Off-the-Beaten-Path: The Weekender's Guide to Outdoor Adventure around Austin

Taking in the view of downtown Austin and Ladybird Lake
Taking in the view of downtown Austin and Ladybird Lake Jake Wheeler
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Yeah, you’ve heard Austin is one of the coolest cities in the nation, blah, blah, blah. It’s time you got to know more of this town. Because while Austin is indeed on many of the “best of” lists, that’s like seeing a photo-shopped model on a magazine cover. Sometimes you want to see the real thing, up close and personal. (Okay, sometimes you don’t, but roll with me here.)

Sometimes, especially in the case of this city, a closer view is better. There’s more to Austin than SXSW, ACL, SoCo, and other culture-certified acronyms. Below are some tips for those who prefer personal feedback over glossy tourist-book reviews. And even though some of these spots are no secret, and you still might find them on various “hot” lists, these are a few Austin-authentic places to find your own hideaway in a town with so many buzzworthy finds.

Where to Get Caffeinated

Mozart's Coffee offers up one of the best outdoor patios in Texas
Mozart's Coffee offers up one of the best outdoor patios in Texas Jill Shih

Keeping in line with Austin’s “Seattle of the South” reputation, Austin does, in fact, have lots of really interesting coffee shops. Whether you want loud, quiet, chic, upscale, anti-scale, WiFi, low-fi, or whatever, Austin's got it.

For starters, to get a feel for the west-side Colorado river scene, head to Mozart’s. This place isn't some secret hole in the wall, but what makes it special, in addition to its very full drink menu, is its setting. It’s right on Lake Austin, with an outside boardwalk deck. Lots of University of Texas students frequent Mozart’s, so you’ll hear all sorts of great conversations, ranging from advanced physics to Hegelian philosophy, to socialist political rhetoric, to who drank what out of Chad’s belly button at the frat party last night.

Next, if you’re visiting Austin and want to see what the likes of Lance Armstrong creates in his off time, check out Juan Pelota. It’s a coffee shop owned by Lance, and named in honor of his survival of testicular cancer, which left him with one, um, pelota. It’s not just a gimmicky place either. They’ve got a solid, consistent selection of standard caffeine mixtures, including a great cold brew, as well as excellent smoothies. The place also is a nice tribute to the cycling culture that’s so prevalent in Austin.

A third selection takes you to the South Lamar area, which has been known as the Keep Austin Weird epicenter and keeps the local-business vibe alive and well. Irie Bean’s coffee is all from locally roasted, fair-trade beans, and they like to keep everything community-minded. It is one of those coffee shops to just relax and enjoy whatever the day brings, and the ambiance, baristas, and patrons of Irie Bean remind you that even though Austin is a forward-thinking city, it's not all about selling out just for the sake of progress. And if you don’t necessarily equate “caffeine” with “chill,” they also offer beer, wine, and champagne.

Where to Hit the Trail

Taking a dip along the Barton Creek Greenbelt
Taking a dip along the Barton Creek Greenbelt Bruce Turner

It’s obvious that Austin is an outdoorsy town, and thousands of locals hit the trails every day. What makes central Texas particularly spectacular for hiking is its famous Hill Country. The topography—limestone and granite hills, cliffs divided by spring-fed rivers and streams, and all of it covered with lush junipers and live oaks—makes for some of the best winding, shaded footpaths in the state. What’s more is the various types of trails the Hill Country offers, including miles of easy greenbelt just minutes away from downtown, or miles of rugged, steep terrain in wild old ranchlands in the middle of nowhere, and everything in between.

The best hiking closest to downtown is, without a doubt, the Barton Creek Greenbelt. Although the Greenbelt is well known for everything from rock climbing to caving, its trails offer great seclusion and range from flat, creekside strolls to steep trails like the Hill of Life.

For a taste of real Texas Hill Country, make a day trip to Enchanted Rock. This otherworldly spot features a massive pink granite dome rising up from am otherwise green-and-white landscape of limestone and juniper. The park offers five major trails, fire-pit camping, and outback primitive camping as well as rock climbing and a cave that tunnels through the backside of the rock. It’s definitely one of the best destinations for an all-around excellent day-trip through the Texas Hill Country.

If you’re in town for a weekend or a week, and you just need to get out and expend as much energy as possible, go to one of the hardest day hikes in central Texas—Lost Maples. It’s definitely no Everest, but for a good little day hike with some steep, rugged sections, it will definitely get your blood pumping. Not too far away from Austin, but far out enough, this place is a great spot to get out and find some solitude.

Where to Go Climbing

Bouldering at McKinney Falls State Park
Bouldering at McKinney Falls State Park Carlo Nasisse

Sure, Austin may not have the Rockies or Appalachians or Yosemite, but it does have lots of granite and limestone and a thriving climbing scene. It has enough cliffs and overhangs and grottoes and boulders to give any climber a decent fix, and every climber here is as dedicated and enthusiastic as, or even more than, climbers you'll find anywhere else. All in all, Austin has great spots for beginners and experts alike.

The immediate option for great climbing in Austin is the Barton Creek Greenbelt. The Greenbelt offers over 200 routes, ranging from 5.8 to 5.12+, so you’ll definitely find something that’s just what you’re looking for. The entire Greenbelt is the perfect area for a quick getaway into nature, as its miles of trails, creekside, caves, and general laid-back culture give it an all-encompassing tranquil vibe.

Some of the best climbing in all of Central Texas can be found at Reimer’s Ranch. Only about a half hour away from downtown, it’s an excellent place to spend either a half-day, single-route trip or a full weekend getaway. If you want to spend the night or weekend, stay at Rock Dog campground, just around the corner, since the park itself doesn’t offer camping. Reimer’s climbs range from 5.7 to 5.14 and offer a variety of overhangs and verticals.

Where to Paddle

An urban paddle on Ladybird Lake
An urban paddle on Ladybird Lake pixajen

Austin is a river city, and the entire Central Texas area prides itself on its rivers and streams, so there are lots of wonderful spots to get on the water. SUP , canoe , scull , kayak, paddle bike, or even inner tube—whatever your preferred method—you’ll find a place to do it. One caveat about Austin-area paddling, though, is the sensitivity of our waterways . Combined with ongoing drought, our aquifer-dependent springs and streams have not been offering the whitewater that they used to, and we are protective of these limited natural resources. Still, there is plenty of water to enjoy responsibly.

If you want to get on the water in Austin, the first, easiest, and perfect choice is right in the heart of downtown—Ladybird Lake. Rent your boat or board of choice and start at Texas Rowing Center or The Rowing Dock and paddle around just out front or do the out-and-back to Redbud Isle. This is probably the best possible way to see Austin, and you owe yourself the view.

For whitewater, head to Rio Vista Whitewater Park, just about 30 minutes south from downtown. This place offers everything from a standing wave, multiple rapids, and all the amenities a good park should offer.

Where to Unwind

Exploring urban Austin offers up all sorts of 'weird' cultural surprises
Exploring urban Austin offers up all sorts of 'weird' cultural surprises Jake Wheeler

If for nothing else, Austin is known worldwide for its nightlife. And with people like Willie Nelson and Matthew McConaughey as some of its unofficial mascots, this Live Music Capital of the World really knows how to unwind. The live music clubs, pubs, and dining are all internationally acclaimed. Still, there are hundreds of spots you’ll never hear about in the scenester’s press, but here are a few you might want to check out.

First, you’ve got to experience Austin’s outdoor bars. Local favorites range from newer funky-hip scenes like Spiderhouse and Butterfly Bar, to live-music institutions like the Scoot Inn, to hippie dives like the Whip In, to backyard-style venues like Moontower Saloon, to traditional beer-geek pubs like the Draught House. Yes, there are a lot to choose from, and what’s best is that they all have ample outdoor space to take advantage of mild Texas evenings.

Every city, including Austin, has fine dining establishments to fill your belly, but forget that. For a more down-to-earth, authentic Austin experience of pre-nightlife dining and general daytime unwinding, there are two main things you should try—the farmers markets and the food trucks. The Barton Creek Farmers Market is one of the Top 10 in the nation. Stroll the rows of vendors and pick up meals made with local ingredients, from grass-fed meats to artisan cheeses and heirloom produce.

And you absolutely must experience the food trucks. Yes, you may have heard about the thriving, edge-pushing Austin food truck scene, so it’s not one of the best-kept secrets, but this is one experience you’ll just have to find on your own. You can read about it, stroll and wander into one of the several parks, or just talk to people and ask around where the several little truck parks are. That’s right, it’s okay to actually talk to people in Austin. While many Austinites may be weird—and proudly so—most of them are indeed Texas-friendly as well.

Where to Get a Good Night’s Rest

A rowdy night at the Firehouse Lounge and Hostel
A rowdy night at the Firehouse Lounge and Hostel MarkScottAustinTX

Because Austin is a major metropolis, there are hundreds of places to choose from to stay the night. From five-star hotels, to cozy bed and breakfasts, to affordable private residences, you can find something to fit your style—unless it’s festival season, when even park benches rent for $500 a night. But if you’re looking for something a little different, consider a hostel, or even a peaceful campground .

The Firehouse Lounge and Hostel is one very cool place for a decent price. It’s located literally in the city’s oldest fire station and it offers an elaborate and ornate cocktail, beer. and wine menu, not to mention chic Euro-style rooms, which consistently garner great reviews. It’s also a perfect spot for meeting up with local friends or meeting new ones.

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