The entrance to Ellsworth Kelly's Austin chapel. (Courtesy of Blanton Museum)

A Modern Guide to Austin: See Ellsworth Kelly's rainbow chapel, hit the best fests + eat all the BBQ

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Austin, Texas is affectionately known as the live music capital of the world, and is of course equally famous for its barbecue.

But there's more to the Lone Star State's blue center than finger-licking brisket and crooning hipsters—well, thankfully, there is a whole lot of that. Head to the quirky city on the banks of the Colorado River, lately known as a start-up scene nicknamed Silicon Hills, for high-design boutique hotels, craft cocktails, Hill Country beauty, captivating art and, of course, those world-class festivals.


Hip Stays in Austin, TX

Spend a day by the pool while still taking in the city.

(Courtesy of Hotel Van Zandt)

The Best Hotels

New on the scene is Kimpton's Hotel Van Zandt (605 Davis St.), where luxurious rock-and-roll design, a curated collection of local music, and live bands at the restaurant riff on Austin's legendary sound scene. A stay at the Van Zandt comes at a VIP price (especially during SXSW), so book with a blind eye and relish the lavish lounges, rooftop pool, and walk-in rain shower and Bluetooth sound systems in every pet-friendly room. SF-made Public Bikes are also available to get you around downtown. // With just seven rooms, Heywood Hotel (1609 E Cesar Chavez St) is a true boutique stay, located in East Austin, one of the city's fast-growing 'hoods which is packed with hip restaurants, lounges, and shops. Amenities include luxury tubs, white noise machines, in-room internet jukeboxs, free bikes and WiFi. // Hotelier Liz Lambert is known as the host with the most in these parts, so you'll never go wrong with a stay at her OG hotel, the San Jose (1316 S. Congress Ave.), or the newer and posher St. Cecilia (112 Academy Dr.) just across the street. Both dog-friendly stays ooze effortless style and musical vibes—the famed Continental Club is just around the corner. // If tradition is what you seek, look no further than The Driskill (604 Brazos St.), known for its Southern hospitality, timeless elegant twang, and imminently affordable rates. Even during peak-travel seasons, you'll be hard-pressed to find a weekend rate over $200 a night. Look up: The copper ceiling is unique to the historic 1866 building.

Where to Eat in Austin

A meaty spread at Snow's BBQ, where pitmaster Tootsie Tomanetz is nominated for a 2018 James Beard Award.

(Courtesy of Robert Jacob Lerma, via Instagram)

BBQ, Tacos + More on the Cheap

Brisket is the real reason to eat out in Austin and its hilly surrounds. That and pork belly. And Tex-Mex. Combo all this good stuff at Valentina's Tex Mex BBQ (11500 Manchaca Rd.), a food truck serving pulled pollo tacos with sea salt lime guacamole and serrano salsa. // For something a bit more traditional to Central Texas, Franklin BBQ (900 East 11the St.) is a landmark. Order the hickory smoked brisket by the pound or sandwiched between two pieces of classic white bread. // Up for a little road trip? About an hour east of Austin you'll find Snow's BBQ (516 Main St. (Lexington), where 82-year-old pitmaster Tootsie Tomanetz starts slangin' her hickory- and applewood-smoked briskets, turkey breasts, and sausages at 8am. As for her 2018 James Beard Award nomination? Oh that? She says, "I'll try to get excited." // You can't go to Austin without ordering the absurdly gooey queso and the taco of the month (think fried chicken, waffle, egg and bacon on a flour tortilla) at Torchy's Tacos (1822 S. Congress Ave.). // Grab a well-seasoned, spicy lamb or beef shish kebab, along with the best homemade baklava this side of I-35, from Kebabalicious trailer (at 3rd and Congress). // Hanging around ZIlker Park and want something portable to eat? Head for The Mighty Cone (1720 Barton Springs Rd.) for "Hot & Crunchy" (read: deep-fried) cones filled with avocado, chicken, shrimp or all of the above. // Gelateria Gemelli (1009 E 6th St.) owners Andrew Sabola and Meghan Erwin learned how to make gelato by hand in Bologna, Italy under one of the world's best makers of the country's signature treat. In Austin, they serve homemade, all organic, small-batch gelato in such flavors as Fernet stracciatella, cardamom orange, and earl grey. Best of all, you can pair any of their tasty flavors with an amaro, cocktails, or prosecco.

Restaurants

For nearly two decades, Uchi (801 South Lamar Blvd.) has presented the city's finest, most sustainable sushi and Japanese cuisine, also turning out chef alumni who now helm many of the city's top restaurants. Come for the sake social hour with special prices on cool and hot bites; bigger spenders must opt for the 10-course omekase. // Contigo's (2027 Anchor Ln.) inviting beer garden in East Austin is the perfect setting for a menu with hefty emphasis on housemade charcuterie, the popular burger, and other meaty morsels procured from the family's ranch in nearby Fredericksberg. Go for regular events including family-style dinners and pig roasts, and also check out the new Contigo Fareground (111 Congress Ave.), the city's first local food hall with six restaurants, downtown. // Counter 3. Five. VII serves only three-, five-, and seven-course tasting menus...at the counter,, which explains the very odd name at this 24-seat eatery. Naturally you'll be in for an intimate dining experience. Watch as the chef prepares your leche de tigre or goat neck with achiote and mustard seeds. // Launderette (2115 Holly St.) is one of the most crowded restaurants in town, so prepare for a wait—the modern Mediterranean cuisine (try a "sunshine bowl" with turmeric hummus at lunch; and the king crab in beurre blanc at dinner) is worth it. Save for at least one dessert—and then order two because you just can't decide.

Austin's Best Bars + Coffee Shops

On weekends, head upstairs at Whisler's on 6th Street and find yourself in the Oaxacan-style Mezcaleria Tobala.

(Courtesy of Whisler's)

All the Booze

Possibly the finest place in the city to sip a martini and gaze at the skyline, Azul (310 East 5th St.), the rooftop bar at the Westin hotel, offers a heated pool year-round, flawless cocktails, and homemade gelato pops. // Handlebar (121 East 5th St.) is sort of the drinking-age equivalent of Chuck E. Cheese, with a five-hour happy hour (3-8pm), boozy treats named after Doc Holliday and Salvador Dali, rocking horses, and ping-pong. // Keeping Austin weird just south of downtown, Whip In (1950 S I-35) is a public house—serving Texas-made spirits and Fredericksburg wines—and curry lounge, where you can soak it all up with tasty Indian-fusion cuisine amid Wild West–inspired decor. // Whisler's (1816 E 6th St.) is the perfect combination of cozy (inside) and buzzing (on the patio). Upstairs you'll find a variety of rare mezcals at the Oaxacan-inspired bar Mezcaleria Tobala (open Fridays and Saturdays). // In the parking garage of the American National Bank building, Garage Bar (503 Colorado St.) has all the vibes of a dark, clandestine rendezvous spot with charming historical touches. // An oddity along Fourth Street, Halcyon (218 W 4th St) is part smoke lounge, part well-stocked bar, and part coffee shop serving up weekend brunch and live music every other Wednesday and Thursday.

The Other Kind of Buzz

At Lake Austin, Mozart's Coffee (3825 Lake Austin Blvd.) is a perfect place to while away a Sunday. Order the bottomless coffee and house-baked books, and kick back at a picnic table to binge listen to your favorite podcast. Expect a crowd at lunch and in the late afternoon. // Sa-Ten (916 Spingdale Rd, Bldg 3, Ste 101) is a Japanese-inspired cafe serving espresso drinks alongside all-day toasts and sandwiches, as well as pastries and protein plates. Check out Japanese cinema night on Thursdays.

Things to Do in Austin

Inside Ellsworth Kelly's 'Austin.'

Get Some Culture

There are more reason's to visit the U.T. Austin campus than football. As of Spring 2018, the university's Blanton Museum (200 E Martin Luther King Jr Blvd.) is now home to Texas' only installation by the late artist Ellsworth Kelly, who was known for his unapologetically simple yet perfectly whimsical chromatic spaces. Titled Austin, this spellbinding artistic experience, which represents Kelly's posthumously completed last work, allows visitors to enter a 2,715-square-foot building with a rainbow of stained glass windows, 14 marble panels and a totemic wood sculpture. Sometimes called an "atheist chapel," the $23 million installation was envisioned by Kelly as "a site for joy and contemplation." So step in and bliss out. // Film buffs who fancy a craft beer while they watch—and who are already regulars at the movie parties and lady's nights at San Francisco's New Mission Theater—can catch a flick at the original Alamo Drafthouse (409 Colorado St.) downtown. As always, reserve online for the best seats.

Play Outside

If it's a postcard-quality Instagram opp you seek, put Hamilton Pool (24300 Hamilton Pool Rd., Dripping Springs) atop your Austin bucket list. With a 50-foot waterfall dropping into a limestone basin, this preserve is worth the 45-minute drive from downtown. Pack your bathing suit, a picnic lunch, and cash—entrance is $15 per car (or you can pay $10 with a credit card online in advance). Go in the morning to beat the crowds. // Don't have transpo? Take a swim in town at Zilker Park's three-acre Barton Springs Pool (2201 Barton Springs Rd), where the water is 69 degrees year-round—there's no better way to beat the summer heat. While in the park, also check out the Lady Bird hike and bike trail; rent a kayak or canoe; or play a game of frisbee golf.

Hit a Festival

Founded in 1987, the SXSW conference and festival series returns March 9-13, 2018. Join the masses for one of the country's most epic celebrations of music, film, comedy, interactive art, media and technology. This year's lineup includes appearances ranging from Senator Cory Booker to astronaut Buzz Aldrin, more than 2,000 musical performances, nice days of film screenings (through Mar. 17), gaming and wellness expos, and so much more. // In the fall, don't miss one of the country's coolest destination music events: Austin City Limits (Oct. 5-7 and 12-14, 2018 at Zilker Park) promises 140 bands across eight stages plus killer food, drink and fun.

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