Outdoorsy and quirky, Austin lives up to its reputation for family fun.
Austin is nothing like what you would typically expect from Texas. Surrounded by a series of lakes intertwined in the hill country, the city is anchored by the State Capitol and the University of Texas. Parks scattered throughout the town take full advantage of the rivers and streams connecting the lakes and create dazzling places to hike, play, and swim. Sprinkled with a delightful array of eclectic stores, restaurants, artists, and musicians, Austin’s longstanding slogan, “Keep Austin Weird,” continues to define the city’s vibrant culture.
What to do?
While many parks exist throughout Austin, Zilker Park (2100 Barton Springs Rd.) and the connecting Barton Springs Pool (2201 Barton Springs Rd.) get our kids’ votes. Located in the heart of the city, the park contains the free Austin Nature & Science Center on the north side with an interactive dinosaur pit for the diggers in the family. The center also features an interactive creek and houses native rescue animals. On the south side of the park, hop on the train and take a ride along Barton Creek and Lady Bird Lake. Then cool off at Barton Springs Pool. This unique 3-acre pool is fed from an underground spring and captures the essence of Austin – natural, original, outdoorsy, and fun! For hikers in the family, the Barton Hills Greenbelt connects over 12 miles of trails leading you alongside captivating creeks and amazing limestone bluffs.
KidTripster Tip: While traffic has improved somewhat with the addition of light rail and tolls over the years, getting to certain Austin locations can be a pain. Take advantage of the well-maintained local bus and light rail systems. Or if traveling by car, leave yourself plenty of time, especially during rush hour.
Thinkery (1830 Simond Ave.) is a recently-redesigned children’s museum that superbly illustrates the connection and interaction between science and art. In fact, I marveled at the engaging exhibits in every section of the museum that catered to my three sons’ different ages. Thinkery also offers a beautifully-designed, outdoor playground with an amazing water feature that kept my adventurous 2-year old captivated for hours.
Every year, over 800,000 bats call the South Congress Bridge home. My boys reveled in the stream of bats taking flight at dusk. Take a tour on the lake, concluding with the bats escaping one of the largest urban settlements in the world for their nightly feeding. Capital Cruises (208 Barton Springs Rd.) offers the best of these tours with great guides who will leave you doubled over in laughter with their local Austin trivia.
Where to eat?
Near Hyde Park in central Austin is the Triangle, a large playground and lawn buttressed by several kid-friendly restaurants. Our family choice is the Galaxy Cafe (4616 Triangle Ave., plus three other locations) with its varied menu offering plenty of healthy and gluten-free options. The commitment to natural, free-range, and hormone/antibiotic-free eggs and meat is out of this world! I recommend the grilled skirt steak with chimichurri sauce and the toasted tomato and prosciutto grilled chicken. My kids tend to get a bit rowdy at restaurants, but the helpful waiters fully attended to our needs.
KidTripster Tip: On Wednesdays, the local farmers market is open from 3 to 7 p.m., so stop by and pick up some fresh, Texas produce and fine, artisanal treats
With several locations throughout town, Hat Creek Burger Company offers fresh, succulent hamburgers and thin, crispy fries. The playground structures at each location are expertly-designed for kids and unique to each location. And don’t forget the milkshakes! My boys loved the Dirt Worm infested with gummy worms crawling out of the chocolate shake. Soothing craft beers also are available on tap from Strange Land Brewery.
With multiple locations, local favorite Kirbey Lane Cafe is far and away our favorite Austin breakfast spot. The Texas-style spin on traditional cafe fare makes this restaurant a standout. The seasonal menu included curiously-combined strawberry and jalapeño chicken and beignet pancakes that pleased my husband and I, while our kids tore into apple whole wheat and gingerbread pancakes, plus French toast.
KidTripster Tip: Kids eat free on Tuesdays (one free kid’s meal for each paying adult), so you may want to consider bringing Grandma, if you have more than two kids like me.
Every visit to the south is an opportunity to eat fried chicken. Lucy’s Chicken is the best that I think I’ve ever tasted. My oldest son dug into an impressive tower of chicken salad with chips, and we topped everything off with some decadent, homemade moon pies. The side dishes make their own case for the spotlight - from jalapeño cornbread muffins served with house-crafted tequila butter to an excellent take on classic mac and cheese. Lucy’s has four locations in Austin. Find one!
Where to stay?
With Austin’s burgeoning popularity comes traffic that is increasingly challenging, so getting the right location for your stay is key. Consider Marriott's Renaissance Austin Hotel (9721 Arboretum Blvd.). It’s a few minutes from downtown with many nearby parks and restaurants. We loved having Whole Foods, Costco, and Trader Joe’s right down the street to pick up snacks for outdoor trips. Plus, there are two small pools - one inside and one outside (seasonal). Rates start around $259/night.
KidTripster Tip: When planning your trip, be aware of the dates for South by Southwest (SXSW) and the Austin City Limits Festival (ACL). While these events can be a definite draw for families looking for an unique Austin experience, finding affordable accommodations will be challenging. These events essentially shut down large portions of the city with exponential increases in traffic.
KidTripster Tip: Austin shines year-round, but spring and fall deliver the spectacular type of weather that drives people outdoors. Summer brings heat that only native Texans can love, but it’s manageable with the refreshing oases located throughout the city.
If you’re looking for unique accommodations (treehouses!) in nearby Texas Hill Country, click here.
A former University of Texas alumnae, Carla Reed enjoys getting back to Austin with her kids to enjoy the city's splendor.