The state capital of Texas, Austin, is full of history, charm, and quirky surprises. With art around every corner, outdoor spaces designed for an active population, and live music drifting down each street, Austin has something to engage everyone. These ten downtown Austin experiences bring out the magic of this bustling urban oasis. Here’s our list of the best things to do in downtown Austin.
Spend an afternoon of beautiful weather on the Boardwalk, enjoying stunning views of downtown Austin along the way. Completed in June 2014, the downtown Boardwalk is a pristine urban trail frequented by bikers, runners, dog-walkers, and socializers. The Boardwalk was built to complete the ten-mile Anne and Roy Butler Trail around Town Lake. Hovering about five feet above the water for its mile duration, the Boardwalk is ADA accessible and designed for all levels of fitness and ability. When the paved pathway ends, continue along the trail or get a snack from one of Austin’s 10 best food trucks.
SFC Farmers' Market Downtown, Guadalupe Street | Roger Mommaerts/Flickr
Every Saturday morning, the Sustainable Food Center organizes the downtown Farmer’s Market, bringing the community together with fresh produce, local vendors, and live music. Meet farmers, beekeepers, and artisans in person, stock up on groceries, or gobble up some delicious, ready-to-eat treats while the kids enjoy the Imagination Playground. A beloved and vital piece of downtown culture, the Farmer’s Market offers tourists and locals alike an opportunity to engage with the city of Austin in a special and more sustainable way.
Texans love their state, and the Bob Bullock Museum of Texas History honors this loyalty with three floors full of exhibit and gallery space. Opened in 2001, the Bob Bullock Museum is named for the state’s 38th Lieutenant Governor, whose love of Texas led to the project. Located between the State Capitol Building and the University of Texas campus, the Bullock Museum is the perfect place to learn more about the history of this complex and fascinating state. Explore over 500 artifacts dating back as far as 13,000 years, browse the museum store, and recharge with a snack from the Story of Texas Cafe. If you love museums, you’ll love our guide to the best museums in Austin.
The center of a historic district tucked between Town Lake and I-35, Rainey Street has managed to become one of the hottest spots in Austin without losing any of its quaint, laid back charm. Businesses have brought new life to the bungalow style homes, and each bar hosts patrons in cozy living rooms and big backyards. Visit Icenhauer’s for live music and a mixed drink, then wander into Lucille Patio Lounge to sip a craft cocktail under chandeliers. The open-air, homey atmosphere of Rainey Street exemplifies Austin’s vibrant, friendly vibe.
Equal parts campy comedy, musical, magic show, and political satire, performances at Esther’s Follies never fail to elicit laughs. The Follies began over 30 years ago as an all-welcoming improvisation show full of unpredictable acts. The event tapped into Austin’s quirky art scene, bringing together dancers, magicians, and actors to create a genre all its own. The back wall of the stage is all windows, incorporating the colorful character of Sixth Street into each show. Enjoy popcorn and drinks from the bar while getting a glimpse of Austin’s most hilarious tradition.
The Texas State Capitol Building is a magnificent piece of architecture and is vital feature of Austin’s landscape. Completed in 1888, it has the largest square footage of any state capitol building in the country. The Great Walk leads up to the building, crossing sloping grounds which are spotted with historical monuments and statues. The Texas Capitol Visitor’s Center provides free 30-minute tours of the Capitol Building every day of the week. Those who prefer to explore at their own pace can take self-guided tours of the Capitol and follow along with the audio tour.
There are few better ways to see downtown Austin than from the gentle waters of Town Lake. Town Lake is open for boating, kayaking, and stand-up paddle boarding year round, and locals and tourists find any excuse to spend an hour or two on the water. Recently re-opened after record flooding last fall, Zilker Park Boat Rentals is a favorite spot to grab a vessel and get paddling. For the adventurous, the winter months offer a quieter experience. By summer, the lake becomes a social haven packed with outdoor enthusiasts, but there are always more kayaks available.
One of the 10 Best Contemporary Arts Museums in Austin, the downtown Jones Center is a favorite for artists and their admirers. Featuring exhibitions and installations from rotating contemporary artists like Charles Long and Paul McCarthy, the galleries in this historic building are an inexpensive opportunity to get involved in the fine arts community. The Interactive Loft on the second floor offers hands-on exploration, and free lectures and workshops occur several times a year. Public tours occur every Tuesday at noon, and the website provides the option to schedule individual tours two weeks in advance.
Every Thursday, the beautiful hardwood floor of the Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs Mansion (The Fed) is packed with hopping, swinging, spinning feet. Austin Swing Syndicate teaches an interactive dance lesson at the beginning of each evening, so novice and expert dancers can both feel at home during these social dances. The dance community opens its arms warmly to newcomers, and few dance halls in the country feel as regal as The Fed. Side rooms offer a rotating schedule of blues, balboa, west coast swing, and soul music to shake things up even more.
Austin is certainly proud of its quirks, and through street art appreciation, the city has gained several iconic symbols and built an underground art movement. Meandering downtown between Austin’s 10 coolest cafes and teahouses will inevitably lead to artistic discoveries, including beautiful graffiti, detailed murals, bat-shaped bike racks, and much more. Informal guides like this one provide directions to each of the most famous pieces around the city. SegCity offers a full two-hour Austin Street Art Tour perfect for those determined to hit all the highlights.