Andy Rhodes, author of the travel guide, Moon Texas, shares some great affordable family activities in Austin, TX.
Austin is a fun place to play and explore any time of the year, but things really heat up (literally and figuratively) in the summer months, when families flock to parks, museums, and public facilities in search of recreation and respite. Here are several kid-oriented ideas for travelers and locals in search of affordable and entertaining summertime destinations, all within a few miles of downtown.
Zilker Park — Located just west of downtown along Lady Bird Lake, Zilker Park is a sprawling urban oasis with a popular spring-fed pool, miniature train, botanical gardens, and nature center. The venerable Barton Springs Pool provides welcome relief from Austin’s occasional triple-digit temperatures with a revitalizing 68-degree natural flow of fresh water. After your refreshing dip, hop aboard the adjacent Zilker Zephyr, a small open-air train that draws hordes of choo-choo-lovin’ children and their parents for a several-mile trek along Lady Bird Lake and through the park. Nearby, a massive playscape and old-time fire truck provide additional activity to round out the day and virtually assure a future stretch of solid sleep.
The park’s northern section contains several other family-friendly attractions, including the welcoming shade-filled Zilker Botanical Gardens (kids love the Taniguchi Oriental Garden’s massive orange carp and cool green bamboo), and the Austin Nature and Science Center, offering up-close views of Austin-area wildlife (bobcats, owls, raccoons, and reptiles to name a few), a sand-filled dinosaur digging pit, science activities/exhibits, and several short nature trails.
University of Texas — The students milling around here are much older than elementary school kids, but they still smile sweetly at the little ones who romp around the picturesque tree-packed campus en route to see dinosaur fossils and interactive art exhibits at the university’s respected museums. The most kid-friendly destination is the Texas Natural Science Center’s Texas Memorial Museum. Though it’s a bit old-school in approach (heavy on the dioramas and fossils, light on interactive interpretation), it contains essential items for family entertainment; namely, displays dedicated to dinosaurs, meteorites, prehistoric mammals, and gemstones. Admission is free.
Just down the street is the Blanton Museum of Art, which isn’t quite as kid-oriented, but offers several attractions that children will enjoy. Most engaging is the outdoor exhibit consisting of thousands of dangling yellow synthetic strands, providing a small yet surreal area for kids and adults to gleefully glide through the cascading cords. Inside, the Blanton features thousands of works of art representing styles from contemporary Latin America to ancient Europe. An upstairs children’s area is filled with books, computers, toys, and comfy furniture. The Blanton offers free admission on Thursdays.
Texas State Capitol — The stunning State Capitol presides over Austin with dignity and grace, serving as a significant destination for the state’s lawmakers as well as visitors from across the globe. This 1888 Renaissance Revival building truly represents Texas, from its enormous legislative chambers to the top of its dome, purposefully designed 15 feet taller than the U.S. Capitol. Kids will love the widespread grounds surrounding the Capitol, especially the historic cannons, water fountain, and monuments. A bonus: the grassy slopes are ideal for repeatedly rolling or running down. Inside, the architectural detailing is a wonder to behold — ask the kids to seek out stars and you’ll be amazed at what they’ll discover on doorknobs, light fixtures, and benches. Take the elevators up to see the view in the rotunda from five stories high, and take a walk through the Senate and House chambers to sneak in a civics lesson. A cafeteria in the Capitol Extension offers snacks and meals until 5 p.m. during the week, but is closed on weekends.
The Austin Children’s Museum — This small yet active downtown museum offers a nice diversion for kids on a hot summer day in Austin. Things can get pretty chaotic in here, but it’s more distracting to the parents than the children. The museum offers rotating exhibits (roughly one per year) dedicated to everything from sources of sound to gravity via golf balls to navigating public transportation systems. Though some of the permanent exhibits are literally rough around the edges with wear and tear, the kids happily make do with what’s there, including a Funstruction Zone with miniature trucks and construction equipment, a supermarket/kitchen section containing plastic food items, and a gated toddler area to keep the little ones safely contained from the surrounding whirl of activity.
Andy Rhodes has been living and writing in central Austin for 15 years with his wife Paula and two sons – Max, 7, and Daniel, 2. His recently released travel guidebook, Moon Texas, covers a colossal amount of sights and activities throughout the Lone Star State, and his Texas Rhodes Trips blog focuses on family-friendly adventures.