Austin, Texas, is not only the state capital, but also lays claim to being the live music hub of the world. Besides that, it’s the very proud owner of Formula 1’s Circuit of the Americans raceways. Not enough for you? It’s also home to the University of Texas and has surrounded itself with gorgeous parks and lakes where the city’s locals take great enjoyment in hiking, running, biking, swimming, boating and many other fun outdoor pursuits. And I haven’t even got around to mentioning the city’s interesting museums, shopping facilities and cultural pursuits yet, either! Let’s explore the best things to do in Austin.
1. State Capitol
The Texas State Capitol, recognized as a National Historic Landmark, is a remarkable building and one not to miss when visiting Austin. It would be hard not to see it physically, anyway, as the stunning red granite building shines brightly from its giant brass door hinges to the top of its amazing dome, which you can visit by climbing four flights of inlaid marble floor. There is a great gift shop and cafeteria to stop by at too. With 17 surrounding monuments to admire, together with wonderfully landscaped gardens and a great free guided tour to take advantage of in which the family can hear all about the history and stories of Texas from friendly, well informed guides, a visit here is a definite must-see!
2. Lady Bird Lake Hike-and Bike Trail
Amazingly, Lady Bird Lake is slap bang in the middle of this busy city but the natural surroundings have you feeling you’re far away somewhere else, way out in the countryside! Popular with runners, bikers and those just out for a leisurely stroll, it’s worth taking the family out for an afternoon here. Stroll around the waterfront with its many bridges that cross the calm waters, and even rent a boat if you’re so inclined. Dogs are welcome too. A lovely touch to the park is the memorial at the Auditorium Shores that honors the late bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan.
3. LBJ Presidential Library
The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum is one of 13 presidential libraries across the United States, and dedicated to his presidential influence. The library is a fascinating mix of the life and sometimes turbulent period of North America and how LBJ dealt with it, with three floors filled with exhibits that include an 11 minute film of his vision for the Great Society. A very interesting and fun interactive exhibit include the telephones which, when lifted, offer the voice of the President as he talks about various war room strategies and making decisions about the Vietnam war. There is also a very impressive replica of the Oval Office that will interest both adult and kids. Audio tour guides are also available at a very reasonable price.
4. Bullock Texas State History Museum
This well thought out museum has successfully fulfilled its mission to tell the “Story of Texas”. The museum has three floors of fabulous interactive exhibits, with each floor concentrating on different themes. As you enter the building you’re also treated to the sight of the hulk of the 1680’s ship La Belle having been pieced back together. The first floor concentrates on “land”, the second floor is themed “identity” and finally, the third floor being “opportunity”, showcasing cotton, ranching, sheep, rice and oil marketing. Of interest to the kids in particular, there is a wonderful special effects theater presentation that takes its viewers on an epic journey through the history of Texas. The museum also has an IMAX theater, seating 400 with both a 2-D and 3-D projector capability.
5. Barton Springs Pool
Barton Springs Pool is a man-made recreational swimming pool which is filled by water from Main Barton Springs, one of the largest springs in Texas. The Springs lie within 358 acres of Zilker Park and is particularly popular because of the Pool’s average temperature of 68- 70 degrees. Another one of its claim to fame is that this is where Robert Redford learned to swim when five years old! On a more serious note, The Springs are home to the endangered Barton Springs Salamander, the pool itself going through regular and vigorous cleaning methods required to maintain the pool area for both its abundant wildlife and regular (human) guests. There is no eating allowed inside the park but plenty of facilities close by. Back to nature, and a lovely day out for the whole family!
6. SoCo District
The SoCo District (full name South Congress) is an eclectic mix of boutiques, restaurants, antiques, galleries, music venues and just the weird and wonderful, really! Definitely worthy of a stroll down its colorful streets where you can enjoy dropping into one of the many delicious pizza and burger joints that line its avenues. It’s a great location for all the family; while mom can have fun searching through retro clothing bins or looking at the shoe displays in “Goodie Two Shoes”, dad can enjoy reminiscing through some old Vinyls! And the kids, meanwhile, can look at the hipster stores and crazy costumes of some of the locals. If you’re in the mood for something different to eat, stop by the little red food truck called “Hey, You Gonna Eat or What?” which specializes in what’s known as “airstream cuisine”.
7. Austin Steam Train Association
A fabulous venue for all the train lovers in the family, and especially the kids! The Austin Steam Train gives the opportunity for everyone to ride on a real vintage passenger train. The depot itself is located just 20 miles away in Cedar Park, and operates on the weekends throughout the year. It is actually staffed by volunteers, with refreshments available during the train trips that are served from the concession car. There are different themed entertainment trips offered throughout the year; for example, gunfighter Wild West shoot outs and other popular topics including a “Day out with Thomas the Tank Engine” and the “North Pole Flyer”. A magic day for the kids! Advanced booking is recommended due to its popularity.
8. Blazer Tag Adventure Center
For families wanting to burn off some energy and have fun at the same time, a visit to laser tag at Blazer Tag should do the trick! Blazer Tag is the largest entertainment center in Austin, situated in a former movie theater. The laser tag games are played inside a ten thousand foot arena, which is three stories high and filled with towers and ramps. The players are fitted with light weight vests and ‘phasers’ where they tag their opponents with visible laser lights, then score points. At the end of the game the computer generated scorecards are added up and the players can see their hit to shot ratio, rank, and who is the winning team! Blazer Tag also has a video game arcade, indoor ropes course and concessions.
9. Chaparral Ice Center
One way to have fun and keep cool at the same time is to take your kids ice skating, and the Chaparral Ice Center is the perfect location! This is a locally family owned and operated public rink which is open every day. If you’re not quite sure of your skating skills yet, the Center offer free ‘Learn to Skate’ classes on Saturdays at 12:00 noon for those 6 years and up. You will need to register by 11:45a.m. Skate rental is included too. Safety is of the ultimate and all skaters in the beginner Learn to Skate classes must wear a helmet during class, provided by the parent/skater. Beginner classes are Snowplow 1-2-3, Basic 1-2, and Adult 1-2. And don’t forget to dress warmly because it can get cold out there on the ice!
10. Dart Bowl
Dart Bowl is a retro style bowling center and café, and is looked on as being one of the most enjoyable things to do with kids since 1958! The bowling center has 32 lanes with a large range of bowling ball sizes, plus bowling shoes to rent. There is also bumper lane bowling provided for the youngsters, which means that in bumper lane bowling, the regular bowling lane gutters are covered so that the bowling ball stays in play all the way down the lane, not getting ‘lost’ in the gutter. Another reason for Dart Bowl’s popularity is its café, famed for serving delicious enchiladas topped with fried eggs.
11. Dinosaur Park
A short drive away in Cedar Creek (which is about 30 minutes east of downtown Austin) sits a Dinosaur Park that is ready to thrill and amaze your little ones! Take a walk through the park and meet all the dinosaurs, ranging in size from 2ft tall to one that is 85ft long! There is a fossil dig for the kids to excavate and find dinosaur treasures in the sand! This is great family fun and in particular for kids ranging in ages from four to ten years old. It’s a good idea to bring your own refreshments and make up your own picnic area as there are no food concessions available. However, there is a great dinosaur themed gift shop for the kids to look through!
12. Jourdan-Bachman Pioneer Farms
For a wonderful day out for all the family and a real look into how life was lived in the 1800s, visit the Jourdan-Bachman Pioneer Farms. Families will have a fascinating time learning all about the different types of farms found within the five historical sites that are spread over 90 acres. There is also an Indian encampment on the site! The kids can receive a thorough understanding by taking care of the resident animals, tend to the crops and even do some chores. There is also a carpentry shop demonstrating the skills required at the time as well as a working blacksmiths. See the costumed volunteers talking about life was lived on the Texas frontier. There are also special seasonal activities to enjoy like hayrides.
13. Kiddie Acres
Kiddie Acres is a small, old-fashioned amusement park featuring wonderful old time amusements like a Ferris wheel, a miniature train, colorful carousel rides and even an 18 hole miniature golf course. This family owned and operated amusement park mainly concentrates on fun for toddlers and young kids. Kiddie Acres has free admission though tickets have to be bought for the rides and activities and is open the whole year round. There are concessions available too to please the little ones like cotton candy and popcorn. Take your tots and enjoy some fun time at this national treasure!
14. Peter Pan Mini Golf
This is one of the best mini golf venues for both adults and kids! Popular with teens in particular, Peter Pan’s 36 holes are divided into two courses; the 15 foot Peter Pan and the 20 foot T. Rex featuring holes with all different, fun obstacles or characters to get through! In fact, many of these fiberglass objects have been on the course since it was first built in 1948 but recently there have been some new interesting paint designs added. Very popular with locals, this lovely golf course is situated at the top of Zilker Park Hill, and is a really lovely area to enjoy some fun time with all the family. Another reason for its popularity is the fact that it conveniently stays open late at night, too.
15. Thinkery Austin Children’s Museum
The Thinkery is a museum whose mission is to help kids learn to think by using hands on exhibits. Originally named the Austin Children’s Museum, the museum is really popular for families with kids because of all the different activities on offer that will interest every child from infant age to 11 years old. Conveniently, there are also special play areas for babies and toddlers. Your kids can create music with water, draw with lasers and sculpt with magnetic fluid as well as having fun learning from both permanent and traveling exhibits. There are also special events and workshops available and snacks to eat here too, though it’s okay to bring your own as well.
16. Texas Memorial Museum
This thought provoking museum has so much to see and explore, the whole family is bound to take something really useful away with them after their visit. Exhibits include fossils, dinosaurs, some Texas wildlife as well as gems and minerals. The Memorial Museum also has a working Paleontology Lab in which visitors can ask questions to the scientists working with real fossils. Some of the fossils include a flying dinosaur with a wingspan of nearly 40ft as well as a 30ft swimming dinosaur! The building is worth a visit as well, if only to admire its gorgeous art deco design which was built in the 1930’s. There is also a great gift shop with lots of interesting, fun gifts for kids.
17. Zilker Botanical Garden
Besides the Golf Course at the top of the hill, Zilker Botanical Garden itself has 26 acres of incredible topography especially constructed to display the different habitats of many native, hybrid and exotic plants. It is an incredibly popular attraction; welcoming over 300,000 people annually from all over the United States as well as delighting overseas visitors who travel from over 100 different countries, coming to visit these amazing grounds with their choice of many themed gardens like the stunning Mabel Davis Rose Garden, pungent Herb and Fragrance Garden, Isamu Taniguchi Japanese Garden, Children’s Garden and so much more. There are also gardening tips and resources, and historical and architectural features to explore.
18. Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center
The Center was built with the specific mission to inspire people to develop a lifelong practice of protecting nature, and through their education programs on their beautiful 75 acre preserve; they have been doing a great job! It’s a wonderful place to visit with your kids and you can certainly learn a lot. The hike will take you along a forest trail down some steps to a creek bed with a lovely waterfall, surprisingly big cave area (complete with stalactites & stalagmites) and a marvelous collection of old cypress trees and ferns. Though the hikes are not strenuous it’s best to wear appropriate shoes as the walk down can be a little steep. You will be in good hands all the time with the guides, who lead the way, constantly checking for poison ivy and snakes.
19. Main Event Entertainment
This venue is a kids’ paradise! With billiards, bowling, laser tag and arcade plus rock climbing for those with varied abilities, glow in the dark miniature golf and video games to play, kids visiting here really are spoilt for choice. Of course, not every child will have the time (or funds) to take on everything, but it certainly adds up to a fun day whatever they choose to get involved with! Also there are some very decent refreshments to be had, and all at a reasonable price.
20. Big Top Candy Shop
Treat your family to a trip down candy memory lane here at Big Top Candy Shop! This deliciously colorful candy store featuring old fashioned confection and a soda fountain with Blue Bell ice cream and various drinks is just the ticket to quench the family thirst on a hot Texas day. Big Top has more than 300 varieties of bulk candy, and more than 2,000 kinds of wrapped candy! You’ll find all of your Willy Wonka favorites, bins of fresh salt water taffy, and lots of old time and new candy. And don’t miss out on the chocolate varieties either; from dark chocolate sea salt caramels to a large range of both local and foreign chocs, there really is something here to satisfy every sweet tooth.
21. Double Decker Austin Tours
This is a great way to learn all about this great city, and from a great unobstructed view, too! The Double Decker Austin – Hop On Hop Off Double Decker Sightseeing Tours gives you the freedom to jump on and off when you see a place that takes your fancy and want to explore further. The tour guides really know their stuff and keep you interested and amused with stories and information about this great city. The tickets are valid for the whole day so you can take your time. Perhaps you’ve seen somewhere that you and the family want to stop for lunch? Easy! Drop into the restaurant, enjoy your meal and hop onto the bus again when it comes around once more. A perfect sight seeing day out!
22. Museum of The Weird
Not your usual tourist attraction but great fun nevertheless! The museum has a fascinating collection of monsters and freaky bits and pieces; everything from a rather unusual looking stuffed Cyclops pig to a fascinating frozen cave man. But the stars of the show have to be what you’ll see in the side show, from mythical fiji mermaids, elephant man, jackalopes and a rotating group of performers include jugglers. Star of the show has to be Saul, the museum’s resident paranormal who will himself guide you through the history of the building along with some fascinating stories of the city itself, ending with an impressive display of his skills.
23. Violet Crown Cinema
Sometimes we all need to treat ourselves to a little luxury and, with a visit to the Violet Crown Cinema, you’re definitely on the right track for a family evening of comfortable entertainment! This locally owned and operated four screen cinema specializes in documentaries, independent, art and international films. And for the luxury bit, you can even print out your ticket online at home and just produce it when you arrive. The theater itself has really nice comfortable seats and is small enough for every seat to be a good one. You can even take food and drink into the auditorium with you, where fold out tables on which to put your food and drink is attached to each seat. If you’re still hungry, you can also order food and drink while watching the movie! The waiter will quietly come by and serve your refreshments.
24. Wild About Music
This fabulous store is everything music, literally! Every item at this funky gift and art store is music themed, including clothes, jewelry and decorations. Featuring over 4000 sq ft of four levels of accessories such as guitar straps, decors, prints, T-shirts, gifts and collectibles, it really is a music lovers dream! The shop also stocks musical instruments including guitars, oboes, drums and even accordions and ukuleles. In business since 1995, it’s worth popping in just to have a look around and have a chat with the very friendly and knowledgeable staff.
25. Graffiti Park
A really unusual venue that at the same time opens the door to the ‘real’ Austin! One of the biggest graffiti walls in Austin, Graffiti Park really helps showcase what this great city is all about, and displays its character and lively charm in colorful images! The view from the park looks out over Austin and is great for photo opportunities, by the way. The area is also known as Hope Outdoor Gallery and there are normally plenty of artists around to have a chat with. Some of the works of art on display are truly remarkable! Make sure you and the kids are wearing comfortable shoes to enable an easy climb if you feel like scaling some of steep areas.