Wondering how to add some quick fun to a weekend or a holiday break? Austin is an easy drive from the San Antonio area and our capital city offers a range of ways to enjoy and explore the history in Austin. What’s more, it’s both an easy day trip to fit into a weekend and a straightforward staycation, because you’re really not roaming very far from San Antonio.
If you’re ready to head north and check out and explore Austin, we outlined a few ideas that include hands-on fun and outdoor exploration for the younger set. But if you’re heading north during the Christmas holidays, consider adding an evening extension to your daytrip so you can enjoy Austin’s famous Trail of Lights.
To add some adventure for the older set – and that includes any out of town visitors you may welcome over the holidays – consider exploring history in Austin by visiting the Texas Capitol and the LBJ Presidential Library.
If you have a fourth or seventh grader, they’re studying Texas history. A trip to the state capitol really helps history come alive. Guided tours are available or you can pick up brochures to tour the capitol on your own.
To make the most of your visit, be sure to start at the Capitol Visitors Center. You can grab brochures, see the capitol made out of Legos, and understand more about the capitol building’s history.
From there, don’t rush into the building itself. The grounds of the Capitol are beautiful – and perfect for a picnic if the weather’s right and you want to enjoy outdoors. Using the brochure, you can learn more about the monuments and memorials on the grounds and follow a path that takes you to each of them. Let kids expand their navigation skills by finding each one.
As you head into the building, pause to check it out. Everything is definitely bigger in Texas: the building is 14 feet taller than the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington D.C. And the statue on top of the Capitol dome? She’s known as the Goddess of Liberty. The one you’ll see watching over everything today was installed in 1986. You can see the original on display at the Bullock Museum.
Once you’re inside, the floor of the rotunda contains the six seals of the countries whose flags have flown over Texas. And that tiny star above you in the rotunda? It’s actually eight feet from point to point.
If you’re doing the self-guided tour, the brochure will lead you through the building. The building itself houses both the Texas Senate and the Texas House of Representatives, as well as the Texas Supreme Court. Take the time to find your senator’s and representative’s names on the framed list in each chamber.
If you’d like to learn more about the buildings that make up the Capitol Complex, check out this brochure that includes both the Capitol building and the grounds, as well as a map. Depending on how long you have, you can hit other spots in Austin with ties to Texas history, including the Bullock Museum or the Governor’s Mansion. Tip: You do have to pre-schedule a tour to see the mansion, so keep that in mind. Tours are not available on a walk-up basis and may not be available during your planned visit.
All the Way with LBJ
That’s one campaign slogan from the 36th president of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who served from 1963 to 1969. Exploring history in Austin goes beyond Texas and encompasses U.S. history: the LBJ Presidential Library is a fantastic destination to not only learn more about the president, but that pivotal time in American history. The timelines and historical information can help older children studying U.S. history understand more about this period in general.
The library is located on the grounds of the University of Texas and has a dedicated parking lot for library visitors. That makes it easy to navigate whether school is in session at UT or not, but you should definitely plan around home football games and other major events on the UT schedule, like graduation. It will make your visit easier overall.
Most of the exhibitions are on the 3rd and 4th floors of the library. Floors 5-9 are archives of LBJ’s papers. Looking at the gleaming red folders, it’s hard to believe that 45 million pages of documents are housed in the archives, which scholars can study by appointment/special request. For kids who think you can Google everything, it’s fun to see them react to hard copies – and the idea that you have to dig through them to do research.
The exhibitions explore domestic and foreign affairs during the Johnson administration and a current special exhibition is dedicated to First Lady Lady Bird Johnson. A dynamic force of her own, we have Lady Bird to thank for the miles of bluebonnets that decorate Texas each spring, as well as a number of beautification projects across the country. Tip: If you’d like to see more of her efforts, take time to visit the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in south Austin. She founded it in 1982.
The 10th floor of the library includes a 7/8 scale replica of the Oval Office as it was during LBJ’s presidency, as well as a replica of the First Lady’s office. (Historic tidbit: Lady Bird created the modern version of the role of First Lady, having an office in the West Wing, as well as having her own press secretary and chief of staff).