The Texas capital has no shortage of family-friendly activities for kids of all ages. While Austin has plenty to do outdoors (swimming at Barton Springs or playing outdoors at Butler District Park are perennial favorites), the city is also home to interesting kid-friendly museums, like The Thinkery and the Austin Science & Nature Center. Whatever your little one's speed, here's our list of the 15 best activities for kids in Austin.
In July and August, Barton Springs is the most popular daytime hangout for all ages in Austin. The 68-degree water provides welcome relief from the scorching temperatures. For kiddos, the three-acre pool has a huge shallow end and a designated area for floats. The diving board is low enough for small kids, and one of the original springs is near the landing zone, ensuring a constant supply of cold water. In the shallow end, water shoes are recommended since the bottom is rocky and sometimes covered in algae, which can be slippery. There are lifeguards on duty, but the pool is large so keep an eye on children.
It’s hard to miss the giant green Peter Pan statue as you drive by. A south Austin institution since 1948, the facility has two 18-hole courses full of dinosaurs, pirates, whales and other whimsical characters. The west course is challenging, but the east course involves mostly straight shots, and you’ll hear the occasional "whoop" signifying a hole-in-one. In keeping with its retro image, the course only takes cash, so be prepared. Adults are allowed to BYOB, so there may be a few mildly tipsy players, but they rarely get rowdy. There’s also a picnic area that can be rented for birthday parties.
Starting at Barton Springs, the half-hour ride meanders through scenic Zilker Park and along Lady Bird Lake in an open-air mini-train. The route goes through two short tunnels, which is exciting for the little ones. There’s plenty to see along the way, including joggers, kayakers, dogs and ducks. You’ll also catch glimpses of the downtown skyline, meadows filled with wildflowers (in spring) and towering bald cypress trees. The train leaves every hour on the hour, and admission is cash only. You can keep the fun going after the ride at the large playscape near the train depot.
With the goal of challenging children’s brains while keeping them amused, The Thinkery is a children’s museum on steroids. Kids can learn about fluid dynamics (and get wet) in the Currents exhibit while tinkering with water walls and fountains. It’s a good idea to bring a change of clothes and water shoes. Fortunately, there are child-sized dryers available. Meanwhile, The Inventor’s Workshop invites kids to create by offering hands-on workstations for everything from woodworking to electronics. For younger kids, there are also story times throughout the day. The outdoor play area has ropes and a jungle gym for your little monkeys.
The main attraction is the hilltop splash pad at the center of the park. Ideal for kids under eight, the water-spewing area is just big enough for a quick run-through, which most little ones do while screaming joyously. The hill offers a great view of downtown and the ponds at the base of the hill. Plus, there are several acres of green space between the park and the Long Center. This space tends to be less crowded than Auditorium Shores or Zilker Park. And if you get hungry, the Barton Springs restaurant row is nearby.
As educational as it is entertaining, the Austin Zoo houses only animals that have been rescued from private homes and other settings that were not suitable for wildlife. The zoo is also small enough to explore thoroughly in about an hour. The black panther and Galapagos tortoise are must-sees. In the petting zoo, kids can feed some extremely friendly goats. Kids who like scary animals will appreciate the bizarre hyenas and iguanas. The zoo also has a coatimundi, a raccoon-like mammal that is actually native to Texas but is rarely seen in the wild.
For the little hikers in the family, the Barton Creek Greenbelt offers miles and miles of unstructured fun. Make sure the little ones wear shoes with good traction because portions of the trail meander over big boulders that are slippery after a rainstorm. Also, beware of over-excited dogs running along the trail off-leash. In their exuberance, they can easily bowl over a small child, particularly on the narrow section of the route. Portions of the trail are shaded, but most of it is in full sun so bring plenty of water, hats, and sunscreen. The entrance to the trail is in the parking lot of Barton Springs.
Kids love the Dino Pit, where they can dig up reproductions of actual dinosaur fossils found in central Texas. The giant sand pit is also dotted with informative signs that help children learn more about the ancient creatures and paleontology in general. The large dinosaur tracks are based on actual tracks found several years ago during the construction of a nearby building. The center also runs a wildlife rehabilitation facility that houses recuperating wildlife, such as bobcats, hawks and owls. The Small Wonders exhibit features lizards, fish, turtles and snakes you might encounter around Austin. Nature-oriented day camps are available throughout the summer.
Located within walking distance of the Thinkery, this park in the heart of the Mueller neighborhood consists of 30 acres surrounding a six-acre lake. The kids will have plenty of open space to roam as well as five miles of gravel and concrete paths that wind through the park. While swimming in the lake is prohibited, catch-and-release fishing and duck feeding are allowed. The fenced-in playground area features standard swings and slides in addition to jungle gyms and whimsical sculptures. If you get hungry, food trucks are usually parked nearby, making for a great impromptu picnic.
One of the most scenic spots in Austin, Mount Bonnell is a 775-foot hill overlooking Lake Austin. The long stairway to the top is a snap for most kids, though parents may be a little winded by the time they reach the summit. The viewing area at the top has a few benches and partial shade, but it’s not really designed for an extended stay. Most people climb to the top, take a few pictures, have a snack or picnic lunch and head back down. In addition to great views of downtown Austin, you can see the city’s surprising amount of green space.
Unlike Lady Bird Lake to the east, Lake Austin is mostly surrounded by commercial and residential property. However, public access is available at Emma Long Metropolitan Park. The park has about a mile of waterfront, a designated swimming area and plenty of open space for tossing around a football or a Frisbee. It’s also fun to sit and watch the ski boats cruise by. A small pier is available for fishing. If you’re looking for a more exciting way to experience Lake Austin, head to Keep Austin Wet to rent standup paddleboards, ski boats, and pontoon boats.
Located in a former movie theater, this multilevel laser tag facility gives kids a safe place to act out their war-hero fantasies. After watching a two-minute orientation, they’ll be ready to suit up and start shooting. Players get to come up with their code names, which are displayed on a scoreboard. A light-sensitive vest records the “shots” from light-emitting guns. The guns have a relatively long range, so it’s possible to shoot someone at the other side of the arena from the elevated Sky Trail. Participants can learn teamwork, patience and how to be downright sneaky when necessary. There’s also an on-site arcade and snack bar.
Even hard-to-impress kids will be amazed by the sight of 1.5 million bats emerging from the underside of the Congress Avenue bridge. The bats make their nightly appearance just before sunset between March and October. If you arrive early enough, the best viewing is from the top of the bridge. That vantage point allows you to see the emergence as well as their continued flight to the east. However, the area below the bridge has a hillside that gives kids the option of running around or lying down. From that position, you’ll see only the initial part of the spectacle, but it’s still awesome.
Equipped with one of the largest indoor playscapes in town, Mt. Playmore is an ideal destination for rainy days. The ingeniously designed space features a central seating area for exhausted parents. For those who want to play along with the kids, the climbing features and tunnels are built with enough space for grown-ups. Security is a priority; kids and parents get matching blacklight stamps that are double-checked when you exit. Mt. Playmore also features an arcade, a toddler area, and a restaurant. For kids who love critters, there’s even a live reptile show every Wednesday.