17 Actually Cool Things to Do in Austin This Winter

Get into the holiday spirit with twinkling light displays, Broadway blockbusters, and more.

Austin Trail of Lights
Photo courtesy of Austin Trail of Lights

While it may never exactly be a “Silent Night” over here in the Live Music Capital, there’s something about Austin from mid-November onwards that seems surprisingly peaceful. It might be because the college kids have gone home for winter break, or because the constant onslaught of music festivals finally slows to a stop, or maybe it’s just that the goodwill-towards-all spirit takes over the city. Tranquil atmosphere notwithstanding, Austin is still buzzing under the surface with activities. From both festive and aesthetically pleasing light displays to the most in-demand musicals to the usual Texan creature comforts (AKA tacos and barbecue), the city’s pace might be restful, but you don’t have to be.

Blue Genie Art Bazaar
Photo courtesy of Blue Genie Art Bazaar

The Blue Genie Art Bazaar
Founded in 2001 by fifteen friends and artisans, the Blue Genie Art Bazaar has since become a tried-and-true Austin holiday tradition for all the right reasons. And it’s certainly expanded since inception—the rows upon rows of vendors (over 200 local and regional artists) are tapped via an extensive jury process to hawk their unique goods. That translates to the perfect presents for everyone on your guest list, from hand-made soups for your girl gang and artisanal honey for your cooking-obsessed mom to a pair of sleek gold earrings you say you’ll give to your sister but will probably keep for yourself. For those whose work-from-home schedule allows some flexibility, be sure to stop by for all your shopping needs on their Make-a-Wish Mondays, when a portion of the day’s sales benefits the Make-a-Wish Foundation of Central and South Texas.

Austin trail of lights
Photo courtesy of Austin Trail of Lights

Zilker Park
Nothing says “it’s December again” like some over-the-top, Clark Griswold-esque festive light displays. And, lucky for you, the Austin Trail of Lights—celebrating its 57th anniversary this Winter—is here to deliver all the illuminated holiday spirit you can handle. Named one of the 10 Best Public Displays of Holiday Lights in the whole freaking country by USA Today, this set-up of over two-million bulbs has it all: large-scale tunnels, ridiculously big Santa Clauses, and tributes to the city like Longhorn-themed guitars primed tp appeal to the “Texas forever” in all of us. This year, you can keep that car heater on and blast Mariah Carey ad-nauseum as the whole experience is drive-through. No judgment on our part if you bring a box of Christmas cookies to dig into during the ride, as well.

Texas Performing Arts
Texas Performing Arts

Bass Concert Hall
Even though NYC may be approximately 1743 miles from Austin, the Broadway season at Bass Concert Hall still gives you a chance to be in “the room where it happens” when it comes to singing-and-dancing spectaculars. And, if you didn’t get the reference in the last sentence, their sensational line-up starts in December with the show that’s made its way onto the playlists of everyone from your spin instructor to your metalhead brother: we’re talking, of course, about Hamilton. You may think seeing the Disney+ version has got you set for life, but nothing beats catching the historical narrative in-person. Also coming in January is recent Tony-Winning sensation Hadestown, which is guaranteed to put a new spin on the classic Greek mythology you studied in high school.

Circuit of the Americas austin
Photo courtesy of Circuit of the Americas

Circuit of the Americas
Circuit of the Americas’ Peppermint Parkway is back this year, providing a glimpse into what it would look like if Santa, like so many others this year, relocated to Austin. And, unlike those coming from Los Angeles or New York, he’s bringing much more than just higher house prices and longer waits for Sunday brunch: In addition to the usual “take a photo with Santa” situation, there’s enough activities on hand to leave you positively imbued with those candy-cane vibes. As in years past, you can drive around in your car visiting different Christmas-themed attractions, including two new villages—ONEderland, filled with gigantic trippy illuminated mushrooms, and Twinkle Trail, a display of dancing lights sure to put whatever rig you bought from Home Depot to shame. To boot, those whose Christmas wish-lists still include a real-life race car can make like a Formula One driver by parading their vehicle around the Parkway’s world-famous 3.41 mile FIA-grade track.

Waterloo Park Creek Show | Photo by Leonid Furmansky

Waterloo Park
With cuffing season well underway, it’s about time you updated that tired Tinder profile with some new snaps—and, with five larger-than-life, lit-up outdoor installations, the Creek Show is just the place to do it. Head there at night to check out new pieces by local artists, landscape architects, and designers in the recently renovated, green mecca of Waterloo Park. While all the backdrops are worthy of a pic or three, this year’s favorite is definitely the “si-glo,” which looks like a series of giant glow-in-the-dark agaves to the untrained eye. And, in addition to on-site food and live music, there’s also a bar—in case you need to loosen up before shooting those thirst traps.

Uncommon Objects
Photo courtesy of Uncommon Objects

Hunt for vintage treasure

Various locations
Stock up on winter ‘fits the sustainable way by pursuing Austin’s vibrant second-hand shopping scene. Dig through the racks at Pavement Vintage in search of single-stitch gems or let the curated wonders at Charm School Vintage and Feathers Boutique Vintage upgrade your pitifully stagnant wardrobe. If you’re looking to revamp your living space for holiday gatherings, turn to Room Service Vintage and Uncommon Objects for fantastic furniture and decor.

Easy Tiger austin texas
Easy Tiger

Various locations
It often feels like Austin is a one-dog-minimum-per-person kind of city city and, for those lucky enough to count Man’s Best Friend among their households, there’s a plethora of opportunities for you to enjoy winter with your pup. For starters, there’s Yard Bar, an Austin classic which lets you enjoy an adult beverage while your dog goofs off in their very own dog park (hence the name). There’s also Armadillo Den in South Austin, where you can play a round of corn-hole while your furry friend roughhouses with fellow Fidos, and Easy Tiger East, where we won’t judge you for bribing your dog to sit by offering them a bite of a fluffy, doughy baked pretzels.

Frida Friday ATX
Frida Friday ATX

Hit up an outdoor market

Various locations
If you want to build on your usual Sunday Funday—without sacrificing any of the opportunities for a pint or two before the Monday scaries hit—grab your crew and head to one of the amazing outdoor weekend markets in Austin. Looking for killer vintage or one-of-a-kind artisanal products? Follow Austin Flea for updates on their roving band of vendors. WoC-centered Frida Friday ATX is another local sensation—not only does it always feature vendors with amazing wares, but its mission to amplify BIPOC, WoC, and community creatives is just as inspiring as the artwork it hawks. Finally, for those who want to fit in some adulting, stop by the Texas Farmers’ Market at Mueller every Sunday for fresh groceries and wholesome vibes.

Barton Creek Greenbelt
Barton Creek Greenbelt | Kim Hefner/Shutterstock

Barton Creek Greenbelt & Bull Creek Greenbelt
Time to bust out those hiking boots. With 12 miles of gorgeous manicured trails, rustic creek beds, and rushing waterfalls, the Greenbelt is a must-visit for every outdoorsy Austinite. Round up your buddies, pack some snacks, and leash up the pups for what promises to be an unbeatable weekend adventure. And while you can’t go wrong with any of the Greenbelt’s access points, the Spyglass Trailhead is tough to beat—not to mention the fact that its proximity to a nearby Tacodeli easily facilitates a pre- or post-workout migas stop.

ACL Live austin
ACL Live

Check out some live music (duh)

Various locations
It’s not called “the Capital of Live Music” for nothing. Two-step to some bluegrass at Sagebrush, catch the best of the local scene at The Far Out Lounge, or discover your new favorite bands at Hotel Vegas. That’s not to forget the city’s trademark venue, ACL Live at the Moody Theater, which never fails to keep a stellar lineup of performances on the docket no matter the season.

Jester King Brewery austin
Jester King Brewery

Cruise out to Hill Country for beer and barbecue

Hill Country
When you grow tired of the urban landscape, refresh your spirits with a trip out to Hill Country. It may only be 45 minutes away, but the mesmerizing vistas and dramatic sunsets will make you instantly forget all those emails you have sitting in your inbox. Start by making a reservation at Jester King Brewery, where you can sip on their section of sour beers in the breezy, crisp sunshine. Then grab dinner at nearby Salt Lick, where the legendary barbecue constantly ranks as one of the country’s very very best.

Milky Way at Big Bend State Park austin
Big Bend State Park | Marc M Melkie/Shutterstock

Sleep under the stars

Various locations
Since the weather has finally cooled down a touch, there’s no better time to revel in Texas’ natural beauty by camping out in the elements. See for yourself by booking a spot at one of Texas Hill Country’s breathtakingly gorgeous parks. McKinney Falls State Park, Pedernales Falls State Park, Inks Lake State Park, and Enchanted Rock State Natural Area are all a stone's throw away from Austin proper (though, once there, you’d never know it).

Bat Conservation International austin
Bat Conservation International

South Congress Avenue bridge
“The bats!” are one of Austin’s simplest tourist attractions. Head down to the South Congress Avenue bridge in downtown Austin at the end of the day and pick a vantage point, either on top of the bridge or below on the Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail—careful to stand six feet apart from other groups—and wait until dusk for the little creepy critters to emerge. About 1.5 million bats live underneath the bridge in what’s widely considered the world’s largest bat colony.

Mt. Bonnell
Mt. Bonnell | Flickr/alamosbasement

Mt. Bonnell
Challenge yourself to jog, bike, or walk through the gorgeous neighborhood along Scenic Drive, through Covert Park, and all the way to the top of Mt. Bonnell. The 775-foot peak is the highest point in Austin, overlooking Lake Travis and the rolling Texas Hill Country below. Pro tip: Bring a picnic to enjoy on the pavilion at sunset for a unique date night outing.

Lady Bird Lake austin
Lady Bird Lake | Flickr/mirsasha

Lady Bird Lake
Whether your preferred vehicle is a paddle board, kayak, canoe, or inner tube, there’s plenty of buoyancy to be found on Lady Bird Lake. Bundle up, pop on your shades, and enjoy a few peaceful hours of serenity bobbing amid the temperate waters. Before you pack the car, though, make sure to check local listings for rental outlet locations and availability.

Franklin Barbecue
Franklin Barbecue

Various locations
If there’s one upside to the way COVID-19 has changed the world, it’s that you can now try Aaron Franklin’s famous barbecue without staking out a spot in line at 6 am. Franklin BBQ has embraced curbside pick-up, selling their world-famous brisket on a to-go basis for the time being. And they’re far from the only meaty game in town—other favorites include la Barbecue, Distant Relatives, and LeRoy and Lewis, and it just so happens that legendary Austin pitmasters tend to agree with us.

Nixta Taqueria austin
Nixta Taqueria

Various locations
Perhaps the only dish more famous in Austin than barbecue is the almighty taco. Breakfast taco connoisseurs already know that Veracruz All Natural, El Chilito, and Habanero Mexican Cafe can best that tired old bacon-egg-and-cheese any day of the week, while Nixta Taqueria’s Duck Carnitas and Granny’s Chilaquil will leave you drooling over your plate. And, of course there are always the classics: Tacodeli and Torchy’s. There’s truly no going wrong.

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Molly Moltzen is a contributor for Thrillist.