15 Best Things to Do in Downtown Austin

Written by Jan Meeuwesen
Updated on
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Downtown Austin may have been founded on a six-hundred-acre plot and have consisted of no more than fourteen blocks, but two hundred years on things have certainly changed. Downtown Austin, flanked by a broad stretch of the Colorado River, now incorporates eight districts and covers an area much larger than the original town plan.

While Downtown may be the central business district of the Texan city of Austin, it doesn’t lack in diversion. In fact, there are far more exciting and fun things to do there than could ever be fitted into a single list of the fifteen best things to do in Downtown Austin.

Downtown Austin has one of the best nightlife scenes in the whole of Texas, a thriving food scene, excellent cultural activities and some great nautical ones too. Plan on staying a month, because it’s impossible to fit in all the good stuff in a week.

Let’s explore the best things to do in Austin:

1. Austin Duck Adventure

Austin Duck AdventureSource: austinducks.com
Austin Duck Adventure

Take a tour of Downtown Austin in a vehicle with a distinct difference. While the Duck may appear to be a medium-sized mini-bus, it’s a Hydra-Terra and fully amphibious so on this tour be ready for a big splash.

Board the Austin Duck on East 4th Street by the Austin Visitors Center for a ride past all of DT’s major sights while listening to a guide narration before floating out onto the waters of Lake Austin.

The tours last for just over an hour and are a fun way of getting to know Downtown Austin.

2. Congress Avenue Bridge Bats

Congress Avenue Bridge BatsSource: Kushal Bose / shutterstock
Congress Avenue Bridge Bats

It’s not very often you can observe a phenomenon of nature in a busy urban setting like Downtown Austin, so don’t miss this one.

Stroll out onto the Congress Avenue Bridge at sundown between April and October, and apart from seeing an amazing Texan sunset, you’ll be able to watch around a million Mexican free-tailed bats emerge from their colony and rise in a swarm into the night sky.

It’s a truly surreal experience not unlike watching a live version of an Alfred Hitchcock horror movie.

3. Upstairs Circus

Upstairs Circus, AustinSource: facebook.com
Upstairs Circus, Austin

The Upstairs Circus on West 2nd Street in Downtown Austin is a bar where you can create your personal souvenir of DT while sipping a circus-themed, house specialty cocktail.

Try a Strongman’s Punch while beading a wrap bracelet or a Coco Contortionist while making nail and string art. Wine bottle tumblers, coasters of concrete or even a collar for your dog, there are lots of different project types to choose from which suit all skill-level of handicrafter even the most novice.

Check out the Upstairs Circus program before heading to Downtown Austin, and you might find you arrive just in time for a session of Making-n-Mimosas.

4. Austin Fire Museum

Austin Fire MuseumSource: Daderot / Wikimedia
Austin Fire Museum

The Austin Fire Museum on Downtown Austin’s East 5th Street is dedicated to the history of the city’s firefighters from the service’s inauguration to the present day.

The museum, which is in the DT’s working fire station, houses a display of uniforms dating from the 19th century, photographic exhibitions and a collection of memorabilia.

The Austin Fire Museum is run on a voluntary basis and opens on weekend afternoons only.

5. Double Decker Austin

Double Decker AustinSource: Philip Lange / shutterstock
Double Decker Austin

Spend the day exploring Downtown Austin using the open-top, Double Decker Austin hop-on-hop-off bus service.

The bus has six pick up and drop off points in Downtown which are all located next to major attractions. Stay on board for the full one and a half hour narrated tour to listen to fascinating facts about the district’s history by a qualified guide or jump off, make a visit or grab some lunch then get back on when the bus passes by again an hour and a half later.

6. Congress Avenue Kayaks

Congress Avenue KayaksSource: Derek Alvarado / shutterstock
Congress Avenue Kayaks

Pick up a kayak rental from Congress Avenue Kayaks at the Waller Creek Boathouse on Trinity Street in Downtown Austin and paddle upriver to see the DT skyline from the water.

The kayaks can carry one, two or three people and depending on your upper arm strength, are available by the hour or for half days. Navigate the Colorado River, spot murals hidden under bridges or head out onto the open waters of Lady Bird Lake. Whichever route you choose, kayaking is a great way to spend some time outdoors.

During bat season at Congress Avenue Bridge, the Congress Avenue Kayaks take out two hour, guided sunset kayak tours which include seeing the dusk bat flight while floating on the river.

7. Cooper’s Old Time Pit BBQ

Cooper's Old Time Pit BBQ, AustinSource: facebook.com
Cooper’s Old Time Pit BBQ, Austin

Get fed in traditional Texan-style at the Cooper’s Old Time Barbecue Pit on Downtown Austin’s Congress Avenue.

The eclectically rustic, ranch-style restaurant, complete with horses heads and saddles, serves up barbecued ribs, chops, and brisket by the pound with sides of coleslaw, potato salad or pinto beans.

Leave room for dessert as Cooper’s make a mean cobbler. There’s peach, pecan, apple or blackberry to choose from and it’s all accompanied by live music at the weekends.

8. Bullock Texas State History Museum

Bullock Texas State History MuseumSource: Felix Lipov / shutterstock
Bullock Texas State History Museum

The Bullock Texas State History Museum, located on North Congress Avenue in Downtown Austin, is a museum which tells the story of Texas.

The museum has three floors which are all individually themed on various aspects of the state’s history and have hands-on exhibitions. There are two theaters showing multiple film productions throughout the day aimed at recreating the life and times of the inhabitants of Texas from the Comanche Indians to rodeo riders.

The museum houses more than seven-hundred artifacts including fascinating documents showing how Texas was once part of Mexico, antique equipment from the oil industry and a NASA mission control console.

9. Container Bar

Container Bar, AustinSource: austincontainerbar.com
Container Bar

Bar owners have taken recycling to a whole new level in Downtown Austin. Head over to Rainey Street and you’ll find a bar made from seven old shipping containers.

It may be made of old metal boxes, but there’s nothing rusty about this lively pub. The Container Bar is one of Downtown Austin’s top night spots.

Surprisingly spacious, the bar draws a young crowd for drinks on the upstairs terrace and dancing to music spun by some of the city’s best DJ’s. It’s a fun place to go for a night out in DT Austin.

10. Austin Scavenger Hunt Adventure

Downtown Austin Mural, TexasSource: Steve Lagreca / shutterstock
Downtown Austin Mural, Texas

One way to make sightseeing in Downtown Austin even more exciting is to join a scavenger hunt. All you need to join in with an Austin Scavenger Hunt Adventure is a smartphone. Download the app and start solving the clues.

Follow the trail around DT’s major sights by completing one clue at a time and learning interesting historical facts along the way. Do the hunt alone or with a group of friends, at your own pace or against the clock.

Wear comfortable shoes. The scavenger hunt takes around three hours to complete not counting stops for drinks or food. Don’t forget to make sure the phone is fully charged before starting.

Book onlineDowntown Austin Adventure: 3-Hour Smartphone Scavenger Hunt

11. Frank C Erwin Center

Frank C Erwin CenterSource: LoneStarMike / Wikimedia
Frank C Erwin Center

If there’s a big event happening in Downtown Austin, then it’ll be happening at the Frank C Erwin Center or to give the arena its full title, the Frank C Erwin Special Events Center.

Big sporting events such as basketball, martial arts competitions, and boxing tournaments are all held at the seventeen-thousand seater venue. There have been big artist concerts featuring groups and artists such as Kiss, Lady Gaga, U2, and Garth Brooks as well as bull riding and WWE Live Smackdown events.

The Center has a full range of snack food concessions serving pizza, burgers, nachos and ice creams.

12. Austin Panic Rooms

Austin Panic RoomsSource: facebook.com
Austin Panic Rooms

Get the adrenaline flowing with a visit to the Austin Panic Rooms on Rio Grande Street in Downtown Austin.

With four great challenges to choose from, the panic rooms will test your nerves to the limit. Try to make a prison break while shackled in handcuffs or take the place of the president of the USA in the Oval Office. Get caught in a blizzard in a mountainside hut or escape before the mad scientist makes you one of his human trial specimens.

They might sound easy, but you’ve just one hour to solve the clues and escape. Believe it; they’re not as simple as they seem.

13. Ann & Roy Butler Hike & Bike Trail

Ann & Roy Butler Hike & Bike TrailSource: osiristhe / Flickr
Ann & Roy Butler Hike & Bike Trail

The Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike trail is a ten-mile-long trail part of which runs through Downtown Austin.

Join the trail at Congress Avenue Bridge and head west for a walk or cycle and there’ll be Downtown Austin on one side and the Colorado River on the other. Head east, and after a bit of a hike, you’ll find the mile-long boardwalk which stretches across Lady Bird Lake.

Don’t miss checking out the thirty-six bronze belt sculptures adorning the railings of the boardwalk. Each one is inscribed with popular song lyrics written or sung by Texan songwriters and musicians.

14. Museum of the Weird

Museum of the WeirdSource: flickr
Museum of the Weird

Not all museums in Downtown Austin are about history or other serious stuff, the Museum of the Weird is about the macabre, the curious and the undeniably odd.

The museum located on Downtown’s 6th Street started life as a gift shop but now hosts a collection of strange artifacts including a mummified mermaid, a furry trout, and a frozen ice-age man.

There is also a daily live circus sideshow performance which if you can’t handle someone hanging hooks from their eyes or poking nails up their nose, you’re probably better off avoiding.

15. Esther’s Follies

Esther's FolliesSource: facebook.com
Esther’s Follies

Vaudeville lives on at Esther’s Follies on 6th Street in Downtown Austin. The intimate theater is the place to go for an entertaining evening of comedic satire, magical illusions, and a few good old song and dance routines.

The theater which has been open for over forty years presents two performances nightly, and they’re usually full to the max, so go early to be assured of getting a seat.

The theater has a full bar and offers food from a taqueria on an outside courtyard. Esther’s Follies is the epitome of Downtown Austin. Diverse, full of life and great fun. Have a good time there.

15 Best Things to Do in Downtown Austin:

  • Austin Duck Adventure
  • Congress Avenue Bridge Bats
  • Upstairs Circus
  • Austin Fire Museum
  • Double Decker Austin
  • Congress Avenue Kayaks
  • Cooper's Old Time Pit BBQ
  • Bullock Texas State History Museum
  • Container Bar
  • Austin Scavenger Hunt Adventure
  • Frank C Erwin Center
  • Austin Panic Rooms
  • Ann & Roy Butler Hike & Bike Trail
  • Museum of the Weird
  • Esther's Follies