Updated Apr 30, 2023
Uncover an extraordinary compilation of distinctive and offbeat Austin attractions, activities, events, bars, and restaurants with my guide to unique things to do in Austin. My list is meticulously curated and constantly updated, ensuring that it includes only the absolute best experiences the city has to offer.
A map of unique Austin things to do can be found at the bottom of this list.
Uniqueness: Participatory silly weirdness for those into that kind of thing.
Where: 1408 East Cesar Chavez (a few blocks from downtown). By reservation only.
This under-the-radar place (which, if you were wondering, is not an escape room) is one of the most unique things you can do not just in Austin, but maybe anywhere. It’s difficult to explain what it *is* exactly.
What happens when you visit? A lot of it is about fun and ridiculous interactions with other visitors inside a room filled with lights, sound and music. Yes, there’s a bit of tech but it’s more about “charming absurdity” and human interaction than anything else. Much of the fun relies on surprises and not knowing much but you can check out the list of 5-stars reviews on The Eureka Room website to get a better idea of what to expect.
Uniqueness: This giant cold-spring fed pool is one-of-a-kind.
Where/When: 2131 William Barton Dr. See site for hours.
It’s magical. It’s cold. It’s big. It’s relaxing. It’s just fantastic. Sixty-eight degrees all year round and open all year round (sans a couple weeks in spring for cleaning), this is a great place to chill out, literally and figuratively. Early morning swim starts at 5am and if there’s no moon you will be in nearly complete darkness. Night swim from 9-10pm is free and has a unique feel distinct from the daytime.
A few things to know: You can’t bring food or drinks (other than water) in here. The lifeguards patrol the grounds to keep rule-breakers from attracting ants that crawl over the rest of us. The bottom of the pool for the most part is natural, so if squishy sand and seaweed type stuff is not your jam, maybe head over to Deep Eddy Pool instead.
3) Two Stepping in Austin Honky Tonks
Uniqueness: Real Austin culture that you won’t find anywhere else.
Where: Various Locations.
This isn’t line dancing. This is partner dancing. Don’t worry if you don’t have a partner. But you might want to worry if you try to line dance. Don’t know how? There’s loads of free lessons at venues all over town. If you skip the lesson you’ll wish you hadn’t when you see everyone else having fun. Most people change partners each song when they’re out dancing, so you don’t have to worry if you show up solo.
The White Horse, The Little Longhorn Saloon, and The Broken Spoke all have music nearly every night of the week that you can dance to. The best source for two-stepping music is the Austin Honky Tonkers Facebook page.
Uniqueness: See behind the scenes of this iconic television show.
Where: 310 W Willie Nelson Blvd.
I did this tour when a friend came to town and it was way cooler than I thought it would be. Not only do they take you around the parts of the venue you see when you are going to a show, but they walk you around backstage, into sound rooms and down back hallways. It literally is behind the scenes. The tours are limited to 10 people so it feels intimate and secretive. If you have any interest in the show or seeing how a show like this looks backstage, I recommend you check it out.
5) The Bats Under Congress Avenue Bridge
Uniqueness: The largest urban population of Mexican free-tailed bats in the world.
Where: 305 S Congress Ave.
March through Fall is the best time to view the bats under Congress Avenue bridge. I’ve been there all times of the year and there’s always some, but they definitely peak in August with a million and half of these Mexican free-tailers. Some nights they come out when there’s still some light left in the sky and other nights not until it’s really dark and hard to see them. If you don’t like the smell of guano, this is not the place for you.
You can sit on the lawn and look up at them, stand on the bridge and look down at them, go on a boat tour, or rent a kayak, canoe or giant paddleboat swan.
Despite what you’ll read over and over again, this is not the largest population of bats around. Bracken Cave Preserve has TEN TIMES as many (15 million) and is the world’s largest bat colony. Plus they often come out sooner because it’s quieter there. While not open to the public, if you jump through some hoops and plan far ahead you can gain admittance.
Uniqueness: There’s no capitol building like the Texas capitol building. Everything’s bigger in Texas.
Where: 1100 Congress Ave.
Frequent pleasingly short tours are given of both chambers (when not in session) and the rotunda, and I’d recommend them. They’re free. But don’t let that be the end of your exploring. There’s more than meets the eye and most visitors miss the underground stuff. Check out the basement of the capitol. It’s not obvious but if you go around the back of the staircase in either wing, there are doors that open to a staircase leading under the capitol. From there, if you head to the center of the building you’ll find a hallway that leads back to some more doors, which open to a whole other building that is underground.
This, strangely, is where they put the gift shop.
Continue toward the back and you’ll see an antrium ceiling and a recessed outdoor area which aren’t obvious from the capitol grounds. There’s more you can explore from here. I’m not sure if you’re allowed or not, but one evening we wandered through some open doors and offices and ended up surfacing on the north side of 15th street. This complex is huge. If you have some clout (I don’t) you might find a way to see the official “hidden spaces”.
7) The Driskill Bar
Uniqueness: A classic and historic hotel bar. Loads of unique Texas decor and live music on most nights.
Where: 604 Brazos St.
The Driskill is Austin’s most famous hotel and the ambiance is what I’d call “Texas classy”: paintings of cowboys and landscapes, statues of bulls, leather chairs, dark woods, and carpeting. There’s live music most nights, typically singer-songwriter or small duo or trio playing country music on guitars or the house piano.
8) Austin’s Moonlight Towers
Uniqueness: Strange streetlights from times-gone-by
Where: Various Locations
In 1894, these spotlight towers used to be the only streetlights in town. There’s 13 of them left around central Austin. There’s not much to do but look at them, but you could make a nice bike tour out of them (here’s one possible route) or at least keep an eye out for them (here’s a map of them) if you’re in the neighborhood (especially at night). Due the their uniqueness and longevity, they’re often used in depictions of Austin in tv, movies, and advertising. “Party at the moontower” is a famous line uttered by Austin resident Matthew McConaughey in the movie Dazed and Confused.
9) Kenny Dorham’s Backyard
Uniqueness: A funky and fabulous place for music and laid-back old Austin vibes.
Where/When: 1106 E 11th St. See website for upcoming events.
This is a special place. This laid back outdoor music venue has food trucks and an awesome homegrown charm. It’s not classy, it’s real. Stepping into the venue as a band is playing is like stepping into a different world. Possibly Austin’s most unique venue. For most shows you can BYOB and there’s also great food trucks in the yard.
The venue is hidden in plain sight on East 11th by the Victory Grill in Austin’s African American Cultural Heritage District, a couple blocks from Franklin’s Barbecue. It’s named for the East Austin jazz legend, Kenny Dorham. For more information, you can visit their Facebook page.
Uniqueness: A Johnny Cash-themed bar.
Where/When: 1621 W 5th St. See website for hours.
This bar is an homage to Johnny Cash and his song Mean Eyed Cat. The walls are covered in quotes, photos. posters and other memorabilia of Cash but also keeps some of the ambience of its previous incarnation – a chainsaw repair shop. They also have live music and events on occasion.
Uniqueness: Great music and gambling on where a chicken will poop.
Where/When: 5434 Burnet Rd. Sunday afternoons
Often still referred to as “Ginny’s Little Longhorn”, this institution calls itself “The Honkiest Tonkiest Beer Joint In Town”. Great live music six nights a week, cold beer, two-stepping and the original home of chicken shit bingo in Austin. If you’re looking for a bar that has a soul and feels like Texas, this is one of your best choices in Austin.
Uniqueness: Famous daily humor from a tex-mex restaurant.
Where: 501-531 Campbell St.
Possibly the best marquee in the whole world, this sign is updated daily with humorous plays on words and puns. There’s not much to do there but you can take your photo by it. Oh wait! They have a Tex-Mex restaurant, too. Almost forgot about the whole reason the sign is there.
Uniqueness: An enormous (and random) collection of famous artifacts that you can check out and hold in your hands.
Where: 300 W 21st St.
The main gallery of the HRC isn’t terribly big, but it does contain the world’s first photograph and a Gutenberg bible. Upstairs, they have a vast collection of manuscripts, movie costumes and props, and other curious items including Tarot Cards made by Aleister Crowley, and Edgar Allan Poe’s writing desk.
And many, many of the items you can request to see – and often touch – for yourself (there’s a bit of a registration and training process, but it doesn’t take long).
According to their website, “The collections feature holdings in theatre, dance, music, opera, and popular entertainments, such as the circus, vaudeville, pantomime, minstrel shows, puppetry, and magic. From drafts and promptbooks to designs and box office receipts, the materials in the collection emphasize the creative process from concept and staging to publication and revival.”
Uniqueness: A cold swimming hole under a beautiful natural canopy.
Where: Hamilton Pool, Texas 78620
This unique natural swimming hole and (very tiny sometimes nonexistent) waterfall is one of the Travis County Parks. There’s a short walk down some natural and uneven stairs and a small sandy beach you can hang out at. The link I shared above has some great photos to give you an idea of what to expect.
Many people walk down the path, take a right and head for the pool, never exploring what is to the left. If you walk left at the T in the trail, you’ll shortly come across another swimming hole in a river. Certainly not as dramatic, but usually more private and laid back. It’s unique and special in it’s own right so I recommend at least checking it out.
Due to limited capacity at the pool, you’re going to have to reserve spots far in advance. Swimming in the pool is allowed depending on the bacteria levels and recent rain.
15) Sam’s Town Point
Uniqueness: Great music in some double-wide trailers in a sort of hippie compound.
Where/When: 2115 Allred Dr. Every night.
This is one of those places that most locals don’t even know about, despite having been there for decades. Great music every night. Usually rock or two-stepping-friendly music in two doublewide trailers hidden in the woods of south Austin. This honky tonk has its bonafides in spades. A great outdoor area as well. Many musicians actually live on the property, creating an environment like nowhere else in Austin.
Uniqueness: African party vibes in an awesome ramshackle bar.
Where: 1413 Webberville Rd
Hands down my favorite bar in Austin. Live music most nights, this ramshackle music joint on what used to be the edge of town is Austin’s home for African and other “world music”, though all types of bands play there. Messy string lights, velvet curtains, a floor that feels like it might fall through, and a low ceiling that looks like it might fall on you, a patio filled with scattered rusty furniture, very little AC, and a friendly parking lot attendant give this place more character, soul, and charm than most bars in Austin could ever dream of having.
Uniqueness: A homegrown drive-in labor of love – in the city!
Where: Three locations. See website.
There’s drive-in movie theaters and then there is the Blue Starlight. This theater is one-of-a-kind because it has been lovingly homemade by its founder, Josh Frank. “Mini” is not an exaggeration. The original version had room for about six cars and three of them had their view obstructed by the other three. It’s way better now and you can bring chairs and bikes to enjoy the films as well. Much of the speakers and operational equipment has been salvaged from theaters of yesteryear, which gives it a fantastic vintage feel. Due to demand caused by the pandemic they have quickly expanded to multiple locations.
Uniqueness: Visit the top of this famous and infamous UT icon
Where: 110 Inner Campus Drive
This famous and unfortunately infamous tower can be visited on a tour which takes you up to the viewing deck and gives you history of the tower, its uses, and the UT Tower shootings of 1966. Reservations required. If you’re just looking for a view of downtown, I think there’s better places but it’s still a cool place to check out.
19) Bat Fest
Uniqueness: A festival celebrating Austin’s many many bats.
Where/When: Congress Ave Bridge. August 2023.
A unique festival on Congress Avenue bridge. Bat drinks, bat costumes, and a curious collection of bands play this annual tradition. One year Flock of Seagulls played and I wondered if that was the closest to a “bat” named band they could get. Another year they booked the Toadies. Is this an animal thing? I don’t know but hope so. Some years they’ve had the Batmobile from the Batman TV show of the 60s.
20) Esther’s Follies
Uniqueness: A uniquely Austin variety show.
Where/When: 525 E 6th St
Since 1977, Esther’s has provided locals and tourists with great comedy and amazing magic right in the middle of 6th street. They claim to be “Texas’ most celebrated comedy troupe” and I have no doubt they are. The turnover of 6th street businesses and bars is high, which makes Esther’s Follies longevity seem downright miraculous. It’s clever, hilarious, and loads of fun. Don’t miss out on checking it out!
21) Dimension Gallery Sculpture Park
Uniqueness: Unexpected art in a pleasant park.
Where: 950 Springdale Rd
This free park is filled with sculptures large and small created by various artists. It’s not a huge place and you could see in all in 15 minutes. Or you could hang out and have a curious picnic as part of a Springdale Rd crawl – there’s breweries and other interesting things on this mishmashed semi-arty street.
22) Kempelen’s Owls
Uniqueness: Creepy/Cute owls that come alive by mechanisms unknown.
Where: 600 W 2nd St.
A stone’s throw from the library, these giant owl statues have glowing eyes looking down on you from 20 feet in the air. They will turn their heads – if you can discover how to trigger them.
Uniqueness: An old-timey classic mini golf course + BYOB
Where/When: 1207 Barton Springs Rd
When I first came to Austin I went here with some friends and was surprised to see most people had shown up with coolers of beer. At mini golf. Most of the “Things to do in Austin” guides focus on the cool statues and the fact that this place has been around since 1948. But for me, the thing about this place is that it has its own special vibe. There’s two different 9 hole courses. You don’t have to bring drinks of course, but you’ll probably be waiting for the group ahead of you so be prepared to hang out.
Uniqueness: A very unusual collection of classic and famous cars.
Where: 4117 Commercial Center Dr
This museum and private collection is open two days each month. This isn’t just “classic cars”, there’s all kinds of strange and unusual vehicles here plus a few famous ones from the movies.
25) Street Art and Murals
Uniqueness: Varies. But there’s many many to check out all over town.
Where: Various locations.
There’s loads of murals, mosaics, and other street art around town. They could easily fill up their own site. The most famous and oldest ones are Jeremiah the Frog and I Love You So Much, but there’s loads more. Have a look at Visit Austin’s guide for a self-guided tour of some of the most instagrammable murals in town.
Most “Unique Austin” sites mention the Mueller Sunflowers. Few mention the Mueller Spider and Dragon, and none that I know of mention the Mueller Octopus. Mueller is a large neighborhood filled with interesting things to see. It’s a decent walk between these things or a nice bike ride or a trivial car ride.
Uniqueness: Unique artist-created forts for you and the kids to explore.
Where/When: Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Sept. 30, 2023 – Jan. 28, 2024
An immensely popular event at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Fortlandia is a captivating exhibition comprised of distinctive forts scattered throughout the Center’s grounds. The structures are skillfully crafted by talented local artists and architects. Visitors are not only welcomed but also encouraged to explore, interact, and capture Instagram-worthy moments by touching and climbing these magnificent forts.
27) South Congress District
Uniqueness: A distinctive mix of interesting local shops and corporate hangers-on.
Where/When: 1200 S. Congress to 2300 S. Congress
Once upon a time the laid-back soul of Austin, in the last few years “SoCo” has been more derisively called “So Corporate”, but there’s still some interesting and funky places left that the Nike, Ray Ban, Madewell corporate-types haven’t pushed out. It’s worth walking up and down at least once.
28) The Cloak Room
Uniqueness: An extremely dark basement bar often filled with Texas congresspeople.
Where: 1300 Colorado St.
For years this has been pretty much the only bar near the capitol complex and attracts many Texas legislators when session is in. It’s one of Austin’s few basement bars and not the easiest to find. I couldn’t even find a website or Facebook page for them. It’s dark down inside this bar. Very dark. There’s usually just one bartender working the place and she’s not going to rush for you but you should know what you want when she asks. Last time I was there, the bartender was out feeding a small zoo of racoons, possums and stray cats.
29) Toy Joy
Uniqueness: Lots of unique and fun toys.
Where/When: 4631 Airport Blvd and 403 W 2nd St
“Keeping Austin Fun Since 1987”. This is a super fun store filled with unique new toys and many of the classics. This isn’t a ‘Toys-R-Us’ but more of a boutique toy shop. You can explore their two different locations and discover all kinds of interesting, strange, and unique toys. Definitely worth stopping in if you are in downtown or near the Airport Boulevard location.
Uniqueness: Fun, weird, tasty candy, and lots of fun.
Where/When: 1706 S Congress Ave
Big Top bills itself as “The Most Amazing Candy Shop The World Has Ever Known”. They offer loads of new and vintage treats you haven’t seen in ages (don’t worry they’re fresh!), plus taffy, shakes and malts. There’s over 400 bulk candies and over 4000 wrapped candies.
31) Monkey See Monkey Do
Uniqueness: Unique toys, gag gifts, and lots of fun.
Where/When: 1712 S Congress Ave
Monkey See Monkey Do is Big Top’s sister shop. They sell a range of toys, collectibles, gag gifts, kitchy things, action figures, and all kinds of oddities and nostalgia. Absolutely stop in if you’re on South Congress.
32) Snake Island
Uniqueness: An unofficial island in the middle of downtown.
Where/When: Lady Bird Lake
This tiny island in the middle of Lady Bird Lake often goes unnoticed, despite laying in plain sight. You’ll need a kayak or similar to get there but when you arrive, who knows what you’ll find. In the past I’ve found everything from campers and firepits, to tree swings, to drug needles. There’s also a grave which I believe is for a dog since it’s marked “Squiggles”. There’s not much to do, but it does feel secret and like some sort of accomplishment if you make it there. The closest place to rent a kayak is EpicSUP on the shore of the IH Hostel off of Riverside Drive.
Uniqueness: The famous turtle pond.
Where/When: Just north of 110 Inner Campus Drive
This turtle pond on the UT campus was constructed 80 years ago and is located by the UT tower. It’s cool and well-known, but unless you’re already near campus I wouldn’t go out of your way to see it. If you just want to see turtles, there’s loads of them all over Lady Bird Lake. But if you’re taking the UT Tower Tour, there’s no reason you shouldn’t check it out. Unless you hate turtles for some reason.
34) Axe Throwing
Uniqueness: While not unique to Austin, but curious and fun nonetheless
Where/When: Various locations
Uniqueness: A unique and colorfully lit cavern under the highway.
Where/When: 4200 S IH 35 Frontage Rd, Georgetown, TX 78626
This cave was discovered during an IH-35 expansion in 1963. It’s way cooler than I thought it would be (literally and figuratively). It looks a bit like a tourist trap, but it’s a bonafide cavern and worth checking out if you’re into caves or in the Georgetown area. There’s a few different tours you can take, depending on your interest.
36) Food Truck Parks
Uniqueness: Many original and unique food trucks can be found throughout the city.
Where/When: Various locations
There’s way too many to list here but here’s a link to Yelp to find some of the best ones. If you prefer to browse ahead of time, this rominghunger.com has a nice directory. Popular parks include Picnic by Barton Springs and Mueller Eats in the Mueller neighborhood by the hanger.
37) Rooftop Pools
Uniqueness: A unique experience without having to book a hotel room.
Where/When: Various locations
There’s many hotels in Austin that offer non-guests access to their pools for the cost of a daypass. Here’s an article on Curbed that lists some of the better ones.
38) Taquero Mucho
Uniqueness: A taco place where everything is pink!
Where/When: 508 West Ave
A taco place where everything, I mean everything, is decked out in delightful shades of pink. It’s an Instagrammer’s dream come true and a hot spot for bachelorette parties.
39) Electric Scooters
Uniqueness: Not entirely unique, but if you haven’t experienced them, you’ll be surprised when you do.
Where/When: Freaking everywhere.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, they’re here. Many people love ‘em and use them to cheaply and quickly get around town. FYI: They are supposed to go in the bike lane or road – not on the sidewalk. You can find scooters from companies like Bird and Lyft all over central Austin.
Uniqueness: Competitive rollerskating as a spectator sport.
Where/When: See below-mentioned websites for schedule and locations.
41) Austin Farmers Markets
Uniqueness: Not unique to Austin, but can be unique places to explore
Where/When: Various locations
Austin has several farmer’s markets, and one of the most well-liked options is the Texas Farmer’s Market at Mueller. This market is held every Sunday and offers a multitude of vendors and live music. It’s located near a picturesque lake, nestled under a former airport hangar, creating a charming atmosphere.
42) Brewery Tours
Uniqueness: Not unique to Austin, but every brewery is different and they can be fun to explore and discover.
Where/When: Various locations
When I moved to Austin we had one brewery and one brewpub. Now the city is full of brewery options. Austin Brewery Tours or Texas Tipsy Tours can help guide you. You can also visit craftbeeraustin.com or bigworldsmallgirl.com for a map of locations and other info.
43) Float Tanks / Sensory Deprivation Tanks
Uniqueness: Lay naked in a salty puddle in the dark.
Where/When: Various locations
I’m not going to lie. I hate float tanks. But I’ve got friends that love this futuristic and new-agey experience. If nothing else, it’s worth trying once. Many locations in town, including the The Ocean Lab.
44) Purposely Hidden Austin Bars and Restaurants
I’ve split “hidden bars” into two categories. Here’s some of the ones that they made so only those in the know would know: Midnight Cowboy, Floppy Disk, Whisper Room, Milonga, Garage, Firehouse lounge, the secret bar in the W. There’s more if you know where to look or how to google.
45) Not Purposely But Hidden Austin Bars and Restaurants
These are the bars that are not hidden on purpose, but when you go there you feel like you discovered something special. Some of my favorites: Butterfly Bar, Techo, The Continental Club Gallery, The Tigress, Ego’s, Small Victory, and The Cloak Room. Honorable mention (it’s too big to be secret but since it’s on a side street and has waterfalls I think it feels hidden): Cosmic Coffee
46) Secret Beach
Uniqueness: How badly we want more beaches.
Where: Secret location so you’ll have to google it.
If you have ever been to a beach before this won’t seem like much of a beach. It’s really just a bit of the Colorado River where people go swimming in the wastewater runoff from downtown. At least, when there’s enough water flowing. The uniqueness and noteworthiness is because this is central Texas and we don’t have that many beaches. If you live in Austin you probably like it. If you live in a place where there are beaches you’ll just be like WTF.
47) Mount Bonnell (at Covert Park)
Uniqueness: The only thing unique about this place is its ability to keep appearing in “things to do” lists, despite not being worth your time.
Where/When: 3800 Mt Bonnell Rd
Writing this seems heretical, but someone needs to say it: Mt. Bonnell isn’t that interesting. It’s 100 stairs up to a small and crowded patio that overlooks a water treatment plant. Downtown can be seen far off in the distance through haze. You’ll probably have to stand on a table to see it. Facing the other direction you’ll see the river and some rich people’s houses and a bunch of tourists walking around wondering when they’ll finally get to leave this pointless hill and go do something enjoyable instead.
Yes, it’s the tallest point in Austin but seriously, unless you are from a place that doesn’t have any hills this probably isn’t worth your time. I’ve been there at least a couple dozen times so I am confident that my opinion is fact. You’re better off driving a half mile down the hill to check out Laguna Gloria or the Peacocks at Mayfield Preserve.
The Map of Unique Stuff to Do in Austin!
When I travel I always make a map so that I can plan a little better. Here’s a map of any places I listed above that have addresses.
Tip: Click the weird little rectangle in the upper left of the map’s menu bar to show a list of locations.
More to come!
This list is updated often. If you find something you think belongs on this list or if you find errors, please contact me and let me know. I hope you found it useful.