Visitors to Austin don't really come for the shopping, but the opportunistic shopper can be rewarded with some wonderful discoveries. Folk art, arts and crafts, music, books -- these are the areas where Austin excels. And it's got the rest of the material world pretty well covered, too. As for the shopping experience, I think most will enjoy the helpfulness and lack of artifice shown by salespersons here.
The Shopping Scene
What follows is a brief description of where the most "Austintatious" shopping can be found. Specialty shops in Austin tend to open around 10am, Monday through Saturday, and close at about 5:30 or 6pm, and many have Sunday hours from noon to 6pm. Malls tend to keep the same Sunday schedule, but Monday through Saturday they don't close their doors until 9pm. Sales tax in Austin is 8.25%.
Downtown -- Most shops are located along several blocks of East Sixth, along Congress Avenue, and along West Second, 1 block off Congress in a shopping district that extends for 3 blocks. If the weather is agreeable, this is an easy area to cover on foot and a good spot for window-shopping. Specialty stores include apparel, interior design, music paraphernalia, hot sauce, and headwear.
South Congress -- Just across the river from downtown begins the SoCo shopping area. Most of the shops are on South Congress, and the majority of these are located up the hill, in a stretch running from the 1200 block to the 2500 block. On the first Thursday of every month, the SoCo merchants sponsor a street festival with music and other entertainment. Shops include art galleries, boutiques, bargain antiques stores, and clothing and folk art shops. There are also shops scattered along South Lamar, but they are not concentrated enough to allow for window-shopping, and South Lamar isn't as interesting to navigate as South Congress.
North Lamar -- Just west of downtown (you could almost call it downtown but not quite), in the vicinity of where Fifth and Sixth streets cross Lamar Boulevard, you have a high concentration of one-of-a-kind shops extending for 1 or 2 blocks in any direction. The shops continue, scattered along both sides of Lamar northward up to 12th street. You'll find music, books, clothing, food -- all the necessities, plus a lot of extravagance, too. It's a mixture of chic, quirky, folksy, and artsy. Also located here is Whole Foods' flagship store.
North Lamar and 38th Street -- Within a few blocks of this intersection, heading either north on Lamar or west on 38th Street (where it curves south and becomes 35th St.), there is serious shopping. On Lamar, you'll find the shopping center where Central Market's flagship food store is located, surrounded by specialty shops selling cameras, paper goods, cosmetics, jewelry, and pottery. West on 38th are two small shopping centers that host boutiques and specialty stores: 26 Doors and Jefferson Square.
The Drag -- Bordering the university on Guadalupe Street is a stretch of stores selling mostly hip apparel to students: boutiques, beads, books, and an open-air area where hippies sell jewelry, tie-dyed shirts, and such, which for some reason has always had the name Renaissance Market.
Northwest -- There's no shortage of malls in Austin. In the northwest, three upscale shopping centers, the Arboretum, the Arboretum Market, and the Gateway complex (consisting of the Gateway Courtyard, the Gateway Market, and Gateway Square) have earned the area the nickname "South Dallas." A bit farther north off of Mo-Pac, where it intersects Burnet Road, is the city's newest mall, called the Domain.
South of Austin -- Bargain hunters can go farther afield to the huge collection of factory outlet stores just south of San Marcos.
As if there weren't already enough street theater in Austin, the merchants on South Congress Avenue decided a few years back to start hosting a monthly street festival. They began keeping their doors open late and providing food, drinks, and entertainment on the first Thursday of every month. Soon impromptu open-air markets sprang up, and jugglers, drum circles, and of course live bands performed indoors, outdoors, and in between.
First Thursdays have become quite popular for their mix of shopping, entertainment, people-watching, and the surprise factor -- you never know what you're going to meet up with. It's also a way for locals to celebrate the approach of the weekend. The street festival occupies about 8 blocks along both sides of South Congress. Traffic along the avenue is not cordoned off, but everyone drives slowly because of the crowds crisscrossing the avenue. It starts around 6pm and runs until 10pm. To find out more, check www.firstthursday.info.
Shopping A to Z
Antiques -- In addition to the one-stop antiques markets listed, a number of smaller shops line Burnet Road north of 45th Street.
Books -- As might be expected, there are a couple of bookstores in the University of Texas area, on the Drag. The University Co-Op, 2244 Guadalupe St. (tel. 512/476-7211; www.coop-bookstore.com), opened in 1896, has many volumes of general interest, along with the requisite burnt-orange-and-white Longhorn T-shirts, mugs, and other UT souvenirs.
For a good selection of used and remaindered books, check out Half-Price Books at 5555 N. Lamar Blvd. (tel. 512/451-4463; www.halfpricebooks.com; four other locations); it also carries CDs, cassettes, DVDs, and videos.
Food -- Austin has become the new frontier of grocery shopping -- grocery shopping as aesthetic experience. And the two entities that are busy at work pushing the envelope are Whole Foods (headquartered in Austin) and Central Market. Both were born in Austin, and both have a vision of ravishing displays of fresh produce, gourmet foods, wines, and delicacies from around the world. I am told by the tourism office that both of these stores are among the most popular tourist attractions in the city.
But for sheer ease of use, and for its being a countercultural artifact, there's Austin's own community grocery store, Wheatsville Food Co-op, at 3101 Guadalupe St. (tel. 512/478-2667). It's owned and operated by its members, but anyone can shop there. They make the maximum use of their limited floor space, including a good selection of beer and wine and a deli, and have excellent service. Unlike the stores of the future, you're in and out of this one in two shakes of a lamb's tail. The store recently underwent a major expansion and renovation that has it dangerously close to joining the mainstream.
Austin also has an abundance of farmers' markets. Perhaps the most notable of them, Austin Farmers' Market, held downtown at Republic Square Park, Fourth Street at Guadalupe, every Saturday from 9am to 1pm March through November (tel. 512/236-0074), not only features food products, but also live music, cooking demonstrations, kids' activities, and workshops on everything from organic gardening to aromatherapy.
South Congress Farmers' Market, held Saturday from 8am to 1pm in the parking lot of El Gallo Restaurant, 2910 S. Congress Ave. (tel. 512/281-4712), is smaller, but you've got the guarantee that all the goods are locally grown without chemicals.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.