It’s no surprise that the best Austin things to do revolve around music, the great outdoors, history and culture—with a bit of quirkiness thrown in for good measure. With more than 300 live-music venues, you could see a band every night of the week—and you should. Top Austin attractions include the Continental Club, Antone’s and the Broken Spoke (see nightlife), but don’t hesitate to pop into a random bar for a drink and discover a new Austin artist. The area’s natural beauty lends itself to outings on Lake Travis or Lake Austin; swimming in Barton Springs; hanging out at Zilker Park or renting canoes and paddleboats on Lady Bird Lake. But there’s plenty of culture to be found here, too, with tours of the State Capitol and visits to the Blanton Museum of Art high on visitors’ lists. Get a big swallow of Texas history at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum—it’s the most comprehensive “Story of Texas” you’ll experience.
Austin wouldn’t be Austin without this huge, 355-acre park. Home to the spring Kite Festival for the last 82 years, fall’s Austin City Limits Music Festival and the 155-foot Zilker “Tree”—a tree made of wires that’s lit up every holiday season (don't be surprised if you see kids and adults, alike, spinning around under the tree, in fact, you should try it—when you twirl it creates the effect of a psychedelic light show). The park winds around Lady Bird Lake with miles of biking and walking trails, soccer fields, disc golf and city views. The Zilker Train is great for kids and goes around the park so you can get the lay of the land (bring money—the trip costs $2.75 for adults and $1.75 for kids under 12; infants under 1 ride free). Don’t miss Barton Springs. The city’s undisputed gem is fed by underground springs and is 68 degrees year-round. If you get there before 9AM, it’s free. Or, you can always go in the back way [no pets allowed] and sit in the springs there. You’ll find a lot of runners there after Saturday morning long runs, soaking tired muscles. Don’t like the cold? Jump in anyway; the springs have long been thought to have healing powers. Get easy access to the Barton Creek Greenbelt from here, too—and discover 8 miles of hiking, climbing and swimming holes.
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Most people’s reason to visit the lake and trail is the Stevie Ray Vaughan statue near the First Street Bridge; it’s not unusual to find roses left in honor of the brilliant guitarist who made Austin his home. But it’s also beautiful here, and that makes it a top Austin thing to do. Bordered by 10.1 miles of hike-and-bike trails, Lady Bird Lake—renamed from Town Lake in 2007 to honor Lady Bird Johnson—is at the heart of a network of more than 200 municipal parks. Rent a canoe or kayak for a paddling tour of the lake, or just hit the trails. If you decide to hit the trail, pay close attention to the map—you need to cross ALL of the bridges to stay on it. The trail is safe, but there are a lot less people after the First Street Bridge, so we wouldn't recommend that portion too early or late in the day. The trail is also less crowded early in the morning through early afternoon; the after-work athletes pretty much take over from 5PM onward.
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Only in Austin will you find the largest urban bat colony in North America. Since 1980, when engineers built bat-friendly crevices in the Congress Avenue Bridge during construction, more than a million Mexican free-tailed bats swoop out from under the bridge just after sunset. Don’t skip this one; it’s an impressive sight. You can see them March-November, but July and August are peak viewing months; the bats spend summers here and winters in Mexico. Get there early if you want to see them from the bridge. Better yet, go for one of the boat cruises and get up close and personal with the bats—try Capital Cruises or the Lonestar Riverboat. Just be sure to wear a hat—bat poop is very stinky!
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Students and out-of-town executives getting drunk at shot bars? There’s a reason why Sixth Street’s reputation as party central precedes itself. Despite the shot bars (excellent for a quick buzz and cheap drinks, by the way), Sixth Street is a ton of fun to hang out on, get lit, listen to live music at one of 200 clubs, eat delicious street food and meet people from all walks of life. And that’s just on East Sixth—the famous part between Congress Avenue and Interstate 35. West Sixth Street, starting around Guadalupe Street and going almost to Lamar Boulevard, is the more “adult” section, with an older crowd (i.e. more money, less fake IDs) and sophisticated bars: Momo’s for live music; Molotov and Union Park for killer balcony views; Opal Divine’s for a huge beer selection; the Belmont for 1960s-style swank; and—though it’s not on Sixth Street (it’s on Fifth Street), the legendary Antone’s (see nightlife) is just a stumble around the corner.
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Known as one of the top destination spas for its impeccable service, mouth-watering cuisine and stunning Hill Country views over Lake Austin, this is one attraction that's worth the splurge. We recommend a half-day spa package; it's $365, but it's a great deal when you consider that the price includes two 50-minute spa treatments (we recommend pairing up the personalized facial with a full-body lavender scrub and massage), lunch, a spa gift, all gratuities and access to the pools, the hot tub, sauna and steam room. Staying here will cost you quite a bit more. Prices for three-night, Signature Room packages start at $1,635 for a double in “The Resort” option ($2,010 private) to $2,175 for a double in the “The Ultimate” option ($2,550 private). Got the bucks? The five-night, Premium Room package ends up being the best deal because it includes nearly $1,185 in spa and fitness allowance and a luxe room.
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With three floors of interactive exhibits that will suck you in, the Bob Bullock Museum tells the story of Texas like no other establishment. There’s a huge 37-foot tall bronze Lone Star sculpture in front that’s great for photos, too. Plan to spend a few hours here—and expect crowds any time of year, but especially when school’s in session. Don’t miss the IMAX Theatre here—it’s the only one in Austin. Take advantage of it for historical Texas films while you’re there, or come back to catch a popular flick. Warning: If you’re going to see a hot movie here (like anything with vampires in it), expect a several-hours wait to get in.
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The first Friday of every other month the Blanton hosts an art party known as the "B Scene." Mingle with the hip, cool, artsy and beautiful while sipping Blantinis—and get the inside scoop on what to see on your tour of the museum the next day. The city’s cultural gem is home to more than 17,000 works of art, including the Mari and James A. Michener Collection of 20th-Century American Art, plus modern, Latin American, Renaissance and Baroque art, 15th-century prints and drawings, and rotating exhibitions. Skip the Renaissance unless you’re a diehard fan, and focus on the groovy 1960s exhibits.
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The Texas State Capitol is second in size to only the U.S. Capitol (and actually it's still 7 feet taller than it), and officials gave contractors 3 million acres in the Texas Panhandle (which later became the famous XIT Ranch) in exchange for building it. Overlooking Congress Avenue, it’s a stunning example of 19th-century architecture with its “Sunset Red” pink granite from Marble Falls exterior and incredible rotunda detailing. Don’t miss the legislative and House chambers—not much has changed since the 1880s—or the original flag from the Battle of San Jacinto. Word to the wise: It’s busy all the time here, so prepare for school and group tours of all kinds. The absolute worst time to go is in a legislative year—which happens every two odd-numbered years (the next one is 2011) and generally runs from January until June, unless there’s a special session—and then who knows? Best bet is to call ahead.
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This huge, pink granite exfoliation dome just west of Austin is one of the largest batholiths (underground rock formation uncovered by erosion) in the U.S.—and that alone makes it a popular destination for locals who want to get romantic at the top with a picnic and a bottle of wine, and curious visitors who just want to sit on a big, pink rock. And, at 425 feet above ground, 1,825 feet above sea level and covering 640 acres, it’s pretty easy to do either. It’s also a stone’s throw (pun intended) from Fredericksburg—home to cute little B&Bs, fantastic antique and trendy shops, and great restaurants, which is another reason to visit. Come for the day, check out the rock, and then camp out at night in the park. If it's a steamy summertime day, skip the rustic route and go for a B&B and a cold one in Fredericksburg.
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