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Visiting Austin for the First Time? Here’s What to See and Do

There’s more to the Texas capital than (just) parties and politics.

Austin skyline as seen from river with bridge looming above
Hi, I'm Daniel!

Daniel Modlin is a writer and editor based out of Austin, TX, covering food, travel, and the environment. His work has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Travel + Leisure, Food & Wine, WIRED, Architectural Digest, and more. Follow his work on Twitter and Instagram.

Austin may be considered a party town, but there is much more to see and do here beyond bar-hopping in cowboy hats. From diverse musical offerings to larger-than-life state buildings, the city is rich in cultural heritage and offers outdoor adventure to match. Here’s our roundup of 10 Austin must-dos that’ll keep you coming back for more.

1. Visit the Capitol

Texas state capitol building with green leafy trees and lawn in foreground
The Texas capitol building is larger than the US Capitol.Foto: Ricardo Garza / Shutterstock

Discover the heart of Texas.

Arguably Austin’s top attraction, the Texas State Capitol is one of the few state capitol buildings larger than the US Capitol in Washington DC. Opened in 1888, the building is steeped in uniquely Texan history. Today, its grounds can be explored by Segway or soaked up on a sightseeing bus tour, while the interior exhibits can be browsed on a self-guided stroll or free visitor tour.

2. Explore Austin’s neighborhoods

Paramount theater signage and marquee on city street
Major venues and attractions are located in downtown Austin.Foto: 4kclips / Shutterstock

Get an insider’s perspective of the city.

From the trendy 2nd Street District to laid-back South Congress, Austin’s neighborhoods offer something for every type of first-time visitor. Take a walk Downtown to see some of the city’s most famous landmarks, or widen your perspective on a tour that passes through Zilker and Barton Hills, best known for their cute cottages, cultural venues, and outdoor spaces.

Related: 8 Must-See Austin Neighborhoods and How to Visit

3. Fill up on barbecue food

Barbecue is one of Austin's most popular foods.Foto: Ron Schwind / Shutterstock

Enjoy an authentic taste of Austin’s famous fare.

Franklin’s may be one of Austin’s most popular barbecue spots, but there are plenty more options if you can’t face the long lines. Terry Black’s Barbecue boasts fast-moving lines and good food, while The Salt Lick Bar-B-Que offers a more rustic experience, just a 20-minute drive out of town—some tours offer round-trip transfer so you can really indulge. If you’re still not sure, take advantage of barbecue tours that include multiple stops and tastings.

4. Savor Austin’s other dishes

Overhead view of wooden table filled with plated dishes and drinks
The city offers a varied dining scene, beyond barbecue.Foto: Lauren Monitz / Shutterstock

Discover multicultural cuisine and American classics.

Austin isn’t all barbecue. The city’s melting pot of cultures is reflected in its varied cuisine, with hot spots like Canje serving Dominican food and Italian-inspired Birdie’s drawing foodies from near and far. Food tours are a great way to familiarize yourself with the city’s many flavors, especially when short on time.

5. Get active on Lady Bird Lake

Canoers and kayaker paddle on a river-like reservoir surrounded by leafy green trees
Lady Bird Lake is popular with canoers, kayakers, and stand-up paddleboarders.Foto: Skylar Dawn / Shutterstock

Explore an outdoor oasis in the heart of the city.

Nicknamed "Town Lake" by locals, Lady Bird Lake lies right in the center of Austin in Zilker Metropolitan Park. It’s a popular spot for all sorts of outdoor activities, including kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, and biking. It can get busy in the summer, but it’s big enough to find a peaceful spot to enjoy the skyline views and greenery all around.

6. Catch a live show

Street sign for W 6th St. and Congress Ave. with pale stone building behind
The 6th Street district is home to live music venues, bars, and breweries.Foto: Fotoluminate LLC / Shutterstock

Austin is the “live music capital of the world,” after all.

Wherever you go in Austin, you’re bound to find live music. Bands play late in breweries and bars across the city, particularly around the vibrant 6th Street district, while historic venues such as the Mohawk or Stubbs can be ticked off easily in one swoop on a live music tour.

Related: Where to Hear Live Music in Austin

7. See the summertime bat show

Bats fly overhead at dusk, with silhouettes of people watching from bridge
Bats fly from the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge on summer evenings.Foto: Lost_in_the_Midwest / Shutterstock

This urban bat colony keeps Austin weird.

This summertime phenomenon sees swarms of wild bats fly out every evening from the South Congress bridge, to the delight of both locals and tourists. Enjoy a close encounter with the weird wildlife on a Segway trip or bike tour, or get a front-row view of the spectacle onboard a kayak on an evening river paddle.

8. Take a dip in Barton Springs

People swim in green-blue water with park and small shore in background
The Barton Springs Pool is fed from an underground spring.Foto: Alizada Studios / Shutterstock

Some say these natural springs have healing properties.

This outdoor pool right in the middle of the city is fed by spring water, so stays temperate year-round. Join locals for an energizing wintertime lap, or cool off in the summer with a refreshing dip or kayak trip. If you’d rather take it easy, the rolling greenery around the springs is ideal for sunbathing, people-watching, or reading.

9. Explore the museums that keep Austin weird

Two-faced calf and two-bodied lamb taxidermy animals on display
The Museum of the Weird includes taxidermic oddities.Foto: Brandon B / Tripadvisor

These under-the-radar favorites are worth a stop.

Austin is home to plenty of fan-favorite galleries, including the vast Blanton Museum of Art (which has free admission on Tuesdays); The Contemporary Austin, a must if you’re into all things contemporary art; and Mexic-Arte, a Warehouse District staple home to Mexican and Latin American works. However, you shouldn’t sleep on Austin’s weirder offerings, including (aptly) the Museum of the Weird.

Related: 7 Under-the-Radar Museums in Austin

10. Go wine tasting on an out-of-town adventure

Three glasses of white wine sit on a dining table with menus and cutlery
Wineries are prevalent in the Texas Hill Country.Foto: Trey Freeman / Shutterstock

Taste Texas’ finest vintages.

Texas Hill Country is well-known for its wine, with vineyards dotted all over the scenic landscape. Whether you’re a wine lover or outdoor enthusiast, a day trip into Austin’s cedar-lined and goat-filled surroundings is a great way to see more of the Lone Star State.

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