A few of my favorite things … in Austin

The South Congress Bridge in Austin.

Conference week is finally here! I can’t tell you how excited I am not only to attend my first in-person conference since 2019, but also to do so in my favorite U.S. city.

I’m an alumna of the University of Texas at Austin for both my undergraduate and graduate degrees, so I spent a good chunk of both my young formative years and my just-married-and-started-a-family years in the Texas capital city. Many people already know that Austin is different from the rest of Texas, and yet also not so in the best possible ways.

I’m thrilled to share the city with so many colleagues, so I reached out to my fellow Austinites past and present to crowdsource a list of recommended restaurants, bars, coffee shops and other venues close to the Hilton.

See this Google spreadsheet for recommendations that include each establishment’s distance from the Hilton and whether or not they have outdoor seating. (If you have suggestions for the spreadsheet, email me at tara@health journalism.org to let me know and I’ll add it.)

I also want to draw attention to a couple of my especially-favorite places and some of Austin’s particularly unique activities.

See the bats! One of Austin’s biggest claims to fame — other than being weird — is having the largest urban bat population in the world. (I wrote about the tragic deaths of thousands of bats during the 2021 Texas storm that shut down the state for a week and sent Sen. Ted Cruz packing for Cancun.)

Every spring, millions of Mexican free-tailed bats migrate to Central Texas and remain until autumn. About 1.5 million of these bats live under the Congress Avenue Bridge in downtown Austin, just a 10- to 15-minute walk from the Hilton. Every night, crowds gather to watch them take off to feed on insects shortly after sunset. If you’d like to watch them, Austin Bat Refuge’s website is updated daily with a projected flight time and details of the previous night’s flight. Other helpful sites include the South Congress Bridge Bats site, advice from Austin’s legendary bat expert Merlin Tuttle, Visit Austin’s Bat Watching 101, and the Austin City Guide page.

Other Austin highlights

  • Though it’s currently closed for renovation, the home of O. Henry, famous for his short stories with an ironic twist at the end, isn’t far from the Hilton on 5th St.
  • Zilker Park is the crown jewel of Austin parks and home to Barton Springs, which feed a popular swimming hole that averages 68-70 degrees year-round.
  • If you’re an art or history buff, cinephile or religion scholar, head to the Harry Ransom Center on University of Texas at Austin’s campus to see one of the only five Gutenberg Bibles in the country, the earliest surviving photograph in the world, a Frida Kahlo self-portrait, or any of their other exhibitions. The entire set of Gone With the Wind and all of playwright Tennessee William’s archives are here, along with a rich trove of other wonders.
  • For a truly Austin experience, Cosmic (requires a drive or ride share) has an expansive outdoor area with a bar, coffee shop and several food trucks.
  • Austin is famous for its food trucks and has a number of food truck parks like the South Austin Trailer Park. One of the best places to find a collection of food trucks not far from the Hilton is South Congress.
  • Those wanting to go for a run (or a boat ride or a kayak) can easily get to Lady Bird Park from the Hilton. It’s a linear park with excellent jogging/walking trails along the river. If you’re able to travel further out from downtown, Mount Bonnell, Austin’s highest point, offers a short climb to a gorgeous overlook of the lake, and McKinney Falls State Park with loads of hiking is just a 15-minute drive from the Hilton.
  • I never understood why people would stand for 3 to 4 hours to get into Franklin’s BBQ, widely regarded as the best barbecue not only in Austin but in the state of Texas, before they ran out for the day — until I tried it myself. Then I understood. You’re unlikely to have the time to wait that long in line during the conference, but you can call in a group order to pick up.
  • My own personal favorite restaurant in Austin is Curra’s Grill, a few exits south of downtown. You’ll need a car or ride share to get there, but their Oaxacan coffee, chicken mole enchiladas, and avocado margaritas are worth it. I never come to Austin without dropping by Curra’s, usually to order huevos motuleños with my queso and chips and a coffee.

These highlights are a tiny sampling of what Austin has to offer, and I know it’s far too much for you to squeeze in during the conference. Hopefully, you’ll have a chance to visit at least one of these places while others will entice you to visit Austin again someday.

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