It’s easy to stay close to home and enjoy all that our city has to offer, but in an effort to showcase the wide-world of Texas to our kiddo, we like to take to the roads and explore. Lately, we’ve found ourselves headed north to discover Austin, and it’s proven to be a perfect family destination. Just a short hour or so up I-35 (traffic depending), we get to have fun, enjoy a day, and return home with new memories in hand.
People compare San Antonio to Austin often, and of course, people in Austin recently tried to claim that their city not only had better tacos, but actually created breakfast tacos. Bless their hearts. (For the record, San Antonio won the resulting taco war in 2016. Not that there was any doubt.) But let’s focus on all of the things that make Austin a great daytrip destination.
It is the capital of our great state—and you can take a tour of the Capitol Building or enjoy a self-guided visit and roam the Capitol grounds. Picnics are allowed, so it’s a good place to relax and enjoy some shade under the beautiful trees that surround the Capitol.
For a great overview of Texas history, turn to the Bullock Texas State History Museum. The museum is steps away from The University of Texas and not far from the Capitol, though I wouldn’t recommend walking between the two for now. A new green space is on the way that will make that a terrific addition to an Austin visit in the future. The museum has three floors that tell the story of Texas, an IMAX theater, and rotating special exhibits, like one on rodeo that’s there through January. The first floor of the museum is undergoing a renovation right now, but we’re excited to see the new exhibition, Becoming Texas, when it opens.
Walking distance from the Bullock Museum is the Blanton Museum of Art. The Blanton is one of the foremost university art museums in the country and serves as Austin’s art museum. The collection is wide ranging, and the museum has wonderful touring exhibitions. Through October, the museum is featuring San Antonio artist Vincent Valdez, if you’d like to see some homegrown talent. We love the museum’s prints and drawings, but it also has a wonderful collection of contemporary works and Latin American art. A stunning must-see: Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin, a stone building with stained-glass windows that sits separate from the Blanton itself (but is included in museum admission).
If all of that sounds more adult-friendly than kid-worthy, please know that even littles can enjoy the Capitol, the Bullock, and the Blanton, though we waited until we were out of the toddler years. But don’t think you have to wait to take littles on an Austin trip: there’s fun for them, too. First up, DINOSAURS. OK, I know that word doesn’t make all kids go crazy, but for my son, that means it’s party time. And nestled on a quiet corner on The University of Texas campus is the Texas Memorial Museum.
Don’t let the name throw you off. It’s home to dinos, animals, fossils, rocks, and an array of native Texas flora and fauna. While not as flashy or as large as some other museums, the collection still made our dino/geology fan happy. The collection notes where things were found in Texas, so you find out what ancient creatures roamed where. And if you love the Quetzalcoatlus that flies above your head at the Witte, you’ll find one here, too: a UT graduate student actually discovered Quetzy in Big Bend National Park back in the 1970s.
For true kid fun, be sure to hit the Thinkery, Austin’s children’s museum. Like our DoSeum, Thinkery is designed to engage kids and spark their imaginations through doing, making, and experiencing. The exhibits range from water play (really wet water play, indoors) to light play (where the adults have as much fun as the kids) and everything in between. I’d say 3–6 years old is the sweet spot for many of the activities, but older kids will enjoy the Innovator’s Workshop and more.
The area around the museum offers restaurants, including Lick Ice Cream, and you can enjoy roaming Mueller Lake Park and its playground that is just across from the Thinkery. Good to know: A Witte Museum membership gains you free entry to the Thinkery, so keep that in mind when you’re visiting.
Another spot we enjoy is Umlauf Sculpture Garden, where you can roam and explore the work of Charles Umlauf in a garden/museum that’s just off of Austin’s Zilker park. Umlauf’s works are on display at both the Witte and the McNay Art Museum, so you’ve probably seen some of his work without even knowing it. We like the trails through the garden, especially in cooler weather. And you can explore the nearby Zilker Botanical Garden for more outdoor adventures in a beautiful garden setting.
We can’t talk Austin without talking about bats. Summer trips to Austin must include a stop to see the bats fly out from the Congress Avenue Bridge. The sunsets, and the flying show, are hard to beat.
If you love exploring outdoors, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is a must. We enjoy spring visits, but something is growing/blooming year-round, and a visit is always fun. The center celebrates, researches, and works to protect our native landscapes. Spring blooms are terrific displays of wildflowers—and our beloved bluebonnets. Note: The center is definitely far south of Austin, making it a place we tend to visit separately/not when we’re headed to Austin’s downtown area.
There’s much more to explore, and we’re definitely planning more return trips. But note: before we head north, we always keep a few things in mind. When UT has a home football game, you don’t want to be anywhere on 35/trying to get around Austin, so we always check their schedule. And if you want things to be really quiet, visiting when UT isn’t in session (winter break or summer, for example) is always a good bet. We avoid Spring Break visits, thanks to the juggernaut that is SXSW (South by Southwest), the event that started as music and now draws crowds/insanity/more traffic than any city can handle to Austin during March of each year. Ditto for the Austin City Limits Music Festival each October.
So just check the calendar before you head out, head north, and have a “capital” time!