When relatives are visiting, it can be tough to find activities that are compatible with everyone's preferences and/or physical limitations. The following attractions are ideal for those who are looking to enjoy Austin at an easygoing pace.
Soaring 28 stories and 307 feet into the sky above the University of Texas campus, the University of Texas Tower is the campus' most easily recognizable landmark. A few miles north of downtown, the tower remains one of the tallest buildings in the campus area, and it's on top of a large hill, so it's viewable from many vantage points around town. Since its debut in 1937, the structure has served as the main building of the UT campus. The observation deck just below the clock tower was closed for several years after a gunman, Charles Whitman, went on a shooting spree from the tower in August 1966. Now, observation deck tours are available by reservation, and visitors can enjoy sweeping views of the cityscape. The Texas State Capitol, Mount Bonnell and other Austin landmarks are easily visible from this height. The tower is normally illuminated with a white light at night, but after athletic victories and other achievements, the tower lights turn burnt-orange, the official school color.
Zilker Park, Austin's largest urban green space, occupies 351 acres along the southern shore of Lady Bird Lake with Barton Springs Road cutting through the middle of the park. Grassy fields play host to soccer matches, volleyball games and picnics. Sand volleyball courts are normally first-come, first-serve, but they can also be reserved for large groups for a fee. The Zilker Playground on the park's southern end, complete with the pint-sized Zilker Zephyr train, entertains the little ones. Within the Zilker Park grounds, visitors will find Barton Springs Pool and the Zilker Botanical Garden, as well as seasonal events including the Austin City Limits Music Festival, the annual Kite Festival and the summer music series, Blues on the Green. Kayaks and canoes can be rented by the hour at two sites, one near Barton Springs pool and the other on the shores of Lady Bird Lake. The Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum lies along the park's eastern border.
Second Street District
Austin's city center holds more than commercial high-rises and government offices -- urban lofts, sidewalk eateries and local boutiques abound, particularly in the Second Street District. The three-block area provides an alternative shopping experience to the standard indoor mall. Trendy clothing, home decor and one-of-a-kind jewelry stores are interspersed among health food cafes, coffee shops, wine bars and gourmet restaurants like Cantina Laredo and III Forks. Many of the shops and some of the restaurants are locally owned and operated. City officials and local businesspeople invested heavily in Second Street as a way of encouraging people to live, play and work downtown. Austin's City Hall complex adds a funky element to the Second Street District (the building has an armadillo tail), while another popular shopping area, South Congress Avenue, is just a few blocks south.
Known for its beautiful, unobstructed view of the Austin area since the mid-1800s, Mount Bonnell hosts family photos, sunset picnics and romantic marriage proposals on a regular basis. Visitors park at the base of the hill and work their way up nearly 100 stone steps -- a 190-foot elevation gain -- to the wide open outcropping overlooking the southern side of the city and Lake Austin below. It's a fairly easy climb, but elderly relatives might find it challenging. A short gravel trail leads slowly downhill and to the left, offering up quiet spots for personal reflection with a clear view of the massive Pennybacker Bridge. Look left from Mount Bonnell to find the Texas State Capitol and the University of Texas Tower on the University of Texas campus. A number of nearby radio towers detract from the beauty of some of the views. At night, the towers' red lights give the spot an otherworldly feel.
As the principal art museum in the Austin metropolitan area, the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art has a massive collection featuring more than 17,000 works, including modern and contemporary American and Latin American art, as well as 15th century to contemporary prints and drawings. Situated on the southeastern corner of the University of Texas campus, adjacent to the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum and within walking distance of the Texas State Capitol, the Blanton building itself embodies the clean lines of modern art with its simple granite and limestone facade, white walls and crisp interior angles. Plan a multi-day visit, if possible. With 124,000 square feet of space, the museum can't be fully explored in one day. Along with the established collections and touring exhibits, the museum also organizes lectures, gallery talks, concerts, workshops and the ever popular B Scene, a monthly evening of mingling, cocktails and musical entertainment among the art.
This is absolutely, positively the best place in Austin for general people watching as well as star spotting. Plus, the Driskill Bar has highly experienced and professional bartenders who know how to pour a quality drink. The decor oozes Texas, complete with lamps in the shape of pistols and cowhide chairs. But back to the people watching. The historic Driskill Hotel attracts movie producers and oil barons, film stars and dot-com millionaires. If you simply plant yourself at the bar, you will meet someone interesting before the night is over. If you've already met someone interesting, this is a great place to bring a date for a nightcap. Cushy leather couches are far enough from the main bar to allow you to hear each other, yet you're still close enough to spot any celebrities who might wander in. A piano player normally sings softly in the background, but occasionally a full-on sing-along breaks out.
The most reliable indicator of a high-quality dance hall in Texas is the presence of old people, particularly old people who skillfully dance and spin and seem unaware of anyone other than their partner. On some nights, the Broken Spoke is bursting with lively seniors who dance circles around the novices. Most of the time, there's a mix of young and old, cowboys and hipsters, locals and tourists. The massive wooden dance floor splits the room in two, with seating areas on either side. The bands, whether they're young or old, play mostly traditional country music. Because that's the kind of music owner James White likes, he's been doing things this way since 1964, and he has no intention of changing. Another fan of traditional country music, a certain red-headed stranger, has been known to hang out here when he's not touring.
This basement bar is unpretentious yet unmistakably cool, offering live jazz seven nights a week. And there's usually no cover on weekdays. Michael Mordecai's Monday night Jazz Jam is a must-see; you never know who might show up. The Jazz Pharaohs play every Wednesday night; band member Stanley Smith can make the clarinet sound like a soulful saxophone. Touring acts from all over the U.S. also play regularly. Jazz superstar Wynton Marsalis has performed at the Elephant Room several times over the years.
A simple sunset is the star of the show every night at The Oasis. Perched on a hillside covered with tiered decks, diners applaud spontaneously as the sun slips behind the hills. For years, the restaurant was criticized for its pricey, mediocre food and drinks. Now, you can have your view and a good meal too. The Fire Grilled Relleno is stuffed with spicy pork or chicken and covered with queso fresco, cilantro and Mexican cream. The Grilled Shrimp Diablo is a plate of huge shrimp stuffed with sliced jalapenos wrapped in bacon and basted in sweet chilies. For optimum sunset toasting, get the gold margarita, with a floater of Cazadores Blanco and a splash of orange juice. On Sunday nights, Latin jazz band The Brew plays at the adjoining Starlight Terrace bar. A retractable roof is opened during good weather to allow dancing under the stars.
Cedar Street Courtyard
If your grandparents are of the spunky variety, Cedar Street may be a good nighttime option. The nightclub is made up of three distinct spaces. There are two indoor bars on either side of a large outdoor courtyard. The music and dancing happen in the courtyard while most of the mingling happens in the long, narrow side bars. The bands are usually fun, danceable cover bands, such as the Spazmatics and SkyRocket. The place can get packed on weekends, but it is so large that you can usually snag a seat if you stay alert. Restless souls can make a loop from one bar across the courtyard and back. The crowd tends to be in the 30- to 40-year-old age group. It's a little calmer than the wild-and-crazy Sixth Street crowd, but there's still a fair amount of groove-thing shaking.
The sprawling museum may be too much to explore in one day, but you can probably find a particular section that appeals to your grandparents. The La Belle shipwreck exhibit tends to captivate visitors of all ages. The artifacts found in relatively shallow water in the Gulf of Mexico tell the story of the doomed vessel that set sail from France in 1684. The excavation process began in 1995, and it essentially involved building a temporary dam around the shipwreck so that the items could be dug up from the muddy bottom. If your grandparents are interested in more recent history, the third floor covers the oil business, the cattle industry, Texas music, the Civil Rights Era and NASA. The museum’s IMAX theater presents a mix of historical documentaries and current films using the latest cinematic technologies.
Located next to Zilker Park, Umlauf Sculpture Garden is an ideal outing for elderly relatives who may get tired easily. A casual stroll through the xeriscape garden, including stops along the way, will only take about 30 minutes, and it’s almost all on level ground. All the outdoor sculptures have a light coating of wax so that those with vision impairments can enjoy the sculptures without harming them. The garden and adjoining museum feature the work of Charles Umlauf and a few of his friends. Umlauf and his wife lived on the site in the 1950s and donated much of his work, his home and studio to the city of Austin in 1985. Umlauf was an art professor at the University of Texas for 40 years.