Planning a trip to Austin? Well, you’ve got great taste. This lively 272-square-mile city in central Texas has no shortage of action and fun things to do. Whether you’re a nature lover who can’t get enough of the great outdoors, a music fan who loves the nightlife, or a food fanatic on a quest for the latest and greatest, this Austin travel guide has something for you.
Read on for top travel tips on the who, what, when, where, and how of having a good time in the Lone Star State’s coolest and friendliest city.
Where Is Austin Exactly?
Located along the banks of the Colorado River, Austin is the capital of Texas and situated about 200 miles south of Dallas and approximately 260 miles northwest of Houston.
While Austin is having a major economic and population boom with the rise of tech companies and other businesses in the area, it still manages to have a smaller town vibe compared to other world-class cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
When Is the Best Time to Visit Austin?
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, Austin is hoppin’ all year long. That said, there’s one thing you need to know up front: Austin is hot. And not just figuratively hot because of its live music, diverse food scene, and eclectic neighborhoods. No, Austin is literally hot. Especially in the summer.
Unless you’re a sucker for 100-degree heat with 100% humidity, it’s probably best not to visit Austin in the summer if you can help it. (OK, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but only a bit.)
The city is insanely hot in July, August, and early September, so if you want to explore the ATX on foot and actually spend some time outdoors, it’s best to visit during a non-summer month when the weather is much more bearable.
Where to Stay in Austin
Whether you’re in town for business, pleasure, or a little of both, there are plenty of cool hotels in Austin. You’ll find familiar names in Downtown Austin — think Omni, JW Marriott, Kimpton, and Fairmont — but if you want historic and classic, consider a stay at The Driskill.
If you find yourself a little farther south, try the sleek South Congress Hotel. If hotels aren’t your thing, you can also book an Airbnb to feel like a real Austinite and immerse yourself in the local neighborhood.
What to Do in Austin
There’s really no wrong answer when it comes to the question, “What should I do in Austin?” Based on your interests, here are some ideas to get you started whether you’re in for a day, a weekend, or a longer stay. From nightlife on Rainey Street in downtown Austin to breakfast tacos and brisket, there’s something for everyone to enjoy.
For History and Art Buffs
If you love history and getting a real sense of place and time, a visit to the Texas state capitol should be at the top of your list.
Get up close to this massive granite structure (which happens to be the largest capitol building in the United States), walk through the gorgeous grounds dotted with impressive monuments, take a free guided tour, and check out the exhibits. Bonus: The capitol is open every day.
If you have time, you can also consider a visit to Bullock Texas State History Museum and the LBJ Presidential Museum to step back in time to one of the most iconic eras in American history.
Don’t miss a trip to the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas, which boasts close to 200,000 square feet of exhibitions, installations, and more. Here, you’ll find modern American and Latin American art along with pieces from the Renaissance and Baroque eras.
For more of a hipster art vibe, make sure to seek out Austin’s street art scene. Sights you must witness include the infamous Keep Austin Weird mural and the I love you so much wall. Plus, make sure to find the tributes to Aretha, Tupac, Mr. Rogers, Janice Joplin, and Willy Nelson.
For Nature Lovers
Walking, hiking, swimming, boating … it’s all for the taking in Austin. Want to live like a local, even if for an afternoon? Go for a dip in Barton Springs pool, located within the beloved 358-acre Zilker Park. You can also take a stroll or rent a bike along the Butler Trail at Lady Bird Lake.
For more action on the water, rent a kayak (or board a boat tour) to explore Lady Bird Lake. If you’re in town between March and October, float on toward the Congress Avenue Bridge at sunset to witness the natural spectacle of the enormous bat colony flying out from under the bridge into the night sky. You can also rent paddle boards and get out on Lake Travis to enjoy one of the best sunsets around.
If you love the serenity of the great outdoors (with the amenities of city life), consider a drive north to Hill Country, where you’ll find historic neighborhoods and vineyards among scenic landscapes and plenty of nature trails.
Don’t miss a day trip or overnight adventure out to Texas Hill Country where you’ll find everything from camping at state parks to world-renowned golf resorts and getaways. The fresh air and rolling green hills are sure to leave a lasting impression and have you wanting to become a local Texan in no time.
For Music Aficionados
Austin is often called the live music capital of the world, and for good reason. From the world-renowned Austin City Limits and SXSW (South by Southwest) music festival to the hundreds of live music venues across the city, Austin has earned its reputation for knowing how to rock.
Feel like kicking up your cowboy boots to some country music? Get yourself over to the Broken Spoke, a booze, food, and music classic since 1964. Feel like some blues, rockabilly, or garage rock? The Continental Club (among the oldest continuously running clubs in the city) is a must. No matter which bar, lounge, or club you choose, on any given night this city’s got your beat.
Ditch the Uber and Lyft and snag a scooter or walk to really immerse yourself in the music scene. From South Austin to SoCo and 6th Street, there are tons of little hole in the wall music spots to check out. You may just discover the next up and coming band or stumble upon a big-name star playing in front of a small crowd in a dive bar where they were first discovered.
This Austin travel guide wouldn’t be complete without a section on food. Tex-Mex, tacos, and food trucks, oh my. Austin certainly has some of the best restaurants when it comes to these mainstays, but it’s more than just queso-loaded takes on Mexican eats. (Torchy’s Tacos, we’re talking about you.)
While everyone’s a critic when it comes to food, and BBQ joints in particular, many Austinites (and others from all parts of the country) will swear you can never go wrong with the James Beard award-winning Franklin Barbecue — even if it means waiting hours (and hours and hours) in line.
If you don’t have time to stand in line with dozens of other hungry desperados, don’t worry. Other meaty favorites include Stubb’s, the Micklethwait food truck, La Barbecue, and Lamberts Downtown BBQ, which has the added bonus of live music in the upstairs lounge. Plus, many of these spots have incredible craft beers and to-die-for happy hour menus to wash down that finger-licking good food.
It’s also worth noting that palates go well beyond smoked meats and masa in Austin. There’s a number of vegetarian restaurants and vegan-friendly spots, as well as cuisines ranging from Thai and Vietnamese to Italian (try Intero for locally sourced, farm-to-table creations), and sushi. (Do yourself a favor and get yourself over to Uchi ASAP.)
It’s no secret that Austin is a big deal for bachelorette parties — none of which are complete without a brunch. Lucky for you, Austin is home to some of the best brunches in the country. Dine on lemon ricotta pancakes, queso, and duck confit hash as you relax on stunning outdoor patios and quaint indoor dining rooms.
Retail therapy is always fun when visiting a new city — it lets you explore the area and gives you the chance to take a little piece of your trip back home with you.
While Austin has plenty of the usual suspects you’d find at most mainstream malls, make the effort to support local businesses and shop the indie boutiques, vintage and antique shops, and mom-and-pop storefronts.
Sixth Street, South Congress Avenue, 2nd Street District, and South First Street all offer their own distinct shopping options ranging from upscale to budget-friendly, chic to offbeat.
Austin Travel Guide: Come and Get It
No matter where you come from or how much time you have, one thing’s for sure: Follow this Austin travel guide and you’re sure to have a good time in this city that keeps things weird, wonderful, and wildly fun. From brunch and breweries in central Austin to live music on Lamar and day excursions in Texas Hill Country, there’s truly something for everyone.