A couple months back, I wrote a mini-alternative travel guide for my own hometown for the past 11 years, Austin, Texas. And you guys liked it! So much so that I’ve actually received several requests for more “insider” travel info and other best-kept hidden Austin secrets since then.
That made me think: what other places do I frequent that would never make one of the tourist guidebooks? And I came up with 10 great spots even a lot of locals probably don’t know about. So without further ado, here’s my top ten picks for “hidden Austin” spots to enjoy, where you’ll see nary a tourist in sight.
- Small Victory
Tucked away just a block off of the famed Sixth Street lies Small Victory, a fantastic little cocktail bar with an ever-changing menu and bartenders happy to create a custom concoction to suit your mood. That is…if you can find it.
While this spot hasn’t jumped on the hype wagon of being a full-blown speakeasy, they’re also not going to great lengths to advertise their presence, either. If you want to find it, go to E. 7th street, just across the street from the back of the Driskill Hotel, next to the alley. Look for a glass door with a red V on it. Enter said door. Go up the circular stairway, and voila. You’ve found your new favorite drinking den.
- Quarry Lake
Nothing more touristy than heading out to Town Lake, I mean, Lady Bird Lake and renting a SUP or kayak on a hot summer day, right? One problem: Lady Bird Lake is disgusting. All the car runoff from the multiple bridges makes this definitely not the water you want to swim in. Not to mention that the place is packed.
But what if I told you that there was a secret spring-fed lake away from the hordes of tourists and car run-off where you can virtually have the place to yourself? Enter Quarry Lake, up in the Arboretum neighborhood. And thanks to Pure Austin gym, you can also rent SUP boards and kayaks on the lake for just the cost of a $25 day-pass. My advice is to make a day of it. Take a yoga class, hit the rock climbing wall, then head out to the lake to cool down.
- Go Glamping in the Middle of the City
If (like me) your spouse is always trying to get you to go camping, whereas your idea of fun comes more in the form of a hotel, there’s a very Austin-y compromise to your problem. A local has turned his backyard into a mini-campground with three unique places to rest your head: the Insta-Inn, Motel Camper, and Urban Yurt.
Each accommodation can sleep up to two people, or you can rent the whole thing and bring a group. Additional amenities include a fire pit, grill, outdoor shower, and outdoor projector stocked with Hulu, Netflix, and more. You can rent them all via Airbnb.
- Barking Springs
Everyone knows about the Barton Springs pool, a spring-fed pool lined with grass that stays a chilly 78 degrees year-round. But if you have a dog? You’re out of luck. No pets are allowed inside the Springs, proper. Luckily, you don’t have to go far to find a spot that’s more accomodating for your furry friend.
Just down the path from the entrance to Barton Springs, where the water spills over the wall into Barton Creek, you’ll find “Barking Springs.” A safe haven for dog-owners, teenagers who don’t want to pay the regular entrance fee, and moms of kiddos who are better off wading in the shallows than swimming in a full-depth pool, it’s the same water, just with fewer restrictions.
- Flaming Shots at Cheers
If you’re coming to Austin for the first time, I know you’re going to spend some time on 6th street, affectionately known by locals as “Dirty 6th”. That’s cool. But as they say, “go big or go home”. And get that camera ready, cause this next one is highly Instagrammable…
Head to Cheers Shot Bar, walk through the bar to the back patio, and ask the back bartender for “Flaming Dr. Pepper” shots for your crew. He/she will craft you a tasty little shot, in which the “grand finale” is a flaming dragon breath spray of fire across the top. Seriously. It’s a real show-stopper for out-of-towners, but you have to know to ask for it. Keep in mind you’re better off doing this before 10pm or so…if the back patio is too crowded, the staff will smartly decline doing any flaming shots.
- Butler Park Pitch & Putt
So you like golf. You can certainly venture out to Top Golf to pay $20 a person to play and $10 a drink or you could drive over an hour and plunk down a $75+ greens fee to play one of the award-winning courses in the Hill Country. But if you’re just wanting to hit a few balls during a bachelor party or weekend trip to the city, then you need to know about Butler Park.
The tiny little hidden Austin gem is tucked right next to downtown, and offers a 9-hole, par three course for just $10 a person. It’s also BYOB, and there’s certainly not a dress code. The spot can get a bit crowded and the greens are atrocious, but if you just want a casual game, it’s hard to beat the price, location, and policies. Even better, when you’re finished you can go across the street to the funkily charming Peter Pan Mini Golf and get in some putting practice as well. (It’s also BYOB!)
- Belly Dancings at Phara’s
Phara’s is a quirky little hidden Austin spot out on Airport Blvd, an up-and-coming area of Austin full of restaurants, bars, and cool shopping. But if all you did was peek your head inside Phara’s front door, you probably wouldn’t think much of it. To get the full experience, you need to go through the tiny indoor portion of the restaurant and out the back.
There, you’ll find the absolutely huge backyard area of Phara’s, which offers tons of tables, gazebos, and private rooms where you can sweat the night away. They serve fairly passable Mediterranean food, but the real reason to visit is the entertainment: belly dancers, sword swallowers, and fire-walkers all perform regularly, and you can rent hookahs by the hour as well. Add in the fact that the establishment is BYOB ($3 cork/glass fee per person), and you can enjoy a thoroughly entertaining evening for a very, very low price.
- Waller Creek Strolling
Last night we ventured to downtown Austin to see the new "Forever Bicycles" installation by Chinese artist @aiww . The piece contains nearly 1,300 bicycles that, despite being stationary, seem to create a blur of movement as you look at it. very cool! . . . #bicycles #bicycle #bicyclesforever #aiweiwei #art #urbanart #sculpture #metalwork #abstractart #streetart #chineseart #chineseartist #austin #austintx #atx #texas #artatx
Austin is certainly not hurting for places one can walk near a body of water, but one of the most overlooked may be Waller Creek, which runs through the center of the city. The path (parts of which are under construction) can take you frown downtown bars (like Easy Tiger) all the way to Waller Creek Boathouse, on the delta of the creek’s mouth on Lady Bird Lake.
Along the way, you’ll pass the interactive art exhibit by internationally renowned artist Ai Weiei, featured in the above photo. Once you get to the Boathouse, you can either grab a coffee while overlooking the lake at Alta’s, or rent a kayak and take to the water yourself. In particular, this is a GREAT place to rent a kayak for bat watching — you’ll get a much better view of the Congress Avenue bats nightly flight if you’re looking up at them from the water, rather than trying to spot them from the scorching and crowded Congress Avenue bridge.
- Craft Austin
If you’re feeling crafty, there’s a better way than those boring paint-and-drink group classes that are all over Groupon these days where everyone (badly) attempts to pain the same picture. In Austin, you can venture over to Craft, where for $10 an hour, you are treated to a “crafting buffet” of items you can make all by yourself.
They’ve got projects like macrame plant hangers, glitter bath bombs, succulent gardens, custom embroidery, create-your-own dreamcatcher, not to mention all the “basic” crafts like painting, screenprinting, jewelry making, and more. And of course, in true Austin style, it’s BYOB. Perhaps the best part of all? No kids allowed. This place is for grown-up crafting, only.
- Electric Boats on Town Lake
You may have heard that there’s no boat traffic on Lady Bird Lake, running through the middle of Austin. And that’s mostly true: there’s no motorized boat traffic on Lady Bird Lake. But electric boats, liked the ones from Capital Cruises, are a-ok.
Even better, the small duffy boats come with a canopy to provide shade, don’t require any sort of boating license, and are light and fun to maneuver. We took one out for a date night to watch the sunset and downtown lights come to life with a catered meal of fajitas from the nearby Hyatt Austin, and it was a really fantastic evening. You can rent them for $65 per hour for a group of up to 10 people — which, if divided by a larger group is very reasonable.
So there ya have it. 10 of my favorite “hidden Austin” secret places, guaranteed to make your time in our fine town even better.