Austin with Kids: A Perfect Family Day
If there's a "Best of" list that Austin, Texas, hasn't graced in the last decade, I have yet to find it. Most people will tell you that the city has a unique, laid-back lifestyle and that it's a liberal oasis in a sea of red. They'd be right. Home to the University of Texas at Austin and close to 2 million people, the city has seen incredible growth, yet somehow has kept its small-town charm.
With more than 300 days of sunshine a year, and an average daily temperature of 68.5, there are few times of the year that aren't good for a visit to the self-proclaimed "Live Music Capital of the World." Spring and summer are ideal for a visit. From early March to late April, wildflowers (including the state flower, the bluebonnet) adorn the city, with sunny, breezy days and temperatures in the mid-80s. From June through September, the temperatures climb, but there are plenty of ways to stay cool.
Here is our suggested itinerary for the perfect family vacation day in Austin with kids:
Join South Austin's counter-culture with breakfast at the Kerbey Lane Cafe (2700 South Lamar Blvd.; 512-445-4451). The kids' menu goes way beyond chicken nuggets, the service is quick, and you might just see a local musician or two (in fact, there's a good chance your server is moonlighting). The kids might try the gingerbread or blueberry pancakes or a mini cheese omelet. Favorite grown-up fare includes some of the city's best migas, or a personal favorite, Eggs Francisco (an English muffin topped with scrambled eggs, bacon, tomato, avocado and queso -- mmmm!).
Insider tip: Weekend mornings are quite busy, so try to get there early to miss the brunch crowd.
Zilker Park. Situated just south of the Colorado River, the park is home to a multitude of events throughout the year, including the Austin City Limits Music Festival (October), the Zilker Park Kite Festival (March), Blues on the Green (summer months), Shakespeare in the Park and the Zilker Summer Musical (June-August) and the celebrated Zilker Christmas Tree/Trail of Lights (December). A good way to orient yourself to the park (once you get the kids past the huge playscape, complete with vintage fire truck) is to take a ride on the miniature train, the Zilker Zephyr. The 20-minute ride loops around the park, and will show you where you can later feed the ducks, rent a canoe or explore the hike and bike trail. Admission to the park is free, but there is a $3 parking fee during the summer months.
While in the park, you won't be able to miss Barton Springs Pool (512-867-3080), a three-acre, spring-fed pool that stays at a very cool 68 degrees year-round. Older kids will love the incredibly springy diving board, while younger kids can splash in the shallow end of the pool. The grassy, live oak dotted hillsides offer shade and are great for people-watching, as well. If you are looking for a more typical pool (cement bottom instead of natural rock) with an expansive shallow area for younger kids to play, Deep Eddy (401 Deep Eddy Ave.) is another local favorite, and although also spring-fed, is slightly warmer than the chilly Barton Springs. Deep Eddy is also the oldest swimming pool in Texas, very family-oriented and has a lovely view of Lady Bird Lake.
If you don't succumb to hunger and grab a snack at either the park or the pool, there are great lunch options nearby. Arguably one of the best burgers in town can be found at P. Terry's (404 S. Lamar Blvd.; 512 473-2217); a straight-up burger stand with scrumptious, made-to-order burgers and great prices. Seating is limited during peak times, and not horribly desirable even when it's available (the stand sits at the corner of two busy streets and is outdoor only), but you can always take your lunch back to the park for a picnic. If dining on a large, tree-shaded patio sounds more up your alley, The Shady Grove (1624 Barton Springs Road; 512-474-9991) has been the go-to spot for outdoor dining for nearly 20 years. There are plenty of kid-friendly choices on the menu; you might even get them to try the Campfire Veggie Kabobs or chicken-fried steak. Don't forget dessert; the homemade cobblers and chocolate ice box pie are two of our favorites. Wash it all down with an Arnold Palmer (iced tea and lemonade). You kids will so love Austin!
After exploring the park, swimming and lunching, young kids (not to mention their chaperones!) might need some down time on the vacation day. Hot summer afternoons are great for hiding indoors and enjoying the air conditioning. If you don't retire to your accommodations for a nap, the Texas State Capitol (1100 Congress Ave.; 512-305-8400) is the perfect afternoon stop. Completed in 1888, and true to the "Everything's Bigger in Texas" motto, the Renaissance Revival structure is the largest in gross square footage of any state capitol, and is only smaller in size to the National Capitol in Washington, D.C. If your kids will tolerate a guided tour, you'll take away some great nuggets of Texas history. The Capitol guides are cheery and entertaining. In fact, you might suddenly recall the Alamo guide from 'Pee Wee's Big Adventure' as you follow along.
Head back to South Austin (South Congress Avenue specifically) for dinner with the kids. The area just south of the Colorado River, affectionately dubbed SoCo, is home to some great food and fun atmosphere. From the very casual (Fran's Hamburgers, 1822 S. Congress; 512-444-5738) to the upscale (Vespaio,1610 S. Congress; 512-441-6100) and everything in between (the Tex -Mex at Guero's Taco Bar -- 1412 S. Congress, 512-447-7688 -- is a favorite of President Clinton), South Congress is bustling with shops, galleries and people every night of the week. Parking on the street or in the garage behind Guero's is free.
As the sun sets and the temperature cools (hopefully), set your sights on the Congress Avenue Bridge, home to the largest urban bat colony in North America. Nearly 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats take up residence under the bridge from mid-March through November, and when they come out to feed at dusk, it makes for a spectacular site. The tiny bats form what look like plumes of smoke as they spread out over the city. There are many places to watch the exodus, including from the top of the bridge, but the best by far is on one of the local bat cruises, such as those offered by Capital Cruises or Lonestar Riverboats. The bat cruise is also a great way to catch the sunset and the view of the Austin skyline as it lights up the expansive Texas sky.
What a perfect ending to your perfect family vacation day!
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