See The World's Largest Urban Bat Colony Take To The Skies In This US City

Austin, Texas, is many things to many people, but the city also belongs to the bats — about 1.5 million of them. From spring to early fall, Austin's human population welcomes a more nocturnal breed of "seasonal tourist" as it hosts the world's largest urban bat colony (certified by Guinness World Records). When not wintering south of the border, this colony of Mexican free-tailed bats roosts under the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge. Named after the state's 45th governor, the bridge leads directly into downtown Austin and terminates at the Texas Capitol.

At sunset, people gather in droves on the bridge, the adjacent observation hill, and Lady Bird Lake to see wave after wave of bats take to the skies. It can be an awe-inspiring sight in twilight, accentuated by the city skyline. Best of all, the show is free. You don't have to be a vampire or even an experienced bat-watcher to commune with the creatures flying out from the dark bridge crevices below Congress Avenue. All you need to do is bring yourself (and possibly a beach chair or picnic blanket) to the Austin-American Statesman's Bat Observation Center.

You can join the brigade of bat-watchers there or at other points east of the bridge, like the hike and bike trail along the water. Parking on-site can be pricey, which is why it helps if you're staying at a hotel downtown. Arrive early, and you might hear the bats squeaking before you see them.

Bats of the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin

Another way to watch Austin's nightly bat show is by riverboat, as Lady Bird Lake is actually a reservoir of the Colorado River, flowing through the Longhorn Dam. The narration might be touristy, but Lone Star Riverboats touts its sunset bat-watching tours as sell-out events. Capital Cruises also offers guided kayak tours.

Since Austin's bats make the Congress Avenue Bridge their home for the better part of the year, they're more like residents here than seasonal tourists, but it wasn't always that way. As you can imagine, locals weren't initially keen on seeing downtown Austin turn into Transylvania in the early 1980s. That's when the arch bridge underwent a renovation that left some gaps in its underlying structure. The bats (many of them pregnant since this is a maternity colony) saw an opportunity to move in and raise their pups. Though it took some convincing from Bat Conservation International, Austinites eventually embraced them as insect-hunting neighbors providing free pest control.

Thanks to the Congress Avenue Bridge colony, Austin has been called America's bat capital, but it's also the state capital of Texas. After bat-watching here, you can take a 1-mile hike across the bridge into the downtown area and be right in the center of city and state life. Over on the historic East 11th Street, you'll find some of the best food trucks in Texas. Just 75 minutes away by I-35 is San Antonio, another must-visit destination for history buffs.

Movies, music, and a real-life Batcave in Austin

With a filmmaking scene as robust as its food scene, Austin offers loads of culture to experience beyond bat-watching. South by Southwest and Fantastic Fest make it an important stop on the film and music festival circuits in March and September. They also happen to bookend the prime bat-watching season. If you're in town for a festival, leave time for the bats between movie screenings. Otherwise, they may invade your theater, as one did in 2022 during a showing of — what else — "The Batman."

That incident has been attributed to a prank. However, the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema chain, which began with one screen in Austin, also bussed Batman movie fans to Bracken Cave Preserve before the midnight premieres of "The Dark Knight" and "The Dark Knight Rises." With an advance reservation, Bracken Cave Preserve is where you'll take your bat-watching to the next level. The preserve, located outside San Antonio, ditches the "urban" for the record of the world's largest bat colony, period. Some 15 million flittermice call it their summer home.

If one round of bats is enough, but you still want to watch something, you can always try turning on PBS in your hotel room to see America's longest-running music series, "Austin City Limits." Better yet, check out one of Austin's best live music venues in person. Some, like Hotel Vegas on East 6th Street and the Saxon Pub on South Lamar Boulevard, are a short drive from Congress Avenue Bridge.