If you’re wondering what there is to do in Austin, there isn’t a simple answer. Austin’s culture is built around things to do, and there are a lot of them.
Learning what to do in Austin is a way of getting to know the city itself.
The Austin you discover changes based upon your goals. If you want to know what to do in Austin at night, you’ll find live music, great barbecue, warm nights by the water. If you want to know what to do in Austin with kids, you’ll open yourself to the city’s abundant natural beauty and its wholesome side.
But those who are really interested in what there is to do in Austin, Texas will start to understand what makes Austin such a unique place — it’s all part of the same city. People in search of what to do in Austin for free mingle in the same parks with those looking for what to do in Austin with their family.
That’s one of the city’s secrets. There’s so much to do in Austin because Austinites like to go out. They like to be outside. And they like to be with each other.
When such strong community spirit is combined with beautiful surroundings and year-round good weather, the possibilities multiply.
And they take on the laid-back disposition of the people they were made for.
Free Things to Do in Austin
The following activities aren’t worthwhile only because they’re free. What’s on this list are some of the best things to do in Austin overall.
And if you’re wondering if Austin is worth visiting in the winter — the city’s best hikes and outdoor hangouts aren’t time-dependent. Whether you’re searching for what to do in Austin in December or what to do in Austin in June, these activities are can’t-miss.
With 300-plus days of sunshine and an average temperature of 68 °F (20 °C), going outdoors comes natural to Austinites. But if you’re looking for what to do in Austin on a rainy day, there are a few free options as well.
This list is by no means exhaustive.
There are 30 other major hiking and biking trails in addition to the ones we’ve spotlighted, covering more than 100 miles. The city’s cultural and historic tours are too numerous to list — and again, many of them are free.
Public art is a way of life in Austin, with photo opportunities around every corner. And the people you meet are for many the most memorable thing about the city — and that only costs money if you’re the one buying the drinks.
Even Austin’s famous live music scene won’t cost you anything if you’re catching live shows at Waterloo Records or the summer series of outdoor concerts put on by the Austin Symphony Orchestra. However, if you’re enjoying a busker’s tunes, you really should tip!
Read on for a taste of the best Austin has to offer, gratis. And keep in mind that if you really want to know what to do in Austin, TX for free — you’re going to have to get out there and discover it yourself.
What’s the First Thing to Do in Austin, TX: Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail
This is the crown jewel of all of Austin’s hike and bike trails. And having this fitness what-to-do so close to Austin’s downtown is a big reason that that the city was rated one of the top U.S. bicycling cities by Forbes Traveler, in the top 10 fittest cities by Forbes Magazine, and made Bicycling Magazine’s top 20 list for bike-friendly cities.
The Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail provides runners, walkers, and cyclists with all-around views of Lady Bird Lake over its 10-mile length. It’s named after former Austin mayor Roy Butler and his wife Ann, who spearheaded the Town Lake beautification project with former First Lady Lady Bird Johnson. After their committee transformed the lake from an eyesore to a downtown staple, it was renamed after Mrs. Johnson.
If you’re trying to find what to do in Austin with your family, this trail probably has it. But it’s also a good option for those on their own.
Hitting the trail is what people like to do on weekdays and weekends all year round. Whether you’re in search of what to do in Austin for New Year’s or what to do in Austin right now, the trail is a good place to start.
Some of the options ahead are found off of this trail. There are plenty of other highlights as well:
- Butler Park (which is not named after Ann and Roy) boasts one of the best views of the city skyline from its hilltop public plaza
- Lou Neff Point is another acclaimed viewpoint
- The public restrooms are unbelievable
And you’ll have plenty of company — each year, over four million locals and visitors hit the trail.
What to Do in East Austin: Boardwalk at Lady Bird Lake
When the $28 million, 1.4-mile boardwalk and trail extension was completed in 2014, it linked East Austin into downtown’s Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail.
The extension created a 10-mile loop from the Mopac Expressway on the west end to Pleasant Valley Road in East Austin. This gave residents of East Austin trail access, resulting in thousands of new users.
The boardwalk spans a 1.3-mile gap in the Hike and Bike Trail that had previously required vehicle travel.
In addition to its practical purpose, it’s also quite beautiful. It’s a great answer to what to do with kids in Austin, although this may also involve some bicycle dodging.
There are seven bench-equipped viewing areas along the trail, but most of the route provides a wonderful view of the city’s skyline. And with the breeze catching over the river, a boardwalk walk is one of the best things to do in the hottest months.
Of course, it’s easy enough to work up a sweat and keep this what-to-do in your Austin rotation in January and the coldest parts of the year.
You can access the boardwalk at three points:
- Riverside Drive at Blunn Creek (near Joe’s Crab Shack)
- International Shores Park at 1820 S. Lakeshore Blvd
- From the northeast corner of Riverside Drive/IH-35 intersection
What to Do in South Austin: Zilker Park
If you’re wondering what to do in Austin today with your family, there’s a good chance you’ll find it at Zilker Park.
The 350-acre park has been called ‘Austin’s most-loved park.’ And true to form, it’s a second home for Austin’s outdoor lovers and culture vultures.
It’s a good hop-on point for the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail. Its vast expanse surrounds other spots on this list as well, such as the Zilker Botanical Garden and Barton Springs Pool.
Many start their search for what to do in Austin, TX here. Even those who don’t want to do anything.
As Austin’s de facto central park, Zilker Park attracts all types. Some come to relax and others come to play — there are several picnic areas for the former and a disc golf course for the latter. The Austin Nature and Science Center has been what schools want to do on their Austin-area field trips for generations of kids. The Zilker Hillside Theatre hosts concerts, the Zilker Summer Musical, and Shakespeare in the Park.
The Zilker Holiday Tree has supplied locals with what to do on Christmas Day in Austin, TX for nearly 50 years. The Trail of Lights predates it, transforming the park into a wonderland and providing what is one of the more wholesome things to do in Austin on New Year’s Eve since 1965.
If you want to know what to do in Austin, Texas in October, Zilker Park has you covered. The Austin City Limits Music Festival takes place the first two weekends. About 450,000 people attend each year.
What to do in Austin in March? Check out the ABC Kite Festival, the country’s longest-running festival of its kind.
What to Do in Austin, TX this Weekend: Mount Bonnell
Catching sunrise from the top of Mount Bonnell is on many Austinites’ bucket lists. On second thought, you might not want to go on the weekend — or maybe sunset from 775 feet up is more your speed.
Either way, you’ve usually got a pretty good view awaiting you. You’ll take 102 stone steps up to the viewpoint, which is manageable unless you’re looking at this what-to-do in Austin, TX in August.
On the way, you can find the cave where the famous Texas Ranger Bigfoot Wallace stayed for such a long time that his sweetheart eloped with another man.
Mountain legends tell of more heartbreak. Mount Bonnell was supposedly once called Antoinette’s Leap, after a young woman who leaped to her death to avoid being captured by the Native Americans who had killed her fiancé.
What to Do with Family in Austin, TX: Barton Creek Greenbelt
Many searching for what to do in Austin — and willing to go into the surrounding Texas areas — find an unlikely change of pace along the Barton Creek Greenbelt’s 12.68 miles of trails.
The main trail runs about seven miles, spanning limestone bluffs and hidden swimming holes. This particular trail is considered one of the finest in all of Texas, and it attracts visitors from all over the state.
If you’re looking for what to do in Austin, Texas in April or May, swimming in the creek might make your list. The majority of the area’s rainfall comes in spring, with the creek drying up in the summer.
The second-best season for rain is the fall, and the fair year-round temperatures make this a good bet for what to do in Austin, Texas in October or November.
The best way to check the area’s eight best swimming spots is the site Greenbelt Now, which features current readings pulled from three separate stations along the creek.
When the water level is high, locals enjoy kayaking, cliff diving, and tubing. There’s even an annual DIY “Tubin’ the Belt” parade, where hundreds tube the greenbelt on a Saturday in spring.
And when the creek is dry, climbing, hiking, and biking are the activities du jour.
If you’re looking for what to do in Austin today with kids, hiking to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is a nice family-friendly idea. It features a family garden, birdwatching, and a rotating lineup of events from yoga to native plant gardening.
What to Do with Kids in Austin, TX: Watch Bats on the Congress Avenue Bridge
Of course, what your kids consider fun things to do in Austin, Texas may be different from what you do.
Watching the Congress Bridge colony of 1.5 million Mexican free-tail bats make their nightly flight may be the safest bet. Each warm-weather night, the bats leave their daytime perches en masse 30–60 minutes before sunset.
On their food-finding mission, the bats eat somewhere from 10,000–30,000 pounds of insects, including mosquitoes and harmful agricultural pests.
If you’re looking for what to do in Austin, TX in November and on, you may be out of luck with the bats. But if you’re trying to find a unique what-to-do in Austin, Texas in March and on into the warmer months, the bats will likely be there to greet you.
The bat barrage is a picturesque complement to sunset over Lady Bird Lake. But beware that the free viewpoints may be crowded. If you’re looking for one of the best experiences of what to do in Austin, TX at night, you may want to spring for one of the nightly bat-watching cruises. Or even take out a kayak on the lake to go at your own pace.
What to Do in Austin, TX in July: Austin Public Library
Most Julys, Austin’s average temperature tops out between 92–99 °F (34–37 °C). If you’re looking for what to do in Austin, Texas in the hotter months like July and August, there’s no better time to seek refuge in a library.
Like many things in Austin, the public library system started out as a grassroots effort. In 1926, a group called the American Association of University Women organized a door-to-door campaign to solicit book donations and money for the first library building, set up at 819 Congress Avenue in a rented room above a newspaper’s offices. The library held 500 donated volumes at first, but would rapidly grow to become a community asset.
Now, the library system is a feeding ground for Austin’s legendary arts scene. Daily events and reading groups keep impressionable minds humming.
What to Do for Valentine’s Day in Austin, TX: I Love You So Much Mural
If you’re trying to find what to do on Valentine’s Day in Austin, you can do worse than a stop at the I Love You So Much Mural.
Painted by local musician Amy Cook in 2010, the simple spray paint scrawl sits outside of Jo’s Coffee in the heart of the South Congress neighborhood. Cook’s partner Liz Lambert is majority owner at Jo’s, and her message made an attraction out of what was already a SoCo hotspot.
Now it’s the source of daily lineups for the Instagram crowd.
If you’re in search of what to do in Austin on the weekend, this mural could be a good stop on your ramble. The span of South Congress Avenue is home to some of Austin’s funkiest shops, most adventurous eateries, and most legendary characters.
This wealth of options makes exploring SoCo one of the best what-to-do’s in Austin today and every day. Some things are free, like taking in the sunset over the Texas State Capitol Building. Others you’ll have to open your wallet for.
One thing’s for sure — most people in search of the most fun things to do in Austin will eventually end up here.
What to Do in Austin, Texas on a Crisp Day in September: Pennybacker Bridge
Otherwise known as the 360 Bridge, Pennybacker is one of the prettiest sunset spots in Austin, if Instagram is to be believed.
The four-lane stretch of the Capital of Texas/360 Highway is crowned by a rust-colored steel arch that spans the entirety of the river without ever touching it. This keeps the river clear for boaters and other watersport enthusiasts.
On the bridge’s south, a short hike up to an overlook will let you capture a perfect sunset.
What Is There to Do in Austin, TX (After the Pandemic): Backyard Story Night
What are some fun things you can only do in Austin, Texas? A community collaboration like Backyard Story Night is one of them (although it’s since spread to Dallas).
Warm nights… spacious backyards… friendly people… the conditions for Backyard Story Nights read like a checklist of the things that Austin has in abundance. Except for the past year, when the event’s been put on hold through the pandemic.
All the same, it wouldn’t be right to finish up a list of free things to do in Austin without at least one representative of the city’s performing-arts culture. Backyard Story Night is a true Austin original, stripped of the artifice that has affected some of the city’s other arts culture on its transition into the big time.
The idea is simple — get a bunch of people together, and have some of them tell their best stories to the others. It’s in the tradition of The Moth, but also in the tradition of that basic Austin activity, just hanging out and swapping stories.
The Best (Paid) Things to Do in Austin
Had enough of the great outdoors? Austin’s got plenty more to offer.
So much of Austin’s magic has been preserved in its spaces. Whether we’re talking about Sixth Street’s famous venues or Rainey Street’s bungalows turned food-and-drink hotspots, you have to pay to experience much of what there is to love about Austin.
This list gives an overview of some of the best Austin has to offer. It doesn’t cover it all, but it should give you a good start to discovering why Austin has justly earned its reputation.
What to Do at Night in Austin: Sixth Street
What should you not miss in Austin? A stroll down legendary Sixth Street has to be near the top of the list.
What can you do in Austin right now? Not everything you could pre-pandemic, but regardless of the indoor restrictions Sixth Street is always going to be the top answer to what to do tonight in Austin.
Hungry? You’ll have plenty of options, from cool gastropubs like Parkside to 24-hour pick-me-ups like Voodoo Doughnut. Like the speakeasy feel? Try Midnight Cowboy, beneath the fray in its underground 1920s environs. Want a dose of comedy? Check out Esther’s Follies… online only until the end of the pandemic.
There’s the potentially haunted Driskill Hotel — Austin Ghosts’ haunted tour will give you a bit of Austin’s creepy history regardless of your beliefs. And although the street is crowded with buskers, especially around South by Southwest festival time, there are several must-see venues.
There’s Vulcan if you’re into clubbing, and Parish for intimate shows. Flamingo Cantina is home to ‘good vibes music’ like reggae and worldbeat, and San Jac Saloon has country. There’s Pete’s Dueling Piano Bar for [you guessed it], and Stubb’s Walker Creek Ampitheater for some of the bigger acts.
All in all, Sixth Street is a romp. And it will give you a good sampling of the best Austin has to offer.
What to Do in Downtown Austin: Rainey Street
Eventually, you may get tired of what the locals call ‘Dirty Sixth.’ Fortunately, downtown’s got another happening corridor to explore in Rainey Street. With many of its bars, restaurants, and music venues built from turn-of-the-century bungalows, Rainey has a unique atmosphere.
This bungalow style makes for a heavy emphasis on patios, which makes it well-suited for pandemic conditions. Check out the Moonshine Patio Bar and Grill, Half Step, Clive Bar, and Bungalow Austin for some of the best outdoor spaces on the strip, and some nice tipples besides. And if you wander through Clive Bar’s patio on the right night, you’ll find a rickety speakeasy called Bar Illegal serving mezcal.
The food options are some of the best in Austin — particularly Emmer & Rye, which made Bon Appetit’s 50 Best New Restaurants list back in 2016. Geraldine’s at the Hotel Van Zandt has upscale southern food to complement nightly live music, and the Rainey Street Food Truck Lot gathers about 30 food trucks around a sit-down outdoor space.
Rainey Street is a nationally registered historic district, with 31 buildings built before 1934. And it’s a good jumping-on point to the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail and Lady Bird Lake, as well as the Tejano Walking Trail, which highlights the heritage of the local Latino musicians that helped shape Austin’s music scene in the 1940s and ‘50s.
What to Do in Austin with Kids (Part 2): Zilker Botanical Garden
While Zilker Park has a lot to offer restless young people, Zilker Botanical Garden is home to a whole different world.
It’s located on 28 acres inside of Zilker and contains eight independently maintained gardens, some themed extravagantly:
- City of Austin’s Green Garden
- Cactus and Succulent Garden
- Hartman Prehistoric Garden
- Herb and Fragrance Garden
- Isamu Taniguchi Oriental Garden
- Mabel Davis Rose Garden
- Doug Blachly Butterfly Trail and Garden
- Pioneer Village
Some are connected by waterfalls, streams, and Koi-filled ponds. The Hartman Prehistoric Garden is filled with plants from the time of dinosaurs.
Famed landscape architect Isamu Taniguchi designed his namesake garden as a gift to the city of Austin. Though originally brought to central Texas against his will during World War II, he decided to settle in the region after the war. Both his sons were educated at the University of Texas in Austin, and in gratitude, the elder Taniguchi designed a garden that he called ‘The Gift of Peace.’
What to Do in Austin, Texas for a Bachelor Party: Try a Famous Barbeque
You’re going out — and you need a full belly to prepare you. You’ll want to start the night at one of Austin’s legendary barbecue joints.
Or let’s say you’re in search of what to do on a Friday night in Austin — the same advice goes. What to do in Austin tonight — or any night? You guessed it.
Barbecue is religion in Austin, and the city has become a true center of the craft. This is an exciting development for barbecue lovers, who used to defer to nearby Lockhart, known as the ‘Barbecue Capital of Texas.’
About 15 years ago, Austin barbecue started catching up. Aaron Franklin went from barbecue cashier to pitmaster at Franklin Barbecue, now considered the class of Austin. His books on barbecue have made the New York Times’ Best Seller list in the years since, spreading his meat manifesto far and wide.
Franklin Barbecue might attract the longest lines, but it’s not the only barbecue hotspot to open in recent years.
Aaron Franklin schooled under the legendary Bob Mueller in Taylor, TX, whose barbecue joint has been a worthy pilgrimage since 1970. Another Mueller alum is at work at Eater’s number-one ranked StilesSwitch BBQ & Brew, who serve some of the best ribs in town.
Now, when someone asks ‘What is Austin, Texas best known for?’ barbecue is as likely an answer as live music.
What to Do in Austin When it Rains: Watch a Movie at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
This is one of the trickiest what-to-dos to plan for in Austin today — the famed cinema chain has been closed since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March 2021.
Despite this uncertainty, there’s no way we could leave it off our list. The distinctive vision that Alamo pioneered provides a cultural balance to Austin’s live music scene. It’s even been recognized as the ‘The #1 movie theater in the country doing it right’ by Entertainment Weekly.
This commitment to a distinct movie theater culture goes beyond the dinner theater atmosphere, with food and drinks served at the cabaret-style tables lined up in front of each row. Strict cinema-going etiquette is enforced, as unique events unfold in front of the audience.
For many years, Alamo’s events were the top answer for what to see and do in Austin, TX. Famous directors like Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth organized film festivals on Alamo screens, in addition to the local curators who organized Music Mondays, Terror Tuesdays, and Weird Wednesdays. Harry Knowles of the website Ain’t It Cool News guided the long-running Butt-Numb-A-Thon until it was discontinued in 2017.
If you were looking for what to do in Austin, TX for New Year’s Eve, Alamo’s annual video dance party was a fun option. If you were looking for what to do in Austin on a random Friday night, Alamo had you covered with everything from silent movies with local bands playing live accompaniment to dinner pairings with food-based films such as Like Water for Chocolate.
If it doesn’t recover its former glory, it will give Texans another good reason to remember the Alamo.
What to Do on Your Anniversary in Austin: Barton Springs Pool
There’s no better what-to-do in Austin without the kids than pretending you and your partner have the biggest pool in Austin.
It’s large enough to accommodate 800,000 visitors a year, as well as local wildlife like the endangered Barton Springs Salamander.
The pool is also topless-friendly, though sightings are rare.
Deeded by Andrew Jackson Zilker to the city in 1918, this spring-fed pool is suitable for year-round swims — its temperature stays between 68 °F (20 °C) and 74 °F (23 °C).
What to Do on a Friday Night in Austin: Jazz Bar at Elephant Room
In a city overrun by live music every day of the week, you have to mark the weekend somehow. And Elephant Room has been supplying some of the best answers to what to do this weekend in Austin for three decades.
USA Today has rated it as the best jazz bar in Austin for seven years running, and its laid-back approach to performance art has landed it in those rarest of ranks: a unique Austin music venue.
From the beginning, this place has had an interesting story. In 1985, geologists excavated ancient mastodon bones from the ground where the club would soon stand.
It’s a classier spot than most of Austin’s other music clubs, a sitting-room-only space with reasonably-priced cocktails that attracts some of the best jazz players in the world. But it manages to blend these classy credentials with a dive bar atmosphere.
This combination has caught the attention of people across the jazz world. One of the world’s best living trumpet players, Wynton Marsalis, rates Elephant Room in his top 10. And the authoritative publication on jazz, Downbeat Magazine, puts the room in their top 100 worldwide.
The club’s tight basement space hasn’t proven ideal through the pandemic. Though it won’t help you answer what to do in Austin this week, this what-to-do will hopefully be an Austin answer for many tomorrows to come.
What to Do in Austin, TX with Family (Part 2): Austin + Hill Country Sightseeing Tour
If you want to kill 50-plus birds (plus some bats) with one stone, the AO Tours Austin + Hill Country Sightseeing Tour is one of the best ways to see the city.
At 90 minutes and covering 30 miles, it’s quick. But you can also take the relaxed version, which takes two-and-a-half hours and includes stops at places such as Barton Springs, the Driskill Hotel, the Rhapsody Mural, Mount Bonnell, and the Austin Central Library.
You’ll be whisked away in a 14-passenger Sprinter van from two downtown locations. The tours are also surprisingly affordable, starting at $25 per adult and $17 per child.
What to Do Outdoors Near Downtown Austin, TX: Kayak on Lady Bird Lake
You’ve walked around the lake, and you’ve photographed it. There isn’t much more for you to do but get inside it!
Lady Bird Lake — whose original name, Town Lake, is still in use — was originally created in 1960 as a cooling pond for the decommissioned Holly Street Power Plant. It’s now used for recreation and flood control.
Situated between two dams, it’s calm. There is no motorized boat traffic on the lake, and swimming is illegal. All there is on its 468 acres are paddlers of all kinds.
With several of the city’s premier music venues situated on the banks of the lake, kayaking the lake can become a spectator sport.
There are several places to take a break from paddling, like Festival Beach and Red Bud Isle. And there’s ample shade under the cypress trees that line the lake.
The city’s skyline is visible from most places on the lake. There are designated lake trails and opportunities to de-boat into the Barton Springs Pool and Deep Eddy Pool. There’s even an off-leash dog park at Red Bud Isle.
What to Do in North Austin (really Georgetown, TX): Tour the Inner Space Cavern
If you’ve got some nature nerds in tow, make sure to hit the Inner Space Cavern.
Located in Austin satellite Georgetown, the cave is one of the leading paleontological sites in Texas. It’s incredibly well-preserved, estimated at 20-25 million years old. But it formed mostly in isolation, with its depths only open to the surface briefly in the Ice Age.
During this period, several large mammals fell into the cavern — the skeletons of a prehistoric baby mammoth, giant sloth, and saber-toothed tiger have been found in the cave and are now on display. All its natural entrances closed up about 14,000 years ago, once again preserving the cave’s limestone karst formations.
It was discovered in 1963 by highway inspectors and opened to the public in 1966. You take a cable car into the cave, whose 1,800-foot trail can even handle wheelchairs. The trail takes you past a voluminous white flowstone called ‘The Flowing Stone of Time,’ eroded by the water that still pours over it. A crumbling mammoth tusk soon comes into view. The tour then stops at ‘The Lake of the Moon’ for a dreamy sound-and-light show.
The tour takes 75 minutes, but if you’re still hungry for exploration stop by the gift shop. They sell a sift bag which will help you pan for gems and minerals just like the miners of yore.
As if you didn’t know beforehand, you’ve got options in Austin.
What you do in Austin can change by the day or on a whim. You can spend your days in the park or investigating culture. You can discover the city’s wealth of barbecue one month then commit to Tex-Mex the next (a topic deserving of its own article).
Austin doesn’t define itself by any one thing. Like the things its citizens do, the city is always in flux. And the things possible there have only multiplied.
Once upon a time, Austin’s charm used to be that of a small town bursting with things to do. In recent decades, its reality has changed.
The city’s population has doubled in the past 30 years, and all these extra people have brought cars, condos, and a hunger for the things that Austin has to offer. So the city just started offering more things. It’s no longer a big little city — now it’s the 11th-largest city in the U.S.
This is good news if you’re looking for things to do in Austin, even in these trying times.