While Austin may be the capital of Texas, it is actually only the state’s fourth largest city, and is located on the banks of the Colorado River. Austin is also the country’s fastest growing city in the period between the 2010 census and the 2017 census.
The city has been the state’s capital since 1839 and was named after Stephen F. Austin, who helped to lead Texas’ uprising against Mexican rule, who went on to be the secretary of state for the independent nation of Texas in the 1830s. T
oday Austin balances its long history with the thriving alternative culture in the city and this is our guide to the best things to do in Austin.
What Makes Austin A Great Place To Visit?
One of the great things that attracts so many visitors to Austin is its thriving music and alternative scene, and there are many campaigns that have promoted Austin as the world’s capital of live music. There are a great range of different venues to be found in the Texas capital, from Austin City Limits at the Moody Theater, through to smaller boutique venues such as Antone’s and the Cactus Café. Sixth Street is home to many venues, although you will find live music on display throughout the city. The culture doesn’t stop there however, with plenty of theaters offering everything from comedy and plays, through to musicals, opera and classical music.
Austin is also known for its historic buildings, with the Capitol Building being one of the city’s oldest buildings, and was constructed using the distinctive pink granite found in Texas. The University area also has some of the most interesting and oldest historical buildings in the city, with museums including the Blanton Museum of Art and the natural history collection at the Texas Memorial Museum being particularly impressive. One final thing to ensure is on your itinerary if you are visiting between March and November is to see the 1.5 million bats that live beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge, who come out to hunt at dusk every evening.
One of the events that has become an Austin institution over recent years is the South by Southwest Festival, which is a combination of music and film festivals accompanied by industry conferences. This is a huge event that is usually scheduled to match spring break at the University, to help provide accommodation for all the people coming to the festival. During the annual event, you will find plenty of live music events and film showings hosted by the venues throughout the city, and will find music artists and filmmakers rubbings shoulders with the businessmen that prefer to stay in the industry’s background.
The Districts Of Austin
- Downtown Austin
Downtown is where you’ll find the city center where the tall towers of commerce and the majority of the government buildings of Austin are located. In between these imposing structures there are plenty of places for entertainment, with bars, theatres and music venues dotted throughout the Downtown area. If you are visiting the city for the first time, then Downtown is where you will want to start, watching the business people work hard during the day and play hard once the working day is done.
Congress Avenue is one of the main streets of the city, and at 120 feet wide, it certainly offers plenty of room as you stroll towards the Texas State Capitol. This is a beautiful building, and well worth a visit if you are in Austin for sightseeing. The Gethsemane Lutheran Church is another of the buildings worth visiting on Congress Avenue, and is situated in a peaceful area surrounded by trees in this bustling city, while the Texas State History Museum is also nearby.
If you are visiting Austin for a bit more of a relaxed atmosphere and to enjoy some of the entertainment, Downtown has plenty! Sixth Street is one of the best areas for this, with a series of bars, restaurants and venues where you can pick up some live music. The Red River district is another great area for nightclubs and venues, with a mix of different music genres on offer depending on the venue.
Budget – Firehouse Hostel – Right on Sixth Avenue, this hostel is situated in a historic building which also houses its own cocktail bar as well. The hostel offers dorms and rooms, with free breakfast and a kitchen if you prefer to cook your own food. Beds in the dorm available from around $30 per night.
Mid-range – Hampton Inn and Suites – In a good location just off Sixth Street, this hotel offers easy access to the downtown area, along with comfortable rooms and a rooftop swimming pool as well. Rooms come with large flat screen TVs and hot drink making facilities, with prices starting from around $165 per night.
Luxury – The Driskill Hotel – A beautiful and grand building, The Driskill Hotel is a lovely place to stay, with sumptuously decorated rooms offering plenty of old Texan charm. The hotel is in a great location for exploring the Downtown area of Austin, and has live music in the downstairs lounge every evening. Rooms begin at around $285 per night.
- University District
As the name suggests, this district is the area to be found in and around the University of Texas (UT), and the UT has one of the largest university campuses in the country. Just on the western fringe of the campus is Guadeloupe Street, which is another lively area of the city where you can find cafes, bars and a few places that also host live music. The local sports teams that represent the UT are known as the Longhorns, so be prepared to see plenty of their logos as you explore the area around the University.
If you are visiting this area of the city, it is well worth taking a little bit of time just to enjoy the campus of the university, as there are several public art pieces on display here, and plenty of buildings worth seeing. One is the University of Texas Tower, which is visible from much of the city, soaring up to 307 feet tall, with a viewing deck that offers some great views all across the city. There are also several museums here, with the natural history collection at the Texas Memorial Museum being particularly of note, offering a fascinating place to visit with some great interactive exhibits.
Accommodation is fairly sparse around the University district, as much of the buildings around the area are dedicated to student housing, and also living space for the many people that work in the University. However, here are a couple of options worth considering:
Budget – Drifter Jack’s Hostel – Located on Guadalupe Street, this lively hostel is covered in murals and paintings throughout the building. It offers some nice areas to relax, including a lounge area and a pool table, while there is also free breakfast available as a part of the price. Dorm beds start from around $25, while there are also rooms available.
Mid-range – Rodeway Inn – This hotel offers clean and comfortable rooms that come with free breakfast and facilities including hot drinks makers, refrigerators and a microwave. Outside there is a seasonal pool that you can use, while the location is in walking distance from the University. Rooms begin from $56 per night.
Luxury – Hotel Ella – Housed in a grand mansion on the Downtown side of the University district, the high ceilings and grand surroundings offer a great place to relax after a day exploring the city. Outside, there is a pleasant swimming pool, while the rooms are beautifully decorated and very comfortable. Rates start from around $260 per night.
- East Austin
The east of the city is one of the traditional residential areas of the city, but it also has several different things for you to enjoy, including a good range of parks and open areas interspersed throughout this area of the city. If you are a walker, runner or cyclist, then one of the most attractive areas to go is the hiking and cycling path around Lady Bird Lake, where you will find many people enjoying the surroundings and getting out and about. It is also worth taking some time to visit the Texas State Cemetery, where some of the famous figures of Austin and Texas history are buried.
You will also find plenty of different venues in this part of the city, with several theatres and performance spaces where you can sample a taste of the vibrant culture of Austin. Among the theatres that are found in this part of the city are The Off Center, The Blue Theatre and The Vortex, where you will regularly find a broad range of different performances to enjoy. The White Horse is one of the city’s most prominent music venues, with live music every night and specializing in honky-tonk music.
East Austin is also host to the HOPE farmers market, which happens every Sunday and is a combination of market, performance space and an active community of educators and workshops being taught. As a more residential area, there are fewer hotels around this area of the city, but here is a selection of what is on offer:
Budget – Native Hostel – This hostel is one that describes itself as an ‘experiential hostel’, so there is naturally a bar on site and a community of artists that have helped to give the hostel a unique atmosphere. This is an attractively decorated area, with a lounge area and storage lockers included, with dorm beds starting at around $50 per night.
Luxury – Guild East 6th – This cool boutique hotel is pleasantly decorated, and has comfortable beds and rooms that also include a kitchen. There is a nice outdoor space with barbecue facilities, along with a gym and outdoor swimming pool. Rooms from around $250 per night.
Luxury – Heywood Hotel – A boutique hotel with just 7 rooms, this beautifully designed hotel has a modern feel, while also featuring some aspects such as high ceilings and sumptuous beds. The hotel has free bicycles you can use and a nice terrace for relaxing. Rooms from around $265 per night.
- North Loop
The North Loop district of the city is generally considered to be the area of Austin that is just north of the Downtown and Hyde Park areas, but before you cross West Anderson Lane. This area of the city is mainly residential but with a very distinctive atmosphere around the commercial centers. Here you will find plenty of vintage stores, second-hand record stores and comic book stores. Naturally, there are also some great coffee shops and little restaurants to try as well, as the chain stores still haven’t quite broken into the welcoming atmosphere of this district.
One of the things that you will find here is the Wall of Welcome, which is a large mosaic that is 120 feet long and located on Woodrow Avenue. The wall was the project of Jean Graham who is an artist who hosted classes to allow the people of the neighborhood to contribute their own tiles which would eventually become a part of the huge mosaic, with young and old collaborating on the project. This wall is located on the side of the Crestview Shopping Center, and is well worth a look during your visit.
There are a few different options for accommodation in this part of the city, and here are a couple of locations to consider:
Budget – Americas Best Value Inn – The rooms are simply furnished but comfortable, with a flat screen TV including HBO and cable channels, and pleasant bathroom. Rooms are air conditioned, and there is also an outdoor pool to relax. Rooms start from around $60 per night.
Mid-range – Country Inn and Suites – Just off the I-35, this hotel offers comfortable and tastefully furnished rooms that have a kitchenette and coffee making facilities. The hotel has a fitness center and an outdoor pool to help you relax, while some rooms also include a sitting area as well. Rooms begin at around $80.
Luxury – Habitat Suites Hotel – This lovely boutique hotel is one that has been beautifully designed, while it also places a great focus on its environmental impact. The sitting area has a lovely fireplace and the rooms are beautifully decorated and maintained with plants in each room to keep the air quality high. There is also a complimentary breakfast, and a lovely courtyard pool. Suites from around $109.
- Northwest Austin
An area of Austin that is generally considered to be one of the more upmarket residential areas of the city, Northwest Austin stretches into the hills away from the city center. It is still however a vibrant place to explore and you will find no shortage of little commercial spots with shopping centers, a wealth of restaurants and cafes to sit and enjoy the surroundings. There are also several farmers markets where you can pick up some fresh food and enjoy the laid back mix of stalls, performance art and live music that typifies an Austin market.
There are also plenty of things to do and look out for in this part of the city, and Lake Travis is one of the areas where people will go to swim or to enjoy some fishing, and despite the name it is actually a reservoir rather than a lake. Another great trip if you get the chance is on the Austin Steam Train, which offers a nice day trip from the Cedar Park suburb of Austin up to the town of Burnet. There are also a range of small theaters and cinemas to be found throughout this district, while it is also worth keeping an eye out for the city’s Chinese New Year Festival, if you are in the city during late January and early February, which is hosted by the Chinatown Center.
There are plenty of options for accommodation in this area of the city, and here are a couple of the most popular:
Mid-range – Courtyard Austin North – This hotel is located within easy reach of Lake Travis, and has access to a swimming pool and fitness center. Rooms have large comfortable beds and are nicely decorated, with rates starting from around $160 per night.
Luxury – The Westin Austin – Located in The Domain complex of Northwest Austin, this hotel also enjoys a spa with a range of treatments, along with a heated outdoor pool and whirlpool. The rooms are nicely decorated with comfortable beds and air conditioning, along with rainfall showers in the bathrooms. Rates start at around $330 per night.
- South Austin
This area of the city is generally considered to be the neighborhoods to the south of Lady Bird Lake, and it is one of the most popular areas of the city, offering plenty of things to do and some great facilities. The riverside area along the banks of the Colorado River is a nice place to relax and unwind, which has a distinct Mexican theme with lots of Mexican restaurants and a Mexican Flea market present. There are also several different places to relax, including McKinney Falls State Park and the beautiful waters of the Barton Springs Pool, which is fed from an underground source keeping the water beautifully cool in summer.
The night life in this area of the city is also an attraction, with plenty of live music venues, coffee shops and bars to enjoy during the evening, and a great wealth of restaurants to try. One of these venues is the historic Continental Club, which has been running for over sixty years and is a regular venue for blues, country and rock music in the city. For something a little more distinctly Austin in terms of quirky attractions, The Cathedral of Junk is a three story sculpture made from scrap, while The Museum of Ephemerata are both unusual places to visit, although they do not keep regular hours so call ahead.
Here are a few of the places to stay in South Austin
Budget – Hostelling International Austin – This hostel is located on the south bank of Lady Bird Lake, and is in a nice green area where you can explore. There are bicycle rentals available, with a large shared kitchen available. Dorm beds begin at around $28, with rooms from $69 per night.
Mid-range – Omni Austin Southpark – This hotel lies just off the I-35 and has comfortable and well decorated rooms that have a traditional Southern style present. There is a pleasant spa area and both indoor and outdoor swimming pools, with rooms starting from around $130.
Luxury – South Congress Hotel – A pleasant hotel located on the South Congress Avenue with easy access to the restaurants and night life of this area. Rooms are tastefully decorated with high ceilings and lovely bathrooms, along with large screen TVs and modern technology. Rates beginning at around $230 per night.
- Hyde Park
Hyde Park is actually a relatively small district of Austin, but it is also generally considered to be one of the most upmarket suburbs of the city. There are several parks dotted around the district, with Shipe Park being a nice place to take the family and relax for the local residents. Unlike much of the rest of the city, Hyde Park is quite a laid back area without too much in terms of night life and bars. However, there are a wealth of boutique food stores and upmarket coffee shops. The homes here are generally quite traditional in their style, and you will often find some very attractive gardens as you stroll around the district.
One of the attractions in the district is the Elisabet Ney Museum, which is a grand and impressive building housing a collection of the artist’s work, which is generally a range of sculptures and busts, including several prominent figures. This is an important part of the Hyde Park Historic District. There are only a couple of options if you want to stay in Hyde Park, but it can be easily accessed from surrounding areas.
Mid-range – Strickland Arms – Situated in a typical large home in the Hyde Park area, the Strickland Arms has impressive high ceilings and lovely gardens. The rooms are pleasantly decorated and there is a nice swimming pool and hot tub. Rooms start from around $130 per night.
Transport And Getting Around
When it comes to getting in to Austin, the city is served by the Austin Bergstrom International Airport, which has a wide range of different airlines operating services into the city. You will find that there are plenty of domestic routes and short distance flights to Central America, while longer international routes to Europe and South America are also well catered for. There are also coach routes to cities across the US on offer, along with two routes that connect to the cities of Monterey and Nuevo Laredo in Mexico. Austin also has an Amtrak station which is on the Texas Eagle Line, connecting the city with cities between Chicago and San Antonio.
Most of Austin’s city center is a good place to explore on foot, with some nice pedestrian areas and the pleasant climate making it a nice place to explore for much of the year, however bear in mind that it can get quite hot in the summer. Cycling is also very popular here, with cycle lanes and bicycle rentals available. In terms of public transport, Austin’s Capital Metro does have a reasonable number of services available, although away from the University area you may find the services are a little sparse, depending on where you are looking to get to. Naturally, there are plenty of taxis available, and renting a car is also an option, but beware parking fines as there are limited on-street parking options around the city.
Cuisine In Austin
As you would expect from a Texan city, there is certainly no doubt that the food and drink in Austin certainly has plenty of aspects of Southern hospitality, but as with the city’s quirky reputation there are also plenty of alternative options and health foods also available. Coffee houses are found through the city, and you will often find these coffee shops also hosting poetry events and acoustic music. Texans are also passionate about their craft beers, with a great range of different breweries found in pubs throughout the city, with the North Loop district particularly strong in this area. And if you want to check out some unique bars, Austin has some great speakeasies.
The downtown area houses most of the high-end restaurants in the city, with many having a national or international reputation for their excellent cuisine and some of the best restaurants in Austin are right downtown.. There are also plenty of Tex-Mex and Barbecue restaurants found throughout the city, with these two cuisines being among the most popular throughout Texas. You will also find plenty of vegetarian restaurants and cafes throughout the city, which offer a different take on the local cuisine. If you are looking for an authentic taste of Austin that will cut through the summer heat, Amy’s is the local ice-cream producer that is served in stores across the city, with the Mexican Vanilla cone being one of their most popular.