From chowing down as a family on the best BBQ ever at Franklin Barbecue to spending a day experiencing amazing STEAM activities at Thinkery, plan a fun trip for kids of all ages to Austin, Texas with these ideas.

By Melissa Klurman
February 05, 2020
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Credit: Kirk Tuck

You may already know about Austin's hopping music scene and trend-setting South by Southwest (SXSW) festivals, but it may surprise you to know that Texas' self-proclaimed capital of "weird" is also filled with tons of fun for families that will keep both parents and kids equally happy. The funky, festive city offers plenty of free fun, too, and grown-ups can enjoy the beat of live music and even some craft brews while still catering to the kids. Here are some of our favorite spots in Austin.

Go Batty at the South Congress Bridge

For kids who don't get spooked by the dark, the South Congress Bridge Bat colony is perhaps the best free thing to do in Austin, or anywhere for that matter. Every evening from March to November, join the bat fans that wait on the banks of Lady Bird Lake for the 1.5 million "birds of the night" that take off every evening at dusk. As soon as the sun settles beyond the horizon, clouds of fuzzy fliers swoop and dive and thrill the crowds that gather to watch them.

Kids exploring the Light Lab at Thinkery.
| Credit: Kirk Tuck

Play Indoors at the Thinkery

Rainy day? Don't worry, the innovative Thinkery is a sure-fire hit for little ones, with STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) activities geared toward babies up to grade schoolers. The hands-on exhibits start with a "Smile Here" selfie spot that then integrates your family's smiling (or maybe even scary or sad) mugs into different locations around the 40,000 square foot space. Other highlights include the Kitchen Lab, Innovators' Workshop, and the Spark Shop maker's space.

Go Back to School at UT Austin

With older kids, head to the massive University of Texas at Austin campus. Just wandering the expansive grounds and riding up to the top of the tower (a fun and cheap Austin activity) will make a lasting impression. Then check out the colorful Ellsworth Kelly glass at the Blanton Museum of Art and the LBJ Presidential Library, a good fit with tweens and teens for its interactive displays that explore 1960s culture (a recent exhibit focused on the music of Motown).

Check out East Austin

The hippest new neighborhood in town is East Austin, and while the party scene of Sixth Street may be a little too much for kids, this neighborhood just to the east is a perfect spot to base yourself while still getting a taste of everything that makes Austin unique. Get a multi-bedroom, sleek new apartment rental through Sonder—a hip new alternative to the old Airbnb. For less than the price of a single hotel room, you'll get multiple bedrooms and bathrooms, a kitchen, washer and dryer, and access to a cool pool. All-day brunch at Snooze is a local fave; the chocolate chip pancakes and Funky Monkey French Toast are always a good time.

Say Cheers to a Beer Farm

The craft brew scene is big in Austin, and while not all breweries are good for kids, Jester King is more than simply a spot to raise a pint. A 20-minute ride brings you to the 165 acre farm where kids, dogs, and beer aficionados all find something to love. The farm offers friendly goats, farm tours, live music, and some of the best wood-fired pizza you'll find in the whole state. Designate a driver and do the beer tasting to sip some of the most interesting brews in town.

A shot of Barton Springs Pool courtesy of Visit Austin.
| Credit: Austin Parks and Recreation Department

Dive Into Barton Springs

Barton Springs pool is the perfect way to cool off on a hot Texas day. The three-acre, spring-fed pool is an Austin family favorite; the natural spring is deep and clean with an average water temperature of 70 degrees year-round. There's a small cover to enter ($9 for adults, $5 for teens, and $4 for young kids), but it's a bargain considering you're getting water park thrills without having to actually wait in line to get wet. Bring towels and picnic lunch and you'll be set for the day. It's adjacent to the free Austin playground at Zilker Park where you'll also find Barton Creek, a bit of free Austin family fun where the kids can watch fish and wade in to rock hop if it's not a swimming kind of day.

Keep Austin Weird at the Cathedral of Junk

For a fabulous, funky, and free Austin experience, head to the the always fascinating Cathedral of Junk. A labor of love by the owner and artist, Vince Hannemann, it's a treasure made from trash with towers and twisting pathways created from poured concrete and rubbish ranging from discarded street signs to Christmas ornaments. Kids love to climb around, explore the miniature scenes, and try out the slide. (Be sure to call before you come; visits are by appointment only: 512 299-7413).

Get the Best BBQ in the Country (Without Waiting in Line)

For many foodies, Austin is synonymous with great barbecue, and at the top of the pulled pork and ribs heap is Franklin Barbecue, legendary for its smoked brisket and hours-long, definitely not kid-friendly lines. But we'll share the secret of tasting its decadent carnivore menu without watching your kids have a mealtime meltdown: You just need to plan in advance (a parent speciality). Six weeks to be exact. And be sure to order at least five pounds of meat with the online ordering system, which is the perfect size for a hungry family (for reference, there are about four large ribs in a pound, about eight slices of brisket in a one pound order, and a pound of pulled pork fills a large cereal bowl). Choose a time, pick up your feast, and then head to a local park and dig in to the best of Austin!

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