The capital of Texas is a city that revels in its otherness, summed up by the slogan, “Keep Austin Weird”. The University of Texas contributes to Austin’s youthful makeup and has a couple of world-beating museums of its own.
As the “World’s Capital of Live Music”, Austin means South by Southwest and Austin City Limits, both the music TV show and the festival that has sprung from it.
Loving Austin means embracing its eccentric residents, its dive bars and scruffy streets and accepting the glossy high-rise developments transforming big tracts of the city.
Catch a sunny day and you may never stray far Zilker Park, bathing in Barton Springs Pool, ambling beside Lady Bird Lake and perusing outdoor art at Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum.
1. Texas State Capitol
The Italian Renaissance Revival dome of the Texas State Capitol can be seen for miles through the canyon of skyscrapers along Congress Avenue.
This illustrious monument was completed in 1888 after six years of construction, and houses the offices and chambers of the Texas State Legislature and the Governor of Texas.
Composed of sunset red granite from Granite Mountain near Marble Falls, it’s the largest capitol building in the country, but also has an exceptional workmanship in its external carvings, handrails and brass chandeliers in the Representatives’ Chamber that spell out “TEXAS”. There are free 30-minute tours seven days a week, or you can pick up a free pamphlet and show yourself around.
You can brush up on the state’s history at the Visitors Center, housed in the General Land Office Building from 1856-57, and tour the 22 acres of beautifully tended grounds, strewn with statues and monuments.
2. Bullock Texas State History Museum
To get to grips with Texas just look for this building behind the big star a couple of blocks south of the State Capitol.
One of the region’s top attractions, this museum has human artifacts going back to a 16,000-year-old projectile point unearthed half an hour north of Austin.
You’ll do a deep dive on pre-European history, the tumultuous 18th and 19th centuries, as well as the many things associated with Texas around the world, like sporting prowess, oil and gas drilling, space exploration, ranching and rodeos.
For an Austin signature, you can look back at iconic performances from the long-running PBS TV show, Austin City Limits.
There’s a NASA Mission Control console from the 1960s, a WWII-era AT-6 “Texan” airplane, the long-leaf pine desk of “Father of Texas” Stephen F. Austin and poignant artefacts that tell the complicated story of African Americans in the state.
Make sure to catch a multisensory show at the Texas Spirit Theater and a dazzling presentation at the largest IMAX Theatre in the state.
3. Blanton Museum of Art
The University of Texas has an art museum that any city in the world would be proud to call its own.
The 18,000 works in the collection span European, contemporary American and Latin American art.
The Blanton has a forte for pre-1900 European fine and decorative art, with pieces by Veronese, Rubens, Parmigianino and Simon Vouet.
Represented in the contemporary collections are names like Yayoi Kusama, Natalie Frank, El Anatsui and Nina Katchadourian.
In 2015 Ellsworth Kelly drew up plans for an immersive permanent installation titled, “Austin” in the grounds, blending art with architecture and completed in 2018 after his death.
All of this structure’s materials have their own story to tell: The door is made from live oak from the grounds of the university’s Dell Medical School; the entire building is clad with limestone panels from Alicante, Spain; the 33 stained glass windows were mouth-blown in Germany, and there are 14 black and white panels from marble sourced in Belgium (black) and Carrara, Italy (white).
4. South by Southwest (SXSW)
Normally happening in mid-March to coincide with spring break at the University of Texas is a multidisciplinary and multi-venue culture extravaganza, known the world over.
The event began in 1987 but snowballed in the 2000s and is now attended by tens of thousands of registrants.
SXSW has a film conference with panels, talks and workshops by industry leaders, and interactive events showcasing emerging technology.
But the music conference is still the bulk of the event, with some 2,000 acts performing around the city.
Artists use this platform to debut new material and make a splash at the start of the festival season, and you can see what’s new at industry showcases for dozens of independent labels.
The 2020 lineup featured artists from more than 40 countries, counting feted veterans like post-punk band Wire, and exciting up-and-coming acts: Three making waves in were 2020 Arlo Parks (soul pop), Dos Monos (Japanese hip hop) and Mr. Kitty (synthpop).
Related (toprated) tour: Austin Live Music Crawl
5. South Congress (SoCo)
South of Lady Bird Lake, the six-lane South Congress Avenue is the main drag of a funky shopping and entertainment district of boutiques, galleries, restaurants and bars.
More than anywhere else South Congress has that Austin feel that people travel for: Almost every spot is locally-owned, there’s live music everywhere and the storefronts and walls sport creative murals.
This is the setting for Austin icons like the eccentric Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds costume store and the western-wear emporium, Allens Boots, which we’ll talk about later.
Since the 2010s SoCo has also become the place to hunt down the best food trucks in town.
The selection can change by the month, but in 2019 some picks were Juice Austin, Tacos Las Amazonas Estilo Jalisco, Burro Cheese, The Celia Jacobs Cheesecake Experience, Courson’s BBQ, Sabor Tapatio and Pitalicious.
6. Zilker Metropolitan Park
This park, where Barton Creek flows into the Colorado River, was mostly landscaped during the Great Depression and is a piece of the great outdoors right at the heart of the city.
These 350 acres, full of things to do, were a cattle ranch in the 19th century and given to the city by the politician and philanthropist Andrew Jackson Zilker in 1918. It’s the scene of big events like Austin City Limits in October, and year-round destination for outdoor fun.
You can find peace in the Zilker Botanical Garden, go canoeing or kayaking on Barton Creek, hike or cycle the Lady Bird Lake Trail and discover wildlife at the Austin Science and Nature Center.
For smaller members of the clan, a ride on the Zilker Zephyr miniature train is a must and there’s a giant playground.
There are also facilities for disc golf and sand volleyball, as well as the Hillside Theater for summer Shakespeare productions and big grassy spaces where you can gaze east to downtown’s skyscrapers.
7. Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail
The Longhorn Dam, built in 1960, trapped the easternmost reservoir on the Colorado River at Lady Bird Lake, named for First Lady of the United States, Lady Bird Johnson.
This sweeping body of water was intended as a cooling pond for the Holy Street Power Plant, which eventually closed in 2007. It’s absurd to think that in the 1970s Lady Bird Lake, then poorly maintained and full of trash, was considered an eyesore.
Now it’s one of Austin’s many assets, and is ringed by a 10-mile, multiuse trail that runs through waterside greenery and is fringed by major attractions, public art, shops, park facilities, boat launches and water fountains (for people and dogs!) . A 1.3-mile gap in the loop on the south shore was closed in 2014 with the completion of the magnificent Boardwalk, illuminated by 13,000 LEDs.
Recommended tour: Lady Bird Lake Bike Tour
8. Barton Springs Pool
Did we mention that the fourth largest spring in Texas rises in Zilker Park? The Main Barton Spring is the only water source for a municipal open-air pool, three acres in size.
The spring was considered sacred by the Tonkawa Native American tribe, and was discovered by the Spanish in the 17th century who placed missions on its banks.
As it appears today, Barton Springs Pool dates from the 1920s when the City dammed the springs and built the wide sidewalks by the water.
You can swim here any time of year, apart from after flash floods, and the temperature of the naturally warm water varies between 20 °C and 23 °C.
Robert Redford learned to swim at Barton Springs, and remarkably these waters are one of the only habitats for the Barton Springs salamander.
Women are permitted to go topless at the pool, in keeping with Austin’s tolerant attitude.
Next to the bathhouse, dating to 1947, is the Splash! exhibit, documenting the history of the spring and the vast Edwards Aquifer that feeds it.
9. Zilker Botanical Garden
Some 30 acres of Zilker Park are given over to this tranquil and perfectly maintained botanical attraction.
The garden rests on a steep caliche hillside, at the site of an old limestone quarry, growing twisted heritage live oaks and affording lots of shade for a comfortable stroll in any season.
The space is divided into nine individual spaces, for cactuses and succulents, herbs and fragrances, roses, butterflies, to name few.
Children will be thrilled with the Hartman Prehistoric Garden, which was landscaped after dinosaur footprints were discovered in the former quarry.
The prints were buried to prevent them being damaged by the elements, but a Cretaceous habitat was planted, commanded by a life-sized sculpture of an ornithomimus, the dinosaur that left the tracks.
The Isamu Taniguchi Oriental Garden was laid out over 18 months in 1969, with koi ponds that spell out “Austin” and a charming teahouse blessed with a views of the Austin skyline.
10. McKinney Falls State Park
Barely 15 minutes south of downtown Austin is a scene of real rugged beauty at this 750-acre state park.
Onion Creek flows through this landscape, inhabited by turtles and dropping over limestone ledges, filling pools that couldn’t be more inviting on a hot Texas day.
You’re free to swim in the creek at the park’s upper and lower falls, and you’ll find rocks and little beach areas here and there where you can relax by the water.
For walkers and cyclists, the Onion Creek Hike and Bike Trail is almost three miles long and has a hard surface for an easy trip through the mesquite and groves of live oaks.
By the water there are sycamores, pecan trees and bald cypresses (see the 500-year Old Baldy), as well as some compelling historical remains.
On the Homestead Trail you’ll find the remnants of a limestone-built house constructed by the merchant William F. McKinney, who owned this land.
11. University of Texas at Austin
We’ve seen at the Blanton Museum of Art that you don’t need to be a prospective student to want to visit the massive Austin campus for the University of Texas.
More than 50,000 people study and another 24,000 are employed at this site, converging on the 94-meter tower of the Main Building.
Campus Tours are offered to potential students, but you can also join a Tower Tour for a guided visit to that Spanish Colonial Revival landmark from 1937. In the company of a student guide you’ll pick up lots of interesting details about the building and head up to the observation deck.
If you’re interested you’ll learn about the shooting in 1966 when a gunman murdered 15 people from this roost (the event won’t be discussed if there are children present). On a lighter note, Dirty Martin’s Place is a beloved greasy spoon on the north side of the campus, making cheeseburgers and milkshakes since 1926.
12. Harry Ransom Center
Something big that we haven’t mentioned is that the University of Texas campus boasts one of the most respected research libraries in the country.
One paragraph couldn’t do the center’s collections justice.
But to skim over some highlights there’s a Gutenberg Bible, three copies of the first folios of Shakespeare’s plays, the oldest surviving camera photograph (View from the Window at Le Gras, 1826 or 1827), personal papers and manuscripts for scores of writers and playwrights (from Chaucer to Kerouac), a declaration by Napoleon Bonaparte, a suite of etchings by Picasso, two paintings by Frida Kahlo, Gloria Swanson’s shades from Sunset Boulevard (1950) and much, much more.
There are public tours every day, with two taking place on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Selections go into world-class exhibitions, like a landmark show for Gabriel García Márquez in 2020. The Gutenberg Bible and the View from the Window at Le Gras (The Niépce Heliograph) are always on view.
The Hazel H. Ransom Reading Room and David Douglas Duncan-Cain Foundation Viewing Room offer access to those staggering collections.
13. LBJ Presidential Library and Museum
Many of the events that took place during the 1963-1969 presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson still resonate today, and you can dip into this history at his library and museum on the east side of the University of Texas campus.
The museum goes into the aftermath of the JFK assassination, displaying LBJ’s “Let Us Continue” speech and a letter to Johnson from Jacqueline Kennedy.
You can find out about the president’s stance on social justice, and the background to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. There is, of course, some context on the Vietnam War, and you can mull over LBJ’s legacy in terms of Medicare, consumer rights, the arts and more.
Some captivating touches are the authentic presidential limousine and a faithful replica of the Oval Office on a 7/8 scale on the top floor.
14. Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum
In 1984 Charles Umlauf (1911-1994), whose work appears in Texas more than any other artist’s, donated his home, studio and 168 sculptures to the City.
Six years later a marvellous sculpture garden opened here on the verdant south bank of Barton Creek.
Zipping from piece to piece, among ferns and live oaks, it will be hard to believe that you’re in the middle of the city.
Umlauf’s works are very diverse, composed of wood, terracotta, bronze, marble and alabaster.
In style they run the gamut from lyrical abstraction to abstract expressionism, and subjects range from female nudes to religious symbols, animals and mythological figures.
The bronzes have all been waxed, so you’re invited to touch them without fear of causing any damage.
15. Congress Avenue Bridge
The largest urban bat colony in the world resides under the roadway of this bridge carrying Congress Avenue across Lady Bird Lake.
The 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats that live here are migratory and return to the bridge around April before leaving again in October.
At dusk, crowds gather on the crossing, and people even paddle up in kayaks, to watch hundreds of thousands of bats spiraling into the half-light.
The bats first moved in after the bridge was reconstructed in 1980, making themselves comfortable in little crevices.
At first they were viewed with fear, but these city dwellers are harmless and great for pest control, consuming up to nine tons of insects like flies, wasps and moths.
16. Mayfield Park and Preserve
Beside the Contemporary Austin’s Laguna Gloria estate in west Austin is another lovely old property in 23 acres.
Although it was extended later, the cottage at Mayfield Park has been standing since the 1870s.
The cottage is now rented out for weddings, and the space immediately around it, enclosed by a stone wall, was turned into a lush botanical garden in the 20th century.
There you can amble among tall palms, koi ponds and bright seasonal flowerbeds.
The wooded area outside the wall is a preserve, where trails weave along creeks and next to the Laguna Gloria lagoon.
Peacocks go where they please on the grounds and are happy to pose for photographs.
17. Auditorium Shores
On the south shore of Lady Bird Lake on the waterfront trail is a park laid out in 1959 and with a dizzying social calendar.
The biggest annual event is South by Southwest when you might find a free concert or two, but this is also the place to marvel at the 4th of July fireworks, soundtracked by the Austin Symphony Orchestra, and ring in the new year.
At other times there’s a splashpad, off-leash dog park and maybe the ultimate view of the Austin skyline.
Texas bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan played Auditorium Shores plenty of times and was honored with a bronze memorial statue by the trail following his death in a helicopter crash in 1990.
18. Alamo Drafthouse
If there isn’t an Alamo Drafthouse in your city, there’s probably one coming soon.
This fast-spreading cinema chain for true movie lovers was born in Austin in 1997, founded by two Rice University alumni in a parking garage in the Warehouse District.
Alamo Drafthouse gives equal billing to major blockbusters, Hollywood classics, cult “good-bad” movies and obscure foreign language flicks.
Food and drink have starring roles too, and the chain even concocts special menus for many movies.
2017’s The Big Sick for instance had a Pakistani menu that was curated by the star Kumail Nanjiani, while every Alamo Drafthouse promotes local craft breweries and hires inventive cocktail mixers.
In 2019 Austin had more Alamo Drafthouse locations than any other American city, at Village Shopping Center, South Lamar, the Ritz, Slaughter Lane, Lakeline, Mueller and Cedar Park.
The Ritz and South Lamar locations take part in SXSW, while the latter hosts the Fantastic Fest cult film festival in September.
19. The Contemporary Austin
The main art museum for Austin dates back to 1911 and has two locations.
One of these is at Laguna Gloria (1916), the Italianate mansion of philanthropist Clara Driscoll, and the museum’s initial home.
The other location is the striking Jones Center on Congress Avenue, revamped in the 2010s.
One new space is the Moody Rooftop, an enclosed gallery with high windows and a front-row view of the Austin skyline.
Installed here is Jim Hodges’ emblematic sculpture, With Liberty and Justice for All (A Work in Progress). At the Jones Center you can check out exhibitions by leading contemporary artists (Nicole Eisenman in 2020), shop at the museum store and attend talks, opening receptions and more.
20. Sixth Street
East Sixth Street lives up to its nickname, Dirty Sixth, and on weekends is a tattered, neon-lit place to hit a dive bar, take in some live music and generally have a good time.
This has been the case since the 1970s, although in 2019 Sixth Street is the place where Austin’s homelessness crisis is most obvious.
Thursday to Saturday the street is closed to road traffic and fills up in the evenings with revellers.
Some spots to keep in mind are the Parish, one of the best live music joints in the city, as well as Flamingo Cantina for world music, the rooftop at Maggie Mae’s and The Firehouse Lounge & Hostel for its craft cocktails.
One of the largest and oldest culture and music festivals, the Pecan Street Festival, takes place here every September and May.
21. The Driskill
At the corner of Sixth Street and Brazos Street stands an Austin emblem, a Romanesque Revival hotel dating back to 1886. This is the oldest operating hotel in the city, conceived by the cattleman Col.
Jessie Driskill, who ploughed his fortune into the “finest hotel south of St. Louis”. LBJ and Lady Bird went on their first date at the Driskill in 1934, and it was here at the Jim Hogg suite that Johnson watched the results of the 1964 election come in.
The Driskill is still one of Austin’s most reputable places to stay.
You can sample some of the building’s splendor in the lobby, with its marble floors, gilded columns and stained glass.
Go for Texas comfort food at the 1886 Café & Bakery or book a table at the Driskill Gill for dry-aged and hand-cut steaks.
The Driskill Bar is another shot of old-world Texas, with cowhide barstools, cattle branded carpets and a Texas longhorn on the mantelpiece.
22. Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium
August to December, the University of Texas’ indomitable football team, the Texas Longhorns, play at the top level of college football in the United States, in the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision.
In its time, this member of the Big 12 Conference (the country’s strongest athletic colleges) has taken four national titles and another six that are unclaimed.
A team with this kind of pedigree has a stadium to match, at this 100,000+ arena, one of the ten largest stadiums in the world.
The Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium has been repeatedly enlarged since it was dedicated in 1924, and when we wrote this article in 2019 a project on the south end zone would completely enclose the playing field and create new luxury suites and a state-of-the-art scoreboard.
The atmosphere for Longhorns games is fierce and gives the team a 76% win percentage at home.
The fans throw the “Hook ’em Horns”, the university’s famous hand signal, made by forming a fist and extending the index and pinkie fingers.
23. ACL Live At the Moody Theater
This cutting-edge venue, ready in 2011 as part of the $300m Block 21 mixed-use development, is named for the longest running TV show in American history going back to 1974. That is PBS’s Austin City Limits, which is now taped right here and putting a different recording artist in the spotlight each week.
The 2,750-capacity venue puts on 100 or so concerts a year, and is considered by those who know to have the best sound of any Austin stage.
If you want to catch an Austin City Limits taping you can use an entry form to get passes via the show’s website, on a form published about a week before each taping.
Austin City Limits also spawned the music festival of the same name which we’ll cover next.
Many artists recording an episode of the TV show will also attend the festival.
In the Jack & Jim Gallery you can view the archive of famed photographer Jim Marshall who snapped the likes of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Neil Young in their prime.
24. Austin City Limits Music Festival
Austin City Limits, the festival, goes down in Zilker Park across two consecutive three-day weekends at the start of October.
Over 450,000 people show up for rock, hip hop, folk country, electronic and indie, on eight stages.
In a city that knows good music, the festival has a serious pedigree, having booked everyone from the Pixies to Chance the Rapper in the 20 or so years it’s been going.
To pair with that musical feast there’s Austin Eats, where the city’s favorite restaurants all have a stand.
We’re talking kimchi fries, brussels sprout salad, black angus burgers, souvlaki and organic fruit pops, instead of normal festival fare.
25. Elisabet Ney Museum
The German-American sculptor, Elisabet Ney (1833-1907) immigrated to Texas at the age of 39 when she was at the height of her powers.
In Austin’s Hyde Park neighborhood sits her whimsical Classical Revival studio, built in 1892. This is a fabulous repository for her career, featuring a wealth of casts, some marbles, as well as Ney’s tools and personal belongings.
You can peruse sculpted medallions, more than 50 busts and full-sized sculptures of numerous important figures.
The permanent exhibition serves as a complete timeline for her story, with commissions by Ludwig II of Bavaria, Otto von Bismarck and Giuseppe Garibaldi from her European phase, as well the representations of Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin that she contributed for the Texas State Capitol.
The 2.5-acre grounds were restored in the 2000s when they were planted with the grasses and wildflowers that would have grown here in Ney’s day.
26. SFC Farmers’ Market at Republic Square
The market on Republic Square every Saturday morning is a farmers’ market in the realest sense, in that farmers and vendors can only sell goods that they themselves make or produce.
The market has been going since 2003 and is run by the Sustainable Food Center.
Being producer-only the offer fluctuates by the season.
On an ordinary visit there will be dozens of fruit and vegetable stalls, as well as flowers, cheese, eggs, meat, honey, syrups, salsas and jams.
There’s great live music every week, games for children and a swarm of food trucks for freshly roasted coffee, waffles, tacos, tamales, barbecue and more besides.
27. Laguna Gloria
Clara Driscoll (1881-1945) and her husband Hal Sevier, editor of the Austin American, modeled their palatial residence after the villas on the shores of Lake Como, Italy.
Clara, a keen horticulturalist, spent decades perfecting the gardens until just before she passed away when she donated the property to be used as a city museum.
The grounds, with live oaks, cypresses and palms, descend on terraces to the namesake lagoon, pulling off the Colorado River.
There you can wander Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park, laden with important works by Juan Muñoz, Terry Allen and Ai Weiwei, to name a few.
At the entrance on W 35th Street are the stylish Moody Pavilions, a pair of minimalist concrete structures holding the “épicerie at the contemporary” and the Shop at the Contemporary.
The Driscoll Villa is an exhibition space, while in 1983 institution’s art school, here since the 60s, moved into a purpose-built home on the grounds.
28. Austin Zoo
West of the city, in the scenic Texas Hill Country, Austin Zoo is geared towards rescue, rehabilitation and education.
Most of the residents are retired lab research subjects, animals involved in cruelty cases, re-homed exotic pets and exhibits from other zoos that have been retired.
In 2019 there were 300 animals from 100 species at this 16-acre site, although there are plans to expand as the zoo’s collection grows.
For a brief run down, there are tigers, lions, cougars, bobcats, wolf hybrids, capuchin monkeys, ring-tailed lemurs, common marmosets, emus, macaws and a wide variety of reptiles including a Galapagos tortoise.
The zoo also keeps lots of domestic animals like longhorn cattle, llamas, sheep, goats and miniature donkeys.
Animal feed for these friendly residents is sold at the gift shop for $3.
Formerly the Austin Children’s Museum, Thinkery in the Mueller neighborhood has eight exhibit galleries loaded with hands-on play-based experiences to lay the path for a new generation of creative problem solvers.
Calling on science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM), these exhibits are curated by the museum’s staff and are constantly updated, so there will always be something new.
In 2019-20, the Innovators’ Workshop had a station where little learners could make their own stop animation, while kids could make a splash at Currents, exploring fluid dynamics through open-ended games.
Spark Shop is about tinkering, letting children and grownups tinker, build new toys and launch gliders.
Monday mornings are reserved for babies and toddlers at the “Baby Bloomers” session
30. Austin Visitor Center
In a fast-moving city with so many nooks, secrets and subcultures it can be hard to know how to dive in.
The Austin Visitor Center will help you get oriented with insider knowledge on shops, restaurants, bars, live music and outdoor activities.
There are piles of free maps and brochures to take with you, and the center has its own lounge with restrooms, charging stations, a media wall and free Wi-Fi.
Occasionally there will even be live music right here, while the center’s store has lots of gift inspiration.
31. Mount Bonnell
In Covert Park, this limestone ledge climbs to 180 meters above the Colorado River Valley and is part of the cretaceous Balcones Fault, running from Del Rio in the southwest of the State, up as far as Dallas.
The scarp faces west, so Mount Bonnell is a romantic place to watch the sun go down, while on the east side there’s a great vantage point for the Austin skyline.
The parking area for Mount Bonnell is at the north end of Covert Park, and a trail leads you south along the cliff-top to the highest point, next to mountain laurel, live oak and cedar.
32. Rainey Street
Amid the high-rise towers this commercial street leading down to Lady Bird Lake has kept hold of some of its historic character.
On Rainey Street you’ll be met by the strange sight of historic former homes, clapboard bungalows, remodeled into ultra-hip bars and restaurants.
There’s live music on these back patios every day of the week, and you can hang out on the front lawns and porches like you live there.
Rainey Street looks like one big stage during SXSW in March.
But as for year-round suggestions, there’s Banger’s Sausage House & Beer Garden, with more than 100 brews on tap, French-inspired comfort food at L’Estelle, authentic salsas and moles at El Naranjo and inventive cocktails at Icenhauer’s.
For a not so secret speakeasy, there’s mezcal flights and cocktails in a rustic shack at Bar Illegal, open only on Friday and Saturday.
33. Paramount Theatre
Just as in its earliest days, the historic Paramount Theatre (1915) on Congress Avenue puts on both live performances with movies.
The interiors have lots of information boards with titbits about the building’s past, as a stage for vaudeville stars and a venue for major movie premieres.
Able to seat more than 1,250, the auditorium welcomes famous recording artists, big-time stand-up comedians, sketch acts and podcast tapings.
Movie screenings are seasonal, and you can sit down to Wilder, Hitchcock and co. during the Paramount Summer Classic Film Series.
Christmas means classics like It’s a Wonderful Life and Home Alone.
34. Warehouse District
South of Sixth Street, west of Congress Avenue, and on the shore of Lady Bird Lake, the Warehouse district takes up half of downtown Austin and is centered on Republic Square Park.
Such is the rate of change in the city that the name, Warehouse District, is a bit of a misnomer.
Where there once were factories, lumberyards and breweries are now skyscrapers, new civic buildings and luxury developments.
The sun set on industry here in the 70s, and live music venues and stylish clubs popped up in the abandoned warehouses.
Austin’s gay scene found its feet in the warehouse district.
Many of those old industrial buildings have been pulled down over time.
A whole row of blocks on West Second Street made way for the futuristic City Hall (2004), while glitzy residential towers sprouted on the shore of the lake.
But nightspots do survive at the immense gay club, the Highland Lounge, and the Hangar Lounge and Speakeasy, which both have knockout views of downtown Austin from their rooftop terraces.
35. Mexic-Arte Museum
This compact but enlightening museum has been on Congress Avenue since 1988 and deals with traditional and contemporary Mexican and Latin American art and culture.
The Mexic-Arte Museum has built a collection of painting, drawing, printing, sculpture and photography, by contemporary artists like Raul Gonzalez, Juan Ramos, Sam Coronado, Gerardo Medina and Mike Parsons.
Shows like the annual Día de Los Muertos & Community Altars and Mix ‘n’ Mash exhibitions are sourced from that expanding permanent collection.
But there are also themed displays, solo shows and retrospectives, featuring Stephanie Sandoval, Bruno Andrade and John Patrick Cobb.
In 2017 there was an exhibition of photography depicting Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, with work by the many important photographers who came into their orbit.
36. Hippie Hollow Park
Trust Austin to be within striking distance of the only legally-recognized clothing optional public park in all of Texas.
As you might gather from the name, this corner of Lake Travis has been a nudist swimming spot since the height of the hippie movement in the late-1960s, much to the chagrin of local landowners at the time.
There’s a sign at the entrance warning you of what to expect, and only people over the age of 18 are allowed to use the park.
What await you is a rocky limestone shoreline, with cedar and mountain laurel and steps cut from the rock leading to the water.
Lake Travis is an epic body of water on the Colorado River, created by the Mansfield Dam in 1942. It covers almost 19,000 acres and has more than 270 miles of shoreline.
37. Lake Travis Zipline Adventures
Just around the shore from Hippie Hollow you can zoom across the canyons at Lake Travis Zipline Adventures.
Suitable for almost all ages, there are five lines on the course, between 90 and 850 meters in length.
Three of these are the longest and fastest ziplines in the entire state.
If that sounds daunting, your personable guide will talk you through all of the safety details and go as slow or fast as you want.
In the main package, you’ll ride the lines on a three-hour tour, combined with rugged hikes along the lakeshore.
You’ll be supplied with bottled water as you go, and the grand finale is that 850-meter zipline, launching from the side of a canyon 20 stories high.
38. Texas Military Forces Museum
In three galleries and a capacious great hall filled with hardware, the free Texas Military Forces Museum at Camp Mabry walks you through the history of defense in the Lone Star State.
Gallery 1 and 2 are mostly rooted in the bloody 19th century, covering the origins of the Texas Militia, the Texas Revolution, the Republic of Texas and the Mexican War, the Civil War, and every conflict up to the end of WWI.
Gallery 3 will bring you up to the present day, and on your multisensory journey you’ll come across a cache of weapons, field equipment, battle dioramas, photographs, footage, music, personal effects, and will walk through convincing battle environments.
There’s some great heavy-duty equipment in the Great Hall, which has a Jeep, an Air Force mobile relay station, an M4 Sherman tank, two helicopters (OH-23 and OH-58) as well as an amphibious WWII-era DUKW.
39. Pennybacker Bridge (Austin 360 Bridge)
This through-arch bridge crosses another dammed stretch of the Colorado River at Lake Austin.
On the picturesque Loop 360 highway, the Pennybacker Bridge is from 1982, but has a timeless quality for its weathering steel, designed to take on a rust finish and complement the beautiful scenery around it.
On the north side of the river you can battle up the limestone bluffs, blasted to make way for the road.
There are overlooks on both the east and west side of Loop 360 to admire the bridge, river hill country to the west and a piece of the Austin skyline.
Go at sunset when the view is extra dreamy, but take care on the steps and at the top as there’s a sheer drop.
40. Circuit of the Americas
The venue for the Formula One United States Grand Prix, the Motorcycle Grand Prix of the Americas (Moto GP), the IndyCar Classic and many other prestigious racing events, is an awe-inspiring feat of precision engineering that opened in 2012. For Formula One drivers the 5.5-kilometer circuit, with a one-kilometre straight, poses a unique challenge as, unlike most other F1 circuits, it runs counter-clockwise instead of clockwise.
The track was devised to give clear lines of sight to spectators, and the main identifier is the 77-meter observation tower with a double helix staircase.
If you visit outside one of the landmark events you can tear around the track in an Audi RS8. Another way to get to know the circuit is on a tour, which will take you out onto the track to spots like Turn 1, perched above Central Texas landscape.
In the last decade the circuit’s Austin 360 Amphitheater has also become a stage for big time performers from Kanye West to Metallica.
41. Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
The Texas State Arboretum and Botanical Garden requires a brief jaunt into the Texas Hill Country, south-west of downtown Austin.
Lady Bird Johnson and actress Helen Hayes established the center in 1982, and it switched to its current 42-acre location in 1995. More than 970 species of native Texas plants grow in gardens and recreated natural habitats.
There are over 20 of these spaces, for specific themes and plant types, ranging from hummingbird plants to cactuses and succulents, pond plants, Texas grasses and discoveries by botanists.
You can visit them on four miles of trails and for an expert’s perspective you can join a free public tour, setting off at 10:00 every day.
To make the most of your visit, take a look at the website, which will let you know the species that are blooming, setting seed and bearing fruit right now.
42. Austin Nature & Science Center
A fine family option, this free attraction on the west side of Zilker Park organises school holiday camps, homeschool activities and all sorts of other programs.
But if you’re just passing through the center has enough to keep littler visitors enthused for an hour or two.
There’s a forest trail with boards identifying native trees, a dino pit where kids can uncover fossils and terrariums, aquariums and outdoor enclosures for animals from the region that can’t be released back into the wild.
Lots of hands-on fun is in store at the Naturalist Workshop, where kids are encouraged to touch fur, rocks, bones, plants and insects, and study them to their hearts’ content through magnifying glasses, while the new “Nano” exhibition is explores nanoscopic phenomena and real world applications of nanotechnology.
43. 2ND Street District
From 2000 to 2012 the City reworked six blocks on W 2nd Street, turning the strip into a dense urban district, combining shopping, dining, homes, hotels and entertainment.
The sidewalks were enlarged and planted with trees to accommodate pedestrians and restaurant and cafe terraces.
2ND Street District is an upmarket alternative to Austin’s bars, and a little quieter than Congress Avenue.
The district, home to ACL Live, gives pride of place to local businesses.
All of the shops, from fashion boutiques to design stores, are Austin-owned.
Food-wise there’s posh American casual (The Bonneville), loaded subs (Which Wich), Italian (Taverna Lombardy), healthy eating (Mad Greens), steak (Lamberts) and Mexican (La Condesa).
44. Peter Pan Mini Golf
For a carefree interlude near Zilker Park, this place opened in 1948, and has been in the same family, the Dismukes, ever since.
Peter Pan Mini Golf is also appropriately odd, with big, almost psychedelic models of Peter Pan and a giant T-Rex, as well as Tinkerbell, a giant Converse-style boot, a turtle, a rather creepy disembodied clown head, a horny toad, Dalmatians and rabbits.
There are two 18-hole courses, East (Yellow) and West (Blue). The East course is the easier of the two, while you may prefer the West course just so you can get a shot of the bizarre Peter Pan and T-Rex.
45. Allens Boots
A part of the scenery on South Congress Avenue for more than 40 years, Allens Boots is an old-school purveyor of western wear.
But as you can guess, footwear is the store’s speciality.
And here at the premium end of the market, where pretty much everything is hand-tooled in Texas, prices range from $100 to almost $2000. The most expensive, Lucchese-brand boots, are made from the finest grade leathers from caiman belly and the like.
This is not throwaway fashion, and is built to be used and endure, representing a lifetime investment in quality.
If you’re just here to browse, Allens Boots is like no store you’ve ever seen, with shelves stacked not just with rows upon rows of delicately embroidered boots, but also hats, shirts, rhinestone jackets and plaid shirts.
Staff are helpful and accommodating to western greenhorns.
46. San Marcos River
When the TX heat gets too much a great way to cool off is on the San Marcos River, which rises through natural springs in the namesake town, half an hour south of Austin.
The shallow waters move at a serene pace and are under plenty of shade, so everything’s just right for a tubing or kayaking adventure.
This can be done at the San Marcos Lions Club Tube Rental in the very center of the town.
Because of the river’s gentle flow and its meandering course, once you get to the end of your float you’ll be able to catch a shuttle bus and be back on the water in a matter of minutes.
Bring a cooler, lots of drinks, sunscreen and water shoes, and you’ll be all set.
47. Texas Memorial Museum
An elegant Art Deco building on the University of Texas campus holds this museum, established in the build-up to the Texas Centennial Exposition in 1936 and opened three years later.
At the time this was Austin’s first science museum, and the displays deal mainly with natural history fields like geology, paleontology and entomology.
You can download an audio tour as you browse the museum’s fossils of pterosaurs, precious stones, zoological specimens and minerals.
The most significant object here is the Wichita County Meteorite, composed of iron and weighing 145 kg.
This was discovered by the Spanish in the 18th century, and was then venerated by the Comanche Native American tribe as a medicine stone.
48. Texas State Cemetery
The burial place for some of history’s most distinguished Texans could pass for a tranquil city park, with a rambling grassy landscape, ample vegetation and an ornamental stream with a little cascade.
The Texas State Cemetery is a few blocks east of the Capitol and was set up in 1851 after the death of third vice president of the Republic of Texas, Edward Burleson.
Some important burials are governors Allan Shivers and John Connally, and Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston.
These and other prominent Texans and their spouses have a section of their own, while the larger portion of the cemetery is given over to Confederate veterans.
In all there are five governors, three U.S. senators, five U.S. representatives and 15 signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence.
You can visit any day of the week for a self-guided tour using a brochure or audio download, or you can arrange a guided visit in advance.
49. Austin Aquarium
The Austin Aquarium has a rather inauspicious location at a strip mall, but within you’ll be surprised by the sheer number of species.
There are literally thousands here, and they include corals, tropical fish, sharks and rays, as well as tropical birds and reptiles, and mammals like lemurs and sloths.
Pay a little extra and you can take part in a range of animal encounters, feeding iguanas, stingrays, sharks, lorikeets and tortoises, or just hanging out with the playful lemurs.
A “Morning Rounds” pass offers an inside look at how the aquarium’s prepare the tanks and terrariums for a new day.
50. Franklin Barbecue
Even ten years after it opened this now world-famous BBQ joint still has lines running down Branch Street.
You can’t call it a craze at this point because the brisket is that soft and juicy.
Franklin Barbecue was on Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations in 2012 and President Obama bought lunch here that same year.
In 2015 Aaron Franklin became the first barbecue chef to be recognized by the James Beard Foundation Award, almost three decades after the prize was established.
A restaurant with this much acclaim is worth getting in line for, so bring a chair, a beer cooler and a social disposition because you’ll be spending some time with the other people in line.
The menu is simply, brisket, pork ribs, turkey, pulled pork and sausage by the pound, and only three sides: Slaw, potato salad and pinto beans.
Pre-order online and pick up for a shorter wait.
51. Hamilton Pool
This limestone bowl with a diaphanous waterfall and overhanging walls shelters a jade green pool that was created when the ceiling of an underwater river collapsed millennia ago.
The waterfall narrows during dry periods, but the level of the pool’s transparent and inviting always stays about the same.
A good 30 miles west of Austin, Hamilton Pool had been a swimming hole long before it was turned into an official preserve in 1990. The water at Hamilton Pool is untreated, so swimming may be prohibited temporarily if high levels of bacteria are detected.
Even if you can’t go in, the pool and its waterfall are a photo-worthy sight in any season, and the Hamilton Creek nourishes plants and trees like the eastern red bay, chatterbox orchid and bald cypress.
If you’re planning to come between May and September you’ll need to reserve a morning or afternoon time slot to visit the preserve.
52. The Domain
Looking like a town of its own, The Domain is a mixed-use mega development still under construction in north-west Austin’s high-tech corridor.
The first phase was ready in 2007, and at the time of writing in November 2019, the third phase was well underway.
On walkable streets with live oaks, cypress trees, low hedges and flowerbeds, the Domain has apartment and office blocks with restaurants, cafes and bars on their first floors.
Most of the stores are clustered to the west, along rambling lanes like Century Oaks Terrace, flanked by Louis Vuitton, Tiffany & Co., MAC Cosmetics, J. Crew, Clarks, Victoria’s Secret, L’Occitane and H&M.
There’s nightlife for a slightly older crowd, town and chain restaurants for most palates and a plush multiplex cinema at iPic Austin.
53. Texas Hill Country and LBJ Ranch Tour
The countryside west of Austin is tall hills of granite and limestone, climbing hundreds of meters over fertile plains and valleys decked with orchards and lavender fields.
These slopes have become the fountainhead of the Texas wine industry, and the region is where Lyndon B. Johnson spent almost a quarter of his presidency, at the “Texas White House”. You can set a course for Texas Hill Country through this tour on GetYourGuide.com, providing hotel pickup and drop-off, and a guided tour of the Lyndon B. Johnson ranch.
There you can feed your curiosity for the 36th President, peeking inside his boyhood home, perusing the White House china, learning more about Lady Bird Johnson and seeing Air Force One in the ranch’s hangar.
Afterwards the tour takes you to Fredericksburg to try Texas wine, and then the picture-perfect little town of Luckenbach before a tour of the award-winning Sister Creek Vineyards.
54. Mrs Johnson’s Bakery
There’s something old-fashioned but also novel about a drive-in donut bakery.
Mrs. Johnson’s is in an unassuming post-War box on Airport Boulevard, and has been baking donuts and Texas-style kolaches (with sausage, cheese and jalapeños) for people on the go since 1948. The sensation of pulling away with a hot donut in your hand is something everyone should experience at least once.
And where the concept differs from the 1940s is that you can now order online and have your box waiting for you when you drive up.
55. Cathedral of Junk
On the ordinary-looking suburban Lareina Drive an artist named Vince has composed a serious piece of outsider art in his backyard.
Always being tweaked and refined, the Cathedral of Junk is a kind of folly made from anything and everything.
It needs a good half an hour just to let your eyes adjust and make sense of this mass of hubcaps, cds, bicycle wheels, grates, chandeliers, toys, heavy-duty chains, kitchen tiles and anything else you can imagine, crowned with metallic spinner cowls from chimneys.
If you squint it could be a mini Sagrada Familia, and there are lots of uplifting messages in surprising places.
Be sure to phone ahead before visiting as this is a private property receiving up to 300 people a day, and there’s a suggested $5 donation.