The Austin retail scene isn’t as glitzy as those in larger Texas metropolises like Houston or Dallas—at least not yet. Most locals pride themselves on the fact that the city excels in the unique and the home grown, from clothing to crafts and, especially, groceries; this is, after all, where Whole Foods originated. But Austin itself has come to be seen as a brand—one that, much like Brooklyn, telegraphs young, hip, and wired. As rents have risen in several popular shopping districts, many independents have gotten pricey. And of course Whole Foods is now a corporation.
Still, there are enclaves with less expensive wares in parts of town where the rents have not yet skyrocketed. Pop-up shops—online retailers who gather to sell their wares in vacant lots or on the properties of established businesses as one-time or recurring events—have also kept things interesting and competitively priced. The retail equivalent of food trucks that test the waters for chefs, these temporary shops sometimes decide to go the brick-and-mortar route. To find out what’s popping up while you’re visiting, check www.eventbrite.com/d/tx--austin/pop-up.
THE SHOPPING SCENE
Once the hub of Austin’s independent retail scene, Downtown still has some treasures, especially along Congress Avenue and West Sixth Street. However, the only area that might be identified as a real shopping district these days is West Second Street, known for its trendy, high-end boutiques.
Across Lady Bird Lake from downtown, South Congress Avenue is chock-a-block with art galleries, vintage clothing emporia, and folk art shops, along with upscale retailers, mostly concentrated from the 1200 block to the 2500 block. The popularity of this area, however, has meant higher rents, which results in higher prices passed along to consumers. Just a few blocks west, South First and, to a lesser degree, South Lamar Boulevard are what South Congress used to be: drags where you can still find fun local wares at prices that aren’t prohibitive. East Austin, across I-35 from downtown, draws up-and-coming artists and indie retailers, especially along East Cesar Chavez Street; it’s the place to browse the latest in understated home design and personal adornment, Austin style.
In the older West End, near where downtown’s Fifth and Sixth streets cross Lamar Boulevard, you’ll find mega-shops of well-known brands like Anthropologie, REI, and Austin-grown Whole Foods, Waterloo Records, and BookPeople, along with smaller boutiques dotted on side streets and north along Lamar to 12th street. In the vicinity of Central Market, between West 35th and 40th streets and Lamar and MoPac, such small shopping centers as 26 Doors and Jefferson Square have charming selections.
Many stores on The Drag—the stretch of Guadalupe Street bordering the University of Texas campus—are student-oriented, but a wide range of upscale options complement the expected tie-dye. North Loop, the newest shopping destination for the boho-chic, lies just north of UT, specializing in vintage shops, used bookstores, and one-off quirky boutiques.
As if there weren’t already enough street theater in Austin, the merchants on South Congress Avenue decided a few years back to host 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 are 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, from around Academy Drive to Crockett Street. It kicks off around 5pm and runs until 10pm.
Specialty shops in Austin tend to open around 10am, Monday through Saturday, and close at about 5:30 or 6pm; many have Sunday hours from noon to 6pm. Malls tend to keep the same Sunday schedule, but Monday through Saturday they stay open until 9pm. Sales tax in Austin is 8.25%.
Much of Austin’s shopping has moved out to the malls. Barton Creek Square drew wealthy shoppers from all parts of town when it opened in the southwest in 1980, but since then far more malls have opened up in the northwest, especially as it became a hot tech corridor. Bargain hunters go farther afield to the huge collection of factory outlet stores just south of San Marcos.
In addition to Whole Foods and Central Market, Austin has several co-ops and farmers markets. A standout is counter-cultural Wheatsville Food Co-op, 3101 Guadalupe St. (512/478-2667), which has excellent service and makes maximum use of its limited floor space, including a good selection of beer and wine and a deli.
Perhaps the most notable farmers market is the SFC (Sustainable Food Center) Farmers’ Market Downtown, held at Republic Square Park, 422 Guadalupe St. (512/236-0074), every Saturday from 9am to 1pm March through November. It not only features fresh produce and prepared food, but also offers live music, cooking demonstrations, kids’ activities, and workshops on everything from organic gardening to aromatherapy. A similar array of activities, plus a lakeside setting, graces the local favorite Texas Farmers’ Market at Mueller, 4209 Airport Blvd. (512/953-7959), held every Sunday from 10am to 2pm and Wednesday from 5 to 8pm.
Austin’s Upscale Grocers
If you’re visiting Austin for the first time at the end of the 2010s, it’s easy to forget that the national grocery-as-theater trend got its start in Austin with the opening of Whole Foods in 1980. Central Market, founded in 1994, two years after Whole Foods went public, upped its competitor’s game by featuring chef programs and cooking classes. The trends they pioneered are now common around the country: to have organics and other health foods readily available at stores that don’t smell like patchouli; to offer vast sections of prepared foods; to feature cafes and other sit-down sections; and to host a variety of culinary events.
Austinites love to dispute whether they prefer Whole Foods, headquartered in Austin, or Central Market, now the elite brand of H-E-B, headquartered in San Antonio. Both have hometown cred and comparable offerings. Some argue Central Market has better prices (true); others say Whole Foods has a better organics selection (also true, especially at its flagship store). Mostly, though, it’s a question of personal taste.
Central Market has two branches in the city, the original just north of UT, 4001 N. Lamar Blvd. (512/206-1000), and a newer one at Westgate Shopping Center in South Austin, 4477 S. Lamar Blvd. (512/899-4300). Both are equally impressive. A monthly newsletter announces what’s fresh in the produce department, which jazz musicians are entertaining on the weekend, and which gourmet chef is holding forth at the market’s cooking school.
Austin hosts six Whole Foods stores, including branches at Gateway Market and the Domain NORTHSIDE, but the really wow-worthy one is the 80,000-square-foot flagship near the original downtown location (and corporate headquarters), at 525 N. Lamar Blvd. (512/476-1206). With its 600-seat amphitheater, wine bar, taco bar, makeup center, rooftop skating rink (winter only), gardens, on-site massages, and more, it’s among the city’s most popular tourist attractions.
As might be expected, there are several bookstores in the University of Texas area. The University Co-Op, 2246 Guadalupe St. (512/476-7211), 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. (512/451-4463; five other locations). You’ll also find a large selection of vinyl as well as DVDs in this link of the family-run chain founded in Dallas.
Maybe it’s the bent toward recycling, but vintage wear shops have cropped up all over Austin, especially in the North Loop area. A group of businesses devoted to reclaiming—and reselling—the past have compiled Vintage Guide Around Town, which includes details of participating stores as well as a map pinpointing their locations.
Austin has two branches of sporting goods chain REI, one downtown at 601 N. Lamar Blvd. (512/482-3357), and one in the Gateway complex, 9901 N. Capital of Texas Hwy., Ste. 200 (512/343-5550), both offering classes, outings, and events, in addition to gear. Half an hour away in Buda, you’ll find Cabela’s, 15570 I-35 (512/295-1100), a cavernous store with an indoor waterfall, large aquarium, and diorama of the African savanna. It’s a major destination for local hunters, fishermen, campers, and kayakers.
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.