Austin is home to a host of unique, unmissable experiences, from bat-watching boat tours and hipster honky-tonks to secret bars serving mezcal and breakfast tacos galore.
It’s safe to say that there’s never a dull moment in the always-keepin’-it-weird Live Music Capital of the World, deep in the heart of Texas, but there are some Austin experiences that simply can’t be missed. Here are our top picks.
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.
The legendary Continental Club still lives up to the hype. This mecca of music opened its doors in 1957, and as now-ultra-trendy South Congress Avenue changes at warp speed around it, the Continental Club remains refreshingly predictable. Expect to come here and witness some seriously great (and probably under-appreciated) live music, every single night of the week. Mondays belong to hometown honky-tonk (Dale Watson), Tuesdays are for jazz and blues, and Wednesdays host lauded local singer-songwriters like James McMurtry.
The Barton Creek Greenbelt, a network of nearly 13 miles (21 kilometers) of trails in the heart of the city, is a must-see for outdoor lovers. Hike along to one of the area’s swimming holes, or kick things up a notch and try your hand at rock climbing; thanks to the craggy limestone cliffs and hundreds of climbing routes, the Greenbelt is a climber’s heaven.
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 with water from nearby natural springs. The pool itself measures three acres (1.3 hectares) in size, and the underground springs help it maintain an average temperature of 68ºF–70ºF (20ºC–21ºC), ideal for year-round swimming and cooling off in Austin’s searing summer heat.
From March through October, every evening at dusk, millions of Mexican free-tailed bats take flight from underneath the Congress Avenue Bridge, forming a giant, black cloud against the glittering skyline. It’s a sight unlike any you’ve seen before, and it’s best experienced by bike. Cycle around Austin’s Lady Bird Lake with a local guide before arriving at Congress Avenue Bridge to watch over 1.5 million bats take flight across the sky; this really can’t be missed on a visit to Austin.
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.
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.
Situated right in Downtown Austin is Lady Bird Lake, named after former First Lady Lady Bird Johnson. This is a popular lake for kayaking, canoeing, rowing and paddle boarding, and no motorized watercraft are allowed on the lake, keeping it peaceful and serene. The lake’s prime location in the city means it’s close to hotels, shopping, hiking trails, restaurants and more, making it a great lake for city folk who need a getaway but can’t escape the concrete jungle.
Everything’s bigger in Texas – including the state capitol building. The sixth-tallest state capitol in the country, this gorgeous pink granite building is one of the most entrancing historic sites in the state (and the nation). Not only was the Texas State Capitol added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970, but it’s also been recognized as an official National Historic Landmark. Don’t miss climbing to the top of the dome for a fantastic view of the inlaid marble floor below, and be sure to take a tour to fully immerse yourself in the building’s history and architecture.
If you went to Austin and you didn’t go two-stepping at a hipster honky-tonk, did you even really see the city at all? At The White Horse the whiskey shots and Lone Star tallboys flow like water, the live performers (usually Americana and country) are reliably great, and the crowd is made up of equal parts tattooed hipsters and grizzled cowboys ready to take you for a spin.
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.
Not only is Mount Bonnell one of the oldest attractions in the city (and the highest point in Austin), this beautiful park offers up some seriously expansive views. This “peak,” as it’s called, provides a panoramic overview of Downtown, the famed 360 bridges, and a slew of crazy-ornate mansions situated on the banks of the Colorado River. Sunset is the best time to experience Mount Bonnell, so plan accordingly.
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.
There’s nothing like a guided scavenger hunt to fully experience everything that Austin has to offer. Explore Downtown using your smartphone, while having a blast racing against other teams and learning all about the city’s rich historic and cultural sites. Team up and go against the clock to beat others at making it to the Capitol building.
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.