Best Things To Do in Austin
Austin's attractions cater to all ages. With an abundance of green space, active travelers can bike in Zilker Metropolitan Park and swim in Barton Springs Pool before an evening of bat-watching at the Congress Avenue Bridge. If you find yourself waking up to a rainy day, stay dry in one of Austin's top-notch museums like the Bullock Texas State History Museum or the Blanton Museum of Art. Just make sure you save some energy for an evening of live music at a bar or club on Sixth Street.
Updated April 23, 2019
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Standing stoically in the heart of central Austin is Texas's legislative center, the State Capitol. Opened in 1888, this pink-granite landmark stands 14 feet taller than the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Much of the capitol, including the 218-foot rotunda, the chamber of the Hall of Representatives and the governor's receiving room, still look the same as they did when the capitol opened.
The structure underwent a large-scale restoration starting in the 1980s, including replacing the zinc statue of the Goddess of Liberty that sits atop the dome with an aluminum one. The restoration also included a 667,000-square-foot underground extension that was completed in 1993 to accommodate how much the state government had grown. Many visitors say it's the most impressive state legislative building they've ever seen, but they also warn it can be crowded at times. If you want to learn a bit of Texas history without having to pay an entrance fee, you can't beat a visit to the capitol building, according to past travelers.
- #2View all PhotosfreeMount Bonnell#2 in AustinHiking, Parks and Gardens, Recreation, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDHiking, Parks and Gardens, Recreation, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDRead More
For great views, head to Mount Bonnell at Covert Park, which provides sweeping views of the city, Lake Austin and the surrounding hills. The 5.1-acre historic linear park is home to a 775-foot-high outcrop, considered the highest spot in the area. Mount Bonnell is designated a Texas Historic Landmark and is also listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The point is located alongside the Lake Austin portion of the Colorado River and has proven to be an enduring tourist destination since the 1850s.
Recent visitors said it offers great views, best enjoyed on clear days. The peak of the overlook, which takes 102 steps to get to, is a craggy limestone outcropping and is surrounded by a forested area of live oak, ash juniper, persimmon and mountain laurel. Past travelers described the walk as "scenic and easy."
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Sitting across the river from downtown Austin, this beloved 351-acre park buoys Austin's reputation as one of the Best Places to Live. Zilker Metropolitan Park shelters some of the city's most popular attractions – from art museums to swimming holes – as well as several athletic fields and plenty of open space for strolling. Whether you choose to swim, canoe or dig for fossils at the Austin Nature and Science Center's Dino Pit, you'll find a range of options – a particular point of praise for recent visitors.
Give yourself a day or two to explore everything Zilker Metropolitan Park has to offer. Art aficionados can peruse the works housed within the UMLAUF Sculpture Garden & Museum while nature enthusiasts can stroll among the brightly colored flowers in the Zilker Botanical Garden. And after a day spent strolling the park, cool down with a dip in Barton Springs Pool, a popular swimming hole. The park is also home to several popular city-wide events, including the Austin City Limits Musical Festival and the ABC Kite Fest.
- #4View all PhotosfreeSoCo District#4 in AustinCafes, Entertainment and Nightlife, Festivals, Shopping, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDCafes, Entertainment and Nightlife, Festivals, Shopping, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDRead More
While the SoCo District sits about 5 miles south of downtown Austin, the area plays a vital role in the city’s weird culture. A portmanteau neighborhood nickname, SoCo stands for South Congress and is most known for its namesake South Congress Avenue. The shops lining the avenue mostly specialize in boutique or retro clothing, attracting both tourists and locals who are in search of conversation-starting outfits.
SoCo also offers an assortment of excellent eateries. Past travelers recommended Amy’s Ice Creams, Jo’s Coffee and Torchy’s Tacos. Many of the area’s restaurants also offer outdoor patios, which recent visitors said provide excellent vantage points for people-watching in the trendy neighborhood. When you’re not shopping, eating or staring, swing by The Continental Club to grab a drink and enjoy some live country music in an iconic venue.
- #5View all Photos#5 in AustinMuseumsTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDMuseumsTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDRead More
Sheltered on the University of Texas at Austin campus, the Blanton Museum of Art is a must-see for any art enthusiast. Considered as one of the largest university art museums in the country and home to more than 18,000 works of art – ranging from Renaissance and baroque pieces by renowned artists such as Rubens and Poussin to a sizeable collection of contemporary Latin American art.
Recent visitors said the museum was small, but worth stopping by for a few hours, especially on days when you need to beat the heat with some air conditioning. Reviewers said the collection was unique and eclectic, with many most impressed by the Latin American artists on display.
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A cherished outdoor space in the city, the 10-mile Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail which encompasses the entire lake, serves as a popular place for runners, walkers and cyclists, for both locals and visitors. Outdoor enthusiasts rave about the peace and quiet beauty the trail affords.
The urban path takes visitors along the water's edge and passes by plenty of places to relax, eat and even picnic. Part of the trail is a 1.1-mile boardwalk which offers amazing downtown views. There are several bathrooms along the path, a dog park and scenic overlooks.
- #7View all PhotosfreeSixth Street#7 in AustinEntertainment and Nightlife, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDEntertainment and Nightlife, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDRead More
A trip to the "Live Music Capital of the World" wouldn't be complete without discovering some of Austin's up-and-coming talent along Sixth Street. After drastic restoration took place in an effort by the National Register of Historic Places to save the area from its grungy reputation, this area became the hub of Austin's music scene in the 1970s.
Today, Sixth Street between Congress Street and Interstate 35 (known as Dirty Sixth to locals) is the center of the musical action in Austin. The area buzzes with activity from shops, restaurants, bars and yes, live music joints, such as Esther's Follies, Pete's Dueling Piano Bar and the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema.
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Nestled in Zilker Park, Barton Springs Pool is a favorite locale among visitors and residents alike. Native American settlers once believed the springs possessed spiritual healing powers, and professional travel writers still refer to Barton Springs as the "soul of Austin" and many visitors say it's an ideal spot to cool off in the summer.
Formed from underground springs, the 3-acre pool consistently stays between 68 and 70 degrees – perfect for a respite from the sweltering summer temperatures Texas is known for. The grounds also feature bathhouses and an educational exhibit about the history and biology of the Barton Springs. Patrons of the pool say the experience is one of the things that make Austin unique.
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Odds are your favorite band has played at Austin City Limits Live at The Moody Theater (also known as ACL Live). The venue provides the home for taping the Austin City Limits television series, which holds the title of the longest running music series in American television history. The three levels that divide up the small theater seat a total of more than 2,700 people. The balcony level houses the Jack & Jim Gallery, which showcases the portfolio of Jim Marshall, an infamous photographer with a passion for music.
Music buffs praise the acoustics at ACL Live, claiming that there is not a bad seat in the house. The lower level offers general admission space and reserved seats, while the two higher levels house only reserved seats. Ticket prices vary greatly, as do the length of shows, so anyone interested in catching a performance should check out the theater’s website. The theater sits near the Colorado River, and bus Nos. 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 10, 19, 20 and 30 all stop within walking distance of the venue. Limited valet parking is available at the W Austin hotel on a first-come, first-served basis, while a variety of additional parking options are also nearby.
- #10View all Photos#10 in AustinMuseumsTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDMuseumsTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDRead More
While the thought of visiting a presidential library may sound like a bore, this one is an exception. Dedicated to the 36th president of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson's library houses all the expected artifacts – including presidential papers – as well as several quirkier exhibits that are just as interesting as the president himself. From presidential holiday cards to photographs chronicling the civil rights era and an LBJ robot, this museum uses all types of mediums to narrate the president's life and political career.
According to recent visitors, the library provides an interesting view of American history during President Johnson's tenure, describing the exhibits as "inspiring and sobering." Reviewers also give high marks to the museum staff.
- #11View all Photos#11 in AustinMuseumsTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDMuseumsTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDRead More
Named for Texas's 38th lieutenant governor, the Bullock Texas State History Museum explores the Lone Star State's vibrant past with artifacts ranging from the original Goddess of Liberty statue that resided at the top of the State Capitol's dome to astronaut Edgar Mitchell's space suit used in the Apollo 14 mission to the moon. Along with galleries featuring more than 500 artifacts, the museum features rotating special exhibits to reflect the diverse history of the state. The museum is also home to the largest IMAX screen in Texas as well as the 4-D Texas Spirit Theater with special documentary short films, a cafe with an outdoor patio and large museum store to take a piece of Texas history home with you.
Since opening in 2001, more than 9 million people have visited the museum to learn about the history of the Lone Star State. Native Texans and out-of-towners alike say the exhibits are well laid out and many recommend setting aside at least a few hours to take in all there is to see.
- #12View all PhotosfreeAustin Bats#12 in AustinNatural Wonders, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDNatural Wonders, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDRead More
According to experts, Austin is home to the largest urban bat colony in North America. Approximately 1.5 million bats have made the Congress Avenue Bridge their home. The bats settled here after a renovation of the bridge in 1980 created crevices that were perfect for bats to take refuge in against predators. Every spring the Mexican free-tailed bats migrate north to the bridge to give birth and raise their offspring. Come summertime, the bats can be seen each evening at dusk as they emerge for their nightly excursions to rid the city of pesky insects before heading back to central Mexico in the fall.
It's nearly impossible to be unimpressed by the nightly mass exodus. Travelers can catch a glimpse of where the bats make their home by taking a sunset cruise from companies like Capital Cruises and the Lone Star Riverboat that are offered March through early November. Visitors and locals alike who have taken the time to go watch the bats say it's an interesting sight to see if you have spare time on your hands.
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Named for its co-founder, Claudia Alta Taylor "Lady Bird" Johnson (wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson), this center is a great place for nature lovers looking to kill time. The former first lady co-founded the center to educate fellow botanists about the benefits of planting and nurturing certain types of plants, a project that has revolutionized gardening habits in central Texas.
Today, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is the United States' largest research library for native plant studies. Visitors flock from all over the country to enjoy more than 970 species of Texan flora – including bluebonnets and evening primrose – which flourishes on more than 284 acres of gardens and along more than 2 miles of hiking trails. The center also features an observation tower, a cafe and a gift shop. Visitors say it's pretty year-round, but the spring and summer provide the best chance to see the most flowers in bloom (and to avoid disappointment if you only want to see flowers).
- #14View all Photos#14 in AustinMuseumsTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDMuseumsTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDRead More
Perched along Congress Avenue, just a couple blocks south of The Driskill, the Mexic-Arte Museum is devoted to the conservation of Mexican and Latin American art and culture. Home to a fascinating permanent collection, which includes photographs from the Mexican Revolution and traditional ritual masks as well as more contemporary works from local artists, the museum also features theatrical and musical performances year-round.
Recent travelers said the museum was a pleasant surprise and recommend stopping in the eclectic gift shop, where works from local artists are available for purchase. Many described the museum as "small, but mighty."
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Parents aiming to cultivate a passion for science will appreciate the offerings at the Austin Nature & Science Center. The center provides hands-on exhibits designed to foster connections with the natural environment. One outdoor option is the Forest Trail, which includes information about the 45 types of native trees planted along the path. Visitors with kids should not miss the Dino Pit, which allows children to dig up an assortment of fossil casts, introducing the field of paleontology. The Austin Nature & Science Center also houses several animal exhibits, including small fish and reptiles, a variety of birds and mammals like bobcats.
Recent travelers appreciated how well the park caters to children, as the array of exhibits are sure to keep even the antsiest kids entertained. What’s more, admission to the Austin Nature & Science Center is free. Visitors are welcome Monday to Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. The center sits in the Zilker Metropolitan Park, east of downtown Austin. The park is accessible via public transit like the No. 30 bus, which drops visitors within walking distance of the center. To learn more about planning a visit to the Austin Nature & Science Center, be sure to check out its website.
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Despite being listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, Mayfield Park and Preserve attracts travelers primarily because of its exorbitant population of peacocks. One historical cottage and gardens sit in the estate, which Mary Mayfield Gutsch donated to the city of Austin in 1971. The manicured portion takes up only a tiny part of the relatively small park, which totals less than 0.1 square miles. The rest of the park is accessible via walking trails, which allow visitors to observe the peacocks that call the park home.
Past visitors were impressed by the beautiful peacocks, which remained relatively calm given the steady stream of gawkers. Mayfield Park and Preserve is located about 5 miles northwest of downtown Austin. The No. 335 bus provides the best public transit option, though, travelers will still need to walk just under a mile to reach the park. Mayfield Park is free to access and open daily from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. Keep in mind that the park does not permit pets. To learn more about Mayfield Park and Preserve’s history, as well as more information to plan a visit, check out the park’s website.
- #17View all Photos#17 in AustinParks and Gardens, RecreationTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDParks and Gardens, RecreationTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDRead More
Onion Creek winds through McKinney Falls State Park, providing cool respite for campers hoping to escape the hot Texas sun. In addition to the creek, nearly 9 miles of trails take hikers and bikers around the park’s limestone formations and wooded areas. After an active day, visitors at McKinney Falls can wind down at one of the park’s 81 campsites or six cabins.
According to recent overnight guests at the park, many of the camping spots include raised tent pads to ease setup and protect the area’s vegetation. Past visitors recommend checking out both the upper and lower falls. Travelers also suggest planning your trip to coincide with the wet season (May to late September), as the river can nearly dry up during the dry season.
- #18View all Photos#18 in AustinEntertainment and NightlifeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDEntertainment and NightlifeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDRead More
Located on Austin’s iconic Sixth Street, Esther's Follies offers comedic twists on singing, dancing, juggling, magic shows and sketches. The show began in 1977, and its absurd brand of politics and pop culture parody has appealed to the eclectic crowds of Sixth Street ever since. Now, tourists and locals agree that Esther’s Follies boasts all of the bona fides of an Austin tradition. Keep in mind that there is a taqueria attached to the courtyard at Esther’s Follies, plus a full on-site bar.
Past travelers describe the show as a Texas-style iteration of “Saturday Night Live.” Recent visitors also suggest arriving an hour or two early if you buy general admission tickets, as they’re on a first-come, first-served basis. They also warn that if you arrive early enough to snag a spot in the front row, be prepared to participate in the show.
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Thinkery offers activities that combine science, technology, engineering, arts and math, aimed at children up to age 11. Permanent exhibits at Thinkery range from Currents, which focuses on water, to the straightforwardly named Kitchen Lab and Light Lab. The museum also houses an enormous outdoor playground with water elements for kids to enjoy. Not to mention, an array of programs designed to facilitate date nights for parents or appeal to children with special needs occur regularly at Thinkery (additional fees apply).
Recent visitors appreciated its assortment of hands-on activities, which they claimed did an excellent job of keeping their children entertained. These past travelers also recommend bringing a change of clothes, as the museum’s water room all-but-guarantees to soak your children. Overall, the museum makes an excellent destination on a rainy (or exceptionally hot) day in Austin.
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The first thing to realize when planning a visit to The Contemporary Austin is that two separate sites, Laguna Gloria and the Jones Center, divide the museum. The Laguna Gloria site doubles as an art school and is the more popular of the locations. In addition to students, Laguna Gloria houses the picturesque Driscoll Villa, the Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park and the Gatehouse Gallery. While many of the exhibits at The Contemporary Austin rotate, fans of modern art will appreciate whatever Laguna Gloria happens to be showcasing during their visit.
The Contemporary Austin – Laguna Gloria’s combined role as an art school and museum enchanted past visitors. Travelers enjoyed perusing the interesting sculptures that make up the sculpture park, as well as simply taking in Laguna Gloria’s beautiful grounds. They recommend spending a couple of hours at this serene escape from bustling Austin.
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