For a little tiny frontier town that cropped up the year after Texas separated from Mexico, Austin sure has grown up.
First the railroad came in 1871, then the University of Texas in 1883. Then Austin City Limits, featuring local icon Willie Nelson, was filmed here in 1974. Shortly after, in 1987, the South by Southwest Festival was first celebrated.
But giving shape to those ebbs and flows are the city’s neighborhoods, each of which showcases a different aspect of Austin’s character – the political, the historical, the academic, the techy and the rock ‘n’ roll funky. If you’re wondering where to explore on your next visit, these are the best neighborhoods in Austin.
Downtown is the hardworking hub of the city. Here you’ll find the sprawling state-capitol complex and a cluster of museums and hotels catering to politicians, business travelers and convention-goers.
But downtown plays hard too. The neighborhood is chock-full of entertainment options, including the wild shot bars of 6th Street, the more low-key bars (only slightly) of Rainey St and music venues in Red River and the upscale Warehouse District.
For the center of the action, head downtown. Start your exploring at the famous sunset-red granite state capitol, built in 1888. This state capitol is the largest in the US, backing up the ubiquitous claim that everything is bigger in Texas. If nothing else, take a peek at the lovely rotunda – be sure to look up at the dome – and try out the whispering gallery created by its curved ceiling.
Next, walk to the museums and restaurants along Congress Ave and 6th St. The Bullock Texas State History Museum is no dusty vault. Big and glitzy, it shows off the Lone Star State’s history, from when it used to be part of Mexico up to the present, with high-tech interactive exhibits and fun theatrics.
Before you turn to the nightlife of 6th St, head to the Congress Ave Bridge to witness one of Austin’s best-beloved sites – a funnel cloud of up to 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats that swarms nightly from late March to early November, looking very much like a special effect from a B movie.
Turns out, Austin isn’t just the live-music capital of the world; it’s also home to the largest urban bat population in North America. There’s lots of standing room around parking lots and on the bridge itself, but if you want a more leisurely bat-watching experience, try Lone Star Riverboat and Capital Cruises for bat-watching tours.
After, raise a glass on Dirty 6th – the wild, bar-lined section of one of Austin’s major thoroughfares, stretching from Congress Ave east to I-35. You’ll also find comedy troupes, cinemas, live, performance halls and a range of music clubs dotting Congress Ave and its offshoots. Popular live-music venues cluster in the Red River District too.
Cinephiles flock to Alamo Drafthouse for food, beer and a great moviegoing experience. Think comfy seats and absolutely no tolerance for talking or cell phone use. An Austin original, Alamo Drafthouses are now scattered across the state and venturing into non-Texas territory. Check the online calendar for movie parties, brunch screenings and Terror Tuesday flicks.
2. East Austin
East Austin is on the rise – just look at the construction cranes and new buildings along East 6th St, which is rapidly gentrifying. This is where the cool kids hang, although the neighborhood retains a down-to-earth feel. Head to East 6th and its offshoots for dinner and dive-bar hopping, plus two-stepping at the neighborhood honky-tonk. The nighttime food truck scene is excellent.
With fantastic craft cocktails, skilled service and flattering lighting, it would be easy to call it a night – a good night – after spending an hour at the bar in Whisler’s or checking out a band on the adjacent and festive patio.
The bartenders shine at tiny Licha’s Cantina, a Mexican restaurant spilling out of an old bungalow. It’s an upbeat place to fuel up on margaritas, chips and guacamole before heading out. It’s also a favorite hole-in-the-wall for locals, so don’t tell anyone we told ya about it. Margaritas are $5 from 4pm to 6pm Tuesday to Friday.
An easy-going bar and mini-dance hall just off 6th St, the White Horse is a honky-tonk next to a glossy apartment complex. And since this is Austin, it just seems to work. This dive is a good place to learn to two-step – it offers lessons before the band starts. There are craft beers aplenty plus whiskey on tap. Patio and food truck too.
For live music, see who’s playing at Hotel Vegas or step into the dark confines of the Liberty Bar if you want to hide out while sipping your well-crafted Texas mule.
3. Market District, Clarksville and North Austin
Just west of the downtown core, the Market District is busy with pedestrians and cars headed to the large natural-foods market here and several iconic stores. An eye-catching graffiti wall shares the colorful visions of spray paint artists.
Further west, but east of MoPac Expressway, is Clarksville, a compact historic district and one of the city’s older neighborhoods. North Austin is largely residential, but a few fantastic restaurants and watering holes add some dazzle. Hyde Park, sitting just north of the University of Texas at Austin campus, was Austin’s first suburb.
Formerly a food truck found on the patio at Whisler’s, Thai-Kun recently opened a brick-and-mortar location in Domain Northside, an outdoor shopping plaza, and you’ll find some of the best Thai food in the city there – delicious and spicy noodles and curries, fried chicken and other favorites.
Stylish Uchiko is lauded by locals for its fresh and exquisitely flavored sushi and seafood dishes. But prices are steep, reflecting the high quality of the fare. On a budget? Don’t despair, just eat early. To sample the food at wallet- and purse-friendly prices, visit during happy hour, held nightly (4pm to 6:30pm). Several rolls are $8, while a half-dozen small bites $10 and under offer a broad sampling of the menu. Sake, beer and wine selections range from $5.50 to $10.
Across West 6th St is beloved Waterloo Records, which opened in 1982. The store is spacious and well-stocked. Come here to buy or sell new and used vinyl, CDs and DVDs. Texas artists are well represented in the inventory. Look for in-store performances. The best part may be the helpful and welcoming service – no old-school record-store snobs here.
If you’re into books, BookPeople feels like an old friend. As you wander the stacks, you’ll notice detailed staff recommendations beneath the packed-tight shelves. There’s a strong travel section in back. The store holds tons of book signings per year, so there’s likely somebody of interest in-house on any given week. Take a break at the cafe, which serves coffee, sandwiches and desserts.
4. South Austin
South Austin is an offbeat and oh-so-Austin neighborhood that was pretty marginal just 25 or so years ago. Today this quirky but festive area – especially along South Congress Ave – is the city’s soul. Tourism types nicknamed it SoCo, which has somewhat stuck, but the locals mostly still call it South Congress. The road is the main thoroughfare through the neighborhood and the epicenter of the action; most of the rest is residential.
If you tire of the crowds, take a walk or drive to nearby South 1st St. This burgeoning strip is filling up quickly with coffee shops and indie-owned eateries that rival their better-known neighbors in quality and style. For coffee, give scrappy Bouldin Creek Cafe a try. Elizabeth Street Cafe is a great stop for croissants and tasty banh mi.
If you’re sweating the Texas heat, never fear. Even when the temperature hits 100°F, you’ll be shivering in a jiff after you jump into the icy-cold Barton Springs. The pool is fed by the Edwards Aquifer, which flows to the springs through limestone channels. The Moderne-style bathhouse was built in 1947. Draped with century-old pecan trees, the area around the pool is a social scene in itself, and the place gets packed on hot summer days. You’ll even see folks swimming laps – with a lifeguard on duty – in February!
Conversely, if the weather’s just too perfect to be inside a climate-controlled building, stroll the open-air UMLAUF Sculpture Garden + Museum, located catty-corner to Zilker Park. Within the sculpture garden and the indoor museum’s collection, there are thousands of pieces by 20th-century American sculptor and former UT art professor Charles Umlauf, nearly 60 of which are on view in the sculpture garden.
Anyone with an interest in Texas flora and fauna should make the 20-minute drive to the wonderful gardens of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, southwest of downtown Austin. The center, founded in 1982 with the assistance of Texas’ beloved former first lady, has display gardens featuring nearly 900 species of plants native to Texas and more than 70 species of native Texas trees.
5. UT and Central Austin
Just north of downtown, the University of Texas cuts a huge swath across the city; look for the main tower and you’ll know you’ve arrived. Home to several fantastic museums begging for in-depth visits, this youthful neighborhood is a pleasant place to stroll, though you’ll need a plan of attack if you want to maximize your time.
History and art fans should head to the south end of campus, where several museums are clustered close together. US President Lyndon B Johnson and natural history are the focus in two separate museums on the northeast fringe of campus. And even if you’re not a Longhorn or a museum-goer, the campus is a nice place for wandering.
The LBJ Presidential Library and Museum touches on plenty of fascinating history. The November 22, 1963 exhibition covers the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and Johnson’s subsequent takeover; there’s also a replica of the Oval Office during his term, rendered at 7/8th scale.
Meanwhile, the Blanton Museum of Art boasts one of the best university art collections in the USA. The Blanton showcases a variety of styles, and while it doesn’t go into any of them very deeply, you’re bound to find something of interest. Especially striking is the permanent installation of Missão/Missões (How to Build Cathedrals) – which involves 600,000 pennies, 800 communion wafers and 2000 cattle bones.
6. West Austin
For outdoor recreation beyond Lady Bird Lake, plus a few great places to relax and waste away the afternoon, head west. Parks along Lake Austin draw hikers and nature lovers, while Hamilton Springs Pool is a gorgeous place to take a refreshing dip. Dripping Springs is the gateway to the Hill Country and keeps Austin day-trippers happy with new microbreweries and distilleries, wineries and great restaurants.
For a pretty sunset view, it’s hard to beat Mt Bonnell – just know you probably won’t have it to yourself. The city’s highest point, it overlooks Lake Austin, a pleasant respite from the urban hustle and bustle.
One particularly scenic spot in West Austin is Hamilton Pool Preserve, a creek-fed swimming hole surrounded by limestone cliffs and loads of greenery. The pool is in a protected preserve, however, and to guard this special spot from destruction by the masses, reservations are required; it’s $12 per vehicle, plus $8 for each adult (children 12 and under get in free). You can make the reservation for your vehicle online in advance, but the per-person entrance fees are cash only at the gate. Summer weekends book up a few months in advance, so try for a weekday or visit in the off-season.