It’s no secret that Austin’s growing. But that growth, from the tech boom to the real estate explosion, can sometimes overshadow the qualities that made Austin a low-key darling and tourist favorite in the first place.
Thankfully, all around our city are smaller towns that happily embrace the old-Austin life. From live music and quirky characters to swimming holes and delicious Tex-Mex and barbecue joints, here are five places where you can enjoy the things you love about Austin while escaping the crowds.
Located 30 miles southeast of Austin with a population of about 9,000, Bastrop in recent years has become a microcosm of many of the things people have always loved about Austin. Take, for example, the film scene–several film studios are already in operation there, and another 546-acre film studio and movie-making facility recently received a green light from the city.
Bastrop also counts some celebrities among its residents, including actor Adrian Grenier, who relocated from Hollywood during the pandemic. In terms of food, the offerings are wide and varied, including a new restaurant by Austin Chef Sonya Cote, who opened Store House Market + Eatery there late last year. Expect a quaint yet bustling downtown brimming with boutiques, galleries, restaurants and bars as well as plentiful outdoor activities thanks to the city’s location on the Colorado River.
“I am always honored when a new resident tells me they decided to move here after they had a great first visit,” said Bastrop Mayor Connie Schroeder. “I promise, you will not be disappointed if you take a break from driving and check out Bastrop.
Sure, Austin has Barton Springs and the Greenbelt, but Dripping Springs has Hamilton Pool Preserve and Reimers Ranch, two destinations known for offering activities such as swimming, mountain biking, hiking and rock climbing in a bucolic, Hill Country setting.
Located about 25 miles west of Austin with a population of about 7,500, Dripping Springs is also a hub for unique craft beverages and is home to more than 35 wineries, breweries and distilleries including Treaty Oak Distilling, Desert Door, Ghost Note Brewing and Driftwood Estate Winery. It’s also become a destination for brides looking for an Austin alternative–it has even been designated the Wedding Capital of Texas by the Texas Legislature.
“It’s a town that is full of artisans, innovators and really rad people,” said Hope Boatright of Destination Dripping Springs, “making some really cool and tasty things.”
We may love our live music in Austin, but Gruene can rival our concert calendar thanks to the star-studded line-up that regularly plays at Gruene Hall, from Gary P. Nunn to Bob Schneider. But there’s more to Gruene (pronounced green) than just its famous dancehall, which was built in 1878 and also happens to be the oldest in Texas.
Like Austin, Gruene is set on water–the Guadalupe and Comal rivers, to be exact–making it an excellent place to swim, wade or tube (spelled toob, if you’re a local) in the summer. It’s also got artisan ice cream (Rhea’s), antiquing (Gruene Antique Company) and requisite cowboy hats (Gruene Hat Company). Gruene’s population is said to technically be 20, but it’s located within New Braunfels, where the countywide population is more like 78,000.
“It’s impossible to have a bad time in Gruene, whether you’re a visitor looking for your first Stetson to wear while two-steppin’ in Gruene Hall or a local looking for a good meal at the Gristmill,” said Gruene Hat Company’s Cody Courtney. “It’s a small-town throwback in time that caters to everyone.”
Located in Hays County with a population of 15,000, Buda (pronounced byoo-da) is a small town that, like Austin, has big love for the arts. From concerts and theater performances at the Buda Amphitheater and City Park to the Inspired Minds Art Center, a haven and gallery space for artists of various backgrounds, there’s something for the artist in everyone.
The newish Buck’s Backyard features a full line-up of big-name musical acts, and Louie’s Craft BBQ, which was formerly based in Austin, now regularly ranks among the best barbecue joints in the state. A Main Street Sip and Stroll (aka drink wine and shop) and weekly farmers market only add to Buda’s laidback vibe.
“Buda is a lovely small town that is unique–it’s not quite rural and not quite suburban either,” said Buda City Manager Kenneth Williams. “We have an ideal location contiguous to Austin and close to San Marcos and San Antonio and at the foot of the Hill Country. We enjoy our quaintness and small-town charm.”
With a population of around 17,000, the Williamson County town of Taylor packs a lot of Austin-style fun into a small space. Whether you’re strolling the nine-block downtown that’s chock full of boutiques and antiques shops or hitting up one of several local barbecue joints–including the famous Louie Mueller Barbecue–it’s easy to discover something new and unexpected.
Since 2009, more than 20 companies have expanded to or relocated to Taylor, according to the Taylor Chamber of Commerce. The town also made headlines last month for hosting its first official Pride event supporting the LGBTQ community.
“Taylor is known for barbecue, but it’s home to so much more,” said writer Addie Broyles, who attended Taylor Pride and wrote about it on her website. She recommends a visit to Old Taylor High, a mixed-use development inside the former high school campus that features a bar, vintage store and arcade games, and called the Pride event “the ultimate celebration of what makes Taylor feel so special.”