Curra’s Exterior; photo by Flickr user by Chris Gallevo under a CC license.

Curra’s Grill (instead of Guero’s Taco Bar, as recommended by Lonely Planet)

In my opinion, Guero’s is the absolute most overrated restaurant in Austin. It’s just entirely average Tex-Mex, that happens to be in a good location. Owing to the good location, tourists have been flocking here for years, when a far tastier (and cheaper!) alternative is only a couple blocks away.

Curra’s Grill, meanwhile, serves all the same dishes, just tastier. And they offer something you can’t get at Guero’s: the avocado margarita. Trust me, if you’re a New Yorker that spent the last year or so freaking out about Avocado Toast, you’re going to pee your pants over avocado margaritas. You’re welcome.

Comic wall at Cap City; photo courtesy of Cap City Comedy’s Facebook page

Cap City Comedy (instead of Esther’s Follies, as recommend by U.S. News)

Austin has a really great live comedy scene, y’all. There are some damn funny people in this town. But Esther’s Follies is downright cheesy. If you’re 50+, get nervous when people use foul language, and don’t want a show that gets “too political”, head on over to Esther’s Follies and shell out $35 for the privilege.

But if you want to see real stand up, try out Cap City Comedy, especially on a Tuesday night for their Punch showcase (which features local comedians) and you’ll be able to use the $20 you saved on tickets to buy yourself some drinks instead.

What are the tourist “favorites” in your town that you’d actually tell people to steer clear of? Tell us in the comments. 

Header photo by Flickr user Katie Haugland Bowen under a CC license.


Author: Mrs. Millennial

I'm Whitney, writer of Mrs. Millennial. While I've got an advanced degree and a job in the tech industry, I'm usually happiest in my kitchen, garden, and home, or else on a crazy travel adventure. I hope you enjoy my recipes, home improvement tips, travel stories, musings, and more. You can also see what I'm up to in my professional life at Need to reach me? Shoot an email to whitney (dot) magnuson (at) gmail (dot) com.

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