31 Must-See Attractions in Austin

As the fastest-growing large city in the US, the list of must-sees in Austin gets longer every day
As the fastest-growing large city in the US, the list of must-sees in Austin gets longer every day | © AustinArtist / Getty Images
Hannah Phillips

Despite being the fastest-growing large city in the US, attracting 150 new residents and countless new businesses daily, this quirky city retains its “Keep Austin Weird” motto – a slogan adopted to represent the city’s ongoing support for local artists and businesses however unique, along with the famous SXSW Festival.

From pristine natural springs to two-stepping dance halls, Culture Trip has rounded up the must-visit attractions that make Austin what it is. Whether you’re playing tourist in your own city or visiting and looking for things to do during one of the Texas capital’s many festivals, here are 19 things you won’t want to miss.

1. Franklin Barbecue

Bakery, Diner, Market, Restaurant, BBQ

Atmosphere - 2016 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival
© Hutton Supancic / Getty Images

Yes, Franklin Barbecue does make every Austin barbecue list, but there’s a reason people line up by 8am every morning in hopes of snagging a few pounds for themselves. Even former President Obama has made a stop here, though he was lucky enough to skip the infamous line. You’re not going to eat any Franklin Barbecue without earning it, and for that reason, try everything. The closing time of 3pm is more of an estimate; they serve food until they run out, and it’s often earlier than that time.

2. Kayaking and bat-watching at Congress Avenue Bridge


Paddleboarders on the Colorado River, Austin
Adrian Newell / Unsplash
Dedicated to the 45th governor of Texas and long-term Austin resident Ann W Richards, the Congress Avenue Bridge is also home to a few other long-term Austinites: Mexican free-tailed bats. The migratory colony is the world’s largest urban bat colony, with between 750,000 and 1.5 million bats residing under the bridge in summer and wintering in Mexico. Every year, as many as 100,000 tourists watch the bats emerge at dusk and fly across Lady Bird Lake to feed themselves. If you want to experience this extraordinary moment in an entirely different way, take an evening kayak tour where you’ll be able to witness this phenomenon away from the crowds and enjoy the twinkling city lights on your way back.

3. Explore Downtown on foot

Natural Feature

Downtown Austin is home to tons of cultural gems and historical attractions, just waiting to be explored. If you like experiencing places on foot, now’s the time to try a guided running tour of Downtown; traverse along scenic Lady Bird Lake and bustling Congress Avenue as you learn about local landmarks and soak up the sights and sounds of the city. Recommended by Justine Harrington.

4. Guided boat tour of Lady Bird Lake and sunset views on Mount Bonnell

Park, University

Mount Bonnell boasts some of the best views of the city.
© RoschetzkyIstockPhoto / Getty Images
With one of the highest vantage points in Austin, 775ft (236m) above the Colorado River (Lake Austin), Mount Bonnell boasts some of the best views of the city, especially at sunset. Also called Covert Park, the site is one of Austin’s oldest tourist attractions, inspiring visitors with its panoramas since the 1850s. From the hill’s crest, look east toward the city skyline Downtown or west to take in the winding Colorado River, snaking its way towards Pennybacker Bridge on Loop 360. You can even team this trip with a guided boat tour of Lady Bird Lake for 22mi (35km) of charming Austin waterfront views.

5. Secret Food Tour of Austin


Killer street corn at La Condesa in Austin.
Drew Beamer / Unsplash
Austin is a serious foodie paradise – the culinary scene here is off-the-charts good, spanning all cuisines, from Japanese to Tex-Mex to French-Vietnamese and everything in between. Take a “secret food tour” to experience what locals really eat. You’ll go to obscure spots to sample an array of different dishes and drinks, and you’ll get to do so alongside a knowledgeable local guide. Recommended by Justine Harrington.

6. Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum

Building, Forest, Museum, Park, University

The Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum offers a monthly after-dark program, with free admission after hours from 6pm to 8pm. The seasonal program takes place on the first Tuesday of the month, giving visitors a chance to experience the evening environment of the sculpture garden, featured gallery exhibitions, plus monthly themed activities, food and entertainment. It also has yoga classes in the garden.

7. Texas Capitol


Texas Capitol Building
© RoschetzkyIstockPhoto / Getty Images
Not only will a visit here put you in one of the most beautiful buildings in all of Texas – with some of the richest history – it’s also free to enter. You can take one of the Capitol tours that run every 20 to 30 minutes; the tour guides are incredibly knowledgable and will gladly answer questions related to the building or Texas history. If you don’t have time for one of those, you can also take a self-guided tour through the various rooms and halls that make up the stunning building.

8. Moody Theater

Music Venue, Theater

Any worthy list of Austin attractions should include more than one music venue since, after all, the city is the Live Music Capital of the World. The live show that put the Austin music scene on the map moved from the University of Texas campus to its new downtown home next door to the W Austin hotel in 2011. With a seating capacity of around 2,700, the larger venue retains Austin City Limits’ reputation as an intimate setting for live music, and many of the ACL live performances are replayed on PBS. Be sure to check out the famous Willie Nelson statue before ascending the steps to the theater.

9. Barton Springs Pool

Swimming Pool

Barton Springs Municipal Pool, Austin, United States
Tomek Baginski / Unsplash
Featured as the backdrop of a dramatic scene in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (2011), Austinites everywhere recognized Barton Springs in his homage to childhood in Texas. The site is a recreational outdoor swimming pool measuring three acres (1.2 hectares) and is filled with water from nearby natural springs, which keep it at a year-round temperature of between 68F and 70F (20C-21C).

10. Street Art Tour

Architectural Landmark

Urban mural in Austin, United States
Cosmic Timetraveler / Unsplash

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 coolest cafes and teahouses will inevitably lead to artistic discoveries, including beautiful graffiti, detailed murals, bat-shaped bike racks, and much more. Informal guides provide directions to each of the most famous pieces around the city, or you can book a guided street art tour, perfect for those determined to hit all the highlights. Recommended by Elena Coe.

11. The Boardwalk

Park, Hiking Trail

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 best food trucks. Recommended by Elena Coe.

12. Rainey Street

Architectural Landmark

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. Recommended by Elena Coe.

Blanton Museum of Art

As Austin’s premier art museum, the Blanton has an impressive, dizzyingly genre-spanning collection that includes more than 19,000 works, including Renaissance paintings, modern Native American art, a massive prints collection, Roman-era pottery and one of the best Latin American collections in the country. Don’t miss Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin, a 2,715sq ft (252sq m) stone chapel with colored glass windows and black-and-white marble panels; it’s among his most notable works.

Broken Spoke

This little Texas dive bar advertises itself as the “last of the true Texas dance halls and damn sure proud of it!” For over 50 years, the Broken Spoke has offered live music and dancing, plus beer and classic chicken-fried steak. Join in the fun and learn the traditional two-step, western swing and the Cotton-Eyed Joe. Classes take place from Wednesday to Saturday so that you can learn the steps before rocking out to the live band. Looking for information about SXSW? Read our Ultimate Guide to the SXSW Festival.

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin is great for exploring the beautiful flora and fauna native to the Lone Star State. It also offers family programs that allow children to get hands-on experience with gardening. Take your toddlers to Sprouts, an ongoing preschool program that leads you through its Family Garden, with each week focusing on a specific theme, such as “insect investigation.” For older kids, it provides free magnifying glasses, books, binoculars and more to enhance the possibilities of discovery.

The Continental Club

Since 1955, the Continental Club has enjoyed a reputation for being the premier music club in the region – so much so that there is now an outpost in Houston. Here, you will find a true mix of Americana and Texan traditions, making it a great spot to grab a drink and mingle with the local crowd, among the most diverse in the area, and where out-of-towners are welcomed with open arms.

Allens Boots

Established in 1977, this landmark store on the South Congress corridor displays more than 4,000 boots, plus cowboy hats, clothing and accessories – it’s pretty much a one-stop shop for all things Texan. The big red boot sign is a city landmark, and the family-owned business helps customers find the perfect boot for any lifestyle.

Magnolia Cafe

Just down the street from Allens is the South Congress location of Magnolia Cafe, known for its “Sorry, We’re Open” neon sign and 24-hour diner service. The original restaurant opened as Omelettry West on Lake Austin Boulevard in 1979, and this beloved café has been an Austin favorite ever since. Barack Obama’s 2014 visit cemented the diner’s status as a local icon forever when he met a UT student here for coffee.

Mountain biking at Barton Creek Greenbelt

Taking its name from William Barton, who settled the area in 1837, this outdoor spot boasts plenty of creeks, beautiful limestone cliffs and wooded areas for hiking. It stretches more than 7mi (11km) from Zilker Park to the Woods of Westlake subdivision. Take a four-hour mountain biking tour through the Texas Hill Country, and enjoy scenic views of nature. There will be plenty of time to stop off and take a dip in the turquoise natural swimming pools and experience a slice of authentic Austin wilderness.

The White Horse

In true Austin fashion, there’s another honky-tonk on this list. The White Horse is the East Side’s charmingly gritty, no-frills alternative to the Broken Spoke, and while both are great, The White Horse is where you should go to have a rollicking good time you’ll remember for years to come (unless you drink too many cheap whiskey shots, that is). Let an old cowboy spin you around the dance floor while you soak up the live country and western tunes, or sign up for free Texas two-stepping lessons, which take place throughout the week.

Spider House

Spider House is set on the University of Texas at Austin campus and is recognizable by its antique, one-of-a-kind decor; the outdoor patio boasts art installations, garden statues, twinkle lights and swings. Its ballroom often features up-and-coming musicians, and while patrons can stay inside until 2am, this hotspot is rumored to be haunted. It offers many locally crafted beers on tap, alongside fruit cocktails from JuiceLand. Come out during happy hour (2pm to 6pm) for excellent drink specials.

Harry Ransom Center

The Harry Ransom Center has one of the largest archives of original manuscripts and other historical documents. It offers rotating exhibitions throughout the year, along with permanent displays, including The Niépce Heliograph, the actual oldest surviving photograph taken in 1826 in France, and a first edition of the Gutenberg Bible. With so much to see, you can only imagine what other treasures are housed in this mid-century structure.

Circuit of the Americas

The Circuit of the Americas features a 3.41mi (5.49km) racetrack and hosts the Formula One United States Grand Prix, the Motorcycle Grand Prix of the Americas and various other racing championships throughout the year. Musical guests from Mumford & Sons to Taylor Swift and Chance the Rapper have performed on the on-site Germania Insurance Amphitheater stage.

Peter Pan Mini-Golf

Peter Pan Mini-Golf is an Austin original, with its giant Peter Pan and T-Rex standing guard over the intersection of Barton Springs and South Lamar since 1948. The family-owned company perfectly captures the city’s laid-back, funky attitude. In the past few years, several fixtures have been to the course, which is frequently refreshed with bright new paint colors. It’s also BYOB.

Mexic-Arte Museum

An Austin establishment for over 30 years, the Mexic-Arte Museum showcases Mexican and Mexican-American fine art in many forms: the vibrant permanent collection includes impressive sculpture, traditional ritual masks, photographs from the Mexican Revolution, and fascinating contemporary works from local artists. Plus, there are always awesome community engagement events, like the annual Young Latino Artists showcase. Recommended by Justine Harrington.

Casa Neverlandia

Casa Neverlandia is a visual representation of Austin’s quirky, earthy soul. One of the city’s weirdest homes (and that’s really saying something), Casa Neverlandia is a whimsical wonderland residence, full of wonderfully weird details. This rainbow-colored, mosaic-covered two-bedroom house in South Austin serves as an homage to homeowner and artist James Talbot’s past – some of the bricks and tiles are from his childhood homes in countries like Turkey, Morocco and Venezuela – and an ode to the natural world, in the form of solar panels attached to a four-story lookout tower and a rainwater collection system. Recommended by Justine Harrington.

Zilker Park

Last but not least, no trip to Austin is complete without hanging out and picnicking at Zilker Park. Centrally located and stretching over 300 acres (121 hectares), this giant swath of greenery in the heart of Downtown is the picture-perfect place to spend an afternoon. The fun never stops at Zilker – there’s a miniature train, dog park, free nature center, outdoor theater, botanical garden, sculpture garden and more. Recommended by Justine Harrington.

SFC Farmers’ Market Downtown

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. Recommended by Elena Coe.

Bob Bullock Museum

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. Recommended by Elena Coe.

Esther’s Follies

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. Recommended by Elena Coe.

The Contemporary Austin – Jones Center

One of the 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. Recommended by Elena Coe.
You can’t fit all the best bits of Austin into just one day – even if you’re just sticking around downtown Austin. Check out where to stay if you want to see Austin like a local.

Justine Harrington contributed additional reporting to this article.

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