Austin Travel Guide – Top 10 Vacation Highlights

America’s “It” City, Austin has been named the fastest growing city in the country for several years in a row. And its continuing popularity has it growing by leaps and bounds. Continually ranked as one of the best places to visit and live in America, Austin is a cosmopolitan city that offers plenty to see and do, without losing its quirky energy and small-town feel.
Austin Travel Guide
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South Congress Avenue or SoCo in short, stretches just across the bridge from downtown Austin and is home to a bounty of artisan booths, vintage stores, boutiques, restaurants and clubs. Shoppers can indulge to their heart’s content, and then recharge at one of the many food trailers. An eclectic, vibrant and totally Austin hip strip, SoCo offers the perfect walkable day that stretches into a fun evening.

Also situated on Congress Avenue, the Mexic-Art Museum is dedicated to the conservation of Mexican and Latin American art and culture. The Museum offers great culture, versatility, information and enjoyment to visitors of varying interests. There is a fascinating permanent collection, along with great displays of contemporary works by local artists.

Still on Congress Avenue are its bridge and bats. Each year close to one million Mexican free-tailed bats make Austin their home. The bats, which comprise the largest urban bat colony in North America, remain in Austin until early fall. Join the hundreds who gather to see the bats emerge for dinner from the Congress Avenue Bridge, appearing like a black cloud against the sunset.

Sixth Street is a historic and highly entertaining street that offers plenty to see and do. Situated in Austin’s downtown Mecca, Sixth Street has everything from restaurants and cafes to live music and bars. Visit Esther’s Follies, a popular music and comedy club, then go dining at one of the restaurants before hitting the bar or music scene in a city that does it unlike any other.

Austin is also home to the Texas State Capitol Building. An extraordinary example of late 19th century public architecture, the Texas State Capitol Building is widely recognized as one of the most distinguished state capitols in the nation. The Capitol grounds span 22 acres and feature 17 monuments, historical buildings and beautifully landscaped lawns, along with the Capitol building itself.

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is another great spot for nature lovers to indulge in during a visit to Austin. The Center was founded to educate botanists on the benefits of planting and nurturing certain plant types. Today, the Center is the largest research library in the US for native plant studies.

Visit Austin to take advantage of the natural beauty and outdoor activities offered by the city. From great outdoor recreation and parks, to music, the arts and cultural events, Austin has it all. These are just a few of the ways to catch the unique vibe of Austin that sets it apart from other US cities. But rest easy knowing that any choice you make for visiting Austin’s attractions is certain to please.

Everyone who visits Austin leaves with something good to say about the unique culture, burgeoning restaurant scene, and of course the legendary live music scene. To truly understand what makes Austin so very Austin, you simply must experience it for yourself. Everyone else has taken notice. Its time you did too.

1. The Mexic-Arte Museum

Founded in 1984 in downtown Austin just a few blocks south of The Driskill Hotel, the Mexic-Arte Museum was established to share the art and culture of Mexico with Texas. Beginning with the Day of the Dead festival during the fall of 1984, the museum started offering outstanding cultural programs. Since then, it has continued presenting art from the finest established and emerging artists in Mexico, Latin America and the United States.

The Mexic-Arte Museum is today dedicated to the cultural enrichment and education of the public through the collection, preservation and presentation of contemporary and traditional Mexican, Latino and Latin American art and culture, so as to develop understanding and promote dialogue among all visitors.

With its Congress Avenue location, the Museum is right in the heart of the vibrant Austin downtown, the epicenter of Central Texas’ arts, culture, commerce and tourism. One of the precious few Mexican art museums in the US, the Mexic-Art Museum strives to improve the quality of life in Texas via innovative exhibitions and educational programming.

The Mexic-Arte Museum is a great place to stop by and explore while in downtown Austin. The impressive history of this Museum has it set to become one of the region’s foremost art institutions. Spend some time walking through the Museums exhibits of beautiful pieces. The Museum also has an impressive little gift shop from which you can buy some beautiful handmade items from Mexico.

2. Paramount Theater

The oldest and most ornate theater in Austin, the Paramount Theater hosts red carpet movie premieres, concerts, ballets, plays and comedy acts. Opened in 1915, the Theater featured vaudeville performers and famous touring acts such as the Marx Brothers.

By the early 70s, the Theater had fallen into disrepair until a major restoration was completed in 1979. From its deep red carpet and walls to the petal-like light lobby fixtures, everything about its décor oozes of early 20th century Art Nouveau.

With more than 3,000 seats, the Theater is huge, but still maintains an intimate feel to it. While some seats are listed on the seating chart as partially obstructed, these obstructions are minor.

There really isn’t a bad seat in the Paramount Theater house. Opera box seats, balcony and upper balcony seats are worth the price for a special occasion. For the best combination of sight line and value, your best bet would be to sit at a center row within the mezzanine area.

The Theater’s mezzanine seating area has a great view of all the fine detail work along the railing of the balconies, as well as bordering the stage. The ceiling is a work of art in and of itself.

With the Moontower Comedy Festival, the Paramount Theater has played a key role in making Austin an increasingly high-profile player on the national comedy scene.

In 1982, Paramount Theater hosted one of its very first world premiers, and since then became a go-to spot for high-profile movie premieres in Austin. Director Robert Rodriquez hosts premieres frequently at this theater.

The Paramount Theater has also joined forces with the nearby Stateside Theater to form the Austin Theater Alliance. Stateside is a historic Art Deco theater with 320 seats that hosts plays, award shows, film festivals, and intimate music and comedy performances.

3. Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center was founded in 1982 to preserve and protect the native plants and natural landscapes of North America. A special place, the Center exists to introduce people to the diversity and beauty of wildflowers and other native plants. Each day, the Center brings life to this vision through its public gardens, woodlands, sweeping meadows, and internationally influential research.

Realizing that the country was losing its natural landscape and natural beauty, while as much as 30% of the world’s native flora is at risk of extinction, the Center’s founders aimed at preserving and restoring that beauty, as well as the biological richness of North America. Since then, the Wildflower Center has become one of the most credible research institutions and effective advocates for native plants.

The gardens of the Wildflower Center feature displays of native plants from the Central Texas Hill Country, West and South Texas, while the Plant Conservation Program protects Texas’ ecological heritage through the conservation of its rare and endangered flora. It is also responsible for the Native Plant Information Network, a database with over 7,200 native species available online.

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s Land Restoration Program applies knowledge of ecological processes to the restoration of damaged landscapes. The education programs teach visitors about their natural surroundings, as well as how to grow native plants in their own backyards.

4. The Driskill Hotel

The Driskill Hotel is an elegant hotel with plenty of old-fashioned Texan décor and charm. A staple in downtown Austin since the 1800s, the hotel has won several awards and has previously also been named one of the world’s top 500 hotels.

The Driskill Hotel holds an incredible amount of Austin history. When it was first opened in 1886, a local paper named it “one of the finest hotels in the whole country.” Since inception, the hotel has hosted many inaugural balls for new Texas governors.

Over the decades, The Driskill changed hands several times and became a historical landmark in 1969 after developers threatened to tear it down. Concerned citizens fought for it to stay and won. The Hotel has undergone renovations throughout the years.

Upon walking into the beautiful Driskill lobby, you will need to pause for a couple of moments to take in everything. The grandiose entrance looks like something straight out of the 1800s with its cloth and leather seating and lounge chairs, ornate columns, intricate light fixtures and a regal marble grand staircase.

The guest room floors feel truly homely. The meandering carpeted halls are very wide, with several corners and nooks that feature built-in bookshelves stacked with old copies of books and vases. Scattered throughout the hallways are some lounging chairs and cozy chaises, while the walls are adorned with old paintings – some of famous Texans and others of still life and the countryside.

Glass cases all through the hallways display memorabilia from Austin’s past including black and white photographs, handwritten notes, pressed flowers and leather gloves. While here, you are bound to feel as if you are inside a museum or a historic home.

The Driskill Hotel has 189 guest rooms which are spread out on 2 wings. The historic wing boasts elaborate woodwork, high ceilings and balconies, while the traditional wing features more classical styling. All the rooms feature custom Driskill furniture and beds.

Because the ceilings are extremely high, they make what would typically feel like a small room much more airy and spacious. The windows are equally tall with cascading drapes that drop more than 15 feet. All this makes the rooms feel rather unique. The bed is comfortable with a brown, faux-fur blanket draped across it. There is a spacious balcony with seating that overlooks downtown Austin.

The main thing you will notice about the guest room is that there is so much attention to detail, as well as customization. There is a “D” in the wrought-iron bed frame; burnt into the wooden door threshold; painted into the old-fashioned custom sink; printed on the decorative bed pillows and so on. There is also a cabinet featuring a large image of the entire front of the Driskill Hotel.

If you enjoy fine dining, do not miss out on the upscale Driskill Grill. The restaurant oozes with classical elegance. The circular tables are covered in white tablecloths and outfitted with wooden upholstery in beautiful green fabric speckled with golden Texas stars. The carpeting features similar patterns and colors, while the walls have mirrors with etchings and subdued light sconces.

Year after year, the 4-diamond restaurant has been ranked the number one restaurant in Austin. Expect to part with a pretty penny to enjoy a meal at the innovative and luxurious Driskill Grill. And while you’re at it, also sample their fantastic wine list.

5. South Congress Avenue

The funkiest boulevard in Austin, South Congress Avenue or SoCo in short, stretches just across the bridge from downtown Austin and is home to a bounty of artisan booths, vintage stores, boutiques, restaurants and clubs. An eclectic, vibrant and totally Austin hip strip, SoCo offers the perfect day for walking that ends in a fun evening.

Plan your visit on First Thursday, the first Thursday of every month during which South Congress Avenue offers visitors the opportunity to shop, eat and drink late into the evening.

Many of the clothing boutiques that are locally owned will remain open late for First Thursday shoppers. Fans of antiques and oddities can also get their fix here. Along the sidewalks, vendors sell everything from folk art to jewelry.

Often, bands will set up in the parking lots along the street, although you can always find some good music at the outdoor stage and in clubs such as Continental Club. In fact, it was the Continental Club that began the revival of this once-forsaken stretch of South Congress. The music here ranges from blues and soul to an eclectic mishmash of Austin music.

There are a number of restaurants and of course, all manner of food trucks will descend upon South Congress every First Thursday. You can sample excellent enchiladas, pastries, sandwiches and seafood. Visitors can also sample some wine and cheese while here.

To grab the attention of adults and cause some sugar buzz, there’s a shop that sells nostalgic candies from the yesteryears that you probably thought no longer existed. There are also cafés and coffeehouses which present film screenings and bands.

6. Congress Avenue Bridge Bats

Every March to October in Austin, about 1.5 million bats emerge each night from bat-sized crevices on the underside of the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge. The Mexican free-tailed bats typically arrive as the warm weather returns in the spring to make Austin their home. The bats, which comprise the largest urban bat colony in North America, remain in Austin until early fall.

In June, the mothers in this bat species of Mexican free-tailed bats give birth to one small pup. These pups feed from mammary glands situated under the wings of the mother, unlike most mammals whose mammary glands are situated on the chest.

The pups are typically ready to start flying by mid-August, which makes the black cloud of bats emerging from the bridge even more impressive at this time. In fact, the colony size virtually doubles because almost all the bats roosting at the bridge are female. The male of the species typically roost in separate colonies and do not play any role in child rearing.

Hundreds of locals and visitors gather to see the bats emerge for dinner from the Congress Avenue Bridge, appearing like a black cloud against the sunset.

As of Jul 2015, the fee for viewing the transitory bats from the Bridge is $6. However, if you don’t mind walking, there is a free lot about a quarter mile to the west next to the South 1st Street Bridge. The lot is primarily used by joggers and walkers visiting the Lady Bird Lake Hike and Bike Trail and Auditorium Shores. Although busy, people do come and go frequently.

Arrive for the bat viewing just before sundown. The bats generally take around 45 minutes to emerge fully, and typically begin to emerge from the bridge about 20 minutes before sunset.

The walkway on the eastern side of the Congress Avenue bridge provides the best vantage point for watching the bats emerge and fly eastward over the Lady Bird Lake. The hillside below the bridge is great for spreading out a blanket and having a picnic as you wait. From this perspective, you will get a close-up view as the bats emerge, before quickly disappearing over the trees bordering the lake.

On this hillside you do run a slight risk of being bombarded by a bit of bat pee or poop. Although rarely more than just a sprinkle, it does happen.

Plan in advance to get a better view from the water. This entails renting canoes or kayaks from the various businesses along the shoreline. Some also provide knowledgeable guides who will share fun facts with you about the bats as you paddle along.

Many people wonder why the bats chose this bridge in Austin to roost in. Well, in 1980, a redesign of the bridge created crevices on the underside of the structure that were the perfect size for cozy bat homes.

At first, many of the residents of Austin feared and despised the bats, and tried to have their colony eradicated. Luckily, the cooler heads prevailed and Austinites today really adore their bat colony. They also welcome the voracious appetite of the flying mammals and their favorite food – bugs, as the colony of bats consumes up to 20,000 pounds of bugs every night.

7. 6th Street

A trip to the “Live Music Capital of the World” would not be complete without discovering some of the up and coming talent of Austin along 6th Street. During the Seventies, this area became the hub of the music scene in Austin. Today, 6th Street is a buzz of activity with its bars, restaurants, stores and of course, live-music joints.

Many recent visitors compare 6th Street to Bourbon Street in New Orleans, assuring that there are venues certain to appeal to all musical tastes, be it the low-key bars to the wild clubs.

The bars on 6th Street feature an eclectic variety of local musicians. Some are wild, some funny, while others maintain a slightly more mellow vibe to them. After having a couple of drinks, there’s no better way to end the night than with some fresh hot pizza from one of the numerous walk-up vendors situated on 6th Street.

If you enjoy over-the-top musical comedy, Esther’s Follies offers all that and a pretty darn good magician as well. The window behind the stage keeps things interesting. On occasion, performers will secretly mingle with the crowd outside and then suddenly launch into a comedy act.

It’s hard to miss the building that houses Esther’s Follies. Situated on the eastern end of 6th Street, the building features all sorts of odd decorations, including a melting Salvador Dali clock.

On busy weekends and during major events, 6th Street becomes a pedestrian-only zone. However, during the week, 6th Street is your typical busy downtown street. On Friday and Saturday nights, traffic is restricted on 6th Street which enables people to carouse in the middle of the street. Plan your visit on one of these 2 nights to experience Austin’s entertainment district at its finest.

8. The Texas State Capitol

Every visitor to Austin shouldn’t miss an opportunity of touring the Texas State Capitol Complex. Lore, history and legend combine here to make a tour of this building both educational and inspirational.

The complex includes the original Texas General Land Office that was built in 1857. For sixty years, the building served as the Land Office. It is today the oldest surviving state office structure which also houses the Texas Capitol Visitors Center and the Texas Capitol Gift Shop. At the Texas Capitol Visitors Center you will find exhibits relating to the history of the capitol and the entire state as a whole.

Visitors can tour the legislative chambers. The House Chamber is the largest room situated on the western side of the second floor and houses 150 representatives while the House is in session.

Various artifacts are on display inside the House Chamber. The walls of the Senate Chamber are adorned with a collection of 15 historical paintings and feature many of the original desks made from walnut still in use. They have only been slightly modified to accommodated modern technology.

An Agricultural Museum was created within the capitol soon after completion of the building. This was established to signify just how important agriculture was to the state during its early days. In addition to displays on some of the early food crops of the state, the Museum is filled with antiques dating from the 1800s and early 1900s.

Other points of interest in the building include the original Governor’s Office, the original Supreme Court Courtroom, as well as the original State Library. In addition, several monuments are situated on the Capitol Complex grounds.

The easiest way to view the building is to grab a brochure on its first floor and then go on a self-guided tour. That said, you’ll get more out of your visit with the help of a knowledgeable tour guide. A typical tour will cover the building’s architecture, its state history and fun facts on the Texas Legislature. The guided tour will also help you detect some of the less conspicuous building details such as the door hinges with “Texas Capitol” engraved into them.

You will notice similar attention to detail in the doorknobs and floor tiles. To see the “wow factor” of the building, check out the glittery chandeliers and sweeping staircases.

A special “Women in Texas History” tour is offered on weekdays. Nature lovers can also grab the Trail of Trees brochure, which highlights the history of the capitol’s well-manicured grounds, with particular focus on the majestic bald cypress, southern magnolia and oak trees. There are 25 different tree species in total on the capitol grounds.

Try clapping your hands while standing under the capitol rotunda and then listen as the sounds echo throughout the massive structure.

9. Texas Hill Country

The Texas Hill Country is a region in Austin that features everything from big cities to small bergs, while offering modern attractions and outdoor adventures. From rolling hills, quaint towns and clear flowing rivers, the Texas Hill Country offers visitors an abundance of things to do during their vacation. From dining, to hiking and river tubing, there’s a little something of everything available in Texas Hill Country.

Many relate the foliage of fall and changing leaves to the eastern part of the United States. However, sections of Texas witness dramatic changes in foliage coloration as fall draws near. For the most vivid fall leaf coloration in the state, visit the Lost Maples State Natural Area in the Texas Hill Country.

Situated just north of Fredericksburg, Enchanted Rock is one of the United States’ largest natural rock formations, and one of the most iconic natural attractions in Texas. The dome of the Enchanted Rock rises 425 feet above ground.

Enchanted Rock played an important role in the lives of Native Americans during previous centuries. It is today designated as a State Natural Area which offers popular hiking opportunities. A trail of four miles encompasses a number of rock formations, while a steeper and shorter foot trail leads to the top of Enchanted Rock. There are campsites available for those who wish to stay overnight.

Texas Hill Country is home to a surprising number of wineries and vineyards. Most are open throughout the year for public tours, with 2 large-scale winery tours held every year. The Harvest Wine Trail coincides with the August harvest season and includes almost 2 dozen wineries. The Texas Holiday Wine Trail is held over 3 weekends in December and features wineries from Fredericksburg to Dripping Springs, and New Braunfels to Lampasas.

Situated in the famous Zilker Park, Barton Springs was formed after the damming of Barton Creek. From inception, Barton Springs has become one of the state’s most popular swimming holes. Since 1917, the city of Austin has been operating Barton Springs as a park. While a number of improvements have been made to its pool over the years, Barton Springs has remained a spring-fed, natural water swimming hole.

At the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum you will find exhibits encapsulating the history of Texas from prehistoric times to the present day. The wide array of interactive exhibits showcases everything from the life of the early Native Americans in Texas. The Museum houses traveling and special exhibitions and has an IMAX theater, a café and gift store.

The Texas Highland Lakes are a series of 7 lakes formed by the damming of the Colorado River. The lakes are all situated on a stretch of river that runs from the city of Austin approximately 75 miles north. A variety of outdoor recreational activities are to be enjoyed at each of the 7 lakes. Lake Travis is one such lake.

Stretching more than 60 miles, Lake Travis offers sailors, fishermen and water sports enthusiasts plenty of room to indulge. Reputed to be one of the top lakes for water skiing in Texas, Lake Travis is situated on the Colorado River about 20 miles above Austin. Since its filling, the lake is one of the most popular water sports destinations in the state. Its scenic, hilly shorelines and clear, deep waters offer the perfect backdrop for diving, sailing, canoeing, boating, windsurfing and more.

Garner State Park is situated on the southern edges of the Texas Hill Country and covers over 1,400 acres, including a 10-acre stretch alongside the Frio River. Garner State Park is one of Texas most popular state parks that offer visitors various outdoor recreational activities including hiking, camping, tubing, canoeing, swimming and more. With all the locals and visitors who gather here, a trip to the Garner State Park has become an annual summer pilgrimage.

Beyond its breathtaking natural beauty, Texas Hill Country’s charm lies in its numerous small towns and villages dotting the landscape. The majority of the towns offer unique dining and entertainment facilities. If you are looking for a truly unique vacation experience, then the small towns and natural wonders of Texas Hill Country are it.

Fredericksburg is one of Texas’ most iconic towns. It was founded in 1846 by German settlers and has become a Mecca of sorts for visitors in search of a laid-back Hill Country getaway. Although it’s certainly grown over the years, Fredericksburg has managed to retain its quaint charm, and today features several wineries, art galleries and wildflower farms.

There are plenty of things to see and do in Kerrville throughout the year. Kerrville offers its own distinct ambience and charm, with several unique attractions, outdoor recreational opportunities and fun festivals.

Founded in 1972, the Kerrville Folk Festival is the longest running event of its kind in North America. Over the years, the event has grown into one of the largest, with recent events featuring over 100 artists. Since inception, over 1,500 singer-songwriters have performed at this Festival. Every year, over 30,000 people attend the Kerrville Folk Festival, many of whom prefer to camp onsite and enjoy the festivities 24 hours a day.

Boerne is home to the Cascade Cavernes, several antique stores and restaurants and plenty more to see and do while still enjoying a laid-back atmosphere.

Historic Georgetown is home to the most beautiful town square in Texas, which stages events throughout the year, in addition to various natural and historical attractions.

Gruene is a small village famous for being home to the oldest dance hall in Texas, the Gruene Hall. The village is situated just outside of New Braunfels and features several good restaurants, quaint shops and river recreation.

Situated a short drive from Austin, San Marcos is one of the most popular small towns in Texas. Although a popular tourist destination the year round, San Marcos truly shines during the summer months.

10. Hamilton Pool

Spring is the perfect time of the year for exploring nature’s beauty in and around Austin. This is when it is warm enough to go swimming, but not too hot that you are unable to enjoy afternoon hikes. One of the best swimming holes in Texas, Hamilton pool is a great spot to swim, hike, and picnic and spend some time on a hot Texas summer day.

A local hotspot that is popular during the warmer months, the Hamilton Pool Preserve is situated in Dripping Springs, about 30 miles west of Austin. The Hamilton Pool Preserve features a beautiful grotto and natural swimming area and offers a great place to swim inside clear, cool waters. In fact, the waters are so clear that you can actually see the fish brushing past your legs.

Hamilton Pool and its grotto were formed when the dome of an underground river collapsed some millennia ago due to massive erosion. Today, the Hamilton Pool Nature Preserve comprises of 232 acres of protected natural habitat that forms a jade green pool, the great swimming hole into which flows a 45-foot waterfall.

This pool is surrounded by massive limestone slabs resting by the edges of the water as large stalactites dangle from the high ceiling above. This ceiling and its surrounding cliffs are home to moss, maiden-hair fern, as well as cliff swallows. The cedar uplands in the preserve are home to endangered bird species such as the golden-cheeked warbler.

Spend a day at the Hamilton Pool, a natural area that forms part of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve. Go swimming then explore the caverns. Step inside the collapsed grotto walls, stand under the waterfall, and go hiking to the Pedernales River or enjoy a picnic on the beach area. There isn’t a better way of spending a couple of hours in the sun in Austin.

Be sure to hike some of the nature trails along the creek. During the hike to the Pedernales River, you will find plenty to see along the way. Bald cypress trees, diverse and lush plant communities, along with a variety of wildlife inhabit the grotto and the downstream areas. From lizards, to turtles and interesting flowers, you are bound to enjoy the nature walk.

Since the Sixties, Hamilton Pool has been a popular favorite summer swimming spot for visitors and the residents of Austin. Visitors hiking to the pool will begin from the parking lot descending into the narrow box canyon that features impressive rock outcrops, lush plants, bald cypress and the peacefully flowing Hamilton Creek.

The trail junction’s right fork situated by the creek will lead upstream to the Hamilton Pool and its waterfall, while the left fork or Canyon Trail will lead downstream into Hamilton Creek’s confluence with the Pedernales River. Guided nature tours are available.

Check with park staff to determine whether the Canyon Trail that leads up to the Pedernales River is opened for the day. If closed, hike to the pool and waterfall where you can explore to your heart’s content. Here you will not find a shortage of beautiful and impressive scenery to photograph.