The Inside Out Guide to Texas: Austin, Dallas, and Houston

austin, dallas, and houston travel guide
Credit: Miguel Romero

The trio of major metropolises in the massive state of Texas have markedly different appeal factors, which makes for a fun study of contrasts if you’re hitting up more than one of these cities in one swoop. Austin prides itself on its weirdness, even as it’s become a tech hub year round, not just at SXSW, and a requisite domestic long weekend hipster pilgrimage from both coasts. Yet there’s a lot to love about the city still: for example, it offers myriad outstanding meals to be had at all price points (not just those peerless breakfast tacos and queso-laden Tex Mex, both regional highlights), while local bands playing at many a venue and bar, as the city’s “Live Music City” moniker attests. But despite all the love that Austin gets, there are reasons to check out Dallas, aka the Big D, home of the Cowboys and where luxury reigns supreme; it’s the birthplace of Neiman Marcus, after all, and the city’s eponymous ’80s soap and recent reboot, cliches aside, furthers Dallas’ rep for glitz and excess. And then there’s Houston, known for NASA and big oil money, also inhabited by some of the country’s best Vietnamese food and some standout ink artists. Ahead, some highlights to consider in Austin, Dallas, and Houston when headed to The Longhorn State.

Where to Get Tattooed in Austin, Dallas, and Houston

Dovetail Tattoo [Austin]
Female-owned ink studios are usually few and far between, like this special pick in Austin. Run by Wendi Ramirez, Dovetail’s digs have lots of cool artwork and random ephemera to take in while you’re having some work done. Portraits are known to be a highlight here. The original location is Downtown, though Ramirez is now based at the East Side outpost. 1703 E. Cesar Chavez St., East Side, Austin

Advent Tattoo Studio and Art Gallery [Houston]: Co-owner Mike Woods has topped Houston Press’ annual list of the city’s best tattoo artists for two years straight in 2017 and 2018. He shares a first name with equally talented business partner, Mike Ashworth, and the duo of Mikes run one of the city’s most in-demand ink joints, where appointments can book up months ahead of time; they’re known for being as skilled at complex, large-scale work, like full sleeves, as well as artful salvaging of botched ink jobs done elsewhere.  16506 Farm to Market Rd 529 #105, Sommerall

Zú Art Collective [Houston]: Looking for riveting geometric ink work? Alex “Zú” Arzú is your guy: the tattoo artist does mesmerizing black ink designs, patchworks of patterns that are incredibly detailed and look even cooler when covering an entire shoulder or arm’s worth of skin. Zú’s other specialties include surrealism, realism, and portraits. Just don’t come here expecting text or dates of any sort (script is specifically called-out as a no-go) tribal tats, or inked digits, as Zú details, but for one-of-a-kind, captivating geometric motifs, it’s a real standout of a spot. 2310 Commerce St. Suite B, East End/Arts District

Where to Stay

The Carpenter Hotel [Austin]: One of Austin’s newest boutique hotels, The Carpenter debuted in November 2018, its minimalist, very pared-back look (exposed concrete and brick; a sort of brutalist feel) and unstudied hip factor not all that surprising when you consider it’s a property from Portland’s Mighty Union, a hospitality firm co-founded by Ace Hotels’ Jack Barron. There isn’t room service, but be sure to try a nosh of some sort at the on-site coffee bar, because longtime Bon Appetit editor Andrew Knowlton and his wife, restaurateur Christina, are helping the food and drinks program here. The Carpenter Hotel is close to Zilker Park for jogs, picnics, and alfresco strolls, and there’s a sweet swath of green space right on the premises, thanks to the handsome “Q Hut,” which is aptly described as “part pool cabana, part outdoor courtyard pavilion.”As for the property’s name, that’s a nod to the building’s original purpose: a carpenters’ union hall. Rates start at $200 per night. 400 Josephine Street, Zilker, Austin

Hotel ZaZa [Dallas]: Part of a character-filled Texas boutique hotel chainlet, Hotel Zaza’s Dallas outpost offers charmingly appointed, spacious digs in the Uptown neighborhood. The rooms feature quite varied, almost theatrical decor styles and palettes, ranging from a posh powder blue paint job, a chandelier, and gilded trim, to a plant-studded, red and zebra print aesthetic. The “concept suites” go all out with slightly kitschy themes and names for each suite, like Erotica (plush red headboard, sumptuous textures everywhere, and too many patterned pillows, crimson canopied love seat, et al). There are luxe touches sprinkled throughout, like sleek marble-washed bathrooms and kitchen islands. Some rooms include terraces, too. Carve out some quality (down)time to hang by the lovely, lushly manicured pool, which recalls a Mediterranean villa, with striped umbrellas and cabanas. In town sans a set of wheels, or want to explore sans car for a bit? The property is close to an M Line Trolley stop to head downtown. accommodation! Rates start at $236 per night. There are also two outposts in Houston (Memorial City and Museum District), with an Austin location opening in summer 2019. 2332 Leonard St., Uptown, Dallas

Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek [Dallas]: Striving for straight opulence while visiting the Big D? The Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek is the move: focused around a lavish mansion that dates back to the 1920s, completed in 1925, with facades inspired by 16th century Renaissance Italy and interiors meant to channel the classiest, most palatial digs in other parts of Europe, like Spain, France, and England. Some of the manse’s claims to fame: it had the very first elevator in Dallas, and the abode hosted the likes of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Tennessee Williams over the years. In 1981, new additions on the property added 143 rooms. It’s a splurge at $481 and up per night, but the luxe, historic environs befit the lavish, more-is-more leanings of Dallas.   2821 Turtle Creek Blvd., Uptown, Dallas

Hotel Alessandra [Houston]: This slick spot in downtown Houston’s GreenStreet district, housed in a glossy former office building, has floor-to-ceiling windows and mod furnishings, with tall white headboards, with gilded trim. The rooftop pool is a great place to cool down from the Houston heat, with serene white umbrellas and loungers. Rates start at $214 per night. 1070 Dallas St., Downtown, Houston

What to Do

Barton Springs Pool [Austin]: This beautiful natural wonder, located within Zilker Park’s 358 lush acres, has been a go-to for Austin locals since the 1800s, as a place to cool off from the sweltering summers. Visitors would be wise to make a pit stop here, whether for a dip or just some fresh air on a nice stroll whatever the season, for the wooded environs and walking paths, and the Barton Springs water’s perpetually pleasant water temps, which are 68 to 70 degrees year-round. It’s the ideal respite from all that hipster and tech scene, live music shows, and rich barbecue and Tex-Mex fare. 2201 Barton Springs Rd., Zilker Park, Austin

Winspear Opera House [Dallas]: A striking, ultra-modern take on the rarefied opera house setting, the Winspear Opera House was designed by esteemed architectural firm Foster + Partners, opened in 2014. Free tours are offered regularly to ogle the glassy, crimson-hued building’s interiors even if you’re not here for a performance. A daytime visit also affords the opportunity to lounge outdoors in the shade under the structure’s Sky Canopy. In addition to opera, the beautiful space was designed to host musicals and dance performances with equal aplomb. 2403 Flora St, Arts District, Dallas

What to See to Get Inspired

Dallas Museum of Art [Dallas]: Rarely can you peruse works by greats like Monet for free, but such is the case at the Dallas Museum of Art, or DMA, where admission is gratis. Further proof that everything’s bigger in Texas, the DMA is one of the biggest art museums in the U.S. The institution’s permanent art collection included one of the largest assortments of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works nationally. Another highlight is the “Tulip Chair,” by Eero Saarinen.1717 N. Harwood St., Downtown

Space Center Houston  [Houston]: You’re in The Space City, so why not get schooled on the Texas metropolis’ astronomical legacy? Space Center Houston the official visitor center of the NASA Johnson Space Center, is located 25 miles southeast of the city center, It’s where those infamous words “Houston, we’ve had a problem” were received from Apollo 13’s mission to the moon in 1970. In the 250,000 square foot attraction, check out various science and space shows, displays of shuttle launches, and exhibits of space suites. There are also Mission Control tours as well as Starship Gallery full of artifacts to browse. The biggest draw though just might be the 90-minute narrated tram tour, which gives visitors a glimpse into a variety of parts of the space center’s campus, exploring the experiences of astronauts in training and more. 1601 E NASA Pkwy., Nassau Bay, Houston

Where to Eat and Drink

Macellaio [Dallas]: Macellaio’s unique take on casual Italian cuisine, which opened its doors in June 2018,  involves a frequently rotating menu that focuses around topnotch cured meats, like a salumi board piled with carnivorous treats like red wine salame, spicy spreadable ‘nduja sausage, and capicola, and creative twists on familiar flavor pairings. To wit: potato chips with shallot creme fraiche and trout roe, or savory brioche doughnuts with porcini mushrooms and taleggio cheese. Mains might include branzino with chermoula, cauliflower, and almonds, or a lamb casserole for two, filled with potatoes, olives, and anchovies. Reservations are accepted, and there’s also walk-up bar seating on offer for an impromptu charcuterie fix. 287 N Bishop Ave., Bishop Arts District, Dallas

Pecan Lodge [Dallas]: One of the city’s go-to barbecue options is Pecan Lodge, as the smoke spot’s lines attest. The main attraction here? A mega-sized beef rib. Other options include brisket, sausage, ribs, or pulled pork, plus sides like fried okra and west Texas pinto bean. Save some room during that meat feast, though. The banana pudding shouldn’t be skipped: the creamy stuff is made with a recipe from co-owner Diane Fourton’s grandmother. 2702 Main St., Deep Ellum, Dallas

Chuy’s Barton Springs [Austin]: Tex-Mex is an absolute must when in Austin, with barbecue and tacos, breakfast or otherwise, (from the city’s many excellent brick-and-mortar spots and food trucks) being the region’s other key culinary highlights. This is the OG location of Chuy’s, which opened in 1982 in a former barbecue joint, has expanded its funky vibes and satisfying food to various locations nationally, but even if you’ve gotten your Chuy’s fix elsewhere, it’s worth checking out the first outpost. The fun spot dishes up generous, cheesy portions of the moderately spicy, incredibly filling grub in a festive, kitsch-packed setting, brightly painted, with quirky framed art throughout, and spackled in kooky mosaics and assorted tchotchkes in various parts of the eatery. Come hungry and sample the Chimichangas at the place that lays claim to inventing the flauta-on-steroids fried burrito monstrosity, though you can’t go wrong with any of the freshly prepared, heaping platters of Tex Mex tastiness. Go to Chuy’s to refuel after a relaxing stint at Barton Springs. 1728 Barton Springs Rd., Zilker

Saigon Pagolac [Houston]: Houston’s diverse population includes a sizable Vietnamese community, and there are lots of solid options for banh mi and pho in this town. A chef-vetted favorite among the many spots specializing in the Southeast Asian cuisine is Saigon Pagolac, innocuously sandwiched in a strip mall. Dining among carnivorous types? Don’t miss the bo bay mon, a family-style feast comprised of not one, not two, but seven courses of beef dishes. There’s also a seven-course fish meal for pescatarians to get in on the action. Whatever you order, you’ll be able to be hands-on thanks to a variety of fresh herbs and rice paper, used to craft DIY summer rolls. 9600 Bellaire, Dynasty Plaza, Chinatown, Houston

Related: More City Guides from Inside Out

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