Earlier this year I took the family to Austin, Texas which has to be one of the coolest places (in my admittedly limited experience) in the USA. Here are some of the things we enjoyed most when we were in Austin.
1. Swim in Barton Springs Pool
Just down the road from our holiday rental house through HomeAway was Barton Springs Pool, a stretch of river fed by natural springs, that had been dammed to make a fresh-water open-air swimming pool where you can swim all year round. At one end there are some shallows and in places it’s a bit weedy around the edge, but you can’t complain because that’s where the rare salamander live. There are changing rooms and grassy banks on both sides where you can sit and sunbathe. The kids loved jumping in with a squeal off the bouncy diving board and I enjoyed a few languorous lengths which took a rather long time since the lake is quite big, followed by a few chapters of a good book sitting on the grassy banks. At the end you can peer over the dam wall to the shallow river areas where families have paddled their kayaks up from the main river and are stopping for a picnic.
2. Shopped for Vintage and Cowboy boots on South Congress
We stopped off on South Congress Avenue in the SoCo neighbourhood for trendy and vintage shopping, where you may even find the odd bargain in between designer gear and $500 embroidered cowboy boots. My husband took the boys to nose around the second hand book shops while my daughter and I looked around the outdoor market and bought some colourful Mexican stone bead necklaces to give as presents. There place is awash with Vintage shops, the best known and most stylish of which is Uncommon Objects, and we also enjoyed looking at the colourful Mexican home-ware and jewellery in Tesoros Trading Company and tried on a few pairs of $500 embroidered cowboy boots at Allens Boots. South Congress Avenue is a place to park your car and wander, as it has much more of a European shopping feel than many places in the US, with some equally cool and trendy eateries to hang out.
3. Dinosaurs and roses at Zilker Botanical Gardens
After church on Easter Sunday we drove into Zilker Park, passing groups of families and friends setting out their picnic tables for a BBQ lunch. We parked at the Zilker Botanical Garden and walked down through the gardens past the wooden settler village where you could peer into the windows of the old forge and schoolhouse to learn a bit about the first German and Swedish settlers to populate this part of Texas. Lower down the rose garden was blooming and there was a pretty summerhouse, leading through to the Japanese garden with small bridges and stepping stones in the stream that children would enjoy hopping over. The prehistoric garden at the bottom of the hill was filled with lush ferns, pools and waterfalls with a dinosaur figure on the look-out in the centre of the pool.
4. Listened to Live music in the Live Music Capital of the World
There’s a good reason why Austin is known as the “Live music capital of the world” and every bar, cafe, restaurant and coffee house seems to have something musical going on, not to mention the aspiring country music stars busking on the sidewalk. We found a few places to try with the teenagers in tow and caught the end of the live music set while we had our dinner at Threadgills, although we realised that we should have arrived earlier than 9pm as the kitchen was just about closing, unlike in Europe where the party would just be starting.
At Flipnotics, in the treehouse-like bar built into the side of the hill on Barton Springs Road, we noticed that one of our favourite performers, Devon Sproule was playing, so we went to hear her perform that evening. We first saw Devon perform at our local church hall in Bristol, which doubles as a country music club and discovered when we chatted to her afterwards that she and her husband, Paul Curreri, had just moved to Austin.
Our only disappointment was when we turned up at The Broken Spoke Dance Hall, which was a short walk from our rental house, and found that is was closed on Mondays. This Honky Tonk Dance Hall has a big reputation and we were looking forward to a little shuffle around the floor, even if we didn’t have any cowboy boots or hats to look the part.
5. Waited for the South Congress Bridge bats who never came
We spent the evening under South Congress Bridge hoping to see something of the bat colony that live on the underside of the bridge as they are known to fly out in a great swirling crowd at dusk when they go to feed. We joined the hundreds of expectant visitors, seated on the grass with cameras poised, some in kayaks and tour boats on the river. Sadly it got darker and darker but the bats didn’t oblige with any major display and we could only see a few flitting in and out of their nests on the underside of the bridge. The event was something of an anti-climax and the kids delighted in pointing out that their crazy Mum had dragged them along to see a few black bats in the dark! Read more about the Austin bats in my husband’s article.
6. Shot an AK47 in a Texas Gun range
The highlight of the trip for my 19 year old son was to be able to shoot an AK47 Kalashnikov rifle, in one of those “Only in America” moments.We did a quick Google search and located Reds Indoor Range on the outskirts of Austin, on a shopping mall beside a busy main road. My husband and the boys filled out a form, gave in their photo ID, bought some ammo and hired the gun of their choice to try out on the gun range. Although it was all done quickly and easily, we were impressed by the staff’s strict safety drills and professionalism.
There was a range warden on duty behind the firing point, but as he was primarily there for safety rather than instruction, you would need to be experienced and confident in the handling of guns, or alternatively book some time with an instructor. My daughter and I retired to eat tacos in a nearby Mexican diner and my youngest son found it all a bit ear-splitting, but for dad and eldest son it was definitely one for a bit of bragging on Facebook. Read more about our Texas Gun Range experience
7. Lived like locals in the Barton Hills neighbourhood
The best things about staying in our HomeAway Vacation Rental was that we relaxed into the laid back Austin vibe, living in the neighbourhood like a local. We could drive down the road to pick up groceries at Sprouts Farmer’s Market store and chill out with a local beer on the deck, while the steaks were sizzling on the barbecue, the wind-chimes tinkling and the dog was barking next door.
The kids loved having plenty of space to spread out and Jay, the owner of our three bedroom Westrock House, arrived on our first day to give us lots of local recommendations as well as bag of local beer and nibbles.
We also had a walk through the wooded trails in the green-belt area near our house that’s upstream from the Barton Springs Pool, finding the kind of secret swimming spots that only a local would normally know about, so long as you don’t mind a bit of clambering over rocks and undergrowth.
I definitely recommend renting a house in Austin rather than staying in a hotel – the city has a chilled out feel where the cool things are going on in the local neighbourhoods and you can be part of it.
8. Visited the Texas Capitol Building
In the Downtown area, the Texas Capitol Building is one of the key things to see in Austin and has a convenient car park beside it. First we looked around the Visitor’s centre that has video presentations and interactive media, before we went into the State Capitol itself and took the free guided tour to learn all about the history of government in the state of Texas. Unfortunately the children disappeared to the cafe for breakfast, while I was hearing all about legislative practices in the Senate Chamber and gazing up at the enormous dome. Outside there are nicely landscaped garden areas with statues commemorating different aspects of Texan history.
9. Got a taste for Tacos and other Trailer Park food
Austin is also known for its food trailers that have become a big trend in the city. In between shopping on South Congress Avenue we stopped for lunch at the food trailer park just across the road, where we could choose between Pitta or Tex-Mex or Bratwurst finished off with a slice of pie or a cup-cake while being serenaded by the Country & Western street performers. We enjoyed the food experience so much that we stopped the next day at similar food trailer park on South 1st Street and became addicted to cake balls and tacos.
Visitor Information for Austin, Texas
- We booked our hire car that took us from Houston to San Antonio to Austin and back to Houston through Argus car Hire
- Our Westrock Vacation Rental in the Barton Hills neighbourhood was booked through HomeAway
- For more information about food trailers around the city visit the Food Trailers Austin website
- More information about the Bats under South Congress Bridge
- Zilker Botanical Gardens website
- Texas State Capitol Building and Capitol Visitor’s Centre
- We enjoyed live music from Devon Sproule at Flipnotics on Barton Springs Rd, Threadgills on West Riverside Drive and just missed out on The Broken Spoke on South Lamar Boulevard as it was closed on Mondays
- We went shooting at Red’s Gun Range in Austin
- More visitor information at the Austin Texas, tourism website
- Check for the best hotel prices in Texas and book here
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