How To Take On Austin: A Comprehensive Guide
If you like your “lazy river” experience extra lazy, check out this tried-and-true tubing company. They’ll have you and your friends floating down the San Marcos River in style and comfort for about three hours without a care in the world. In addition to dropping you off at the start and scooping you up at the end, they provide the tubes, the floating coolers and the ice, too. That’s right — the cooler gets its own tube. (Note: It’s BYOB, so bring your own B. And food and sunblock, too.) ATXCursions runs most weekends from March to October, when the waters are usually a refreshing 72 degrees.
More than just a comfy place to see the latest blockbuster, this classic, two-screen movie house in Austin’s hopping 6th Street District is a reliable source of indie flicks and special programming, a decent place to get a beer and a burger, and the flagship location of a popular theater chain. The Alamo Drafthouse is always digging up forgotten favorites for parties, brunch screenings, matinees for kids and more. And we fully endorse their strict “no talking during the movie” policy.
Let’s Roam is a great team-building scavenger hunt option for Austin. The most useful feature of this app is the fact that you can customize every aspect of your hunt. A dedicated event planner is assigned to your cause at booking, who creates an exclusive city-wide puzzle just for your company. Integrate company trivia, inside jokes, and references into the scavenger hunt to test your team’s knowledge. Add pit stops and drinking breaks in the middle to keep things interesting. Get to know your coworkers better as you evaluate their strengths and deepen your understanding of who they are. Collaborate with every member of your team and put your minds to the test in this fun scavenger hunt adventure. Compete with rival teams for the high score and win bragging rights for the rest of the year! Learn more here.
Texas history isn’t always pretty — the Lone Star State has certainly had its share of cannonballs, bullets and bloodshed — and the Bullock doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to things like Native American relations, the Klan, the oil industry, etc. But there’s plenty of fun stuff, too — especially on the top floor where they keep the NASA artifacts. In addition to all the interactive displays throughout the museum, there are also a couple theaters (one’s an IMAX, the other’s a “multi-sensory special-effects” experience) for when you want to lean back and have history rocketed into your eyeballs.
There are lotsa places in the Austin area to pick up some sweet meats and a side of slaw, but only Franklin holds the title of “best barbecue in the known universe.” That’s according to Texas Monthly; Obama, Bourdain and Jimmy Kimmel have all sung its praises, too. Run by husband and wife team Aaron and Stacy Franklin, this 11th Street joint offers brisket, ribs, pulled pork and more, all slathered in their tangy, bangin’ homemade sauce.
Striking and spacious, this museum on the southern edge of the UT Austin campus boasts almost 18,000 works in its permanent collection. There’s plenty of modern and contemporary art, but the Blanton also makes room for pieces from Europe, Latin America and (especially) the American West. The biggest and most eye-catching piece in the collection is surely Austin, Ellsworth Kelly’s gleaming white and vaguely igloo-ish building in the grass outside the museum.
There are a lot of reasons Austin’s become known as a music Mecca, and this popular downtown record joint is one of them. Founded in 1982, Waterloo helped build the scene with in-store performances, strong support of local artists and rack after rack of new and used music in multiple formats and genres. There’s a decent selection of books and movies, too. While other record stores are struggling to stay afloat, Waterloo appears to be sailing along just fine due to its friendly vibes and community spirit.
Food Truck Parks
Thanks to its (mostly) pleasant weather Austin is pretty much packed with outdoor dining options all year long. For something quick and chill, swing by one of the city’s many food truck parks. Populated by a few trucks, a couple picnic tables and a tornado of windswept napkins, these little lots are like rustic little food courts. If you’re not feeling the chicken and waffles, check out the biscuits and gravy at the next truck, or the vegan chorizo tacos at the one after that, and so on. It’s so Austin.
Sweet genius Amy Simmons opened her first little ice cream shop in Austin in 1984. Fast forward to the present, and Amy’s Ice Cream has locations all over town and beyond, and a reputation for inventive, sometimes crazy flavors. What’ll it be this time? Bee Cave Crunch, Guinness Gingerbread, or Sweet Potato Pie? Or maybe you want the Wasominic (dark chocolate, Oreos and wasabi) or the Hatch Chili Peach (featuring, among other things, strawberries and corn). In all, Amy’s got some 350 varieties in her bag of tricks, and she rotates them in and out of the lineup on the regular.
Chuck E. Cheese is all about the kids. Dave & Busters caters mainly to a (young) adult crowd. Sometimes it seems like family fun centers don’t really have the whole family in mind. Pinballz aims to challenge that, with food and games that should appeal to everybody. In addition to the titular pinball machines, this mini-chain — with two locations in Austin and another in nearby Buda — offers skeeball and video games, but also laser tag, bumper cars, escape rooms and more. The original location at 183 & Burnet is BYOB, while the other two offer beer and whiskey. All three will serve you pizza, tacos, mozzarella sticks, etc.
Somewhere between a scavenger hunt and improv comedy, this scavenger hunt-style tour will have your group of friends darting around Austin striking goofy poses and solving site-specific riddles. (It’s not just Austin; there are versions of this “adventure game” series in lots of cities all over the U.S. and beyond.) Before you go: Charge your smartphone, stay hydrated, put on some comfortable shoes and, most importantly, leave your dignity at the door. If you’re too cool for school, you won’t have fun and neither will anybody else.
Established in 1964, this Texas-style dancehall is famous for its throwback cowboy décor, its tangy barbecue and hot lineup of live local bands most nights of the week. Usually there’s no cover and the bands play for tips. Come early to sign up for two-step and western swing dance lessons. If you want a taste of what it’s like to be a true-school Texan, head to the Broken Spoke, order the chicken fried steak and do the Cotton-Eyed Joe.
If you’re not familiar with competitive axe-throwing, picture darts with a greater chance of catastrophe. JK. This increasingly popular pastime is actually pretty safe thanks to some well-placed walls and rubber mats. Besides, an Urban Axes instructor will run you through the dos and don’ts before putting the hatchet in your hand. It’s a fun, weird, exhilarating little group sport that requires minimal strength and no experience. The Austin location is BYOB.
Bouldering is sorta like rock climbing’s bratty, scrappy little sister. The climbs are shorter but you’ve got no ropes or harnesses to rely on if you lose your grip. Don’t worry, there are rubbery cushions everywhere at this friendly spacious recreation spot, and most of the boulders max out around 13-15 feet. But yeah, you’re gonna need to sign a waiver. The Austin Bouldering Project offers multiple indoor and outdoor climbs, plus shoe rentals, chalk bags, etc. It’s also a real gym, with a yoga studio and exercise equipment, so check their calendar for classes, competitions and other events that might pique your interest.
Kitschy, goofy and endlessly Instagrammable, Peter Pan has been a beloved landmark in Austin since 1948. Its two 18-hole miniature golf courses are populated by oversized animals, characters from fairy tales, a T Rex, all kinds of crazy things. The giant Converse sneaker is especially photogenic. It’s a family-friendly place, but it’s also BYOB, so there’s nothing wrong with caddying your cooler from one hole to the next (this is Texas, after all). Most nights you can putt-putt to your heart’s content until 1 a.m.
The rocky, grassy peak of this stately little mountain used to be called “the highest point in Austin,” but the city’s borders have expanded over the years, so it’ll have to settle for “prettiest view in town.” Indeed, a short trail climb up Mount Bonnell allows visitors a breathtaking panorama of the city, the Colorado River and beyond. It’s also a nice place to have a picnic or propose to your sweetie.
Every night’s a party at this honky tonk bar and music venue in East Austin where locals and tourists eat, drink, mix, mingle and dance. The White Horse’s calendar is wall-to-wall with live country music by bands with names like Johnny Dango & the Stinkin’ Roses, the Saddle Sores, and the Texas Tycoons and most shows are either free or five bucks. If music’s not your thing, you should still swing by the White Horse for a rousing happy hour and some Tex-Mex grub by Bomb Tacos.
The first thing you notice about this family fun center is the sheer enormity of the place. Youngins spend hours in Mt Playmore’s “Texas-sized indoor playscape” — a colorful obstacle course littered with nets and monkey bars and bouncy floors to climb, crawl and clamber over. Meanwhile you’re chilling in the middle on the couches with an ice tea and a smile. If the kiddos still aren’t exhausted after all that, there’s also the arcade games, amusement rides, party rooms and the Hungry Yeti Café where kids eat free.
Inspired by old-school European farmhouse breweries, Jester King’s philosophy calls for things like “mixed cultures of yeast and bacteria” and “spontaneous fermentation.” Bottom line: They make good beer. That’s why so many Austinites hike out to Hill Country to sip Jester King’s porters, “barrel-aged wild ales,” cherry wines, etc. Well, that and the place is gorgeous, 165-acres of pastoral views and blissful nature. While you’re there, take a tour of the place to see how they’ve started using solar power and homegrown fruits and veggies to expand their horizons even further.
Zilker Park is 358 acres and the Barton Springs Swimming Pool takes up a full three of them. Let me say that again: This is a three-acre swimming pool. Fed by underground springs and aquifers, Barton’s soothing water is naturally refreshing (around 68 degrees) and open year-round. For non-residents, a visit will cost you nine bucks at most, too keep the place clean and pay the lifeguards, etc. If that’s too pricey, there’s also the nearby Barton Creek which is free and kayak/dog-friendly, but not paved and maintained like the pool.
This rugged but only-a-bit-hilly single-track mountain bike trail between Zilker Park to Lost Creek has several entrance points close to downtown. That said, there’s nothing urban about it. Once you get going it’s all trees and roots and nature everywhere you look. Both experienced and amateur bikers will find lots to keep them entertained; the secret is knowing your limits and avoiding drops that you and your bike aren’t ready for yet.
These cozy little diners are essential pieces of Austin’s homespun, low-frills food scene. The original Lake Austin Boulevard location opened in 1987, and the South Congress Avenue restaurant opened the following year. The first is open 24 hours a day during the warmer months; the other 24/7 all 365. The Magnolia menu focuses on the classics — salads, tacos, pancakes, burgers, breakfast all day — sometimes with tangy little twists, like the mac & cheese with extra sharp cheddar, or the Tropical Turkey Taco.
This free-admission art museum on the University of Texas campus has an impressive and wildly eclectic collection. The Harry Ransom Center has a Gutenberg Bible and a Frida Kahlo self-portrait. Albert Einstein’s unpublished notes and Robert De Niro’s archive of scripts, props and costumes. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road notebook and three copies of the Shakespeare First Folio from 1623. Edgar Allan Poe’s writing desk and a manuscript of The Canterbury Tales from the year 1450. If that’s not enough, keep an eye on their events calendar for movie screenings, tours, temporary exhibitions and more.
Austin claims to be the Live Music Capital of the World and it’s hard to argue with that, given the countless concerts and festivals that take place there every year. This BYOB bus tour through downtown offers a glimpse into that world, delivering visitors to three different clubs to watch local bands perform. And, oh yeah, the bus has its own house band, playing live and answering questions as you cruise down the street. Sing-alongs are encouraged.
Austin's Iconic Murals
When you’re strolling through Austin, don’t miss the city’s many eye-catching, selfie-inspiring murals. You might spot Willie Nelson (at 1315 S. Congress Ave.), Bob Dylan on the side of the Hole in the Wall music venue (2538 Guadalupe St.) and Mister Rogers (at 1423 S. Congress Ave.). There are several pieces painted by or inspired by recently departed outsider musician/artist Daniel Johnston, most notably the Hi, How Are You mural (408 W. 21st St.). Plus there’s Spaceman with Floating Pizza, When You’re Strange, Smile Now Cry Later, and lots more added all the time. Lastly, and maybe this one isn’t a mural per se, but it’s hard to deny the stirring simplicity of seeing I Love You So Much written in red cursive on the green wall of Jo’s Coffee (1300 S. Congress Ave.).
Sculptor and UT professor Charles Umlauf was Austin through and through, so it’s no surprise that he donated his home, art studio and 168 of his creations to the city he loved. Austin, in turn, built a museum and a four-acre sculpture garden in Umlauf’s honor. Throughout, visitors can see up close the artist’s works in bronze, stone and wood that were sometimes realistic and other times abstract and expressionist.
Since the 1970s, artist James Turrell has been creating what he calls Skyspaces — small, dreamy rooms with open roofs, allowing visitors a pleasant view of the sky and letting sunlight set the interior aglow. The Color Inside, his 84th Skyspace, was opened in 2013 on the University of Texas campus on the roof of the William C. Powers, Jr. Student Activity Center. The place is at its most alluring at sunrise and sunset, but you can pretty much expect a contemplative, otherworldly experience anytime you go.
With its majestic rotunda, pink granite edifice and Renaissance-style columns and vaults, the Texas State Capitol is probably the most striking structure in town. Modeled after its counterpart in Washington D.C. and placed on a hilltop in the middle of downtown, Elijah E. Myers’s masterwork — and the Goddess of Liberty statue at its peak — continues to outshine the modern high-rises that have sprung up around it. Though the Capitol is a busy government hub, tours are free and frequent, each one starting every 30 to 45 minutes or so during a normal business day. Check the schedule for specialty tours, too, with titles like African American Trailblazing Texans and Heroes of the Texas Revolution.
Something unexpected happened when Austin renovated the Congress Avenue Bridge in 1980: A bunch of bats moved in. And they kept coming. At last count, some 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats are currently hanging out under the bridge. Now the bridge and the bats have become one of the city’s most iconic attractions, as crowds of tourists gather on summer nights to watch the creatures emerge en masse to fly loop-de-loops and eat bugs as the sun sets on Lady Bird Lake. Don’t miss this.
Often mistaken for a river, Lady Bird Lake is, in fact, a lake — part of a man-made chain of reservoirs created in the ’60s. Its serene, gently lapping waters come snaking into downtown Austin from the Colorado River and pool there, creating an ideal playground for kayaking, canoeing, paddle-boarding and so on. Swimming is not permitted, but you can bring your own boat or rent one for about $20 an hour from Rowing Dox ATX. They’ll also rent you rods and such if fishing is your thing; Lady Bird Lake is stocked with largemouth bass, carp and more.
You can’t swing a dead bat in Austin without hitting three or four music venues where somebody famous once played, but the Continental Club is something special. From 1955 on up through the present, this cozy little club on South Congress Avenue has been hosting notable punk, rock and country acts, usually before they’d peaked: Stevie Ray Vaughan, sonic Youth, Roky Erikson, Wanda Jackson, The Replacements, The Killers, Arcade Fire, the list goes on and on and keeps on growing.
Austin’s got more than its fair share of spooky places and creepy true stories — i.e. the so-called Servant Girl Annihilator stalked its streets with an ax in 1885 — so it’s no surprise that several “haunted walking tour” companies have emerged to lead you around town. With its reasonable price ($23) and 25+ years in the biz, Austin Ghost Tours is the perfect fit.
Just a 15-minute drive from downtown Austin sits this enormous botanical garden and arboretum run by the University of Texas. With its many manicured gardens and untamed meadows teeming with plants and trees native to the region, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is an ideal place for blissful strolling and picnicking. After that, head into the air-conditioned Central Complex to learn all about the ecological research going on there.
This friendly little walking tour packs a lot of color into its 1.2 mile trips through “one of the edgiest neighborhoods in town” — a section of East Austin chock full of history, and tattooed with all manner of murals and graffiti by Blek le Rat, Meres1, JonOne, and other street art legends. Husband-and-wife tour guide team Doug and Eileen Barber, are known for their passionate, personable storytelling. (P.S. On the really hot days, they’ll even pass out some frozen towels to help you cool off.)
If you want the thrill of skydiving without (all) the terror, iFLY has you covered. Instead of jumping out of a plane, you just suit up and step into a wind tunnel where, after a little practice you’ll be floating, spinning, flipping and laughing your face off. (At least that’s the vibe we’ve gotten from watching videos; kids, seniors, everybody seems to be having a fun, safe time. We haven’t tried it yet because we’re scaredy cats.) Watch the iFLY calendar for Ladies Night, Tunnel of Love and other themed flying experiences and if you’re feeling extra crazy, look into the virtual reality options, wherein you trick your brain into thinking you’re actually skydiving or base jumping.
This loony little gallery in the back room of Lucky Lizard Curios and Gifts on Sixth Street takes its cues from an old school P.T. Barnum-style dime museum. The collection is stuffed with macabre, dubious artifacts from another era: wax figures of Siamese twins, a mermaid corpse, a furry trout, Pancho Villa’s trigger finger, a two-headed cow, a turtle with a human face, and so on. What’s real? What’s fake? What’s it matter?
P.S. Click here to learn more about things to do in Austin from our friends at Austin City Guide!