13 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Austin, TX
Austin, the capital of Texas, lies at the point where the Colorado River leaves the Edwards Plateau. The second largest state capital in the United States, Austin was founded in 1839 and named after Stephen F. Austin, the "Father of Texas."
Today, Austin is an important administrative, educational, and cultural center. The city is home to the University of Texas, the Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum, and the Bullock Texas State History Museum. Other tourist attractions include the red-granite State Capitol, which was modeled after the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.
Despite being one of the fastest growing cities in North America, Austin allows ample space to connect with nature. Lady Bird Lake, a river-like reservoir of the Colorado River, flows right by downtown and defines recreation in the area. The iconic Congress Avenue bridge over the water houses millions of Mexican free-tailed bats, which emerge in the evenings to feed on the local mosquito population.
Plan your trip to the city with our list of the top attractions and things to do in Austin.
See also: Where to Stay in Austin
1. The State Capitol and Visitors Center
Completed in 1888, the State Capitol and its 22 acres of grounds and monuments are home to the office of the State Governor and the Chambers of the Texas Legislature.
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.
Visitors can stroll the park via the tree-lined path called the Great Walk and admire the numerous monuments. A Texas African American History Memorial, the Vietnam War monument, and a bronze statue of a Texas Ranger all capture attention along the Great Walk, as well as a miniature Statue of Liberty that was presented in 1951 by the Boy Scouts of America.
The visitor center is located on the grounds and features exhibits about the history of Austin and the state of Texas. This is a good place to begin exploring downtown Austin.
Free tours of the Capitol Building are given daily, except holidays. Visitors are also welcome to take a self-guided tour anytime the capital is open.
Also of interest in the area is the recently restored Texas Governor's Mansion, accessible via free guided tours (reservations required).
Address: 112 East 11th Street, Austin, Texas
2. Zilker Metropolitan Park Attractions
Austin's most popular green space, the 351-acre Zilker Park is a favorite recreation area that sits alongside Lady Bird Lake. The park's grassy expanses and picnic sites are ideal for lazy afternoons, but there are also many recreational facilities for the public to enjoy. Riverside walking trails, volleyball courts, and a disc golf course are all within park boundaries.
Zilker Park is also home to the Zilker Playscape, a large playground with its own section designed for kids aged two to five years. Kids will also love the Zilker Zephyr, a miniature train that runs along the water's edge.
Water recreation for all ages is popular at the park as well, with canoe and boat rentals available, as well as the family-favorite Barton Springs Pool.
The park is also host to several major music events, including the Zilker Hillside Theater's annual Zilker Summer Musical, Blues on the Green, and the celebrated Austin City Limits Music Festival. Also known as ACL, Austin City Limits takes place over two consecutive weekends in October.
The 26-acre Zilker Botanical Garden is the park's most beautiful area, open daily for a small entrance fee. Within, there are several individually themed gardens.
Specialty gardens include the Hartman Prehistoric Garden, which is built around ancient dinosaur footprints found embedded in the rock, and the Isamu Taniguchi Japanese Garden, which features serene waterfalls and ponds. There are also gardens dedicated to butterflies, cacti and succulents, herbs, and roses.
The Austin Nature and Science Center is also on the grounds, open daily with no admission charge. It is celebrated for its interactive exhibits and programs, as well as its numerous trails and special events designed for all ages. Kids especially enjoy the Dino Pit, where they can be amateur archaeologists.
The park grounds are also home to another one of Austin's top tourist attractions, the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum.
Address: 2100 Barton Springs Road, Austin, Texas
3. Lady Bird Lake
Named after the wife of President Lyndon Johnson, Lady Bird Lake is actually a section of the Colorado River. This flowing reservoir covers 416 acres and has become one of the city's top recreation areas.
Although lined with hotels and residential complexes, the majority of its shoreline is open to the public, with miles of excellent trails for pedestrians and cyclists.
The main pedestrian path along the shores is the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail and Pedestrian Bridge, which crosses the river and connects downtown Austin with the southern shore. The paths connect many of the city's parks, including Zilker Metropolitan Park, the Town Lake Metropolitan Park's Vic Mathias Shores, Lamar Beach, Butler Shores, Waller Beach, and Eilers Neighborhood Park.
The Ann and Roy Butler Trail also leads to popular tourist sites near the river, like the Stevie Ray Vaughan Statue, Congress Avenue Bridge, the Long Center of Performing Arts, and the Barton Springs Municipal Pool.
Motorized boats are prohibited on Lady Bird Lake. On the north shore, the Texas Rowing Center provides kayak and canoe rentals and lessons. And on the lake's south shore in Zilker Park, the Rowing Dock offers rentals and instruction for paddleboards, kayaks, and paddleboats.
Canoe and kayak rentals are also available for use on Barton Creek, which is within the park.
4. See the Bats from Congress Avenue Bridge
One of Austin's most unique things to do is enjoy the evening flight of the Mexican free-tailed bats that have made the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge their home. The world's largest urban bat colony, up to one-and-a-half million of these insect-devouring critters take to the sky at dusk each evening from March through November.
The result is a stunning display as they fly from beneath the bridge and up to two miles high in massive formations so they can dine on mosquitoes, moths, grasshoppers, and other flying pests. It can take up to 45 minutes just for the fuzzy mammals to all exit their home. Once the pups (babies) are old enough, they accompany their mothers on the evening flight.
There are many vantage points from which you can enjoy the sight, with the area surrounding the bridge the most popular. Others enjoy watching from boats on Lady Bird Lake or from the Statesman Bat Observation Center, which sits at the southern end of the bridge.
In conjunction with Bat Conservation International, the center is an eco-tourism destination, striving to increase awareness of bats and educate the public on their importance.
Location: South Congress Avenue, off West Cesar Chavez Street, Austin, Texas
5. Explore the Attractions at the University of Texas at Austin
In addition to being the first of the Texas University System campuses, the University of Texas at Austin is home to several top tourist attractions. The Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art has a permanent collection of 17,000 pieces of European, American, and Latin American art. The museum also hosts numerous temporary exhibits.
Also on campus is the Harry Ransom Center, which houses a permanent collection of rare literature and printed materials. The Ransom Center also has numerous temporary exhibits and collections on display. Among the museum's most prized pieces are a Gutenberg Bible from the mid-fifteenth century and the First Photograph, a heliograph developed on a pewter plate that was created in 1827 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce.
The Texas Memorial Museum is part of the Natural Science Center at the University of Texas and features a huge collection of items representing the natural and cultural history of the Lone Star State. 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.
Another impressive tourist site at the university is the landmark UT Tower, infamous for the tragic shooting in 1966. With a height of 307 feet, the tower provides beautiful 360-degree views of the city of Austin; tours are self-guided and include information on the architecture and history of the structure.
For sports fans, the spirit of Longhorn athletics is unrivaled throughout the state. Football games at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium feature trembling bleachers and deafening crowds of pigskin fans. The university also just broke ground on the Moody Center arena, future home of several events, including Longhorn basketball games.
6. Go for a Dip at Barton Springs Pool
Although swimming in Lady Bird lake is prohibited, nearby Barton Springs Pool in Zilker Park is Austin's favorite place to cool off.
A spring-fed pool along Barton Creek, it covers an area of three acres and has an average temperature of 70 degrees year-round. Locals and tourists alike enjoy the grassy tree-lined perimeter and perfect water that reaches up to 18 feet deep.
The area is also considered a protected habitat for the endangered Barton Springs Salamander, which is only found in this specific aquifer. Because of the delicate balance between recreation and nature, the pool is closed for most of the day once a week for a specialized cleaning that protects the wildlife form harsh chemicals while keeping swimmers safe.
Location: Zilker Metropolitan Park, Austin, Texas
7. 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 permanent Story of Texas exhibit is home to artifacts and displays that feature defining events in the state's history. Artifacts include the preserved hull of the 17th-century La Belle, which was shipwrecked at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Other exhibits and presentations include the fall of the Alamo, Tejano culture, and the history of the Texas oil industry.
The museum's IMAX theater shows educational and popular new-release films. The museum also hosts many special events throughout the year, including children's activities and public presentations.
Address: 1800 Congress Ave, Austin, Texas
Official site: www.thestoryoftexas.com
8. 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.
The library and museum are open every day of the week, excluding major holidays.
Address: 2313 Red River Street, Austin, Texas
Official site: www.lbjlibrary.org
9. Mexic-Arte Museum
Representing one of the city's largest cultural influences and populations, the Mexic-Arte Museum showcases traditional and contemporary Mexican, Latino, and Latin American art and culture.
Founded in 1983, the museum features rotating exhibits, many of which are thought-provoking statements about current issues, like immigration, border control, and acceptance of Mexican culture in Texas.
There are numerous installations and topic-focused galleries that include the artwork or sculptures of one or more artists, and several that are collections of photography, painting, and multimedia work that represent populations within the culture.
The museum also hosts free "family days" several times a year, when the public can participate in hands-on activities that help visitors get a deeper understanding of the artists' work.
Address: 419 Congress Ave, Austin, Texas
Official site: www.mexic-artemuseum.org
10. McKinney Falls State Park
Another must-visit outdoor attraction in Austin is McKinney Falls State Park, home to one of the best waterfalls in Texas. In the southeastern corner of Austin, this natural landscape provides a perfect place to get away from the city and explore some of the most picturesque scenery in Texas.
The state park has over 80 campsites available with water and electric hookups. Six cabins on-site also provide a rustic way to spend the night. The 2.8-mile Onion Creek Hike and Bike Trail is the main corridor for exploration, with many side trails leading off from the gravel path.
11. 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.
Located in the Zilker Metropolitan Park, the outdoor sculptures are on display among the trees, gardens, and ponds that surround the museum. Inside, visitors can see more of Umlauf's work in addition to exhibits about the artist's life and displays of personal artifacts and mementos.
The museum also features temporary exhibits of other artists' work and hosts events such as concerts, workshops, and even yoga classes among the sculptures outside. Guided tours are available.
Address: 605 Robert E Lee Road, Austin, Texas
Official site: www.umlaufsculpture.org
12. Mount Bonnell
Of the many best hiking trails in Austin, Mount Bonnell is one of the most popular with tourists because of its numerous photo ops and proximity to the city center. The highest point in the city, it reaches 775 feet and provides views of downtown Austin and the 360 Bridge. It also looks out across the Colorado River and is the perfect place to take photos of Austin's skyline.
Although the lookout deck and pavilion are at the top of 102 stairs, it is not a steep or strenuous climb. Pets are welcome on the path and on the observation deck, and many visitors enjoy picnicking while admiring the view. Expect to encounter crowds if visiting on the weekend.
Address: 3800 Mt. Bonnell Drive, Austin, Texas
13. Day Trip to Texas Hill Country
West of the city, the sprawling Texas Hill Country sits atop the Edwards Plateau and invites day trips from Austin.
This beautiful area has a strong German heritage, as can be seen at prominent places to visit like New Braunfels. Other fun cities to visit in Texas Hill Country include Fredericksburg and Wimberley. With many charming places to stay, these destinations are also some of Austin's best weekend trips.
Outdoor activities are abundant in Texas Hill Country. Popular recreation destinations include Hamilton Pool, Enchanted Rock, and Pedernales Falls.
Thanks to a unique limestone bedrock, Texas Hill Country is also home to all the best caverns in Texas. Subterranean spaces open to the public here include Inner Space Cavern and Cave Without a Name.
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.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Austin
- Sightseeing by Segway: A fun and informative way to see the city's top attractions is the Downtown Austin Historic Segway Tour, which stops at historic landmarks, like the Capitol Building, and tours the beautiful paths along Lady Bird Lake. The two-hour guided tour includes instruction on Segway use and safety and a knowledgeable guide, who will be sure to stop for plenty of photos and provide commentary on the best sites in Austin.
- Sightseeing by Coach: The Austin and Texas Hill Country Small-Group Tour allows tourists to receive personal attention from the informative guide in a group of 11 or fewer. Relax and enjoy the sightseeing from a luxury coach while exploring the city and surrounding area, including the University of Texas and the landscapes of Texas hill country.