16 best things to do in Austin
As one of the fastest growing cities in the USA, Austin is thriving. Outdoor enthusiasts are spoilt for choice with a wealth of public parks and lakes providing hiking trails, kayaking and beautiful views under the Texas sun. When you need some relief from the heat, there is a wealth of galleries, museums, music venues, bars and restaurants just waiting to welcome you.
Austin's quirky indie spirit is a big part of its attraction to visitors and the open-armed welcome you get from the locals is why so many people never leave. There's something fun to do in Austin no matter when you visit – here's our guide to the best things to do in the city.
1. Continental Club
Considered Austin's preeminent music venue, there's no passive toe-tapping here. The dance floor at this 1950s-era lounge is always swinging with some of the city's best local acts. On most Monday nights you can catch local legend Dale Watson and his Lone Stars serenading the crowd with their country and western tunes. The Continental Gallery upstairs houses a regularly changed collection of artwork and sometimes hosts intimate live music sessions. It has a hidden-away speakeasy vibe and you can catch some incredible jazz and soul performances up close and personal.
2. Blanton Museum of Art
A big university with a big endowment is bound to have a big art collection, and now, finally, it has a suitable building to show it off properly. With one of the best university art collections in the USA, the Blanton showcases a variety of styles. It doesn't go very deeply into any of them, but then again you're bound to find something of interest. Especially striking is the permanent installation of Missao/Missoes (How to Build Cathedrals) – which involves 600,000 pennies, 800 communion wafers and 2000 cattle bones.
3. Bat Colony at Congress Avenue Bridge
Every year up to 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats make their home upon a platform beneath the Congress Ave Bridge, which crosses the Colorado at the southern end of downtown. It's an Austin tradition to sit on the grassy banks of Lady Bird Lake and watch the bats swarm out as dusk approaches each evening, like a fast-moving, black, chittering river. Each night, they feed on an estimated 30,000lb (13,500kg) of insects. The best viewing is in August.
North America’s largest urban bat colony consists entirely of female and young animals. In June, each female gives birth to one pup, and such is the density as the families take to the skies that bat radars have detected bat columns up to 10,000 bat feet (3050m) high. Bat Conservation International has volunteers on hand and holds programs throughout the bat season. Capitol Cruises, behind the Hyatt Hotel, offers bat-watching cruises on Town Lake below the bridge.
4. Franklin BBQ
This famous BBQ joint only serves lunch, and only until it runs out – usually well before 2pm. To avoid missing out, join the line – and there will be a line – by 10am (9am on weekends). Treat it as a tailgating party: bring beer or mimosas to share and make friends. And yes, you do want the fatty brisket.
A few tips? Look for handy fold-out chairs near the front of the line or bring your own. While you wait, you can buy beer from a cooler-toting server. And when your moment of glory arrives, go for the two-meat plate, or nab all you can for a feast to enjoy later. (Just be quick about it. The people behind you are starving.)
5. Texas State Capitol
Completed in 1888 using sunset-red granite, Texas’ state capitol is the largest in the US, backing up the familiar claim that everything’s bigger here. Drop in even if only to take a peek at the lovely rotunda – look up at the dome – and try out the whispering gallery created by its curved ceiling.
Self-guided-tour brochures for both building and grounds can be picked up from a ground-floor office that’s also the starting point for interesting 40-minute guided tours (daily, schedules vary). The green sprawl of the capitol grounds and its monuments (which controversially still include a Confederate monument) are worth a stroll. The freestanding visitor center holds an exhibit about the capitol building, while the gift shop sells Texas-themed souvenirs.
6. Lady Bird Lake
On a sunny morning in the spring, Lady Bird Lake looks like the world's most active playground. Kayakers skim across the still water, swimmers swim laps in Barton Springs pool, frisbees whir across a lush disc golf course and joggers and cyclists burn calories on lakeside trails.
Named after former first lady 'Lady Bird' Johnson, Lady Bird Lake looks like a river. And no wonder: it’s actually a dammed-off section of the Colorado River. Get on the water at the rowing dock, which rents kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and canoes from $10 to $20 per hour Monday to Thursday, and slightly higher prices on weekends.
7. Zilker Park
This 350-acre park is a slice of green heaven, lined with hiking and biking trails. The park also provides access to the famed Barton Springs natural swimming pool and Barton Creek Greenbelt. Find boat rentals, a miniature train, a playground and a botanical garden, too. On weekends from April to early September, admission is $5 per car. The park celebrated its centennial in 2017.
Springtime brings hundreds of kites taking to the sky at the Zilker Park Kite Festival – the oldest kite festival in the United States. Food and games round out the fun.
8. Veracruz All Natural
Two sisters from Mexico run this East Austin taco truck (an old bus), which may serve the best tacos in town. Step up to the window, order a migas breakfast taco (you must!) then add a quesadilla or torta for variety. Take your buzzer – yep, this food truck is so popular that buzzers are a necessity – and grab a picnic table.
What's in the famed migas taco? Eggs, tortilla chips, avocado, pico de gallo and monterey jack cheese. Don't miss the salsas near the pick-up window.
9. Little Longhorn Saloon
This funky little cinder-block building, 5 miles north of downtown, is one of those dive bars that Austinites love so very much. They did even before it became nationally famous for Chicken Shit Bingo on Sunday night, when it's so crowded you can barely see the darn chicken – but, hey, it's still fun. The chicken is placed upon the bingo board and chooses the numbers in its own random chicken picken' way. There’s live music most other nights.
10. Ann & Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail and Boardwalk
You can gaze at the downtown skyline from a series of photogenic boardwalks on this scenic 10-mile trail, which loops around Lady Bird Lake. Shorten the loop by crossing the lake on one of several bridges. You'll find restrooms, water fountains and waste bags for your pet along the way. Check the city's Parks & Recreation webpage for parking lots, trail access points and ADA accessible entrances. Austin old-timers may refer to the trail as the Lady Bird Trail or the Town Lake Trail.
11. Amy's Ice Creams
It's not just the ice cream we love; it's the toppings that get pounded and blended in, violently but lovingly, by the staff wielding a metal scoop in each hand. They're the perfect antidote to the Texan sun. Look for other locations on Guadalupe St north of the UT campus, on South Congress near all the shops, or at the airport for a last-ditch fix.
12. South by Southwest (SXSW)
For five nights in mid-March tens of thousands of record-label reps, musicians, journalists and rabid fans from around the country descend on Austin for South by Southwest, a musical extravaganza that attracts a couple thousand groups and solo artists from around the world at more than 100 different Austin venues. Admission to festival events is by badge only, but many bands also play free shows.
Though SXSW started out as an opportunity for little-known bands and singers to catch the ear of a record-label rep, it has since become a wildly popular industry showcase for already-signed bands. Add to that a hugely popular interactive festival, as well as a more subdued but still well-attended film festival, and you've got a major international draw that takes over the city and sends most of the locals into hiding for two weeks every spring.
13. Formula 1 Grand Prix
In Travis County, just outside of Austin, a high-speed racetrack draws legions of F1 fans during a high-octane weekend in autumn. The glamorous motorsport brings its global media circus to town and celebrities descend from all over the USA to watch the best drivers in the world compete under the stifling Texan sun on a state-of-the-art 3.4-mile circuit track.
Hotel rooms in September get snapped up because of it, so booking well in advance to avoid disappointment is wise. Tickets for the race are far from cheap but still sell out very quickly.
14. Austin Pride
Founded in 2010, Austin's Gay and Lesbian Pride Foundation has been working hard to support and celebrate the local LGBTIQ+ community for over a decade. Austin's gay pride celebration is now one of Texas' largest. During Pride week in August, this festival supports and parties with the LGBTIQ+ community with a parade, two stages of live music and more than 100 vendors. The parade usually starts at the Texas State Capitol, before heading down Congress Avenue and finishing in the Warehouse District. Austinites come out in force to celebrate and the atmosphere is electric.
15. Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
Talk back to the screen during an event night at Austin's homegrown movie theater. Easily the most fun you can have at the movies: sing along with Grease, quote along with Princess Bride, or just enjoy food and drink delivered right to your seat during first-run films. Check the website for other locations.
16. Austin City Limits Music Festival
What do music lovers do in the fall? They head to the Austin City Limits Festival, which, though not as big as SXSW (what is?), seems to grow larger every year. Spreading through the first two weekends in October, in Zilker Park, it books more than 100 impressive acts – Paul McCartney, Billie Eilish, The Cure, for example – and sells out months in advance.
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