For years, Austin has consistently topped lists for the best places to live in the United State. However, the (self-proclaimed) Live Music Capital of the World also happens to be a great city to visit, as millions of bachelorettes and SXSW attendees have discovered over the years.
Austin is located in Central Texas on the edge of the Hill Country and the Balcones Escarpment and, as a result, is characterized by its rolling knolls (especially on the west side of town) and frigid, natural artesian springs that are an absolute blessing when summer temperatures reach their yearly my-seatbelt–buckle-just-branded-me level of hotness. While the summer may be scorching, the city enjoys pleasant spring and fall weather and mild 60–70-degree Fahrenheit temperatures. And for those who can’t stand the rain, here’s good news: Austin sees an average of 300 sunny days per year.
Western settlement in the area dates back to the 1700s when Spanish colonists first began to construct missions and trading posts, but before that, nomadic Indigenous tribes of Tonkawas, Comanches, and Lipan Apaches camped and hunted in the region. It wasn’t until 1839 that the town—then known as Waterloo—became the capital of the short-lived Republic of Texas. After it became the Republic’s capital, Waterloo’s name was changed to “Austin” in honor of Stephen F. Austin, who briefly served as the new country’s Secretary of State.
Between the 1800s and the First World War, Austin made its fortune through cattle ranching, due to its advantageous position on the legendary Chisholm Trail. Nowadays, Austin is a bonafide tech hub with companies like Google, Apple, and Tesla that either have headquarters or major branches in the city. Though it seems like every generation of Austinites bemoans that the city is losing some of its soul due to its rapid growth and sky-rocketing popularity, there are still plenty of things to do in the area that “Keep Austin Weird.”
Thanks to the University of Texas and St. Edward’s University, Austin is a thriving college town and enjoys a busy nightlife as a result. Plus, the city is a great place to be if you love attending concerts. Austin is a regular stop on many musicians’ tour itineraries in the Lone Star State and is home to more than 250 music venues. Of course, Austin is also famous for its music festivals like Austin City Limits and SXSW (which has grown exponentially since its start in 1987 and also hosts film, business, and tech luminaries from across the world). And for the outdoor crowd, there are many activities to do both on land and in river and lake for all skill levels.
Here are the top 10 things to do in Austin, Texas:
1. Hike the greenbelt
Compared to the western states, Texas is admittedly woefully lacking in the way of national parks and green spaces. But with its plentiful municipal parks, Austin is still considered an outdoor oasis in the Lone Star State.
Located in South Austin, the Barton Creek Greenbelt offers 12 miles of trails with multiple entrance points. One of the most popular paths in the park is the Violet Crown Trail, which runs all the way from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center to Zilker Park. Alternatively, you could also take your bike for a spin (while being mindful of pedestrians), boulder and rock climb, and even swim, when the weather permits—you’ll want to visit a few days after heavy rain. One of the most popular swimming spots along the Greenbelt is Gus Fruh (pronounced “gus froo”), which is a short hike from the closest entrance on Barton Hills Drive.
2. Dance the night away at a honky-tonk
Over the years, legendary country musicians like Willie Nelson, Guy Clark, and Townes Van Zandt have all called Austin home at some point. So, it only follows that there are more honky-tonks in the city than you can shake a stick at.
One of the oldest and most famed drinking and dancing institutions is the Little Longhorn Saloon off of Burnet Road (pronounced “burn-it”), which describes itself as “the honkiest tonkiest beer joint in town.” Open for four decades, the Little Longhorn prides itself on the sheer amount of musicians that it’s ushered through its doors over the years—it claims to host more than 600 bands a year. And the Little Longhorn isn’t just a great place to hear country music. On Sunday mornings, the bar hosts Chicken Sh-t Bingo, which is exactly what it sounds like. Numbers are selected by a yardbird making its mark on a giant bingo card when it feels the call of nature.
Another local favorite is the Broken Spoke, which says it’s “Texas’s most definitive dancehall” and “not one of those . . . trendy newcomers, you see springing up in some strip center or feed store on every corner.” But all that talk isn’t a bunch of hot air: The Broken Spoke has hosted acts such as Ernest Tubb, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, George Strait, and Willie Nelson.
3. Swim at Barton Springs
Swimming at Barton Springs is a must. Where else can you take a dip in a completely spring-fed, three-acre pool that hovers around 68––70 degrees year round? Located in Zilker Park, a 350-acre metropolitan park, Barton Springs pool is arguably the go-to summer destination in the city and is usually bustling with swimmers. Consider arriving early to snag a parking spot and to beat the crowds.
Four separate springs, the Parthenia, Upper, Old Mill, and Eliza, feed the pool and keep the water at its chilly, near-constant temperature. Barton Springs isn’t just a favorite among swimmers—the pool also happens to be one of the few habitats of the Barton Springs Salamander and is therefore a federally protected habitat. That is why visitors will see aquatic plants and algae at the bottom of the pool. Fun fact: Robert Redford learned to swim at Barton Springs.
For additional ways to keep cool in the heat, consider SUP-ing or kayaking in one of Austin’s three Colorado River reservoirs, Lake Austin, Lake Travis, and Lady Bird (or Town) Lake (Note that it’s actually illegal to swim in Lady Bird—SUPs and kayaks are still welcome.)
4. Shop local
You may have heard that Austin is a “weird” place. After all, the city’s slogan is “Keep Austin Weird.” The phrase was first uttered in 2000 by Austin Community College librarian Red Wassenich on a local radio show. It was soon adopted by the Austin Independent Business Alliance as a way to promote local, small businesses in town—and there are plenty of unique places to let your greenbacks loose in Austin.
One of my favorite things to do while I lived in the city back in the 2010s was to spend quiet afternoons rummaging for antique clothing and knickknacks at Room Service, a vintage wonderland located in Austin’s low-key North Loop neighborhood. Established in 1981, Room Service has sold period pieces and collector’s items for over 40 years. Although it primarily specializes in selling furniture that dates to the 1950s through the ‘70s, you can find almost any vintage item that your heart desires from classic cowboy boots to quilts and *gulp* old Playboy magazines. It’s a little-known, tried-and-true Austin gem, but items sell fast, so if you see something on its Instagram that catches your eye, it’s best to buy it quickly.
After you’re done vintage shopping, consider finding your next favorite read at Book People, Texas’s largest independent bookstore, which has been part of the community since 1970. Book People regularly hosts events with famous authors (as well as such former presidents as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton), so stay abreast of its event calendar. If you’re looking to expand your musical horizons, head over to Waterloo Records to thumb through the vinyl and to (hopefully) catch a show featuring your favorite artist.
5. Eat at Franklin Barbecue
No trip to Austin is complete without a serious case of the meat sweats and arguably the best—and most famous—’cue joint in town is Franklin Barbecue. Founded in 2009 by James Beard Award–winning pitmaster Aaron Franklin, Franklin Barbecue humbly began as a food trailer and moved into its brick-and-mortar location in 2011. Now, Franklin is regarded as one of the most influential barbecue chefs in the world and is a New York Times bestselling author of books like Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto.
In this Texan’s humble opinion, just about everything is delicious at Franklin Barbecue, but the real star of the show is the brisket, which Anthony Bourdain called the “finest brisket I’ve ever had.” After being smoked for 12 hours, the meat is tender and beautifully moist with rendered fat. It used to be a rite of passage to begin lining up at Franklin Barbecue in the wee hours of the morning before the restaurant opened, but now you can (thankfully) order your food in advance to take out.
Allow me to let you in on a little local secret: If waiting in line is not your thing and you didn’t manage to snag a preorder slot at Franklin, head over to any of the Rudy’s “Country Store” and Bar-B-Qs in town and load up on some barbecue there. While the fare may not be as mind-meltingly good as Franklin Barbecue, the meats are consistently well-smoked and the line is fast. Plus, they serve barbecue breakfast tacos before noon. What’s not to love?
6. Watch the Congress Avenue bats
Fun fact: Austin is home to the largest urban bat colony in North America. From late March to late summer, nearly 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats make their home underneath the Congress Avenue Bridge, which also sports a fine view of Lady Bird Lake and the pink granite steps of the Texas Capitol. During their time at the bridge, the bats raise an average of 750,000 pups a year.
The best time to see the bats is around twilight, when they’re most likely to be active. Snag a spot on the Congress Avenue sidewalk or on the lawn below and watch the bats as they make their dramatic, nightly exit.
7. Enjoy a pint at Jester King Brewery
This pick is technically outside of Austin city limits, but it’s well worth the short drive into the country. Located between the small town of Dripping Springs and Austin, Jester King Brewery is sited on 165 acres of gorgeous Hill Country land and functions as a farm, restaurant, event hall, and brewery.
In its kitchen, Jester King focuses on creating hyperlocal and seasonal dishes, often using ingredients grown on the property. It primarily specializes in pizzas with fanciful toppings, such as the Tubersom, with bechamel, sharp cheddar, potatoes, bacon, thinly sliced leeks, and Crystal hot sauce. However, there are other non-’za options, such as a barbecue pork sandwich and St. Louis–style ribs.
The crowning jewel of Jester King’s operation is its brewery, which produces cider, wine, and, of course, beer, using mixed cultures and spontaneous fermentation, an ancient method of brewing that relies on local microflora to ferment its creations. Jester King primarily uses native Texan grains and ingredients to create its unique ales and pilsners; it won gold in 2022 at the World Beer Cup, the largest beer competition in the world, in the Belgian Fruit Beer category.
8. Grab a drink at the Skylark Lounge
Austin truly has no shortage of watering holes—from dive bars to upscale cocktail lounges catering to hipsters, there’s something for everyone. The Skylark Lounge, however, is a distinctly Austin experience.
It is situated off of Airport Boulevard on the East Side, which has been historically occupied by Black and Latino residents and has seen an relentless uptick of gentrification in the past few years. The Skylark Lounge first opened its doors when the city was still segregated, back when East Austin was known as the “Black side of town.” It’s since passed through many hands over the years and has changed names a few times; it was once known as Airport Bar & Grill and briefly served as a lesbian bar called Bernadette’s.
Current owners Mary and Johnny LaTouf are committed to making the Skylark Lounge a bastion of “real” East Austin and Black culture and regularly book soul, jazz, and R&B gigs. During the pandemic, the Skylark briefly closed but as of November of last year, the music venue is back in business.
9. Watch the sunset from Mount Bonnell
Measuring in at 775 feet above sea level, Mount Bonnell (pronounced “buh-nell”) is one of the highest points in Austin. Named after George Bonnell, the Texas Republic’s Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Mount Bonnell is a bit of a misnomer—it’s hardly a mountain; in fact, it’s a limestone cliff.
But don’t let that discourage you. Mount Bonnell overlooks Lake Austin and the surrounding countryside, making for some stunning sunset views. Entrance to Covert Park (where Mount Bonnell is located) is free and can be reached via a 102-stair climb that can be accessed on Mount Bonnell Road. At the top, visitors will find plentiful west-facing seating, plus a few picnic tables. Be sure to bring a date for the ultimate experience.
10. Catch a Master Pancake Theater at the Alamo Drafthouse
OK, so the secret is out about Alamo Drafthouse now it has opened locations in both Los Angeles and New York. I mean, dinner, drinks, and a movie? Say no more. Master Pancake Theater, however, combines the upscale movie experience that Alamo Drafthouse patrons have come to expect with a side of live comedy delivered by local comedians.
Established in 2000, the Master Pancake Theater shows were inspired by the television series Mystery Science Theater 3000, a science fiction show that followed human test subjects as they were forced to watch bad movies by evil scientists until they broke mentally. The movie spoof hilarity that ensued was often accompanied by skits or songs. At a Master Pancake Theater show, such films as First Blood (1982), Twilight (2008), and Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) have been heckled and mocked by the constantly rotating cast.
Though Master Pancake was put on pause for more than two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is back and cracking jokes to sold-out shows. Master Pancake events do not take place in any one particular theater in the city, so be sure to keep an eye on its Facebook and Twitter for the latest updates.