If you’re heading to Austin for the first time, you’re in for a treat. The city is a treasure trove of museums, unique boutiques, great little art galleries, and fabulous museums. For nature lovers, there’s even some world-class hikes and gardens to get your fill of flora and fauna. Regardless of whether you’re 5 or 65, you’ll not have any trouble in finding plenty to keep you entertained. The only trouble you may have is deciding which of the many attractions and activities to try first… fortunately, help is on hand with our rundown of the top 20 best things to do in Austin for first-timers.
20. Listen to some music
If you’re going to visit the live music capital of the world (as Austin has become affectionately known over the past few years), it would be remiss of you not to catch at least a few bands while you’re there. The city is alive with music venues, with some of the most popular spots including: Stubbs (the perfect place to indulge in the holy trinity of music, beer and brisket), Antone’s (the legendary stomping ground of blues legends like B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan), and The Continental Club (one of the oldest and most beloved music venues in the city).
19. Go retro
Austin has more than its share of stores selling contemporary brands and fresh from the box goods, but it’s also got a positive plethora of vintage stores. Stocked with everything from 1920s lampshades to 1970s flares, they’re a treasure trove of retro delights. Head to the Auston Antique Mall for the biggest selection of antiques you can imagine, Ambrose Vintage for eclectic furniture, Byron & Blue for a great selection of prints for local artists, as well as some fabulous vintage fashion.
18. Take a tour of the Wall Art
If you’re in any way interested in art, you’re going to love the street art scattered around the walls and alleyways of Austin. On just about every corner you look, you’ll find some captivating murals (although according to sources, the best works can be found in the Downtown and South Congress areas). Famous pieces that are worth a visit in their own right include Greetings from Austin on 1720 S. First St., You’re My Butter Half on 2000 E. MLK Jr. Blvd, I Love You So Much on 1300 S. Congress Ave. and Jeremiah the Innocent Frog on West 21st Street and Guadalupe Street.
17. Sample the goods at an urban winery
Few can dispute that Austin is a dream for those who enjoy the finer things in life. Lovers of food and wine will find themselves almost overwhelmed with first-class restaurants, while the range of urban wineries and craft breweries popping up around the city are a very welcome addition to an already outstanding food and drink scene. If you’re visiting Austin for the first time, a trip to the award-winning Deep Eddy Vodka with its fun tours and tastings opportunities are a must. Those who prefer wine to hard liquor may prefer sampling the goods over at the superb Austin Winery, while die-hard beer fans have a range of options to choose from, St. Elmo Brewing Co., Austin Beer Garden Brewing Co. (The ABGB), Live Oak Brewing Co. and Independence Brewing Co.
16. Treat yourself to some street food
The food scene in Austin just seems to get better each day. In a move away from the more formal restaurants of old, the latest purveyors of fine foods and gourmet treats are taking to the streets, unloading their specialties directly from the vans. The range of food trucks in the city is vast enough to keep you in food from dusk to dawn, 365 days a year, but those looking for a snack to remember should check out Veracruz All Natural for the best tacos this side of Tijuana, Little Lucy’s for the cutest in mini donuts, and Burro Cheese Kitchen for gorgeous grilled cheese sandwiches.
15. Take a dip at the Hamilton Pool Preserve
Take a short, 30-minute trip outside Austin and you’ll chance upon Hamilton Pool Preserve, the stunning result of years of massive erosion and a collapsed grotto. Since the 1960s, the warm, jade green pool has served as a popular swimming spot, while the 232 acres of surrounding natural habit makes for an ideal place to relax and chill away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
14. Enjoy year-round swimming at Barton Springs Pool
With its average temperature of 68-70-degrees, Barton Springs Pool is the perfect place for a dip, regardless of the time of year. Located within the city limits, its peaceful setting stands in delightful contrast to the hustle and bustle of the city, while the presence of a lifeguard during popular hours makes it a good, safe place for the whole family.
13. Treat yourself to the best barbeque in town
Every southern state has its own unique take on barbeque: Texas has stamped its individually on the evergreen classic by preferring beef over pork. There’s no shortage of options around the city to grab yourself some succulent, flavorsome, meaty treats, but according to residents, the best of the best can be found at Franklins, where the legendary beef has locals queuing for up to three hours to sample. La Barbeque makes another great option if you’re not prepared to queue for quite so long.
12. Take a walk down Rainey Street
Austin is by no means short of a drinking den or two, with a bar or a club on pretty much every corner. If you want to avoid the college scene, head to Rainey Street, a charming little street of bars, live music venues, and a plethora of food trucks selling everything from authentic Mexican fare to grilled cheese sandwiches. Javelina, Lustre Pearl, Half Step, and Bungalow tend to be the most popular spots for a drink, while G’raj Mahal is the best place to soak up the alcohol with a spicy curry.
11. Astonish at nature at the South Congress Bat Bridge
For one of the most wondrous natural sights you’ll likely experience in a lifetime, head to South Congress bridge just before sunset. Every night between March through October, over 1 and a half million Mexican free-tailed bats fly out from under the South Congress bridge to delight the open-mouthed tourists crowding the bridge. Its nature at its most astonishing, and best of all, it’s 100% free.
10. Visit the State Capitol
Despite the fact it can get a little crowded at times, a visit to the State Capitol is almost an obligatory part of any visit to Austin. Situated at the very heart of Austin, the legislative center of Texas is said to be one of the very finest of its kind in the country, giving visitors the perfect chance to peep into the history of Texas (much of the innards have been carefully restored to look exactly as they did when the capital first opened) on a free guided tour.
9. Take a hike to Mount Bonnell
If views are what you’re after, you’ll find plenty of them at Mount Bonnell. The 5.1-acre historic park offers sweeping views over the city, Lake Austin, and the surrounding landscape: visit at sundown and sunrise to really get the most of the stunning vistas. The hike itself is easy and scenic and can be managed by almost all ages and fitness levels.
8. Enjoy nature at Zilker Metropolitan Park
As home to some of Austin’s most popular attractions, a visit to Zilker Metropolitan Park is one that no visitor should miss. Occupying 351 acres, the park encompasses everything from art museums to swimming holes, picnic areas to volleyball courts. Among the list of museums and attractions are the Austin Nature and Science Center, McBeth Recreation Center, Zilker Caretaker’s Cottage, and Zilker Hillside Theatre. The park also hosts regular events, concerts and performances throughout the year- be sure to check out the website to see what’s happening during your visit.
7. Browse the stores at SoCo
Situated about 5 miles south of downtown Austin, the SoCo District offers more than enough to keep you amused from dusk to dawn. Whether you want to browse the aisles at a vintage clothes shop, pick up some tacos at a food truck, or tap your heels to some live country music at the iconic The Continental Club, this is the place to do it (and be seen doing it, obviously). You can easily pass an entire day here doing nothing but people watching, so make sure to do the area justice by marking of at least 4-8 hours in your calendar to enjoy it properly.
6. View some art at Blanton Museum of Art
If you’re an art fan, you’ll find few better places to indulge your interest than at Blanton Museum of Art. As one of the biggest university art museums in the country, it’s home to one of the most impressive collections you’ll find anywhere: 18000 pieces spanning several thousand years and covering everything from Rubens and Poussin to contemporary South American folk art. Kids under 12 get in free, while the standard admission for adults is $12 – a very worthwhile investment.
5. Walk the Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail at Lady Bird Lake
Regardless of whether you want to walk it, bike it, run it, or skate it, the Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail at Lady Bird Lake is an unmissable experience. Despite the popularity of the 10-mile stretch, it never feels overcrowded, making it the perfect refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city. Pack a picnic and head to the 1.1-mile boardwalk for the perfect outdoor lunch spot with some gorgeous views over the downtown area.
4. Visit the fascinating LBJ Presidential Library
The words “presidential library” doesn’t usually come with the word “fascinating” in front of it, but in the case of the LBJ Presidential Library, it’s more than appropriate. With an engaging, inspiring range of exhibits that are every bit as interesting as the famous Texan president himself, the library offers a, yes, “fascinating” glimpse into the tenure of the 36th president of the United States, as well as the topical issues of the period. Some of the most engaging exhibits include photographs from the civil rights era and even an LBJ robot.
3. See the flowers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Centre
For nature lovers, there are few better places in Austin to kill a few hours than the sublime Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Centre. Founded by Claudia Alta Taylor “Lady Bird” Johnson (the wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson), the center was created with the aim of instructing Austin’s botanists about the value of nurturing certain species of native flora. Today, it’s a delight of bluebonnets, evening primrose, and over 970 other species. Along with the flowers, there’s an observation tower, a charming little café, and a gift shop.
2. Enjoy the collection at the Mexic-Arte Museum
For art lovers, the Mexic-Arte Museum is an unmissable experience. As well as the fascinating permanent exhibits of pre-revolution Mexican and contemporary Latin American art, the museum regularly hosts theatrical and musical events throughout the year- just be sure to check in on the website before your visit to coordinate accordingly.
1. Dig up some fossils at the Austin Nature and Science Centre
As free attractions go, the Austin Nature and Science Centre is one of the best. Along with the interactive exhibits, there’s a Forest Trail planted with 45 different species of native trees, a Dino Pit that gives kids the chance to dig up their own fossil cast, and numerous animal exhibits (kids will especially love the bobcats). With enough on offer to keep both kids and adults entertained, it makes a fun day out for all the family.