Where to find museums in Austin, from art to history to weird stuff

In these hellish summer months, moving from one air-conditioned space to another is a fact of life. Walk through the open air when the open air would make the Human Torch sweat? No thanks.

Few indoor attractions are as spacious, and climate controlled, as museums. Learning? In summer? See, that's how they get ya.

If you're looking to beat the heat or just soak up some culture during another season,  Austin's roster of museums is deep. Here's a guide to many of the notable institutions in the community. Check their websites for the most updated hours and admission information.

Austin History Center

Did you see the word "learning" and say, "You're speaking my language, pal"? The Austin History Center is the historical research arm of the Austin Public Library, and it is the place you want if you're looking for a little research. So, less "big pictures on walls" and more "sitting in a reading room and examining documents and photos from Austin's past." Austin History Center is in the old Central Library building. Review the rules online before you come.

Where: 810 Guadalupe St.

Website: library.austintexas.gov/ahc

Austin Museum of Popular Culture

Want to know how Austin became known as the land of live music and laidback cool? Focusing on 1965 to the present, Austin Museum of Popular Culture chronicles Austin's "alternate route to peace, love and happiness," according to its website. Artifacts include posters from venues like Armadillo World Headquarters and a strand of Elvis Presley's hair. Formerly known as the South Austin Museum of Popular Culture, it was founded in 2004 and called South Lamar Boulevard home for years. AUSPop, as it's dubbed itself, then briefly relocated to the site of Threadgill's on North Lamar (RIP); it's now seeking a new physical location. The collection is currently in storage and AUSPop is occasionally presenting virtual exhibitions, according to the museum's website.

Website: southpop.org

Austin Nature & Science Center

A museum in a park? It's gotta be all about the flora and the fauna. Austin Nature & Science Center is nestled at the edge of Zilker Park. Since 1960, the museum has taught Austinites about bees, owls, butterflies, water, native trees and more. Find science-y fun like an outdoor dino pit exhibit and a human sundial.

Where: 2389 Stratford Drive

Website: austintexas.gov/department/austin-nature-science-center

Blanton Museum of Art

When you think "art museum in Austin," you probably think of the Blanton Museum of Art. At least I do; I once lived in a dorm next to the University of Texas facility. In addition to au courant special exhibits, the Blanton is home to permanent collections of modern, European and Latin American art. Plus, it doesn't get more iconic than Teresita Fernández's "Stacked Waters," the blue wall installation in the museum's atrium, or Ellsworth Kelly's "Austin," the colorful, chapel-like structure that's quickly become synonymous with art in the city. Admission is free to all on Thursday.

Where: 200 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

Website: blantonmuseum.org

More:Blanton Museum of Art to be 1st major U.S. museum with dedicated sound art space

Bastrop County Historical Society Museum

Find everything you need to know about Austin's neighbor to the east at the Bastrop County Historical Society Museum. Exhibits chronicle Bastrop from prehistory and the life of the Baron de Bastrop (aka Felipe Enrique Neri) to the Civilian Conservation Corps' development of Bastrop State Park and chronicles of the 2011 Bastrop Complex Fire. Even the building is history: It used to be a fire station, a police station, a tax office and even City Hall.

Where: 904 Main Street in Bastrop

Website: bastropcountyhistoricalsociety.com

Briscoe Center for American History

After UT opened in 1883, it started collecting the chronicles of Texas. All that stuff had to go somewhere, right? Located on campus, the Briscoe Center is a research center/archive that also has public exhibits. Expect to learn about everything from former U.S. Vice President John Garner Nance to the history of Texas as told through photography. (Past exhibitions have covered Apollo 11, TV news, the civil rights movement and American popular music, among other things.) Admission is free, but reservations are recommended.

Address: 2300 Red River St.

Website: briscoecenter.org

Bullock Texas State History Museum

Full disclosure: I went on way too many grade-school field trips to the Bullock to objectively assess its fun quotient. But it is the official history museum of Texas, and that's nothing to sneeze at. See La Belle, a French ship involved in colonizing the coast; marvel at the 16-foot Goddess of Liberty statue that originally stood atop the Capitol. Yes, that's a World War II plane hanging over the third floor. Plus: The museum has an IMAX theater and knows how to use it. (And they also screen Hollywood blockbusters there!)

Where: 1800 Congress Ave.

Website: thestoryoftexas.com

The Contemporary Austin

(Read this in the voice of Count Von Count from "Sesame Street.") Two museums! Ah ah ah! Austin's home for contemporary art actually is two homes for contemporary art. The Contemporary Austin's Jones Center is a two-floor downtown museum with a typical downtown museum feel. You might recognize the lettered artwork that watches over the top of the building, Jim Hodges’ "With Liberty and Justice for All (A Work in Progress)." Then in West Austin, find the Contemporary Austin's Laguna Gloria campus, a lush outdoor gallery home to sculpture art. Admission is free to both campuses on Thursday.

Where: Jones Center, 700 Congress Ave.; Laguna Gloria, 3809 W. 35th St.

Website: thecontemporaryaustin.org

Elisabet Ney Museum

There simply is no museum like Hyde Park's Elisabet Ney Museum. It was once the home and studio of its namesake, a German sculptor who moved to Austin in the late 1800s. Now, it's a showcase for her work and a testament to her life, with rotating exhibits of other artists' work. Pro tip: Head all the way up to the tippy-top, where you'll find the coolest little room in Austin.

Where: 304 E. 44th St.

Website: austintexas.gov/department/elisabet-ney-museum

Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center

Just steps away from the neverending party of Rainey Street, you'll find the Mexican American Cultural Center, a vibrant hub for Latino cultural arts and programming. Come see rotating art exhibits in the galleries, or stop and gaze at the sculptures and murals, including the mosaic mural "La Mujer." The center is also a hotbed of events, from dance to film to theater. Admission to the center typically is free.

Where: 600 River St.

Website: austintexas.gov/department/emma-s-barrientos-mexican-american-cultural-center

Flower Hill Urban Homestead Museum

Get a look into life in Austin, back before you could drive your Tesla to South by Southwest while drinking a Rambler. The historic homestead honors the Smoot family and their deep ties to the community. According to the website, the inside of the Flower Hill museum is temporarily closed for now, but the grounds are open to the public.

Where: 1316 W. Sixth St.

Website: flowerhillfoundation.org

Previous coverageAn urban homestead called Flower Hill preserves a family's Austin-centric history

French Legation State Historic Site

The French Legation is one of Austin's oldest surviving buildings.
The French Legation is one of Austin's oldest surviving buildings.

The city calls it the oldest standing frame structure around. It opened in 1841, housing a French diplomat to the Republic of Texas. Take a tour and see the gardens and reconstructed Creole kitchen. The French Legation usually throws a big Bastille Day party, too.

Where: 802 San Marcos St.

Website: thc.texas.gov/historic-sites/french-legation-state-historic-site

George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center

Austin's center for Black history, the Carver Museum in East Austin is home to permanent exhibits about prominent local families, the history of L.C. Anderson High School and more. There's now a "multisensory" core exhibit titled, "The African American Presence in 19th Century Texas," according to the museum website. Also spend some time with the bronze statues in Freedom Plaza and check out one of the rotating art exhibits. The Carver's Genealogy Center acts as a public resource to learn about family history. Admission to the museum is free.

Where: 1165 Angelina St.

Website: austintexas.gov/department/george-washington-carver-museum-cultural-and-genealogy-center

More:'Jamel Shabazz: Peace to the Queen' at Austin's Carver Museum is a love poem to women of color

Harry Ransom Center

UT's humanities research center holds a treasure trove of cultural artifacts, from Robert De Niro's film costumes to Frida Kahlo's paintings to the earliest known photograph. Famously, the Ransom Center also has one of only 20 Gutenberg Bibles in the world. And lucky you, the facility puts on fascinating exhibits open to the public. Admission is free.

Where: 300 W. 21st St.

Website: hrc.utexas.edu

Susanna Dickinson Museum

The former home of this hero of Texas independence is now a museum that you can tour. You'll see Dickinson family artifacts and hear stories from Alamo survivors.

Where: 411 E. Fifth St.

Website: austintexas.gov/department/susanna-dickinson-museum

LBJ Presidential Library

Don't let anyone ever tell you that Austin's museums don't punch with the heavyweights. We've got a whole presidential library. This monument to the legacy of President Lyndon B. Johnson is on the UT campus. Permanent exhibits include a replica of the Oval Office, an animatronic LBJ and a gallery dedicated to first lady Lady Bird Johnson. Rotating exhibits have chronicled everything from civil rights to Motown to equality in sports. Tickets are half price on Tuesday and free on select days of the year. They're also free if your first, middle or last name is Lyndon. Really.

Where: 2313 Red River St.

Website: lbjlibrary.org

Mexic-Arte Museum

On a downtown street corner, take a moment to step inside this shrine to Mexican, Latino and Latin American art. The permanent collection includes thousands of contemporary works. Every year, Mexic-Arte Museum's ofrenda for Dia de los Muertos is a must-visit. Admission is free on Sunday.

Where: 419 Congress Ave.

Website: mexic-artemuseum.org

Museum of Ice Cream

Well ... museum might imply a breadth of Rocky Road rigor and sundae scholarship that's simply not present in this Domain funland. It's a lot of Instagram-friendly rooms and sweet treats. The walls do contain fun facts about ice cream, though, and "museum" is in the name, so, just putting it out there.

Where: 11506 Century Oaks Terrace, No. 128

Website: museumoficecream.com/austin

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Museum of Weird

This spot bills itself as "America's strangest attraction," which is a claim you really need to assess for yourself. (Plenty of strange attractions happen on Dirty Sixth just outside its doors.) Think less about the scholarly collections vein of museums and more in the P.T. Barnum/Ripley's Believe It Or Not milieu. Mummies, Bigfoot, creatures from the ice and the Black Lagoon ... you get the idea.

Where: 412 E. Sixth St.

Website: museumoftheweird.com

National Museum of the Pacific War

A short drive outside of Austin to peach country, Fredericksburg's National Museum of the Pacific War is a sprawling facility that chronicles the Asiatic-Pacific Theater of World War II. Ships, planes, weapons and uniforms help tell the story of the conflict, from Pearl Harbor to Iwo Jima and more. There's plenty to soak in here, including an exhibit about the atomic bomb horrors inflicted by the U.S. and a Garden of Peace donated by the people of Japan.

Where: 311 E. Austin St. in Fredericksburg

Website: pacificwarmuseum.org

Neil-Cochran House Museum

Another historic house (this one dating back to 1856), Neil-Cochran House Museum originally was one of Austin's oldest residences. It includes the only still-standing quarters that housed people who were enslaved; that's currently in the middle of a restoration project that seeks to reckon with the dark history of racial injustice in Austin. Now, the Greek Revival house exhibits art and historical material, as well as decorative arts and textiles used in the residence. The museum also hosts events.

Where: 2310 San Gabriel St.

Website: nchmuseum.org

O. Henry Museum

"The Gift of the Magi"! C'mon, you know it. The combs? The watch fob? OK, well, absurdly prolific short story author O. Henry, aka William Sydney Porter, lived in Austin, and his former home is now a museum dedicated to his work and legacy. The museum is temporarily closed for renovations, but you can tour it online for now. The museum also hosts the annual Pun-Off contest.

Where: 409 E. Fifth St.

Website: austintexas.gov/department/o-henry-museum

Pioneer Farms

There's nothing else quite like Pioneer Farms. (Another field trip culprit of mine.) It's billed as a "living history" site with six themed historic areas: an 1841 Tonkawa encampment, an 1853 Walnut Creek greenbelt, an 1868 German emigrant farm, an 1873 Texian farm, an 1887 cotton planter's farm and an 1899 Sprinkle Corner rural village. Plus: people in costumes and farm animals.

Where: 10621 Pioneer Farms Drive

Website: pioneerfarms.org

Texas Capitol Visitors Center

It looks like a castle and it's the oldest state office building. Now, one of those sounds more exciting than the other. But there's more than meets the eye, with essential chronicles of Texas history inside. It has a Lego model of the Capitol. What now, skeptic?

Where: 112 E. 11th St.

Website: tspb.texas.gov/prop/tcvc/cvc/cvc.html

Texas Military Forces Museum

Are you a buff when it comes to uniforms, artillery, tanks, what have you? Well, here's a free museum for you. It's located on Camp Mabry; make sure to read all the visitor info on the website before heading over. (The military, rules, so on.)

Where: 2200 W. 35th St.

Website: texasmilitaryforcesmuseum.org

Texas Music Museum

Beyoncé. Gary Clark Jr. Buddy Holly. Texas's contributions to music are legion. This space seeks to celebrate that, with an eye toward genres and cultural traditions that are particular to the Lone Star State. Admission currently is by appointment only.

Where: 1009 E. 11th St.

Website: texasmusicmuseum.org

Texas Toy Museum

You've seen "Toy Story," but what about ... the story of toys? (Oof.) This museum expresses its love of all things play with exhibits of action figures, video games and more, with some hands-on experiences. And there's an arcade, with gameplay included with admission.

Where: 314 1/2 Congress Ave.

Website: austintoymuseum.org


You can't miss this big red guy in the Mueller area. Much ado was made when the interactive children's museum opened, and for good reason. Bring the tyke to draw with light, make some motion and use the photo booth. Admission is free on Sunday community nights.

Where: 1830 Simond Ave.

Website: thinkeryaustin.org

Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum

A walk away from Barton Springs sits sculptor Charles Umlauf's home, which was transformed into this art museum and outdoor oasis. Peruse the gallery; take in the bronze and stone sculptures in the garden amid the sounds of the waterfall and your own thoughts.

Where: 605 Azie Morton Road.

Website: umlaufsculpture.org

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Visual Arts Center

Art at UT: not just for the students! Any local yokel knows about the Blanton Museum; fewer folks know about this 13,000-square-foot gallery inside the College of Fine Arts. It's closed for the summer, but exhibitions resume in the fall. The Visual Arts Center is free and open to the public.

Where: 2301 San Jacinto Blvd.

Website: utvac.org

The Williamson Museum

If Bastrop gets a museum, why not Travis County's neighbor to the north? Williamson County and its history find stewards in this museum in Georgetown.

Where: 716 S. Austin Ave. in Georgetown

Website: williamsonmuseum.org

Wittliff Collections

The Southwestern culture collection of Texas State University in San Marcos displays treasures from its vast trove across the worlds of film, literature, photography and music. Permanently on display: costumes and props from "Lonesome Dove," among other interesting artifacts. Admission is free.

Where: 601 University Drive in San Marcos (on the 7th floor of Alkek Library at Texas State University)

Website: thewittliffcollections.txstate.edu

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Best museums in Austin to see art, history and more