For three years in a row, 2017-2019, US News has ranked Austin first among the top US metro areas, as the best place to live for quality of life and job opportunities. A few points get knocked off for the traffic congestion, perhaps due to it being the fastest growing big city in the country, as Slate reckons it. But people in this self-assured bastion of liberal thinking live well in their capital city at the heart of beautiful Texas hill and lake country -- a hot and dreamy place where folks' inner clocks can still run a bit slower.
No longer a secret, this progressive, laid-back metro area of 1.8 million has more than a little something for everyone. Whether you want a hot restaurant scene, cutting-edge culture, incredible live music on tap, excellent shopping, easy access to outdoor activities or an excess of offbeat character, Austin offers it up by the 10 gallon. Add to that the facts that Austin happens to be surrounded by increasingly prolific wine country and that it hosts a legendary LGBT beach party each Labor Day Weekend, and this quirky, colorful character of a city becomes downright irresistible.
If you coincide with them, two annual events will hugely influence your trip: SXSW, and the Austin City Limits summer music festival. The first sees the city swarmed by film, music and interactive-media types in March, the second might fry cajones with temperatures that remain high, even during the early October dates.
Austin lives and breathes live music. Explore Red River and Sixth Street music districts or head straight for the best of country at The White Horse tavern, eclectic sounds at The Sahara Lounge and big-name acts at the Paramount Theatre.
For something a little more highbrow, Austin offers a clutch of excellent museums and performance companies, including The Contemporary Austin and the Blanton Art Museum; plus the Long Center for the Performing Arts, home to the Austin Symphony, and the world-class Ballet Austin. The hottest shopping opportunities are found at The Domain, a 65,000-square-metre spree sensation, and in the independent boutiques of the Second Street District.
If you’re on your second trip to town, you have a bit longer to spend, or you’re just too hot, Lake Travis, situated beyond the western brim of the city, is the perfect place to swim or kayak. Head for queer-popular Hippie Hollow, the site of the Labor Day weekend clothing-optional Splash party. The park offers more than 100 swimming holes. The gay beach is a 15-minute walk left from the car park.
To really see why everyone’s talking about Austin, make for the trend-central trio of neighborhoods: quirky South Congress (South Austin’s main drag), slightly more grown-up Travis Heights and diverse East Austin. All three are a little overrun with recently arrived 20-something hipsters, although the honor of hosting this oft-maligned tribe has mostly percolated over to East Austin. This gentrifying area has relatively recently wrestled the title of hippest ’hood from South Congress and Travis Heights — if you measure these things by dive bars, taco trucks, farmers’ markets, folks with ironic facial hair on single-speed bikes and a triple-the-national-average percentage of the population in the creative professions. But it’s not all fixies and bird-friendly caffeine fixes; the three areas also offer excellent bars, incredible music venues, captivating coffee spots and enticing eateries, plus all are very LGBT-friendly. Downtown and Clarksville are other queer-adored neighborhoods.
Austin is definitely quirky, compared to the concrete canyons of Houston, conservative Dallas or, well, just about anywhere else in the state. Bumper stickers proudly declare “Keep Austin Weird,” and it seems Austinites really do. Some of the city’s weirder bits include the Cathedral of Junk, a 60-ton multilevel, vaulted vegetation and junk-castle creation in a South Austin backyard; the Little Longhorn Saloon in Allandale, home of the weekly Chicken Shit Bingo; or the nearby Lala’s Little Nugget, an emphatically anti-Grinch bar where it’s always Christmas. Another oddity is the achingly hip Bananarchy frozen banana stand, a must for Arrested Development fans. And there’s Ms P’s Electric Cock fried-chicken stand. And mustache-themed HandleBar. And . . . and . . . it’s Austin: the list of offbeat attractions just goes on and on.
A car is the easiest way to get around, but Capital Metro Transit has Red Line rail service for 32 miles and nine stations between Leander and Downtown. They also have buses to get you around for a $1.25 a trip, or $2.50 per day, once you're downtown.
Broad acceptance in the general community means there’s no distinctively gay district, so business establishments here are spread about more than in most cities.
SoCo, the South Congress Street area between Johanna and Gibson Streets, has an eclectic array of shops, restaurants, boutiques, antiques, music venues and art galleries. First Thursday is an all-ages block party here, with special sales prices and free drinks until 10pm.
The Second Street District is a 6-block strip north of Town Lake, with over 50 specialty stores, services, coffee shops, wine bars, and restaurants. Travis Heights and East Austin are two more of the "hippest ‘hoods" in town.
The Rainey Street District of historic homes by Lady Bird Lake also has a expanding cluster of trendy and sophisticated hotels, bars, and restaurants.
Media & Resources
The Austin Chronicle newspaper has the best general and gay listings, in print and online.
The Austin Pride ten days of events in August include a Saturday all-day festival at Fiesta Gardens and evening parade.
For map locations and website links to the businesses below, and more, see our gay Austin listings pages.
Austin Motel (1220 S Congress; 512-441-1157), with 76 years in business, a totally unique place to stay, with pool and bike rentals, in the middle of an eclectic mix of shops, restaurants and entertainment venues; the neon phallic logo beckons: 'so close yet so far out.'
Hotel San Jose (1316 South Congress; 512-693-9317), chic, renovated, with minimalist interiors and handmade furniture; central location, hip vibe, patio bar and cafe.
Hotel Van Zant (605 Davis St; 512-542-5300), 319 rooms and suites in the Rainey Street District, pool, fitness center, Geraldine's Restaurant/ Lounge with live music; host of the 2016 Splash Pool Party/ T-dance.
St Cecilia (112 Academy Dr, SoCo; 512-852-2400), suites and studios inspired by William Burroughs, the Stones, Miro and Andy Warhol; also poolside bungalows, full breakfast, and private terrace.
Bars and clubs
Bout Time II (6607 N Interstate 35 Frontage Rd), north Austin gay bar, pizza, burgers, tacos, steak nights; games, bingo, patios, DJs, drag shows, TV sports, Latin nights.
Cheer Up Charlie's (900 Red River St), young and queer, 'backyard party vibe,' vegan fare, fresh juice, organic wine, local brews, live music, kombucha on tap.
Highland Lounge (404 Colorado St), DJs, music, dancing, karaoke, go-go boys, drag shows; second Friday "ladies night."
Oilcan Harry's (211 W 4th St), uninhibited men's dance bar, Tuesday and Friday hot dancers, Thursday amateur Strip Off, Sunday Super Divas Show, TV sports, karaoke, blacklight underwear parties, Texas Hold'em games.
Rain (217 B W 4th St), energetic and diverse crowd, open nightly, live band and karaoke nights, Thursday 18+ male amateur strip-off contests.
Sellers Underground (213 W 4th St), gay/mixed underground bar/lounge; drag queen & king shows, comedy nights, bear events.
CLOSED: Chain Drive; Hush; Lipstick 24; Midtowne Spa (5815 Airport Blvd), 24/7 men's bathhouse steam/sauna; Rainbow Cattle Company; Rusty Spurs, Sister's Edge; Town 'n Country; V Austin 18+ after-hours; and Kiss & Fly Austin.
For the nearest tubs, drive 90 minutes south on I-35 to San Antonio for basic old-school facilities at ACI, to Dallas, 3 hours drive to the north, or to Houston, 2.5 hours to the southwest, with Club locations. Los Angeles and Denver are home to the three remaining Midtowne Spas.
Jackalope (404 E 6th) dogs, burgers; barbeque, chicken, steak sandwiches; po boys, veggie burgers, full bar.
CLOSED: El Sol y la Luna (600 E 6th) all-day breakfast, Mexican bar and cafe, live music.
Forbidden Fruit (108 E North Loop Blvd), 'keeping Austin kinky' with products for a body's needs.
Tape Lenders (1114 W 5th St), gay videos, gifts, cards, magazines, aromas, cock rings, toys, leather and Neoprene wear, designer label swimwear and underwear.
Gold's Gym (115 E 6th St) gay-popular gym, close by many gay establishments.
See our events listings for Pride and other events in Austin.