In addition to holding the title of Texas's state capital, Austin has fully evolved from a hippie university town to a booming, hip metropolis. While much of the action is focused in up-and-coming neighborhoods like South Congress, downtown Austin offers a wealth of amusing possibilities, too. Whether you're a fan of Texas state history and 19th-century architecture, live music, or traditional Texas barbecue, there's plenty to do here. And while ATX's city center is easy to navigate on foot, pedicabs and ride-sharing services are also readily available for short trips.
Admire the Texas State Capitol
The pink-granite building is the centerpiece of downtown Austin, perched on a hill at 12th Street and Congress Avenue.
Free guided tours are held daily, starting in the South Foyer, but brochures are also available on the first floor for self-guided tours. The Texas Legislature meets every two years, so you’ll have to check the schedule if you want to see an actual session in progress.
(P.S. If you're hungry, there's an almost-hidden yet very affordable cafeteria downstairs.)
Barhop in the Warehouse District
Sometimes referred to as “6th Street for grown-ups,” the Warehouse District is centered around 4th and Lavaca Streets.
If you’re interested in dancing to ’80s and ’90s cover bands, head to Cedar Street Courtyard, a hybrid space of two bars with an outdoor courtyard in the middle. For a little less dancing and more drinking, try Fado Irish Pub.
The 4th Street area is also home to several gay bars, including Oilcan Harry’s.
Make Some Time for Shopping on 2nd Street
The epicenter of the 2nd Street shopping area is at the corner of 2nd and Lavaca Streets. Austin Java anchors that corner, and it’s also an excellent spot to sip a hot beverage, eat a light meal and make your shopping plan.
A must-see: Toy Joy, which sells everything from stuffed animals to whimsical gag gifts.
Peoplewatch on 6th Street
The 6th Street entertainment district is a popular stop for first-time visitors—and with good reason. This bustling area is packed full of bars of every shape and size, including famous outposts like Maggie Mae's. Whether you’re interested in listening to live music, dancing or drinking, it’s hard to go wrong.
Plus, the people watching is free! The area is generally very safe, but if you plan to stick around until 2 a.m., take a look at our tips for staying safe on 6th Street.
Catch a Show at the Paramount
The historic Paramount Theatre on Congress Avenue hosts red-carpet movie premieres, plays, live music, ballets and stand-up comedy. Opened in 1915, the 3,000-seat venue still has many of the original Art Nouveau stylistic touches and was inducted into the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. Original details include an elaborately ornate ceiling and the original stage curtain.
Chow Down at Stubb's Bar-B-Q
Located on the eastern edge of downtown, Stubb’s is one of the best concert venues in town as well as an excellent barbecue joint. High-profile national acts usually play on the outdoor stage, which sometimes hosts as many as 2,000 fans. There’s also a smaller stage indoors.
If you’re just here to eat, make sure you try the slow-cooked brisket and pulled pork. For music and food together, show up on Sunday for the gospel brunch.
Listen to Some Live Music at the Moody Theater
Home of the long-running Austin City Limits Live series, which airs on PBS, the Moody Theater is also the site of big-name concerts. Everyone from Peter Frampton to Beach House to Lyle Lovett has played on this stage.
Even though there are 2,750 seats, the theater is remarkably intimate—no one seat is more than 75 feet away from the stage. Plus, with 12 bars, you'll almost never have to wait in line for a drink.
Explore Austin's Culinary Scene on Rainey Street
What started as a few old houses turned into bars has grown into a full-blown entertainment district on the southeastern edge of downtown.
While it's still primarily a place to drink, an increasing number of gourmet restaurants are opening up on Rainey Street, earning the stretch the title of Restaurant Row. Standouts including Emmer & Rye, named one of Bon Appétit magazine's Best New Restaurants in 2016, and Geraldine's, where Southern-inspired fare takes on a distinctly Austin accent.
Raise a Toast at the Historic Driskill Bar
Whether you’re interested in meeting high-tech entrepreneurs or cattle barons, people from every corner of the spectrum show up at the Driskill Bar, a beautifully elegant bar on the second floor of the historic Driskill Hotel.
Though it’s located within steps of the madness on 6th Street, the bar is fairly low-key. Sit at one of the chairs around the piano to enjoy the performance and an occasional sing-along. During SXSW and the Austin Film Festival, this is one of the best places to spot celebrities.
Watch an Indie Film at Alamo Drafthouse
The Alamo Drafthouse is a unique movie theater that got its start in ATX. The downtown Austin outpost is in a funky vintage theater and while it’s slightly smaller than most Alamo theaters, it’s got all the same fun stuff: goofy quote-alongs, quirky theme nights and food and drinks delivered to your chair. Choose the balcony seats for the best view.
Observe Austin's Famous Bats at the Congress Avenue Bat Bridge
Austin's most famous flying mammals make an appearance nightly from March to October, when 1.5 million bats fly out of the bridge just before sundown.
The best vantage point is the walkway on the east side of the bridge, but you can also bring a blanket and enjoy the show from the hillside below the bridge. If you're feeling adventurous, you can also rent a canoe or kayak and watch the bats from the water.
Pick Up Some Local Goodies at the Downtown Farmers Market
Downtown's Republic Square Park is transformed into a lively farmers market on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Whether you're in the market for fresh fruit, artisanal cheese, pickles, kimchi or other locally made specialty foods, you'll find just about anything you can imagine at this farmers market, plus live music and a festive vibe.
PubCrawler of Austin provides a whole new way of touring downtown.
Instead of just walking from bar to bar, you ride on a human-powered contraption that is itself a mobile bar. There are four 2-hour routes to choose from with a variety of stops along the way.
If drinking is your top priority, then the Market District tour should meet your needs. This tour travels along 5th and 6th Streets, which are both packed with drinking establishments.
For a touch of history, you can tour the area around the Texas State Capitol building.
The three-story Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum tells the story of Texas from prehistoric times up until the present.
Using interactive displays, audio recordings, dioramas and short films, the museum explains how three major industries—ranching, cotton and oil—played key roles in the state’s evolution.
Other unique and fascinating exhibits cover Texas's role in NASA and the space program, the lives of former Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and George W. Bush, and the discovery and recovery of the La Belle shipwreck off the Texas coast.
For a more immersive experience, you can also enjoy an IMAX movie at the museum. Both historical films and major motion pictures are featured at the theater. The smaller Bullock Cinema presents “multi-sensory” films accompanied by special effects such as lightning and rain.