Despite being the fastest growing city in the U.S., attracting 150 new residents and countless new businesses daily, the 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 outdoor graffiti walls to two-stepping dance halls, we’ve rounded up the must-visit attractions that make Austin what it is. Whether you are 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.
HOPE Outdoor Gallery
This community park launched in 2011 is part public art installation, part educational project. Managed by non-profit HOPE events, the vision of the park is to provide muralists, street artists and community groups the opportunity to display large-scale pieces inspired by positive, educational messages. As such, the gallery changes regularly, so be sure to visit again and again. (Note: In January 2019, the HOPE Outdoor Gallery closed its location on Baylor Street. It will reopen next to Carson Creek Ranch in the summer.)
Adjacent to Zilker Park, the city’s largest green space, the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum displays the artistic works of American sculptor, Charles Umlauf, who taught at the University of Texas for over 40 years. In addition to Umlauf’s artwork, the museum features temporary exhibits of other artists and recently launching an “after dark” program, with free admission on the first Tuesday of every month, 6–8pm.
Until around 2000, Austin’s historically modest skyline was dominated by the Texas State Capitol and the University of Texas main tower. As Austin’s population booms, its buildings do, too, and 10 of its tallest were completed after 2004. The city’s beautiful legislative center is still visible from several protected views around town, especially looking north up Congress Avenue. Many of the materials were sourced locally, including the sunset-red granite, which gives it a pinkish hue at twilight. Guests can take guided tours or self-paced stroll throughout its many architectural wonders.
In 2004, the beautiful Frost Bank Tower was the first high-rise building to be constructed in the United States after the 9/11 attacks. The 515-foot (157-meter) structure was Austin’s tallest building at the time, a title it retained until 2008. Like most architectural gems, the tower was received with mixed reviews, earning both critical acclaim as Best New Building (2004, ’06–’08) and nicknames like “giant nose-hair trimmers.” Offices occupy most of the tower’s 33 floors, along with the Texas-based Houndstooth Coffee at ground level.
This little Texas dive bar advertises itself as the “last of the true Texas dancehalls and damn sure proud of it!” For over 5o 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 8:30pm–9:30pm Wednesday to Saturday, so you can learn the steps before the live band. Looking for information about SXSW? Visit our Ultimate Guide to SXSW Festival.
The Laguna Gloria campus of Austin’s Contemporary Austin art museum is a restored 1916 villa in the Italianate style that was home to Texas legend Clara Discroll. The site consists of 14 acres overlooking Lake Austin, and, in addition to the historic Driscoll Villa, includes the Gatehouse Gallery and the Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park at Laguna Gloria, where visitors may view temporary, long-term, and permanent contemporary sculpture and art installations. Don’t miss the museum’s resident peacocks, especially Bill Discoll, known for admiring his own reflection in parked cars.
Founded in 1982 by Lady Bird Johnson, former First Lady, this conservation site focuses on the native plants of North America to create and restore beautiful, healthy landscapes. After moving its current campus south of Austin in 1995, it now boasts Texas’s largest collection of native plants in its expansive 42-acre gardens. Guests can take guided tours starting in the courtyard from 11am, free with admission, Thursday–Saturday.
The Continental Club on South Congress calls itself “the granddaddy of local music venues”—a big claim in a city known as the Live Music Capital of the world. But one skim of the acts that have played the venue (from Robert Plant to Gary Clark, Jr.), and there’s no denying the legendary club’s impressive history. Scenes from the venue are also featured in two works from local filmmaker Richard Linklater: Slacker (1989) and Boyhood (2014).
Also frequently featured in Texas film, Austinites everywhere recognized Barton Springs as the backdrop of a dramatic scene in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (2011), a nostalgic ode to childhood in Texas. Located on the grounds of Zilker Park, the site is a recreational outdoor swimming pool filled entirely with water from nearby natural springs. The pool itself measures three acres in size, and the underground springs help it maintain an average temperature of 68ºF–70ºF (20ºC–21ºC), ideal for year-round swimming in Austin’s soaring summer heat.
Established in 1977, this landmark store on the South Congress corridor displays more than 4,000 boots, plus cowboy hats, clothing, and accessories—pretty much a one-stop shop for all things Texan. The big red boot sign is a city icon, and the family-owned business help 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 its 24-hour diner service. The original location opened as Omelettry West on Lake Austin Boulevard in 1979, and has been an Austin favorite ever since. Barack Obama’s 2014 visit cemented the diner’s status as local icon forever when he met a UT student for coffee there.
With plenty of creeks, beautiful limestone cliffs, and wooded areas for hiking, this popular outdoor destination stretches 7.25 miles (11.67 km) from Zilker Park to the Westlake subdivision. The creek takes its name from William Barton, who settled the area in 1837. Popular locations along the Greenbelt include Twin Falls, Campbell’s Hole, The Flats, Gus Fruh, and Sculpture Falls.
Some of Austin’s least noticeable but most interesting landmarks are the moonlight towers dotted all over the city. Designed to illuminate several blocks at once, moonlight towers were a popular method of street lighting in the late 19th century, but Austin is the last known city in the world where they can still be found. Seventeen of the original 31 towers remain—one is featured in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993) when Matthew McConaughey’s character announces a “party at the moon tower.”
Established in 1881, the University of Texas at Austin is one of the world’s premier universities, with 18 of its research disciplines ranking in the top 10 worldwide. The famous Main Tower can be seen from vantage points all over town, but be sure to take a tour of the campus to fully enjoy the beautiful architecture on the Forty Acres. And if you’re thinking of enrolling in the fall, check out our top ten things prospective students will love about the University.
A paradise for bibliophiles, the Harry Ransom Center is one of the crown jewels of the University of Texas at Austin. The collection contains three copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio; one of only 23 existing first editions of Alice and Wonderland; a desk used by Edgar Allan Poe; a travel journal kept by Jack Kerouac in preparation for On the Road; and the personal libraries of other writers such as Ezra Pound, Evelyn Waugh; and more. Perhaps most notably, the library and museum contains one of only three Gutenberg Bibles in the U.S. along with countless other religious manuscripts.
Dedicated to the 45th governor of Texas and long-term Austin resident, Ann W. Richards, the Congress Avenue Bridge is also home to 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. As many as 100,000 annual tourists watch the bats emerge at dusk every night, flying across Lady Bird Lake to feed themselves.
A list of Austin attractions should include more than one music venue since it is, after all, 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 Limit‘s reputation as an intimate setting for live music, and many of the ACL live performances are replayed on the PBS network for everyone’s entertainment. Be sure to see 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, longer than most native Austinites can remember. The company is family-owned and perfectly captures the city’s laid-back attitude. Several new fixtures were added in the last few years, and the whole course was recently renovated with bright new colors.
With one of the highest vantage points in Austin, rising 775 feet (236.2 meters) from the Colorado River (Lake Austin), Mount Bonnell provides some of the best views of the city. 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.