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Austin is like nowhere else in Texas. With ubiquitous live music and street art and a ridiculous amount of breakfast tacos and breweries, Austin is brimming with character. As a native Texan and adopted Austinite, my sister has spent the last several years discovering all the fun things to do in Austin that locals love and aren’t tourist traps. I’ve been lucky to have her as a guide to explore the best Austin attractions you’ve heard of and many that may not be on your list yet.
Here’s a look at some of our favorite things to do in Austin, as guided by a local.
What to do in Austin
Take a dip at Barton Springs
When we’re looking to escape the Texas heat, Barton Springs is one of our favorite places to go when we visit Austin. Within the 358-acre Zilker Park, Barton Springs is a refuge in the city.
Spanning an incredible 3 acres in South Austin, the Barton Springs Pool is fed by underground springs that stay 68-70 degrees year-round. For reference, that’s about 10-14 degrees cooler than the average swimming pool. Jumping in can be a shock, but we got used to it quickly, and the cold is very welcome on a sweltering Texas afternoon.
Barton Springs is open almost every day of the year, but it’s closed during the day on Thursdays for regular cleaning.
Go hunting for street art
One of Austin’s most iconic street art pieces started out as a love note and has taken on a life of its own in merchandise, pop culture, and even as a gif on Instagram. The “I Love You So Much” mural on the side of Jo’s Coffee on South Congress Avenue is one of the most popular places to visit in Austin for photos. There is also the “Hi, How Are You?” mural made famous by Kurt Cobain and the all-about-Austin postcard “Greetings from Austin” on the side of Roadhouse Relics, just to name a few.
Keep your eyes open for other great works as you walk around the city or put together a tour of your favorites.
Hang out at Jester King
Jester King is one of the best craft breweries in Austin and possibly my sister’s favorite place. On the outskirts of the city, Jester King brews farmhouse ales and barrel-aged wild ales on a 165-acre property they call “the farm.”
With over 60 draft options, you could visit over and over and never have the same thing twice. In addition to the beer, you can have cider and wine from Texas and beyond. There is also a restaurant with a wide selection of appetizers and pizzas to soak up the alcohol. As an interlude from the eating and drinking, check out one of the brewery or farm tours or some of the games available to play on the property.
Indulge in BBQ
Growing up in Dallas, we learned a thing or two about good BBQ, and Austin is home to some of the best in the country.
One favorite that we’ve returned to again and again is The Salt Lick. Their award-winning brisket, ribs, sausage, and pulled pork are slow-cooked in their famous pits in the Texas Hill Country. Their main location is a half-hour from downtown in Driftwood, so you’ll need a car to make the trip, or you can visit their restaurant in the Austin airport or in nearby Round Rock.
Other Austin barbecue favorites include Franklin Barbecue (be prepared for the wait), Terry Black’s, and StileSwitch BBQ & Brew.
Watch Esther’s Follies
With unusual sketches, comedy bits, and some magic thrown in, Esther’s Follies has been entertaining Austin for over 40 years. In five shows each weekend, the modern-day vaudeville show treats viewers to a healthy dose of satire and off-beat comedy. The shows are full of surprises, and one thing we didn’t expect is that they use their windows overlooking Sixth Street to their advantage–some of the action takes place right outside on the street in downtown Austin.
Try Austin’s unofficial cocktail
Ranch 616 is the home of Austin’s unofficial cocktail, Ranch Water. Trying it is one of the must-do Austin activities.
With tequila, lime juice, and orange liqueur, Ranch Water’s ingredients bear a striking similarity to those in a margarita, but it’s topped off with many Austinites’ favorite drink–the sparkling mineral water called Topo Chico. It’s light, refreshing, and packs a surprising punch, so make sure to hydrate along the way.
Visit the capitol building
The Texas State Capitol building is one of the top Austin attractions. You can learn about Texas history and visit key areas of the Capitol on one of the free tours that happen throughout the day. If a guided tour is more time that you want to spend, you can do what we did–walk around the rotunda on your own and see the many statues on the grounds outside.
Visit Rainey Street
Probably the most unique street in the city, Rainey Street is filled with cute craftsmen houses from the 1930s that have been re-purposed as bars. Everywhere you look there are patios decked out in lights, food trucks, restaurants, and people. So many people. In fact, I hesitated to put Rainey Street on the list of places to see in Austin because it’s such a tourist attraction. Locals do go there, but it’s somewhat infrequent and almost never on the weekends.
If you decide to go to Rainey Street, consider an off-peak time and set your expectations accordingly. Check out Craft Pride for Texas beers or Half Step for great cocktails. Geraldine’s at Hotel Van Zandt is a perfect place for lunch or happy hour, and Via 313 is a favorite for Detroit-style pizza.
Find an alter ego at Lucy in Disguise
Doing its part to keep Austin weird, fanciful, and incognito, Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds is the place to go for a costume in Austin. Its 8000 square feet are packed with masks, wigs, props, accessories, and any costume you could dream up. It’s easy to lose yourself in the racks and rows of fun things to look at in the shop whether you’re looking for a flapper dress, spacesuit, or something else unique. I found myself mesmerized with the variety.
Lucy in Disguise rents and sells costumes, so it’s easy to walk out with something fun, even if it’s not Halloween.
Seek out a speakeasy
One of our favorite ways to escape the Austin crowds is at a speakeasy. These Prohibition-era bars are generally a little difficult to find, but, once you’re inside, they’re a throwback to another time.
Speakeasies are a paradise for lovers of craft cocktails, and visiting one is one of the most fun things to do in Austin. Our favorites (so far) are Midnight Cowboy and Small Victory. Hidden in a former brothel behind a nondescript door, Midnight Cowboy might be one of the only reasons a local would head to Dirty 6th (the strip of raucous bars otherwise known as 6th Street). Its dark leather interior and top-notch service create a welcoming environment to try one of their signature tiki drinks or a classic cocktail.
At Small Victory, there’s no secret buzzer or password, though you may find yourself wondering if you’re in the right place. A couple of doors and a small flight of stairs are the only thing between you and cocktail heaven. They also offer a selection of charcuterie and cheese plates.
Watch the sunset at The Oasis
Texas sunsets are legendary. About 15 miles from downtown Austin, The Oasis on Lake Travis is one of the best places to see them.
With a multi-deck patio overlooking the lake, the Oasis has unparalleled views. There is a full-service restaurant, but it serves up to 2500 people and doesn’t accept reservations, so set your expectations and patience accordingly if eating there is a priority (though it probably shouldn’t be).
Our best advice is to eat before or after your visit so you don’t have to deal with the wait. Instead, spend your time at the Oasis by hitting the bar at Oasis Brewing Company and enjoy your tasty beverage while watching the sky light up at twilight. The secret is that the colors get even better after sunset. It truly is spectacular and one of the most unique things to do in Austin.
See the bats
Most people may not think bats and big cities go together…unless you live in Austin. In the warmer months, bat watching is actually one of the most fun activities in Austin.
The Congress Avenue Bridge in the heart of the city is home to a massive colony of Mexican Free-Tailed Bats—the largest urban bat colony in North America. Not only do they help with the fierce Texas mosquitoes, but they put on a nightly show.
From spring through early fall, the bats start their flight around sunset and continue flying sometimes for as long as 2-3 hours. At the height of the season, there may be as many as 1.5 million bats taking to the air above Lady Bird Lake.
Plan to arrive at least an hour before dusk in order to find parking and get your spot. The Statesman Bat Observation Center adjacent to the bridge is a great place to go, but there are other vantage points along the Butler Hike & Bike Trail and on the bridge itself, though it can get quite crowded.
We’ve watched from the bridge in the past but most recently took to the water to watch the bats from a boat, which puts a fun, more relaxing spin on the evening because you get dinner and drinks, too.
Try some local cider
We discovered Austin Eastciders at a restaurant near us in Pennsylvania, and since its tasting room is just down the street from my sister, visiting was a must in Austin.
Austin Eastciders has 10-12 different ciders at any given time, ranging from hopped to honey to blood orange. They have a lot of fruit options that focus on flavor without being sweet. Our group included non-beer drinkers like me along with lovers of IPAs, hops, and sours, and everyone found something they liked.
The laid-back bar has picnic tables, games, and a dog-friendly patio. Plus, they offer special releases that aren’t available anywhere else, including barrel-aged products using barrels from local Texas distilleries and wineries.
Check out Wright Bros Brew and Brew
If you’re looking for a great coffee shop, a bar, a place to hang out, or a spot to get some work done, Wright Bros. Brew and Brew has you covered on all fronts. In East Austin, this multi-purpose space has a full espresso bar and nearly 40 taps of craft beer and cider, so you can find your drink of choice all day long. There is also a little bit of food and free wifi.
Watch art come to life
Since 2010, artists have visited the HOPE Outdoor Gallery to add their work to the growing collection of spray-painted treasures that adorn the walls. Once an abandoned construction project, every inch of the area is decorated with unique images of street art.
Every day, people visit to climb around on the concrete slabs to see the art or to make their own in this unusual public space. From cartoon characters to cats in space, there is all kinds of unusual imagery, and there is always some kind of activity going on. The gallery has become a gathering spot and is used for dance classes, dinner parties, and other fun events.
The original HOPE Outdoor Gallery in downtown Austin closed in 2019, but it is slated to reopen in 2020 near Carson Creek Ranch by the Austin airport.
Visit a local distillery
We love people who are passionate about what they do, and we love good cocktails. Luckily, that makes craft distilleries a perfect fit for our list of things to do around Austin. Seriously, if you’ve never had a chance to take a distillery tour with the distillers themselves, do it—they love geeking out and sharing their passion for making great spirits. There are several distilleries to choose from in Austin and within a half-hour drive of the city.
Still Austin Whiskey Co. is our choice in Austin. It’s the first whiskey distillery in Austin since Prohibition and keeps true to its Texas roots using Texas grains and botanicals in its whiskeys and gin. They’re open for tours and tastings, or you can stop by for a cocktail at the bar and some live music and food trucks. I loved their Old Fashioned.
Within a half-hour of downtown, you can find three more great distilleries in nearby Dripping Springs. San Luis Spirits, the makers of Dripping Springs Vodka and Gin, use handmade copper stills for their spirits. You can see the steps in their distillation process and try the straight spirits or cocktails on a tour or in their tasting room. Not far away at Treaty Oak Distilling, you’ll find one of the coolest places to visit near Austin. You can hang out on the massive ranch, play games, check out their restaurant, and indulge in some of their whiskeys and gins, along with a few products you can’t find anywhere else.
Deep Eddy Vodka, which started in Austin, is now well-known around the US and the world. At their giant tasting room on Highway 290, you can get a lesson in the ingredients that go into their flavored vodkas, including real fruit juices, local honey, and Texas Hill Country water. Belly up to the bar to try one of their mason jar cocktails.
Hang with the locals at Alamo Drafthouse
Alamo Drafthouse is an Austin institution. It’s known for inventive festivals in addition to showing great first-run and classic movies as well as blockbuster and art house films. It was one of the first movie theaters to add good food and beer to complete the movie-going experience. They even create unique menus to pair with the themes of certain movies. There’s always something new and different there.
The Drafthouse hosts special events throughout the year, but one of our favorite reasons to go is the regular Tuesday night trivia. Pop culture and movie experts will go far in trying to take home the night’s prize.
Try out Tiff’s Treats
Tiff’s Treats is the perfect solution to a crummy day or the best way to make a good day even better. I mean, who doesn’t want freshly baked cookies right from the oven? No one.
The owners started their delicious cookie company from their dorm rooms while students at the University of Texas, so indulging in their treats is truly one of the authentic things to do in Austin. At their locations all over Austin (and throughout Texas), you can try over 10 varieties of cookies and brownies, plus ice cream and more. (Our favorite is the peanut butter chocolate chip.) Plus, Tiff’s Treats is known for being the first bakery in the U.S. to offer a warm cookie delivery service, so you can also enjoy them in your PJs in your hotel room.
Hang out at Hamilton Pool
Hamilton Pool is one of the most picturesque Austin sites and one of the top swimming holes in Texas. Located on a 234-acre nature preserve, Hamilton Pool draws people from all over central Texas.
The pool is the result of the collapse of an underground river, so it has a unique formation with a waterfall and even a tiny beach. You can bring a picnic, enjoy the (sometimes very cool) natural spring pool, or relax on the beach.
If Hamilton Pool is on your must do list in Austin, you’ll want to plan ahead—from March through October and weekends in November and December, you’ll need to reserve a 4-hour time slot for your visit. There are only 140 slots per day to protect the ecosystem, which means that the pool always feels like a bit of a private oasis. Bring close-toed shoes or water shoes for the rugged quarter-mile hike from the parking lot and for walking around the swimming area.
Browse Tesoros Trading Company
One of the anchors of South Congress Avenue, Tesoros Trading Company has a large assortment of folk art, furniture, jewelry and decorations that are unlike anything else in Austin. Tesoros’ features works from 20 different countries, including places across South and Central America and Asia. If you’re in the market for a unique gift or souvenir, this is the place.
Go two stepping at The White Horse
One of Austin’s coolest honky tonks, The White Horse in East Austin has live music every day of the week. In addition to the entertainment, they have tacos every night/early morning and whiskey on tap. It’s kind of perfect.
One of the nicest things about The White Horse is that it doesn’t have a particular type of crowd and everyone is welcome. You’ll see people of all generations from hipsters to ranchers to rockabillies, so no one really feels out of place. They all pack the dance floor, and many come for the free dance lessons offered Tuesday through Saturday.
Sample the offerings at Fareground
From Amsterdam to Bordeaux, we love the idea of food halls, and Austin’s Fareground is a winner. The half-dozen vendors at the food hall offer tacos, rustic Italian pastas, sushi, and more. Don’t miss the monster cookie at farm-to-table stall Henbit.
See the city by bike or scooter
Getting around in Austin can be really easy—just pick up a bicycle or a scooter when you see one. With B-cycle bicycle stands and other companies like Lime and Jump offering bicycles and scooters all over the city, you’re never very far from an option that will take you a few blocks or to the other side of the city. Most of them only require an app and a credit card.
Go on a breakfast tacos crawl
Trying breakfast tacos is a must when you visit Austin. There are so many great places to try that it’s hard to pick just one. The good news is that many places serve breakfast tacos all day (particularly on the weekends), so you can put together your own taco crawl, if you’re so inclined.
My favorite place for breakfast tacos is Veracruz All Natural. They have several locations in Austin, and we like the truck on Manchaca Road because it’s conveniently located at Radio Coffee, so you can easily address all your breakfast needs in one place. Bring your patience because Veracruz is super popular, but the wait is worth it. They’re most well-known for their amazing migas taco.
If you can’t make it to Veracruz All Natural, check out Austin mainstays Tacodeli or Torchy’s Tacos. For 20 years, Tacodeli has met Austinites’ tortilla needs, and their breakfast tacos—especially the Otto—are legendary. Torchy’s Tacos, which started out as an Austin food truck, now has 50 locations around the city, so there’s almost always one nearby. Try the queso, too.
Browse Toy Joy
Toy Joy is not your standard toy store. An Austin institution for over 30 years, Toy Joy stocks thousands of items to appeal to everyone. You can find expected toys like standard board games and stuffed animals alongside less expected gag gifts, costumes, crafts, and more. From Harry Potter to anime, there’s plenty to see here.
Enjoy Lady Bird Lake
Lady Bird Lake looks a bit more like a river, or at least that’s what I called it until my sister set me straight. It’s actually a section of the Colorado River running right through the heart of Austin that has been dammed up. Whatever you call it, it’s the perfect place for outdoor activities and water sports in Austin.
Year-round, there are people in kayaks and canoes and on stand-up paddle boards enjoying the lake. Along the banks, you can also rent paddle boats, dragon boats, and other crafts for use. To enjoy the water in a more motorized fashion, check out Capital Cruises, which runs regular excursions. The Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail runs over 10 miles around the lake.
Take a Day Trip Near Austin
There is plenty to occupy your time in Austin if you’re visiting for a long weekend. But if you have more time or want to see a side of Texas other than the big city, consider taking a day trip. There are several fun places to visit not far from Austin.
Fredericksburg is, undoubtedly, our favorite small town in Texas. Although it has just 10,000 residents, there are lots of fun things to keep you busy in the charming town.
Founded by German settlers, Fredericksburg has its own unique culture that you might not expect in the heart of Texas. This German town is packed with dozens of wineries and has a cute downtown shopping area. You’ll also find wildflower gardens, historic sites, and the world-class National Museum of the Pacific War. With lots of great places to eat and drink plus frequent live music, Fredericksburg makes for a perfect day trip from Austin.
Immortalized in the Waylon Jennings song of the same name, Luckenbach, Texas, is an unusual site you shouldn’t miss if you have time to make the trip from Austin. This two-building town, which famously only has a population of three is the place to go for country music. Its welcoming, down-home atmosphere makes it a place we love.
Along with food, drinks, and its well-known dance hall, Luckenbach has music nearly every day of the year. There are informal performances and jams as well as concerts from the biggest names in country. Its fun and sometimes quirky festivals like its annual “hug in” contribute to the unique environment.
Just a half-hour from Austin is the little town of Dripping Springs, Texas, which is certainly worth a stop on your trip through central Texas. Some of our favorite attractions in Dripping Springs are mentioned above, including Hamilton Pool and several of the Texas distilleries. In addition, you can get a hint of Tuscany at the Texas Hill Country Olive Oil Company, enjoy the scenery at Pedernales Falls State Park, and splash down in the natural swimming hole of Jacob’s Well.
Brenham, Texas, is synonymous with Blue Bell ice cream, a summer (or any season, really) staple when you grow up in Texas. Blue Bell’s headquarters just 1.5 hours from Austin is open for visiting, and you can visit their scoop shop where all the delicious flavors are only $1.
In downtown Brenham, there are beer gardens, art galleries, and live music venues. The buildings are decked out in murals not typical of small Texas towns, and the great food and welcoming vibe will entice you to stay for awhile.
Round Top is the place to go for antiques. Check out the antique fairs or some of the other shops and warehouses along Highway 237. If new (but vintage-looking) things are more your style, don’t miss Junk Gypsy of HGTV fame. There’s lots of furniture, jewelry, and country-themed decorations in this fun shop.
When you’re shopped out, visit the super-popular Royers Round Top Café for a filling lunch or dinner. If you’re just in the mood for their famous pie and can’t wait for a table, head to the cute sister restaurant Royers Pie Haven nearby.
Where to Stay in Austin
South Congress Hotel – A boutique hotel on one of Austin’s most popular streets for entertainment and eating, the South Congress Hotel is one of the top places to stay in Austin. Some rooms have courtyard or city views, and you can’t beat the rooftop pool bar.
Hyatt Place Downtown Austin – A reliable choice for comfortable accommodations in the city center, Hyatt Place offers an on-site restaurant, pool, and fitness center. It is within walking distance of most of the Austin sightseeing highlights.
Fairmont Austin – The Fairmont Austin is the definition of a luxury hotel. With stellar service, well-appointed rooms, a spa, and five restaurants and bars, it’s one of the best places to stay in Austin.
The Carpenter Hotel – One of Austin’s newest boutique hotels, The Carpenter Hotel has a unique setting in the former carpenter’s union hall near Zilker Park. You’ll find a fabulous cafe, a restaurant serving inventive dishes, and an outdoor pool. Each room is uniquely furnished.
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