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South Congress district, Austin

The 13 best things to do in Austin

Try these unique experiences and find out why the city's unofficial motto is "Keep Austin weird"

The state capital of Texas, Austin is also its cultural capital – a bonanza of food trucks, live gigs and offbeat activities that lend the city a laid-back vibe. Fly to Austin to experience the city's vibrant live music scene, quirky shops and outdoor activities.

1. Swim at Barton Springs

Austin is the land of eternal summer – or at least what seems like eternal vacation. Locals and tourists can be found lounging around Barton Springs on any given day of the year, even though the natural spring-fed water is always maintained at a brisk 20°C. It’s the most popular place to cool off in Austin and the grassy slopes that frame the iconic three-acre pool fill up fast with sunbathers and swimmers of all ages. But devotees brave the chilly waters  throughout the fall and winter, too, especially during the annual Polar Bear Swim on New Year’s Day.

2. Watch the sunset from Mount Bonnell

Take a five-minute drive west of downtown to get one of the best aerial views in the city. Mount Bonnell is a 775-foot-high limestone “mountain” that offers stunning panoramas of Lake Austin and the surrounding Hill Country. It's a short (but steep) walk up a paved staircase from the streetside parking spaces to the summit, known as Covert Park, which gives visitors a unique eagle-eye view of Austin’s natural beauty. It's perfect for a family picnic, scenic photo shoot, or romantic sunset date.

3. Support local music

Visitors to Austin would be remiss if they didn’t attend a concert while staying in the “live music capital of the world” – and the Red River district is home to some of the city’s best, and most diverse, venues. You can catch a live show on any night of the week along the downtown strip, whether it’s a local lineup of metal bands at Mohawk, a themed DJ night and dance party at Cheer Up Charlie’s, or a sold-out international touring sensation at Stubb’s, the largest open-air venue in the city. 

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4. Stroll around Lady Bird Lake

Austin is consistently ranked in the top 20 fittest cities in America – no surprise when  Lady Bird Lake, the city's crown jewel of outdoor recreation, is conveniently situated in the heart of downtown. Do as the locals do and start your day with a leisurely jog around the Roy and Ann Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail, a lush, 10-mile loop trail that provides phenomenal views of the water, local wildlife, and the downtown skyline. If you'd rather get close to the water, there’s a range of activities – several lakeside operators offer everything from kayak and canoe rentals to stand-up paddleboarding lessons and themed guided paddles.

5. Shop and sip on South Congress

South Congress Avenue remains a microcosm of Austin’s signature “keep it weird” charms, despite being a stone’s throw from a rapidly-modernising downtown skyline. You can easily spend a day exploring the vibrant strip of vintage boutiques, art galleries, patio eateries, and classic music venues – must-see stops include Uncommon Objects (a treasure trove of antique curiosities), Allen’s Boots (the local authority on authentic cowboy boots), Jo’s Coffee (a walk-up coffee shop with the best people-watching and most photographed graffiti wall in town), and the historic Continental Club that hosts live music every night. On the “First Thursday” of every month, SoCo shops and restaurants offer various discounts, live entertainment, and one-night-only specials.

6. Go two-steppin’

Texas honky-tonks are legendary – and few are more legendary than Austin’s own Broken Spoke. The historic dancehall has been hosting country legends like Willie Nelson and Bob Wills since 1964. Experience the distinctly Texan pleasure of two-steppin’ to a local honky-tonk crooner every Wednesday-Saturday. (Free dance lessons are offered one hour before the music starts.) The Spoke’s dance floor fills up fast on weekends, but Donn’s Depot, an eclectic “piano bar and saloon” housed in an antique traincar, provides an equally authentic alternative for anyone looking to twist-and-shout slightly off the beaten path. (Photo by Brian Holsclaw licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0)

7. Load up on barbecue

Barbecue is hardly a rare commodity, yet it’s one of the few things that Austinites will willingly queue for – sometimes for hours on end. Franklin Barbecue is the internationally known hometown heavyweight – attracting day-long lines of dutiful groupies, and even a presidential visit from Barack Obama in 2014. But LeRoy & Lewis, an unassuming South Austin food truck, is the newest taste of the town. Their daily rotation of “alternative cuts” expands on traditional BBQ with items like pork shoulder porchetta, beef cheeks, and tongue pastrami. Brisket is only available on Saturdays, so purists should plan ahead—and expect a line.

8. Head to the Hill Country

Spend a weekend soaking up the tranquil Texas Hill Country environs at the Lake Austin Spa Resort, a 40-room luxury spa resort located less than an hour’s drive from downtown. The all-inclusive resort epitomizes the ultimate “Hill Country chic” sanctuary, with a daily roster of health and wellness programs (from sunrise yoga to aquatic cardio classes), organic, chef-prepared meals, five-star spa, and plush suites overlooking Lake Austin.

9. Find a Sixth Street escape

Sixth Street, Austin’s equivalent of Bourbon Street, is the notorious flagship of the local nightlife scene. Millions of late-night revelers flood the bar-lined strip every year, but discerning night owls have plenty of other options. Reservations are mandatory at Midnight Cowboy, the sophisticated speakeasy located in the heart of what locals refer to as “Dirty Sixth”. But if the vacancy sign is illuminated, guests can ring the buzzer marked “Harry Craddock” and ask to enter—even without the day’s secret code word given to all confirmed reservations. The Prohibition-era themed bar oozes luxury, making downtown’s noisiest clubs seem like a distant memory.

10. Take a self-guided art crawl

The University of Texas lends world-class credentials to Austin’s artistic pedigree with its collection of award-winning museums, traveling exhibitions, and permanent installations. Tour campus institutions like the Harry Ransom Center and the Blanton Museum of Art, which has a collection of more than 18,000 works of art and free admission every Thursday. Or take a self-guided crawl of Landmarks, UT’s public art program of nearly four dozen installations, including the stunning Skyspace viewing room by famed artist James Turrell.

11. ‘Keep it Weird’ by the pool

Cap off your time in the Keep It Weird capital at one of its funkiest throwbacks. The historic Austin Motel on South Congress Avenue recently underwent a yearlong renovation by local hotelier Liz Lambert, who restored the 41-room motor inn to a whole new level of retro-kitsch glory. The updated rooms (think lip-shaped rotary phones and quarter-operated vibrating beds) are perfectly paired with hip communal areas, from the streetside bodega and snack shop to the kidney-shaped pool where guests can partake in 80s aqua-aerobic classes, or just lounge beneath striped umbrellas and sip chilled drinks.

12. Hike up to a ‘secret’ sunset lookout

Scenic photos of the arched bridge spanning the Colorado River are familiar backdrops in countless tourism brochures and travel features. First-time visitors, however, might not know exactly where to locate the Pennybacker Bridge Overlook. The rocky outcropping, reached via a short hike from a Highway 360 shoulder, is arguably the worst kept secret for locals to soak up sweeping Hill Country views. It’s popular for midday picnics, cozy sunset dates and late-night stargazing. (Photo by Brian Dooley licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0)

13. Watch a million bats fly at dusk

Austin’s live music and burgeoning food scenes tend to overshadow its other notable claims to fame. But it’s hard to ignore the city’s populous seasonal residents – the Mexican free-tailed bats that constitute the largest urban bat colony in North America. Every evening (from March to November), hundreds of spectators flock to Lady Bird Lake to witness more than 1.5 million bats emerging from the Congress Avenue Bridge just before dusk to consume their daily 20,000-pound quota of insects.

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