There are so many cities in the United States that have sprawling city centers, but Austin is lucky to be relatively condensed for such a rapidly growing destination. Many historical sites are located downtown and within walking distance of each other. We’ve put together a quick list of stops that highlight Austin’s history.
1) The Texas State Capitol
The crowning jewel of Austin’s downtown, our Texas State Capitol is an architectural achievement that you don’t have to be a history buff to fully enjoy. With over 22 acres of land, the grounds not only hold one of the tallest Capitol buildings in the United States (everything is bigger here in Texas), but it is also home to an array of monuments and statues. We recommend starting out at the front of the building at the Texas African American History Memorial before making your way into the Capitol. By square footage, the Texas Capitol is the biggest of all the other states; you’ll believe it when you start exploring the hallways. Don’t forget to see the underground extension which was constructed in the early 1990s.
2) Treaty Oak Square
Every Central Texan is familiar with the oak tree, and the grandest of them all is the Treaty Oak. Known as the last surviving member of Council Oaks, a grove of 14 sacred trees used as a meeting place for the Tonkawa and Comanche tribes, this tree has been estimated to be over 500 years old. A lot of folklore surrounds this tree, many claim Texas pioneers like Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston negotiated deals and rested under this tree. Sadly in the late 1980s, a man vandalized the oak with herbicide and almost killed it. Through community fundraising and a blank check from politician Ross Perot, the Treaty Oak was miraculously saved and has since been producing acorns.
3) Buford Tower
We get this question all of the time: What is that brick tower? Located just north of the Lady Bird Lake hike and bike trail, the Buford Tower is a fire drill tower build in 1930 for the Austin Fire Department. Austin’s skyline was quickly emerging downtown; although nothing like our modern-day skyscrapers, Austin’s buildings were being built taller than ever before in the early 1900s. Our fire department needed a structure to train for these architectural developments, and that’s how the drill tower was born. With its location so close to the lake, firefighters could easily practice putting out a multi-story fire without the worry of wasting water. Named after firefighter Captain James L. Buford, this is a quick stop you can check out before hitting the walking trails.
4) Driskill Hotel
Known as Austin’s first hotel, the Driskill has seen its fair share of history. Constructed in 1886 by a wealthy cattle baron, Jesse Driskill, the hotel was one of the grandest places you could visit south of St. Louis. Since it’s opening, it has hosted every Governor’s inaugural ball and was even the first date destination for President Lyndon B. Johnson and Claudia Taylor (aka Lady Bird), who would later become First Lady. Located just off Congress on 6th Street, be sure to channel your inner medium when you’re in the building: many say it’s haunted (even by Jesse Driskill himself).
5) Eureka! (Home to the first Antone’s)
Just across the street from the Driskill Hotel, you’ll find a cozy restaurant called Eureka! What you may not know about this building is that it was home to the first Antone’s Nightclub, an Austin live music icon. Since the 1970s, this is the venue for blues and rock and roll. Steven Ray Vaughan, an Austin legend, got his big break there, and although the club has moved off of 4th street, it’s an iconic spot that helped shape the city. You can still catch some live music at Eureka (typically a one-person and guitar setup), but be sure to check out Antone’s calendar to see some great acts (and only a short walk away from 6th street).
You can see a few of these landmarks on our Real Austin Tour, a 2-hour bucketlist experience of Austin that takes you to iconic spots but also goes off the beaten path for an adventure fit for a local.