British families looking for a holiday in the United States traditionally are drawn to Florida, New York or California. But Texas, located in the south of the country, combines the natural wonders, theme parks, year-round sunshine and family activities of all the other three.
Our first stop on our Texas road trip was Austin. We originally didn’t plan to stay in Austin at all on our Texas trip, it was only the fact that our flight from London was flying into Austin that we decided to spend a few days here.
We always thought that Austin appealed more to young adults and there was little to offer families. How wrong we were! There is so much to do in Austin for families – in fact it has become one of our favourite US cities that we have visited.
Austin really is an amazing city and we were so glad we included it on our Texas itinerary; our only regret is that we didn’t stay here for longer.
Downtown Austin is a great place to stay with a family and out of all of the cities that we visited in Texas during our trip, Austin felt the safest. We stayed at the Hyatt Regency Austin which I would highly recommend and was in a fantastic location (more on this later).
The attractions and sights of Downtown Austin were within walking distance of the hotel on one side of Congress Avenue bridge and the colourful streets of South Congress on the other. Needless to say, there was plenty to keep all of us inspired as we decided what to do first.
The grid system of downtown makes it easy to navigate and explore and we felt that one of the best ways to see the city was to walk, as around each corner there was something to see or do, from huge guitars on the streets, great restaurants, iconic buildings and amazing live music.
Here are some of our favourite things to help you plan a visit to Austin with kids and where to stay.
Visit the Texas State Capitol building
The Texas State Capitol building is a sight not to be missed especially when you see it for the first time at the end of Congress Avenue. Built in 1888 from sunset-red granite it’s such a beautiful building both inside and out and is actually larger than the state capitol building in Washington D.C.
I was a little apprehensive about taking the kids here as I didn’t know how child friendly it would be, but both Chloe and Holly and a great time and learnt so much. You can pick up scavenger hunts for kids as you enter from the entrance which adds to the experience and upon completion you get a Texas seal of approval onto your paper.
We took a free tour of the building where we got an opportunity to view the Supreme Court, the senate, house chambers and the surrounding grounds. The central rotunda is spectacular, especially when you look up. We loved taking photos here and spotting portraits of past US presidents on the walls. At the top of the dome try out its whispering gallery created by its stunning curved ceiling.
Learn about Texas at the Bullock Museum
A short walk from the Capitol Building was the Bullock Museum. This was our first day in Texas and the Bullock Museum was the perfect place to visit to find out about the state of Texas, it was fascinating here.
The museum tells the history of Texas from when it used to be part of Mexico up to the present day through its collection of artefacts and hands-on child-friendly exhibits from around Texas across its three floors.
The IMAX cinema and Texas Spirit Theatre is also worth visiting here. As we watched the interactive Star of Destiny film we learnt about the history of the state in such an engaging way. This was great especially for the kids as they learnt about the Alamo before we actually got to see the real thing in San Antonio.
Experience South Congress
After a busy morning downtown, we took an Uber (one of the easiest and cost effective ways of navigating the city) to South Congress, a really eclectic part of Austin.
This was one of my favourite areas of the city as we walked down its colourful streets, full of cool, quirky shops, great places to eat including the food trucks that Austin is famous for and lots of cool street art. As the shopping offered at South Congress is really unique it’s a great place for souvenirs and some trendy clothing.
Big Top Candy Shop—Chloe and Holly spotted this large amazing old-fashioned candy store before the adults. Inside was nearly every type of candy you could think of including our favourites Swedish Fish, plus the circus theming inside the store was fantastic.
If it’s your first time in Texas, get yourself to Allens Boots in South Congress. Like the rest of Austin it’s a unique experience and a cowboy and cowgirls dream store. They have cowboy boots in every colour, style and style imaginable and the perfect Stetson and belt to go with it. You go in looking like a British tourist and come out looking like a native Texan!
Home Slice Pizza was recommended to us before our visit and I can now see why. The pizza here is not only delicious and the slices are huge – one pizza is more than enough for a family. For dessert you have to check out Amy’s Ice Cream just down the street. At busy times of the day queues can stretch out through the door but it’s worth the wait, as the ice creams are delicious here – including their famous Mexican Vanilla ice cream.
For some of the best tacos you’ll ever taste, put Torchy’s Tacos in South Congress on your list – they are so good that even President Obama called in here on a 2016 visit to the city. It’s so good the queues are typically out of the door like when we visited, so make sure you head there early in the day.
Austin is famous for BBQ and all of the following restaurants come highly recommended Franklins, Terry Blacks and La Barbecue.
Take a train around Zilker Park
Zilker park is a beautiful 350-acre park close to the city, it’s full of activities for all the family and is also home to the Zilker Botanical Garden and Austin Nature and Science Center. Zilker park is a great open space for the kids to run around and have fun.
We took a ride on the Zilker Zephyr train which takes you on a 20 minute tour of the park which the kids loved before spending time at the adventure playground in the park.
Also check out the nearby Peter Pan Mini Golf for some old fashioned fun at Zilker Park Hill. It’s one of the oldest courses in the country and has been open since 1948.
Swim at Barton Springs
One of the most recommended things to do in Austin with kids (both from visitors and locals) was to swim in the fresh clean waters of Barton Springs, a natural limestone pool.
This was one of our many highlights from visiting Austin, after all it’s not every day that you get back to nature and swim in the 3 acres of spring fed waters. With a constant year-round water temperature of 68-70 degrees Fahrenheit which was a little too chilly for my husband and I, but was the perfect way to cool down from the heat for Chloe and Holly – they didn’t want to leave here.
We loved relaxing on the lawns next to the springs, taking in the views of the city and watching swimmers test their diving skills off the board.
Also check out the natural swimming grotto of Hamilton Pool a short drive from the city, with its ring of waterfalls and stunning natural swimming pool.
See the bats under Congress Avenue bridge at dusk
At Congress Avenue bridge you can see the largest urban bat colony in North America, where up to 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats call home from March to November .It sounds creepy but it’s an amazing spectacle each evening that should not be missed, it’s a real wow moment.
The bridge was less than a 5 minute walk from our hotel the Hyatt Regency Austin along the Riverwalk and it was amazing just how many people gathered on grassy banks and on the bridge at dusk to view this unique event.
We didn’t have to wait too long before thousands upon thousands of bats emerged from under the bridge flying into the night sky out over the city skyline to feast on insects during the night. It’s one of the most incredible natural phenomena you’ll ever witness.
To beat the crowds and to get the best views I would recommend booking onto the river boats operated from Capital Cruises like we did. The boats float right under the bridge and it’s an added little adventure especially for kids to an already unique experience.
The best places on land for viewing are the eastern side of the bridge or our personal favourite the grassy lawn on the southeast end of the bridge.
Sail on Lady Bird Lake
I would highly recommend hiring a duffy boat (which is an electric boat) to sail Lady Bird Lake and the Colorado river. Our hotel’s concierge at the Hyatt Regency organised a boat hire for us with Capital Cruises and after an initial tutorial on how to drive the boat, we set off on our 2 hour cruise.
Ian was the boat’s captain (with a little help from the girls) which was such a fun and memorable family experience. As you sail the river you get a unique look at the city of Austin and if you hire the boat for the evening like we did you also get the very best views of seeing the bats.
Lady Bird Lake is a really popular spot in Austin for all kinds of water sports which can be rented from along the shoreline. We saw lots of people kayaking and paddle boarding on the lake which looked great fun, but we preferred the comfort of our cool little boat!
Listen to Live Music
Move over Nashville, Austin is called the music capital of the world, so take advantage of its many great restaurants and bars especially on 6th street where you will be able to hear live performances every day of the week.
Some of the country singers are fantastic. As you walk around the city you are reminded just how important music is to Austin with the cool street art across the city, which always make for a good photo opportunity.
Visit a food truck
You can’t visit Austin without stopping at one of its food trucks – they are everywhere and what the city is famous for. Before our visit I envisioned the food trucks to be like some of the greasy spoon type ones you find in the UK, but how wrong I was – they are really high quality here.
If you want Pizza, Tacos, Brazilian, Burgers there is a food truck that does it. One of our favourites was Hey Cupcake in South Congress, we had a recommendation to visit before our trip and we are so glad we did, the choice was amazing and the cakes were so delicious.
Find the Murals
Austin is home to hundreds of cool eye-catching murals and it was really fun spotting them as we explored the city. Each one is unique and tells its own story, our favourite was the iconic wall-sized postcard ‘Greetings from Austin’
Shop at the Whole Foods Flagship Store
Austin is home to the flagship store of one of my favourite supermarkets Whole Foods Market, it’s one of the most amazing supermarkets that you will visit.
This Austin-founded supermarket is huge with all local, natural and organic products – we loved the organic soaps and bathbombs – they smelt so good. The store also had the most amazing takeaway counters, four restaurants and a coffee shop. Why couldn’t we have more of these stores in the UK!
Not far out of town is Mount Bonnell, the highest point of the city at 775ft, where once you climb the 106 steps to reach the top you get some of the best views of the city and the Colorado River.
What we missed
During our visit we only managed to experience just a fraction of what the city of Austin has to offer families. Here are some of the other recommendations we had before our visit.
Where to Stay
I would recommend families stay in downtown Austin. When researching where to stay we looked at lots of different hotel options from Southpark (next to a busy freeway) to the Domain in North Austin. The domain is home to some great hotels and arguably the best shopping in the city but after visiting you realise it’s too far away from the majority of attractions and would involve a lot of time on the road.
Before booking your trip its worth checking what events are on in the city (during our visit Motor GP was on along with a large convention) that really can push hotel prices up and affect availability.
However, we were really happy with our choice the Hyatt Regency Austin located on the banks of Lady Bird Lake next to Congress bridge in downtown Austin.
Our room, a recently modernised family corner view room provided plenty of space for us, with stylish bathrooms and designer toiletries.
We had our first mesmerising view of the city skyline from 12 floors up on our first morning in the city, which provided a dramatic reveal through our bedroom windows as we drew back the curtains.
Although the hotel had a very much business-oriented theme with a large convention centre attached it was really family friendly and one that we would really recommend for families visiting the city especially as you can see the bats from your hotel room window if you are lucky.
Other hotels that were highly recommended and worth checking out in downtown Austin are below
If you want to base yourself outside the city then take a look at these great resort hotel options.
Getting here – Austin’s Bergstrom International Airport is just a 20 minute drive into downtown Austin. We flew with British Airways which has daily direct flights from London Heathrow to Austin, with return fares from £280 in economy class. To get into downtown Austin from the airport the best options are taxi or use Uber or Lyft.
Getting around – Austin is a very walkable city, but we also used the ride sharing options such as Uber to get around the city. If Austin is your first stop on a Texas road trip like ours then you don’t need a hire car until you are ready to leave the city as parking can be not only difficult but expensive.