by Elizabeth Buchanan, former tour guide and current student archivist
Austin, Texas: Known for its live music, its boozy hangouts, and its….kid friendly activities? Yes, we have those too! Here are a few of the greatest hits, broken down by location.
Right in the Middle of It All
Downtown Austin can be hot and crowded, and sometimes the kids get run over by the electric scooters zooming down every sidewalk. Don’t worry! Once you get used to it, downtown is very kid friendly. Also, if you think your kids will REALLY want to ride a rental scooter, Austin law says they must wear a helmet under the age of 17. Save yourself some trouble and bring one from home.
APL Central Library (710 W. César Chávez St.) – Paradise, pure and simple. Named one of the “World’s Greatest Places” by Time magazine, the brand new central branch of the Austin Public Library is overflowing with activities for all ages. Kids are in control on the third floor, where they can read, play giant chess and check out kids-only computers. Tweens and teens have their own designated areas to chill out, and you can always venture into the rest of the library to read in the beautiful rooftop garden or watch the 3D printer in the “technology petting zoo”. Check the event calendar a week before your visit to find cool events like storytime, puppet shows, Tween videogame time or board game nights. Outside the library, stand on the bright yellow “butterfly bridge” to watch the turtles in Shoal Creek.
ToyJoy (403 W 2nd St) – Beautiful toy store for all ages. Next door candy shop YummiJoy also sells allergen-free ice cream from beloved local company Sweet Ritual.
The Baked Bear ( 211 Walter Seaholm Dr #150) – Restaurant specializing in freshly made ice cream sandwiches in the middle of the trendy neighborhood that used to be Austin’s main power plant. Astroturf play area right outside.
A lot of lists about Austin mention the Texas Capitol (1100 Congress) as an afterthought, something educational kids should be dragged to before they get to the fun stuff down the road. And it’s true! What most lists don’t mention is that after you’ve climbed through the (free) exhibits at the old land office on the grounds, taken a (free) tour and yodeled in the gorgeous marble rotunda ($5. Just kidding, that’s free too), the whole capitol complex is one giant public park perfect for taking selfies, rolling down hills or testing out that frisbee you bought at Toy Joy earlier. Expert hint – the capitol environs are also great locations for Pokemon Go players of all ages.
The Bob Bullock Texas History Museum is just up the street, but make sure you plan plenty of time if you try to walk between the two – North Congress Avenue is under construction. Food selection in the area is limited, but the underground Capitol Grill (inside the Cap on floor E1) has a decent selection of daily specials and salads, plus grilled cheese and PBJ.
The University of Texas is a world-class university just six blocks from the capitol, but you know what’s really great about it? The friendly squirrels. Yes, they’ll eat from your hands. No, please don’t pet them. There are free public “star parties” some nights in the UT astronomy building, where the public are allowed to use the telescopes. Call ahead of time for weather cancellations.
The Austin Visitor’s Center (602 E 4th St.) is a jumping off point tours of downtown. The Austin Duck Tour is the oldest and most kid friendly of the bunch – they hand out plastic “quacking” duck bills to all riders. It’s also connected to The Escape Game, an escape puzzle room that is perfect for older kids.
“Dirty” sixth street, the bar district between Congress Avenue and I-35, is not really kid friendly, but it’s worth stopping by the Driskill Hotel if you have a child who likes ghost stories. Austin Ghost Tours are a lot of fun for those who truly believe, though a little hokey for those who don’t.
The Hideout Theat and Coffeeshop also has kid-friendly improv shows on Sundays – call or check their calendar for times.
It’s a little hot in Texas in August, but we don’t let that stop us from having a good time. Remember to plan your outdoor activities early in the day and bring plenty of water.
Lady Bird Lake (also known as Town Lake, though it’s really just a dammed up portion of the Lower Colorado River) is crowded with boats during the summer. There are plenty of options for hour rentals, but the Austin Rowing Center has cheaper weekday rates for kayaks and canoes and starts upstream, giving new paddlers a chance to get used to their craft before reaching the crowded waters downtown. Younger kids and less coordinated adults can enjoy the swan-shaped paddle boats from Capital Cruises ($15/hour). Don’t forget to check out the Congress Avenue bat colony!
Swimming is a classic Texas summer activity and there are two natural spring fed public pools within a ten minute drive of SAA: the classic Barton Springs in Zilker Park and the hidden gem of Deep Eddy, the oldest swimming pool in Texas. Both pools are VERY cold – plan to spend a lot of time lying on the grassy regaining your breath. Deep Eddy allows food and drink within the fence; Barton Springs does not.
The Austin Nature and Science Center in Zilker Park has a small display of local animals (including rehabilitated birds of prey) and a “Dino Dig” where kids can dig for bones in an outdoor sand pit.
Peter Pan Mini Golf is an Austin classic. Cash only! (And BYOB – no glass.)
For a quicker cooldown, the Liz Carpenter Splash Pad is right across the river from SAA. If you’re in the area after dark, watch for the cool light show and climb the nearby Doug Sahm Hill for a beautiful view of the downtown skyline.
To Adventure and Beyond!
If you have half a day or more away from the convention and want to wade into wider Austin, one of the best places to start is the Thinkery, the hands-on children’s museum based on rotating, staff-facilitated labs. Check the museum calendar on the dates of your visits for daily hands on activities (like slime making on August 3rd). The Thinkery is smack in the middle of the family-friendly Mueller neighborhood, so plan plenty of time to run around the lakeside park and playground, grab a cone at Lick ice cream or visit the neighborhood Kerbey Lane Cafe for the daily pancake.
Mayfield Park (3505 W 35th St) is a beautiful cottage garden in the middle of a nature preserve full of live peacocks, surrounded by nature trails and next door to the Laguna Gloria art museum. Nearby is Mount Bonnell, the highest point in Austin, which is a short steep hike (102 steps) to a lovely view of the lake. Go early, bring water.
For a more structured adventure, Waterloo Adventures, the beloved zipline park on Lake Travis has recently opened a floating water park they call “American Ninja Warrior on Water!” You will know immediately if your child is the sort who loves this sort of thing.
For adventures that don’t involve sunburn, the Austin Bouldering Project, an epic indoor rock climbing joint, has an amazing kid’s wall.
No trip to Austin is complete without a few spectacular shows or events, even for the micro set. Here’s a little list of kid-friendly events happening around the time of SAA Annual.
Zilker Summer Musical: Every year the City of Austin puts on a musical at the outdoor hillside theatre in Zilker Park, right across from Barton Springs. This year’s production is The Little Mermaid! The free show runs Thursday-Sunday, starting at approximately 8:15; you can rent chairs for $5 if you get there early enough. Parking is ridiculous – save yourself the trouble and take a rideshare.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Part of a free outdoor movie series run every year by the Alamo Drafthouse movie theater. The movie starts at dusk – before dusk, a local band plays and kids run around on the giant lawn in front of the lakefront Long Center and parents admire the views of Austin. The lines at the food trucks are long – before you cross the bridge, grab a picnic at the nearby Trader Joe’s or Royal Blue grocery. Don’t forget to grab a towel or blanket to sit on!
The Sustainable Food Center Farmer’s Market runs every Saturday morning from 9am-1pm in Republic Square Park, a few blocks from SAA. Alongside the vegetables and food trucks, there’s always a few child-friendly activities and a rotating schedule of live music.
Modern Times at the Paramount – This screening of the Charlie Chaplin classic is part of the Paramount Theater’s summer family movies series, which gives kids a chance to see classic films in a genuine old-school movie palace.
Cherrywood Coffeehouse (1400 E 38th 1/2 St), near the Thinkery, runs kids’ concerts every Sunday morning, which goes perfectly with their giant outdoor patio and excellent breakfast tacos. SAA week’s music offering is Oh Antonio and his Imaginary Friends.