Austin feels like a circus. Many of the city’s best restaurants and Airbnb rentals are on wheels, meaning the entire place is one heartbreak and a trailer hitch away from hitting the road. But Austin holds it together with a very cool head, surviving the swarm of pop culture groupies who invade the city during South by Southwest, the entire legislative body of Texas, and even the 50,000 college students who call the University of Texas at Austin home. Here’s how to spend one amazing night in the Austin Big Top, no matter when you mosey into town.
1 P.M. Cement a good base for the rest of your night at Odd Duck, the brick-and-mortar version of the Odd Duck food trailer that used to be parked in its spot. Here, the team behind Southern food rock star Barley Swine is using local ingredients to reinvent what bar food can be. The casual, country-chic eatery serves unbelievable sandwiches such as a pig-face Cuban (smoked ham, Swiss, chile mustard and pickles) and a beef-tongue Reuben (New York rye, sauerkraut and Russian dressing). Order up sides of the sunchoke tater tots (made with the fibrous root of the sunflower plant) and the beer-battered sweet potato hunks, which are slathered with sweet Asian chile sauce, peanuts, coconut and cilantro. Wash it all down with one of Odd Duck’s signature, barrel-aged cocktails. We love the 12 Year Itch: El Dorado 12-year rum, sweet vermouth and a splash of the bartenders’ favorite bitter, Fernet-Branca.
2:15 P.M. Meander on over to the Texas state capitol building for your only opportunity to see cowboy hats in the wild in Austin. The free Heroes of the Texas Revolution tour offers a thorough lesson on the Lone Star state. For example, did you know Texas has been governed by six different countries in its history? Or that “Come And Take It” is the most badass rebel slogan of all time? The rotunda is lined with paintings and life-sized marble statues of the legendary women and men who helped shape the state such as Stephen Austin, Sam Houston, and George W. Bush. But don’t expect to run into any lawmakers; the legislature takes the odd years off.
3:30 P.M. Learning is exhausting, so run into Radio Coffee and Beer for a quick pick-me-up. The coffee shop-bar hybrid (a popular category in Austin) pours Stumptown cold-brew from a nitro draft straight into a frosty pint glass. The black coffee and thick crema head looks and tastes as rich as a Guinness.
4:30 P.M. Many of Austin’s famous food trucks are collected in self-proclaimed “trailer parks” around the city. One such park on 1st Street includes Gourdough’s Donuts, an Airstream that fries up dough balls that are so honking big you will wonder why they don’t come with a warning from the surgeon general. You can’t go wrong with the Flying Pig (a donut topped with maple syrup icing and strips of bacon) or the Southern classic Mama’s Cake, which is filled with yellow cake batter and iced with chocolate fudge.
5:30 P.M. Get your boot-scootin’-boogie on at White Horse, an authentic and dingy honky-tonk in east Austin. Live bands (as opposed to dead bands) play country tunes every night, drawing in friendly young and old Western fans for two-stepping. If you aren’t dancing yet, stand along the edge of the dance floor with a can of Lone Star and a shot of whiskey from the tap. You’ll catch the eye of a dance—and drinking—partner in no time.
7:30 P.M. During the spring and summer in Austin, you can witness the awe-inspiring terror of nature from the Congress Avenue Bridge. Every day at sundown, 1 million free-tailed bats venture out of their homes under the bridge in search of delicious bugs. The colony is the largest in any North American city, and it can take up to 45 minutes for all of them to escape. You can stand on the bridge or along the banks of Lady Bird Lake to witness the spectacle. But we much prefer watching with a glass of rum punch in hand from the back porch of Jacoby’s Restaurant and Mercantile, a ranch-to-table eatery and shop on the Colorado River. From here, you can also avoid being hit with flying bat poo. In October the bats migrate south to Mexico, where they will spend the winter.
8:30 P.M. You have two dinner options at Qui: meat or vegetables. The buzzy Filipino restaurant from Top Chef winner Paul Qui only serves prix fixe menus, one suitable for vegetarians and one definitely not. Sit at the counter, flip through the house collection of indie Austin travel guides, and watch the cooks work their way through your seven courses, like Wagyu shortrib rubbed with tamarind, wasabi and coffee bean, and surprise snacks, like crackers with homemade Easy Cheese. The bizarre flavors and hot smoking grill will assault your senses, but it’s worth it: The last time we ate at Qui we spotted Paul taking photos with diners.
10 P.M. Sixth Street in downtown Austin is a junior varsity Bourbon Street. Austin draws a younger, less experienced drinking crowd than New Orleans does, which means you’ll have to be on your game to avoid being hit with regurgitated Jose Cuervo. Luckily Sixth Street is physically wider than Bourbon, so you have more clearance from the spew. The street is conveniently closed off to auto traffic at night, so you could wander between bars, music venues and rooftop terraces doing vapor shots all night. It’s a good time in moderation, but sometimes you need a little more swank. The freestanding East Side Show Room, also on Sixth Street, slings vintage cocktails like the Torreador (tequila, apricot, lemon and cinnamon) in a steam-punk-esque lounge. Then there’s Midnight Cowboy, an exclusive speakeasy located in an old brothel. You’ll want to make an online reservation before showing up, but we’ve had luck with just walking in. Look for a door with the “Midnight Cowboy Oriental Massage” sign hanging out front. Ring the buzzer that says Harry Craddock and a bartender will answer the door and check for open seats. The dark bar is intimate and skinny, just wide enough for a black leather booth on either side of a center aisle. For many drinks, the bartenders roll a bar cart down the aisle and prepare them table-side, just like they would in a fancy train car.
12 A.M. Whisler’s bar looks like the perfect setting for a Pinterest-optimized barn wedding: dramatic cathedral ceiling, dangling glass chandelier, iron chairs and white-washed tables. The cocktails are irresistibly fun, like the I Yam What I Yam, which is a combo of buttered rum, amaro, bitters and sweet potato shrub. The bartender garnishes the drink with a skewered marshmallow that he toasts right in front of you. There’s even a second, hidden bar upstairs that only serves mezcal. The intimate, Oaxacan-style joint known as Mezcalería Tobalá serves nearly a dozen varieties of mezcal. Order a flight of half pours (¾ oz. each) served in traditional clay copitas.
1 A.M. As long as you’ve been drinking liquor, you should be in the clear for Craft Pride, Austin’s best beer bar. There are dozens of craft brews on tap and you can even buy a Craft Pride koozie that’s big enough to squeeze on a pint glass. Get the “Best of Texas” flight, which includes five pints of local beers served in a tree stump, and carry it outside to one of the bar’s picnic tables. But the beer isn’t the only reason to hit Craft Pride: food truck Via 313 is parked out back. Its unique, Detroit-style pizza comes on a crust that’s similar to focaccia bread. The square pies are served on round metal trays—this seems mind blowing at 1 A.M., trust us—and The 500 (cheese, pepperoni, jalapeños and rings of pineapple) is sweet, hot and particularly satisfying on a booze-filled stomach.
3 A.M. Everything shuts down at 2 A.M., so head back to your room at the historic Driskill Hotel and shotgun a couple of cans of Cuvee Coffée’s Black and Blue nitro cold brew. You’ve got to pull yourself together because there are only a few more hours until you need to get in line outside Franklin Barbecue for a chance at a plate of the best smoked brisket in South Texas. The pit doors open at 11 A.M. and close as soon as the meat runs out. Then again, you can always try again tomorrow. You weren’t planning on leaving, now were you?
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. She’s proud to call Texas home. Follow her on Twitter: @amshep