If your kids have limitless energy, but your budget has limits, there's no shortage of fun and free activities for families in Austin.
During the summer, pools and splash pads are in high demand, so get there early to beat the crowds. And fortunately, many of Austin’s parks have plenty of shade, offering an escape from the brutal summer heat. Indoor options also abound, ranging from museums to bookstores.
Free guided tours of the Texas State Capitol building are held daily. Kids will love the life-sized statues of Texas leaders as well as the huge and ornately decorated rotunda. Keep in mind that the Texas Legislature meets only once every two years, so it may be bustling with activity or more low-key depending on when you visit. The knowledgeable guides help visitors understand both the immensity of the task of building a massive pink-granite structure and some of the finer details, such as door hinges shaped like Texas. When the complex needed to expand a few years ago, they had run out of room above ground, so they built a four-story office building underground. The addition was built with skylights so there’s still abundant natural light even though the structure is underground.
A good climb up a long staircase is an excellent idea if you’re trying to burn off a little excess youthful energy. At the top of Mount Bonnell, you’ll be rewarded with a panoramic view of the city and Lake Austin. The viewing area at the top has a little bit of shade to protect the kids from the brutal summer heat.
City leaders have an odd habit of renaming places long after residents have come to know them by another name. The lake in central Austin was once called Town Lake. It was renamed Lady Bird Lake after the death of former first lady Lady Bird Johnson. The trail around the lake is sometimes still referred to as the Town Lake or Lady Bird Lake hike and bike trail, but Ann and Roy Butler is the official name. The full trail is a 10-mile loop stretching from near the Mopac highway in west Austin to Pleasant Valley Road in east Austin. The eastern portion of the trail is often less crowded and features the trail’s newest addition: a boardwalk over the water. This was a clever workaround to avoid having the trail stop and start around apartments built on the water. Instead of tearing down the apartments, the city extended the trail out over the water.
An abandoned construction project on a hillside was transformed a few years ago into an ever-changing public art project. The concrete walls are full of colorful images, ranging from graffiti to beautiful murals. The actual painting is done only as part of organized events, but anyone is welcome to check out the art during daylight hours. Don't hesitate to check out this one-of-a-kind attraction because talks are underway to move it to a distant suburb.
Tucked away in the oak-shaded Travis Heights neighborhood, Big Stacy is a medium-sized neighborhood pool. Early mornings are generally set aside for lap swimmers, but the pool is open for recreational swimming after 9 a.m. on most days. The pool is in the middle of Stacy Park, which is a long, narrow park and hiking trail that meanders along a creek. The park also has tennis courts, picnic tables, a volleyball court, and a backstop and field for baseball. A large playscape can help burn off any remaining energy. It’s located just north of the pool.
One of the gems of the Austin parks system, Pease Park sits just west of the University of Texas along Shoal Creek. A free splash pad is available for kiddos in the southern portion of the park. You’ll find a mix of developed and undeveloped trails as the route heads to the north. Depending on which path you choose, you can enjoy a mellow stroll under a canopy of trees, or you can scramble over boulders. From 24th to 29th Street, the trail becomes a leash-free area, and there’s an open area at 24th where the dogs can play with each other. There are huge green spaces ideal for throwing Frisbees or playing soccer. Sand volleyball courts are also available, but they must be reserved in advance.
The Dino Pit is the most popular attraction, but the center also has a mini-zoo with animals that are undergoing rehabilitation. Current residents include a bobcat, a skunk, an owl, and a hawk. The nature trail includes a pond and plenty of shade. At the Monarch Waystation, kids can see Monarch butterflies and learn how to grow the plants that attract them. The Forest Trail is an easy walk along a row of trees with informative signs for the aspiring botanist in the family.
Offering a free splash pad in the heart of Austin, Butler Park is an ideal destination for a picnic on a hot summer day. The little ones can splash around in the water while you enjoy a lovely hilltop view of downtown and the surrounding ponds. There’s also plenty of open space for playing Frisbee or just running wild. The park is close to Barton Springs’ restaurant row, where you can feed the little ones after they work up an appetite.
The upscale grocery store has a huge outdoor patio where it hosts free music during the day on weekends. The music is generally not kids' bands, which means the adults can enjoy it too. The musical acts range from jazz to salsa. While the groceries inside the store are pricey, there are almost always free samples available.
The 350-acre park gives kids plenty of room to roam. The playscape near Barton Springs Pool features slides, tubes, ramps, bridges, and monkey bars. Kids can feed ducks along Barton Creek and watch dogs play in the water just outside the pool area. While Barton Springs does charge admission, you can still access a portion of the creek just outside the gates for free. The water is cool and refreshing, but there aren’t many places to sit along the banks, and you’ll be competing for space with overexcited dogs. The area known as the Great Lawn near the Mopac Highway is one of the largest open tracts of land in the city. If your kid needs lots of room to roam, this is the place to be. In the center of the open space, there's a large hunk of limestone ideal for supervised climbing.
Tucked away on a little island on Lake Austin, Red Bud Isle is primarily a leash-free dog park. There’s a designated play area just for dogs near the park’s entrance, and it’s also a nice place to let the kids roam leash-free. The main trail is a big loop around the island, but there are also smaller trails cutting through the brush in the center of the island. It’s surrounded by water on three sides, so they can only go so far. For adults, the park also offers a good view of the mansions of Austin's rich and famous that perched on cliffs over Lake Austin.
This small park in central Austin features a BMX course complete with a series of small but challenging handmade ramps and hills. Even if your child is not a bicycle acrobat, it’s fun to watch the experts jump the hills and do tricks. For parents always looking for little lessons to teach, this park is a good example of volunteerism. The park was largely conceived and is maintained by volunteers, many of them BMX competitors and enthusiasts.
Even if you don’t have a dog, the leash-free dog area at Lady Bird Lake is a blast for kids. Fair warning: It's always a good idea to ask the owner before interacting with any dog, but it’s generally a very friendly crowd. At sunset, the action at the park really picks up, but there are at least a few dogs around all day. Hang out near the water, and you can enjoy watching the dogs having a blast cooling off in the lake. If the kids get covered in slobber and grime, you’ll only be a short hike away from the Butler Park splash pad. This area is officially known as Vic Mathias Shores, but most people just refer to it as the dog park at Lady Bird Lake.
One of the few surviving independent bookstores in Austin, BookPeople is also one of the biggest. In addition to having a huge kids’ section, the store regularly hosts kid-oriented activities, ranging from readings to writing camps. There’s a small cafe on site serving coffee, sandwiches and desserts.
Young readers in the family will appreciate the O. Henry Museum, which is home to artifacts and exhibits exploring the life of writer William Sydney Porter. The building served as his home at one time and still contains some of the writer’s furniture. Porter adopted the pen name of O. Henry as a way of getting a fresh start after serving five years in prison for embezzlement.
His most well-known short stories are Gifts of the Magi and The Cop and the Anthem. The museum also hosts the annual O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships. The author was undoubtedly a fan of wordplay, but no one really knows if O. Henry would appreciate having a pun-off in his name. Nonetheless, it’s a beloved Austin tradition.
In the middle of summer, the Texas Memorial Museum is a great place to escape from the heat. Located on the University of Texas campus, the museum has an extensive fossil collection. The most impressive specimen is the 30-foot Onion Creek Mosasaur, which lived in a shallow sea that covered Austin during the Cretaceous Period.
The new downtown Austin library was recently named one of the top 100 places in the world by Time Magazine. The city of Austin knew that it had to reimagine the library to attract people in these device-obsessed times. The result is a stunningly beautiful building with a variety of cozy nooks, wide-open spaces and downtown views. You can check out Kindle books, movies and dozens of other things you might not typically associate with a library. Grab a cup of coffee at the onsite Cookbook Cafe and enjoy a good book while lounging on the outdoor deck.