With world-class festivals and a flourishing food scene—including one of the country’s best Mexican restaurants—you’re never at a loss for great things to do in Austin. From some of the best BBQ joints in the country to art museums and galleries to an entire street humming with gig spots (and did we mention those killer restaurants in Austin already?), check off our list of the essential things to do, see, eat and drink in the self-proclaimed (and trademarked!) Live Music Capital of the World. The best things to do in Austin are right here.
30 best things to do in Austin
Austin's largest music festival and one of its best outdoor activities is now in its 16th year (and 5th year of back-to-back weekends) at Zilker Park. This time around, Jay-Z, the Killers, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Chance the Rapper and Gorrilaz are headlining, with hundreds of other acts, big and small, spanning the three-day festival. Check out our guide to navigate the best parts of the internationally loved event’s experiences, from tiny acts to follow to late night shows at Austin's best live music venues.
Think things to do in Austin and you think South by Southwest. The sprawling, all-encompassing festival, which covers movies, music and technology, has become one of the most important dates on the Texas capital’s calendar since it began as a rather modest little gathering back in 1987. Today, it’s where some of the year’s hottest films debut, some of our most innovative technology is first seen and where some of the most talked-about performances of the music festival season take place. The country’s most in-the-know leaders in the creative fields road-trip to clink drinks (the best craft beers, of course), exchange ideas and set the cultural agenda for the year to come.
We’ve heard of official city flowers and birds, but official drinks? Austin’s tipple in question is called an Indian Paintbrush (named for a flowering medicinal plant rather than an implement for decorating curry houses). Served at Garage, a hip candlelit bar inside a former parking facility in the Warehouse District, it consists of grapefruit juice, bitters, rosemary syrup, lime juice—and lots of vodka. Just take it easy: As with any paintbrush in the wrong hands, this could get seriously messy. And if you want to further explore our city's cocktail scene, try all 15 of Austin's best cocktails.
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Ron W
If there were an Austin award for “Most Hyped Restaurant,” it would go to Franklin Barbecue. It might, in fact, be the most hyped in all of Texas. How could a barbecue joint reach this level of notoriety? James Beard Award winner Aaron Franklin honed his craft for years before opening the BBQ trailer that he quickly outgrew. The line started back then and hasn’t stopped; the line starts at 6:30am every morning without fail—with waits up to four hours—and lasts until the food runs out. The brisket is seasoned and smoked to juicy perfection. Once you've had your Franklin fill, hit up some more of Austin's best BBQ restaurants, like Micklethwait, La Barbecue and Freedman's.
From the Alamo to the Kennedy assassination, Texas—the only state that was once a full-fledged country—has had a pretty extraordinary history. The Bullock Texas State History Museum is dedicated to telling that story. More than three floors of artifacts (including a 400-year-old shipwreck that has been restored and is now on permanent display) and hands-on multimedia exhibits chronicle the tumultuous tale, from Buffalo Soldiers and Irish settlers right up to the Bush presidencies and the state’s role in space travel innovation. After brushing up on Texas history, head to some of the other best museums in Austin.
The Highball is part of the Alamo Drafthouse family—so fun is practically guaranteed. Head here for karaoke, where you can expect various recurring theme nights (Motown Monday, for example) at the main bar and within the themed rooms. With seven different rooms that range in theme, size and price, patrons have a variety of options to choose from, all including personal servers that will bring drinks and snacks to the room. We suggest calling in advance if you're planning to stop by one of Austin's best karaoke bars.
Go to bat on Lady Bird Lake
Austin has a population of 1.3 million people—and 1.5 million bats. The majority of the latter (and occasionally a few of the former) sleep under Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge and come swarming out to spectacular effect at sunset (there’s even a Bat Fest in August, where live bands play as the bats take flight). Bat-viewing tours are extremely popular, and the best ones are on the water since it’s hard to see as clearly when looking down from the bridge. Plus, it’s a great way to enjoy the Austin city lights from afar. Your best vantage point is either from the comfort of a motorboat chugging toward the bridge or—for those after a more intimate (and energetic) experience—from kayaks or stand-up paddle boards.
Universally revered for everything from their migas to their al pastor, the trailer (and soon-to-be brick and mortar) sets itself apart from the city's fleets of other taco trucks thanks to ingredients and an environment that are fresh and clean enough to dispel the mystery meat stigma that follows many mobile Mexican vendors. Their breakfast tacos include a migas taco with a cult following; take one bite of the tortilla stuffed with eggs, tortilla chips, avocado, pico de gallo and cheese and we dare you not to become a fan. Little additions like housemade chips and fresh juices round out the menu, which has earned them a loyal following that's extended to additional outposts at Radio Coffee, North Burnet and Round Rock.
As the home of the annual ACL Music Festival, the Trail of Lights, summertime’s free Blues on the Green concert series, plus dozens of other outdoor activities, Zilker Park—just south of downtown—is an ATX institution. Pretty much year-round, you can explore the sprawling playground, stroll through the stunning Umlauf Sculpture and Zilker Botanical gardens, rent a canoe or kayak the tranquil waterways (including Lady Bird Lake). And don’t miss out on a cool-off at Barton Springs Pool during the hotter months (and let’s be real: that’s pretty much every month in Austin). One of our favorite activities? Posting up with a blanket, some Topo Chico and plenty of snacks for a picnic in the park.
Whether you’re looking for an old Willie Nelson LP or the new Leon Bridges, Waterloo has you covered. It’s the city’s largest and most prominently located music store, and therefore the most well-stocked in terms of new releases from both indie and major label artists, as well as deluxe reissues (save your pennies for that William Onyeabor box set!). Stay current on homegrown artists by consulting the Texas best-seller charts, and keep an eye on their event calendar because many will swing through for in-store performances. It takes true digger’s luck to score a find from their dollar bins, but the used daily arrival section (updated daily!) hides plenty of gems, from classic hip-hop singles to oddball disco rarities. Can't find what you're looking for? Head to some more of Austin's best record shops.
An Austin institution since 1977, Allens Boots has been selling premium leather footwear to tourists and locals alike for decades at their original shop on South Congress Ave (there is also a location in Round Rock). Turquoise women's boots? Got 'em. Black studded men's boots? Allens has those too. Spend an afternoon trying them all before landing on the perfect pair, then hit up the rest of South Congress' popular shopping district (the best time to hit this hip strip is on the first Thursday of every month, when many of the stores are open until 10pm, and live music and free drinks are laid on while you shop into the night).
When you think of the University of Texas campus, chances are you think of the iconic tower that stands as its centerpiece. Students and employees mainly use it for the library and administrative offices inside, but did you know you can actually go up to its observation deck on a Tower Tour? These 45 minute-long tours are self-guided but escorted, and they are the only way to access the observation deck. At the top, you’ll get a spectacular, 360-degree view of the campus, the Capitol and the surrounding areas downtown. Don’t forget to reserve your ticket ahead of time!
Peter Pan Mini Golf, located South of the river near Zilker Park, has been considered a staple family fun spot—with its handcrafted sculptures of various animals, a giant tyrannosaurus rex and, of course, Peter himself—since first popping up in 1946. Still an ideal activity to partake in with kids in tow, the golf course also happens to be a top spot for carefree adult kickin’ it, largely thanks to its new BYOB policy.
Eat and drink to your heart’s content while watching the latest blockbuster on the big screen at Austin’s most famous movie theater. The original Alamo Drafthouse was founded in 1997, but graduated from Colorado Street to its current prestigious position—at the Ritz—on 6th Street in 2007. The cinema-eatery concept has proved so popular, the company now has a total of five locations in Austin and 19 nationwide. The founders—husband-and-wife team Tim and Karrie League—also established the geek Valhalla that is Fantastic Fest, which takes place in Austin over eight days each September, showcasing offbeat horror, fantasy and sci-fi movies.
Whether you’re living in Austin or just visiting, at some point you'll need to hit up the Continental Club, which opened its doors in 1955 on South Congress Avenue. Legends like Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, Wanda Jackson and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons have all played the 200-capacity room recently—up to standard for a place that regularly billed the likes of Double Trouble, Paul Ray and the Cobras and Joe Ely back in the ’70s and ’80s. It’s a tiny stage in a small room, but the performances that occur in front of that iconic red curtain—and other top live music venues in Austin—make some of the best cases for why this city still deserves the title of “Live Music Capital of the World.”
Forgot your electric guitar? No problem: Hire an electric bike to explore Austin’s music scene instead. Local company Rocket Electrics—one of the 15 best Austin tours—offers a number of themed Austin tours on its fleet of supercharged two-wheelers, including the popular Private Music Tour. Hosted by a local musician, you’ll ride through a medley of the city’s musical hot spots before finishing with a live performance from your guide on a rooftop overlooking Austin at sunset. Applause—and beer—inevitably follows.
Nestled in the heart of Austin’s sprawling Zilker Park, Barton Springs Pool is a natural gem: a three-acre lake fed from underground springs. Robert Redford learned to swim here as a five-year-old visiting family, and countless thousands of Austinites have followed suit over the years. The water is warm (an average temperature of 68 to 70 degrees), making it ideal for year-round swimming. Between April and October, the best times to take a dip are either early morning (between 5am and 8am) or at the very end of the day (after 9pm) when admission is free and the inevitable crowds have dispersed. During peak summer hours—where Barton Spring is at the top of everyone's list of things to do in Austin—there is a $4 entry fee for adults.Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Wally Gobetz
Organize a bar crawl on Rainey Street
Appearances can be deceiving here in the capital of weird. At first glance, Rainey Street looks like a sleepy suburban avenue with quiet wooden verandas and picket fences, but at night (and on weekend mornings) it really wakes up. In recent years, at least a dozen of the wooden ranch-style homes have been gutted and converted into disheveled-chic bars, all creaking floorboards, swinging lamps and moonshine cocktails. Start with boozy brunch at Banger’s, which serves the storied Manmosa (a liter of Champagne and a spash of OJ in a stein), then make your way through some other Rainey Street favorites: Half Step, Craft Pride, the Blackheart and others.
We like things big in Texas, and the State Capitol is no exception. The Renaissance Revival landmark is impossible to miss. Constructed from red granite, it stands 15 feet taller than its equivalent in Washington, D.C., amid 22 acres of impeccably landscaped lawns. It doesn’t cost anything to wander the beautiful terrazzo floors of this National Historic Landmark, gaze up at the star-crowned rotunda and maybe even catch a glimpse of local politics at work, but to get the full experience, opt for an official tour, from the basic 30 to 40 minute introduction to more specialist themed tours, such as “Women in Texas History” and “Heroes of the Texas Revolution.”
Whisler’s laid-back style of cocktails and open-air patio make it one of East 6th's most popular bars, but just as many people flock there for the ultra spicy Thai food courtesy of Thai-Kun. It's another project overseen by Paul Qui and Moto Utsunomiya of East Side King, but this time with the menu heavy-lifting done by Thai Changthong formerly of Spin Modern Thai (RIP). The menu ranges from grilled bread with peanut curry (perfect for padding the stomach after a few Pearl Snaps) to the black noodles with beef, a heartier option that's not too overpowering to pair with a cocktail. But be warned: Approach dishes like the waterfall pork and beef panang curry with extreme caution and ask for a preview taste of the sauce—they're two of the city's spiciest dishes. Looking for more Thai options? Check out Austin's best Thai restaurants.