Discover Austin's Sights, Sounds and Sanctuaries

Jan. 24, 2012: The Texas Capitol and downtown buildings fade into the fog in Austin, Texas.

Jan. 24, 2012: The Texas Capitol and downtown buildings fade into the fog in Austin, Texas.  (AP)

The state capital of Texas has experienced a transformation in recent years. A young and vibrant population has migrated to downtown Austin, attracted to the high quality of life, a thriving arts scene and beautiful surroundings. Yet despite the recent population surge, the warmth and charm of Austin residents enable this sizable city to retain its distinct small-town feel. A city largely defined by its eccentricities, locals display bumper stickers that say “Keep Austin Weird” in response to the new influx of development and gentrification that threatens to homogenize the town. But for now at least, Austin remains a quirky and endlessly fascinating place, ripe for exploration. Here are three attractions that best showcase all the city has to offer:

Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum - Perhaps the best way to begin your exploration of Texas’ capital city is by discovering the colorful history of the Lone Star State. The Texas State Museum recounts the story of the state, from its pre-colonial origins to the present day. Interactive exhibits chronicle everything from early indigenous Native American cultures and the Texas Revolution to the integral role that Texas played in the space race of the 1960s.One of the museum’s most thrilling attractions is the Texas Spirit Theater – a multimedia special effects theater that allows audiences to experience the furious winds of the Galveston Hurricane. This is a dramatic and informative experience that should not be missed.

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center - Nestled just inside the boundary of Texas Hill Country is one of the state’s most exquisite natural sanctuaries. The eponymous founder of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center created this complex to protect, preserve and educate the public on America’s diverse array of indigenous plants and flowers.Visitors are invited to explore 12 acres of magnificent botanical gardens featuring over 650 species of wildflowers and plants, as well as changing exhibits of photography and visual art. With two miles of hiking trails and an observation tower allowing tourists to absorb the tranquil surroundings, the center makes for a peaceful getaway from the commotion of the city.

Austin’s Performing Arts - Each year, Austin hosts two of America's largest music festivals, South by Southwest (SXSW) and Austin City Limits. As a result, the city has further developed its reputation as the “Live Music Capital of the World.” Each March, South by Southwest showcases American and international films, music and technology in a variety of venues throughout the city. September’s Austin City Limits festival draws a crowd of roughly 70,000 attendees per day with live music, food and art.Of course, if the chaos and revelry of a festival doesn’t appeal to you, Austin’s Long Center for Performing Arts hosts a wide range of theatrical and musical displays. The main venue is home to the Austin Symphony, the Austin Lyric Opera and Ballet Austin, while a smaller adjoining theater spotlights local musicians, improvisational troupes and theater companies each week.