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A Visitor's Guide to Exploring Downtown Austin, TX

Written by Brad Lane
Jun 23, 2020

Austin, the state capital of Texas, is one of the fastest-growing cities in North America. A lot comes together in downtown Austin for a memorable visit. The sunset-red granite Texas Capitol is the centerpiece of downtown and the surrounding city. Several tourist attractions and entertainment venues stem from its manicured grounds. Lined with iconic theaters and local restaurants, Congress Avenue leads right to the tree-lined promenade of the Texas Capitol.

Alongside the capital of the state, Austin is also the Live Music Capital of the World. This designation comes from the hundreds of music venues across Austin, as well as signature events like Austin City Limits and ACL Live at the Moody Theater. The designation also resonates from the unique culture in the streets of downtown — a culture that strives to Keep Austin Weird.

Lady Bird Lake, on the Colorado River, serves as the southern border of downtown. Surrounded by the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail on both sides, this massive reservoir offers a natural outlet from the city. Congress Avenue Bridge, spanning Lady Bird Lake, is home to millions of Mexican free-tailed bats. These nocturnal mammals put on quite the show as they exit the bridge every evening during the warmer months of the year.

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Where is Austin, Texas?

Downtown Austin

Austin is located in the central part of the state, 75 miles northeast of San Antonio. The Texas Capitol is approximately a three-hour drive west of Houston and a four-hour drive north from places like Corpus Christi on the coast. Primarily west of the city, the Texas Hill County is right at Austin's backdoor.

The core downtown district of Austin centers around the gorgeous grounds and ornate interior of the Texas Capitol. Bounded to the south by Lady Bird Lake on the Colorado River, the downtown district encompasses two-square-miles of things to do. Congress Avenue is the main thoroughfare of downtown and leads straight to the capitol building.

Things to Do in Downtown Austin

Texas Capitol | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Austin is one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States. A booming tech industry, a low cost of living, and a favorable climate that skips winter contribute to the city's growing attraction. Austin is also home to The University of Texas at Austin, which adds a youthful boom to the population.

Self-proclaimed as one of the weirdest cities in America, Austin's unique culture is found throughout the streets in the form of murals, neon signs, and friendly faces. In the downtown district, particularly, the Austin spirit can overwhelm the senses.

From the aesthetic Texas Capitol to aromatic food trucks lining the curbs, and the live music heard through open doors, things to do in downtown are only limited to how much time you can spend.

Double Decker buses navigate the historical streets, as do duck boats before making their aquatic conversion. Other spots in downtown, like the Museum of the Weird, highlight the city's quirkier side.

The gentle water of Lady Bird Lake provides the city with its true charm. The lake bounds the downtown district to the south, and canoes and kayaks float this impoundment of the Colorado River every day of the year. The Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge spans the lake and offers a great view of the skyline.

The Congress Avenue Bridge is also home to one of the most unique things to do in any major U.S. City. Millions of Mexican free-tailed bats roost within the bridge between late spring and early fall. This bat population explodes from beneath the deck every evening to dine on the local mosquito population. The peak season for this popular Austin spectacle is in July and August.

Entertainment in Downtown Austin

Watching the bats on Congress Avenue Bridge

Entertainment for the whole family intertwines with downtown Austin. Aside from walking downtown streets on a sunny day, entertainment includes guided tours, historical landmarks, and several local shops and restaurants. The city also specializes in live performances like music, theater, and massive bat eruptions.

For first-time visitors or those who'd like to know more, a Double Decker Austin Sightseeing Tour features a showcase of the city. This hop-on/hop-off tour hits all the hot spots of Austin and includes narration by a professional guide. Other guided tours of Austin include bike tours, Segway tours, and the unique Austin Duck Adventure tour, which traverses both land and water.

The Texas Capitol is a must-see when visiting downtown Austin. This historic red-granite capitol building is open to the public, and the well-manicured grounds offer a lovely spot for a break in the day. Docent-led tours are also available at the Texas Capitol free of charge. The ornate interiors within the capitol, and the interesting angles throughout the grounds, makes the Texas Capitol especially appealing for amateur and professional photographers.

The most unique entertainment in the city emerges from the Congress Avenue Bridge every evening during the warmer months of the year. Between late March and late October, millions of Mexican free-tailed bats roost under the bridge during the day. Around twilight, these winged mammals erupt from underneath the bridge to dine on the local mosquito population.

This bat exodus attracts hundreds of interested spectators to the bridge every evening. Spectators can see the bats from either side of the bridge, or on the bridge, or even from a kayak on the water. The bat experience at the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin is like no other natural spectacle in any other major city.

Austin also delivers entertainment in the form of live performances. Known as the Live Music Capital of the World, it's not just singers and songwriters that pack the city's best venues. For vaudeville theater entertainment, Esther's Follies in downtown features several shows on the weekend. Alongside packed musical performances, the downtown Paramount Theatre is also home to plays, musicals, and podcast performances.

Live Music in Downtown Austin

Austin City Limits at Zilker Park

With over 250 music venues, Austin's designation as the Live Music Capital of the World is not superficial. The city attracts a wide range of musical talent with a vibrant cross-section of genres. Country, hip-hop, and everything in between including blues, alternative, and electronic music comprise Austin's soundtrack. A defining musical scene in Austin is Austin City Limits — both the music festival and the music performance television show.

Austin City Limits, the music performance television show, airs on PBS. Also known as ACL Live, it is the longest-running music series in American television history. Concerts are taped at The Moody Theater historic concert venue. Each concert helps symbolize the powerful sound coming from Austin, and tickets are often a hot commodity.

Austin City Limits, the music festival, takes place over two weekends in October. The hundreds of performances of the music festival happen at Zilker Park, on the shores of Lady Bird Lake. The downtown district floods with musicians and music fans this time of year, with Austin City Limits attracting hundreds of thousands of concertgoers.

The Paramount Theatre, on Congress Avenue, is another hot spot to catch scheduled shows. At the edge of downtown, the Frank C. Erwin, Jr., Special Events Center is also home to touring performances, as well as collegiate sporting events. Other significant venues in Austin include the jazzy Elephant Room, and the honky-tonk inspired Broken Spoke.

Art and Culture in Downtown Austin

Greetings from Austin Mural, South First Street | Bex Walton / photo modified

Creative expression runs throughout the streets of Austin. Next to unique storefronts and local restaurants, murals across the city give the first impression of Austin's art and culture. From state-name collages to larger-than-life Willie Nelson tributes, Austin street art could be in a gallery if it wasn't painted on public storefronts. Austin street art in plain sight is family-friendly and often popular for photo-ops.

Art is also found indoors in Austin. The Blanton Museum of Art at The University of Texas at Austin is adjacent to downtown and the Bullock Texas State History Museum. This collegiate collection of art spans several centuries and includes over 18,000 permanent works. Admission is free for members of the museum and students or staff of the university.

In downtown, The Contemporary Austin – Jones Center is the city's premier art center. The museum highlights work from artists across the globe with rotating exhibitions. The facility also serves as a community space with workshops, seminars, and art schools. The recently renovated Moody Rooftop at The Contemporary Austin hosts many of these gatherings and offers a great view of downtown.

Downtown museums offer further culture to explore. Adjacent to the Blanton Museum of Art, the Bullock Texas State History Museum dives deep into the legacy of the Lone Star State. Covering more than 16,000 years of the region's history, the museum provides interactive displays and detailed exhibits. The museum also hosts rotating exhibitions that touch on the nuanced history of the state.

The Austin Fire Museum, on East Fifth Street in downtown, offers other historical interest. A block away, the Museum of the Weird highlights the city's strange side. Inspired by dime museums of days ago, this downtown museum features Fiji mermaids, Bigfoot tracks, and a collection of wax characters.

Outdoor Adventure in Downtown Austin

Lady Bird Lake | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

When the weather is nice in Austin, the first place to visit downtown is Lady Bird Lake. And the weather is often nice in Austin. On the south end of downtown, this massive reservoir on the Colorado River offers several opportunities to get outside. The lake features eight established access points, with Zilker Park offering the most facilities.

Boaters make their way across the water every day of the week on Lady Bird Lake. The shoreline, however, is perhaps the most popular place to explore. The Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail offers 10 miles of trail on both sides of Lady Bird Lake. One of the best hiking trails in Austin, the Butler Trail connects to other public spaces like Auditorium Shores and Deep Eddy Pool.

Austin's favorable location in the state also leads to a surplus of day trip opportunities. The entire Texas Hill Country is within a short drive of downtown. Just a few Hill Country gems include great escapes like Fredericksburg and Georgetown. Several state parks, including Pedernales Falls and Longhorn Cavern, are also an easy day trip from Austin. Within city limits, Austin residents also get their natural fill at McKinney Falls State Park.

Dining and Food in Downtown Austin

SFC Farmer's Market Downtown | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Barbecue and breakfast tacos are prominent in Austin. The downtown district, however, has much broader options to explore. With restaurants ranging from casual-bite cafés to fine-dining Italian digs, downtown Austin caters to every palate. Asian, French, and Indian fare are also on the menu in downtown, and several food trucks throughout the city cater to lunchtime cravings.

For some classic Tex-Mex in Austin look no further than Taco Deli. Opened in 1999, Taco Deli now serves up delicious breakfast and lunch tacos at six locations across the city. The Taco Deli downtown location, on Congress and Third, offers indoor and outdoor seating alongside a great selection of tacos. Across the street, Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que is a staple spot for smoked meats.

Austin's downtown farmers market offers even more local flavor to explore. Hosted by the Sustainable Food Center, the SFC Farmers' Market takes place every Saturday morning in Republic Square. With several booths filled with local produce and artisan food items, the SFC Farmers' Market also features arts, crafts, and specialty pet products.

Shopping in Downtown Austin

South Congress Avenue, the Austin Motel | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Keep Austin Weird is the slogan for the city, which also translates to "Keep Austin Local." This endeavor is easily done thanks to a wide range of unique boutiques, vintage shops, and enormous costume emporiums. Alongside local storefronts, distinct shopping districts in Austin also feature many great places to visit for a bite to eat.

Some of the best shopping is south of the core downtown district. Lined with specialty shops and one-of-a-kind storefronts, South Congress Avenue is one of the trendiest spots in the city. Allen's Boots; Monkey See, Monkey Do!; and Lucy in Disguise are just a few of the colorful storefronts that catch the eye on South Congress Avenue.

High fashion is also on display in SoCo, and for those with a sweet tooth, the sweets and treats at Big Top Candy Shop have you covered.

The 2nd Street District is the place to go for upscale and mid-range fashion boutiques. Encompassing six-square blocks, the 2nd Street District is also infused with restaurants and live music spots like ACL Live at the Moody Theatre.

Across the river from downtown, South First Street is another burgeoning shopping district. South First Street is also the place to visit to see the iconic "Greetings from Austin" mural.

Getting Around Downtown Austin

Double Decker Austin Tour | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

A convenient way to explore the city is on a Double Decker Austin Tour. Departing from the Austin Visitor Center, this hop-on/hop-off tour transports pedestrians to downtown hot spots and beyond. Tour stops include Sixth Street, the Texas Capitol, the Bullock Texas History Museum, and the adjacent University of Texas at Austin campus.

Another great option is the Best of Austin Small-Group Guided Tour, which takes in many of the top tourist attractions as well as lesser-known sights, and a chance to check out some food trucks. Morning or afternoon tours are available.

Public transit is also abundant in Austin. Capital Metro features public bus routes and a commuter rail system that extends throughout the city and entire metropolitan area. Fares are available for single rides, day passes, and multi-day tickets. Capital Metro also operates express and rapid routes, and bus-only traffic lanes cut through some of the city's growing congestion.

Where to Stay in Downtown Austin

The Driskill | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Hotels in Austin cater to every type of traveler. For those interested in luxury stays, several hotels near Lady Bird Lake are available for elegant overnight trips. Scattered throughout the same area are mid-range hotels that offer comfort at a better value. Budget hotels are harder to come by in downtown, and some of the most affordable places to stay are on the outskirts of downtown.

  • Luxury Hotels: The JW Marriott Austin on Congress Avenue, between Second and Third street, offers one of the most luxurious stays in the city. Downtown Austin is right outside the door of this chic hotel and meeting space. Extending 34 stories into the Austin skyline, alongside elegant rooms and suites, JW Marriott also features a stylish rooftop pool and cabanas area.

    The city's most historic hotel, The Driskill, is also in the heart of downtown and offers similar luxurious accommodations.
  • Mid-Range Hotels: Between the Texas Capitol and the University's Blanton Museum of Art, Hampton Inn & Suites Austin at The University/Capitol offers a dependable place to get a good night's sleep. Besides more family-friendly rates than average downtown hotels of the same caliber, Hampton Inn & Suites features a great location on the north side of downtown.

    On the southeast side of the Texas Capitol, Holiday Inn Express & Suites Austin Downtown is a popular spot for professional travel, with a convenient location and dedicated business center.
  • Budget Hotels: Downtown Austin does not provide an abundance of budget hotels. For the best value, most budget hotels are on the outskirts of downtown within a short drive. South of the city center, Red Roof PLUS+ Austin - South has an excellent reputation as a clean, safe, and affordable place to stay.

    Thirteen miles north of the Texas Capitol, Country Inn & Suites by Radisson, Austin-University, TX is also well regarded as an affordable hotel, with friendly front desk staff and spacious rooms.

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More to Explore in Austin: For a broader look at all the things to do in the Live Music Capital of the World, our guide to Austin attractions covers everything in downtown and well beyond. Several hotels are located throughout the city, and more in-depth information is available in our top hotels in Austin article.

Visiting Dallas: Our Visitor's Guide to Downtown Dallas covers everything downtown "Big D" has to offer. For activities outside of downtown, our guide to the best Dallas attractions extends beyond the downtown streets to uncover all the entertainment the city has to offer. For some of the best hotels to stay in Dallas, our Where to Stay in Dallas article covers all types of travel.

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