The Austin events calendar is stuffed full with enough music festivals, conferences and sport to make the city one of the country’s premier tourist destinations—but what to do when you’re looking for things to do in Austin between screaming for your favorite band or cheering on your team? Visit these great Austin attractions, that’s what. From some of the most iconic live music venues in Austin to buzzy food-and-drink districts to green spaces you’ll want to loll around in for days, these are your must-tick-off Austin attractions.
The 15 best Austin attractions
Looking for places to visit in the Texas capital? Hit these Austin attractions for sightseeing, culture and fun times.
Best Austin attractions
3. The Bats at Anne W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge
For many, the idea of the world’s largest urban bat colony—approximately 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats—all flying out from under a bridge within the span of a few minutes may sound utterly terrifying. Maybe so, especially if you’ve got a genuine phobia, but actually witnessing them speed out at up to 60 mph and 2 miles high en masse on any given evening (around dusk) is one of the most jaw-dropping sights in the region. By now, it’s a business: You can buy into one of Capital Cruises’ boat tours to watch them emerge from lake level or you can simply do as the Romans do and arrive early to grab a spot along the eastern side of the bridge. Generally speaking, the bats aren’t at all dangerous (unless you attempt to handle them, so do not try). In fact, aside from the majestic beauty of their cyclonic flight, they’re local assets: The bats consume about 20-30 thousand pounds of insects each night (i.e. they’re heroes, the best mosquito slayers we’ve got). Even though bats reside there most of the year, summertime—as with most things here—is peak for activity; if you wanna reap all of Austin’s benefits, you gotta stick out the heat for the good stuff.
S. Congress Ave between W. Cesar Chavez St and Barton Springs Rd (crossing Colorado River)
5. The breweries
Like so many hipster havens across the U.S., Austin has seen a massive boom in local craft brewery culture within the past 5 years; about a dozen new producers (typically with adjacent taprooms) have popped up. Which ones you visit all depends on your palate: Hops & Grain leans more toward IPAs and (appropriately) hoppier fare, Blue Owl is the spot for sours, Jester King—located in the beautiful hill country—flirts with interesting flavors in its farmhouse ales and Austin Beerworks’ beers run the gamut from easy-drinking to heavy-and-malty. If hops don’t make you happy, there’s always Austin Eastciders, which—across two locations including a brand new South Austin cidery facility—offers a variety of craft ciders advertised as “drier, smoother and more complex than many modern ciders.” Of course, the places listed here only represent a tiny sampling of the sprawling ATX brewery community. Consider signing up for a tour via companies like ATXcursions or Austin Brew Bus if your time is limited.Photograph: Wes Kitten, The Beer Haul
6. The Lakes
Ask any native Austinite: most of us didn’t grow up skiing or snowboarding—the closest mountains are an arduous drive away—but we did do our fair share of boating, waterskiing and wakeboarding. That’s because Austin boasts three fantastic lakes within relatively close proximity. Lady Bird Lake (still referred to by most locals as Town Lake, its name until former FLOTUS Lady Bird Johnson died in 2007) sits on the edge of downtown and connects to the Colorado River and Barton Creek; you legally can’t swim in it, but there are a few standup paddle board and kayak rental spots so you can glimpse a panoramic view of the city skyline while floating atop the serene water’s surface. Lake Austin, meanwhile, is the premier locale for watersports, jetskiing and—if you’re lucky—lounging or partying at a pal’s lake house. For the past decade, Lake Travis fell victim to drought, but with the heavy El Nino/La Nina rains of the past two years, it has once again become a hotspot for sailing, speedboating and fun family outings. Your best bet as a newbie? Lady Bird. With such close proximity to downtown, you can squeeze in a session between other activities, and there are plenty of other nearby spots to get your swimming fix, too.Photograph: Forrest Preece
7. South Congress (SoCo)
If your wallet’s well-stocked, you could pull off an entire week’s worth of eating, drinking, shopping and live music in one day on SoCo, the shortened moniker for the historic strip of S. Congress Avenue south of the Colorado River. But we recommend taking your time over a span of several visits. It behooves you to sit down for a long, fulfilling meal at the legendary Hopdoddy Burger Bar (worth the lengthy lines, we promise), Perla’s Seafood & Oyster Bar or Güero's Taco Bar, where—on almost any given night—you’re bound to catch an outdoor concert from some of the finest local players. And it’s equally important not to rush through the almost overwhelming array of vintage shops, boutiques and mom-and-pop craft vendors. If you’re a first-timer to the area, we recommend First Thursdays, where most shops stay open until 10pm, and a flourishing marketplace featuring local artists and small businesses blooms in the lot of delicious Italian eatery Vespaio. Also essential: catching a show at the Continental Club, one of the city’s oldest continuously running venues (more than 60 years) where Texas legends like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Paul Ray and the Cobras and Joe Ely played regularly in their heydays.
S. Congress Ave between Nellie and Mary Sts
8. North Loop (Blvd)
Can’t hang with the crowds on Rainey or Dirty 6th? Tired of the upscale price tags along SoCo? Craving an authentic locals-only atmosphere? North Loop is your go-to hood. Along the stretch of N. Loop Boulevard roughly between Guadalupe Street and Airport Boulevard, you’ll find a blend of shops that toe the line between old-school and contemporary: there’s Room Service, one of Austin’s best sources for ’50s, ’60s and ’70s furniture, clothing, collectibles and knickknacks; Vulcan Video, which specializes in foreign, cult and classic flicks, many on VHS (!); Monkey Wrench Books, an all-volunteer bookstore and social space (they host some killer local concerts) with the mission in mind to spark “radically different” ways of thinking/living; and the all-vinyl Breakaway Records. For the alcohol-inclined, whether day- or night-oriented, you can hit up one of the friendliest-staffed and most well-stocked (especially in terms of craft beer) dives in town, Workhorse Bar or, for some award-winning cocktails, the ever-intimate drink.well (pictured). The only catch for any of these places is limited parking since the strip is positioned in a primarily residential area. At the same time, it’s the everyone’s Cheers, neighborhood feel that makes this short jaunt north of downtown well worth it.
N. Loop Blvd between Guadalupe St and Airport Blvd
9. Rainey Street Historic District
The stretch of E 6th Street between IH-35 and S Congress Avenue—known by locals as “Dirty 6th”—hosts a wild college party scene nightly (it’s essentially our Bourbon Street). But as far as well-rounded, barhoppable strips go, it—or any other ATX drinking district—doesn’t come close to Rainey Street just a few blocks south. Here, you’ve got your pick of the lot: sports bars (Bar 96), swankier cocktail joints (Half Step, Icenhauer’s, Lucille Patio Lounge), reliable live music havens (Bungalow, the Blackheart, Javelina) and microbrew meccas (Banger’s, Craft Pride). Quite a few of these feature excellent food choices as well, making the district an all-in-one-stop worthy of an entire evening. Nighttime visits are more key as many establishments don’t open until late afternoon or early evening, but daytime eats are top-notch, too: Grab a brat at Banger’s, some of the best Indian food in town at G’Raj Mahal, or go for some gourmet food truck fare at Little Lucy’s, Art of Tacos or Masala Dhaba. Barring the food trucks, most of these places are set up inside renovated old houses—each just minutes or moments apart—which lends the avenue a heavy layer of homey charm on top of its enviable variety.
Rainey St between W. Cesar Chavez and Holly StsPhotograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Panchenks
10. The Drag
If you’re headed anywhere on or near University of Texas campus, you’ve gotta take a stroll down the Drag—the stretch of Guadalupe between 29th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard that runs alongside campus—for some superb shopping and/or food along the way (officially, it’s between 21st and 25th Streets, but true Austinites know better). Gone are the days of classic music stores like Tower Records and Sound Exchange, but there’s still plenty of culture to soak up via vintage clothing shops (Buffalo Exchange, C. Jane, Monkies Vintage and Thrift), delicious eateries (Kerbey Lane Café, Madam Mam’s, Teji’s Indian Restaurant), one of the city’s best dive bars (Hole in the Wall) and a plethora of handmade craft goods at the open-air Austin Renaissance Market on 23rd Street. For some carefree recreation, one needs only to jaunt across the street and down a few flights of stairs to access the UT Student Union Underground, which is decked out with billiards tables, an arcade and glow-in-the-dark (!) bowling. Glow Bowl is only available from end of May through mid-August, so we highly recommend it as a fun and trippy—not to mention air-condition—respite during the often brutally hot summers.
Guadalupe St between 21st and 25th Sts (University of Texas campus)
Located northwest of downtown near the Contemporary Austin’s sprawling Laguna Gloria artists’ complex, Mayfield Park is a mainstay for locals, but often overlooked by visitors on their way to the scenic Mt. Bonnell overlook just up the road. With its quaint central cottage built in the 1870s surrounded by a serene, sprawling garden replete with koi ponds and lush, colorful flora, it’s a perfect place for an afternoon picnic, reading or just generally relaxing. There’s also a lovely hiking trail through the 23-acre nature preserve if you’re aiming for a more active mode. But the real draw for most are the two-dozen or so resident peafowl (that’s the accurate plural of peacocks and peahens) who—not the least bit frightened by humans—roam the grounds, rooftops and trees of the central park. Our recommendation: Go see these majestic birds between February and April—this is the season when the males begin courting the females by fanning out their colorful tail feathers, a truly impressive spectacle.