Austin’s live music, outdoor adventures and barbecue often grab the headlines when visitors come to town, leaving its museums to fly under the radar. But several worthy ones await, and much like the city itself, they have an artsy, offbeat flair.
Here are the city’s 10 best museums. Several are located conveniently on the University of Texas campus. Note that many are closed on Sundays, Mondays and/or Tuesdays.
Blanton Museum of Art: best for art overall
The Blanton houses the University of Texas’ art collection, and it’s a whopper, with some 21,000 works spread across a variety of genres. Top marks go to the galleries of European paintings, prints and drawings and modern American and Latin American art, which include rooms devoted to Latinx and Black artists.
Ellsworth Kelly’s luminous building installation, with its bright colored windows next door, is a sight to see. The Blanton is free on Thursdays.
Lyndon Baines Johnson Library & Museum: best for history lovers
This museum, devoted to the 36th US president and Texan, fascinates. Step up beside a lifesize photo of LBJ to get the “Johnson Treatment” – you'll experience what it was like when the tall and imposing president (he was 6ft 3in) leaned close to emphasize a point.
Nearby, an animatronic LBJ regales visitors with his recorded stories. Other displays detail the assassination of President Kennedy, Johnson’s subsequent role in pushing through Civil Rights legislation, and how the Vietnam War led to his eventual downfall. Tickets are half price on Tuesdays.
Harry Ransom Center: best for bibliophiles
The Ransom Center thrills literary fans with its trove of 42 million manuscripts, five million photographs and one million rare books. Check out the Gutenberg Bible (one of only five complete copies in the USA), Jack Kerouac’s travel journal, Albert Einstein's unpublished notes on general relativity, and Gabriel García Márquez's manuscripts and notebooks. Items such as a 17th-century world map and the first photograph ever taken (from 1826) are also here. And it’s all free!
Thinkery: best for kids
Set in a big, red, box-like building, the Thinkery is designed to grab kids’ attention from the moment they step inside. Hands-on exhibits let them get soaked while learning about fluid dynamics, build LED light structures and make and launch gliders in the Spark Shop.
The awesome outdoor play area provides logs to balance on, streams to splash in, and the three-story, net-strewn Climber to scale. Admission is free on Sundays from 3pm to 5pm.
Mexic-Arte Museum: best for Latin culture
The mural-splashed Mexic-Arte Museum features a wide range of works from Mexican and Mexican-American artists. The vivid permanent collection includes carved wooden masks, modern Latin American paintings, historic photographs and contemporary art.
Exhibitions, which change every few months, often focus on issues of social justice and immigrant rights. The museum is free on Sundays.
Hullock Texas State History Museum: best for local history
Big and glitzy, the Bullock Museum shows off the Lone Star State's history, from the time it was a part of Mexico to the present, with high-tech interactive exhibits and fun theatrics. The highlight is the hull of La Belle, a French ship that sank off the Gulf Coast in 1686 and changed the course of Texas history.
Other displays delve into the Battle of the Alamo, the lives of Texas Comanches, the discovery of oil and the famous local music scene. Admission is free on the first Sunday of each month.
Women & Their Work: best for a quick browse
Women & Their Work has been doing its thing for more than 40 years. Pop into the airy, industrial-looking gallery set in a former furniture store and you will indeed find provocative works by women artists. The mediums vary — you might see paintings, textiles, videos, drawings or found-object sculptures – but feminist ideals remain at the core. Exhibitions change every few months.
The gallery also hosts dance performances, literary readings and art-making workshops. Admission is always free.
Museum of the Weird: best for fright sights
Pay the entrance fee in the gift shop of the museum, then step inside Austin's version of a cabinet of curiosities. It’s more of a cramped hallway of curiosities, really, lined with shrunken heads, malformed mammals and wax figures of Hollywood monsters like Bigfoot and King Kong. The show stealer? The legendary Minnesota IceMan, a frozen prehistoric dude chilling under a block of ice. It’s good cheesy fun.
George Washington Carver Museum: best freebie
The Carver Museum celebrates Black history and culture in its cool, compact space. Permanent exhibits cover freedmen’s communities in Texas and the history of Juneteenth (the holiday originated in Texas), while the Children's Gallery introduces famous Black inventors, including the museum’s namesake, who created the concept of crop rotation and developed 300 different uses for peanuts.
Best of all are the two art galleries that show rotating exhibitions – say, musician George Clinton’s spacey paintings or the works of street photographer Jamal Shabazz.
Contemporary Austin - Laguna Gloria: best for outdoor art
Monumental sculptures by big-name artists rise up amid the woodlands and gardens of Laguna Gloria, a lovely art park on the shore of Lake Austin. Wander the meditative pathways and listen to birdsong while gaping at Tom Friedman’s Looking Up, a 33ft man made of aluminum foil pans; Ai Weiwei’s Iron Tree Trunk, a dead ringer for a decomposed oak; and many more works. Laguna Gloria is part of the Contemporary Austin, which also operates the downtown Jones Center, Austin’s modern art museum. Admission covers both sites, and they’re free on Thursdays.