While Austin doesn't have any major amusement parks or typical tourist attractions, it's got plenty of fun things to see and do. Here's a sampling of some of your best options.
Known for its funky style, South Congress Avenue, located about a mile south of the Ann Richards Congress Avenue Bridge and with a clear and brilliant view of the Texas State Capitol, draws Austinites and area visitors for its shopping, eating and live music opportunities. Stylish boutiques filled with eccentric and often locally made clothing and accessories share South Congress Avenue with local eateries and antique stores brimming with undiscovered treasures. Food trailers offering everything from cupcakes to Vietnamese sandwiches congregate along the side streets. There's often a band playing on Guero's outdoor patio, and the Continental Club is rocking seven nights a week. The first Thursday of each month brings the aptly titled First Thursday event, where SoCo storefronts remain open later, often serving margaritas or cold beer to a slew of people meandering the street in this street festival. People watching is at its prime on South Congress Avenue during weekend afternoons when many emerge for a lazy day of window shopping.
The water in Barton Springs swimming pool hovers around 68 degrees year-round, which means that it feels cool -- even cold -- in the heat of summer. It feels relatively warm in winter, though, and a few rugged souls swim there every morning, regardless of the weather. If you’re more into lounging than exercise, there’s a part of the massive pool dedicated to floats and floaters. On the hillsides surrounding the pool, you will receive your first lesson in Austin culture. There’s usually a group of college kids kicking around a hacky-sack ball, a sixtyish man doing yoga, and (kid warning) a woman of indeterminate age without her top. Occasionally, a drum circle forms at the top of the hill. Guitars are almost as common as smart phones. On summer days when the temperature can soar above 100 degrees, this is the only reasonable place to be.
The Texas State Legislature meets only once every two years, so if the cavernous building seems oddly deserted, the legislature is probably not in session. Considered one of the nation's most distinguished state buildings, the Texas State Capitol, with its pink granite facade and Renaissance Revival architectural style, sits regally on a hill overlooking Congress Avenue. Largest of all state capitols and only second in size to the National Capitol in Washington, D.C., the Texas State Capitol anchors the north end of downtown, just four blocks south of the University of Texas at Austin campus. Free tours of the capitol building cover Texas history, fun facts about the 17 monuments on the 22-acre, park-like grounds, and information about the Texas legislature, or take the self-guided tour to explore at your own pace. You’ll need to go through a quick security check at the entrance, including having your bags scanned by a metal detector.
Though it may look like your average overpass, the Ann Richards Congress Avenue Bridge houses one of Austin's natural wonders -- the world's largest urban bat colony. Small spaces in the expansion joints on the underside of the bridge are just the right size for little bat condos -- very crowded bat quarters. From March through September, approximately 1.5 million bats make this simple structure their summer home. The Mexican free-tailed bats take flight nightly at dusk, consuming nearly 20,000 pounds of insects with each evening meal. As they emerge and head eastward, it looks like a ghostly dark river in the sky. Just 10 blocks south of the Texas State Capitol and a mile north of the popular South Congress Avenue shopping district, this fascinating sight draws thousands of onlookers to both sides of the bridge, as well as just below on the southeast bank of Lady Bird Lake (previously known as Town Lake.) There's a free parking lot near the bridge, but it fills up fast, so get there before sundown.
Located approximately 30 miles southwest of Austin, Hamilton Pool Preserve appeals to nature lovers in search of swimming, hiking, and bird watching opportunities. The main attraction is a natural swimming hole formed out of a collapsed grotto. The pool is about 1/4 mile from the parking area, so keep that in mind when you're deciding what to bring. A limestone outcropping, formerly part of the roof of a cave, shades one side of the pool. Depending on recent rainfall, water either drips or flows down the outcropping, creating a refreshing shower for swimmers underneath. Delicate ferns cling to the outcropping, lending the site a tropical flair. Hamilton Pool Preserve is also home to the golden-cheeked warbler, a rare and endangered bird that lives among the area's mixed ashe-juniper and oak woodlands. The hike to the pool is short, but it does include a series of uneven rock steps. Good hiking shoes are recommended. Visitors with physical disabilities should call ahead to arrange assistance. Parking is limited, and the pool is very popular, so try to arrive early. Drinking water and other concessions are not available. Take Highway 71 west through the town of Bee Cave and turn left onto FM 3238 (Hamilton Pool Road). Travel 13 miles to the Preserve entrance, which will be on your right.
While many may remember that Lady Bird Johnson was the First Lady who championed the planting of wildflowers along highways, Texans know her as an all-around environmental advocate. Her passion was not only for wildflowers but native plants of all kinds. So it's fitting that the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is both a showplace for beautiful plants and a botanical research center. The public botanical garden introduces visitors to the beauty of wildflowers and other native plants and natural landscapes through experience and education. Stroll through the 16 distinct gardens, the Ann and O.J. Weber Butterfly Garden, the sprawling South Meadow, or relax along the Erma Lowe Hill Country Stream. Knowledgeable docents explain the many roles of indigenous plants, as well as conservation techniques such as controlled burning and invasive species removal. For a more in-depth look at the former First Lady and her husband, visit the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum on the University of Texas at Austin campus.
Driving up the gated circular path to Laguna Gloria is breathtaking. The stately Italian-style villa perches on the banks of Lake Austin, showcasing a handful of the museum's permanent collections within its three stories. The house was built in 1916 by Clara Driscoll and her husband Hal Sevier, who owned The Austin American newspaper. Driscoll was an author, playwright and an avid gardener. The well-kept grounds include outdoor sculptures, strutting peacocks, an intimate stone amphitheater and the Art School, a small facility offering painting, ceramics and sculpture classes for children and adults. Weddings, private parties and other celebrations frequently take place on the lushly landscaped 12 acres, a site featured on city, state and national registries of historic places.
Located just south of downtown, the 10-mile trail around Lady Bird Lake is always a hub of activity. You’ll find joggers, walkers and bikers on the trail from early in the morning until sunset. The Stevie Ray Vaughan statue on the south shore is a popular stopping point. Devoted fans often place flowers on the statue or play his music to honor the legendary blues guitarist. A portion of the south shore is also a leash-free area for dogs. Even if you don’t have a dog, it’s a nice place to get an injection of happiness while watching goofy pups play. If it’s low-key exercise you’re after, the trail can be broken down into a four-mile loop between the Congress Bridge and the Lamar Boulevard Bridge. The Lamar bridge is practically a small park unto itself, with benches and bike racks. Farther west near Barton Springs, people often feed the ducks and geese. Keep an eye out for the gorgeous pair of black swans that frequent the area. Along the shoreline, you can often spot stacks of turtles sunning themselves on partially submerged logs.