Know Before You Go
Austin is a very kid-friendly town with lots of outdoor activities as well as some fun museums and a gigantic university campus. It is a city of many festivals, and chances are good that something will be going on when you visit. If you happen to be in Austin during one of the biggies—Austin City Limits Music Festival or SXSW—you’ll find a very crowded but lively central core with plenty of fun geared toward (or at least reasonably appropriate for) families.
Logistics and Transportation
Most of Austin’s main family-friendly attractions are located near the University of Texas, downtown and just south of Lady Bird Lake. The distance from UT to the lake is around three miles, so if you stay near one of these areas, you could use the Capitol Metro bus system or even bike to many places if your family is active. Otherwise, you will need a rental car or plan to take taxis or Uber around town.
- Austin is a very casual town, and pretty much anything goes. For many local moms, “dressing up” means exchanging flip flops for flat sandals with straps.
- Comfortable shoes for walking
- Stroller for wandering around town
- Because summer starts in late April and goes through the end of September, it is often hot, so pack plenty of shorts, a swimsuit and sunscreen. Bring snow cone money.
- There is an ever-growing number of hotels in the downtown/South Austin area, and you’ll have options with chains including Omni, Doubletree, JW Marriott, Four Seasons and Hampton Inn, as well as boutique places like Hotel Ella near the university. Any downtown hotel would be walking distance to the Lady Bird Lake hike-and bike trail.
If you want to splurge on a local treasure, the Hotel San Jose on South Congress is a real treat, and kids will enjoy the tiny but perfect pool. If you are more interested in renting a house or apartment, definitely consider Airbnb. Because of the festival scene, Austin has an extraordinary number of rentals in prime spots all over town, including the super-hip area just east of downtown.
Food and Drink
While Austin’s food scene is definitely “maturing” and there are some truly awesome restaurants, there is plenty of basic fare for kids and parents to love. Tip: If reservations are possible, make one! Otherwise, you’ll have a long wait or leave hungry.
- Food trucks: Look left or right and you’ll probably see a food truck park. These are great, because you can get a lobster roll while your kid has (another) burger.
- Breakfast and Coffee: Jo’s Coffee at 1300 South Congress Ave. is great for coffee, pastries, people watching, and perusing their awesome bulletin board. If you’re staying near UT, check out Quackenbush’s at 411 E. 43rd. It’s been around since you were a kid. If you’re more in the mood for migas or huevos rancheros, Julio’s is right next door to Quack’s at 4230 Duval. It’s old school and delicioso.
- Tacos: There are literally too many amazing taco places to mention, so I recommend you start with Mando Rayo’s awesome and exhaustive blog, Taco Journalism. Among my favorites are Curra’s and Taco Deli. I’ve never met a kid who didn’t love Torchy’s, and there are locations all over town.
- Brunch, lunch and dinner: For a more upscale but kid-friendly meal on an awesome patio, try Contigo in east Austin. ABGB at 1305 W. Oltorf offers the trifecta of live (early) music, cold beer and terrific pizza, salads and sandwiches—all in a very kid-friendly setting with lots of outdoor tables. Enoteca on South Congress has really fabulous, reasonably priced Italian food and an awesome kid’s menu, including a gluten-free pasta option. You can wander around SoCo before or after your meal, with promises of a stop at Big Top Candy Shop just up the block. If you happen to be there on the first Thursday of the month, all the better.
- Barton Springs and Zilker Park— Located in Zilker Park, Barton Springs is a beautiful and very cold natural spring, and a great place to splash around and get in some people watching. Bring goggles so the kids can look for fish and turtles. Just outside the gates to the spring, there’s a little train that loops through the park, a huge play scape and the best lemonade on the planet. Free entry until 8:00am. If you come on a summer day, expect a full parking lot. Don’t forget your hacky sack.
- Lady Bird Lake—Rent a canoe or kayak with little ones or a stand-up paddleboard with bigger kids. There are several rental places along the lake, and there happens to be a snow cone stand at The Rowing Dock. The lake trail is also a great place to ride bikes or just wander around.
- The University of Texas—It’s fun to wander around this sprawling campus, and there are many varied activities on a daily basis. The Blanton Museum always pulls together cool exhibits from its astounding collection, and it’s worth checking out on a hot or rainy day.
- If you’re into history or Texana, you might check out the Bullock Texas State History Museum (they always have some cool kid-centric exhibits) in combination with a tour of the Texas Capitol building just a few blocks up the road. If your kids get a tiny bit bored in the rotunda, they can always climb on the cannons out front!
- Barton Creek Greenbelt—This 7.2 mile trail wanders from Barton Springs, through south Austin and turns west. It’s a fabulous place to climb on rocks, look for frogs and experience a taste of the wild in the middle of town. If you’re lucky, the creek will be full and flowing, but odds are good during the current drought that the creek bed will be dry. There are multiple entrances along the trail, but the easiest to find is right at Barton Springs. Bring plenty of water and snacks, and wear comfy shoes.
- Blue Hole—This pretty park an hour’s drive away in Wimberley is the best watering hole around for kids who can swim reasonably well. Bring a picnic and blanket.
- Other local places kids love: BookPeople, The Thinkery, Terra Toys, Toy Joy, Amy’s Ice Cream, P. Terry’s Burger Stand, Mayfield Park, the rooftop of Whole Foods on 5th Street, the playground at Central Market and Alamo Draft House.
Jill Coody Smits is the author of Paris When It Giggles: A Realistic Travel Guide for Adventurous Parents, as well as the writer of many articles, blog posts, op-eds and essays. Her work has appeared in Psychology Today, Southwest Airlines’ Spirit Magazine, Southern Living, The Washington Post, CNN.com, GivingCity and many other publications. She’s currently researching the second destination to be featured in the “Realistic Travel Guide for Adventurous Parents” series (It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it). She lives in Austin with her husband, daughter and two four-footed sons.