Planning a family trip to Austin? Read on to learn more about city and the best things to do when you visit Austin with kids. For my full list of family travel guides, click/tap here.
Austin may not be the biggest city in Texas (despite its population of nearly 1 million, it only comes in 4th!) but few will quibble that this capital city is the coolest. Since its founding in 1839, Austin has attracted a stimulating combination of cowboys, lawmakers, students, academics, musicians, techies, hipsters, and more. Today, the catchphrase “Keep Austin Weird” exemplifies local efforts to maintain Austin’s unique culture amid booming growth.
Your family can soak up this eclectic vibe while visiting big-city attractions, feasting on delicious food, enjoying live music, and taking advantage of the many opportunities for outdoor recreation.
EXPLORE THE CITY
The Capitol Building
Situated between the city’s skyscrapers to the south and The University of Texas at Austin to the north, the Texas State Capitol stands out for both its distinctive pink color (from Texas-sourced sunset red granite) and its enormous dome (larger than the US Capitol Building, y’all). Once inside, be sure to notice the floor of the rotunda, which features the seals of the six countries that have governed Texas. You can walk through the public areas of the building on your own, but 30-minute guided tours are also available. Families will appreciate the Capitol’s spacious grounds, perfect for picnicking with wiggly kids.
South Congress Avenue — Congress Avenue travels south from the Capitol Building and crosses Lady Bird Lake, after which it becomes “South Congress,” Austin’s quirky/cool epicenter. Pick up a slice of pizza at Home Slice or one of the many food trucks and browse through some of the locally-owned stores, from Allen’s Boots (cowboy boots galore!) to Uncommon Objects, which calls itself “an emporium of transcendent junk.” [Note: If you need to reward/bribe your kids to shop with you, stop in at Big Top Candy, where you can load up on bulk candy…by the bucket.]
Congress Avenue Bridge Bats — On summer nights just after sunset, you can watch up to 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats fly out from under the bridge–an awesome and slightly creepy sight that can last over a half hour.
6th Street — Austin’s most famous party street may not be suitable for families at night, but by day you can check out the facades of the many bars and live music venues (as well as the historical–and possibly haunted?–Driskill Hotel) before stopping in at Voodoo Donuts. To the west, 6th Street is the home of Whole Foods‘ flagship store (with rooftop playground) as well as beloved independent stores Waterloo Records and Book People.
TAKE A BREAK
Lady Bird Lake
Lady Bird Lake is actually a dammed portion of the Colorado River. Though it’s not as big as other dammed lakes to the west (known collectively as the “Highland Lakes”), its central location makes it a great stop for visitors. To best experience the lake, you can:
Walk on the Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail. I never love Austin more than when I’m walking or running on this trail, which extends 10 miles to circle the lake. It offers wonderful views of the city as well as excellent people-watching. Some highlights of the trail include the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge, the recently completed Boardwalk Trail (built over the lake), and the sections at Zilker Park and Vic Mathias Shores. To the delight of kids, turtles and ducks are abundant.
Go Boating. From tour boats and duck boats to kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddleboards, there are many ways to get out on the water. For boat rentals, visit the Texas Rowing Center or Zilker Park Boat Rentals. For tour boats, check out Capital Cruises, Lone Star Riverboat, or Austin Duck Adventures.
Zilker Park, which stretches along the southwest side of Lady Bird Lake, serves as Austin’s backyard. Besides relaxing on its grassy fields or exploring the playground, you can also visit:
Barton Springs Pool — Sometimes called the “soul” of Austin, the beautiful Barton Springs Pool is a 3-acre, spring-fed swimming hole that’s open all year. The shallow side of the pool, where swimmers can use flotation devices, is a great place for families to hang out (though the natural rock floor can be slippery).
Near sunset at Barton Springs Pool. Photo credit: Jennifer Hatch
Zilker Zephyr — What big city park is complete without a train? The Zilker Zephyr provides a tour of the park with excellent views of Lady Bird Lake and the downtown skyline.
Austin Nature Center — Among the attractions at this low-key but enjoyable nature center are rescue animals (including a bobcat, a porcupine, and numerous birds of prey), hiking trails, and a Dino Pit–aka a huge sand play area with faux dinosaur bones waiting to be unearthed.
Austin Botanical Gardens — In good weather, the gardens offer a lovely and peaceful respite from the city. We particularly enjoy visiting the Japanese Garden (lots of rock bridges to cross) and the Rose Garden. During the summer months, the gardens host a woodland trail filled with fairy houses.
Barton Creek Greenbelt
This nearly 8-mile trail and adjacent wilderness area follows Barton Creek to Zilker Park, where the creek flows into Lady Bird Lake. The rocky trail feels surprisingly remote despite being nestled in the heart the city. You can access the trail at Zilker Park or from one of a number of other trailheads (including Gaines Creek, which is close to the extremely popular swimming holes at Twin Falls and Sculpture Falls). Our family enjoys the Spyglass entrance so we can stop for breakfast tacos at Tacodeli before we hike and play in the water.
Barton Creek Greenbelt. Photo credit: Jennifer Hatch
OK, it’s not really a mountain, but the highest point in Austin does require climbing lots of steps and it offers panoramic views of downtown Austin and the gorgeous Hill Country to the west. It’s a great way for newcomers to get a feel for Austin’s layout.
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Established in 1982 in southwest Austin, the Wildflower Center is a research and education center as well as a recreational destination–particularly since the Luci and Ian Family Garden opened in 2014. Families will enjoy the family garden’s nature play areas as well as hiking trails, a castle-like tower, and the large collection of rope swings under a grove of trees.
ENTERTAIN THE KIDS
Austin’s children museum is located in the Mueller Park neighborhood northeast of downtown. Though it’s not particularly large, it makes the most of its space with largely STEAM-focused activities. My kids love the outdoor play area, the Innovator’s Workshop, and the Spark Shop (where they can launch model airplanes).
If a swim in Barton Springs Pool isn’t enough–and if you’re traveling to Austin in the summer, it probably isn’t–consider visiting Deep Eddy, the oldest swimming pool in Texas. It’s spring-fed and has a zero-entry side that’s perfect for young children.
Austin is a paradise for food-lovers of all kinds. While I can’t begin to cover all the worthy restaurants, here are some to consider:
As far as I’m concerned, the best Tex-Mex in the world can be found in Austin (I may be biased). You can’t go wrong at Chuy’s (my favorite salsa), Torchy’s Tacos (best queso ever), or Tacodeli. Be sure to pick up some of the breakfast tacos for which Austin is particularly renowned. For more Mex, less Tex, try restaurants like Matt’s El Rancho and Juan in a Million.
Like all of Texas, Austin loves its barbecue (that might be an understatement). The most famous BBQ pit in Austin is Franklin Barbecue, but families with young children may not enjoy its hours-long line. If you can travel outside the city, consider visiting The Salt Lick, which has a playground and is nearly as famous as Franklin. If you want to remain in Austin, consider Rudy’s Country Store & Bar-B-Q, La Barbecue, or Terry Black’s BBQ.
Food trucks are popular around the U.S. but they’ve achieved special fame in Austin. Check out www.foodtrailersaustin.com for food truck locations around the city. Families will appreciate food truck parks, where numerous trucks gathered together offer family members a variety of options (especially important for picky eaters) and shaded seating. A few favorites are:
South Austin Trailer Park & Eatery, found in funky South Austin (near South Congress); it features the much-loved Torchy’s Tacos and Holy Cacao (famous for frozen hot chocolate).
The Picnic, conveniently located just east of Zilker Park; it hosts popular trucks like Kebabalicious, The Mighty Cone, and Cannone.
The Midway Food Park, located a little ways outside downtown; it offers a playground and live music.
Treat Yourself/Cool Off
Besides the Holy Cacao food truck mentioned above, you can also find sweet relief at popular dessert venues such as Amy’s Ice Cream, Gordough’s Donuts, Hey Cupcake!, or one of the many shaved ice food trucks.
As the “Live Music Capital of the World,” Austin has an abundance of live music venues–but most are not suitable for younger children. Free Fun in Austin has a great guide to places where kids will be welcome. For information about all live music events, visit The Austin Chronicle.
The University of Texas at Austin’s sprawling campus offers families a number of places to explore, including the:
Main Mall and UT Tower
Lyndon Baines Johnson Museum and Library (LBJ’s presidential library)
Blanton Museum of Art
Texas Memorial Museum (a natural history museum)
At the Bullock Texas State History Museum across from UT’s campus, you can immerse yourself in all things Texas.
Austin’s street art scene is a growing tourist attraction, and now even out-of-towners may recognize murals such as “Greetings from Austin” and “I Love You So Much.” To find the locations of these murals and more, check out Free Fun in Austin’s fabulous guide.
Photo credit: Jennifer Hatch
GET OUT OF TOWN
Hamilton Pool. Located on the western edge of Austin’s suburbs, Hamilton Pool is one of the most beautiful swimming holes in Texas. The pool lies partially underneath a collapsed grotto, and the blue-green water is open for swimming as long as bacteria counts aren’t too high.
Lake Travis. The biggest of the Highland Lakes is a local hotspot for swimming and boating. The restaurant The Oasis offers fabulous views of the lake and families of older kids may enjoy Lake Travis Zipline Adventures.
Fredericksburg. Rich in German heritage, Fredericksburg stands out among the many picturesque towns scattered throughout Hill Country. Visitors can enjoy shopping on Main Street, visiting the National Museum of the Pacific War, and eating at one of the many German bakeries and restaurants. Fredericksburg is also a short ride away from Enchanted Rock State Natural Area.
Wimberly. Wimberly is a favorite stop for families thanks to its charming shopping district and the popular Blue Hole and Jacob’s Well swimming holes.
Since it’s less than two hours south of Austin, you can visit San Antonio for a long day trip or overnight trip.
KEEP IN MIND
Austin can be enjoyed year-round, but during the summer months (particularly July-September) the weather can be extremely hot. Besides water activities, it’s hard to enjoy the outdoors.
Spring months offer comfortable temperatures and beautiful wildflowers, but be sure to take medicine if you suffer from seasonal allergies.