A lot of people try to equate Austin with living in LA. And although it’s true that the influx of West Coasters flooding the Silicon Valley of the Southwest is vexing to the locals, it’s not enough to rob one of the greatest cities in the world of its unique flavor—at least not yet anyway. Whether you’re flying in for a weekend or trucking halfway across the country down Interstate 10, getting to Austin carries a totally different level of electricity, eclecticism and charcoal-smoked charm.
Whereas LA might have its food and music scenes nailed down, rarely do they exist at such a high level at the same time, especially around the time most out-of-towners visit Austin for South By Southwest. Though this tiny article is a laughably small space to talk about this illustrious state capital, it’s worth mentioning some key spots that anyone spending a couple of days here would enjoy. Starting with downtown, the hub where cultures collide, you can find a different vibe down every street. The Fifth Street scene, with its fine dining and packed watering holes such as Handlebar (121 E. Fifth St., Austin, 512-344-9571; handlebaraustin.com) and Antone’s (305 E. Fifth St., Austin, 512-814-0361, antonesnightclub.com), offers a more upscale experience without sacrificing any of the party atmosphere that feeds off local and touring bands that can always be heard from the street. This is especially true at Handlebar, which has a rooftop bar and stage that’s typically packed with stiff drinks and good-time locals looking for some sweat, soul, and rock & roll.
An even crazier scene awaits you on Sixth Street (a.k.a. “the Dirty Sixth”), with its mashup of more than 52 bars and clubs servicing a never-ending rush of the nightlife crowd, Cedar Park residents and tourists when the sun goes down with trap, reggae and dance music blaring out of every other window—a scene that feels like a chopped and screwed version of Mardi Gras. Make sure to hit up the better bars for not only fun, but also an insane amount of people-watching: Easy Tiger (709 E. Sixth St., Austin, 512-614-4972; easytigeraustin.com), Midnight Cowboy (313 E. Sixth St., Austin, 512-843-2715; midnightcowboymodeling.com), The Dizzy Rooster (306 E. Sixth St., Austin, 512-236-1667; www.dizzyrooster.com), The Chuggin’ Monkey (219 E. Sixth St., Austin, 512-476-5015; www.thechugginmonkey.com) and Shakespeare’s (314 E. Sixth St., Austin, 512-472-1666; www.shakespearesaustin.com).
If you’re giving into your hipster sensibilities, travel farther down East Sixth Street to find some decent spots such as Valhalla (710 Red River St., Austin, 512-476-0997; do512.com/venues/valhalla), Hotel Vegas (1502 E. Sixth St., Austin; texashotelvegas.com) and Shangri-La (1016 E. Sixth St., Austin, 512-524-4291; shangrilaaustin.com). Just be ready to encounter a lot of mustaches and garage rock.
For a more whimsical-style country rager, bars on Rainey Street such as the circus-themed Unbarlievable (76 Rainey St., Austin, 512-710-8401; unbarlievable.com), which has a weird concept but really good sound for live bands, and the back-porch vibes of The Alibi (96 Rainey St., Austin, 512-953-8469; thealibiaustin.com) inject some modern flair into one of the city’s more historic areas.
Of course, visiting the Austin bar scene would be a waste of time without paying your respects to revered spots such as the Continental Club (1315 S. Congress Ave., Austin, 512-441-2444; continentalclub.com), The White Horse (500 Comal St., Austin, 512-553-6756; www.thewhitehorseaustin.com) or the Skylark Lounge (2039 Airport Blvd., Austin, 512-730-0759; skylarkaustin.com), where the city got its bluesy, countrified swagger. Offering a swath of old-time legends or guitar heroes in the making on any given night, the neighborhood known as South Congress is a must-visit for any first-time Austin tourist to stop for a drink.
And what the hell are you even doing in Austin if you’re not down to try something that’s been barbecued? Sticking to carnivores here, your absolute smartest decision would be to party all night, then roll up to Franklin BBQ (900 E. 11th St., Austin, 512-653-1187; franklinbarbecue.com) when the sun comes up. Don’t be surprised if you’re not the first one there; the line is long, and the people are dedicated. The jiggly, glistening brisket with silky rendered fat and melt-in-your-mouth ribs are so good the kitchen usually runs out by lunch time. Second on the list (and a much easier wait) is Valentina’s (11500 Manchaca Rd., Austin, 512-221-4248; valentinastexmexbbq.com), a Tex-Mex-style trailer serving some of the best pulled pork known to man. Though this is still barely scratching the surface of one of ’Merica’s wondrously weird cities, hopefully it’s enough to whet your appetite and question why the hell it took you this long to check it out.
Nate Jackson is the gatekeeper to your dreams of local dive bar stardom. If he writes about you, expect your band to be offered at least one more drink ticket than the rest of the bands on the bill. Get his attention with some groovy tunes and he might just do it. Then, boy will you feel special.