Austin is a great cheap weekend getaway from Denver. It’s only a 2 hour and 15-minute flight from DIA and an ideal spot for travelers looking to make a warm(er) weather escape during the fall and winter (temperatures in Austin can be in the 80s, even in December).
You’ll find beautiful outdoor public spaces, great museums, and places of interest – many of which you can enjoy for free with a little bit of planning. Oh, gourmands will be in heaven – there is some truly fantastic food!
There are several airlines that offer cheap direct flights from Denver to Austin (AUS), which can regularly be found for around $100 round trip.
Here are my top picks for what to see, do, and eat during a weekend visit to Austin, TX.
RELATED: Weekend getaway guide to Denver, CO
Art, Museums, & Culture
The Blanton Museum is Austin’s premier art collection and is located on the University of Texas at Austin campus. You will find a wide range of art – from antiquity all the way to contemporary art. There is plenty to see here, including special exhibits.
One of their most recognizable pieces is Austin, a stand-alone white stone building with colored windows by the American artist Ellsworth Kelly that was opened in 2018.
Admission to the Blanton is always free on Thursdays and on the third Thursday of each month, the museum stays open until 9 pm. Those with a valid UT ID also get in for free.
The Color Inside
Make a stop to see The Color Inside, a skyspace by James Turrell, also on the UT Austin campus. It is free to view the artwork and the best time to visit is during sunrise or sunset when you are treated to an hour-long light sequence viewed inside the space. Book a free reservation ahead of time during the busy season.
Even if you do not have a reservation, you can try getting there before sunset and join the wait list for entry. (I showed up about 15 minutes before sunset on a slow weekday night and my husband and I were let in, no problem.)
The space is small and intimate, enough for 27 people to comfortably sit around the space. The full light sequence is 60 minutes – I suggest staying for the entire length, but many people start leaving after 30 minutes.
The staff offers blankets for those who want to lay on the ground and look up, offering a very unique way to experience a Turrell skyspace.
LBJ Presidental Library
The LBJ Presidential Library is a great place to learn more about the life and legacy of 36th President of the United States as well as US history during the 1960s. There is a lot to see in this museum, including a 7/8th scale replica of the Oval Office, set up as it would have been during LBJ’s time as President and a number of fun interactive exhibits that will equally interest school-age kids and adults.
LBJ infamously would get very close and/or physical with people when he was trying to make a point. Don’t miss the fun picture wall where you can pretend to be sharing a laugh with LBJ (be sure to save the photo in black and white).
Texas State Capitol
One of the most recognizable Austin landmarks, the sunset red granite-clad Texas State Capitol offers free tours every 30-45 minutes. The tour lasts about half an hour and you will learn the history of the building, its architectural signatures, and how all three bodies of government meet and work under the same roof.
Tours meet by the south entrance, just before entering the rotunda. There’s also a kid-friendly museum on the southeast corner of the property that’s worth stopping by if only to see the State Capitol replica made entirely of LEGO pieces made by the Texas Lego User Group.
Austin Central Library
I love visiting city libraries! Known as the “front porch for the city of Austin,” the state-of-the-art Austin Central Library, which opened at the end of 2017, is a thriving hub of activity for the community and is a great stop for visitors.
Start from the 6th floor, where you get fantastic views of Lady Bird Lake, then work your way down. This library is a huge, modern space with lots of interesting architecture and reading nooks. Be sure to check out the board game library!
Nature & Outdoors
Lady Bird Lake
There are so many activities to do in and around Lady Bird Lake. This large reservoir is the heart of Austin’s outdoor community. I really enjoyed walking along the trails around the lake, some of the most beautiful parts of the city (and pedestrian-friendly). Easily accessed from both Downtown Austin and the South Congress area.
Austin’s favorite park is an expansive swath of land with many notable places to visit:
Umlauf Sculpture Garden – Walk through this charming little garden filled with the work of Charles Julius Umlauf.
Zilker Botanic Garden – The 26-acre garden is a nice respite from Austin city life. The Japanese section, that winds its way through bamboo trees and a bonsai garden, and the Prehistoric garden featuring giant ferns and lush plants, are particularly arresting.
Barton Springs – One of the highlights of my trip. An amazing huge natural spring pool where Austinites and visitors to cool off from the Texas heat. The pool is free in the winter!
If you are strolling around South Congress, I urge you to veer a bit off the beaten path to hit Esby, a fantastic local design house. I walked this shop while heading over to the Greetings from Austin mural. Specializing in women and unisex clothing, this label is 100% made in the USA. They also carry select goods by local artisans.
MOSS Designer Consignment
MOSS is a designer vintage store with shockingly reasonable prices. Their pricing system is based on how long the items have stayed in the store so if you are there towards the end of the cycle, you can pick up some great deals.
Parts & Labour
Parts & Labour is a cute little shop that sells goods made by local Texas artists. I picked up a cute moon tower postcard by artist Bryan Spear. Be sure to check out the art gallery in the back of the store.
You know I came to eat! There is so much amazing food in Austin it’s crazy. However here I’m highlighting my TOP picks for where to dine for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
I absolutely adored Better Half, a place on the outskirts of Downtown Austin. Great interior decor and some tasty options for breakfast. Lots of locals with their laptops, fueling up on coffee. Amazing backyard/outdoor area.
Honorable mentions: Cafe No Se – Good for a healthy breakfast in a chic setting. Part of the oh-so-beautiful South Congress Hotel
One of Austin Monthly‘s top new restaurants of 2019, Swedish Hill is a chic bakery/deli in the heart of Downtown Austin. The pastries look scrumptious, but if you’re looking for something heartier, I definitely recommend the dreamy Lasagna Bolognese. It’s big enough for two people to eat and is stuffed with spicy Italian sausage, ricotta, parsley salad and comes with a large piece of garlic toast on the side.
There is also some family-friendly seating at a large communal table in front of the bar area in addition to outdoor seating on the patio.
Louie Mueller Barbeque
My cousin took us to this historic Texas BBQ spot in Taylor, about a 40-minute drive northeast of Austin. Louie Mueller Barbeque has been in operation since the 1940s and is revered in the TXBBQ community as being one of the premier spots for brisket in the Lone Star State. The atmosphere (and smokey smells) are totally legit.
In Texas, beef brisket is king and that’s definitely the item to order here. I also found the (gigantic) beef rib pretty tasty as well, and the sides of potato salad and beans are a nice compliment to the meal.
Pro tip for travelers: Go during the weekday to avoid the crowds. When I went on a Thursday late afternoon, we didn’t have to wait and we practically had the whole place to ourselves.
- Veracruz All Natural (various locations) – This family-run business serves authentic Mexican tacos served out of a truck. On the weekend, get there early – the crowds start to show up around 10:15 am (East Austin location).
- La Barbecue – We didn’t end up eating here b/c 1. my husband hates lines with a passion and 2. my digestive tract can only take so much meat, but this place was recommended to me by several locals as a good alternative to the famed Franklin BBQ (which is considered by many to be the number 1 barbecue restaurant in the world). Next time I visit I will definitely pre-order on their website so I don’t need to waste time waiting in line. (We walked by on a Sunday around 11 am when they opened and there was a line out the door.) Unlike Franklin BBQ, there is no minimum — however you must order at least 3 days ahead.
Launderette is a charming restaurant housed in a former coin laundry in a residential part of East Austin. It happened to be just a few blocks from our AirBnB and we ended up eating here twice during our trip because we loved it so much.
This five-year-old restaurant redefines the “New American” restaurant by pulling liberally from Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines, resulting in some exquisitely flavored (and occasionally some seriously spicy) dishes.
Some particular standouts on the dinner menu are the Beet Hummus (a picture-perfect pink spread served with an everything cracker), Striped Bass Crudo (refreshing and slightly spicy), Grilled Broccolini, and my hands-down favorite – the Cavatelli. It features an amazing smoked tomato sauce with harissa, Aleppo pepper, and Manos de Dios cheese. It definitely brings the heat but is one of the most satisfying and hearty vegetarian pasta dishes I’ve ever had. Definitely get it if it’s on the menu!
They also have what might be the best version of key lime pie I’ve ever had. It’s an icebox cake that is satisfyingly firm to slice into and perfectly complimented by pickled blackberries and sour cream ice cream.
This restaurant is also family-friendly. We saw lots of families with babies and kids eating dinner here.
Hailed as one of the best new American restaurants of 2018/2019 by Eater and Food & Wine, Suerte has made a name for itself as an innovative restaurant specializing in using traditional Mexican cooking techniques to deliver spectacular food.
The emphasis here is on masa and it works perfectly as the wrapper for the unbelievable Mushroom Tlacoyo and the base of the Kale Tostada.
I also adored the Ceviche Suerte, a delicate rendition swimming in a miso satsuma broth and drizzled with chile arbol oil. The drinks are also incredibly elegant, and then even have a house agua fresca.
Some very good ramen right lives right in the heart of Austin. You can usually spot Ramen Tatsu-ya from down the street just by looking for a snaking line of patrons waiting to get in.
There are several types of ramen you can get here – I ordered the Ol’ Skool which has a chicken shoyu broth and liked it quite a bit. They also serve favorites like a regular Tonkotsu and Miso version.
Honorable mentions: Odd Duck – Located on South Lamar, this spot was one of the original champions of locally-focused food sourcing in Austin. The format is small plates to share with the table. I recommend four to five for a party of two.
Where to stay
We stayed at an AirBnB on the East Side (East Austin) area – an up-and-coming part of town. We really enjoyed all the cool restaurants within walking distance and the slower, quieter vibe of the more residential neighborhood.
Before arriving in Austin, I read somewhere that East Side was great for visitors without a car – I can’t say I in any way shape or form agree with this assessment of the area.
With the exception of the strip of East 6th Street where all the restaurants are (which is great for food and bars), we didn’t find a great section for casually strolling by shops or activities during the day.
One great thing about East Side is you’re more likely to have an easier time parking your rental car if you have one!
If East Side is for you, I liked the location of these hotels:
However, if we had to do it all over again (without a car), I think we might opt to stay in Downtown Austin.
These hotels struck my fancy:
- LINE Austin (located right off of Lady Bird Lake – stunning views and easy access to the rest of Downtown)
- Kimpton Hotel Van Zandt
South Congress has lots of interesting shops and good restaurants but felt a little extra to me, even in the off-season there are tons of tourists and people stopping you on every corner to sign a petition.
However, if you want to be in the middle of all the action, there are two places that seem blissfully serene once you step inside despite the buzz of activity around them:
Hotel San Jose
The Hotel San Jose creates an idyllic atmosphere despite being right on the main drag of SoCo, making you feel relaxed as soon as you walk through the gates. All the rooms are situated around a beautiful courtyard. The hotel also has a pool.
South Congress Hotel
The South Congress Hotel lobby is absolutely beautiful and just an awesome place to stop in and rest your feet even if you aren’t staying there.
There is free wifi in the bar area (no password needed) and you’ll be sure to find a number of people pounding away on their laptops. In the multi-sectioned lounge area I even saw a couple with their four-legged friend, so perhaps dog-friendly?
A note about walking around Austin
Call us crazy, but we didn’t rent a car in Austin. That meant we walked everywhere or when necessary took share rides. (Be sure to download the Ride Austin app – a local alternative to Uber or Lyft.) Although we love taking public transportation, we found the Capital Metro didn’t really go where we needed to go and/or always required a connection so we never took the bus.
Many people warned us that anywhere in Texas you really need a car, but we were only in Austin for a few days and didn’t feel like we really needed one.
Distances between major sites in Austin are not far from one another (for me a native New Yorker, and my husband, an avid hiker) – but the quality of walking is terrible. I found Austin to be an extremely unfriendly place for pedestrians. I can’t tell you how many times I exclaimed, “There’s no sidewalk on this block!” throughout my time there.
Some blocks don’t even attempt to account for people on foot – it’s not uncommon for a stretch of a walk to be completely barren of sidewalks, or only have a sidewalk on one side of the street, or be required to walk along makeshift common trails people have created over the years since no sidewalks exist.
Many a time we found ourselves on streets that we wanted to walk down because there were clusters of shops and restaurants (Ceaser Chavez, South Lamar, South 1st) but they were along major 4 to 6 lane roads, with the thunderous hum of cars whizzing by non-stop. They were terrible to walk along and we would re-route ourselves to get off them as soon as we could. In all of my travels, I’ve never been more frustrated with a major city’s walking accommodations (or lack thereof) than I was in Austin.
I also heard that Austin was really bike-friendly, and this is true on the bike paths around Lady Bird Lake, but out on the streets the bike lanes I saw were sad little lanes on the side of the road and very few of them were protected or even painted a different color.
This was all really disappointing because otherwise, Austin seems like a great place to live and spend time.
However, my husband and I did really enjoy our time taking long 45 min- 1 hour strolls along the very nice park and trail area along Lady Bird Lake on our way to Downtown or South Congress. Those paths are really beautiful and peaceful and I can see why people would love running and biking along those routes every day.
Like this article? Be sure to check out my other City Guides for other food, art, and nature-focused travel itineraries.