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.
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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.
Franklin Barbecue, Austin’s legendary barbecue joint, has a major reputation – and the epically long three-hour lines to prove it. Nonetheless, head chef and much-loved local celebrity Aaron Franklin cooks up some of the most succulent sausages and beef ribs you’ve ever tasted, so the wait is well worth it. Bring a folding chair, a deck of cards and a cooler full of Lone Star tallboys to make the time pass faster.
Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum
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.
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.
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.
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.
Barton Springs Pool
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).
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.
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 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.
Kayaking and bat-watching at Congress Avenue Bridge
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.
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.
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.
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.
Guided boat tour of Lake Austin and sunset views on Mount Bonnell
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 Lake Austin for 22mi (35km) of charming Austin waterfront views.
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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