Austin is super weird, really hot, and way more fun than you can imagine. Pack to be on the go everyday with a daypack and dancing every night. Keep your travel backpack nice and light and you’ll be prepared for anything this town throws at you. Even bats.
Austin is “weird,” you’ve no doubt heard that, but knowing this doesn’t prepare you for just how cool this place is. Seriously, get excited for your trip because it’s going to be better than you expected. My first trip to Austin was a spur of the moment last-minute trip, booking the cheapest ticket to a destination I’d never been to before. Austin won my low stakes airport lottery, and I’m so glad it did. Austin knocked me off my feet. Super bike-friendly, the weather is great (ok…it’s hot as heck, but that’s a nice change from New York in the winter), and it’s connected with the outdoors in a way that big cities typically just aren’t. I knew about the bbq and the live music, but the sheer range of outdoor activities really surprised me. In the span of three days I went tubing, biking, hiking, swimming, hammock…ing, football tailgating, and swing dancing. I even went bat watching on the South Congress Bridge; go every single night during the summer. Yeah. Bat watching. They say that Texas is another world, and Austin doubly so. Here’s what to pack for Austin, in a carry on-friendly list, help you prepare for the bats, rafts, dancing, and whatever else you discover.
When to Visit Austin
Tourist season in Austin is typically bookended by the 10-day corporate Lollapalooza known as SXSW in mid-March and Austin City Limits in October, so odds are your trip will fall somewhere between these two events. If you’re not attending either ACL or SXSW, do your best to avoid visiting Austin around these times as hordes of out of towners invade, causing AirBnB prices (or one of the original tiny house hotels) to skyrocket, locals to leave town, and generally changing the whole vibe of town.
Regardless of when you visit, Austin is always pretty warm. Make your peace with that. From June to August, temperatures routinely sit in the upper 90’s, and triple-digit heat isn’t front page news. Pack for dry heat, and make sure you know how to get to the oasis that is Barton Springs (more on that in a bit), and you’ll be alright.
What to Pack for Austin
A lot of people think everyone in Texas is a cowboy (shame on you), but Austin is probably much more hip than wherever you’re from. The indie and live music scenes are epicenters of cool, the food truck game is off the charts, dozens of microbreweries will get you feeling adventurous, the thrift stores are hilarious, tailgating a UT game is b-a-n-a-n-a-s, and Austin has museums and historical sites galore (like the state capitol building, you hooligan). There’s also a bridge with, like, a million bats living under it. So, that’s amazing. Austin truly has something for everyone—including cowboys—so make sure to leave room in your Outbreaker Backpack for serendipity.
Packing for a week in Austin:
- 2 pairs of jeans
- 1 pair of nice travel pants
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 pair of hybrid shorts OR swimsuit
- 2-3 dress shirts or blouses OR you can pick one up at a thrift store
- 2 tank tops (for sweating it out on your bike)
- 2 t-shirts (for tailgating and keeping it “supes caszh, bro”)
- 1 pair sneakers or comfy walking shoes (you’ll need ’em)
- 1 pair dancing shoes (Lindy Hop at “the Fed” on Thursday nights or bust a Texas two-step at The Broken Spoke)
- 1 light jacket or hipster deep-V sweater (the dumber, the better)
- 2-3 pair of socks
- 4 pair of underwear (get good travel underwear to ward off any bike funk)
- 1 portable battery charger for your phone (you’ll be jamming out to tunes on your bike and making friends jealous on Instagram)
In the summer add:
In the winter add:
- 1 travel blazer or “shacket”
- Swap your hat for a wool beanie
- Swap 1 t-shirt for a long sleeve henley shirt
For music festivals add:
- 1 super cool vintage t-shirt
- 1 waist pouch/fanny pack (seriously)
Packing a Daypack in Austin
You need a daypack in Austin. You badly need one. If you’re biking around the city (you totally should), you’ll carry your water bottle, sunscreen, snack, and possibly a change of shirt with you at all times. If you’re walking, samesies. You have to stay hydrated, and you’ll want to change your gross sweaty shirt before you dance the local honky tonk. I also crammed my daypack with all sorts of rad vinyl and ironic t-shirts I picked up near UT.
The real reason to pack a daypack is the Barton Creek. I am an absolute sucker for anything involving water or creeks or rivers. Heck, I paddled a paper canoe 200 miles down the Hudson River a few years ago, so this spring-fed oasis is one of the coolest things about Austin—literally. Kept at a brisk 68° year-round, this watering hole is where locals and tourists alike go to cool off and have a dip. The pool is gated, so you’ll have to pay the $8 admission fee (it’s $3 if you’re a local), but it’s worth it. If you’re super thrifty and get there by 8am, admission is free.
Note: Barton Creek pool is closed every Thursday for cleaning.
If admission fees aren’t your bag, the concrete pool is surrounded by acres of totally free creek swimming. I set up camp on a sunny boulder and lazed the day away for zero dollars. People bring their dogs and hammocks and just hang out in the water and along the banks; it’s great. Plus, the bike path goes right down to the water.
I kept a tek towel, external battery, and my tiny GoPro Session in my bag for the creek, and got some great travel video footage. Barton Creek is so relaxing, that I went for a dip in the river every single day. Why wouldn’t you?
For a dive into Austin’s history, take a dip in Deep Eddy Pool—Texas’ oldest swimming pool. Built in 1915, this staple is located right behind one of the better dive bars in town. Open from mid-March til the end of September, Deep Eddy Pool is worth a visit. Admission fees are the same as Barton Creek ($3 resident / $8 non-resident).
What Not to Pack for Austin
You will buy stuff in Austin. Embrace that fact by leaving some wiggle room in your backpack, or throwing in the packable duffle as your overflow personal item for the flight home. Also, Austin doesn’t ever really get that cold, so leave the boots at home.
- A heavy jacket
- Cowboy boots (stop it)
- I Heart NY t-shirt
Things to Do in Austin
If you came to Austin to eat, dance, and romp, you’re in luck. Austin has some of the best grub and entertainment in the lower 48, so grab your bike, strap on your daypack, and get ready to explore.
Austin Food Trucks & BBQ
BBQ and brisket are practically half the reason to visit Austin in the first place. The Mexican food in town is also off the charts. Everywhere is great, but here are a few of my favorite spots to grab a bite:
- Franklin BBQ — Located on the east side, Franklin’s BBQ was ranked the #1 bbq spot in the entire country. Expect to line up early and wait forever (up to 3 hours) for a taste of the best darn bbq around.
- East Side Pies — I loved this little divey pizza shop. Also located in East Austin, it’s worth dropping by for a slice. They don’t have a website though… which is awesome.
- Smokey Denmark’s — This place has a 50 year legacy of doing bbq right
- Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ — Can’t decide between bbq and Tex Mex? No problem.
Biking in Austin
I loved biking in Austin, even in the summer heat. The freedom to get from A to B without learning the public transit system is amazing, and Austin has had a few run-ins with ridesharing legislation in the past. Even though it looks like ridesharing is back in Austin, don’t count on Uber or Lyft to get you around. You can rent a bike at a number of places, including:
Here’s an online bike route map of Austin, to keep on your phone. If you want to save your battery for Snapchat, you can pick up a bike map in any local bike shop. Bike Austin, a biker advocacy community, even announces local rides for you to join.
Austin Live Music & Dancing
Austin has an awesome music scene. While there’s too much to really dive into in this type of article, here are a few great spots to get you started:
The Broken Spoke — This prototypical dive features local honky tonk bands and country legends alike. Freakin’ Garth Brooks played there last March. They even feature free two-step dance lessons on Wed – Sat nights from 8-9pm to get you up to speed with the local moves.
The Continental Club — This Austin staple has been slinging drinks and live music for over 60 years. Bring your a-game to this hallowed dance floor (that means your “good” dancing shoes), and soak in some of what makes Austin truly special.
The White Horse Located on Comal St., this is the place to check out if you’re looking for great live music, cheap drinks, and solid two-stepping. I stopped by for a few drinks and a spin on the dance floor, and just loved it. The White Horse is what other dive bars are trying to be.
The Texas Federation of Women (or “the Fed”) —Hosts a great swing dance night every Thursday from 8-midnight. Show up early for a free lesson, and check the website to see if they have live music.