Formula One is back in Austin, and with hundreds of thousands of people flying into the land of breakfast tacos and tourists in cowboy hats, you may be wondering what to do when the festivities at Circuit of the Americas end and you’re left to your own devices to amuse yourself. We’ve got your back.
Circuit officials told the Austin American-Statesman that they expect to see the second largest crowd since 2012, when 117,429 people showed up that Sunday for the inaugural race at the track. That’s nearly the population of Waco, only entirely made up of other car dorks. Bring every exceedingly nerdy gearhead in-joke t-shirt you hide in the back of your closet—someone will get the joke, and probably (at least attempt to) high five you for it.
Admittedly, F1 is a tad predictable this year. If Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg doesn’t win, it feels like an upset at this point. The track booked concerts from Taylor Swift, Usher, The Roots and a host of local bands as a fairly solid back-up plan, just in case the race itself doesn’t rival last year’s for pure on-track insanity. Speaking of chaos, the delightful Porsche Supercup is back as a support race, and I couldn’t be happier about that.
But you know what happens at the track. You’ve read the schedule. You’ve printed out the map, marked turns to check out, and even reviewed our ultra-useful field guide of toilets to expect at the track. (Rejoice! Most of the porta-pots are now on paved paths after last year’s soggy mess.)
If you’ve never been to an F1 weekend here, expect a huge party, regardless of whether there’s action on track or not. Also, crowds. Lots of hungry crowds.
And no, you will not be able to get into Franklin Barbecue. Don’t even try. Idiot.
Austin is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country population-wise, with a booming tech industry, several universities, and all the functions of Texas’ state capital competing for space on roads that were woefully inadequate four years ago. Surprise! We’ve done basically nothing about that.
It’s only gotten worse, as more people have moved in and one of the primary freeways around downtown (MoPac) is under construction to add a pitifully inadequate toll lane that won’t solve the problem, either.
Fortunately, Circuit of the Americas is a good distance away from Austin’s already clogged city center, however, traffic coming in and out of the circuit gets backed up for miles on race day on relatively narrow country roads.
Do not drive there yourself. Carpool, at the very least, should you have on-site parking or plan to park in an unofficial lot just off-site.
Better yet, park off-site and take a shuttle in to the track itself. This is what I did for F1's first year at COTA, and it was pretty pleasant. There’s a short nature hike in from the shuttles’ drop-off location, but you’re not going to be sitting in as much of the same nightmare traffic as those who paid to park on-site. COTA has a full guide to this year’s parking and shuttle options here.
Alternately, you can ride a bicycle in, or if you somehow chartered a helicopter, fly in like a total boss. The helipads are just off Turn 1, right next to the not-cheap seats and one of the best hill climbs in F1.
COTA traffic isn’t the only thing you’ll have to worry about, though. Those who didn’t take Friday off are still trying to get to work, plus there are the inevitable street closures downtown for F1-related events. I live and die by Waze’s directions. Pick a traffic navigation app and use it even when you don’t expect there to be much traffic.
One other thing worth noting: due to an asinine spat between our city council and the two largest ride-hailing companies in the U.S., we don’t have Uber or Lyft here. Our public transit system is rather inadequate, and taxis are very much hit or miss. Several other ride-hailing companies stepped in to fill the void, however, so we recommend taking one of those if you’re not in a condition to drive. We’ll have a guide to the best ones later today.
So, fair warning: hitting Texas Monthly’s Austin to-do list of restaurants is probably out unless you’re spending an extra day here. Franklin Barbecue is now a morning-long wait even on slow days, and way too many folks will also have the idea of hitting that one joint they saw on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”
This is why I sort of hate visitors’ guides, even though I’m stuck writing one. On super-busy festival and event weekends, you’ll have better luck sneaking into Formula One’s pit lane wearing nothing but a strategically-placed brisket than you will working an hour(s)-long wait for a midday-only barbecue trailer into your schedule.
Austin has some ridiculously delicious food, though—especially tacos. I’ve had some miserable barbecue (yes, even here!), but it’s hard to screw up tacos. I’ve almost forgotten if it’s possible to walk away unsatisfied from stuff in a tortilla.
So, instead of the usual “wait several hours for tough meat at Salt Lick” recs, here are several less slammed eateries I either enjoy myself, or that came highly recommended by friends:
- Mexican: Papalote, La Mexicana on S. 1st, Enchiladas y Mas. Torchy’s and Tacodeli are local chains with locations everywhere if you’d rather try fancy Tex-Mex tacos. Fresa’s on S. 1st is giving away free breakfast tacos on Friday morning. Drive through El Tacorrido if you need tacos and an espresso shot dropped in a glass of horchata. (Sleep is for the weak.)
- Tex-Breakfast: Cisco’s for a solid mix of Tex-Mex and greasy spoonage. Editor Patrick George swears by Mi Madre’s also.
- No one can decide what they want (and/or more breakfast): Kerbey Lane and Magnolia Café have locations all over. Pick one. They have everything. The lines at the latter on South Congress Ave. are rough on a good weekend. Maybe try another one.
- Pizza: Via 313 for mind-blowing deep-dish Detroit-style pizza. Little Deli for thinner crusts.
- Coffee: Caffe Medici and Houndstooth Coffee produce some of the most velvety smooth lattés I’ve had in the world.
- Asian: Ramen Tatsuya, Michi Ramen or basically anywhere in the Chinatown Center on North Lamar.
- Bar food: Crown and Anchor (get the cheeseburger). Another Jalopnik staff favorite nearby is Posse East.
- Barbecue that’s actually open after F1 is done: Freedmen’s will still probably have a wait, but it’s my favorite brisket, so I’m listing it anyway. Stiles Switch, Black’s and Terry Black’s (different places, same name, long story) also stay open late and have thus far not attracted as large of a rabid following as everywhere else.
- Cannot Into Meat: Counter Culture, Bouldin Creek Coffeehouse.
- Ice cream: Amy’s Ice Creams is the local standby, and never does wrong. Sweet Ritual for the vegan variety. Prohibition Creamery if you’d like to add booze in your ice cream. Hi, Kimi!
This is not an exhaustive list, and largely limited to places closer to downtown. Try out a trailer, or just wander around until something sounds tasty. Look it up on Urbanspoon or Yelp it if you must, or just go eat.
Places close to hotels and downtown will be busier than neighborhood favorites, as always. Don’t be afraid to explore the city a little, even later at night—you’re honestly more likely to run into a fanciful yet mildly insufferable beard styling competition than you are actual trouble.
Well, for one, you should join us on Friday at 8 p.m. at Lustre Pearl East to hang out with other Jalops. Patrick, Alanis and I will all be there. There’s also the usual free Austin Fan Fest downtown, complete with plenty of F1-focused activities taking over Sixth Street, plus concerts at a stage at 6th and Trinity.
This is one of the rare weekends where heading to the stretch of Sixth Street known as “Dirty Sixth” isn’t a terrible idea. The people-watching alone makes it incredible, and there’s a good chance you’ll spot team members downing more shots than was thought to be humanly possible.
Sixth Street is one of the main thoroughfares of inebriation, and at least some of Patrick’s breakdown from four years ago still rings true today. West Sixth is for finance bros who never grew out of one-upping anything with a pulse to discuss their latest insufferable startup, East Sixth is a calmer island of hipster gentrification perfect for knocking back an overpriced Lone Star after a fixie ride, and stereotypes are for losers. Go find a place that sounds inviting, and enjoy yourself.
Austin is big on live music, so there are plenty of concerts, smaller events and theme nights to go to. The Broken Spoke is an old standby for country music and dancing. Do512 and the Austin Chronicle have full calendars of other happenings in town. There’s even a Dog Beard and Moustache Competition on Saturday, just in case you want the full Austin experience. (We do love dogs!)
Of course, because it’s F1, there are plenty of invite-only parties that you have to know a guy to know a guy (or pay through the balls) to get into. We don’t know the guy, although we know you can pay $95 to pretend you’re at the world’s most landlocked yacht club at the Blu/My Yacht Club party. Go enjoy the ridiculousness, if that’s your schtick.
Perhaps you’re looking for chiller pastures, though. Rainey Street has a collection of bars and restaurants made out of old houses, and isn’t quite as stereotyped as Sixth.
Further away, there are some decent neighborhood haunts to choose from: Draught House, Barfly’s, the ABGB, Winebelly, etc., etc., etc. If you have a bit of extra time (since many of these are probably longer than a post-race evening trip), you may want to check out where the booze is made at places like Jester King Brewery or Meridian Hive Meadery.
Of course, Austin’s not all booze, concerts and food. If you get tired of just watching race cars, you can break off and drive a supercar on track with the Longhorn Racing Academy in nearby San Marcos, or head to do indoor karts in Austin proper at K1 Speed.
Zilker Park is amazing if you’d like to wander around the oh-so-pleasant outdoors next to Town Lake. Head west out of town, and the roads get twistier and more fun.
There’s a little bit of something for everyone here, so find something neat and go exploring after the action winds down at COTA. It’s going to be busy, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be any fun. If all else fails, ask us! We are here to help.