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 iconic SXSW festival.
From pristine natural springs to two-stepping dance halls, we’ve rounded up the must-visit attractions that make Austin what it is. Whether you’re playing tourist in your own city, or in town looking for things to do during one of Austin’s many festivals, here are 20 things you won’t want to miss.
Austin’s legendary barbecue joint, Franklin Barbecue, 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. Make like a local and bring a folding chair, a deck of cards and a cooler full of Lone Star tallboys to make the time pass faster.
The Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum recently debuted their monthly “after dark” program, with free admission after hours from 6pm-8pm. The program returns in May and will repeat every first Tuesday of the month, offering visitors a chance to experience the special evening environment of the sculpture garden, featured gallery exhibitions, plus monthly themed activities, food and entertainment. During the May dates, there will be free evening yoga classes and local refreshments.
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 extremely 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 just take a self-guided tour through the various rooms and halls that make up the stunning building.
As Austin’s premier art museum, the Blanton has an impressive, dizzyingly genre-spanning collection that includes almost 18,000 works – we’re talking early Renaissance paintings, modern Native American works, a massive prints collection, Roman-era pottery and one of the best Latin American collections in the country. And, don’t miss Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin, a 2,715-square-foot (250-square-meter) stone chapel with colored glass windows and black-and-white marble panels that’s said to be one of 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 boot-scootin’, plus beer and classic chicken-fried steak. Join in the fun – this is the place to learn the traditional two-step, Western Swing, and the Cotton-Eyed Joe, and classes are offered from Wednesday to Saturday, so 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.
This Wildflower Center at the University of Texas (Austin) is great for exploring the beautiful flora and fauna native to the Lone Star State. They also offer family programs that allow your child to get hands-on experience with gardening. Take your toddlers to Sprouts, an ongoing Preschool program that leads you through their Family Garden, with each week focusing on a specific theme, such as “insect investigation”. For older kids, they provide free magnifying glasses, books, binoculars and more to enhance the possibilities of discovery.
Since 1957, the Continental Club has enjoyed a reputation for being the premiere 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.
Featured as the backdrop of a dramatic scene in Terrence Malick‘s Tree of Life (2011), Austinites everywhere recognized Barton Springs in Malick’s nostalgic ode to childhood in Texas. The site is a recreational outdoor swimming pool measuring three acres (1.2 hectares) and filled entirely with water from nearby natural springs, which keep it at a year-round temperature of 68F-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 icon, 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 location 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 for coffee there.
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 over seven miles (12 kilometres) from Zilker Park to the 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 is Austin's hottest honky tonk filled with eager locals raring to hit the dance floor | Courtesy of 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 we love them both, 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 a grizzled 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 are held throughout the week.
Spider House is set on the University of Texas at Austin campus and is marked out by its antique, one-of-a-kind decor. Sit on the outdoor patio, which boasts art installations including garden statues, twinkle lights and swings, and enjoy a drink. The Spider House Ballroom also often features upcoming musicians in front of red-velvet curtains. Patrons can stay inside working until 2am, but beware, this hotspot is rumoured to be haunted. In addition, it’s almost scary how many locally crafted beers the Spider House has on tap, alongside baked goods from Quack’s Bakery and fruit cocktails from JuiceLand. Come out during the 5-8pm happy hour, which features good drink specials.
The Harry Ransom Center is for the bookworms visiting Austin. The Ransom Center is one of the largest archives of original manuscripts and other historical documents, which can be visited in the museum’s upstairs Reading Room. However, if you’re just looking for an engaging diversion and a little bit of air conditioning, don’t pass up this campus museum. With exhibits that include The First Photograph, the actual oldest surviving photograph taken in 1826 in France, and a first edition of the Gutenberg King James Bible, one can only imagine what other treasures are housed in this mid-century structure that looms over Guadalupe Street. Make sure to visit their free, rotating exhibitions throughout the year.
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 iconic moment in an entirely different way, then 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.
One of Austin’s newest attractions, the Circuit of the Americas is a grade 1 FIA specification 3.427-mile (5.515-km) motor racing facility, hosting 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 Austin360 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 at the W 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 iconic Willie Nelson statue before ascending the steps to the theater.
Come show off your putting game at an Austin original. The giant Peter Pan and T-Rex at Peter Pan Mini-Golf have stood guard over the intersection of Barton Springs and South Lamar since 1948. The company is family-owned and perfectly captures the city’s laid-back, funky attitude. Several new fixtures have been added in the last few years, and the whole course was recently renovated with bright new colors. Oh, and did we mention it’s BYOB?
With one of the highest vantage points in Austin, rising 775 feet (236.2 meters) above the Colorado River (Lake Austin), Mount Bonnell boasts some of the best views of the city, especially of the sunset. Also called Covert Park, the site is one of Austin’s oldest tourist attractions, inspiring visitors with its panoramic views 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 toward Pennybacker Bridge on Loop 360. If you want, you can even team this trip with a guided boat tour of Lake Austin for 22 miles of charming Austin waterfront views.