How to have a locals-only staycation in Austin
After the holiday bustle and before the SXSW hustle is a great time for Austinites to soak up the city
Happy New Year, Austinites. It’s time to take your city back. January always feels like one of the quietest months of the year for tourist traffic. But unlike the other relatively tame months (looking at you, July), the weather in January usually doesn’t threaten to keep you trapped indoors.
With seemingly fewer visitors infiltrating our streets and cultural institutions, this time of year makes for a perfect opportunity to get out and visit our local museums, restaurants, breweries and live music venues. We’ve created this list to help start your exploration before the hordes descend yet again and we are forced to share all that we love about our city.
This is historically one of the slowest periods for Austin restaurants. They need your money and it’s a good time to take advantage of smaller crowds. The streets of downtown feel a little calmer this time of year. Heck, I venture to guess you might even be able to find street parking in the usually congested downtown grid. Make the most of the opportunity and visit some bars and restaurants you might regularly eschew for fear of overwhelming crowds.
Modern Mexican restaurant Comedor (501 Colorado St.) is making some of the best Mexican food in the state right now. The dining room is absolutely stunning, as is the glazed double-cut pork chop and grilled octopus. Chez Nous (510 Neches St.) has somehow survived all of the downtown development over the last few decades and makes for a nice quiet retreat for a date night or an indulgent lunch. And if you haven’t yet visited Fareground (111 Congress Ave.), you might be surprised to find that Austin’s first modern food hall is home to great Israeli street food (TLV), tawny roasted chicken (Contigo), artisanal tacos (Dai Due Taqueria), warming bowls of ramen (Ni-Kome) and more. For more dining ideas downtown and throughout the city, visit austin360.com/eats.
During the annual March madness otherwise known as the South by Southwest Music Festival, the cluster of clubs around Seventh and Red River streets that form the Red River Cultural District are overrun by industry types and cool-hunters searching for indie music’s next big thing. But these venues, many of which are operated by lifetime Austin music enthusiasts, are dedicated to maintaining the accuracy of the city’s “Live Music Capital of the World” moniker all year long. During the slow months, lines at the door and the bars are a breeze, and it’s easier to find a seat at one of the picnic tables on Barracuda’s patio, a stage-front spot at the Mohawk or Empire, and space to shake it out on the dance floor at Elysium or Cheer Up Charlies. The best part? Since these venues are within walking distance of each other, it’s easy to program your own SXSW-like experience and hit up more than one club in the same night.
Notable touring shows in January include the 20th anniversary tour for Tucson cowpunk outfit the Supersuckers at Empire on Jan. 23, NYC alt-rockers Nada Surf at the Mohawk on Jan. 24 and Minneapolis hip-hop duo Atmosphere at Stubb’s Amphitheater on Jan. 31. If you’re looking for local talent, check out sensational R&B singer Alesia Lani on Stubb’s indoor stage or expressive indie rockers Hikes celebrating their latest release at Barracuda on Jan. 17, punk rockers Pleasure Venom at Cheer Up Charlie’s on Jan. 11, and old school Austin acts Drums and Tuba and Brown Whornet at Empire on Jan. 25. There’s also a drag queen tribute to Dolly Parton on Jan. 17 at Elysium and an Amy Winehouse tribute at Swan Dive on Jan. 24.
Deborah Sengupta Stith
Now is precisely the time to visit an Austin museum. Any museum. Art, history, science, music, literature — it all makes more sense without the crowds.
During the past 30 years, museums have gotten infinitely better about making the audience experience more active and more social. Parties, receptions, galas, family days, student days, you name it.
It’s as if every museum director took notes from Thomas Hoving’s influential 1994 book about modernizing the museum experience, “Making the Mummies Dance: Inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”
Maybe they forgot that we'd also like some alone time with the exhibits. January is your opening.
For art, start with the Blanton Museum of Art and its landmark Ellsworth Kelly building, dubbed “Austin,” on the University of Texas campus. In the galleries through Jan. 12, see “Arte Sin Fronteras: Prints from the Self Help Graphics Studio.”
Then move downtown to the Contemporary Austin Jones Center and Mexic-Arte Museum, two excellent medium-sized art museums. “The Sorcerer’s Burden: Contemporary Art and the Anthropological Turn” continues through Feb. 2 at the Jones Center, while one of the shows at Mexic-Arte, “Unseen Prints from the Mexic-Arte Museum Collection,” runs through March 1.
In West Austin, pick up the Marcus Sculpture Park at Laguna Gloria (eat lunch there); down south, try the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum, where a powerful exhibit by Michael Ray Charles closes Jan. 12.
There’s more art around town, but that should get you started.
For history, the Bullock Texas State History Museum is doing an exceptional job bringing its permanent exhibits into the 21st century.
Two handy historical spots wait over at UT: The LBJ Presidential Library, where “Motown: The Sound of Young America” runs through Jan. 26, and the nearby Briscoe Center for American History.
Austin also hosts a half dozen “house museums,” including the Pioneer Farms complex in Northeast Austin, that show how our predecessors lived, as well as multiple focused cultural centers.
So far, Austin has built just a few small music or science museums, but we have one giant treasure trove for literature — also art, photography and performing arts — at UT’s Ransom Center. It doesn’t open until Feb. 1, but don’t miss its “Gabriel García Márquez: The Making of a Global Writer.” The show continues through July 19.
In addition to all the museums above, we love to take kids to the Thinkery during less-crowded months, such as January when the kids are back in school. This month the museum in the Mueller neighborhood is offering a class on Cupcake Geology, yummy and scientific all in one, and a take-home project of building a robot that draws. Those events happen on Saturdays and Sundays. The Cupcake Geology class requires its own ticket. Our best bet with everything Thinkery is to go online and reserve your admission tickets and class tickets in advance. If you have a kid with sensory needs, the sensory friendly hours are 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. Jan. 26 this month. Get tickets to that in advance, too. The Thinkery is open late and for free from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. every Wednesday.
If you’ve never been to the Science Mill in Johnson City, it’s worth the hour or so drive. The museum, set in an old grain mill, is interactive from the moment you arrive and has activities for older kids, too. On Jan. 18, the museum will turn its outside into a winter wonderland of science for Snow Day.
Austin is blessed with a lot of theater for families. This month Zach Theatre is bringing Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” to the stage beginning Jan. 18. It’s for ages 3 and older.
For older kids, Paramount Theatre is offering “The Magic Tree House: Showtime With Shakespeare” based on the book series. There are two showings Jan. 12.
Pollyanna Theatre Company, which brings a lot of new productions to the stage, has a new one at the end of the month. “Last Visible Dog’s Through the Slumber-Glass” is at the Carver Cultural Center beginning Jan. 25. It’s for kids 7 and older and talks about what happens when you sleep.
And if you’ve never tried the improv for children at Hideout Theatre, it’s a fun time. Every Sunday morning at 11 a.m. you become part of the show. Starting this Sunday, the theme is space.
Austin is blessed with great trails. If you’ve been stuck in a rut by just doing the hike-and-bike trail around Lady Bird Lake, try these, which are great for people of all ages.
If you thought the Austin Nature and Science Center was all about the animals and exhibits by the building, you’ve been missing one of the greatest parts: the hiking trails. Park under the MoPac Boulevard bridge in Zilker Park, then take the stairs up to the Nature Center. Head to the aviary, say hello to the owls and find the entrance to the hiking trails.
Some of Austin’s parks have great trails attached. We love to say hello to the peacocks as we head into the trails along the shores of Lake Austin at Mayfield Park off 35th Street in West Austin. Mary Moore Searight Metropolitan Park, off Slaughter Lane in South Austin, has both paved and unpaved trails. The bonus is that you can try hard to get lost, but you probably won’t succeed. You might at one point need to look out for disc golfers. What we love is the number of different paths that you can explore as well as the bridges over the creek.
Also south, Dick Nichols District Park has a lovely paved path that loops around the park, as well as primitive trails through the middle. It’s dog-friendly (on a leash) and also has tennis, volleyball and basketball courts, a playground and fields for other sports.
Southeast Metropolitan Park, 4511 Highway 71 East in Del Valle, is a Travis County park that offers both paved and primitive trails, along with playground and sports fields. The primitive trail is about 2 miles (dogs on leash welcome) and rarely crowded.
Talk about trails: St. Edward’s Park and Greenbelt is filled with them, plus access to Bull Creek and open to mountain biking. Also dog-friendly (don’t forget the leash!), the park is at 7301 Spicewood Springs Road.
Barton Springs Pool in Zilker Park is open year-round (you might have been one of the people who started the year with a Polar Bear Plunge), and it’s much less crowded during these months when the air temperature doesn’t regularly get higher than the water temperature. Even if you don’t get in the water, the area around the pool has a different kind of beauty in the winter, perfect for a serene interlude.
Nicole Villalpando and Sharon Chapman
Breweries tend to be more low-key places to wind down as it is, so they’re certainly a good bet during Austin’s slower months. Have yourself a little brewery crawl in one of the city’s brewery hubs — parts of town where these beer makers tend to congregate. (Just make sure to use a rideshare or have a designated driver.)
• North Austin: In a couple miles’ stretch near the Domain and the upcoming site of the Austin FC soccer stadium is a large cluster of breweries including Austin Beerworks, 4th Tap, Celis Brewery and the brand-new Hopsquad Brewing. Choose the ones to visit based on the kinds of beers you prefer, or maybe the atmosphere that fits your mood. Adelbert’s tends to focus on Belgian styles, for instance; Oskar Blues often has live music.
• East Austin: The breweries on the east side are a little more spread out, but you can hop in a car and easily visit a few of them on a weekend afternoon. Zilker Brewing and Lazarus Brewing are a block away from each other on East Sixth Street, with Hops & Grain located where that street dead-ends. Also nearby is the sour-focused Blue Owl Brewing. Farther north is Oddwood Ales on Manor Road. Farther east, near U.S. 183, is Southern Heights Brewing.
• South Austin: This cluster is smaller than the others, though no less worthy of a crawl. St. Elmo Brewing, Skull Mechanix and the classic (512) Brewing are all within a couple minutes’ drive of each other, but note that (512) is only open for a few hours on Saturday afternoons. Opt between the ABGB on West Oltorf Street and Pinthouse Pizza’s South Lamar location for a meal of pizza and pints.