Much of Austin's allure is that residents are able to enjoy the great outdoors without ever having to go too far out of the city. Despite being in such close proximity to major urban construction, some of the most beautiful scenes in the Hill Country are right here, in Austin.
Mount Bonnell is probably the most well-known scenic locale in Austin and has been since the 1830s. Known for its panoramic view of downtown, Lady Bird Lake and the Hill Country to the west. Today thousands of visitors ascend the 106 stone stairs to the summit to take in the beautiful view. Located in Covert Park in Northeast Austin, the trail is dog-friendly with a leash, but it is not wheelchair accessible.
Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail and Boardwalk at Lady Bird Lake
The Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail is a 10-mile boardwalk with numerous entrance and exit points and is Austin's most recognized and popular recreational trail. Not only is it an Austin favorite for exercise, it also hosts one of the most beautiful views of Austin's skyline the city has to offer. The paved trail runs over Lady Bird Lake, also known as Town Lake, giving people an undisturbed view of Downtown Austin overlooking the water. The trail is dog friendly with a leash and wheelchair accessible.
Zilker Park is Austin's pride and joy. The park hosts ACL every year (when there isn't a pandemic), the Trail of Lights each holiday season and other events in the city. The 351-acre space is the go-to locale for Austinites who want to get outside and enjoy a direct view of the city skyline--usually serving as a backdrop for any event held at the spot. As one of the only scenic destinations to allow dogs off-leash, it is the most dog-friendly spot in the city. Zilker Park is wheelchair accessible (although it might be best to avoid the park after rain).
Barton Creek Greenbelt-Sculpture Falls
Sculpture Falls is a hidden location on the 7.9 mile Barton Creek Greenbelt. The best way to access the location is via the Hill of Life and the Trail's End access point in South Austin at 1710 Camp Craft Road. The scenic views of this location may not be sweeping views of the city skyline, however, the glistening pools and waterfalls, the trees hanging over the water make the spot one of the most underrated in Austin. The hike back up the Hill of Life is 1.5 miles and mostly on the sun, so make sure to bring plenty of water. The location is dog-friendly with a leash, but it is not wheelchair accessible.
McKinney Falls-Upper and Lower Falls
Photo of Lower McKinney Falls
(Texas Parks & Wildlife Department)
McKinney Falls is one of the many Texas State parks and is a series of two waterfalls–an upper and lower falls. Both spots feature limestone waterfalls along Onion Creek and swimming pools. The lower falls are more shallow and recommended for families with younger children while the upper falls are a bit deeper. Pets are allowed on a leash in the park, however, they are not allowed in the water at the falls. The park is not fully wheelchair accessible. There is a $6 fee for adults to enter the park and children under 12 can enter for free. During COVID, it is recommended to make reservations to enter the park if you plan to visit.
Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center
(Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center/Facebook)
Located in far-west Austin, Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center is the farthest out from Austin's city center and is another location that may not offer sweeping views of the Hill Country, however, the center features some of the most unique views in Texas. The highlight of the preserve is Westcave at the head of the canyon. It features a 40-foot waterfall backed by caves, diverse vegetation and an emerald pool. Canyon tours are not dog-friendly but are wheelchair accessible; they are offered every Saturday & Sunday. Self-guided hikes are offered Tuesday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and require reservations.
Red Bud Isle
Red Bud Isle is one of the most popular areas for pet owners to let their dogs off-leash in Austin. The small island lies just below the Tom Miller Dam on Town Lake. The edge of Red Bud Isle offers a view of Town Lake and the densely-packed trees to either side. Depending on the time of year, colorful kayaks and stand-up paddleboards add some pop of color to the view. The 13-acre park is, of course, dog-friendly and wheelchair accessible. Be careful with your pets during the summer months, however, as there have been toxic algae blooms two years in a row.
Wild Basin Preserve
(Larry D. Moore/Wikimedia)
The Wild Basin Preserve is 227 acres of Hill Country woodlands owned by Travis County and St. Edwards University as part of the larger Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, which protects the unique environments of seven endangered species and 28 threatened plant and animal species. The preserve is home to the endangered Golden-cheeked warbler as well as many other Texas-native plants and wildlife. There isn't any one location that is the highlight of the preserve—the highlight is spotting the local wildlife. While it has been closed for the past several months, Wild Basin is expected to open for limited hours in late-January. It is not pet-friendly and is somewhat wheelchair accessible.
Section of Barton Springs on the paid access side. (austintx.gov)
Barton Springs is another one of those locations that doesn't have one particular highlight. There are two sections to Barton Springs: one section requires a small entrance fee and allows for a little more space to sprawl out, whereas the other, much larger, section is free but sometimes requires a little creativity with where you set up camp. Both sides feature cool, clear, blue water from the natural springs in the area.
Congress Avenue Bridge
(Texas Parks & Wildlife Department)
The Congress Avenue Bridge goes over Lady Bird Lake and is a place to get a very unique view of the city. Every year, Austinites gather on the bridge to witness up to 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats feed on 10-30,000 pounds of insects. The best time to view the bats is mid-August when you can see them ascending into the evening sky. This area of Austin is wheelchair accessible and pet-friendly with a leash.
The Middle of Town Lake
Evening view from the middle of Town Lake
This one might seem a little odd, but get yourself a kayak or stand up paddle board and enjoy the view of the city from the water. It's a unique perspective on the city that is probably the best representation of why this city is so unique. There are also some boat tours throughout the year. Boat tours are wheelchair accessible. The lake has multiple entrance points and pets are allowed on water vessels, but not in the water.
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Chi Lee, the director of architecture firm HKS’s new Austin office, describes this point in our city’s life as puberty.
“Our voices are changing and we have freckles everywhere,” Lee said. “You know, starting to look like an adult but still acting like a kid kind of thing.”
But as Austin matures and faces all the pressures of its increased popularity—competing for company relocations and expansions all while managing rising rents and affordability woes—Lee thinks we should look outside when planning an approach to Austin’s growth.
“A big mistake we could make is if we don't embrace what other cities, nationally, regionally, internationally have done to improve upon the experience of all the folks who live there.”
Chi Lee and Brad Wilkins (HKS)
Lee and HKS studio design leader Brad Wilkins keep this in mind as the firm, which has carried out projects in Austin since the 80s, further cements its presence here.
HKS is making ambitious strides in Austin: the firm has more than 50 projects in design or under construction in the Austin market, including Domain 9, the Dell Children’s Medical Center expansion and projects in the Rainey Street District including one that may end up being the tallest tower in Texas.
The Bowie, a 36-story apartment tower HKS designed in Austin's Central Business District. (HKS)
“We've been able to do things during the pandemic, and since then, which are really pushing the boundaries of what Austin would typically do. And frankly, what would be done anywhere in the world,” Wilkins said. “Things like having outdoor space on every level of an office tower and creating the spaces not just to be like outdoor spaces, but to be spaces that people can actually enjoy.”
As these projects span all over the city, Lee and Wilkins are observant of how action on certain quality of life factors could be key to preventing problems as Austin draws in a larger population.
For Wilkins, that’s informed by his international work. He’s lived in about half a dozen places in Europe and Asia, starting his career out in Chicago. He’s carried out big projects and was one of the designers of the first LEED platinum building just outside of Hong Kong.
“One thing that we're always needing to be very careful about is looking at things that were not done great,” Wilkins said. “There are mistakes in public transportation in those cities that I worked in overseas, there are mistakes in public housing.”
It’s partly why the pair see Project Connect—the $7.1 billion transit system expansion voters approved in November 2020 that includes light rail lines, a downtown subway and an expanded bus system—as a boon to the city’s future.
Lee said he’s excited that HKS is working on a couple of projects that are along the future lines and sees it as a massive opportunity for the city.
“We need to get out of our cars if we can. We just don't have the type of transportation infrastructure in place that needs to be in place,” Lee said. “A lot of major metropolitan and urban cities have subway systems and light rail systems and things like that, where we don't.”
The Ashton (HKS)
Still, someday Austin will. The plan is trudging ahead with moves on anti-displacement initiatives and collecting input on design proposals for key lines. So even while HKS prepares for changes to the city from the ground up, Lee and Wilkins aim to maintain the city’s personality.
“I'm always more about the local place, not the international place, even though I do bring with me international experience,” Wilkins said. “Chi and I are only interested in doing Austin, we're interested in making Austin special, keeping Austin culture.”
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Austin may still be the most expensive metro area for Texas renters, with reports of rent rising upwards of 25-40%, but the apartment hunting process can still be daunting no matter your budget.
There are a lot of neighborhoods, apartment complexes and prices floating around, which can make the already difficult hunting process more confusing. Smart City apartment locator and lifelong Austinite Maddie Hastings told Austonia which areas are trendiest, cheapest, most over-hyped and hidden gems.
Quick tips from Hastings:
- Don’t do it alone: Apartment locators offer free services from licensed real estate agents that usually have “behind the scenes” information.
- Don’t rely on online prices: Apartment prices change every day and third-party websites usually don’t have up-to-date information on capacity or current rates.
- Take everything with a grain of salt: Read recent reviews and try to see through photos of staged units.
Hottest: Downtown, Barton Springs and South Congress(Earl McGehee/CC)
Hastings said only a small portion of people she locates have previously lived in the Austin area—with the city’s growth, many come from Chicago, New York or the West Coast.
New residents tend to want to be near Austin’s most famous landmarks like Zilker Park, Barton Springs and Downtown, Hastings said. The problem is that housing in those areas is often limited and expensive, between $1,918-$3,163 on average, according to RentCafe, though she understands the hype.
“I do like South Austin because I feel like it's more accessible and easier to get downtown—it's close to Zilker Park, close to Barton Springs,” Hastings said. “A lot of people want to be downtown and the rest want to be in that South Central area where South Lamar, South Congress and South First is.”
Not: North Austin suburbs and Riverside(Roschetzky Photography/Shutterstock)
Hastings said it isn’t that she doesn’t place people in apartments in places like Round Rock, Pflugerville and Cedar Park, it just tends to be people that work in the area, are specifically looking to live in the area or have an “outside reason” drawing them there.”
Meanwhile, Hastings said that one neighborhood she consistently hears people don’t want to live in is Riverside, which is a cheaper option with the average tenant paying $1,583 per month, according to RentCafe.
Though Hastings says not to let that taint your image of East Austin. If you like the price but don’t want to live in Riverside, Hastings recommends looking at apartments in Montopolis and Pleasant Valley.
“They do have some nice, newer complexes,” Hastings said. “So for me, I mean, it's a great way to get a good price on a new place that's close to downtown.”
Most underrated: Mueller and Southpark Meadows
Though it may be on the more expensive side, about $2,000 on average for a one-bedroom, Hastings said she really enjoyed living in the Mueller area herself. The perks: It’s relatively newly developed, home to the biggest farmer’s market in town, has restaurants and coffee shops, trails and feels like a good neighborhood area.
“I personally love Mueller,” Hastings said. “It has that neighborhood feel but it's one of the few walkable areas in Austin. I really like that you get everything you need, right in that little area, and it's so close to Central Austin and downtown.”
Hastings also said she loves living in Southpark Meadows, which may be a bit cheaper, has easy highway access, nearby shopping and may also land you a newer building.
“If it was me looking on my own, and I had to consider money, that's personally where I would recommend people to get the most bang for their buck,” Hastings said.
Most overrated: South Lamar and The Domain(Peter French/CC)
Hastings said she understands the immediate appeal behind wanting to live at The Domain—the shopping, restaurants, glamor and bar scene—but doesn’t like the traffic, higher price tag and lack of “Austin” character”
Plus, Hastings said she doesn’t often see people living there for long.
“People move to Austin because it's quirky and different and while The Domain is a good time, it's just super commercialized so you're not really getting the Austin experience,” Hastings said. “It's not my favorite, I've definitely leased a few people in The Domain and then after a year they’re like, ‘Yeah, I'm over it, I'm ready to be somewhere else.’”
Hastings had opposite things to say about South Lamar—she thinks it embodies the city’s character—but there just isn’t enough housing to go around right now because it’s in such high demand. Plus, it has a pricey average rent at $1,918, according to RentCafe.
“I understand why everyone wants to live on South Lamar—that’s where everyone wants to be,” Hastings said. “And I can't really say it's overrated because there are so many restaurants and things to do.”
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