10 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Austin
Austin, the capital of Texas, lies at the point where the Colorado River leaves the Edwards Plateau. The second largest state capital in the US, Austin was founded in 1839 and named after Stephen F. Austin, the "Father of Texas," and is today an important administrative, educational, and cultural center, home to the University of Texas, the Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum, and the Texas Memorial Museum. Other features of interest include the red-granite State Capitol, built in 1888 and modeled on the Capitol in Washington, DC, and the restored Old Pecan Street (Sixth St.), the city's old main street and a popular gathering and entertainment place in the evenings. Other notable cultural attractions include the museum in the former home of sculptor Elisabeth Ney; the Governor's Mansion, a classic southern mansion dating from 1856; and the increasingly popular South by Southwest (SXSW) music and film festival.
See also: Where to Stay in Austin
1 The State Capitol and Visitors Center
Completed in 1888, the State Capitol - home to the office of the State Governor and the Chambers of the Texas Legislature - and its 22 acres of grounds and monuments is one of Austin's top attractions. Protected as a National Historic Landmark, the building impresses with its dimensions: at 308 feet tall, it ranks as the sixth tallest state capitol, taller even than the US Capitol in Washington, DC. Park highlights include a monument to the Heroes of the Alamo from 1891, a pleasant shaded path called the Great Walk, and a monument to Vietnam War veterans unveiled in 2014. A first-rate visitor center provides information relating to the Capitol, and is where tours of the Capitol building can be arranged. Also of interest is the recently restored Texas Governor's Mansion, accessible via free guided tours (reservations required).
Address: 1100 Congress Ave, Austin
2 Zilker Metropolitan Park and Botanical Garden
Austin's most popular green space, Zilker Park is a favorite recreation area for visitors and locals alike. Within the park are a variety of excellent tourist attractions, including the Zilker Hillside Theater - home to the annual Zilker Summer Musical - and the excellent Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum. Popular activities include walking and picnicking, as well as canoeing on Town Lake, while youngsters love the Zilker Zephyr miniature railway and taking a splash in the Barton Springs Pool, a huge spring-fed swimming pool open year-round. The highlight of a visit is Zilker Botanical Garden, 30 acres of plants and exquisite themed gardens, including the lovely Japanese Garden with its many streams, waterfalls, and ponds. There's also a rose garden, a herb garden, and the Hartman Prehistoric Garden, built around ancient dinosaur footprints found embedded in the rock.
Another garden worth visiting is the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, eight kilometers from Austin's downtown core and home to interesting architectural elements and wetlands. Also worthwhile is the Austin Nature and Science Center, a living museum with interpretive exhibits, programs, collections, and trails, as well as the Dino Pit where kids can play at being amateur archaeologists.
Address: 2100 Barton Springs Rd, Austin
3 Bullock Texas State History Museum
The Bullock Texas State History Museum tells the state's story through a variety of interesting interactive exhibits, along with audio-visual displays and film (the museum boasts an on-site IMAX Theatre). In addition to discovering more about the Lone Star State's rich history, you'll learn about the natural landscape, Native Americans, explorers, ranching, and famous Texans.
Address: 1800 Congress Ave, Austin
4 Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum
One of the most visited attractions in Austin, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum boasts more than 45 million pages of historical documents and papers from President LBJ's lengthy career. The museum, dedicated in 1971 and refurbished in 2013, contains exhibits relating to the president's time in office as well as important issues of the day, including the rise of the civil rights movement. Also of interest is an impressive scale replica of the Oval Office as it would have been during Johnson's presidency, and many temporary exhibits related to American history are hosted throughout the year. Another important museum is the Harry Ransom Center in the University of Texas at Austin, notable for its collections of literary and cultural artifacts from around the world.
Address: 2313 Red River Street, Austin
5 Editor's Pick Batty about Lady Bird Lake
Created in 1960 to provide Austin with a reliable source of water, Lady Bird Lake - named after the wife of President Lyndon Johnson - covers 416 acres and has become one of the city's key recreational areas. Although lined with hotels and residential complexes, the majority of its shoreline has been kept open to the public and is lined with excellent trails, including the Austin Hike and Bike Trail. In addition to being a popular place for people-powered boating activities like canoes and kayaks, it's also home to Auditorium Shores, a venue used for major events such as the South by Southwest (SXSW) film and music festivals, along with concerts by many of the world's top performers. If you're a night owl, come dusk, head to the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge, which crosses over Lady Bird Lake. There, you'll be rewarded with the remarkable sight of the world's largest urban bat colony in flight. It's estimated that a million or more migratory Mexican free-tailed bats live under the bridge in summer, and seeing them take off en masse is an especially impressive sight when viewed as part of a boat cruise across the lake.
Address: 4801 La Crosse Avenue, Austin
6 Texas Memorial Museum
The Texas Memorial Museum of Science and History - part of the Natural Science Center at the University of Texas - features a huge collection of items representing the natural and cultural history of the Lone Star State. Areas covered include paleontology, geology, biology, herpetology (the study of amphibians), ichthyology (fish), and entomology (insects), with more than five million specimens included in the museum's extensive collections. Highlights include numerous dinosaur displays, fossils, gems, and minerals, as well as the famous Wichita County meteorite, a large space rock regarded as a medicine stone by Comanche Indians.
Address: 2400 Trinity St, Austin
7 Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum
Dedicated to the understanding and appreciation of American sculpture, the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum features a number of works by 20th-century sculptor Charles Umlauf. Adding to the experience is the fact that many of the sculptures are in the tranquil surroundings and natural environment of the property's superb gardens, along with its waterfalls and ponds. Inside the museum is a permanent collection of the artist's work, along with details of his life and times, as well as personal artifacts and mementoes. Temporary exhibits of works by other artists are regularly featured, as are music concerts and other events.
Address: 605 Robert E Lee Rd, Austin
8 The French Legation
Originally built in 1841 for the chargé d'affaires who represented the government of France in the Republic of Texas (the short-lived country that existed prior to Texas becoming part of the US), the French Legation is one of the most important of Austin's older buildings. Fully restored with period furniture and décor, this historic building serves as a lovely backdrop to a variety of fun events and activities, including concerts and food events, lectures, potluck picnics, guided tours, and special themed events related to French culture. The site's two-and-a-half-acre park is also worth a visit. Almost as old is the Neill-Cochran House, built in Greek Revival style in 1853 and home to an impressive collection of furniture and documents dating from 1770 to 1900.
Address: 802 San Marcos Street, Austin
9 Mexic-Arte Museum
With a nod to one of the city's largest demographics, the Mexic-Arte Museum showcases traditional and contemporary Mexican, Latino, and Latin American art and culture. Founded in 1983, the museum features temporary visiting exhibits including photography, painting, and sculptures. Another art facility of note is the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art in the University of Texas at Austin. In addition to a fine permanent collection of 17,000 pieces of European, American, and Latin American art, the museum hosts numerous temporary exhibits. Also of interest is The Contemporary Austin, a superb art establishment with two facilities highlighting contemporary art exhibits.
Address: 419 Congress Ave, Austin
10 Elisabet Ney Museum
The Elisabet Ney Museum is worth visiting for its fine displays of works by 19th-century portrait sculptor Elizabeth Ney, along with personal items and other memorabilia. In her original studio named Formosa - believed to be the first purpose-built studio of its kind in Texas - the facility was preserved following her death in 1907. The building, which resembles an old English castle, is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Address: 304 E 44th Street, Austin
Where to Stay in Austin for Sightseeing
If you are visiting Austin to enjoy the famous live music shows or for general sightseeing, the best place to base yourself is right downtown. The city is relatively compact and many of the top attractions are in close proximity to each other. Below is a list of highly-rated hotels in convenient locations:
- Luxury Hotels: Looking out over Lady Bird Lake and not far from the entertainment districts, the Four Seasons Hotel features lovely grounds, a saltwater pool, and luxury suites. The InterContinental Stephen F. Austin, conveniently located between the 2nd Street District and the state capitol, is one of the city's iconic hotels, with an Art Deco façade, large rooms, and a state-of-the-art fitness facility complete with a lap pool. The W Austin is as close to the music scene as you can get, with Austin City Limits right next door, and for something a little different, the Hotel Ella is a converted mansion dating from 1910, just a little outside the city center.
- Mid-Range Hotels. Mid-range hotels are scarce in the city center. At the upper end of this category is the Hyatt Regency, with a prime location on the Colorado River waterfront and just a short walk over a bridge to downtown. The Crowne Plaza, a large property with a great outdoor pool, is just over five miles out from the city center and easily accessible at the intersections of two major highways, I35 and 290. A great option only three miles from downtown is the Best Western Plus, which was completely renovated in 2013.
- Budget Hotels: Just steps from the capitol building and about a five-minute walk from the 6th Street area, La Quinta Inn & Suites is a good budget option in downtown. A short distance outside the city center are the Rodeway Inn & Suites and the recently renovated Red Roof PLUS+, both with outdoor pools.
Day Trips from Austin
While there's much to see in the heart of Austin, there's no shortage of fun things to do within an easy drive of the capital of Texas. One of the best ways to explore the countryside is aboard the Hill Country Flyer, a heritage steam train that operates fun scenic excursions from nearby Cedar Park. While in the mood for a little history-hopping, be sure to visit Jourdan-Bachman Pioneer Farms on the outskirts of the city, a "living history" attraction that explores the history of Texas through themed historical recreations of life in the 1800s. Another must-visit is McKinney Falls State Park. In the southeastern corner of Austin, these spectacular waterfalls provide a perfect place to get away from the city and explore some of the most picturesque scenery in Texas. If you're looking for a "small-town-Texas" experience, take a drive to Bastrop, a scenic little town on the Colorado River boasting more than 125 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, many of them on Main Street. The area also offers a wealth of recreational opportunities with plenty of great golf, hiking and biking trails, and the Colorado River for fishing, boating, and watersports.