Austin has been slowly turning the heads of travelers for the last ten years. It first attracted folks with its fun and quirky slogan of “Keep Austin Weird,” and this was followed by music lovers who wanted to experience the live music capital of the world. Today, it draws people who love the city’s outdoor offerings, want a Tex-Mex and barbecue foodie experience, or just simply want to have a good time.

No matter your reason for visiting Austin, we want you to experience the very best the city has to offer. We cover all the bases – art, music, hiking, and festivals. While you may not be able to do them all in one trip, we’re sure that Austin would welcome you back with open arms time and time again.

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1. Float upon Lady Bird Lake

When the city of Austin turned part of the Colorado River into a reservoir, the intention was to create a cooling pond for a power plant. Little did they know how the reservoir, named Lady Bird Lake, would become such a beloved destination for locals and visitors alike.

Lady Bird Lake is located just south of downtown Austin and the 468-acre reservoir is a go-to destination for water sports enthusiasts. Expect to see kayakers, canoers, rowers, and paddleboarders on the water every single day of the week. Six watercraft rentals, like Zilker Park Boat Rentals and EpicSUP, are located along its shores making it easy for visitors to rent a watercraft and get out there.

But what if canoeing or kayaking is not for you? Enjoy the serene views of the reservoir via the Ann & Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail and the many lakeside parks that it meanders through.

Planning tip: You can experience Lady Bird Lake with someone else at the reigns. Lone Star Riverboats offers sunset and bat-watching cruises, whereas Capital Cruises is your go-to for dinner and lunch cruises. Austin Duck Adventures is a quirky option that takes you on a land and water tour in a Hydra Terra vehicle, which is basically a vehicle that drives right into the reservoir and turns into a boat.

2. Bar hop through Rainey Street

Rainey Street is a charming little district that cozies up to Lady Bird Lake and isn't too far from the Austin Convention Center. It is comprised of historic little bungalows that have been renovated and turned into bars like Half Step and Clive Bar and restaurants such as Banger’s Sausage House & Beer Garden and Emmer & Rye. Because of the neighborhood’s compact nature, it’s easy to hop among the bars and restaurants on foot. The lively district can feel a bit homey due to the house-style bars – like you’re having a drink in your friend’s backyard.

People playing in the water at Barton Springs Pool in Zilker Park, Austin
People playing in the sunshine at Barton Springs Pool in Zilker Park, Austin © Alizada Studios / Shutterstock

3. Take a dip in the Barton Springs Pool

There is a three-acre spring-fed pool in Austin called the Barton Springs Pool and it’s a truly natural wonder. Fed by four different springs, the average temperature of the water is 68-70 degrees which means you can swim here year-round. The water is clear and has an almost turquoise color with depths of up to 18 feet. It opens at 5am and closes at 10pm, which means you can effectively watch the sun rise and set floating on your back in the water. Summer is an especially popular time for Barton Springs Pool. While there is a small fee to swim here in the summer, from November 1 to Spring Break, it’s completely free.

Planning tip: Lifeguards are on-site between 8am and 6pm – outside of those hours, you swim at your own risk. Buy your ticket online or at a kiosk when you arrive. Veterans and children under one year old get in free.

4. Have a night out on 6th Street

Ask any Texan where to party in Austin and they’ll point you to 6th Street. Lovingly referred to as “Dirty Sixth”, this entertainment district is located between Congress Avenue and I-35 in Downtown Austin. It’s often compared to Bourbon Street in New Orleans because it's full of bars with live music, restaurants, and clubs that bring out visitors during the day and well into the early hours of the night. And like Bourbon Street, 6th Street closes to through traffic Thursday through Saturday night.

Maggie Mae’s may be the most iconic bar on 6th Street with its five bars, two stages, and multiple floors, but there is no shortage of incredible establishments on Dirty 6th. Dive fans will love The Jackalope, Esther’s Follies serves up vaudeville acts, comedy, and satirical shows, and Midnight Cowboy is a reservations-only lounge with a phenomenal cocktail menu.

A large red painted panel on a wall declaring Austin the live music captial
The annual South by Southwest music, film, and interactive conference and festival in Austin, Texas © GSPhotography / Shutterstock

5. Surround yourself with culture at SXSW

Every March, thousands from around the globe descend upon Austin for South by Southwest (SXSW). Founded in 1987, SXSW is a combination of conferences and festivals. People come together to have big discussions on tech, climate change, education, energy, travel, cannabis, the workplace, startups, and more. The speakers and topics change year after year, but the end result is that creatives come together and leave with a drive to revolutionize their industry. As the conferences go on, so do three different festivals – a film and TV festival, a music festival, and a comedy festival.

Detour: Austin doesn’t shut down just because SXSW is going on – there are plenty of other things happening at the same time. Take a break from the talks and events and celebrate St. Patrick’s Day at the St. Patrick’s Day Austin Festival.

6. Learn about Austin’s Chicano and Latine history

As with many parts of Texas, Austin has been influenced by its Chicano and Latine residents since its founding. You can’t visit the city without seeing this influence in the foods, street names, art, and music scene.

Start your journey into the Latine community at the Mexic-Arte Museum, which showcases Mexican and Latino artists from the US and beyond. La Peña Gallery exhibits similar artists on a smaller scale, while Teatro Vivo is a phenomenal destination for English and Spanish performances that focus on the Latine experience. Round out your trip with a self-guided East Austin Barrio Landmarks historic walking tour via Preservation Austin. This tour honors the Mexican-American community of East Austin by taking travelers to important places like the Holly Street Murals, Parque Zaragoza, and the Herrera House.

Detour: Austin’s Latino community and its influence on the city is well-known, but we would be remiss to not point out that the city’s Black history is equally as enthralling. Javier Wallace is the founder of Black Austin Tours, a tour company that takes travelers on a walk through Downtown Austin and East Austin. On his tours, he recounts how people of African descent made an impact on ATX, tells stories relating to African American history at different sites, and even takes travelers onto the Colorado River to show how the waterway was used in race-based enslavement and as important gathering spots for baptisms and more in Austin’s Black community.

7. Hike to waterfalls and swimming holes without leaving the city

Most US cities don’t have hiking destinations within the city limits, but Austin does. Southwest of Downtown Austin is a 7.25-mile green space called the Barton Creek Greenbelt. Barton Creek runs through this public land area, creating a fantastic geological destination full of 12 miles of hiking and biking trails, forests, waterfalls, swimming holes, and cliffsides for climbing.

For this reason, Barton Creek Greenbelt is incredibly popular – especially on weekends and in the summer. Steep ascents make for strenuous hikes while swimming holes bring folks together to swim and relax. Twin Falls, Sculpture Falls, Gus Fruh, and Campbell’s Hole are some of the most popular destinations within the park, but they’re just a few of the beautiful and magical aspects of this truly magnificent outdoor destination.

8. Listen to amazing bands at Austin City Limits Music Festival

The “live music capital of the world” offers gigs at a wide range of bars every day of the week but die-hard music fans should consider attending the Austin City Limits Music Festival.

In 1974, KLRU-TV created Austin City Limits, which tapes performances of musicians and shares them on PBS and the series has been going strong ever since. In 2002, Austin City Limits launched a Music Festival and has since featured over 100 artists at Zilker Park. The festival brings out 225,000 patrons every year for a two-weekend event. It’s the ultimate music festival, one that will have you listening to world-famous and Texas-based musicians at nine different stages.

Planning tip: There is no parking at Zilker Park during the festival (except for a limited amount of accessible parking spaces), so you’ll have to consider other transportation options. The most sustainable transportation method is to rent a MetroBike and park it with the MetroBike valet. A free shuttle runs between downtown and the festival, meaning you can walk to the pick-up spot from your downtown Austin hotel or a parking garage and it’ll take you to one of the entrances. CapMetro has some public bus routes that stop near Zilker Park, but you’ll have to walk the rest of the way. The festival usually partners with Uber and has specific areas where you can be dropped off and picked up by your rideshare.

interior of lucy in disguise thrift vintage store in Austin, Texas
Fans of vintage shopping will be spoilt for choice in Lucy in Disguise © simon leigh / Alamy Stock Photo

9. Shop along South Congress Avenue

Austin isn’t without malls, but the most “Austin-ey” experience you can have is shopping down South Congress Avenue. Nicknamed “SoCo,” it is the ultimate shopping destination for hipster boutiques, funky shops, western wear, and quirky stores.

When you buy a beautifully made outfit at Cove Boutique, you’re supporting an Austin woman-owned shop. Go full cowboy and get your hat at Maufrais and your boots at Heritage Boot Co. or Tecovas. And if thrift store or vintage shopping is for you, Prototype Vintage is a must-stop. Don’t forget to support Austin authors at South Congress Books. It’s a nice shopping stop to decompress after some time spent in the overwhelming and colorful costume store, Lucy in Disguise.

Detour: South Congress is home to one of Austin’s oldest and most famous attractions: Peter Pan Mini Golf. Since 1946, this local treasure has been serving up quirky and kitschy mini golf over two 18-hole courses. Don’t think this is just a destination for families – the BYOB policy makes it a fun option for adults, too.

10. Cheer on the Longhorns at a UT Football Game

We know that attending a football game in Texas is a bit on the nose – “Football is king in Texas” and all. But even so, cheering on the University of Texas Longhorns at a football game is a pretty cool experience. The Darrell K Royal Memorial Stadium is a massive space full of students and fans in orange and white cheering on the most beloved college football team in the state. The chants, the food, and the entire atmosphere will knock your socks off in the way that only Texas football can.

Planning tip: Dive into the UT football game well before kick-off with some tailgating fun. Bevo Blvd is the ultimate pre-game street party that’s located on San Jacinto Blvd from 20th Street to the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center. Not only is there a street parade, but you get to greet the players as they enter the stadium, order food and drink from food trucks, get autographs from players and coaches, play games, watch other football games on two giant screens, and more. The best part? You don’t need a ticket to visit Bevo Blvd. All are welcome, even those not attending the game.

This article was first published July 2021 and updated December 2022

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