The perfect three-day weekend in this upbeat, welcoming metropolis

Fast-growing Austin has been one of America’s most talked about cities over the past decade, having not only increased its population by nearly 50 percent but also solidified its reputation as an ultra-cool place to live and visit. The fact that Austin is oppressively hot for a few months each summer is about its only major negative. As autumn approaches, however, Austin cools off again – and this means the city’s myriad cafes, lounges, music clubs, and gay hangouts sizzle with activity.

If you’ve been to this left-leaning – especially by Texas standards – city before, say five or more years ago, you may have trouble recognizing it. The downtown landscape has been transformed by office and hotel towers, and a fantastic airport makes traveling here a breeze. Here’s a recipe for enjoying the perfect three-day weekend in this upbeat, welcoming metropolis.

Consider staying in the funky downtown Warehouse District, with its bounty of both gay and gay-friendly bars as well as hip restaurants and offbeat boutiques. Worthy recommendations include the most glamorous hotel in town, the Intercontinental Stephen F. Austin, an opulent 16-story beauty with marble baths, 1920s-era furnishings, and twice-daily maid service. Perfectly appealing yet less pricey downtown alternatives include the Radisson Town Lake, whose rooms face the scenic Colorado River (known as Town Lake in this part of the city), and the Hampton Inn and Suites, an attractive, reasonably priced mid-rise opened a few years ago.

Across the river, within walking distance of downtown, you’ll find another excellent lodging base, the retro-trendy South Congress district, home to the cleverly restored Austin Motel. Many rooms at this quirky slice of ’50s-style Americana have tile floors, kitchenettes, Jacuzzi tubs, and kidney-shaped patios. There’s an on-site Mexican restaurant, El Sol y La Luna, that turns out fiery, kick-ass huevos rancheros and carne asada. A few blocks away, the swankier Hotel San Jose is another old motor court that’s been given a postmodern, minimalist makeover. The spacious courtyard suites are downright posh (and pricey), but a simpler though still snazzy room with a shared bath runs for just over $100 nightly. Entertain guests in the hotel’s scene-y lounge-cum-coffeehouse.

On Friday, your first night in town, decompress after your flight or car ride with a relaxing, informal meal at one of the city’s well-regarded purveyors of Tex-Mex, such as Guero’s or Manuel’s. A former feed store that’s now a fabulous taqueria, Guero’s serves some of the best Mexican fare in central Texas – from standard but artfully seasoned tamales to more innovative creations like marinated grilled pork on a corn tortilla with onions, cilantro, and fresh pineapple. Fancier than most of the Mexican restaurants in town, Manuel’s is a sleek, deco-inspired space in the Warehouse District with a sassy little bar in back. Try some of the more innovative creations, like corn-battered colossal shrimp with a poblano-chile cream, or pork enchiladas in a velvety mole sauce.

After your meal, it’s time to check out at least a couple of Austin’s inviting gay bars – it’s a topsy-turvy scene in these parts, with one or two bars coming and going seemingly every year. But you can consistently count on there being roughly a half dozen gay bars downtown, mostly concentrated in the Warehouse District. Worthwhile options on Fridays include the relatively new Rain on 4th, which opened in the Warehouse District in 2006, and has a lovely deck out back, a cozy billiards bar up front, and a mid-size dance bar in the middle; and Charlie’s, the city’s oldest gay bar, which lies in the shadows of the state capitol building. Go-go boys perform inside, and there’s a spacious deck in back. If you’re looking to keep it mellow your first night, have an after-dinner cocktail, fruit smoothie, or espresso drink at the stylish Halcyon Coffeehouse and Lounge, a hipster-infested, gay-friendly hangout across the street from Rain on 4th.

Rise and shine on Saturday morning with breakfast at one of Austin’s more eccentric nosh pits, Magnolia Cafe, which has branches along South Congress Avenue and also just west of downtown on Lake Austin Boulevard. The delicious, filling breakfast specialties range from the “Solar Landscape” (seasoned grilled potatoes, red onions, and ham topped with queso and chipotle sauce) to hefty gingerbread pancakes bursting with blueberries.

Very close to the South Congress neighborhood, you can take to the outdoors and work off some calories with a stroll through beautiful 350-acre Zilker Park, a fine spot to tan your hide on sunny days. The park’s spring-fed Barton Springs Pool, a popular and enormous swimming hole, remains an invigorating 68 degrees year-round, so bring along a swimsuit if the weather’s nice.

Austin’s best outdoor attraction, however, is Hippie Hollow Park, which hugs the shores of stunning Lake Travis, about a 30-minute drive west of town. This is the region’s only official clothing-optional sunbathing spot. The gay section, which draws substantial crowds on just about any day with temperatures above 65 degrees, lies at the very end of the pathway that leads from the parking lot. On weekend afternoons you’ll often see pleasure boats packed with cute guys docked just offshore. Break for refreshments with a meal at the Oasis, a massive outdoor compound set high on a bluff overlooking the lake and Hippie Hollow – it’s a short drive from the park. The mediocre Mexican food at Oasis won’t win any culinary awards, but the views and the potent margaritas make this a winner.

On your way back into town, treat yourself to some truly heavenly ice cream at Amy’s, a shrine to fattening dairy treats. Mexican vanilla, pumpkin cheesecake, and honeyed brandy are a few popular flavors at this local chain with outposts in several handy locations, including South Congress Avenue and 6th Street downtown. If you still have a little time left, stroll among the cool antiques, home-furnishings, and second-hand clothing shops along South Congress Avenue and also in the Warehouse District.

Saturday-night dinner options are many. Stick with the Warehouse District for the best people-watching, plus proximity to gay nightlife. Excellent dining bets include Kenichi, a mod, happening place where pretty young things hobnob over superbly rendered Japanese cuisine. At nearby Malaga, you can savor plate after plate of terrific tapas, such as braised beef short ribs in Riojo wine. It’s a dramatic space with tall brick walls and marble tables, and there’s Latin music most nights.

Saturday is Austin’s big night for gay revelry. Rain on 4th and Charlie’s remain popular options, but this is also the best night to check out Rain’s neighbor, Oilcan Harry’s, which has been a fixture in the city for years. This always-packed stand-and-model bar attracts a hot collegiate crowd. There are a couple of bar areas, a patio in back, and a good (loud) sound system serving the tiny but pulsing dance floor. Austin’s many queer country-western fans head to the nearby Rainbow Cattle Co., where they two-step and line-dance below a sea of wagon wheels and Wild West artifacts. If you’re into leather, head to the Chain Drive, which cultivates a bearish and rugged ambience.

The city also has dozens of clubs and lounges hosting bands and singers of just about every ilk, making Austin one of the nation’s top cities for live music. Just stroll through the Warehouse District, especially along East 6th Street, and listen for the sounds of music to your liking. In Austin, nobody cares much about looks, labels, and agendas – you’ll be made to feel welcome most anywhere.

Sunday morning offers a fresh opportunity to sample one of Austin’s great brunch or lunch spots – depending on how late you sleep in. A favorite of the gay community, Katz Deli is renowned for its half-pound sandwiches – the grilled three-cheese with tomatoes is especially good. Another enjoyable option is the South Congress Cafe, a handsome space known for such toothsome brunch treats as duck-and-oyster gumbo, and a luscious carrot cake French toast.

Spend your final afternoon in town exploring the leafy 357-acre campus of the University of Texas, whose attractions include the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum and the Texas Memorial Museum, which has exhibits on state history and local flora and fauna. UT’s Blanton Museum of Art is well-regarded for its collections of Renaissance paintings as well as modern Latin American art. Guadalupe Street, known along its border with UT as “the Drag,” is a haven of alternative culture as well as _the_ place to shop for locally made arts and crafts, Longhorn memorabilia, and other offbeat goods.

On your final night in Austin, you might go all out with a high-ticket dinner at one of the city’s most sophisticated restaurants, such as dark and sexy Jeffrey’s, which has the polish of a big-city supper club and a clientele that ranges from celebs to politicos. The lamb T-bone with spinach-parmesan souffle and onion-mint confit is a typically sublime dish. Don’t miss the white-chocolate parfait with brandied cherries and pistachios for dessert – a memorable ending to a great Austin weekend.