Top Austin Attractions Focus on History, Music and The Great Outdoors
By Shelley Seale
Austin Local Expert
With all of the things to do and see in a city, deciding how to spend your time can be quite an agonizing decision. 10Best has narrowed all of the available attractions in Austin to a list of the most appealing and reputable, to aide in your decision making.
Austin is America’s It City. In January 2014, Forbes named it the #1 fastest growing city in the country for the second year, and its continuing popularity has it growing by leaps and bounds. Austin’s story, like the city, is ever evolving. Austin has a lot to offer, from parks and great outdoor recreation, to the arts, music and cultural events. Continually rated one of the best places to visit and live, Austin is a cosmopolitan city that offers everything without losing its small-town feel or quirky energy. Whenever the weather permits, even in the hot summers, you can find Austinites taking advantage of the natural beauty and outdoor activities the city offers. There are plenty of choices for relaxing and playing as well, from restaurants and shopping to nightlife and live music.
Whether you live here or are just visiting, here are some of the best ways to catch the unique vibe here that’s so different from the rest of Texas. You can rest easy knowing that any choice you make from our list is sure to please.
Hike and Bike Trail and Boardwalk
Lady Bird Lake - once named Town Lake and still called that by many locals - is a major recreation area for the city. The Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail around the lake lies at the heart of Austin, with 10 miles of a unique urban path that meanders along the water's edge and the downtown core. The Boardwalk portion was completed in 2014 and adds new paths and beauty. The lake itself bans motorized boats, so kayaking, canoeing, and stand-up paddleboarding are more popular in its downtown location. The trail and boardwalk are pet friendly (leashed). The Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail, named for a former Austin mayor and his wife, is a natural gem in the heart of the Texas capital. But the Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail is more than a great pathway--it is a place where Austin thrives. For many citizens and visitors, it represents the best Austin has to offer: outdoor recreation; a scenic, natural environment; and a diverse, vibrant mix of people. (512-974-6700)
University of Texas
Wander about this historic college campus for a fun and free activity. You can see the University of Texas tower, which is the center point of the university. Check out the behemoth football stadium, which serves as home to the Texas Longhorns. You can also go into the Harry Ransom Center for free, which holds many of the world's prized possessions; upon walking in, you can take a look at the world's first photograph and an authentic copy of the Gutenberg bible. The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library & Museum, which is free and features many historical and cultural exhibits. If museums bore you, you can always tailgate! (512-475-7348)
Austin Duck Tour
A fun, narrated, amphibious tour of downtown Austin end with a splash on Lake Austin. Tour Austin inside one of the unsinkable, US coast guard inspected, Hydra Terra vehicles. The fun begins when you board your Austin Duck Adventures "Duck" at the Austin Visitors Center's new location at 602 East 4th Street. Austin Duck Tour is Austin's best tour with 75 minutes of sightseeing that includes Historic Sixth Street, the State Capitol Building, Bob Bullock State History Museum, the Governor's Mansion, and Lake Austin. You will get to see all the attractions that are unique to Austin both on and off the water. ((512) 477-5274)
SoCo, or South Congress Avenue
This stretch of South Congress, just across the bridge from downtown, is home to a multitude of boutiques, vintage stores, restaurants and clubs. Shop to your heart's content, and when you need to recharge, sit down with some sweets from old-fashioned Big Top candy store or one of the numerous food trailers. Even when it's not First Thursday, SoCo is home to a large number of artisan booths and food trailers. This vibrant, eclectic, thoroughly Austin hip strip provides the perfect walkable day that goes into evening, with numerous dining and live music options that stay open well into the night. (512-474-5171)
Bats of the Congress Avenue Bridge
Every year nearly 1 Million Mexican free-tailed bats call Austin home, typically arriving as the warm weather sets back in the Spring. They stay in Austin until early fall, and are the largest urban bat colony in North America. When in Austin, they camp out on downtown's Congress Avenue Bridge. Every summer night, hundreds of people gather to see the world's largest urban bat colony emerge from under the Congress Avenue Bridge in downtown Austin, Texas. These 1.5 million bats are fun to watch, but they're also making our world a better place to live. You can stand on the bridge at dusk and watch the bats emerge as a black cloud against the sunset as they seek out their dinner. Be sure to ask the locals what time the bats are coming out, because our recent drought has them coming out earlier than usual. (512-327-9721, 512-416-5700)
Austin City Limits
Austin City Limits still remains as the main focal point of Austin live music scene, and is the longest running music series in the country. Initially created to celebrate the music of Texas--featuring western swing, Texas blues, Tejano music, progressive country, and rock n' roll--the series has gone on to feature regional, national and international artists performing a wide range of musical styles, including jazz, alternative country, alternative rock, folk music, and jam band. ACL just recently relocated from the University of Texas campus to the W Austin Hotel downtown. Tickets to tapings are free through a drawing on the main ACL website or you can purchase tickets to other performances that are held there almost nightly. (512-475-9077, 512-471-4811)
Mount Bonnell provides a spectacular vista of Lake Austin, surrounding bluffs and multi-million dollar homes, the 360 bridge and downtown skyline. Climb the stairs or path to reach the highest point in the city, and you can even take a picnic - tables and grills are available. With the mostly mild winters in Central Texas, this sunset is nice to watch almost year-round. It's a great spot for picnicking, too, with rolling hills, the Colorado River, and all of Austin virtually spread out before you. Spread out a blanket or take advantage of the many picnic tables and pavilion that are at the site. (512-974-6700)
Barton Springs Pool
Within Zilker Park's 358 acres lies one of the crown jewels of Austin - Barton Springs Pool. The pool itself measures three acres in size, and is fed from underground springs with an average temperature of 68-70 degrees, ideal for year-round swimming. Over the years, Barton Springs Pool has drawn people from all walks of life, from legislators who have concocted state laws there to free-spirited, topless sunbathers who turned heads in the 1970s. Robert Redford learned to swim at the pool when he was five years old while visiting family in Austin. Today, Barton Springs still attracts a diverse crowd of people and has seen record setting numbers of visitors nearing 800,000 in recent years. (512-476-9044, 512-974-9331)
Zilker Metropolitan Park
This 351-acre park is arguably the most popular in town, and is considered "Austin's most-loved park." Miles of hike and bike trails, train rides on the Zilker Zephyr miniature train, a playscape for kids, and a natural swimming pool (Barton Springs) are available. Other attractions include Zilker Botanical Garden, Austin Nature and Science Center, Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum, and Zilker Hillside Theater. Zilker Park is really the hub for outdoor life in Austin. Events and festivals are held here throughout the year, including the Austin City Limits music festival, Blues on the Green, Trail of Lights, and the Zilker Kite Festival. (512-974-6700)
Texas State Capitol
Austin is not only the home of the University of Texas, but the Texas State Capitol Building. The Capitol is an extraordinary example of late 19th century public architecture and is widely recognized as one of the nation's most distinguished state capitols. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986 for its "significant contribution to American history." The Capitol grounds span 22 acres and feature historical buildings, 17 monuments, and beautifully landscaped lawns in addition to the Capitol building itself. The capitol rotunda features portraits of every person who has served as president of the Republic of Texas or Governor of the state of Texas . The building has nearly four hundred rooms and more than nine hundred windows. Come learn about Texas History and make some of your own. (512-305-8400)
About Shelley Seale
Shelley Seale is a freelance journalist and author in Austin who has written for National Geographic, USA Today, The Guardian and Texas Monthly, among others. She loves yoga, indie movies, wine, and books, though not necessarily in that order. Shelley has performed a catch on the flying trapeze, boarded down a live volcano and was once robbed by a monkey in Nepal. But, she doesn’t know how to whistle.
Read more about Shelley Seale here.