Having lived in the Lone Star State for eight months now, it was time to get out of Houston and check out the place recognized by all as the coolest, yet weirdest city in America: Austin.
After three busy days in town, we realized why Austin has this reputation. With an endless list of family-friendly activities, phenomenal live music, beautiful views, good food, museums, natural pools (fed from underground springs), and arts, the capital of the Lone Star State is definitely a neat city. Weird? I may not agree with that. Different? Definitely! Austinites are more open-minded, creative, hip, and friendly than folks in any other city where I have been. Austin has its own character.
If you are planning on visiting the Capital of the Lone Star State, with kids or not, check this ultimate family guide for a weekend.
Tour the Texas State Capitol building
The trip to Austin wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Texas State Capitol building. As we approached from Congress Avenue, we had the first stunning sight of it.
Have you heard “everything is bigger in Texas?” Following the well-established standard, the Texas State Capitol building is the largest state capitol in the nation. Its majestic appearance is due not only to its size, but also its architecture and the pink granite used to build it. Looking at it from outside, the building stands beautifully surrounded by monuments, trees, fountains, and lush, green grounds.
We took advantage of the free guided tour, and I recommend you do the same. It was a fun way to learn more about the political history of the Lone Star State.
Starting on the first floor, the past is evident in everywhere: marble sculptures of Sam Houston and Stephen Austin, large-scale paintings including The Surrender of Santa Anna, and portraits of Texas’ most recent governors. Additionally, a Rotunda on the floor shows six seals that represent the six former flags of Texas.
Continuing upstairs, the other three floors display portraits of all Presidents of the United States and Governors of the State. During our visit, we also visited the Senate Chamber and the House of Representatives Chamber.
Finally, we visited the underground Capitol Extension, an area that was constructed to handle extra offices when the main building became too small.
If you prefer, you can explore the Capitol on your own and spend as much time as you want in the building. At the entrance there are free, self-guided tour pamphlets to help you cruise the space at your own pace.
* Parking is easy. When in the area, look for the Capitol Visitors Parking Garage (1201 San Jacinto Street). The garage is conveniently located two blocks from the Texas State Capitol, and the first two hours of parking are free.
Explore the South Congress (SoCo): food and street art
The South Congress Avenue is located on the southern side of the Colorado River and is easily reached from the Capitol. A section of this street, which is linked to adjacent streets, forms the South Congress, affectionately called SoCo by locals. The whole area exhibits a hippie atmosphere, vibrant with life.
The neighborhood consists of boutiques, bars, live music venues, and restaurants where locals and tourists share space, local culture, and tasty food, as there are several locally-owned restaurants and food trucks in the area.
Regardless of having a plan or not, South Congress is definitely a place to visit and absorb the hipster, artsy, laid-back character typical of Austin.
Speaking of which, this typical neighborhood has a phenomenal collection of street art – there are several murals – beautifully painted. They can be in the most unexpected places, like this one on the sidewall of a store. Just keep your eyes open and you will find them.
Kayak, paddleboard or canoe
There are different ways to see the city, and kayaking up and down the calm waters of the Colorado River is one of them. That said, we rented double and single kayaks, and under blue skies, we paddled in Lady Bird Lake. Along the route, passing under several bridges (including Congress Bridge), we saw Austin’s beautiful downtown skyline. It is one more, peaceful way to enjoy the city and cool off.
Note: There are several rental places along the lake.
See the bats
I love sunsets and sunrises. However, a sunset in Austin means more than the warm, orange-red color of the sun over the skyline. It means bat time. The day was ending, and, like hundreds of other people, we made our way to the South Congress Avenue Bridge to watch the largest urban bat colony in North America fly out from under the bridge.
Side by side with tourists and locals, our spot was a small, grassy hill below the bridge. Most of the onlookers were standing on the bridge; others were watching in boats or kayaks on the Colorado River. In other words, the whole area was packed!
We sat and waited. More people kept joining the crowd. It probably wouldn’t have been a good idea to wander around, because we could lose our spot.
As soon as the sun went down, about 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats began flying out. It was amazing! For about 30 minutes, bats emerged, tens of thousands at a time! According to sources, the bats hunt up and down the Colorado River, eating between 20 to 30 thousand pounds of insects every night, keeping the city’s insect population under control. Definitely bizarre, but still neat!
Whether you are a bat enthusiast or not, this is a sight you should not miss!
For additional information about bat-emerging times, check Congress Avenue Bridge.
Visit Mount Bonnell
Mount Bonnell, the highest point of the city, offers one of the best views of Austin. Trying to avoid the heat, we drove to the area in the early morning and parked on the side of the road. After climbing some man-made steps and walking a short, well-maintained trail, we spotted a fabulous neighborhood with upscale homes alongside the Colorado River. The breathtaking views can’t be beat.
Go to the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum
The interactive exhibits of the Bob Bullock Texas Museum took us through a fascinating learning experience of Texas history.
The museum has three floors. On the first floor, we saw the exhibition about the French ship La Belle and its historic voyage in 1684. This vessel, which was shipwrecked in a storm and sank in Matagorda Bay near the Gulf of Mexico, rested under the water for over 300 years. A preserved and renovated hull of the ship is in the museum. Furthermore, we saw a huge holographic image of the La Belle. Thrilling!
On the second floor, displays about the Civil War, slavery, and how Texas changed from an independent nation to the 28th state are just a few of the many exhibits. Equally important, on the third floor you can see historic exhibitions of NASA achievements, oil field drills, cattle stories, and more.
Surf at NLand Surf Park
While still living in California, we heard about the NLand Surf Park in Texas. Now that we were in the area, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to see how it works and if it is really as cool as we heard. Moreover, we thought it would be a good surprise for our daughter, who misses the West Coast waves.
NLand Surf Park, currently the only man-made surf park in North America, is an ocean in the middle of Texas. Bright idea! In a huge open area divided by a pier in the center, mechanical waves run north to south and vice-versa, giving the surfers an opportunity to surf in both directions. Beginner, intermediate, and advanced surfers can choose to surf three different breaks: Bay, Inside, and Reef, respectively.
Our young lady was a good fit for the Inside level. During a full session that lasted just under an hour, she had a blast. Her excitement was beyond anything I can possibly describe:
“Mom, it is awesome! It is just like I’m surfing in the ocean; the only difference is that I know exactly when the wave is coming.” I couldn’t contain my laughter.
Despite not doing everything we planned (time was too short), we loved Austin. We are only 165 miles away, so we will definitely head back sometime soon to enjoy whatever else the city has to offer.
- Watch this short video for an illustration of our weekend in Austin.