Austin has always been the liberal heart of Texas, the seat of government and a verdant municipality intersected by the Colorado River. Over the past two decades it’s transformed into a buzzing base for technology companies, an allure for East and West Coast society, the site of inventive food, the home to mega-conference SXSW and one of the coolest cities in the U.S.
The popular slogan “Keep Austin Weird” demonstrates how hard the city’s trying to cling to its laid-back, hippie roots. Here, a must-do list for families that embraces the old ways while taking advantage of the new style.
Explore the Austin vibe
Mix the weird and wonderful with artistic and artisan, and don’t forget a bit retail therapy.
Climb into urban art at Hope Outdoor Gallery
This outdoor educational art gallery provides muralists and graffiti artists a space to create and display work. Scramble up the hill and clamber over the cement structure to explore the ever-changing lineup of art. You might even get lucky and see some artists at work.
TIP: Wear sturdy shoes, supervise your kids (no railings or safety warnings) and stop to enjoy the view once you’ve reached to the very top.
Stroll South Congress
SoCo, as they call it, is a fun, funky stretch of restaurants, shops, hotels and vintage and art boutiques, about a 5-minute drive across the river from downtown Congress Avenue. Development here has exploded over the past decade but you’ll still find the legendary live-music venue the Continental Club. Stay the retro Austin Motel, quirky Hotel San Jose or chic Hotel St. Cecilia.
TIP: People watch on one of the restaurant patios under fans and misters (I like Guero’s Taco Bar or Perla’s) or duck into the candy shop Big Top Candy Shop https://www.facebook.com/bigtopcandyshop for weird and wonderful confections (Sour Farts Candy, anyone?).
Play Peter Pan Mini-Golf
This goofy miniature golf course right off Barton Springs Road has had the same statue of Peter Pan out front for decades – it opened in 1948. Play one or both of the compact 18-hole courses and tot up who can get the most holes in one. Inevitably we end up here on a sweltering afternoon, which makes buying a snow cone when turning in our clubs that much more of a treat.
TIP: Bring a hat and suncream and don’t touch the sizzling metal scorecard podiums in high summer!
Clothes shopping in Texas is affordable, with pound-for-dollar prices. Add to that the pleasant shop and mall environments, the demand created by sophisticated moneyed locals and the brands we can’t get in the UK and even the most stalwart anti-shopper will enjoy it. Head north to The Domain, where you park in a shaded lot and stoll the town-square type layout. My don’t-misses there: Anthropologie, Cole Haan shoes, J.Crew, Vans, Lilly Pulitzer, BCBG Max Azria, Coach, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and Tory Burch.
TIP: Change money in the UK and pay in cash to avoid those irritating credit card transaction fees and weak exchange rates.
Watch Formula 1 racing
The Circuit of the Americas is home to Formula 1, MotoGP and X Games as well as concerts by the likes of Elton John in the Austin360 Amphitheater. Even when racing’s not on, you can go on a tour, taking in the facility from the 25-story Observation Tower.
Listen to live music
Austin bills itself as the live music capital of the world, and you don’t want to miss out. There are plenty of opportunities to expose kids to the array of artists here, and it’s not just about country & western. You’ll find everything from acoustic to zydeco.
TIP: Pick up the free alternative weekly The Austin Chronicle (you’ll see racks in bookshops, grocery stores, restaurants and music shops) for complete listings and inspiration.
Explore the heritage
At one time or another, Texas has been part France, Mexico, Spain, the Confederacy and the United States as well as being its own republic. There’s loads of colourful, multicultural history to get to know.
Visit the Capitol Building
The Texas State Capitol is taller than the United State Capitol in Washington, D.C. and make no mistake: Texans brag about it. It’s also a beautiful red granite Renaissance Revival building with a dramatic rotunda and 22 acres of grounds. Free guided tours daily.
Explore the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum
When I was in secondary school, we spent an entire year studying Texas history, the same amount we spent on world history. This is perfect place to get to know the ins and outs of the state that was once its own country. It’s kid-friendly, has an IMAX cinema and special exhibitions.
TIP: Check out the First Free Sundays, festival days, high noon talks on the first Wednesday of every month and other special programming in the museum’s varied calendar.
See the bats
Visit the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge to watch the world’s largest urban bat colony exit their perch and swoop up into the sky on their nightly feeding session. These 1.5 million Mexican free-tail bats are a sight to behold and not to be missed.
TIP: If you stand on the bridge itself, you might miss the full effect. Head to the park on the south side of the bridge for the best view.
Stroll the UT campus
The University of Texas at Austin is the jewel in the crown of the UT system and a respected research institution, which includes campuses across the state. More than 51,000 students attend (Jester, the largest dormitory on campus, used to have its own ZIP code) and its scale and style are unlike anything we have in the UK. Go for a guided tour or check out aspects of student life with the public events. We attended a star party on top of one of the astronomy buildings and got a brilliant look at Saturn and its rings through a high-powered telescope.
TIP: The tours of the LBJ Presidential Library are interactive and fun, shedding light on this complex and colourful Texan who became US president.
Big portions, innovative cuisine and a buzzing food scene make eating in Austin a delicious experience.
Go on a barbecue outing
Don’t just eat barbecue. Go on a pilgrimage to one of the lofty celebrated destinations for the good stuff. Queue in Austin starting at 8am for Franklin Barbecue (read about our experience), drive 45 minutes to Taylor to eat at Louie Mueller Barbecue, or head half an hour south to Lockhart, where Kreuz Market, Smitty’s Market and Black’s Barbecue serve famed smoked meats. Or if it’s Saturday, do what we did and head to Lexington at 8am to eat barbecue in the morning at Snow’s BBQ (here’s what we liked). It’ s no joke: They’ll be sold out by noon.
TIP: Make an outing of it to any of these places, allowing yourself time to queue and dig into pounds of brisket, ribs and sausage.
Eat at Chuy’s
Our kids adore this funky, affordable Tex-Mex restaurant…and we happily agree. Chuy’s (pronounced “chewies”) is an Austin original, started as a modest eatery with a gaudy Elvis theme in Austin in the ‘80s. Now it’s spread across a slew of southwestern states, all with the same aesthetic as well as burritos as “big as your face”, dreamy queso compuesto (queso topped with scoops of meat and guacamole) and a never-empty tortilla chip basket. Our family favourites: Fajitas for 2 that arrive sizzling on a cast-iron skillet, any enchiladas, and the macaroni cheese from the kids menu. Any location is reliable; visit the Barton Springs Road location to eat where it all began.
TIP: Order the Texas martini, a rocks margarita that comes in a shaker and has a real kick. During happy hour, free chips, salsa and queso are served in the bar, from the back end of a classic ‘50s car.
Chow down on hamburgers
Good burgers are happening everywhere these days. In a state known for its cattle ranching, consuming them can be a religious experience. Compared with our British versions the patties are thinner and they’re frequently piled high with regional ingredients like chili peppers, pickles, pepper jack or American cheese and super-fresh tomatoes and lettuce. Some of our favourite purveyors: Hop Doddy, Waterloo Ice House and, erm, the drive-thru fast food version from Sonic Drive-Thru (hey, sometimes you need a quick fix).
TIP: Expect Texas-sized portions. Consider sharing an order of fries or even splitting burgers.
Spoon up some ice cream
Ice cream in Austin goes way beyond plain vanilla. Scoop up flavours like horchata or fromage & fig as well as vegan versions at Lick Honest Ice Creams (thanks to my BritMums cofounder Susanna for turning me on to them). Dig into custom ice cream sandwiches and Dr Pepper cherry sauce at some of these new places. Austin institution Amy’s Ice Creams is our kids’ firm favourite. You can get crush-ins and sprinkles and watch the jolly servers toss the ice cream around. Plus, you gotta love specialty combinations like “I’m so sad, so very very sad” — aka dark chocolate ice cream, chocolate chunks, marshmallows and a little fudge. You’ll know when to order that one.
TIP: Stuck on vanilla? Look for the intense Mexican vanilla flavour. At hip new joints, expect to queue.
Go for a dip
Austin’s hot climate makes a cool swim an imperative part of a visit here, especially when the sun is a golden ball in the sky and the light glints off the water like diamonds.
Jump into a pool
Our kids’ favourite thing is to take advantage of the clean, clear and relatively uncrowded outdoor swimming pools here. In North Austin, Anderson Mill pool has lanes, a water basketball net and low and high diving boards. The nearby El Salido pool has that as well as a water play area for younger kids. Entry fees are modest and you rarely have to worry about being rained out.
TIP: Book a springboard diving lesson. We loved our one-hour family lesson, which improved our dives and confidence.
Visit Barton Springs
It’s not illegal to go to Austin and miss out on a dip in this outdoor spring-feed pool, but it should be. Austinites are evangelical about this pool. The water is cold, the bottom is mossy, the banks play host to old-style Austin characters (we watched a wiry elderly man in Speedos unself-consciously practice complex yoga inversions).
TIP: Go on a hot day so you can warm up between jumps off the diving board. Did I mention that it’s cold?
Venture to a swimming hole
Take a drive to plunge into popular swimming holes. My friend Katy raves about Blue Hole, Krause Springs offers natural spring-fed swimming and onsite camping, McKinney Falls State Park features the drama of miniature waterfalls. (And if you fancy leaving the kids at home, you can visit Hippie Hollow, the adults-only clothing-optional area of Lake Travis.)
TIP: If your or your kids don’t like the feel of things squishy under your toes, consider packing water socks or sport sandals. Check water levels before you jump in the car — very low or very high levels can close some swimming holes.
Tube down the river
In nearby New Braunfels, you hire an inner tube, jump in at water’s edge and leisurely float down the Comal or Guadalupe rivers, with a shuttle to return you to your car. The river depth is modest, with a few “exciting” bits where it flows a bit faster. Trips can range from 1 to 4 hours and you’ll want to bring hats, sunscreen and water. “River sandals” or other sport sandals are a good idea as the river bed can be uneven and rocky.
TIP: It’s legal to drink alcohol while tubing. Groups of university students often bring coolers, sometimes even renting a tube to carry the beverages. Go earlier in the day for a less “party”/more family atmosphere. No glass or Styrofoam is allowed.
Whether outside or in, getting active in Austin takes advantage of spectacular scenery and novel experiences you can’t get in the UK.
Visit Zilker Park
This downtown park is a hub of activity and a great place to visit with kids of any ages. Walk through the Botanical Gardens, climb aboard the miniature Zilker Zephyr train for a 25-minute tour of the park, play Ultimate Frisbee (Frisbee mini-golf), cycle round one of the trails, the Hillside Theatre hosts concerts and performances, contemplate the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum or picnic under the trees. Barton Springs is also here.
TIP: There’s a fee for parking and space is almost always tight. If going with friends, carpool and expect to walk a ways to your destination.
Paddleboard and kayak on Lady Bird Lake
We love going downtown to this stretch of the Colorado River that runs through the middle of Austin. We’ve never had a problem just walking up and renting kayaks and standup paddleboards for an hourlong stint on the lake. Admire the sunning turtles or stop in the shadow of the bridges and swim. Life vests are provided.
TIP: You’ll get wet where you jump in or not. Wear a swimsuit and bring a change of clothes.
Bounce at Jump Street
It’s off the beaten tourist trail but great active fun for kids while you watch in air-conditioned comfort with free wifi. The American trampoline park is the ne plus ultra of jump. There are long trampolines that stretch 100 feet or so (instead of individual regular-sized ones), dodge ball games organised by staff, a smaller-scale jump area for younger kids and more. Our favourite location, Lakeline Mall in North Austin (technically Cedar Park), recently introduced a massive air pillow and tall pillars to climb while strapped into a harness.
TIP: Time your visit to take advantage of weekly special rates, such as reduced prices or 2-hour sessions for the price of one. There are teen nights too.
Climb Mount Bonnell
The manageable walk up this hill on Lake Austin (part of the Colorado River) leads to a picturesque lookout point. Sunrise and sunset are particularly striking. There are a lot of steps, so expect to some exercise.
TIP: Pack a picnic basket and have a bite at the summit.
What appeals to you for your visit to Austin or what did you love from your last trip?