The best things to do in Austin, including street art, museums and the coolest neighbourhoods

Shelley Seale
Murals can be found in every urban neighbourhood of Austin – it is a cornerstone of the city's identity - Copyright 2014 Magalie L'Abbé. All rights reserved.

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Austin is a unique blend of personalities that come together and somehow make it work. The nightlife and music pulse until late every night, yet its citizens love to hit the running and bicycle trails early in the morning. Continually rated one of the best places to visit and live, Austin is a cosmopolitan city that offers everything without losing its small-town feel or quirky energy. From refreshing outdoor activities to culture, shopping and where to soak in the cool Austin vibe, here are my recommendations for the best things to do in the city.

Stroll the grounds and Capitol building of the Lone Star State

The architecturally stunning Texas Capitol opened in 1888 to much pomp and circumstance and remains one of the great symbols of the state's history and politics. It is also a favourite part of the Austin skyline, and there are actually building restrictions to keep it easily viewable from all parts of town. Take a free tour and you just might catch a few politicians roaming the halls.

Insider tip: For a real insider look at the Capitol, grab a bite to eat at the cafeteria, Capitol Grill, where lobbyists and politicos rub elbows over lunch. If the State Legislature is in session, don’t miss the balcony view of the floor, where you can watch government in action as it happens.

Contact: 00 1 512 463 4630; tspb.texas.gov
Opening times: Mon-Fri, 7am-10pm; Sat-Sun, 9am-8pm
Prices: Free

Take a free tour of the the majestic Texas State Capitol building Credit: LMPphotography/LMPphotography

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Witness the world’s largest urban bat colony in flight

The Ann Richards Congress Avenue Bridge spans Lady Bird Lake, connecting downtown with South Austin. What many visitors to the city don’t know is the secret that is hidden beneath the bridge: the world’s largest urban colony of Mexican free-tailed bats make their home in its underside — 1.5 million of them to be precise — and emerge each evening at dusk between March and November.

Insider tip: The site of a flock of over a million bats flying out from under the bridge is so awesome that it draws hundreds of spectators. Grab a drink and snack from a nearby food truck and make yourself comfortable on the lawn of the Austin American-Statesman building for the best viewing. Go for either Don Gume's Tacos or Sala Thai Food that are frequently there - though do note that food trucks can often change location. 

Contact: Congress Avenue; batcon.org
Opening times: Nightly at dusk, March-November
Prices: Free

Each evening during summer a huge urban bat colony emerges from under Congress Avenue Bridge Credit: Pgiam

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Experience an urban nature oasis

The Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail and Boardwalk makes a 10-mile circuit around Lady Bird Lake, creating an urban fitness oasis. You can walk, run or cycle along the Boardwalk and its connecting trails, and there are several places where you can rent kayaks, stand-up paddleboards or paddleboats, making for a great way to enjoy the Austin skyline from the water.

Insider tip: When walking along the Boardwalk, see if you can spot its uniquely Austin touch: the Belting It Out art installation of 36 bronze, Western belts integrated into the railings, with Texas song lyrics embossed in them.

Contact: 00 1 512 495 9163; austintexas.gov
Opening times: Mon-Sat, 5am-12am
Prices: Free

Fitness fans flock to the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail and Boardwalk Credit: Trong Nguyen Photography/TrongNguyen

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Shop, sip and stroll on the South Side

If you cross over the bridge on Congress Avenue to the south side of the river, you’ll be on the 'hip strip' — a neighbourhood known as SoCo to locals. This vibrant, eclectic, and thoroughly Austin locale is home to numerous boutiques, vintage stores, restaurants and food trucks. Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds is a wildly eccentric shop with vintage clothing, costumes and more. For vintage duds check out Prototype or Feather's, or head to Kendra Scott Jewelry or Parts & Labour for boutique shopping. Grab a piece of pizza from the window at Home Slice, or get your Tex-Mex fix at Guero's. Grab a dessert from the Hey Cupcake food trailer. Colourful murals dot the street as well; don’t miss the famed 'I love you so much' green wall on the side of Jo's Coffee.

Insider tip: SoCo is even more fun and lively on the first Thursday of every month, when the entire avenue becomes a pop-up street fair with live music, street performers, art and craft vendors and more.

Contact: South Congress Avenue; doingthestreets.com
Opening times: Times vary
Prices: £-££

Austin's South Side (SoCo to locals) is home to numerous vintage stores, restaurants and food trucks

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Get a bird's-eye view of the city

The highest point in Austin is located five miles west of downtown, where the limestone cliffs of Mount Bonnell tower 775 feet into the air above the Colorado River. Those who climb the 99 steps to the summit are rewarded with stunning views across the river and surrounding bluffs, and is a great vantage point to gaze at the city skyline and multi-million dollar homes below.

Insider tip: This is the perfect spot to take in spectacular Hill Country sunsets. Take a picnic along; tables and grills are available at the site. Dogs are allowed too.

Contact: 00 1 512 974 6700; austintexas.gov
Opening times: Mon-Sun, 5am-10pm
Prices: Free

Climb to the summit of Mount Bonnell and be rewarded with stunning views across the river Credit: lisandrotrarbach/lisandrotrarbach

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Do a self-guided tour of street art murals

Austin is known for its creative scene, in both music and the visual arts. The city has a vibrant 'Art in Public Places' programme, and street art murals can be found in every urban neighbourhood – it is a cornerstone of Austin’s identity. Taking a path through the SoCo (South Congress) neighborhood and along South First Street will bring you across public art pieces on the sides of buildings such as the “Willie for President” and “Greetings from Austin” murals, among many others. See if you can spot Pee Wee Herman and Mr. Rogers while you’re at it!

Insider tip: You can download a guide of Austin's public art to create your own free walking tour — downtown, South Congress and East Austin are the most art-filled districts. Don’t miss the oversized Gibson guitar sculptures downtown, each created by a different artist. 

Contact: 00 1 512 974 7700; austintexas.gov
Prices: Free

Austin has a vibrant 'Art in Public Places' programme and street art can be found all over the city Credit: Onfokus/Onfokus

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Take a dip in a natural spring-fed pool

The green jewel of the city, Zilker Park, spreads across 358 acres and is home to Barton Springs, a natural underground spring-fed pool that stays a cool 68 degrees year-round. Both are definite local hangouts, where you’ll see people walking their dogs, playing soccer or disc golf, picnicking or lounging on the banks of the springs.  

Insider tip: Travelling with kids? Don’t miss the Zilker Zephyr, a toy train that takes passengers on a fun ride through Zilker Park. The park is also home to frequent public events and festivals, such as the massive Austin City Limits Music Festival that happens every October.

Contact: 00 1 512 974 6700; zilkerpark.org
Opening times: Mon-Sun, 5am-10pm
Prices: Free-£

Barton Springs is a natural underground spring-fed pool that lies in the huge Zilker Park Credit: RoschetzkyIstockPhoto

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Delve into some of the things that make Austin so weird

Austin proudly embraces its 'Keep Austin Weird' motto, and there are definitely oddities to be found. Start at the Museum of the Weird on Sixth Street, the city’s most curious and mysterious gift shop. Afterwards, head to the Cathedral of Junk (00 1 512 299 7413; 4422 Lareina Drive), a massive interactive sculpture in the backyard of a home, made entirely of discarded items and a continual work-in-progress. Visits are by appointment only - call owner Vince Hannemann to set up a free trip (donations are accepted).

Insider tip: Be sure to go all the way to the back of the shop at Museum of the Weird to see a strange, surprise attraction that is called Austin’s 'best kept secret.' You can also witness plenty of Austin’s quirkiness by simply strolling along Sixth Street and people watching!

Contact: 00 1 512 476 5493; museumoftheweird.com
Opening times: Mon-Sun, 10am-12am
Prices: £


The Museum of the Weird epitomises the city's 'Keep Austin Weird' motto

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Hop into the Austin buzz on Second Street

Most people know of Austin’s Sixth Street, but locals know that the Second Street District is where it’s at — more upscale and less college crowd. Here you can sample Austin’s favourite food, the breakfast taco, while people-watching at Jo’s Coffee, followed by boutique shopping. Later in the day, catch a flick at Violet Crown and bar-hop the district - The Elephant Room is only a couple of blocks from the Second Street district. 

Insider tip: Don’t miss the iconic Willie Nelson statue outside the Austin City Limits studio, where you might be able to catch a live filming. Check out the Austin Rocks boutique to pick up some Austin-inspired music fashion and accessories.  

Contact: 00 1 512 476 1225; 2ndstreetdistrict.com
Opening times: Varied, but generally Mon-Sun, 7am-2am
Prices: £-££

The Second Street District area is a locals' favourite for its buzzy bars and restaurants

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Get your culture on at world-class museums

Four world-class museums are located on or near the University of Texas campus. The Bullock Texas State History Museum (00 1 512 471 5482; thestoryoftexas.com), which tells the 'Story of Texas' with three floors of interactive exhibits and Austin's only IMAX Theatre. Across the street, the Blanton Museum of Art (00 1 512 936 4629; blantonmuseum.org) is one of the largest university art museums in the country. A kilometre down the road is the LBJ Presidential Library (00 1 512 721 0200; lbjlibrary.org), a must-visit for history buffs.

Insider tip: The third Thursday of the month is a great time to visit the Blanton, when it’s open until 9pm with live music and admission is free. If you still want more, a fourth university museum, the Harry Ransom Center (00 1 512 471 8944; hrc.utexas.edu), showcases an impressive collection of original cultural materials, with daily tours at noon.

Opening times:Times vary, see websites for details
Prices:
Free-£

The LBJ Presidential Library is a must-visit for history buffs Credit: 2005 George Rose/George Rose

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