Practical Travel Tips: Austin, Texas

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Austin is our favorite city in Texas, mainly because of the BBQ!

Jim “The Travel Organizer,” who last wrote about San Antonio, Valley of Moon, California, Dubrovnik, Croatia, Split, Croatia, Krk, Croatia, Koper, Slovenia, Mendocino County, California, Auckland, Oslo, the small German town of Speyer and Deidesheim, Oahu, Napa Valley, Venice, Singapore, Bangkok, Sonoma County and Myrtle Beach, and here are his tips should you visit.

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This destination report picks up where the account of my micro-trip to San Antonio left off. Less than 80 miles (under 1½ hours driving time) apart, combining these two cities into one long weekend trip makes a lot of sense and is easily doable from almost anywhere in the U.S.

Side trip from either San Antonio or Austin: Gruene Historic District

We left Gruene Historic District (see “Practical Travel Tips: San Antonio, Texas”) late afternoon and drove north on I-35 to Exit 225, where we stayed in the far left lane make a U-turn southbound on the frontage road to our dinner stop at 9900 South Interstate 35 in the South Park Mall complex.

The Green Mesquite

This local chain, featured on the “Big Time Barbecue” and “BBQ and More” episodes of the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” has three outlets in Austin. The way to go here is to order one of their BBQ plates which come in 4 “sizes” determined by your choice of 1, 2, 3 or 4 meats from the 7 offered (pork ribs, pulled pork, brisket, chicken, sausage, wings or turkey). Each plate also comes with a choice of 2 sides from the 12 listed on the menu. We each ordered the 2 meat BBQ plate for $11.99 and were absolutely stuffed! Guy Fieri calls their ribs “awesome” and we couldn’t agree more. Tips: This location participates in the Dining Rewards network, so we earned 5 airline miles for every dollar spent. We also received 5% cash back with Dosh and 10% with Groupon+. Finally, you may also be able to take advantage of the “buy one, get one free” (up to $11) offer through the Dining Advantage program. The Barton Springs location offers free music on its patio Friday-Sunday from mid-March through October.

Where we stayed in Austin

Because our flight home would depart at 7:01am and because the car we rented at the San Antonio airport needed to be dropped off at the Austin airport, lodging at an airport hotel seemed to make the most sense. So we used 40,000 IHG points (from a recent 100,000 point credit card sign-up bonus) to book the well-reviewed Staybridge Suites, Austin Airport. As we did in Austin, we used the hotel’s free airport shuttle to return our rental car the night before our flight home, saving us the uncertainty of an after-hours return and the hotel’s free breakfast helped save on food costs. Tip: If you’re staying Monday-Wednesday, a complimentary social hour offers hot and cold food items and beverages (including beer and wine) from 5:30-7:30pm!

Tipster Walking Tour

Texas African-American History Memorial, Austin, Texas- Photo: (c) 2019 – Jim Fatzinger, The Travel Organizer

If you’ve never heard of Tipster before, you’re not alone. Right now, they operate in only 4 cities: Austin, San Antonio, Denver and Boston but I hope they expand. Even though tips are the guides’ bread and butter, they are paid even if no one shows up for a tour (reservations aren’t needed) – highly unusual in the “free walking tour” space. Our guide, Laura, was knowledgeable, personable and just an all-around joy! The Downtown Austin tour (Tipster offers 5 different tours in Austin!) begins near the south entrance to the state capitol. This tour’s 90 minute length makes it easy and convenient to take advantage of the Capitol Visitors’ Parking at 1201 San Jacinto Boulevard (free for the first 2 hours). Focusing on the history and lore of Austin, stops include the Texas African-American History Memorial recently installed on the Capitol grounds which commemorates Juneteenth, the observation of the day Texas slaves were freed 2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the only moonlight towers left in the country and the iconic Driskill Hotel, where “Lady Bird” Claudia Taylor met future President LBJ for their first date in 1934.

Texas State Capitol

The quip “everything’s bigger in Texas” is certainly true when it comes to the State Capitol building. Although modeled on the U.S. Capitol building, it stands 15 feet higher and, at 360,000 square feet (that’s the equivalent of more than 8¼ acres!), it is the largest of all state capitols and almost twice the size of the U.S. Capitol. Free, guided tours meet just past security inside the south entrance to the Capitol building and depart every 30 to 45 minutes. The State Preservation Board also offers a fixed schedule of free, guided “specialty” tours; e.g., “Women in Texas History” (weekdays @ 11:15am), “Heroes of the Texas Revolution” (weekdays @ 2:15pm) and a rotating calendar of seasonal tours.  Tip: If you’d like to do Tipster’s Downtown Austin Tour and a Texas State Capitol tour on the same day, just exit the Capitol Visitors Parking deck at 1201 San Jacinto Boulevard after one tour, re-enter for the other tour and park for free for both.

Z’Tejas Southwestern Grill

Z’Tejas Southwestern Grill, 1110 West 6th Street (street view, Austin, Texas- Photo: (c) 2019 – Jim Fatzinger, The Travel Organizer

Z’Tejas Southwestern Grill has locations in Phoenix and Chandler, AZ as well as 2 in Austin – one near the Arboretum (an upscale shopping mall in the northwest suburbs) and the one we visited at 1110 West 6th Street on the western edge of downtown. 6th Street is one way, westbound; a driveway leading to free, off-street parking for Z’Tejas is just past its address on the right-hand side of the street. I ordered the 5 cheese macaroni & achiote chicken ($16.50); at the suggestion of our server, my wife ordered a wild mushroom enchilada with crab and sides of black beans and southwestern rice ($19.00). Both dishes were incredibly tasty. Serving sizes were generous but somehow we managed to share an ancho fudge pie for dessert. Tips: The first skillet of cornbread is complimentary; don’t miss it! Both Austin locations are on the OpenTable platform as well as the Dining Rewards network, so you can earn both points toward future meals and airline miles on the cost of your meal, but that’s not the end. You can also earn 20% cash back through Groupon+ and 7% cash back through Yelp! reducing your out-of-pocket cost significantly.

One of the most fun things we couldn’t do

Sticking with the “everything is bigger in Texas” theme, Austin is home to the world’s largest urban bat colony. Every night from March through October, 1,500,000 Mexican free-tailed bats emerge in a mass cloud from roosts on the underside of the Congress Avenue Bridge. Tip: The best way to view this spectacle and minimize the pungent odor of bat guano is from a rented kayak, canoe or aboard one of the boat tours.

Austin Mural Tour

One of the most fun – and free – things to do in Austin is to set off on a scavenger hunt to find some of the many street murals spread around the city. Some are iconic (like the “Greetings from Austin” mural); others are whimsical (e.g., the psychedelic frogs mural) but all are instagrammable. Warning: There is no single list of Austin’s street murals and even if there were, these urban art installations may be painted over or, in the case of one of the largest examples, Austin’s famed Hope Outdoor Gallery, moved to a new location. As of January, 2019, here are the locations of a few street murals within a few miles’ radius of downtown (you can find many, many more spread throughout the Austin Metro area):

Name/Description of Mural Location for your GPS
Psychedelic frogs 600 San Jacinto Boulevard
“I love you so much” 1300 South Congress Avenue (side of Jo’s Coffee)
Willie Nelson for President 1423 South Congress Avenue (side of Stag Provisions)
“Smile even if you don’t want to” South Congress & Elizabeth Streets
“Greetings from Austin” 1720 South First Street

Top left: “Greetings from Austin” postcard mural, 1720 South First Street

Top right: Psychedelic frogs, 600 San Jacinto Boulevard

Bottom left: “Smile!” at South Congress and Elizabeth Streets

Bottom right: “I love you so much,” 1300 South Congress Avenue – Photo: (c) 2019 – Jim Fatzinger, The Travel Organizer

Summary

We had some great food, stayed in high value (if not high-end) hotels, and did everything described in both this destination report (with the exception of viewing Austin’s urban bats) and the “practical travel tips” for San Antonio in just 2½ days, making for a great and relatively inexpensive long weekend.

About the Author:

I organize things; it’s what I do! I enjoy the natural adrenaline high of travel as much as the next person but I also try to limit the likelihood that the surprises I experience along the way will be unpleasant ones. To this end, I spend more hours than most preparing for each trip. Fortunately for me, I enjoy the anticipation of travel as much as the experience of it. The focus of my trip reports will be to help those who read them to enjoy high value experiences — maximizing enjoyment while minimizing cost. I’ve been a minister, nonprofit agency executive, professor and consultant; my “job” in retirement is planning our next trip. If you would like additional information and/or recommendations, please feel free to contact “The Travel Organizer” via email.

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