Austin, Texas: Most of us know it as the self-proclaimed “Live Music Capital of the World,” home to SXSW, and a place that gets really, really hot in the summer.
But for an active, social 20-something, it’s the perfect destination for a quick, last-minute solo trip. Yep, as in deciding to go somewhere by yourself – tomorrow. And there’s plenty to do here over a short period of time that’s mostly free.
Getting (and Staying) There
You can search for last-minute airfare and usually get a decent price. For lodging, take a gamble on Hotwire like I did, and you might get lucky and end up at the Holiday Inn Austin – Town Lake Hotel.
Clean and reasonably priced, this hotel is situated at the head of a popular running trail on Lady Bird Lake and is a free shuttle ride or a $5 cab ride to/from downtown.
What to Do in a Nutshell
Since you have two days, pack in as diverse an experience as possible. I’m talking running, bar-hopping, and bat-watching with a little bit of government, history, and lots and lots of walking.
With more than 50,000 University of Texas students nearby, there is plenty of late-night fun to be had, too – just head to Sixth Street.
For the Party Girl (or Guy)
Paradise Café is my pick, as suggested by the group of Texas natives who were kind enough to adopt me into their group when I went solo. In the vicinity of Sixth and Trinity, this 30-year-old bar features an upstairs New Orleans-style outdoor patio that looks onto partygoers in the street (which is closed off to cars at night).
For the really active types or day-drinkers, don’t miss out on the Pubcrawler, a self-propelled party on wheels. Trust me, you've got to see it for yourself.
For the Old-school Hipsters
If dancing on a stage to loud, crazy music or peddling around with other drunkies isn’t your thing, perhaps listening to some old-school hip-hop while playing board games is.
A local Austinite who scooped me ice cream at the must-have Amy’s Ice Creams highly recommended Kung Fu Saloon, just off Sixth Street on Rio Grande, and it doesn’t disappoint.
Here, you can play old-school video games like Mortal Kombat III and Ms. Pac-Man, or partake in a game of chess or Giant Jenga, all while listening to a live DJ and enjoying the full bar, which includes 24 beers on tap and a specialty Sake Bomb menu.
For the Outdoorsy Type
The Lady Bird Lake/Town Lake trail is one of the most popular trails in Austin, so expect lots of people. The trail head is right behind your hotel if you stay in the Holiday Inn Town Lake, and it’s a pleasant, mostly flat walk (or run or bike ride).
On a really hot day, you’ll want to follow the signs to Barton Springs, a natural spring-fed pool that remains 68 degrees year-round and, at 900 feet long, is the largest natural pool in the United States in an urban setting.
And what great outdoorsman (or woman) doesn’t like a healthy snack after all that activity? Head down Sixth Street to the very first Whole Foods Market – just try not to get lost in there, because this flagship store is the largest of them all!
For the Animal Lover (Um, Sort of)
The largest urban bat colony in North America lives under the Congress Avenue bridge, where throngs of people (mainly tourists, but locals too) flock just before sundown each evening to watch 1.5 million bats emerge from under the bridge and fly into the dusk.
Stand on the side of the Lady Bird Lake running trail, or rent a paddle board or kayak and post up in the water to enjoy the view.
For the History Buffs
Founded in 1853, UT is one of the nation’s largest universities and is home to Bevo the Texas longhorn, and also a famous tragedy. In 1966, student Charles Whitman opened fire atop the UT Tower, a 307-foot-tall building on the campus, killing 14 people and wounding dozens more.
Despite its haunting tale, though, the UT Tower, which was originally built through an organization created under the New Deal, recently celebrated its 75th anniversary. Today, it’s home to offices, libraries, classrooms, and the bells that sound across campus.
As seen from the UT campus, the State Capitol also offers its share of history and photo opps. According to the State Preservation Board, the Texas State Capitol is an extraordinary example of late 19th-century public architecture and was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1986 for its significant contribution to American history.
For the Artist
There’s not much about Austin that isn’t artsy. From hand-crafted keepsakes and live music to, well, just some really weird stuff, there’s a whole gamut of artistic options in this city. Near UT on the weekends, there are a smattering of crafty vendors selling their handmade bracelets and accessories – perfect souvenirs that won’t cost you much.
The Museum of the Weird is in the same building as Lucky Lizard Curios & Gifts on Sixth Street and is open daily for a $5 admission fee. Or, if you’re looking for something a little more traditional, check out the Austin Museum of Art on Congress Avenue, which exhibits 20th-century and contemporary art, as well as hands-on public education programs.
And since you’ll inevitably be spending a lot of time in the Sixth Street area, do pop into as many of the shops as you can, where you’ll find unique T-shirts and music paraphernalia galore.
If you’re only in Austin for two days, stay as close to Sixth Street as possible, keep your smartphone handy for GPS walking directions, and don’t be afraid to mingle with the locals!