May 24, 2014 -- When it comes to things like awesome music, great food and a pervasive fun, youthful vibe, Austin is a tough destination to beat. It remains, in fact, one of the most eclectic –- the town mantra is “Keep Austin Weird” -– and most exciting travel experiences in the country.
Bottom line: Austin rocks! Here are some of our favorite, locals-inspired things to do in the beautiful Texan capital.
Skip SXSW, Rock Utopiafest
Music festivals like South by Southwest and Austin City Limits help prove Austin’s role as a music mecca. But they just scratch the surface. One of the great festival experiences to emerge out of Austin is Utopiafest, putting on its sixth annual show September 12-13, 2014. The two-night experience unfolds near the tiny town of Utopia, surrounded by an open-air landscape of rivers, hills and mountains. So remote, there’s no cell phone reception here. But your weekend pass includes all you need: awesome music, your parking and your camping fees. The music -– about 25 up and coming bands -– happens on alternate stages. And the crowd -– topping at about 2,500 –- is small by music fest standards, creating an intimate vibe. Utopia is about 2 1/2 hours outside Austin, but “this is still very much an Austin festival,” says director Aaron Brown, a native. “At least 70 percent of our audience is from Austin. And what they love is that this is one of the loosest music festivals they’ve ever been to!” You’ll find food vendors, but BYO is encouraged.
Skip the Bridge, Bat-Gaze from the Water
Bats have become quite the draw in downtown Austin, especially in late summer, when up to 1.5 million of them can be seen emerging from the Congress Avenue Bridge every night. Pregnant Mexican free-tailed bats come here every summer to give birth. Watching them take flight on their way to hunt is well worth folding into your evening plans, but keep in mind that it can take 30 to 45 minutes for all the bats to ascend. Though tempting, “the best way to see the bats is NOT under the bridge, getting pooped on,” Heather Georgianna tells me; the associate producer at Travelzoo’s downtown Austin office has lived here for two years. Her tip? “By water bike, kayak or canoe!” The folks at Austin Water Bikes –- they’re right behind the Hyatt Regency Austin -– will rent you Hydrobikes to take on Lady Bird Lake; you’re doing the pedaling (and staying dry!) as you float along two pontoons. Their 90-minute bat-viewing tour takes place at dusk and takes riders right past the Bridge.
Skip the Lake, Tube the River
For an alternative to the popular lake experience, head to the river for what’s many a local’s favorite pastime. You could call tubing down the Guadalupe River a bona fide tradition for many Texan vacationers. The folks at Rockin ‘R’ River Rides will rent you a variety of tubes, including ones with a bottom (well worth the nominal upgrade charge) and cooler tubes for your favorite beverage. And then lazy the time away as you float on a two-, four- or six-hour trip down the Guadalupe. Rockin ‘R’ River Rides is about 45 minutes south of Austin, on the way to San Antonio.
Skip the Streets, Hang Glide
A trip to a city like Austin can be the perfect chance to check something off your personal to-do list. Like going hang gliding! The high-flying thrills at Fly Texas makes the 45-mile drive to Luling a breeze. Make it a day trip. A half-day introductory hang gliding lesson includes a thorough briefing, training on their outdoor ground school and a total of five training runs. This is a real thrill! Locals can kick it up a notch and sign up for a Beginner Package, which includes 20 flights on the training hill and, in the end, Hang 1 Certification. All classes are taught by U.S. Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association-certified instructors.
Skip the Hotel Pool, Swim the Preserve
This is a Texas watering hole at its best. Hamilton Preserve is a natural pool, the product of underground erosion millennia ago. There’s a sweeping grotto and a waterfall that spills some 50 feet. The area is also home to lush forest and rare flora. Get here by taking a ¼-mile hike from the parking lot, which is run on a one-exit, one-enter policy. Hamilton Pool is about 30 miles west of Austin. The day fee is $15 for cars and $8 for pedestrians and cyclists, with discounts for military personnel and seniors. Check the Travis County Parks website for the latest pricing, as well as swimming conditions.
Skip the Bar, Sip at the Winery
Don’t limit your libation research to the spirits at any of the great downtown bars. Wine country is thriving near Austin, with the Hill Country wine trail stretching west from Austin to a variety of wonderful small towns. Driftwood is an easy day trip – 30 to 40 minutes from Austin. At Driftwood Estate Winery, you can sip on award-winning viognier while overlooking the vineyards below; at Duchman Family Winery, the stunning Mediterranean-inspired scenery is worth a visit. If you travel to Fredericksburg, where the burgeoning wine scene is helping to drive tourism up, make a night of it and stay at a B&B. Located 75 miles west of Austin, it’s “like being in a modern day Mayberry,” Ms. Georgianna says, “with wide sidewalks and historic brick buildings that are now home to art galleries, boutiques and local artisan shops.”
Skip the Golden Arches, Dine at the Truck
Volumes can be written about the flourishing food scene in Austin. Barbecue is an experience. Fusion is alive and well. And organic, locally sourced ingredients reign supreme. For a local, one thing’s for sure: “We DO NOT eat at chain restaurants in Austin,” adds Ms. Georgianna. “We have plenty of famous local chefs (including Paul Qui) and some amazing food trucks.” Those food trucks remain the way many locals enjoy a meal. Navigating the landscape – more than 1,000 are said to roam the city – can be overwhelming, but always rewarding. “There are new ones popping up weekly,” says Leslie Reeves, a business development manager out of Travelzoo’s downtown Austin office, and an Austin native. “It can be difficult during prime times -– lunch, dinner –- and Saturdays are most definitely the worst. If you want La BBQ, expect to wait 30 minutes during the week and up to two hours on the weekend. But don't worry, they offer complimentary beer for the trouble. And the food is worth the wait.”
Skip the Highway, Drive the Speedway
Located in Kyle, about 20 minutes south of Austin, the Central Texas Speedway can make for an exhilarating family outing. The high-powered go-carts here can reach speeds of up to 65 mph and the basic package allows you 10 laps around the oval, 3/8-mile track. You can upgrade, of course, and all-day passes are sold Fridays and Saturdays. Each race session includes classroom instruction and all your gear, headsock included.
Gabe Saglie is Senior Editor for Travelzoo, which features a bevy of local deals in Austin at http://www.travelzoo.com/local-deals/Austin/deals?tz_cs=HPV1.