Welcome to the Time Out DO List, our curated list of the best things to do in Austin in 2020, from music and food to nature and history. Since 2011, Austin has been among the fastest growing metropolitans in the world. Between the high quality of life and the tacos, bbq, and live music scene, it’s no wonder that people aren’t just visiting the Texas state capitol, they’re interested in puttin’ down some roots. Whether you’re taking a peek around town in consideration of a big move or just heading to the glorified ‘weird’ Texas destination, you won’t be without plenty to do and see. They’ve got vampiric animals under bridges, music and Mexican food (and sometimes both in the same place!), museums that never bore, outdoor hikes with great views, and plenty more.
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Best things to do in Austin
Why go? Stroll the stunning Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Zilker Botanical Gardens, rent a canoe or kayak the tranquil waterways (including Lady Bird Lake), and cool off in the Barton Springs pool. Or just bring a blanket, some Topo Chico and plenty of snacks and have a leisurely picnic in the park.
What is it? The nightly flight of 1.5 million bats that live under the Congress Ave. Bridge.
Why go? It’s an Austin ritual to gather each evening—from late March through early fall after checking the “bat emergency hotline” for times—and watch the creatures come out to feed. Hop in a kayak for a closer look from the water under the bridge. Each August, Bat Fest celebrates the little vampires with food, drink, bands and other entertainment spanning the length of the bridge.
What is it? Austin City Limits (ACL) is Austin’s largest music festival, held every October over two consecutive weekends in Zilker Park.
Why go? Anyone who’s anyone goes to ACL. You can’t miss this fest: With eight stages and more than 125 bands, the festival includes a full spectrum of rock, pop and hip hop. Local Austin faves are featured at the food booths, and art vendors sell their wares throughout. Tickets go on sale early, so grab yours before they sell out, and start planning your weekend.
What is it? Franklin Barbecue produces some of the best brisket on the planet, and the line forms early at this lunch-only spot.
Why go? James Beard Award-winner Aaron Franklin seasons and smokes his brisket to juicy perfection. It’s so good that people queue up and wait sometimes four hours for a taste. The line has become an experience in itself, as hungry patrons arrive early in the morning with chairs, drinks and a willingness to chat with strangers.
What is it? Located in Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, this stunning natural pool is easily accessible from downtown.
Why go? Nature lovers will adore the Preserve, one of Austin's best parks and a protected area for rare birds and wildlife. There are hiking trails and picnic tables, but the most popular attraction is Hamilton Pool. It’s a natural pool created thousands of years ago when the ceiling of an underground river collapsed. Take note: There is an entrance fee, reservations are required in the summer, and occasionally bacteria levels make it impossible to swim.
What is it? Enjoy free live music every Thursday evening in the summer at this iconic Tex-Mex restaurant.
Why go? All summer long, Austin City Limits Radio provides free entertainment under the shade of towering pecan trees on the Jimmy LaFave Stage. The free, all-ages shows feature live bands and drink specials. Said to be the longest-running free live music series in the city, it’s been a beloved summer tradition for over 25 years and running.
What is it? This standout taco truck is revered for everything from their migas to their al pastor made with fresh, clean ingredients.
Why go? The breakfast offerings include a migas taco with a cult following: the tortilla stuffed with eggs, tortilla chips, avocado, pico de gallo and cheese will make you a fan too. Try a fresh juice to complete your breakfast, and you’ll see why they’ve earned a loyal following that's led to additional outposts, including two brick-and-mortar locations, around Austin. Plus, their tacos are available at a few coffee shops around town.
What is it? The city’s largest and most prominently located music store is well-stocked with new releases from both indie and major label artists.
Why go? Discover a local band or pick up some weird vinyl from the dollar bin to impress your friends. Waterloo is a great place to spend an hour or two indoors, browsing the unbeatable selection of music. There are frequent in-store performances as well, so check the event calendar.
What is it? Zilker Park’s crown jewel, this legendary natural pool is filled with fresh water from nearby springs.
Why go? Austin gets hot, and you need to cool off. Lounge on the grassy areas before diving into the cool spring water (the pool reaches depths of 18 feet in some spots). Barton Springs has played host to generations of Austinites as well as an endangered little guy called the Barton Springs Salamander. Check out "Splash! into the Edwards Aquifer" exhibit in the Beverly S. Sheffield Education Center near the bathhouse to learn more about the history and biology of the springs.
What is it? This classic, colorful spot for mini-golf has been a family fun staple since 1946.
Why go? The course, located south of the river near Zilker Park, features handcrafted sculptures of various animals, a giant T-Rex, a Chuck Taylor-inspired shoe, and, of course, Peter himself. The kids will love it and it’s a grand time for adults too, especially considering there’s a BYOB policy.
What is it? An Austin institution since 1977, Allens Boots has been selling premium leather footwear to tourists and locals alike for decades.
Why go? Head to the original location on South Congress to find what you need: 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.
What is it? The iconic tower stands as the centerpiece of the University of Texas.
Why go? Students and employees mainly use it for the library and administrative offices inside, but 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. Be sure to reserve your ticket ahead of time.
What is it? Discover four centuries of Texas history through an abundance of artifacts, including an impressively renovated shipwreck.
Why go? Whether you’re a local or a tourist, learning about the fascinating history of Texas is a must. From the Alamo to the Kennedy assassination, Texas has a rich and influential past—at one point it was even its own country. From tales of the Bush family and space exploration to awesome IMAX movies and public programming, The Bullock has it all.
What is it? Encircling Lady Bird Lake at the center of Austin, the trail offers one of the best hikes in Austin.
Why go? The 10-mile trail is a hub for bikers, runners and hikers. Every day, thousands ride, jog and amble over the landscaped bridges and under the iconic statue of legendary guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan as they make their way round the circuit. The route offers outstanding views of the Austin city skyline, as well as the neighboring Zilker Park. Several outfitters based along the trail rent out kayaks, canoes, water bikes and stand-up paddle boards if you want to cool down afterwards.
What is it? The massive Tex-Mex restaurant attracts people from all over to witness killer sunsets.
Why go? Just a half hour drive from downtown, the Oasis’s perch at 450 feet above Lake Travis is the perfect spot for evening margaritas with a view. The huge property extends over a natural bluff and the majority of the 2,500 seats are in the open air. There’s live music, including salsa nights, to enjoy with the extensive menu, as well as multiple traditions like Lover’s Locks placed by couples on the balcony decks. The spectacular sunsets are the highlight though, and there’s even an annual sunset photo contest.
What is it? The iconic theater, housed at The Ritz, serves up tasty food with its first-run movies and classic screenings.
Why Go? It’s two activities in one: Chill out with the latest blockbuster on the big screen while dining on pizzas, sandwiches, bar snacks, and even vegan treats. Check the calendar for special events like Champagne Cinema (special cocktails are paired with classic feel-good movies), Master Pancake Theater (questionable films complemented by comedic stand-up and beer), and In Brunch We Trust, rowdy screenings with dancing, cheering, and lots of mimosas.
What is it? The definitive Texan dance hall is all about letting your hair down.
Why go? It doesn’t get much more Texan than two-stepping to country music. There are dance lessons at 8pm most nights, so hesitant toe-tappers can fit right in with boot-scooting bosses. After all that dancing, grab an ice-cold Lone Star and one of the Spoke’s famous (and famously enormous) chicken-fried steaks.
What is it? Standing 14 feet taller than the U.S. capitol building in Washington DC, this Renaissance revival landmark is impossible to miss.
Why go? You’ll confirm that everything is bigger in Texas. Wander around on the immaculate terrazzo floors and gaze up at the star-crested rotunda. Or, if you're after a deeper understanding of the place, join one of the many official tours of the building, from a basic half-hour introduction to specialized theme tours such as Heroes of the Texas Revolution or Women in Texas History.
What is it? This historic cottage, garden, and nature preserve is perched on a bluff overlooking Lake Austin.
Why Go? A picnic in this West Austin park is peaceful, even inspirational. The landscaped gardens surrounding the historic cottage feature lush green trees, palms, water lilies, and plenty of spots to stretch out and relax. Best of all, the beautiful peacocks—introduced to the park in 1935—roam the grounds freely. The vibrant males strut their stuff most prominently in late winter and early spring.
What is it? This creekside beer garden is also an excellent bakery.
Why go? Easy Tiger has everything you need to unwind: an impressive beer selection, rare whiskeys, ping-pong, creekside seating, and a bakery that’s open late. Sit back and have a few while snacking on baguettes, pastries, soft pretzels, and more.
What is it? Since 2010, Jester King has been using spontaneous fermentation and native wild yeast to create unique farmhouse style ales.
Why go? Each weekend, beer enthusiasts flock to the spacious Hill Country brewery and tasting room for free tours, pours of their seasonal brews, and handpicked selections for the guest taps. Standbys that are typically available include Wytchmaker, their floral farmhouse rye IPA, and El Cedro, a piney, hoppy cedar-aged ale. Try them all, then hop around to some more of Austin's best breweries.
What is it? It's one of Austin's most famed live music venues that’s been open since 1955.
Why go? Whatever you're looking for, you'll find something to satisfy your tastes at The Continental Club. The iconic club has seen performances from the likes of Double Trouble, Paul Ray and the Cobras, Robert Plant, Wanda Jackson and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons. Always packed, the 200-capacity space is the spot for intimate, electric evenings.
What is it? Located in Covert Park, Mount Bonnell is one of the best hikes in Austin, offering spectacular views of the city and Lake Austin from the summit.
Why go? The ascent to the 775-foot peak (believed to be along an old Native American trail) is easy: The path consists of 102 concrete steps and will usually take between 15 and 20 minutes. Most evenings you’ll find groups of chatty locals toasting the sunset up here, but don’t forget your bug spray—the mosquitoes enjoy the show just as much as you will.
What is it? The 14-acre park features woodlands, meadows, gardens, Lake Austin waterfront, and an extraordinary collection of permanent outdoor art.
Why go? Part of The Contemporary Austin, Laguna Gloria is a 1916 villa that houses some of the museum’s collection. The Sculpture Park and grounds offer stunning natural beauty and some seriously Instagrammable sculptures. Tom Friedman’s towering steel statue Looking Up, 2015 is something of a social media celebrity. Seek out Tom Sachs’s mischievous Miffy Fountain too, as well as his more recent Tower of Power.
What is it? The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum is one of the most spectacular of the country’s presidential libraries.
Why go? Located on a 30-acre site within the UT campus, the stately building contains a mind-boggling collection of historical artifacts from the 1960s and ’70s including 45 million pages of documents and 643 hours of the former president’s recorded telephone conversations. The permanent exhibits range from an in-depth study of the Vietnam conflict to “Humor and the Presidency”—a celebration of LBJ’s lighter side featuring a life-size animatronic model of the notorious joke teller himself.
What is it? Desert Door Distillery is the US’s first and only distillery producing sotol.
Why go? Made from the desert spoon plant native to West Texas, sotol is herbaceous and slightly floral. It’s a unique spirit with deep roots in Native American history and culture. Visit the distillery for tours and tastes, then stick around for cocktails in the stylish tasting room that features comfy couches, a fireplace, and regional art.
What is it? The Congress Avenue staple serves up superb margaritas and big plates of authentic Mexican favorites.
Why go? Any time is a good time for a hand-shaken, ice cold margarita and a hearty serving of carne guisada tacos, enchiladas, or tamales (not to mention a fresh salsa bar to top things off). When the weather is nice, kick back with your cerveza or cocktail in the Oak Garden, where Guero’s hosts live music Wednesday through Sunday.
What is it? An outdoor graffiti park across from the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
Why go? In 2019, Graffiti Park at Castle Hill, an outdoor art park that attracted thousands for its colorful graffiti and murals, closed its doors. Thankfully, not for good. Set to open in spring/summer 2020, Graffiti Park has transformed into the HOPE Outdoor Gallery. This full-service events center will offer art classes and cultural events, as well as an outdoor art park with plenty of walls for Austin muralists and street artists to create joy through art.