Quick, what’s the capital of Texas? Did you guess Dallas? Many people would, and many people would be wrong. Dallas enjoys a higher profile than the state capital of Austin, as do Houston and San Antonio. Nonetheless, Austin, with its status as capital, has become a vibrant—and quirky—city that has plenty to offer everyone, from the most casual tourist to the serious cultural traveler.
Austin is, in a lot of ways, the heart of Texas, celebrating Texan culture and history, as well as the uniqueness of the state, from its origins as a Mexican territory to its independence and, finally, to its incorporation into the U.S. If you want to experience a little bit of Texas—and a little bit of Americana in the process—Austin is your next stop. Whether you want to try some Texan cuisine, visit Native American monuments or learn more about people from Austin and its surrounding areas, the city is all too happy to oblige. Here are just 11 of the activities that make Austin a great vacation destination.
11. Enjoy a Real Cowboy Steak
Git along little doggie! The Lone Star state has a long history of ranching and Texan cuisine evolved around one of the state’s most abundant resources: cattle. Of course, there are plenty of ranching states (Wyoming, Montana), but the Texan steakhouse offers up bolder tastes, many of them heavily influenced by the nuances of Mexican cuisine. There’s a reason it’s called Tex-Mex!
Austin has its fair share (or perhaps more than its fair share) of spots offering up prime cuts, but some of the most well-regarded joints are Perry’s Steakhouse & Grille, Austin Land and Cattle (ALC) Steakhouse and downtown’s Roaring Fork, an establishment that cooks all of their steaks over a wood fire. Roaring Fork offers some Mexican-style dishes as well, though the influence can be seen on the menus of other steakhouses in their use of chili and jalapeno. Vegetarians, you’ve been warned—salad will seem dull and uninspired next to these meaty entrees.
10. Check out Victorian Architecture
There’s a certain nostalgia about old buildings, a kind of charm that comes with age. A well-preserved building can also be a window to the past, a view of how the people of bygone eras lived. Perhaps surprisingly, Austin is home to some of the best-preserved Victorian homes in Texas. The Bremond Block Historic District is one such area in Austin. The 11 buildings in the area were all constructed between 1854 and 1910. Most of the homes are large, having been built and owned by prominent members of Austin’s commercial and banking industries. Five of the buildings are homes built by the Bremond family; two of them are owned by the Texas Classroom Teachers Association.
Another intriguing look into Austin’s history is a visit to Swede Hill Historic District, a downtown residential area that was home to some 67 Swedish immigrant families in the late 1870s. Although many of the original buildings have been removed to make way for newer developments, those that remain show an eclectic mix of building styles—and each is a great example of the style it was built in. Most of the homes are ornate, with great detail in railings, porches and other fancy features.
9. Visit Smith Rock Shelter
Smith Rock Shelter is one of 2 rock shelters in Austin to be designated on the National Register of Historic Places. This natural limestone formation is located in McKinney Falls State Park. It is believed that the overhang provided shelter to Native Americans in the area from around 500 BCE until the 1700s, with the last known inhabitants being relatives of the Tonkawa.
The shelter itself is accessible via a hiking trail in the park. The trail is approximately a mile long and creates a loop that takes about 30 to 45 minutes to hike. The trail runs alongside Onion Creek. Erosion on the face of the shelter shows that the creek once flowed on a much different path. Since the trail also offers a great opportunity to see some of the local flora and fauna, including Texas persimmons and Bald Cyprus trees, this is a great activity for families with young children and nature-lovers.
8. Climb Mount Bonnell
Mount Bonnell, also known as Covert Park, is a prominent point alongside the Colorado River. Rising to a height of 780 feet above sea level, it’s one of the higher points around Austin, although not the highest. Said to have been named after George W. Bonnell, a 19th-century newspaper publisher, it is a popular attraction since it provides gorgeous vistas of Austin and the surrounding area. It forms part of the limestone Balcones Fault Escarpment.
Mount Bonnell has long been a popular picnic spot and it remains so even today. To get to the top, you have to climb a long set of stairs—around 100 steps!—but most agree that the views are well worth it. Sunrise and sunset are especially popular times to hike, and the location is considered one of the most romantic in Austin, making it a great destination for couples on a romantic retreat or vacation. There is also a path to the top for those who don’t think they can handle the stairs.
7. Get Out and Socialize
In a world where we travel to new places so frequently and connect with almost anyone instantly, it is somehow still a challenge to meet new people. Striking up a conversation can seem daunting, especially when everyone is now plugged in to their iPod or glued to their phone screen. That is, unless you’re from Austin. Austin consistently ranks as one of the friendliest cities in the U.S. Travel & Leisure magazine has ranked Austin’s citizens as the “best,” using criteria that evaluates the attitudes and personalities of residents.
That’s good news for travelers, who can expect a warm welcome in the state capital, which is something you may not get in, say, New York or LA. Grab a drink at a local bar, head out to a sporting event or concert or even just start up a conversation with the people you encounter on transit or along a hiking trail. You never know who you’ll meet and who you may keep contact with for years to come!
6. Hit a Music Festival
When you mention “American music scenes,” most people will think of LA, New York or Nashville. If you really press them, they might mention Memphis, St. Louis, Seattle or even Chicago. But very few people will name Austin as a musical city. Austin has a huge music scene, however; in fact, it’s known as the concert capital of America and uses the slogan “The Live Music Capital of the World.”
Austin is home to 2 long-running music festivals, the South-by-Southwest festival (SXSW) and the Austin City Limits festival, which has spawned the longest-running concert music program on American TV (also called Austin City Limits). Other festivals include the Urban Music Festival, Fun Fun Fun Fest and the Old Settler’s Music Festival. Festivals aren’t the only thing on Austin’s music calendar, however. The downtown core has a very high concentration of bars and lounges, many of which have musical guests and local bands performing on a regular basis.
5. Keep It Weird
The city of Austin’s official motto is “Keep Austin Weird,” and the city and its citizens take that slogan quite seriously! Austinites pride themselves on being “weird.” According to locals, the motto was introduced by a local librarian and his wife as a response to increasing commercialism and over-development. Many Austinites use it to protest irresponsible development projects, while others have adopted the slogan as a rallying cry for supporting local businesses rather than big box stores and chains.
If you’re looking to help support the “Keep Austin Weird” movement, or if you’re just looking for some unique gifts or experiences to bring home from your trip, check out the shopping district on South Congress Avenue. SoCo, as it’s known to locals, is home to a number of eclectic cafes and shops, restaurants and food trucks, as well as the occasional festival, all centered on local culture, products and fare. SoCo prides itself on “Keeping Austin Weird.”
4. Explore the Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum
The 36th President of the United States was born and raised in Texas, a fact that’s commemorated by the Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum in Austin. One of 13 Presidential Libraries operated by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, the library houses 45 million pages of historical documents, including President Johnson’s papers, as well as 650,000 photos and 5,000 hours of recordings. The museum also has a 7/8ths scale replica of the Oval Office, decorated as it was during Johnson’s term in office in the 1960s.
The library has several permanent exhibits and temporary ones as well, including exhibits on the Civil Rights movement, the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam war. Many of the items in the museum were donated by Johnson, his wife, family, friends, associates and ordinary Americans. The museum is home to some 54,000 items and welcomes between 100,000 and 125,000 visitors each year. While the museum collection is diverse, the core of the collection is dedicated to telling the story of one of the most troubled, yet successful, presidencies of the late 20th century.
3. Visit the Texas State Capitol Building
While most people would be quick to point out that Dallas is easily the most well-known and recognizable city in Texas, Austin is actually the state capital. It’s home to the Texas State Capitol building, which is one of the most popular tourist spots in the city. The building, completed in 1888, is open for self-guided tours during business hours on most days.
The massive building, designed by architect Elijah E. Myers in an Italian Renaissance revival style, is actually taller than the federal Capitol Building in DC. It is lauded amongst tourists for its breathtaking architecture, as well as portraits of every President of the Republic of Texas and Governor that are housed in the building’s rotunda. The building’s grounds comprise 22 sprawling acres, which are home to 17 monuments. The 4 oldest are dedicated to the heroes of the Alamo, volunteer firemen, Confederate soldiers and Terry’s Texas Rangers. The building is a great stop for anyone looking for an introduction to Texas history.
2. Catch a Longhorns Game
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for decades, you’ll likely have noticed someone wearing a Texas Longhorns hat or shirt. It might seem unusual but the Longhorns are the most popular sports team in Texas, surpassing even professional teams like the MLB’s Texas Rangers or NFL’s Dallas Cowboys. Part of that popularity might be that the Longhorns are based in the state capital, while most other sports teams in the state are in Dallas, Houston or San Antonio. For that reason, the Longhorns are Austin’s major sports team(s). Of course, they’ve been around long enough—and have an impressive number of wins—that other teams might have decided to steer clear of Longhorn turf!
The Longhorns are based at the University of Texas in Austin, and the school participates in many sports, including basketball, football and baseball, and has both men’s and women’s teams. The Longhorns collegiate athletics program has produced a number of pro athletes, and has even sent some athletes to the Olympics. The Longhorns have a long-standing rivalry with several teams including the Oklahoma Sooners. If you’re in town on game day, snap up some tickets… you won’t be disappointed!
1. Go for a Dip
It might seem a bit strange to think of Texas as a place you’re going to want to bring a bathing suit to. Most of us picture Texas as a desert and Austin specifically isn’t near any big bodies of water—or at least, it wasn’t until the creation of 3 artificial lakes. Austin is located along the Colorado River, however, and maybe unsurprisingly, swimming and pools have a long history in the city. Turns out that the citizens of Austin like to beat the heat and lounge poolside just as much as anyone!
The Austin Parks and Recreation Department has been awarded several times for its excellent aquatics program, which includes more than 50 public swimming pools! Among them are the well-fed Deep Eddy Pool, the oldest man-made swimming pool in Texas, and Barton Springs Pool, which has the distinction of being the largest natural swimming pool within an urban center in the whole country. Neither pool is chlorinated, and both are suitable for swimming year-round. If you’re willing to head outside of the city, about 30 miles west of Austin you’ll find the beautiful and tranquil Hamilton Pool Preserve. The beautiful pool and grotto here were formed when the ceiling of an underground river collapsed thousands of years ago due to erosion. Hamilton Pool is the perfect natural setting to cool off when the weather is warm.