Places You Must Go
• Visit the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. It's no mistake that this former first lady is immortalized in more than one eco-friendly tourism spot in the city; she was a lifelong advocate of preservation and beautification, and the wildflower center is an explosion of native Texas plants that will make you all the more appreciative of her work.
• For a super-cool, super Austin experience, brave the constantly cool waters (about 68 degrees year-round) of Barton Springs. Long a haven for serious swimmers and summertime splashers alike, you'll get a truly unique view of the city in and around its natural springs. Barton Springs is not only an ancient spring, but it's also a habitat for the extremely rare (and aptly named) Barton Springs salamander.
• After a dip in Barton Springs, head over to the Zilker Botanical Garden (free on weekdays!), and take in some of the most beautiful views of the city and its native landscapes.
• No trip is complete without a visit to the Texas State Capitol building downtown; after exploring the historical halls, walk downtown and experience this side of Congress Avenue. For a cup of joe (and a great organic salad), pop into Little City. Then stop by the Austin Museum of Art for your art fix (and pick up some locally handcrafted jewelry at the museum store while you're there).
Things You Must Do
• Bike around, kayak or canoe in, or take your dog to Lady Bird Lake. With stellar views of the city, ample green space, and miles upon miles of gravel trails to hike and bike up and down, enjoy this family- and dog-friendly area at any time of day. If it's too hot to jog, walk, bike, or play fetch along the banks, rent a kayak, canoe, or even standing surf board and check out the city from the water.
• Before (or after) setting your sights on shopping on SoCo (see below), stop at the Congress Avenue Bridge at dusk, between March and November, to watch colonies of Mexican free-tail bats take flight and blanket the sky.
• Take in live music in the self-proclaimed Live Music Capital of the World—especially during either of our biggest music festivals, SXSW (March) or the Austin City Limits Music Festival (October). Many stages tout energy-saving practices and offer ample recycling too.
Where To Sleep
• At Hotel San Jose, it's trendy, it's vintage, it's . . . what's the word for way too hip? This place has it all, and is within walking distance of all those great vintage shops and fantastic eateries on South Congress.
• Habitat Suites is a more centrally-located hotel with an emphasis on all things green; they operate with eco-consciousness from the laundry to the ladybugs that populate their gorgeous gardens.
• The Crossings Austin is a stunning retreat tucked into the Hill Country; their practices range from yogic meditation to eco-friendly spa treatments, and they serve fresh and organic foods that reflect the healthy lifestyle that the resort promotes. Really, it gets no better than this nature-meets-nurture central Texas paradise (based on our one day spent there).
Where To Eat
The great thing about Austin is that everyone knows how important it is to eat local. Myriad restaurants offer fresh, local vegetables and sustainably-raised meats and dairy, not to mention offer compostable to-go boxes and recycling on-site—so here are just a few of our favorites.
• With a garden that's bigger than the restaurant. Eastside Cafe showcases a new, fresh menu item each night, straight from their garden; they've got resident hens who provide eggs and an otherwise absolutely lovely menu.
• Casa de Luz: as one friend put it, "Vegan never tasted so good." This is a really unique dining experience: it's community and food, wrapped into one. And it's macrobiotic to boot.
• As their tagline professes, Torchy's Tacos offers patrons "Damn good tacos." The Torchy's empire began a few years back as trailer park food (food trailers are all the rage in Austin) and has now grown into many sit-down establishments throughout the city. With tacos like the Democrat (and the Republican), the Dirty Sanchez, and this month's special The Damn BP (proceeds from sales of this taco benefit Gulf Oil Spill relief funds!), this restaurant knows how to sustainably source their ingredients AND give folks the kick in the mouth they're looking for.
• If you're looking for an upscale, authentic experience, head to Fonda San Miguel in the heart of the city. It's tucked away among its own magnificent garden and offers a menu full of interior Mexican food specialties. Consistently ranked one of the best restaurants in town, it's well worth the wait, the price tag, and the extra pounds you'll gain when you order the goat cheese crepes with homemade cajeta sauce.
Shops To Visit If You're There For A Day
• For hip, truly Austin flavor, you absolutely must soak in South Congress. For five blocks or so, you'll find some of the best vintage shopping in town at Uncommon Objects, New Bohemia, Parts & Labour, Blackmail, Tesoros, and more.
• Don't pass up a visit to Whole Foods world headquarters, complete with upstairs dining deck, cooking classes, and more. The sheer magnitude of the flagship store will astound you, and since it's in the heart of downtown you're sure to pass by it more than once.
Shops To Frequent If You're There For a Year
• Remodeling your new digs? Stop at Eco-Wise for milk-based paints, the very best in bamboo flooring, and supremely helpful and eco-minded advice from the folks who work there.
• Shape up your yard with a trip to the Natural Gardener, where you'll find more than just native plants, plenty of veggie seeds, and various composting accessories; more importantly, you'll happen upon the very best garden advice in town.
• Furnish your home and nurture your nest at Wildflower Organics.
• A taste of Austin's urban farm experience can be had at Boggy Creek Farms, which is also a stop on the Urban Farm Bicycle Tour.
• Be sure to take in the best fresh food the city has to offer at the Austin Farmers Market, supported by the Sustainable Food Center.
• Witness grey water harvesting and aquaculture at the Rhizome Collective, a unique urban farming co-op.
Great Independent ArtisansAustin has many independent artists and artisans—the best bet to finding them is to stop by the farmer's market on Saturdays, or shop along South Congress, where you'll happen upon the best of the local wares.
All images © Brian Birzer, used with permission. Originally published 2010-07-21