The Best Things to Do in Austin

Spring-fed pools, art museums, trendsetting movie houses, thriving bookshops and record stores: Austin offers diversions, natural and man-made, that go far beyond its reputation for barbecue, craft beer, and country music.

300 West 21st Street
The University of Texas is one of the country’s great institutions of learning. And the education doesn’t stop with the registered students. The Ransom Center is one of several arms of the university that extend to the public. Visiting scholars and the public turn to the research center’s wealth of resources and archives to learn about everything from ancient Mexico to the works of great artists and writers like David Foster Wallace and Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner. The Ransom Center is also home to one of only five complete copies of the Gutenberg Bible in the United States. Take a tour of the center or come to see any of the ongoing exhibitions, lectures, and events.
200 E Martin Luther King Jr Blvd, Austin, TX 78712, USA
Austin is known as a music, outdoors, and food town, so the visual arts can sometimes get short shrift, especially when compared to Texas towns like Fort Worth and Houston. Located on the University of Texas campus, the Blanton makes the case that more people should be paying attention to what the state’s capital city has to offer. With 18,000 works in its collection, the Blanton is the centerpiece of the art world in Austin. Regular and rotating exhibits feature works that span from ancient India to modern North American art. Admission is free on the third Thursday of each month.
1800 Congress Ave, Austin, TX 78701, USA
You’ll find landmarks and historical buildings in states around the country named after presidents, historic figures, and governors, but finding one named after a lieutenant governor is pretty rare. But Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock was a pretty rare character and power broker. The history museum named in his honor is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions and hosts regular exhibits on state history and rotating shows that highlight cultural institutions like Texas high school football (yes, the state takes its high school football very seriously). The museum is also home to an IMAX theater that screens educational and nature documentaries as well as select first-run features. The grounds also host concerts and events throughout the year.
2247 Guadalupe St, Austin, TX 78712, USA
Along with the Texas State Capitol, the University of Texas Tower is probably one of the most distinguishing (and visible) landmarks in the city. The 307-foot tower was erected in 1937. Though unfortunately infamous as the location from which Charles Whitman opened fire on campus in 1966, the tower nonetheless holds a place of pride for Longhorns. If you’re visiting town and you look up and see the tower illuminated with an orange light, it means that one of the University of Texas athletic teams has recently won a game. The university also lights the tower orange when certain alumni achieve major accomplishments, as when golfers Ben Crenshaw and Jordan Spieth won the Masters.
404 Krause Spring Rd, Spicewood, TX 78669, USA
Central Texas is revered for natural swimming holes like the one at Krause Springs, about 30 miles west of Austin. The swimming hole and campgrounds have been privately owned by the Krause family since 1955, and the site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The spring-fed pool is surrounded by knobby, towering oak trees. Swing out on a rope and drop in or dive in from boulders. There is also a swimming pool on-site. Krause Springs accepts reservations for RV camping; tent camping is permitted on a first-come, first-served basis.
3809 West 35th Street
The Laguna Gloria campus of the Contemporary art museum, on the shores of Lake Austin, offers a wonderful blend of nature and human achievement (the museum has another location downtown). The Italianate villa was built following the original owner’s trip to Lake Como, Italy, more than a century ago. In addition to galleries, Laguna Gloria features an amphitheater for events and film screenings, an art school, and a sculpture garden. The museum has exhibited works by artists such as Ai Weiwei, Anya Gallaccio, Nancy Holt, and many others. Its grounds simultaneously feel like a garden, a lakeside estate, and a barely tamed rain forest, with pieces of sculpture almost hidden throughout.
1100 Congress Ave, Austin, TX 78701, USA
Since everything seems bigger in Texas, it’s no surprise that the Texas State Capitol holds the title for largest state capitol building in the union (360,000 square feet of floor space in the main building!). The building is also quite beautiful and houses some historical paintings. The inside of the capitol dome, with a lone star at the apex, is an impressive sight. Stroll the grounds to see fountains, old trees, and sculptures of historical Texas figures. The capitol grounds also offer a great view of downtown to the south and the University of Texas to the north. The Texas landmark is definitely worth a visit on a trip to Austin.
600 River St, Austin, TX 78701, USA
From music to dance to cuisine, the influence of Mexico is strong in the culture of Texas and Austin. This center—dedicated to the preservation, creation, presentation, and promotion of the cultural arts of Mexican Americans and other Latino cultures—is run by the city of Austin. Two free exhibitions feature art by local, regional, and national Latino artists, and the MACC offers arts classes and camps for both adults and children. The building, near the Lady Bird Lake Hike and Bike Trail, also hosts regular events and concerts, including five annual festivals like the Día de Los Muertos celebration.
2313 Red River Street
This impressive modernist building, designed by architect Gordon Bunshaft, houses the legacy of the 36th president of the United States of America. Central Texas native Lyndon Baines Johnson was one of the most colorful and powerful men in the history of the state of Texas. This 10-story library was dedicated in 1971 and contains 45 million pages of historical documents, 650,000 photos, and 5,000 hours of recordings from President Johnson’s long political career, during which he was involved in highs and lows including landmark achievements in civil rights as well as U.S. military action in Southeast Asia. The library also features exhibits in collaboration with other institutions that touch on other parts of Texas and U.S. history.
2201 Barton Springs Road
Texas summers are hot! When the heat hits, the people of Austin flock to the Barton Springs Pool to cool off and chill out. The $8 summer entrance fee (for nonresidents) buys you a whole day of fun. Get your hand stamped for reentry if you need to head out to hit one of the many restaurants along Barton Springs Road (food and drinks are not permitted at the springs). The pool is popular year-round because the water temperature remains a constant 68 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius). The people-watching at the free-spirited pool is spectacular, and you can count on hearing acoustic music and drumming on the lawn.
201 Lee Barton Dr, Austin, TX 78704, USA
When the only serious requirement for play is that golfers have a putter and at least one other club, you know a course is more about fun than rules. Butler Park Pitch and Putt has been a pleasant destination since it opened in 1949, giving Austin a chance for a walk under the shade of pecan trees and some low-key exercise. Much is made of famous golfers who’ve spent time on the nine-hole course, like Ben Crenshaw (who played when he was an undergrad at UT), but you’ll find the challenge of play is within your reach. And your kid’s.
24300 Hamilton Pool Rd, Dripping Springs, TX 78620, USA
The Hamilton Pool, this beautiful collapsed grotto, is a perfect place to go when needing to chill in some cold water. Linger in the pool and enjoy the clouds gliding across the sky and the cooling sight of water trickling down from the trees and limestone roof ledge. It’s a short but slightly rugged trail from the parking area down to the Hamilton Pool, and from there you can hike to other lakes. But be advised: The pool is limited to 20 people, and most mornings there’s a line of 10 cars waiting to get in before the gates open at 9 a.m. (Call before you head out to be sure that the trail and pool are open, especially after heavy rain.)
200 S Lamar Blvd, Austin, TX 78704, USA
It might be a part of the Colorado River—a man-made reservoir carved out of the river in 1960—but everyone calls the body of water bisecting Austin Lady Bird Lake. On hot summer days, scores of walkers and joggers move along the lakeside paths through nearby Zilker Park, but you can also take to the water by canoe, kayak, water bike, or stand-up paddleboard. You can’t swim here, but the left fork (heading west) in the river will take you to Barton Springs Pool, a popular Austin hangout, where you can splash in the water to your heart’s—and body temperature’s—delight.
16710 Ranch Rd 965, Fredericksburg, TX 78624, USA
Enchanted Rock State Natural Area is truly a mystical place, filled with Native American folklore. The Tonkawa people who inhabited the area in the 16th century thought it was special because they thought they saw ghost fires flickering at the top of the pink granite dome and heard creaking and groaning that they couldn’t explain. (Modern geologists attribute the noise to the rock’s contraction at night after being heated by the daytime sun, and the ghost flames may have been the reflection of the moon on rainwater trapped in depressions in the granite.) If you’re a geology buff, then the place will be really cool because this batholith (a huge igneous rock mass that is the result of magma pushing into earth’s crust and cooling underground) was formed some 6 million years ago. The hiking, camping, and cycling around this area are spectacular, especially in cooler months.
4803 Airport Blvd, Austin, TX 78751, USA
A comedian once said that comedy is when you “put the ha ha where the ouchie is.” That line sums up the backstory of this theater. The founders evacuated to Austin from New Orleans in the face of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Obviously, laughter can be curative. A bedrock of the Austin comedy community, the theater is home to the team of founding improvisers and serves as a training ground and school for those looking to both write and perform. Many of Austin’s best performers and comedians have passed through ColdTowne.
5701 W Slaughter Ln, Austin, TX 78749, USA
When husband-and-wife team Tim and Karrie League opened the Alamo Drafthouse in 1997, the idea of serving beer and food inside a movie theater felt revolutionary. You can now find locations of the Drafthouse from California to New York. The growth was built not just on the food-and-beverage concept but on the strength of the theater’s programming and a love of film that permeates every aspect of the operation. In addition to commercial movie screenings, Alamo Drafthouse theaters feature repertory screenings, quote-alongs, sing-alongs, and other playful events, and the South Lamar location also hosts the country’s biggest genre film festival, Fantastic Fest.
434 West 2nd Street
In the heart of the Second Street District, Violet Crown Cinema makes dinner and a movie an experience worth checking out, with four screens devoted to independent, documentary, and foreign films, great food and cocktails, and super-comfortable seats. Sit at the bar if you must discuss the film afterward (parking’s free for four hours!), or stroll through the Warehouse District if your legs need some stretching. Great beer and wine selection.
100A Guadalupe Street
Cloudlike whites and earthy brown tones make this day spa feel like a sanctuary amid the hustle and bustle of downtown. Milk + Honey’s various locations provide spa treatments, including facials, massages, waxes, manicures, and pedicures, and offer a menu of treatments specifically for children and teens. The interior waiting room, with its minimalist Japanese design, is a soothing spot to rest and relax before treatments. A shop offers an array of specialty products, from ylang-ylang-scented body oil to sandalwood bath salts, so you can take the spa experience home.
4515 S Congress Ave, Austin, TX 78745, USA
“Everyone from the late blues musician Stevie Ray Vaughan to the Butthole Surfers has played at the Continental Club. Musicians who do big gigs in Austin like to play small shows here afterward,” says Liz Lambert.
S Congress Ave, Austin, TX 78704, USA
If you haven’t before seen 1.5 million bats flying out for their nightly feeding at once, now’s your chance. The largest urban bat colony in North America, Austin‘s Congress Avenue Bridge is the home to hundreds of thousands of Mexican free-tail bats from mid-March to mid-October. Every night around sunset, the colony emerges like a black cloud from the crevices underneath the bridge, heading out to feed on millions of bugs around Austin. A beloved tourist attraction since the bats made their home in the bridge during the 1980 renovations, crowds pack the east-facing sidewalk and the park to the south side of the river to watch the nightly exodus. Want more details? Call the Bat Hotline at 416-5700, extension 3636, for exact exodus times. Christian Bale may or may not answer.
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