Texas' state capital has kept its small-town heart, earning the love with great music, culinary prowess, whip-smart locals, and a sociable streak impossible to resist.
Congress Avenue Bridge Bat Colony
The Austin American-Statesman's Bat Observation Area on the southeast side of Congress Avenue is accessible for visitors with disabilities and is free to enjoy. You will, however, must pay for parking nearby. The Bat Observation Area includes educational kiosks that operate year-round, and Bat Conservation International has volunteers on hand and holds programs on weekend evenings during prime bat-viewing season from May through September. The best bat viewing is in August. You can also call the city's Bat Hotline at (512) 327-9721 to get the most up-to-date information on when the bats have been making their nightly appearances.
Texas State Capitol
Completed in 1888 using sunset-red granite, Texas' state capitol is the largest in the US, backing up the familiar claim that everything's bigger hereabouts. Tasked with creating a bigger space for the state government after it outgrew the original capitol building, architect Elijah E. Myers submitted his design in 1881. It was his second time designing such an edifice after making a name for himself on the Michigan State Capitol Building in Detroit. However, the building that stands today reflects some changes to Myers design made after he was fired from the project in 1886.
The Capitol narrowly survived a 1983 fire, resulting in numerous renovations and restorations over the next decade. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986. Drop in even if only to take a peek at the historic portraiture and the lovely rotunda - look up at the dome - and try out the whispering gallery created by its curved ceiling.
University of Texas at Austin
Whatever you do, don't call it 'Texas University' - them's fightin' words, usually used derisively by Texas A&M students to take their rivals down a notch. Sorry, A&M, but the main campus of the University of Texas is kind of a big deal. Established in 1883, UT has the largest enrollment in the state, with over 50,000 students.
Notable buildings on campus include four excellent museums and the Texas Memorial Stadium, home of the Texas Longhorns football team. But none define the UT campus as much as the UT Tower. Standing 307ft high, with a clock over 12ft in diameter, the tower looms large, both as a campus landmark and in Austin history as the perch used by a shooter during a 1966 mass killing. On a more cheerful note, it now serves as a beacon of victory when it's lit orange to celebrate a Longhorn win or other achievement.
The tower's observation deck is accessible only by guided tours, which are offered frequently in summer but only on weekends during the school year. Advance reservations are recommended, although standby tickets may be available at the Texas Union's front desk.
Want to see some Big 12 football or other college athletics while you're in town? The UT Box Office is your source for all things Longhorn.
Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum
Big, glitzy and bursting with high-tech interactive exhibits, this showcase museum celebrates the story of the Lone Star State, from its earliest inhabitants, via the era when it formed part of Mexico, up to the present day. The highlight is on the 1st floor, where you can see the hull of La Belle, a French ship that sank off the Gulf Coast in 1686, along with artifacts recovered from the wreck. Allow a few hours for your visit.
Upstairs, galleries trace the revolutionary years of the Republic of Texas, its rise to statehood and its economic expansion into oil drilling and space exploration. Special features cover John Wayne's 1960 movie The Alamo, and home-grown music from Bob Wills to Buddy Holly.
The museum also houses an IMAX theater (check website for listings; adult/child four to 17 years $9/7), and the Texas Spirit Theater (adult/child four to 17 years $6/5), which shows The Star of Destiny, a 'multi-sensory' 15-minute film that's simultaneously high-tech and hokey fun.