How to Spend a Day in Austin

Austin in One Day?

I would happily spend a week in Austin, my favorite Texan city, but sometimes that just isn’t possible. Here are two attraction-dense areas to hit if you’re short on time or low on cash.

In a way, Texas is like its own country. But Austin proves that this nation is less homogenous than you might assume. For every taxidermy school or gun range in the state, Austin counters with a gourmet food truck or a store stocked with upcycled items. This piece focuses on visiting Austin if you only have one day, but we won’t blame you if you decide to stay.

Zilker Park

Zilker Park is a key part of what makes Austin feel like a town within a city. These 351 acres are on the National Register of Historic Places and the park hosts a kite festival and musical events throughout the year. But, you’re here for the opportunity to immerse yourself in nature, so grab your swimming gear and head to the Zilker Botanical Garden. No, you’re not paddling in the koi pond – the bathing suit is for later.


Zilker Park Austin
Zilker Park Austin

Although these thirty acres are spread out across a steep slope, the garden is thoughtfully designed, with stone and dirt paths leading you through a lush labyrinth. Admire the curved bridge and the bamboo forest in the Japanese Garden—the ponds in that area are even shaped to spell out the word ‘Austin.’

You can also explore the cactus and succulent garden, the herb, and fragrance garden, or stop and smell the rose garden – our dog certainly did.

Umlauf Sculpture Garden

Next, you want to backtrack along Barton Springs Road for a half-mile and make a right onto Robert E. Lee Road. Welcome to the Umlauf Sculpture Garden. This home used to belong to the American sculptor, Charles Umlauf, who adopted Austin as his hometown and was a professor at the University of Texas here for forty years.

Umlauf Sculpture Garden Austin
Umlauf Sculpture Garden, Austin TX

ou can examine (and even touch) most of the pieces as you wander around the garden, which has its own lily pond. I enjoyed Umlauf’s animal bronzes, such as his rhino, rooster, and beast of burden.

Your last stop in this section of Austin is at Barton Springs Pool. It requires reentering the main section of the park again then turning left onto William Barton Drive. Given the weekday opening hours of these three attractions, the short distances between them, and the fact that you’ll probably want to make a pit stop at your hotel after swimming, this order makes the most sense.

Barton Springs

Barton Springs Pool is part pool, part swimming hole: it has an algae-lined rock bottom and is fed by underground springs, but there are also lifeguards and a diving board. And, it’s long, as in it would take Michael Phelps a full minute or more to power from one end to the other long.

I’d recommend walking beside the pool until you reach the section that is 2’6” in depth – the sides are marked – rather than hurling yourself into the bit nearest the main stairs, as I did. This provides a warmer, seaweed free entry to the pool and guarantees you can actually touch the bottom. Although temperatures are supposed to range between 68°F and 72°F, the goosebumps on my arms told a different story.

Barton Spring
Barton Springs Pool, Austin TX

Barton Springs is the perfect antidote to Austin’s humidity and, at three acres in size, there’s room for all. Just watch out for the rubber ducks – they signal the diving zone where testosterone beats out caution, judging by the succession of cannonballs, forward 1½ somersaults and belly flops.

Austin embraces its reputation for weirdness and it doesn’t get much stranger than swimming with a salamander. The Barton Springs salamander is found nowhere else on earth and seems content to share the water with humans. They are only 2.5 inches long, so you’re unlikely to notice them. However, they do need the vegetation in the pool for survival, so expect to swim around the odd plant. Ten percent of your entry fee is set aside for salamander conservation.

There are locker rooms, equipped with showers, toilets, and a few shallow lockers. Either freshen up here or head back to your hotel. Be sure to grab lunch at one of Austin’s food trucks.

South Congress

Next up is shopping along with SoCo (South Congress Avenue). Try to grab one of the many street parking spaces near Monroe Street – although this does require reversing in at an angle. These few blocks offer a cornucopia of quirk, not to mention a decent view of the city’s skyline.

You can browse through stores such as Uncommon Objects where, as the name suggests, you may encounter anything from inlaid boxes to typewriters or chairs with arms made from antlers.

South Congress Shopping Austin
South Congress Shopping District,  Austin TX

Are you desperate to expand your collection of rubber ducks, vintage political buttons, or Pez dispensers? Then Off the Wall will not disappoint.

Mi Casa wins the award for the best smelling store on the block – the scents of fall and Christmas are bundled up and sold as reusable potpourri (because Austin is wonderfully eco-friendly). I don’t even like potpourri and I picked up a spiced citrus-scented bag along with the oil that can be used to revive it. Other offerings include bottle cap jewelry, Talavera pottery and Day of the Dead figurines.

Allens Boots South Congress Austin
Allens Boots, South Congress, Austin TX

No visit to SoCo would be complete without a stop at Allen’s Boots. At $350 a pop, I didn’t bother trying on a pair. However, the employees leave you alone to get high on leather fumes and drool at the rows and rows of boots, with designs so ornate that they seem like artwork.

Texas State Capitol

Assuming you ever decide to leave SoCo, head towards the river and cross the bridge into downtown Austin. Continue on Congress, which leads you straight to the Texas State Capitol.

South Congress to TX Capitol
South Congress to Texas Capitol

This impressive, granite edifice was built in Renaissance Revival style, but with a Texas twist: the metal fence surrounding the lush grounds is decorated with the stars emblematic of the Lone Star State. This is the largest of the state capitol buildings – it wouldn’t look out of place in D.C. – although it is steeped Southern history.

In the garden is a memorial to the Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War. These were Americans and of course, they deserve to be remembered. However, the inscribed words on the memorial paint a picture of Texans attempting to protect their state rights. Now, I’d fail any Jeopardy category focusing on U.S. history but I still managed to spot the glaring omission in this version of events.

Once you enter the Capitol, look down at the floor to check out the seal. Right in the center, it reads The Republic of Texas.

Final Tips

  • The Zilker Botanical Gardens can be found at 2220 Barton Springs Rd. Enter the park on Barton Springs Rd then make a right after passing Stratford Drive. It’s easy to overshoot the entrance as the signage is set back a little from the road. Paths in the botanical gardens can be wet and slippery in the mornings when the sprinklers are running. Leashed pets are welcome in the Zilker Botanical Garden.
  • As the Umlauf Sculpture Garden was once a private home, parking is somewhat limited. Although you are permitted to stray from the paths, be aware that there is poison ivy in the grounds. Also, the hours at the sculpture garden are limited and, if you are visiting on a weekend, you’ll need to hit this attraction after 1 p.m.
  • Barton Springs Pool is a great training ground for open water swimming events such as triathlons. However, if that isn’t your goal it is wise to steer clear of the middle because you may have a long way to swim before you can touch the bottom again, especially if you’re on the shorter side. The pool has aquatic accessibility equipment for those with disabilities.
  • Some of the stores on South Congress open at 10 a.m., but most are closed until 11 a.m.
  • Metered parking is available on the streets surrounding the Capitol. Be aware that there is a one-way system in this part of the city.
  • At the time of writing, admission to the botanical garden, sculpture garden, and Barton Springs Pool cost between $3-4 per person, per attraction. The Capitol is free, although you do need to pass through security (metal detectors and bag scanners) to go inside.
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