Free Things To Do in Austin
- #1View all Photos
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. The building is also a featured stop on many of the best tours in Austin.
- #2View all PhotosfreeMount Bonnell#2 in Austin4.5 miles to city centerHiking, Parks and Gardens, Recreation, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND4.5 miles to city centerHiking, Parks and Gardens, Recreation, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
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."
- #3View all Photos#3 in Austin2 miles to city centerParks and Gardens, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND2 miles to city centerParks and Gardens, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
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 Austin3.3 miles to city centerCafes, Entertainment and Nightlife, Festivals, Shopping, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND3.3 miles to city centerCafes, Entertainment and Nightlife, Festivals, Shopping, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
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.
- #6View all Photos#6 in Austin0.3 miles to city centerParks and Gardens, Recreation, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND0.3 miles to city centerParks and Gardens, Recreation, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
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 Austin0.3 miles to city centerEntertainment and Nightlife, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND0.3 miles to city centerEntertainment and Nightlife, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
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.
- #12View all PhotosfreeAustin Bats#12 in Austin0.3 miles to city centerNatural Wonders, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND0.3 miles to city centerNatural Wonders, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
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. Evening kayak trips on Lady Bird Lake are another great way to observe the bats. Past 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.
- #15View all Photos#15 in Austin2.2 miles to city centerHiking, Parks and Gardens, Recreation, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND2.2 miles to city centerHiking, Parks and Gardens, Recreation, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
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.
- #16View all Photos#16 in Austin3.9 miles to city centerParks and Gardens, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND3.9 miles to city centerParks and Gardens, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
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.
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