More insider guides for planning a trip to Austin
These are unusual times, and the state of affairs can change quickly. Please check the latest travel guidance before making your journey. Note that our writer visited pre-pandemic.
Austin is known as a city that likes to have a good time, and those seeking out its famed nightlife won’t be disappointed. From decades-old institutions to hip, stylish newcomers, the hundreds of bars and nightly performances mean that the biggest challenge is deciding where to go. The city embraces its moniker of ‘Live Music Capita lof the World’ whole-heartedly, and on any given night around 100 acts can be heard in venues across the city playing every genre of music imaginable. Strolling along famed Sixth Street downtown, where music flows out of every doorway, is a must for the experience and people-watching, while venturing off Sixth will take you to some of Austin’s best spots.
This grandaddy of Austin music was started in 1975 by the late Clifford Antone, with a focus on blues and Texan musicians. Antone’s has welcomed performers including B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Ray Charles, along with local favourites such as Bob Schneider, Marcia Ball and The Fabulous Thunderbirds. The crowd is a microcosm of young tech entrepreneurs to old hippies and everything in between, and the atmosphere is exactly what you’d expect: dark, intimate and pulsing with energy. You go to Antone’s strictly for the world-class music, so keep drinks simple. You need tickets for the shows, though some are free; don’t miss Antone’s record store, Big Henry’s Vinyl & Gifts.
Contact: 00 1 512 814 0361; antonesnightclub.com
Opening times: Daily, 12pm-2am (check calendar for show door times)
Getting in: Tickets must be purchased in advance online or at the door; limited seating available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Part Saturday Night Live, part magic show, and part irreverent Austin satire, the comedy troupe that is Esther’s Follies defies description. A night here will have your sides hurting from laughter (and probably looking up a few Austin references for the back story after the show). Spouse team Shannon Sedwick and Michael Shelton have been putting on the Follies since the 1970s, with a talented cast and constantly changing script in which anything goes. The decor is like an acid trip into an aquarium, with 3D mermaids and neon-coloured fish murals. A full bar serves unexpectedly good drinks (try a margarita), and their taqueria hits the spot if you’re hungry.
Contact: 00 1 512 320 0198; esthersfollies.com
Opening times: Thurs, 7pm-11pm; Fri-Sat, 7pm-12am
Getting in: Advance tickets required
It feels like this underground jazz bar should be shrouded in a smoky haze (and it once was, before the smoking ban). Austin’s premier nightclub for live jazz offers a rich, warm interior with exposed brick walls and lounge seating. Descend the steps into the basement from the street above and pure notes of swing, rhythm and blues hit you immediately while the place envelops you in its cosy vibe. Service and drinks are top-notch, with more than 20 draft beers and wine by the glass – or you could try one of their perfect martinis. Happy hour shows daily from 6-8pm, with regular shows beginning at 9:30pm. No cover charge most weekdays.
Contact: 00 1 512 473 2279; elephantroom.com
Opening times: Mon-Fri, 4pm-2am; Sat-Sun, 8pm-2am
Getting in: Reservations not accepted; tickets available at the door, arrive early for a good table.
The first thing that strikes you upon entering the Townsend is the elegant beauty of the space. Located in one of downtown Austin’s most historic buildings dating from 1875, the space is long and narrow, in dark muted tones with plush seating, chandeliers and shelf-lined walls filled with vintage books. The Townsend’s craft bar programme has won multiple awards. The innovative bartenders serve modern cocktails like the Chromatic Shift, with housemade pea flower-infused vodka. Hidden at the back is an intimate performance space with incredible acoustics for getting up-close-and-personal with some of Austin’s best musicians (having an owner-investor like Kathy Valentine of The Go-Go’s certainly helps).
Contact: 00 1 512 887 8778; thetownsendaustin.com
Opening times: Mon-Thurs, 4pm-12am; Fri-Sat, 4pm-2am
Getting in: Walk-in only for the bar; show tickets can be bought at the door but advance online purchase is recommended as seating is limited.
Cheer Up Charlie’s
Though it’s officially a gay bar, Cheer Up’s is an ‘everyone’s welcome’ kind of place, where you’ll always find a wide mix of straight and gay couples and groups of friends. It’s one of the most fun bars in Austin, with a pulse on what’s happening in the city — you’ll often find it is the after-party spot for rallies, Pride Day, political demonstrations and the like. The indoor space is a bit psychedelic, with a small stage where nightly bands play everything from ska to hip-hop to electronica, and drag shows take place. The expansive outdoor patios feature a second stage set against a limestone cliff. The drink concoctions are all vegan (the kale and lime margarita is life-changing), or try their kombucha on tap.
Contact: 00 1 512 431 2133; cheerupcharlies.com
Opening times: Mon, 6pm-2am, Tues-Sun, 4pm-2am
Getting in: No reservations – there’s usually plenty of room unless there’s a big event going on.
Don’t let the name fool you — yes, this is a barbecue restaurant (serving some of the city’s best brisket), but it’s also a major nightspot and concert venue. Acts from Johnny Cash to Everclear have played in the backyard amphitheatre, while the intimate indoor stage is renowned for its weekly Sunday Gospel Brunch. This is a place to get all your Texas feels, with roughhewn logs, exposed antique brick and worn wood interiors. Drinks are generally simple: beer, margaritas and basic mixed cocktails, though the brunch make-your-own Bloody Mary bar is a stand-out.
Contact: 00 1 512 480 8341; stubbsaustin.com
Opening times: Mon-Thurs, 11am-10pm; Fri-Sat, 11am-11pm; Sun, 2pm-9pm
Getting in: Walk-in only to the restaurant except for Gospel Brunch, when reservations are accepted; amphitheatre concert tickets may be purchased in advance or at the on-site box office.
This swanky restaurant and cocktail bar is part of the hip Kimpton Hotel Van Zandt, at popular Rainey Street downtown. Lounging in plush club chairs under the wine-barrel styled wood ceiling with vintage lighting makes you feel a bit like you’re in The Great Gatsby. The cocktail lounge surrounds a stage where local Austin music acts play nightly, and spills over onto the pool deck with an outdoor fireplace and views of the city skyline. Sip on Texas music-themed cocktails such as ‘I’m With The Band’ and ‘Willie’s Cup’, or go for the dramatic flair of the ‘Millennial Pink’, which comes with a freshly seared pine coaster with its smoke trapped inside. A good place for happy hour.
Contact: 00 1 512 476 4755; geraldinesaustin.com
Opening times: Sun-Thurs, 11am-11:30pm; Fri-Sat, 11am-12:30am
Getting in: All live music is free, no reservation or advance purchase required; reservations accepted only for dinner.
The Broken Spoke
This is the epitome of a Texas honkytonk experience, where country music stars such as Willie Nelson and George Strait have played to packed dance floors (lessons are offered for £6). James and Annette White have run the Spoke for more than 50 years, and it’s so legendary that books and film documentaries have chronicled its history. Be sure and check out the ‘Tourist Trap,’ a mini-museum of autographed photographs, cowboy hats, musical instruments and other memorabilia. This is the perfect place for a Lone Star beer, and if you’re hungry order Annette’s wildly popular chicken-fried steak, a Texas specialty of tenderised beef that’s breaded, fried and smothered in gravy.
Contact: 00 1 512 442 6189; brokenspokeaustintx.net
Opening times: Tues, 4pm-11:30pm; Wed-Thurs, 4pm-12am; Fri-Sat, 11am-11:30pm
Getting in: Walk-ins only
The Continental Club
If you’re a fan of the classic, 1950s rockabilly vibe, this is your place. Known as one of the granddaddies of Austin music clubs, the unpretentious Continental Club has history in its walls — since 1955, acts such as Willie Nelson, Robert Plant and Wanda Jackson have played the small stage inside. You’re never more than a few feet away from the action, which feels even more intimate with the red velvet curtains, dark walls and dim lighting. A small dance floor is nearly always hopping, and the Gallery upstairs features another stage and smaller bar. It’s often standing-room-only here, especially for big-name acts. Beer and drinks are well-priced, but this isn’t the place to order a fancy cocktail.
Contact:00 1 512 441 2444; continentalclub.com
Opening times: Tues, 4pm-11:30 pm; Wed-Thurs, 4pm-12am; Fri-Sat, 11am-11:30pm
Getting in: Most shows are ticketed at the door, with a very few offering advance ticket sales; get there early as the place fills up quickly, especially table seating.
This is another Texas dance hall, though vastly different from The Broken Spoke. The White Horse is where the hipster honkytonk crowd goes to sip on their Tall Boy beers and dance to live swing bands. The dancing is serious here, and great fun to watch even if you don’t participate (but there are free lessons!). The interior is basic, with the large dance floor a focal point; pool tables are in the adjacent room, and an outdoor patio gives added space. Try their Moscow Mule or Deep Eddy Ruby Red for a taste of Texas-made vodka.
Contact: 00 1 512 553 6756; thewhitehorseaustin.com
Opening times: Daily, 3pm-2am
Getting in: Walk-ins only