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For decades, ATX’s social epicenter has been made up of 6th Street, South Congress, Auditorium Shores and Zilker Park, and all the Central Austin streets, restaurants, and shops in between. Lately, however, as noobs relocate to Austin in waves, we’ve seen a major shift in that sort of thinking. Instead, we’re beginning to appreciate the different areas of Austin for what they are — integral parts of our weird and wonderful microcosm.
South Austin is still as quirky as always, but West Austin has been steadily setting itself apart, and even North Austin is transforming its reputation for being boring into a new flavor of Austin weirdness. But it’s East Austin — long overlooked due to a great many troubling social issues, both present and past — that is starting to represent many of Austin’s core values even more than our typical centers of Weird.
East Austin offers lower-priced housing than many areas of town, a creative community atmosphere, and a major emphasis on supporting local business and living sustainably. There’s also much more cultural and ethnic diversity in this area of Austin. For all of these reasons and more, if you consider yourself to be a true Austinite, you need to spend time east of I-35. If nothing else, embrace these 10 perfect East Austin experiences that prove our circle of weirdness is definitely expanding…
1) Meet the Blue Starlite, the world’s first and only miniature urban drive-in theater.
If you’ve been to your fair share of drive-in theaters, you will probably agree that aside from screen and sound quality and parking space, most drive-ins provide exactly the same experience: a fun movie, popcorn and sodas, starry nights. But East Austin’s Blue Starlite Theatre is not your average drive-in. Seeing a film at the Blue Starlite feels like ordering deliciousness from one of Austin’s kazillion epic food trailers — like you’ve just discovered some rare hidden treasure that not many people know about. As a mini urban drive-in, Blue Starlite is only big enough for 45 cars and 100 pedestrians. It’s quirky, intimate, and it’s the very first of its kind.
And we’re not the only ones singing Blue Starlite’s praises. Our little drive-in has even caught Condé Nast Traveler’s attention; the popular international travel magazine included the Blue Starlite in its list of top 5 drive-in movie theaters in the world that are unquestionably worth visiting.
2) Spoil your taste buds at a beloved Eastside eatery.
Next time you plan to eat out, we dare you to try one of East Austin’s top restaurants or food trucks. The Eastside food scene can be overwhelming for noobs, but lucky for you, we have prepared several excellent recommendations for just about every type of nom:
East Side King 1618 1/2 E 6th St. 512-422-5884.
Kemuri Tatsu-Ya 1201 E 6th St. 512-893-5561.
Franklin Barbecue 900 E 11th St. 512-653-1187.
John Mueller Meat Co. 2500 E 6th Street. 512-796-1322
Dan’s Hamburgers 844 Airport Blvd. 512-385-2262.
Cenote 1010 E Cesar Chavez St. 512-524-1311.
Hillside Farmacy 1209 E 11th St. 512-628-0168.
Cajun & Creole:
Nubian Queen Lola’s 1815 Rosewood Ave. 512-474-5652.
Bennu Coffee 2001 E Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. 512-478-4700.
Thunderbird Coffee 2200 Manor Rd. 512-472-9900.
Justine’s Brasserie: 4710 East 5th St. 512-385-2900.
Quickie Pickie 1208 E 11th St. 512-479-0136.
Salty Sow 1917 Manor Rd. 512-391-2337.
Juan in a Million 2300 E Cesar Chavez St. 512-472-3872.
Mi Madre’s Restaurant 2201 Manor Rd. 512-322-9721.
Veracruz All Natural 1704 E Cesar Chavez St. 512-981-1760.
Licha’s Cantina 1306 East 6th St. 512-480-5960.
East Side Pies 1401 Rosewood Ave. 512-524-0933.
Spartan Pizza 1007 E 6th St. 512-484-0798.
Via 313 1802 East 6th Street. 512-580-0999. Pick-up only.
Contigo 2027 Anchor Ln. 512-614-2260.
Red Star Southern 1700 E 6th St. 512-962-3674.
Haymaker 2310 Manor Rd. 512-243-6702.
Jacoby’s Restaurant & Mercantile 3235 East Cesar Chavez, 512-366-5808.
Counter Culture 2337 E Cesar Chavez St. 512-524-1540.
3) Try East Austin weird on for size at the Museum of Ephemerata.
If you’re ever feeling anxious about Austin becoming less and less weird, then you need to take a trip over to Eastside’s Singleton Ave to visit the home of longtime Austinites Jen Hirt and Scott Webel. The front portion of Hirt and Webel’s residence doubles as an eclectic dime museum of oddities called The Museum of Natural and Artificial Ephemerata. There’s no telling what you’re going to find included in MNAE’s delightfully unconventional permanent and traveling exhibits, which have been known to display artifacts such as Marilyn Monroe’s lipstick-stained cigarette butt, a tuft of Elvis’ hair, and yes, an entirely legitimate stuffed jackalope. MNAE operates entirely off of donations, so for those of you who lament Austin’s dwindling weirdness, here’s a way for you to keep that train rolling.
1808 Singleton Ave. 512-320-0566. Open select days weekly or contact to arrange a tour. Website.
4) Don’t you forget about East Austin’s thriving music scene. Because it IS thriving.
Not surprisingly, there are a number of amazing live music venues east of the usual downtown spread. Whatever your taste in tuneage, you’re bound to find a club, pub, or lounge that makes all of your musical dreams come true. Sahara Lounge, Historic Scoot Inn, Hotel Vegas, The Coliseum, and The North Door are all easy East Austin favorites and host a wide variety of hot and up-and-coming musical talent.
To hear boot-stomping honky tonk and two-step the night away, stable your ride at The White Horse on the corner of East 6th and Comal. Fans of alternative music will find a friend in Emo’s, a two-stage venue on East Riverside containing multiple bars and a beer garden. Skylark Lounge brings in bands from many different genres, but nobody does the blues quite like them.
Sahara Lounge: 1413 Webberville Road. 512-927-0700. Website.
Historic Scoot Inn: 1308 E 4th Street. 512-394-5486. Website.
Hotel Vegas: 1500 E 6th Street. Website.
The North Door: 502 Brushy Street. 512-485-3002. Website.
The White Horse: 500 Comal St. 512-553-6756. Website.
Skylark Lounge: 2039 Airport Blvd. 512-730-0759. Website.
5) If you’re not careful, you’ll catch the sustainable produce bug!
In case you haven’t figured it out by now, Austin is serious about buying and growing organic, local produce. We’ve got honeybees in our hotels, we host hopping farmers markets every day of the week, and we flock to sustainable and organic restaurants who are committed to sourcing ingredients from local farmers and ranchers.
Whether you knew it or not, East Austin is a major hub for this sort of thing. East Austin is home to roughly half of the city’s community gardens and at least four urban farms: Green Gate Farms, Johnson’s Backyard Garden, Boggy Creek Farm, and Springdale Farm. So go dig up some ‘taters on Sunday mornings at 5604 Manor or buy some at one of the farms mentioned above. Your body will thank you and East Austin gardeners and farmers will too.
Green Gate Farms: 8310 Canoga Ave. 512-484-2746. Website.
Johnson’s Backyard Garden: 9515 Hergotz Ln. 512-386-5273. Website.
Boggy Creek Farm: 3414 Lyons Rd. 512-926-4650. Website.
Springdale Farm: 755 Springdale Rd. 512-386-8899. Website.
6) Disillusioned with SXSW? Try East Austin’s parallel music festival
Fasten your seatbelt, kid, because you’re about to be let in on an East Austin secret. Every year, a remote venue called The Music Ranch hosts a music festival that runs simultaneously with South By Southwest. In the above interview conducted by Forbes, Music Ranch owner Gino Cavazos explains his vision for the current venue and his plans for future improvements. Essentially, Cavazos has built a place where bands and musicians who didn’t make it into SXSW’s lineup can showcase their work, and where fans can enjoy great music at reasonable rates. Festival admission includes camping passes, so if you plan to stop by, why not bring a tent and make an adventure of it?
5220 N FM 973. 512-815-6181. Website.
7) Tour Eastside galleries and scout out awesome street art.
If there’s anything you learn from this list and from the time you spend in East Austin, learn this: East Austin is artsy. Like, really artsy. There are about a billion art galleries and studios strewn throughout the Eastside, many of which participate in Big Medium’s annual East Austin Studio Tour (EAST). EAST is a mostly free, self-guided event that takes place over two November weekends every year; it was created to connect local artists with the public, and it tempts huge crowds to venture east of I-35 every year.
Another amazing way to experience East Austin’s art scene is to conduct something of a street art scavenger hunt. Just drive around and keep your eyes peeled — you’re going to see and have the opportunity to stop and take a photograph with tons of awesome installments as you explore. In fact, we put together a massive list of all the best street art on the East Side and elsewhere!
8) Resist buying all the pretties up for sale by local vendors… but do buy some!
As you tour galleries through EAST and explore East Austin in other ways, keep your wallet handy. You never know when you might encounter that perfect painting to hang in that accursed blank space in your living room. You might fall in love with a pair of Hey Murphy earrings at Olive or discover a dress that you wear fabulously at eco-friendly Raven + Lily. Oh, and Take Heart totally has you covered for trinkets. Guys, don’t count yourselves out either. If you enjoy wearing classy shoes, you will really get a kick out of HELM Boots. Obsessed with succulents and other pretty plants? Check out East Austin Succulents and Tillery Street Plant Company to get your fix.
Take Heart: 1111 East 11th Street, Suite 100. 512-520-9664. Website.
Olive: 1200 E. 11th Street, #101. 512-522-9462. Website.
Raven + Lily: 2406 Manor Rd. 512-236-1378. Website.
HELM Boots: 1200 E 11th Street, #101. 512-609-8150. Website.
East Austin Succulents: 801 Tillery St. 512-947-6531. Website.
Tillery Street Plant Co: 801 Tillery St. 512-567-1090. Website.
9) Leaf peep and birdwatch and geocache and hike!
We’ve sung McKinney Falls State Park‘s praises many times, but we love doing it! McKinney Falls State Park is located a mere 15 minutes’ drive from downtown, near the Austin airport. This 725-acre, lush forest getaway contains a whopping 10 miles of hike and bike trails, and 90 primitive and developed campsites and cabins, not to mention its two epic natural swimming holes and its picnicking, fishing, bird-watching, and geocaching potential. And just think — McKinney is only one of many parks and natural areas in East Austin. Bottom line: if you love the outdoors, you can find a whole bunch of it east of the main drag.
5808 McKinney Falls Pkwy. 512-243-1643. Website.
10) Set your inner aerialist free at Sky Candy
In case you aren’t convinced that East Austin is both zany and awesome, we’re going to make one final activity suggestion: take an aerial circus arts class at Sky Candy Aerial Studio. Seriously, where else but East Austin would you be able to pay a mere 30 bucks for a one hour-length group aerialist class, $60 for an hour-length private lesson, or $150 for six one hour and fifteen minute group classes spread out over six weeks? That this opportunity is even possible is just one more example of East Austin’s wonderful weirdness.
507 Calles St, #117. 512-800-4998. Website.
Maybe you’ve never really spent any time in East Austin because life has never taken you in that direction, or maybe you’ve been avoiding East Austin on purpose because you feel like it’s sketchy and run-down. Whatever the reason for your inexperience, we dare you to try one or more of these 10 classic East Austin experiences. We think it’s safe to say that you’re pretty much guaranteed to fall in love.
Besides, isn’t it fair to say that you have to embrace — or at least experience with an open mind — as much of Austin as you can if you’re going to label yourself a true Austinite? We think so.
Featured photo: The 1400 block along East 6th Street. Wikimedia Commons user Larry D. Moore, CC licensed.