I’ll say it upfront. I’ll just get it out there before you go on so you know how I feel about Austin. I love this Texan city.
On our recent visit, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d been itching to attend SXSW, an annual Austin trade show, as a marketer for the past 10 years and have ogled at the photos of colleagues and friends year after year, leaving a sense of curiosity and wander for what all the hype was all about. Would it truly be the land of the hipsters, as I envisioned it, and how would that go down with my kids?
Well, fortunately enough, it went down well with all of us. From the minute we arrived, we had heaping plates of the most delicious Tex Mex food in the world. That culinary adventure awakened all of our taste buds, and as we continued our edible trip through the city, stopping at food trucks and Mexican food joints, I was mesmerized by the laid back attitude and very attracted to what appeared to be a highly cultured city.
I fell in love with breakfast tacos, hearing music in the middle of the afternoon, outdoor water holes, the sight of 3,000,000 bats flying over my head, salsa bars, graffiti parks, cowboy boots, shopping on South Congress Avenue, the Texan Hills, gazing at the city from the middle of Lady Bird Lake and its motto. Wondering what that is? The city’s unofficial motto is “Keep Austin Weird.” It’s a direct call for residents to support local businesses and everything indie. Many other cities—Portland, Madison, Santa Cruz and Asheville, North Carolina—have promoted similar campaigns, but it all began in Austin. Imagine that: a public declaration to keep a city cool? That’s Austin for you.
If you’re wondering how I did all this with two kids in tow, everything’s possible. They actually equally fell in love with Austin – they have their own perspective on that, I’m sure, but there seemed to be less complaining than usual, so I know the city went down just as I’d hoped.
Heading to Austin? Here’s the low-down on where to stay, what to do, where to eat and how to get the most of your trip to Austin – even with kids!
Where to Stay
Who knew that the JW Marriott would be the most perfect place to greet us on our first visit to Austin? It’s centrally located, just one block from Congress Avenue Bridge, where the bats go flying from nightly at dusk. As expected from a Marriott, the rooms are cozy, not the most spacious we’ve stayed in, but the hotel’s amenities make up for that. There are on-site restaurants, a lovely gym and outdoor pool (with the Texan flag inscribed inside), on site parking, Wifi access and every gadget humanly possible in the room, including a coffee maker and extra outlets. The hotel is an easy drive (or nice walk) to all the city’s attractions including the Bob Bullock State Museum, Lake Travis, the State Capitol and South Congress Avenue shopping. We had access to the Executive Lounge, which offers food throughout the day to recharge. At night, we were able to walk to the bridge to capture the bat’s famous flight and then we strolled through the area until we found a food truckish restaurant called Gourdough’s for dinner, which was sublime. Words can’t totally convey the extent of how much we enjoyed our night at the JW Marriott.
We spent the next night at the Sonesta Bee Cave Austin in the Texan Hills, just 20 minutes from the city center, an exquisite part of the region I was happy to visit. This hotel is a special place overlooking rugged hills and rolling terrain. It’s a very beautiful, scenic area and a nice city break, featuring hike and bike trails. This ultra-modern hotel, having just recently opened this past July, is located at the Hill Country Galleria in Bee Cave, Texas. The hotel offers 195 guest rooms, including 5 suites and 12 king corner rooms. We had a suite with connecting bedrooms, both very comfortable and spacious with fine linen, a Keurig coffee maker, free Wifi and nearly every amenity you need whilst traveling with kids. The hotel has an outdoor swimming pool with a sun deck and gym that we utilized in the evening before checking out the sunset at nearby Lake Travis. It was nice to get out and see the Hills and have a chilled evening at the Sonesta. The hotel also features Meridian 98, Sonesta’s rooftop bar and terrace lounge.
What to Do
We only had a few days in Austin (and could have used a few more, to be honest), so I was determined to see, do, eat and really experience the city. Here are two tours worth taking:
AO Tours Austin picked us up at the JW Marriott almost as soon as we arrived in Texas, and we really couldn’t have asked for a better way to get orientated to the city. We were picked up by a pink van (Mercedes Benz Sprinter Vans equipped with dual AC) driven by an enthusiastic tour guide and taken on a 30 mile, 90 minute tour of the city. The tour covers Downtown, South Shore, Historic Austin, 6th Street, shopping, West Austin, State Capitol complex, and University of Texas campus. For me, it was refreshing to hear the history of Austin before starting our own tour. Our guide explained how the history of segregation impacted the city today. She also told about her favorite restaurants and food trucks, places to hear music, where she loves to shop and drove us through the Texan Hills (where we would end up the next day at the Sonesta). The end of the tour was quite effective with a drive through the Texas State Cemetery where we passed the graves of confederate veterans and their spouses. The tour departs from Two Locations in Downtown Austin TX 78701:615 Congress Ave. (Wild About Music) or 602 E. 4th Street (Austin Visitors Center). Call (512) 659-9478 for information.
Another great way to see the city is via Live Love Paddle, specializing in kayaking tours down local rivers, during the day or at night viewing the bat’s nighttime fly. We opted for the daytime trip, taking a 3 hour ride up and down Lady Bird Lake with a tour guide who gave us a tour of the river and told us about the city, and most importantly, its bats. The kids were engaged and also put to work as we paddled from bridge to bridge. It was such a great way to see the city. We were educated, got exercise and came away bat-certified. At one point, we were right under the Congress Avenue Bridge, where we heard the millions of bats sleeping (they smelled, too). Our guide was patient, interesting and calm, perfect for the kids. For more information, call 512-804-2122.
Other must-sees in Austin:
Graffiti Park in Castle Hill – I was lucky to have been referred to this park by a 10 year-old while traveling in San Antonio. It’s a massive playground with surreal art. If you’re lucky, you’ll find artists at work.
Barton Springs – Within Zilker Park’s 358 acres lies Barton Springs Pool, a warm pool that measures three acres in size, and is fed from underground springs, ideal for year-round swimming. We were there on a very hot day, and our visit was perfectly timed and a real adventure.
The Bullock State History Museum – If you want to learn the history
If you want to learn the history of Texas, these are two educational museums that aren’t just for little kids.
UMLAUF Sculpture Museum & Gardens – We found the UMLAUF Sculpture Museum after lunch in Barton Springs (food truck land) and it was completely charming. The sculptures, mainly molds of mothers with their children, lie on four well-landscaped acres. The gardens also offer a waterfall and streams and the experience was peaceful beyond description.
The Texas State Capitol – Completed in 1888 in Downtown Austin, the 2nd biggest State Capitol in the U.S. contains the offices and chambers of the Texas Legislature and the Office of the Governor.
The Driskoll Hotel – A Romanesque style building completed in 1886, the Driskoll is the oldest operating hotel in Austin and feels like a piece of history in the making. Take a walk through the lobby, stop for a drink in their bar if you can (my kids weren’t up to it).
Where to Eat
Polvo’s Mexican Restaurant – fabulous Mexican food with great interior and a salsa bar. (2004 S 1st St, Austin, TX 78704,
The Shady Grove – Austin-inspired Tex Mex and great cocktails – get the Mexican Margarita. 1624 Barton Springs Rd, Austin, TX 78704, (512) 474-9991
Torchy’s – “Damn good tacos” is their slogan and I say no more. Also started as a food truck and is now a chain around Texas. Get breakfast tacos and fried chocolate chip cookies!
Curra’s Grill – If you can break away from the kids, go to Curra’s for an avocado margarita. You will not regret it. 614 E Oltorf St, Austin, TX 78704, (512) 444-0012
Disclosure: Some of the items mentioned in this post were complimentary, such as the two hotel visits and the tours. As always, all opinions are my own.