Austin is booming. From the high-rise apartment buildings dotting downtown’s skyline to the traffic congestion crawling along Mopac (the city’s main north-south artery) Austin is a city still very much in transition. All that change is driving Austinites to drink. Luckily, there are more—and more excellent—offerings than ever from which to choose, from craft cocktail bars to classic honky tonks.
The city is split by the Colorado River, referred to as Lady Bird Lake as it passes through downtown, and South and North Austin have distinctly different vibes, in part due to their divergent histories. For decades, South Austin contained the city’s grit, its—dare we say—weirdness, while North Austin was more clean-cut, defined by students and faculty from the University of Texas, but all that is changing. East Austin has its own complicated history, but it’s become the epicenter for all things new, including some of the city’s best restaurants and bars.
For all of the city’s progressive values, it’s still not very walkable, so keep your phone charged and your rideshare apps ready.
Just a few streets over from Austin’s iconic South Congress Avenue, the South Lamar district in some ways encapsulates “new Austin,” with high-rise apartment buildings towering over new restaurants and trendy bars. But the area manages to maintain South Austin’s laid back, neighborly charm, with all the services people need in a neighborhood, from car repair to cleaners to a cooperative grocery.
Start at Radio Coffee & Beer, which is technically on Manchaca (pronounce it “man-shack” if you want to sound like a local), just off South Lamar. Austin loves a good patio, and the one at Radio sets the standard, with twinkle lights strung between towering oaks that shelter wooden picnic tables and dogs sniffing for dropped taco crumbs (Veracruz All Natural’s food trailer is onsite). Grab a Pearl Snap from Austin Beerworks or a blood orange cider from Austin Eastciders and head outside.
Next, walk up Manchaca and duck into Broken Spoke, Austin’s iconic honky tonk dance hall that’s hosted everyone from Bob Wills to Willie Nelson—before the pigtails—and George Strait. James and Annetta White opened the low-slung bar in 1964 and James is still there most nights, along with his daughter, Terri White. Don’t know how to two-step? Terri teaches dance lessons Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m.
Across the street on South Lamar, Gourdough’s Public House is best known for its over-the-top doughnut creations, but the former food trailer—Austin’s signature establishment—now has a full bar with cocktails as creatively tricked out as its confections.
Continue north on Lamar to The Golden Goose, housed in the space of a formerly beloved dive bar, The Horseshoe Lounge, but with spiffed up service and delicious classic cocktails, from a perfectly prepared Old Fashioned to the frozen Moscow mule ($5 on Fridays). There’s a varied and well-curated jukebox, as well as gleaming table shuffleboard.
Revealing its chops as a true neighborhood bar, Gibson Street Bar has a chalkboard where people can buy drinks for friends to claim later. With 16 craft beers on tap—many of them local—craft cocktails, and comfy booths, Gibson Street is an easy place to while away a night. If you’re still hungry, Luke’s Inside Out food truck is onsite with upscale sandwiches.
If you’ve heard of Austin, you’ve heard of its music scene. Red River Street is today’s epicenter, with some of the best venues in town within a three-block radius. No matter the night of the week, you’ll hear music spilling onto the street. In Austin, much of daily life takes places outdoors, and music is no exception, with some of the country’s best fresh-air stages.
With three bars, two stages, and strong pours, The Mohawk has something for everyone. Founded in 2006, Mohawk embodies Austin’s come-as-you-are vibe. The Mohawk Bar, located inside, has 10 beers on draft and more than 100 local craft and small-batch spirits. Don’t miss the rooftop bar, where you can listen to music and catch a view of Austin’s downtown skyline.
Descend to street-level and head two blocks south to Stubb’s Bar-B-Q. You might have heard of the barbecue sauce named for its creator, C.B. Stubblefield, who opened his first barbecue joint in Lubbock, Texas, in 1968. Touring and local musicians would play there in exchange for a plate of barbecue. When Stubb’s moved to Austin, it expanded into this two-stage venue with cold beer on tap and cocktails made with that famous barbecue sauce. Make a note to return for the famous Sunday Gospel brunch, with an appropriately epic Bloody Mary bar.
Give your ears—and feet—a break at Easy Tiger Bakeshop & Beer Garden. Order a pretzel and head downstairs to an outdoor patio that hugs Waller Creek in a lovely, limestone-constructed corner of downtown. With 33 beers on tap and seasonal specials—think wild ales and local ciders—this is the place to recharge and regroup.
You’ll need a reservation to get into Midnight Cowboy, an intimate speakeasy-type bar located three blocks up on Sixth Street. But the cocktails here are worth it. Although the bar has long been known for its quality classic cocktails, general manager Tacy Rowland recently released a revamped menu, titled “The Art of Conversation,” with 14 cocktails inspired the way that people communicate and interact, from “Small Talk” to “The Awkward Pause” to “Too Late to Say I’m Sorry.”
Founded in 1975 by the late Clifford Antone, Antone’s is where Stevie Ray Vaughan made his name and where Ray Charles and James Brown played when they came through town. But the iconic blues venue has seen its share of changes throughout the years, including a 15-year stint in North Austin and a two-year “hiatus.” In 2015, Antone’s returned to downtown’s East Fifth Street, blocks from its original location, in a space that producer Bill Bentley called its “spiritual home.” Order a dirty martini and peruse the vintage concert posters while you wait for the next act to begin.
Austin’s East Side has changed rapidly over the past decade, with bars and restaurants opening quicker than anyone can keep track of, alongside art galleries, hair salons, and high-rise apartments. It’s a highly walkable neighborhood—perhaps the most densely packed in Austin—the perfect place to bar hop.
Start at Whisler’s, a bar with an expansive patio—heated in the winter—and reliably excellent cocktails, as well as a tucked-away back-bar called Mezcalería Tobalá, modeled after a Oaxacan mescal bar and offering a wide selection of the agave-based spirit.
Two blocks west on East Sixth Street, Perla’s might be classified as a dive bar today, but it’s one of the last Tejano catinas in East Austin. Established in the 1940s, La Perla remains a true neighborhood gathering spot, a dying breed in this rapidly changing neighborhood.
Another two blocks west is The White Horse, an old-school honky-tonk bar with live country music that manages to attract both hip newcomers and established oldtimers. Maybe it’s the whiskey on tap that keeps them coming back.
Keep walking west, to the Violet Crown Social Club, a laid-back watering hole with one of the most refreshing frozen drinks around—the Iron Whip was on the menu when the Social Club took over the space and it was so popular, they stuck with it. Made with orange and vanilla vodka and orange juice, this Creamsicle-like drink can cool you down in even the most brutal Texas heat.
Walk 15 minutes or hop in a rideshare and head to the cluster of excellent bars at Chicon and Cesar Chavez streets, including Stay Gold, with unusual cocktails like the Fernet Me Not (with Fernet Branca, Barrow’s ginger liquor, lemon, and champagne) and Craftsman, a laid-back bar housed in a refurbished bungalow with fuss-free cocktails, 12 beers on tap, and a backyard tiki bar on weekends.
North Austin has come into its own in recent years, in part because cheaper rents lets independent restaurants, bars, and shops thrive and serve the burgeoning residential neighborhoods of North Loop and Hyde Park (located south of Koenig Road and between Mopac Expressway and Highway 35).
Tucked between vintage stores on North Loop Boulevard, Workhorse is an easy bar to love, a dive bar with a relaxed, neighborly vibe, 50 beers on tap—lots of local breweries represented—and a stellar house margarita, made with Z Pepe tequila, Paula’s Texas orange, lime, and agave.
A block away, Drink.Well is Workhorse’s friendly foil. With an innovative and carefully curated cocktail menu, this neighborhood gastropub is all about precision and balance. The cocktail list changes seasonally, so fresh ingredients such as wild fennel and white peach often play starring roles.
For all of its progressive values, much of Austin remains decidedly unwalkable and North Austin is no exception. Hop in a rideshare and head down Guadalupe to Vino Vino, an excellent wine bar that’s gathered neighborhood residents for more than a decade. Choose from a well-curated but manageable wine list or from a handful of classic cocktails, beers, and ciders. End your night at Draught House Pub & Brewery, which turns 50 next year. The vast selection of beers is still as varied as the people who gather there.