Are you looking for a travel destination in the states that offers all the activities of a big city with less chaos and noise? As an Autistic traveler, traveling to big cities is a challenge. For me, just thinking about being in New York City or Washington, DC is overwhelming. Luckily there are cities that are fun for Aspies without the massive crowds that make us want to crawl into a box and hide. Austin is one of these cities.
Part of what makes Austin a great destination for Autistic travelers is its ability to combine nature with modern amenities. Wherever you are in the city, an escape hatch is not far away. There are hike and bike trails and parks virtually everywhere. I recently spent five days in Austin and found plenty of fun things to do without feeling overwhelmed. For fellow music lovers, Austin is steeped in musical history and has plenty of record stores. Book lovers can plan a trip around visiting the local bookstores. There is plenty for art, science, and history lovers, too.
Here are ten awesome activities you can do in Austin.
State Capitol and Congress Street
Start your morning with a peaceful stroll down the “Great Walk”, a 500-foot promenade leading from the capitol to Congress Avenue. The promenade features monuments to the Alamo, the Civil War, and Volunteer Firefighters.
- This is best early in the morning before the crowds arrive.
- There was a school field trip while I was there, but they went inside for a tour and I was there to enjoy the grounds, so don’t panic if there are screaming children running around. Just wait it out a few minutes.
Congress, the “Main Street of Texas”, is home to historic buildings. Check out art from a couple local artists at the small Contemporary Austin at the Jones Center. If you are a music fan, don’t miss Wild About Music next to the Hideout. They have an awesome selection of music merchandise.
- Don’t spend too much time on Congress. If you are feeling anxious after leaving the capitol, you might choose to skip this altogether. I spent about 15 minutes wandering before I needed to find solitude.
Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail (north)
Alta’s Cafe offers inside and outside seating for a view of Lady Bird Lake while you enjoy your coffee. If you walk east down the hike and bike trail, visit the Mexican American Cultural Center. They do not always have an exhibit open, but the trail is beautiful either way.
- Alta’s is small inside, so it can be uncomfortably crowded at times, especially at lunchtime.
Taking the trail west, you’ll pass below the Congress Street Bridge. Between March and October, the bridge is home to over 1.5 million bats that swarm out at dusk.
Enjoy a stroll across the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge and its view of downtown Austin. I enjoyed watching the sun set over the lake and recommend this for a late afternoon or evening activity. The skyline reveals Austin’s rapid expansion, a common topic of conversation among Austinites.
On the south side of the river, take the trail east to Doug Sahm Hill Summit and the Stevie Ray Vaughan statue.
Willie Nelson Statue and Moody Theater
Exit the trail north to W Cesar Chavez St. and walk one block north to the Willie Nelson statue on Lavaca and W. 2nd. The statue commemorates the first Austin City Limits (ACL) performance. You will find the Moody Theater on the same block (Guadalupe and W.2nd). This is where all the ACL magic happens!
- This is a fun area to wander around on a day when you are not feeling anxious.
- After spending time downtown, you can take an afternoon siesta in your room or in a quiet bookstore nook.
University of Texas at Austin and Harry Ransom Center
The Harry Ransom Center is worth a visit for the Gutenberg Bible alone. The Ransom Center also has the earliest known photograph ever taken. The literary fan will enjoy standing at Edgar Allen Poe’s writing desk. I was transfixed with Poe’s desk for a good few minutes as I felt myself lifted back in time. I could picture him hunched over the desk toiling away at The Raven. For the scientist, Cassini’s Map of the Moon from 1679 is a highlight. The museum also displays books from Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein. This place is a hidden gem!
- With no shortage of libraries, museums, and coffee shops, you could spend a whole day exploring the campus. Like any college campus, parking is a hassle. I recommend taking the bus to campus and walking from there.
Mount Bonnell and surrounding area
The geological history of Austin shows in the land surrounding northwest Austin. Explore Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve before crossing the Austin 360 Bridge. There is no pedestrian footbridge, so if you don’t have a car, request an Uber to make this drive. The bridge is spectacular, and the Pennybacker Bridge Overlook offers scenic views. The scenery in this region is spectacular and I wish I had more time to spend there. This is a place for contemplating the layers of history.
Book People and Waterloo Records
With two giant rooms of records, videos, and other merchandise, it is easy to spend hours browsing Waterloo Records. It has a great atmosphere and is one of the most popular record stores in the city. Book People is a must for any reader. Enjoy a wide selection of books with plenty of reading nooks, a coffee shop, and author events. The highlight for me was spotting an autographed copy of Muhammed Yunus’ A World of Three Zeros. Dr. Yunus is a Nobel winning Bangladeshi economist, father of the microfinance movement, and an idol of mine.
Leave the noise and chaos of the city behind and spend some quiet time at Sand Beach Park. The concept of Electric Drive and the Seaholm EcoDistrict is super cool. City of Austin designed it for energy innovation, water conservation, mobility, and place-making. Explore the green buildings and wildlife habitat. If your cell phone is low, charge it at one of the solar charging kiosks. Austin Central Library is the highlight, with its green roof and butterfly habitat.
If you love Austin music history, head to the South Austin Museum of Popular Culture (SouthPop). The museum features a small collection of concert posters and photos. The short-term Day of the Dead exhibit featured an ofrenda (offering altar) to honor departed Austin musicians. Several fans had left gifts below the photo of their favorite artists.
This place is teeny-tiny compared to MoPop in Seattle but will hopefully will grow. Austin has a rich musical history deserving of a museum on the scale of MoPop.
- This is for die-hard music lovers. It is out of the way and keeps limited hours. If you decide to check it out, make sure they are open!
Umlauf Sculpture Park
Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum is a must see. Charles Umlauf’s sculptures blew me away! Photos do not do them justice. Sculptures of refugees show a striking portrayal of suffering. Many other sculptures are religious or mythological in nature. For some lighter fare, the animal sculptures are fun!
- Check the hours before going. I made the mistake of going too late in the day and not having as much time as I wanted to spend because I didn’t know they closed at 4pm.
- To avoid the crowd, visit during the week rather than the weekend.
Take a peaceful walk (or a ride on the Zilker Zephyr Miniature Train!) before heading northwest to Zilker Metropolitan Park. If you are in Austin in December, check out the Austin Trail of Lights and Zilker Holiday Tree. The tree is 155 feet tall, 120 feet across, and contains over 3,300 lights. It is an Austin tradition to spin in circles under the spiraling lights of the tree! It’s an Aspie’s dream come true! How often do we get to spin around in circles in public without being judged? After strolling through the park, head to the north side of Barton Springs Rd. to the Zilker Botanical Garden.
- The park can get crowded in the evening and on weekends, especially if there is an event. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. I was there during the holidays and skipped the Trail of Lights and spinning under the tree. After two consecutive full days of site seeing, I knew it would be too much for me. Listen to your body and don’t ever feel like you have to do something because everyone else does. Travel is not a competition!
These are my top picks for an Aspie in Austin. I know I’ll be back to explore the city again and I hope you will, too. Remember that you can travel on your terms and you don’t have to follow the crowd or do everything in this article. Pick your favorites, spend a whole day in your room to recover when you need to, and enjoy! Stay tuned for more great destinations and detailed travel guides.
Over to you!
Are you an Autistic or Aspie traveler and have something to add to the Austin list? Please leave your tips in the comments below.
Have a question about something in this article? Post in the comments or contact me. I want to help you live your travel dreams!