Lively, liberal Austin is a city with a lot of soul. It’s bursting with barbecues, world-class museums and cutting-edge design, with a burgeoning craft beer and street art scene too. Also known as the ‘Live Music Capital City of the World’, it’s the best place in the country to enjoy toe-tappin’ Country music (sorry Nashville), but its stages are also a favourite with big label artists from all walks – blues, jazz, hip hop and more. Just outside the city limits, there’s the best of rural Texas Hill Country to explore too, with plenty of pulse-pounding activities for outdoorsy types, from hiking to kayaking. Looking for the best things to do in Austin? We’ve got you covered.
Cool things to do in Austin
1. Watch out for bats at Congress Avenue Bridge
Every evening, Congress Avenue Bridge draws an admirable crowd and it’s not just for the sparkling sunset views. The bridge is home to Austin’s urban bat colony and the largest population of Mexican free-tailed bats in the United States. For 45 minutes as the sun goes down, the colony of 1.5 million bats take flight from their home on the underside of the bridge to feed. The spectacle takes place from May to October. For a closer look, you could even hop into a kayak under the bridge. Every August, there’s a festival with food, drinks and live music to mark the occasion too.
2. Hike and bike around Ladybird Lake
Ladybird Lake was carved out of the Colorado River back in 1960. The man-made reservoir is encircled by a 10-mile trail popular with bikers, runners and hikers. Sweat off the whisky and brisket and join thousands of other runs on the circuit, taking in the skyline views and iconic sights along the way. If the blistering Texas sunshine is too much, you can rent a paddleboard or kayak and splash about in the water instead.
3. Tuck into the best barbeque in town
You can’t leave town without tucking into a true Texas barbeque. They’re two-a-penny in Austin, but for the best brisket in town head to Franklin. There are usually queues around the block, but it’s well worth the wait for a bit of their mouthwatering oak-smoked peppery meat treats. The queue, not unlike Wimbledon, has become an institution in itself, with locals bringing along chairs, drinks and good conversation. If you’re not willing to queue for a few hours (we’re serious), you can preorder up to six weeks in advance, though you’ll need to order over three pounds worth of meat to qualify.
4. Buy some boots
Not just any boots either. Allen’s Boots is a local institution that’s been dressing locals and tourists since 1977. The shelves are bursting with over 4,000 pairs of cowboy boots from 12 different manufacturers in every colour, size and shape under the sun. They boast the largest selection of boots under one roof in the world, ranging from riding boots to wedges. They’re known as the boot shop to the stars too, supplying expertly-made cowboy boots to a mixed crowd including the likes of Jimmy Kimmel, Beastie Boys, Foo fighters, Aerosmith and Yoko Ono.
5. Rev up for the Circuit of the America’s
Race fans hotfoot to the Circut of the America’s for hair-raising year round racing. It’s the first ever purpose-built Grand Prix facility in the U.S, set on 1,500 acres just outside downtown Austin. It boasts a 3.4-mile track with a 20-turn circuit and hosts the only Formula 1 and MotoGP races in the country, as well as MotoGP Red Bull Grand Prix of the Americas and NASCAR at COTA race weekend. If you’re itching to get on the tarmac yourself, you can hop into a go-kart and challenge your competitors to a white-knuckle race reaching speeds of 55 MPH.
6. Try the ‘Texan Two-Step’
The Broken Spoke is often described as the ‘last true Texas dance hall’. The authentic honky-tonk has hosted all the Country greats, including Willie Nelson, George Strait and Dolly Parton. It still books mostly local acts like Alvin Crow and Jesse Dayton, though you’ll find the occasional international name too. Come for the hour-long dance lessons from 8-9 pm Thursday – Sunday and you’ll still be circling the dance floor well into the early hours.
7. Visit the largest university museum in the country
Not only is Blanton Museum of Art widely considered to be the largest university museum in the country, but it’s also home to some of the most prolific works of art in the state. Located on the University of Texas at Austin campus, there are over 18,000 works of art, ranging from renaissance works to contemporary Latin American works. There’s always an exciting temporary exhibition to dip into too. Past exhibitions have featured works by everyone from Liliana Porter to Vincent Valdez.
8. Cool off at Barton Springs Pool
This three-acre manmade freshwater pool is fed from underground springs. It’s reasonably toasty all year round, with an average temperature of 68 degrees, so it’s a great spot whatever the season. But when Austin gets hot – which it does – locals hotfoot here to cool off. There’s plenty of space to splash about and large grassy areas where you can stretch out in the sun afterwards. Robert Redford famously learned to swim in the pool on a family holiday.
9. Fly over the treetops at Lake Travis
If zip lines are your thing, you’ll love Lake Travis Zipline Adventures. It’s home to the longest zipline in Texas, with five different lines ranging from 250 feet to a pulse-pounding 2,600 feet. There’s a private beach for swimming, snorkelling and picnicking too. You can also opt for a whole zipline tour package which includes a boat ride across the lake.
10. Wander around State Capitol
No trip to Austin would be complete without a trip to the state’s legislative centre, the State Capitol. Built in 1888, the landmark is 14 feet higher than the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. In the late 1980s, it underwent major restorations, including a 667,000-square-foot underground extension to accommodate the government. You can wander around the building and the grounds with a self-guided tour pamphlet or tag along on one of the 30-minute free guided tours run daily.
11. Hike up Mount Bonnell
Less a hike, more a comfortable stroll uphill, Mount Bonnel is located at the 23-acre manicured estate of Mayfield Park and Nature Preserve. The estate itself features pretty gardens, bamboos and koi ponds but most people head here for the views out over Lake Austin. It’s named after George W. Bonnell, Commissioner of Indian Affairs for the Republic of Texas, who used the hill as a defence point in the early 1800s. You can see the famous arches of the Pennybacker Bridge from up here too.
12. Discover why it’s the Live Music Capital of the World
Austin City Limits is the city’s biggest music festival, featuring eight stages and over 130 bands across two consecutive weekends in October. There’s something for everyone – from acid rock to hip hop. This year’s lineup includes big names like Miley Cyrus, Billie Eilish and Stevie Nicks, with past headliners including Eminem and Calvin Harris. It takes place in the 350-acre Zilker Park, Austin’s favourite green space.
13. Then pick up a record at an iconic vinyl store
If Austin has given you a taste for Country music, you’ll find everything you need at Waterloo Records. It’s the largest music store in the city, stocking Indie names and major label artists. It’s the perfect spot to discover a new local band and customers can even listen to an album in the store before investing in it. There are in-store live performances too, all listed on the website.
14. Catch a movie at a vintage drive-in
Blue Starlite Drive-In is the world first and only mini urban drive-in, so don’t expect a huge field with 500+ car spots. It’s an intimate affair located in the heart of the city, with spaces for 15-20 vehicles. Motor in for indie movies, cult classics and the latest blockbusters. There are usually two movie showings per night, with an option to add a vintage drive-in speaker package too. Don’t miss the Drive-in Doughnuts or the Amy’s Cookie Monster Classic either.
15. Tee up at Peter Pan Minigolf
This quirky minigolf course epitomizes the ‘Keep Austin Weird’ vibe the city has been promoting since the nineties. Built in 1948, the two 18-hole courses is bursting with colourful handcrafted sculptures depicting tattooed fairies, Peter Pan and a T-Rex. You’ll spot them a mile away, popping out of the south side of the Colorado River. It’s a big hit with the kids but adults love it too thanks to its considerate BYOB policy.
16. Grab a bargain at Uncommon Objects
Part-flea market, part-hipster boutique, Uncommon Objects is an Austin one-of-a-kind emporium. Inside you’ll find 24 dedicated antique sellers showcasing quirky and genuine antiques. You could easily spend hours pouring over all the retro tours, kooky neon sights and costume jewellery. On the last Sunday of every month, the backyard is transformed into a – albeit very trendy – junkyard where you can pick up a bargain. Be warned, you’ll emerge armed with all sorts of cool paraphernalia that you never knew you needed.
17. Brush up on your history at the Harry Ransom Centre
18. Dive into the street art scene
When you’ve ticked off Austin’s many museums and the visual fatigue inevitably hits, Hope Outdoor Gallery provides the perfect antidote. Set across 17-acres in East Austin, just across from the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, the gallery is a totally unique open-air park open all year round. It features large scale public art installations, curated murals from local and international artists as well as contemporary audio and art exhibitions. The centre also offers art classes and cultural events, as well as beer, wine, cocktails and tasty grab-n-go bites from local Texas-based brands.
19. Sip on the best brews in town
Austin’s craft beer scene is booming, with an ever-expanding number of breweries offering up local brews from the likes of Live Oak Brewing, Austin Beerworks and Hops & Grain. Newbie Central Machine Works is a huge beer hall and microbrewery in East Austin, set in a bright warehouse with high ceilings and big leather sofas to sink into. At 9,800 square feet, it’s one of the biggest halls in the city – and it has a stand out selection of beers too, from American lagers to premium pilsners. It would be rude not to order a cheese-laden pizza or a juicy burger while you’re at it too.
20. Meander around SoCo
You’ll find the most exciting and experimental restaurants, bars and boutiques in ‘SoCo’ – or South Congress Avenue to use its full name. Located just south of Lady Bird Lake, this vibrant neighbourhood is a real hipster hotspot and the epicentre of all the action. If it’s live music you’r after, it’s where you’ll find everything from record stores to historic blues clubs like The Continental Club. Plus, it’s home to the iconic ‘I Love You So Much’ mural, the most famous street corner in Austin.
21. Picnic at Mayfield Park
Between its towering palm trees, lush green gardens and friendly peacocks, Mayfield Park is the perfect picnic spot. The 23-acre park is also home to a historic cottage, a popular wedding and event destination. The grounds are teeming with wildlife, perched on a bluff overlooking Lake Austin. If you’re feeling active, you can set off on one of its scenic hiking trails too.
22. Grab some views with your views
Austin is home to plenty of sky high drinking dens, but for the best views in town, you can’t beat P6. Set atop design-focused The Line Hotel, P6 is all pastel pink canopies, granite and rattan, with a stylish soundtrack to match. It’s romantic, intimate and its views of Lady Bird Lake are unbeatable. The cocktail, wine and beer list is extensive but save plenty of room for a few of the small plates, which include wagyu beef carpaccio and saffron pappardelle with shrimp butter.