clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
A contemporary coliseum with a ring around the front
The Long Center
Long Center/Facebook

15 iconic Austin buildings everyone should know

From the Capitol to the Austin Motel, these sites are the heart and soul of this city

View as Map
The Long Center
| Long Center/Facebook

The word “iconic” gets thrown about a bit loosely these days. We’ve even heard it used to refer to buildings that don’t yet exist. As Austin’s building boom and rapid transformation seems to march ever forward, we’re seeing quite a bit of those new “icons” pop up. While most of them probably are destined to become iconic proper (the Central Library and the Independent come to mind), we want to take a step back and appreciate some of our more longstanding sites and buildings that have stood the test of time and that remind locals and let visitors know that they are, in fact, in Austin, Texas.

Map points are ordered north to south.

Read More

The Contemporary Austin—Laguna Gloria

Copy Link

There are many fine museums in Austin at which one can view fantastic collections and exciting new work. However, The Contemporary—Laguna Gloria provides those things as well the quintessential, indoor-outdoor, quirky Austin experience. Located in a lakeside villa built in 1916, the site now boasts the fantastic Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park and adjacent Mayfield Park, with its free-range peacocks and historic Mayfield-Gutsch cottage and a nature preserve beyond. Bonus: Mount Bonnell, which offers one of the best views in Austin, is three minutes away; turn left on to Mount Bonnell Road as you exit the park.

The exterior of the Contemporary Austin. The facade is white with a brown roof and trees in front.

UT Tower

Copy Link

For many years, The Main Tower at the University of Texas and the state Capitol is the campus it and the Texas Capitol were the two most prominent buildings in the Austin skyline. Designed by Paul Philippe Cret, the well-known, France-born architect who designed the Beaux Arts plan for the university’s central campus, it was completed in 1937 and features locally quarried limestone one the door frames and West Texas marble on the main staircase.

Italianate building with red clay roof towels an large tower in middle
University of Texas Main Building
Shutterstock

LBJ Presidential Library

Copy Link

Located on eastern side of the University of Texas campus, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library has often been decried for its monolithic scale, and almost windowless and featureless travertine exterior. Nevertheless, its distinctive and modern design has worn well over the years. Completed in 1971, it designed by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. Its most dramatic feature (aside from the giant, bowl-like fountain outside, also spare in design), is a Great Hall is featuring four stories of archives behind glass. Sadly, the animatronic-LBJ robot that used to greet visitors from his stage-set “ranch” has been silenced, although he is still present and has had his country garb changed to a more presidential suit.

Large brutalist building, several stories, few windows, big fountain in front
LBJ Presidential Library and Museum
LBJ Presidential Library and Museum/Wikimedia Commons

The Caswell House

Copy Link

The super-central and gorgeously kept Caswell House is on the National Register of Historic Places, recognized as a Texas Historic Landmark, and listed as a City of Austin Historic Landmark. The gorgeous Victorian building is a longtime favorite for Austin events and weddings, especially during winter months, when its luxurious indoor spaces come in special-handy.

A post shared by @caswellhouseatx on

Texas Capitol

Copy Link

Opened in 1888 (it replaced a more diminutive structure destroyed by fire in 1881), the Texas Capitol was intended to make a grand statement. Modeled after the U.S. Capitol in a neo-Renaissance style that features the domes, columns, plasterwork, and pediments often associated with classical architecture, it’s just a tad taller than the building that houses our nation’s legislature. The state Capitol’s most unique element is the striking, pinkish granite sourced from Granite Mountain near the site of nearby Marble Falls. It creates a distinctive hue that’s unique among capitol buildings in the country.

Texas Capitol building with statue of a cowboy and some blooming yucca plants out front
Texas Capitol
Ed Schipul/Flicker

Moonlight Towers

Copy Link

Austin’s moonlight towers are popular and storied fixtures on the city’s landscape, beloved by locals and often fascinating to visitors. The towers were purchased from the city of Detroit and installed around Austin in the 1890s. The 165-foot-tall towers, featuring six bright lamps at the top (originally carbon-arc, now mercury vapor), illuminate a 1,500-foot-radius brightly and were part of Austin’s early street-lighting program—often chosen in place of the many regular street lamps that would be required to light a similarly sized area. The lights, listed in the National Register of Historic Places and featured in contemporary pop-culture moments (notably in the movie Dazed and Confused), also have a number of myths surrounding them. Austin is the only city in the United States that continues to maintain and use moonlight towers.

A post shared by Larry James Rivera (@run_atx) on

Paramount Theatre

Copy Link

Opened in 1915, the historic Congress Avenue theater has long been a place for Austinites to see top-notch live performances of all kinds, as well as to marvel at its lovely, lovingly restored historic interior. It's also a great place to see films, especially in the summertime, when the amply air-conditioned theater screens a series of classics.

Red brick old theater with neon blade/ vertical front sign that says “Paramount Theatre”
Paramount Theatre
Shutterstock

The Driskill Hotel

Copy Link

The Driskill was built for a cattle baron in 1886. He seems to have lost it in a card game shortly thereafter, but its vintage grandiosity, restored numerous times, is still largely intact. For many decades, it was the finest and best hotel in the city, the place where politicians, socialites, and other fancy or powerful people gathered—and to some extent, it still is. Check out its gorgeous lobby, have a drink at its famous bar, and absorb the seriously historic vibe.

United States Federal Courthouse

Copy Link

Nestled among the increasing numbers of skyscrapers on the west side of downtown, the federal courthouse benefits greatly from having recently revitalized Republic Square park as its front lawn. Then again, the fact that it’s relatively out in the open like that might have been why it’s one of only two federal buildings called out in a proposed 2020 presidential order titled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” which deems it as having “little aesthetic appeal.” Outlier opinion aside, the contemporary limestone building has received numerous awards and has become a notable Austin landmark. Designed by Atlanta-based architects Mack Scogin Merrill Elam and Austin firm Page and opened in 2012, it seems to have become the city “living room” they intended it to be.

French Legation Historic House

Copy Link

One of the oldest extant wood-frame structures in the city, the French Legation was built for a chargé d'affaires to what was then the Republic of Texas. Things didn't go well for the French here (there was something called a "Pig War" involved), and the house saw several residents through the years, including a plantation owner after whom its location, Robertson Hill, was named. The state eventually bought and restored the structure, and it's now a small museum and a green oasis in a busy city that regularly hosts ambitious outdoor performances, film screenings, and other events.

The French Legation Museum
The French Legation Museum
Wikimedia Commons

Frost Bank Tower

Copy Link

Generally considered Austin’s first, the Frost Bank Tower broke ground in 2001 and quickly became the subject of controversy (So tall! So shiny! Such a weird design!). Designed by Duda/Paine and HKS Architects, it has a reflective blue-glass exterior and a crown that’s meant to resemble an owl when viewed at certain angles—though wiseacres compared it a nose-hair trimmer. It was for a time the tallest building in Austin (now long surpassed), and it turned out to be more distinctive and, well, iconic that many of the high-rises that followed.

Seaholm Power Plant

Copy Link

Austin’s former electrical power plant, a fine Art Moderne specimen commissioned in 1948, has now benefited from adaptive reuse and anchors a mixed-use complex of residential, retail, and office spaces. Fortunately, much of the original exterior design, including its smokestacks, round windows, and signage featuring a lightning bolt and the Deco-lettered phrase “City of Austin Power” remains.

The Long Center for the Performing Arts

Copy Link

The Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Center for the Performing Arts, just south of Lady Bird Lake, is a performance center and ode to the artful—majestic, even—reuse and revival. Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, it opened It opened in 2008 after 10 years of construction (along with funding issues and civic discussions of same). It replaced the mod, domed Lester E. Palmer Auditorium, reusing 95 percent of its building materials, including the distinctive green and brown panels—originally on the roof and now decorate the exterior walls—and the ring-beam exterior structure, which now is a terrace that offers an excellent view of downtown. The center is the performance home of Austin Symphony Orchestra, Austin Lyric Opera, and Ballet Austin as well as many other performances and special events.

Ringed building at sunset
The Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Center for the Performing Arts
Lonestar Mike/Wikimedia Commons

Austin Motel

Copy Link

A fixture on South Congress for more than 80 years, Austin Motel might have a motor-court design that was standard-issue in the mid-20th century. But since 1938, its distinctive sign has been a beacon and a symbol for the South Congress Avenue strip that’s iconic in its own right. It was recently remodeled in a way that appeals to the contemporary traveler while keeping the basics—including the kidney-shaped pool intact and nodding in completely innovative ways to its colorful past.

Red sign that says Austin motel with marquee that says “Let Love In”
Austin Motel
Courtesy of Austin Motel

Green Pastures

Copy Link

The legendary homestead of the legendary Koock family, which included the legendary John Henry Faulk (y’all need to look all that up if you don’t know what we’re talking about) was recently sold and remodeled by (legendary) local firm Clayton & Little Architects, and the restaurant is under new, highly lauded management. It’s also still an incredibly lovely oasis, and it still has its peacocks.

Big frame white wooden 1900s house with big lawn in front
Green Pastures, now home to a hotel and restaurant
Via Eater Austin

St. Edward's University

Copy Link

Not only does South Austin’s hilltop campus have one of the best views of Austin; the campus itself is lovely and dotted with significant buildings both historic and contemporary. Be sure to check out the landmarked Main Building—a Gothic Revival structure rendered in white limestone and designed by Nicholas J. Clayton, who was responsible for many of the most well-known Victorian homes in of Galveston, Texas—as well as the Student Residences and Dining Hall, designed by 2016 Pritzker Prize winner Alejandro Aravena and built in 1948, and Doyle Hall, redesigned with an addition by Specht Harpman and completed in 2009.

St. Edward's University
St. Edward's University

The Contemporary Austin—Laguna Gloria

The exterior of the Contemporary Austin. The facade is white with a brown roof and trees in front.

There are many fine museums in Austin at which one can view fantastic collections and exciting new work. However, The Contemporary—Laguna Gloria provides those things as well the quintessential, indoor-outdoor, quirky Austin experience. Located in a lakeside villa built in 1916, the site now boasts the fantastic Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park and adjacent Mayfield Park, with its free-range peacocks and historic Mayfield-Gutsch cottage and a nature preserve beyond. Bonus: Mount Bonnell, which offers one of the best views in Austin, is three minutes away; turn left on to Mount Bonnell Road as you exit the park.

The exterior of the Contemporary Austin. The facade is white with a brown roof and trees in front.

UT Tower

Italianate building with red clay roof towels an large tower in middle
University of Texas Main Building
Shutterstock

For many years, The Main Tower at the University of Texas and the state Capitol is the campus it and the Texas Capitol were the two most prominent buildings in the Austin skyline. Designed by Paul Philippe Cret, the well-known, France-born architect who designed the Beaux Arts plan for the university’s central campus, it was completed in 1937 and features locally quarried limestone one the door frames and West Texas marble on the main staircase.

Italianate building with red clay roof towels an large tower in middle
University of Texas Main Building
Shutterstock

LBJ Presidential Library

Large brutalist building, several stories, few windows, big fountain in front
LBJ Presidential Library and Museum
LBJ Presidential Library and Museum/Wikimedia Commons

Located on eastern side of the University of Texas campus, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library has often been decried for its monolithic scale, and almost windowless and featureless travertine exterior. Nevertheless, its distinctive and modern design has worn well over the years. Completed in 1971, it designed by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. Its most dramatic feature (aside from the giant, bowl-like fountain outside, also spare in design), is a Great Hall is featuring four stories of archives behind glass. Sadly, the animatronic-LBJ robot that used to greet visitors from his stage-set “ranch” has been silenced, although he is still present and has had his country garb changed to a more presidential suit.

Large brutalist building, several stories, few windows, big fountain in front
LBJ Presidential Library and Museum
LBJ Presidential Library and Museum/Wikimedia Commons

The Caswell House

The super-central and gorgeously kept Caswell House is on the National Register of Historic Places, recognized as a Texas Historic Landmark, and listed as a City of Austin Historic Landmark. The gorgeous Victorian building is a longtime favorite for Austin events and weddings, especially during winter months, when its luxurious indoor spaces come in special-handy.

A post shared by @caswellhouseatx on

Texas Capitol

Texas Capitol building with statue of a cowboy and some blooming yucca plants out front
Texas Capitol
Ed Schipul/Flicker

Opened in 1888 (it replaced a more diminutive structure destroyed by fire in 1881), the Texas Capitol was intended to make a grand statement. Modeled after the U.S. Capitol in a neo-Renaissance style that features the domes, columns, plasterwork, and pediments often associated with classical architecture, it’s just a tad taller than the building that houses our nation’s legislature. The state Capitol’s most unique element is the striking, pinkish granite sourced from Granite Mountain near the site of nearby Marble Falls. It creates a distinctive hue that’s unique among capitol buildings in the country.

Texas Capitol building with statue of a cowboy and some blooming yucca plants out front
Texas Capitol
Ed Schipul/Flicker

Moonlight Towers

Austin’s moonlight towers are popular and storied fixtures on the city’s landscape, beloved by locals and often fascinating to visitors. The towers were purchased from the city of Detroit and installed around Austin in the 1890s. The 165-foot-tall towers, featuring six bright lamps at the top (originally carbon-arc, now mercury vapor), illuminate a 1,500-foot-radius brightly and were part of Austin’s early street-lighting program—often chosen in place of the many regular street lamps that would be required to light a similarly sized area. The lights, listed in the National Register of Historic Places and featured in contemporary pop-culture moments (notably in the movie Dazed and Confused), also have a number of myths surrounding them. Austin is the only city in the United States that continues to maintain and use moonlight towers.

A post shared by Larry James Rivera (@run_atx) on

Paramount Theatre

Red brick old theater with neon blade/ vertical front sign that says “Paramount Theatre”
Paramount Theatre
Shutterstock

Opened in 1915, the historic Congress Avenue theater has long been a place for Austinites to see top-notch live performances of all kinds, as well as to marvel at its lovely, lovingly restored historic interior. It's also a great place to see films, especially in the summertime, when the amply air-conditioned theater screens a series of classics.

Red brick old theater with neon blade/ vertical front sign that says “Paramount Theatre”
Paramount Theatre
Shutterstock

The Driskill Hotel

The Driskill was built for a cattle baron in 1886. He seems to have lost it in a card game shortly thereafter, but its vintage grandiosity, restored numerous times, is still largely intact. For many decades, it was the finest and best hotel in the city, the place where politicians, socialites, and other fancy or powerful people gathered—and to some extent, it still is. Check out its gorgeous lobby, have a drink at its famous bar, and absorb the seriously historic vibe.

United States Federal Courthouse

Nestled among the increasing numbers of skyscrapers on the west side of downtown, the federal courthouse benefits greatly from having recently revitalized Republic Square park as its front lawn. Then again, the fact that it’s relatively out in the open like that might have been why it’s one of only two federal buildings called out in a proposed 2020 presidential order titled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” which deems it as having “little aesthetic appeal.” Outlier opinion aside, the contemporary limestone building has received numerous awards and has become a notable Austin landmark. Designed by Atlanta-based architects Mack Scogin Merrill Elam and Austin firm Page and opened in 2012, it seems to have become the city “living room” they intended it to be.

French Legation Historic House

The French Legation Museum
The French Legation Museum
Wikimedia Commons

One of the oldest extant wood-frame structures in the city, the French Legation was built for a chargé d'affaires to what was then the Republic of Texas. Things didn't go well for the French here (there was something called a "Pig War" involved), and the house saw several residents through the years, including a plantation owner after whom its location, Robertson Hill, was named. The state eventually bought and restored the structure, and it's now a small museum and a green oasis in a busy city that regularly hosts ambitious outdoor performances, film screenings, and other events.

The French Legation Museum
The French Legation Museum
Wikimedia Commons

Frost Bank Tower

Generally considered Austin’s first, the Frost Bank Tower broke ground in 2001 and quickly became the subject of controversy (So tall! So shiny! Such a weird design!). Designed by Duda/Paine and HKS Architects, it has a reflective blue-glass exterior and a crown that’s meant to resemble an owl when viewed at certain angles—though wiseacres compared it a nose-hair trimmer. It was for a time the tallest building in Austin (now long surpassed), and it turned out to be more distinctive and, well, iconic that many of the high-rises that followed.

Seaholm Power Plant

Austin’s former electrical power plant, a fine Art Moderne specimen commissioned in 1948, has now benefited from adaptive reuse and anchors a mixed-use complex of residential, retail, and office spaces. Fortunately, much of the original exterior design, including its smokestacks, round windows, and signage featuring a lightning bolt and the Deco-lettered phrase “City of Austin Power” remains.

The Long Center for the Performing Arts

Ringed building at sunset
The Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Center for the Performing Arts
Lonestar Mike/Wikimedia Commons

The Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Center for the Performing Arts, just south of Lady Bird Lake, is a performance center and ode to the artful—majestic, even—reuse and revival. Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, it opened It opened in 2008 after 10 years of construction (along with funding issues and civic discussions of same). It replaced the mod, domed Lester E. Palmer Auditorium, reusing 95 percent of its building materials, including the distinctive green and brown panels—originally on the roof and now decorate the exterior walls—and the ring-beam exterior structure, which now is a terrace that offers an excellent view of downtown. The center is the performance home of Austin Symphony Orchestra, Austin Lyric Opera, and Ballet Austin as well as many other performances and special events.

Ringed building at sunset
The Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Center for the Performing Arts
Lonestar Mike/Wikimedia Commons

Austin Motel

Red sign that says Austin motel with marquee that says “Let Love In”
Austin Motel
Courtesy of Austin Motel

A fixture on South Congress for more than 80 years, Austin Motel might have a motor-court design that was standard-issue in the mid-20th century. But since 1938, its distinctive sign has been a beacon and a symbol for the South Congress Avenue strip that’s iconic in its own right. It was recently remodeled in a way that appeals to the contemporary traveler while keeping the basics—including the kidney-shaped pool intact and nodding in completely innovative ways to its colorful past.

Red sign that says Austin motel with marquee that says “Let Love In”
Austin Motel
Courtesy of Austin Motel

Green Pastures

Big frame white wooden 1900s house with big lawn in front
Green Pastures, now home to a hotel and restaurant
Via Eater Austin

The legendary homestead of the legendary Koock family, which included the legendary John Henry Faulk (y’all need to look all that up if you don’t know what we’re talking about) was recently sold and remodeled by (legendary) local firm Clayton & Little Architects, and the restaurant is under new, highly lauded management. It’s also still an incredibly lovely oasis, and it still has its peacocks.

Big frame white wooden 1900s house with big lawn in front
Green Pastures, now home to a hotel and restaurant
Via Eater Austin

St. Edward's University

St. Edward's University
St. Edward's University

Not only does South Austin’s hilltop campus have one of the best views of Austin; the campus itself is lovely and dotted with significant buildings both historic and contemporary. Be sure to check out the landmarked Main Building—a Gothic Revival structure rendered in white limestone and designed by Nicholas J. Clayton, who was responsible for many of the most well-known Victorian homes in of Galveston, Texas—as well as the Student Residences and Dining Hall, designed by 2016 Pritzker Prize winner Alejandro Aravena and built in 1948, and Doyle Hall, redesigned with an addition by Specht Harpman and completed in 2009.

St. Edward's University
St. Edward's University