Austin lies at the point where the Colorado River leaves the Edwards Plateau. The second largest state capital in the US, Austin was founded in 1839 and named after Stephen F. Austin, the “Father of Texas,” and is today an important administrative, educational, and cultural center, home to the University of Texas, the Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum, and the Texas Memorial Museum. Other features of interest include the red-granite State Capitol, built in 1888 and modeled on the Capitol in Washington, DC, and the restored Old Pecan Street (Sixth St.), the city’s old main street and a popular gathering and entertainment place in the evenings. Other notable cultural attractions include the museum in the former home of sculptor Elisabeth Ney; the Governor’s Mansion, a classic southern mansion dating from 1856; and the increasingly popular South by Southwest (SXSW) music and film festival.
#1 – Bullock Texas State History Museum
The Bullock Texas State History Museum tells the state’s story through a variety of interesting interactive exhibits, along with audio-visual displays and film (the museum boasts an on-site IMAX Theatre). In addition to discovering more about the Lone Star State’s rich history, you’ll learn about the natural landscape, Native Americans, explorers, ranching, and famous Texans.
#2 – Zilker Metropolitan Park and Botanical Garden
Austin’s most popular green space, Zilker Park is a favorite recreation area for visitors and locals alike. Within the park are a variety of excellent tourist attractions, including the Zilker Hillside Theater – home to the annual Zilker Summer Musical – and the excellent Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum. Popular activities include walking and picnicking, as well as canoeing on Town Lake, while youngsters love the Zilker Zephyr miniature railway and taking a splash in the Barton Springs Pool, a huge spring-fed swimming pool open year-round. The highlight of a visit is Zilker Botanical Garden, 30 acres of plants and exquisite themed gardens, including the lovely Japanese Garden with its many streams, waterfalls, and ponds. There’s also a rose garden, a herb garden, and the Hartman Prehistoric Garden, built around ancient dinosaur footprints found embedded in the rock.
Another garden worth visiting is the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, eight kilometers from Austin’s downtown core and home to interesting architectural elements and wetlands. Also worthwhile is the Austin Nature and Science Center, a living museum with interpretive exhibits, programs, collections, and trails, as well as the Dino Pit where kids can play at being amateur archaeologists.
#3 – The State Capitol and Visitors Center
Completed in 1888, the State Capitol – home to the office of the State Governor and the Chambers of the Texas Legislature – and its 22 acres of grounds and monuments is one of Austin’s top attractions. Protected as a National Historic Landmark, the building impresses with its dimensions: at 308 feet tall, it ranks as the sixth tallest state capitol, taller even than the US Capitol in Washington, DC. Park highlights include a monument to the Heroes of the Alamo from 1891, a pleasant shaded path called the Great Walk, and a monument to Vietnam War veterans unveiled in 2014. A first-rate visitor center provides information relating to the Capitol, and is where tours of the Capitol building can be arranged. Also of interest is the recently restored Texas Governor’s Mansion, accessible via free guided tours (reservations required).