I had to write about Austin: it’s my hometown!
The capital of Texas has seen phenomenal growth over the past two decades, with a city population now approaching a million. Austin has reinvented itself (for better or for worse), going from a small Southwestern city with a quirky attitude, to a mid-sized city that punches above its weight in nightlife and food.
While the whole “Keep Austin Weird” thing died with Leslie Cochran, Austin has a lot to offer, both indoors and outdoors. I’ve compiled some ideas here that will give you inspiration to visit the River City!
1. Lady Bird Lake (Town Lake)
The Crown Jewel of Austin! Lady Bird Lake (or Town Lake, as I knew it as a kid) is a stretch of the Lower Colorado River, and flows right through the urban core. It is the dividing line between Downtown and South Austin.
This lake is very popular with kayakers, skullers, and stand-up paddleboarders. I myself would come here a lot to go kayaking with my dad.
If getting out on the water isn’t your thing, you can always walk or bike the Butler Trail that stretches for 10 miles around the banks of the river.
Just a warning for those wanting to visit in the summer months: this is Central Texas, and it gets very, very hot. To have entire months with temperatures well over 100 degrees every single day is not unusual here. So please be prepared with sunscreen or long-sleeves, sunglasses, and plenty of water.
Also be aware that the ubiquitous e-scooters scattered literally all over Austin are NOT allowed on the trail.
2. The Bats
Congress Avenue Bridge, spanning Lady Bird Lake, is home to between 1.5 and 2 million Mexican Free-Tailed bats, the largest urban colony of bats that we know of anywhere in the world.
Every night during the summer, a huge funnel cloud of bats, all females and pups, leaves the nooks and crannies on the underside of the bridge. The night air is filled with the sound of chirping and the unique smell of bat guano as they go in search of insects.
Bats really are a big part of Austin’s identity. You’ll see sculptures and murals of them all over the place. We even used to have a minor league hockey team called the Ice Bats.
3. Sixth Street
The “Dirty Sixth” y’all have heard about. We call it The Zoo, and when you go on a Friday or Saturday night, you’ll see why! Back in high school my buddy Kazim and I would sneak out at night just to drive down and see the craziness.
During the weekend, police barricade an eight-block section of Sixth Street and allow people to do their intoxicated thing in the middle of the street. It’s an intense experience, especially during festivals like South-by-Southwest and Austin City Limits.
For a pretty exhaustive ranking of Sixth Street bars, Thrillist has got you covered.
I would recommend against a night on Sixth Street if you’re someone who doesn’t do crowds. When I went out for SXSW this year, it was standing room only in the middle of the street. To be fair, most of us past the age of 25 don’t do Sixth Street on the regular. It’s mostly for the college crowd and out-of-towners. If you want a less crazy but still fun night out, I’d recommend Rainey Street, the East Side, North Loop, and the Domain.
4. The Barbecue
People talk about Austin being the “Live Music Capital of the World” and all that. While that statement’s a bit bold to make, there is one way in which we stand out on a national level: barbecue. Just trust me on this one.
If you want a quick look at some of the finest bbq joints in town, you can check out my post Best Barbecue in Austin. Those are just the ones I personally can vouch for. There are plenty of places that I’ve heard nothing but good things about, such as Micklethwait Craft Meats.
5. Texas State Capitol
You’re more than welcome to wander around in this building, built to resemble the national capitol (but a few feet taller!). It’s an aesthetically pleasing structure, and it’s a perfect jumping off point for the rest of Downtown.
Once upon a time, South Congress was a pretty sketchy area. In more recent memory it’s a fun stretch of road where you can find craft vendors and public art. Popular places include Guero’s, Home Slice, The Continental Club, and Monkey See Monkey Do.
7. Zilker Park
Austin’s main city park. Zilker is located right across from Downtown, which offers some pretty sweet views of the skyline. This is the location of the Austin City Limits concert series. Adjacent to Lady Bird Lake, it is an excellent point for renting kayaks.
8. Barton Springs Pool
An excellent way to beat the heat, this popular pool is fed by a natural spring, and stays at 68 degrees all year long.
9. The Hideout Theater
The Hideout is just one of many places to catch a funny improv comedy show in Austin. They also offer improv classes.
A local version of Barnes & Noble, with more personality and a more interesting selection of books.
11. Hope Outdoor Gallery
The concrete foundations of a never-completed building that are now completely covered in (legal) graffiti. You are perfectly free to spray your own designs on these walls. Grab a can of spray paint and add your own mark!
12. Alamo Drafthouse
Now a national chain, the quirky Alamo Drafthouse movie theaters started right here in Austin! They’re one of those places where you can order food and have it brought directly to your seat while you watch the show.
The tickets and the food are a bit on the expensive side, but it’s pretty good, and the whole experience is always a lot of fun. They have a sort of art house revival vibe going on. For example, the coming attractions are always scenes from hilariously over-the-top old foreign movies.
There are locations all over the Austin metropolitan area, from Downtown to Cedar Park, so you’ll have a location no matter where in town you are. Be sure to check out their movie-specific drinks list.
13. Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In
If it’s an old school drive-in movie theater you want, the Blue Starlite has you covered. They don’t show many first run films, but you’ll find plenty of classics, seasonal favorites, and sing-alongs.
A local arcade chain that serves up brews and old school and new school games alike. The original is on Highway 183, but there is a larger location that features indoor go-carts farther north, and an even bigger location way down south in Buda.
15. Harry Ransom Center
While Austin sadly does not list world-class museums among its offerings, the Harry Ransom Center on the University of Texas campus has some pretty cool exhibits come through. Among its permanent collection is one of the original Gutenberg Bibles, as well as the very first photograph ever taken.
16. Barton Creek Greenbelt
Several miles of shaded hiking in the Hill Country, with several places to stop and jump into some natural pools.
Is there anything I left out? Feel free to share in the comments!