Things to Do in Austin
Everything is bigger in Texas, and the Texas Capitol building in Austin follows suit. It’s the largest by square footage of any state capitol, and is 15 feet (4.6 meters) taller than the US Capitol. Its rosy hue, stunning at sunset, comes from the red granite exterior. Texas Hill Country limestone and granite were used in the building’s construction.
Austin’s Congress Avenue Bridge is home to roughly 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats—the world’s largest urban bat colony. Spectators gather here on summer nights, cameras in hand, to watch these flying mammals emerge from beneath the bridge to hunt in the sky above Lady Bird Lake.
The oldest operating hotel in Austin, the Driskill has been legendary in Texas since it was built in 1886. Celebrities have visited the historic landmark over the years, including former president Lyndon B. Johnson, who took Lady Bird there on their first date. Today the Driskill Grill and 1886 Cafe & Bakery restaurants are here as well.
The 416-acre (169-hectare) Lady Bird Lake, at the northeastern end of Zilker Metropolitan Park, anchors a host of outdoor recreational opportunities in downtown Austin. Locals and visitors alike hike, bike, and walk it, as well as birdwatch, canoe, paddleboard, and fish for carp, largemouth bass, catfish, and sunfish in and around this man-made reservoir once known as Town Lake.
A visit to Barton Springs Pool in Austin’s sprawling Zilker Park is a treasured experience for both Austin locals and visitors. The pool, which is more than 3 acres (1.2 hectares) in size is the result of a naturally occurring underground-fed spring. Generations have enjoyed the fresh, cool water, which stays a constant temperature of about 68°F (20°C).
Austin’s 6th Street, sometimes known colloquially as Dirty Sixth, is the epicenter for late nights, free-flowing drinks, and all-around good times in the Live Music Capital of the World. This historical neighborhood is lined with bars, restaurants, and souvenir shops, and car traffic is blocked on weekends so pedestrians can take their party into the street.
Located in downtown Austin, Paramount Theatre is an important and historic live and movie theater venue. John Eberson, one of the most renowned theater designers in US history, designed the original classic revival-style building. He built approximately 1,200 theaters, but less than 25 are still in existence today.
The Paramount opened its doors in 1915, originally called the Majestic Theatre. It featured vaudeville shows, a popular style of entertainment during that era. Performers like Harry Houdini even graced the stage at the Majestic Theatre. As vaudeville began to disappear, silent and later talking films began to develop. The theatre was revamped in 1930 to include wall-to-wall carpeting, upholstered seats, and a state of the art sound system. After the art deco renovations were complete, the theater was then renamed the Paramount Theatre. It was during this time that the Paramount Theatre began showcasing live performances like ballet.
After World War II, with the subsequent invention of the home television and the rise of suburban movie houses, the Paramount Theatre went into a period of decline before rising again in 1973 and hosting live shows again.
By the 1980s, the theater was a cultural icon, attracting major events and shows like A Chorus Line and My Fair Lady. Celebrities like Rodney Dangerfield, Lily Tomlin, and George Carlin have performed here. The Paramount was chosen as one of the official theaters to rerun Casablanca on its 50-year anniversary in 1992.
Today, the Paramount Theatre hosts a number of events and theater screenings, and has even produced its own blockbuster comedy shows like Greater Tuna. Look for non-performing art speaking engagements as well, such as Rick Steves, a travel writer and published guidebook author.
Wander the grounds of Austin’s picturesque Mayfield Park and Preserve, a former privately owned estate that includes a historic cottage, gardens, walking trails, and several resident peafowl—a delight for young and old visitors. Mayfield Park is located next to two other popular city sights: the Contemporary Austin Laguna Gloria and Mt. Bonnell.
The Texas State Cemetery, in addition to being a somber place for reflection, provides a historical overview of the notable men and women whose legacy continues to shape the Lone Star State. Among the famous interred here are writer James Michener, Civil Rights leader Barbara Jordan, and Stephen F. Austin, known as the Father of Texas.
The Republic of Texas, as it was known from 1836 to 1845, was host to a diplomatic outpost representing the government of France. The French Legation (now the French Legation Museum) was built in 1841 for Alphonse Dubois de Saligny, who was sent to the Republic of Texas by King Louis Philippe. Today it’s the oldest structure in Austin and an interesting museum.
More Things to Do in Austin
The Texas Governor’s Mansion in downtown Austin has been the official home of the presiding governor of Texas and family since 1856, and it’s the fourth-oldest continuously operating governor’s house in the United States. The Greek Revival-style mansion, a national historic landmark, is open for free tours on select days.
Stretching more than six city blocks and housing almost 250,000 square feet of exhibit space, the sprawling Austin Convention Center hosts a variety of events and conferences. It’s an ideal location for meetings and conventions, with more than 54 meeting rooms and seven ballrooms, and it’s within close proximity to the hotels, restaurants, and bars of downtown Austin.
Greeting visitors with a 34-foot (10-meter) bronze star, the Bullock Texas State History Museum invites you to learn about the story of Texas. Its three floors of historical exhibits are as entertaining and engaging as they are informative. Also here are Austin’s only IMAX theater and a separate 4-D theater.
The 2nd Street District is a new area of Austin that includes a range of trendy retail stores, cool coffee shops, restaurants, wine bars, and urban living spaces. The motto for the area is “Where Texas Warmth Meets Austin Cool.”
There are approximately 50 specialty shops, services, and dining establishments within the district, which is spread out over about six city blocks. Most shops are locally owned and operated, so it's best to walk the area and look at all the unique offerings available, which helps support the local Austin economy. The 2nd Street District also has a few recognizable brands like Swatch and Ann Taylor.
If you’re visiting Austin in August, consider checking out the now annual White Linen Night, which features a separate-admission block party with fare from local restaurants and wineries, as well as an after-party.
The LBJ Presidential Library chronicles the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson from 1963 to 1969. Exhibits include multimedia presentations, photographs, and artifacts from the tumultuous social climate of those years, including the Vietnam War, civil rights movement, and LBJ’s Great Society programs.
Austin’s South Congress Avenue (SoCo) comprises a slew of hip, funky restaurants and boutiques south of the Congress Avenue Bridge. Stroll down the main drag, people-watch and window-shop, and marvel at the retro neon signs including the Austin Motel and Jo’s Coffee (home of the iconic “I love you so much” mural).
If wine, history, and culture served up with a landscape of spring-fed rivers and scenic rugged cliffs sounds divine, go to the Texas Hill Country. The lovely region, near Austin and San Antonio, includes historical Fredericksburg and oozes with Texas hospitality, sophisticated cuisine, outdoor adventure, and Lyndon B. Johnson stories.
Known for "keeping it weird," Austin is home to impressive street art all over the city, but the HOPE Outdoor Gallery—a once abandoned construction site turned community park—is a special point of interest. The largest outdoor graffiti wall in Texas, the HOPE Gallery attracts muralists and artists from around the world, and has become an important part of city culture.
Layers and layers of color, words, and design make for interesting views throughout the park, and serve as a vehicle for expression of modern Austin life. Locals agree the park has taken on a life of its own with the often impermanent wall art constantly changing and evolving. Visit the park on any street art tour of the city to take in the views and learn more about this important community space.
Please note: The HOPE Outdoor Gallery (HOG) has closed its Baylor Street location. It will reopen across from the Austin Airport in 2020.
Mexic-Arte Museum in downtown Austin showcases contemporary Mexican and Latino art and educates visitors through a variety of educational and hands-on programming. The small, nonprofit museum is one of the few in the country with a focus on emerging artists from Texas, the Southwest, and Latin America.
For a fun and educational family-friendly activity, head for the Austin Aquarium. Highlights include interactive exhibits and diverse animals on view—from stingrays and macaws to coatimundis and sharks. Nature enthusiasts shouldn’t miss the reptiles in the “rain forest,” and young scientists love watching the daily feedings.
First Lady Claudia Johnson (or “Lady Bird” as she will forever be remembered), believed intensely in the importance of wildflowers, natural preservation, and beautification of public landscapes. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center pays tribute to her mission with more than 800 species of native plants displayed in exhibits and floral landscapes that reflect the beauty of her vision.
Covering 351 acres of trees and sprawling green parkland in the heart of Austin, Zilker Metropolitan Park is loved by locals and visitors alike. Favorite park activities include walking, biking, swimming, dog walking, and picnicking, and the park hosts various popular events throughout the year.