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The best things to do in Austin

Your ultimate guide to things to do in Austin, from essential music festivals and bar-crawling to great shopping and BBQ

Barton Springs
Photograph: Courtesy Austin CVB
By Jonathan Thompson and Time Out contributors |

With a thriving cultural scene, world-famous festivals and a booming food scene - including some of the best Mexican restaurants in the country - there’s loads to choose from if you looking for things to do in Austin. From incredible art museums and galleries, top restaurants (including some of the best BBQ joints in the country in the land) and an entire street buzzing with gig venues, you're spoilt for choice. Work your way through this list of the best things to do, see, eat and drink in the self-proclaimed (and trademarked!) Live Music Capital of the World. Read on for the very best things to do in Austin.


30 best things to do in Austin

Spoon at SXSW 2015
Photograph: Courtesy SXSW/Tye Truitt
Music, Music festivals

Catch the next big thing in film, music and media at SXSW

If you're looking for something to do in Austin then South by Southwest is totally unavoidable—and should be your first port of call if you've got media-centric interests. Ever since its humble beginnings back in 1987, SXSW has grown into one of the most important annual dates not just in the Texas capital’s bristling events diary, but for the global music, movies and technology industries too. These days, you can expect to catch film debuts, innovative tech launches and the world’s most talked about music acts performing in venues across the city. It’s where the most clued-up heads from across the creative industries gather, swap ideas and set the cultural agenda for the year ahead.

Bullock Texas State History Museum
Photograph: Courtesy Bullock Texas State History Museum

Hit up some history at the Bullock Museum

icon-location-pin Arts District

From the Kennedy Assassination to the Alamo, Texas has a past that's rich in both incident and influence. Previously it's own country (yep, in 1936 until 1845, it was the Republic of Texas), there's much more to the Lone Star State than first meets the eye. At the Bullock Museum, you'll find over four centuries of Texan history, with an abundance of artefacts on display in the exhibits, including an impressively renovated shipwreck, uncovering the past has never been so easy. Whether you're intrigued by tales of the Bush family, space exploration or trials of the Buffalo soldiers, this is one of the best museums in Austin. Plus, some of the exhibits are interactive, meaning it's fun for the littl'uns, too. 

Franklin Barbecue
Restaurants, Barbecue

Stand in line for brisket at Franklin Barbecue

icon-location-pin Central East Austin

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. 

Photograph: Mary Wells

Get into the festival spirit at ACL

Austin City Limits (ACL) is Austin’s largest music festival, held every October over two consecutive weekends in Zilker Park. This year’s edition takes place on the weekends of October 5-7 and October 12-14 and will feature over 130 bands playing on eight different stages. Acts come from across the full breadth of rock, pop and hip hop, with 2018’s roster already promising headliners as varied as Paul McCartney, Travis Scott, Metallica and Childish Gambino. Check out Time Out’s ACL guide to navigate the best of this globally renowned, locally loved event.

The Highball
Photograph: Courtesy Yelp/The Highball

Belt your heart out at the Highball

icon-location-pin Bouldin

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, Guilty PLeasures Wednesdays, 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.

Veracruz All Natural
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Edwin X. Ochoa
Restaurants, Trucks

Grab a breakfast taco at Veracruz All Natural

icon-location-pin East Cesar Chavez

Universally revered for everything from their migas to their al pastor, the trailer (and now also a North Austin restaurant) 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.

Waterloo Records
Shopping, Music and entertainment

Shop for records at Waterloo Records

icon-location-pin Greater Austin

From that old Dennis Brown record you’ve spent months trying to track down, to the latest LP by The National, the city’s largest record store has you covered. Waterloo is huge, so it’s always well stocked with new releases, rare classics and deluxe special edition re-issues, from major label and indie artists alike. The Texas best-seller charts will help you pluck some gems from the thriving local music scene and you can lose an hour or two rummaging for gems in the dollar bins and in the used daily arrivals section. There are regular in-store performances from all kinds of acts too, so make sure you keep an eye on their event calendar. If you still can’t find what you’re after at Waterloo, check this list of more of Austin's best record shops.

Indian Paintbrush at Garage
Photograph: Courtesy Garage/Julie Cope
Bars, Cocktail bars

Drink an Indian Paintbrush in a Garage

icon-location-pin Downtown

Yeah, we know this doesn't sound particularly appetising – but allow us to explain. The average city has its own official symbolic flowers, birds or animals – but Austin, in the spirit of boozy individualism, has its very own official drink. That's right, named after a traditional medicinal plant, the Indian Paintbrush consists of grapefruit juice, lime juice, bitters, rosemary syrup and lots and lots of vodka. Fancy trying it? Head to Garage, a trendy Warehouse District candle-lit bar (but take it easy, ok?). For more of the city’s best alcoholic concoctions, check out list of Austin's best cocktails.

South Congress Bat Bridge
Photograph: Courtesy Austin CVB

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. 

Zilker Kite Festival
Photograph: Courtesy Austin CVB/Bruce Lemons
Things to do

Picnic at Zilker Park

icon-location-pin Rollingwood

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. 

Peter Pan Mini-Golf

Hit a hole-in-one at Peter Pan Mini-Golf

icon-location-pin Bouldin

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. 

Allens Boots
Photograph: Jason Michael Bryant
Shopping, Shoes

Find the perfect pair of boots at Allens Boots

icon-location-pin South River City

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). 

University of Texas Tower
Photograph: Brittany Woods
Things to do, Walks and tours

Take in views of the city at the University of Texas Tower

icon-location-pin The Drag

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!

Alamo Drafthouse
Photograph: Courtesy Austin CVB/Cory Ryan
Movie theaters

Have dinner and a movie at the Alamo Drafthouse

icon-location-pin Congress Ave District

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. 

Broken Spoke
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Lydia Brooks
Bars, Dive bars

Learn to two-step at the Broken Spoke

icon-location-pin South Lamar

It doesn’t get much more Texan than two-stepping to country music, and if that’s what you’re after, the Broken Spoke is the place. The definitive Texan dance hall is all about letting your hair down on the floor, with dance lessons at 8pm most nights for everyone from hesitant toe-tappers to boot-scooting bosses. Instruction is ideally followed by an ice-cold bottle of Lone Star and one of the Spoke’s famous (and famously enormous) chicken-fried steaks.

Rocket Electrics
Photograph: Courtesy Rocket Electrics
Things to do, Walks and tours

Be serenaded on an electric bike

icon-location-pin Riverside

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.

Banger's Sausage House & Beer Garden
Photograph: Courtesy Austin CVB/Tyler Malone

Crawl the bars 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.

Hillside Farmacy
Photograph: Courtesy Hillside Farmacy

Cure what ails you at Hillside Farmacy

icon-location-pin Central East Austin

Serving one of the best brunches in Austin, Hillside Farmacy is an antique-chic eatery located in a restored 1950s pharmacy (complete with vintage medicine bottles on the shelves) on the city’s east side. The “farm” part of the name refers to the food made from fresh, locally sourced produce—a sure cure for Texas-sized hangovers (plenty of locals swear by the BLT Benny: bacon, tomato, spinach and poached eggs with hollandaise sauce). At the other end of the day, happy-hour cocktails at the outside tables are a real treat, particularly the delicious Pickpocket (strawberry, basil, balsamic and rum), which shouldn’t work, but does—incredibly well. Medicine never tasted so good.

Texas State Capitol
Photograph: Courtesy Texas State Capitol Building
Attractions, Historic buildings and sites

Take a tour of the Texas Capitol

icon-location-pin Downtown

As you may have heard, things are big in Texas - and the State Capitol is no exception. Standing 15 feet taller than its equivalent in Washington DC, this Renaissance Revival landmark is impossible to miss. Spending the day? 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 that run, from a basic half-hour introduction to specialised theme tours such as ‘Heroes of the Texas Revolution’ or ‘Women in Texas History’.

Thai-Kun at Whisler's
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Barron Fujimoto
Restaurants, Trucks

Get spicey at Thai-Kun

icon-location-pin East Cesar Chavez

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

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