Austin is a vibrant city unlike any other in Texas, or even the world. Well-known as a cultural hub for the quirky and offbeat, there is always something unique going on for visitors and residents alike.
The state capital is by any standards a big city. Somehow, though, Austin has kept its small-town heart, earning all the love it gets. Highlights include outdoor adventures with a view of the skyline, a world-class live music scene, culinary prowess, and a creative streak that shows up in the most unexpected places. Here are some of our favorite ways Austin stands apart.
Same bat-time, same bat-place
If you’re visiting from March through October, you can’t miss the free spectacle of more than a million Mexican free-tailed bats taking to the skies from Congress Avenue Bridge. Around sunset each night, join the crowd on the bridge or from a kayak below to wait for America’s largest urban bat colony to take flight.
Austinites have embraced the winged mammals – figuratively speaking, of course – and gather to watch the bats each dusk (Not to worry: they’re looking for insects). There’s lots of standing room, but if you want a more leisurely bat-watching experience, try Lone Star Riverboat or Capital Cruises for bat-watching tours.
Live Music Capital of the World
After the bats fly away, make your way into downtown to check out one of dozens of live music spots. From dive bars to major music venues, traditional country to experimental rock, there’s something for every ear after the sun goes down. The Red River Cultural District, located on the east end of downtown, is considered the heart and soul of the Live Music Capital of the World, but there are hundreds of bars, dance halls and venues throughout the city and high-quality performances can be found on any given night.
The Continental Club has been hosting acts (including local legend Stevie Ray Vaughan) since 1955. No passive toe-tapping here, the dance floor is always swinging and multiple bands pound the boards seven nights a week, with many shows offering free admission. If you’re a fan of the long-running ‘Austin City Limits’ television broadcast, you’ll also want to check out ACL Live at the Moody Theater – well-known bands grace the stage most nights, but you’ll want to get tickets in advance. For a behind-the-scenes look into the iconic venue, daytime tours are offered six days a week.
Another Austin landmark that has been around for decades is the Broken Spoke, a true Texas honky-tonk that has played host to Willie Nelson, George Strait, Dolly Parton and others. Dance lessons are offered Wednesday through Sunday, so get there early to learn the moves. A live country band is on stage each night, playing the classics and contemporary tunes. Dancing is more than encouraged: as the sign says: “Please do NOT!!!! Stand on the dance floor."
If you can, try to time your visit around one of Austin’s many live music festivals. The Austin City Limits Music Festival in the fall and South By Southwest (SXSW) in the spring, are internationally acclaimed. You can also get your psychedelic on at Levitation – a festival held in the Red River Cultural District each fall that features DJ sets, light shows, and more than a dozen bands. Finally, Oktoberfest has been hosted by the German-Texas Heritage Society for generations, guaranteeing a fun and authentic ‘Próst!’ experience.
Culture of creativity and culinary skill
Music isn’t the only cultural experience to find in Austin. Art overflows onto the city’s street corners, where dozens of colorful and often cheeky murals pop up wherever there’s space and offer access to unique ideas. Austin’s tallest public artwork is “Tau Ceti,” a 10-story, rainbow-colored corner on 2nd Street that’s even more awe-inspiring from up close. Federico Archuleta’s “Let’s Band Together,” on E. 6th Street at Chicon, is a surrealist take on the city’s musical heart, and rife with local meaning. And for a more intimate experience, grab some chalk and make your mark on the “Before I Die” mural at 206 E. Elizabeth St, which entices you to write down your bucket list dreams.
For another sampling of the best of the city’s creative energy, Austin Art Garage is a cool independent gallery, featuring one-of-a-kind pieces by local emerging artists, with a focus on making original art accessible to all. Prefer to get away from the hustle and bustle? The Contemporary Austin – Laguna Gloria, an outdoor sculpture garden, is also located near the shore of Lake Austin, just west of downtown.
Of course, Austin is also well-known for its noteworthy culinary scene. Locals will tell you Veracruz All Natural is one of the best food trucks in the city. Owned by two sisters who learned to cook in their family kitchen in Mexico, their house-made corn tortillas are filled with organic and authentic ingredients to make some of Austin’s best tacos. For other one-of-a-kind bites, grab an egg-filled breakfast taco at Juan in a Million or Mexican-style street tacos at Vaquero Taquero.
Austin remains Texas true with its love of BBQ, evidenced by the long lines at many of the city’s best joints. Interstellar BBQ may have perfected Texas’ iconic brisket. Its focus is on high quality ingredients, roasted low and slow in post oak smoke. Sam’s BBQ, around since at least the 1960’s, is no-frills spot known for their fall-off-the-bone ribs including mutton ribs, an old traditional Texas food. Based out of a food truck in Southeast Austin, Distant Relatives draws culinary inspiration from the African American diaspora, incorporating spice profiles and preservation methods from the owners’ culture. Don’t miss the unique side dishes like coconut collard greens and green mango slaw.
When you’re ready for a break from the Texas heat, head to Zilker Park – here you can dive in for a swim in the natural and refreshingly icy waters of Barton Springs Pool. Or, get active with a walk along the Ann & Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail & Boardwalk, a 10-mile trail which loops around Lady Bird Lake. Or, grab a paddleboard from a rental shop along the trail and hit the water to take in the beauty of Austin’s skyline towering above the lake.
Just west of Austin is the Texas Hill Country, an expansive and scenic region dotted with small towns and local wineries, breweries and distilleries perfect for whiling away an afternoon. Enjoy a laid-back afternoon at Jester King Brewery, where you can grab a beer from the rotating selection and hang out with the resident Nigerian Dwarf goats. Nearby, Duchman Family Winery uses 100 percent Texas grapes to produce its award-winning reds and whites. The tasting room is open six days a week, with a pizza kitchen that is open on weekends. Desert Door Distillery wild harvests West Texas’ native sotol, an agave-like plant that produces a potent liquor smoother than tequila, and featuring notes of orange zest, sage, and mint.
One last unforgettable stop
Finally, to cap off your uniquely Austin adventure, celebrate Christmas every day at Lala’s Little Nugget, a kitschy bar that’s been ‘ho-ho-ho’-ing since the 1970s. It plays host to at least four Christmas parties a year outside of the actual holiday season, and weekly board game and trivia nights keep the fun going. Order a pizza from the kitchen next door to complete a holly-jolly evening, and reflect on a city trip unlike any other.