The University of Texas is in the heart of Austin, both geographically and spiritually. Just north of the Capitol, the main campus hums with activity, from athletics to the arts to cutting-edge research. First opened in 1883 on 40 acres of land set aside by the state, the University has grown rapidly since: The 50,000-plus students and some 24,000 faculty and staff live by the motto “What Starts Here Changes the World,” and Longhorns have proven that by winning Oscars (Matthew McConaughey), earning Olympic medals (Mary Lou Retton) and guiding us through the Cosmos (Neil deGrasse Tyson). The campus is a lovely place to explore, especially around the Spanish Renaissance-style older buildings. Just be prepared to hoof it: with parking limited and a little tricky at times, you won’t want to move your car once you claim a space for the day. Wear your comfortable shoes and start your UT exploration with these five landmarks.
Blanton Museum of Art
The permanent collection includes works by Romare Bearden, Mark Rothko and Thomas Hart Benton. Don’t miss Luis Jimenez’s massive sculpture Progress II (actually, it’s hard to miss). Admission is free on Thursdays, and every third Thursday brings extended hours and special events. Family-friendly programs during summer help open up the art world to kids.
Harry Ransom Center
The Harry Ransom Center’s holdings are vast, varied and ever-growing, from Frida Kahlo paintings to Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate notes to Robert De Niro’s papers. Rotating themed exhibits put the center’s treasures on display for the public, and permanent displays include a Gutenberg Bible and the first photograph. Admission is free.
The Tower is a symbol of both UT’s happiest and saddest times. Notoriously, it was the site of Charles Whitman’s mass shooting in 1966. Today, the Tower (a functioning office building) gets special orange lighting at night to honor Longhorn victories and other UT achievements. Self-guided tours can be reserved online and include the observation deck.
The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum
UT Austin is home to LBJ’s presidential library, which explores the Civil Rights Movement, the War on Poverty and other aspects of Johnson's presidency during the turbulent 1960s. Also, check out the joke-telling, animatronic LBJ (really!) and replicas of Johnson's Oval Office and (my favorite) Lady Bird Johnson’s 1960s-mod, orange-and-white office.
Since 1979, the Cactus Café, located inside the Texas Union, has played host to a who’s who of roots and acoustic artists, including Lyle Lovett, Lucinda Williams and Townes van Zandt. Today, folkie favorites such as Jay Farrar and Mary Gauthier continue to play the little room that’s a big part of Lone Star music history.