Best things to do in Austin with kids
As a benchmark of Austin’s original children’s museum, Thinkery is the ultimate space for families to discover a plethora of “whys” and “hows” using fun, scientific and physical experimentation. The innovative building houses countless hours' worth of activities: peering through microscopes or learning at the Animation Station in the Innovators’ Workshop; practicing concepts of aerodynamics with the object launcher in the Spark Shop; drawing with light or freezing shadows in the Light Lab; uncovering the link between water and sound in the Currents exhibit; or settling in with a wide variety of picture/story books in the cozy Story Nook. And if the weather’s right, don’t forget to visit the outdoor area complete with space-age playground and a stream stocked with buckets and sieves for water fun.
With its underlying mission to assist animals in need through rescue, rehabilitation and education, the Austin Zoo is a fantastic choice to give the kiddos an up-close encounter with a wide variety of critters and feel good about it—your nominal admission price goes directly to efforts to save endangered species and the care of the zoo’s animals. Check out more than 300 animals of over 100 different species while exploring the 15-acre expanse of beautiful hill country. For the most scenic tour, take the 20-minute train ride and see some longhorns, alpacas and emus along the way!
As the home of the annual Austin City Limits Music Festival, the Trail of Lights, the Blues on the Green concert series, and dozens of other outdoor activities, Zilker Park is an ATX institution. Pretty much year-round, you and your kids can explore the sprawling playground, stroll through the stunning Umlauf Sculpture and Zilker Botanical gardens, rent a canoe or kayak the tranquil waterways (including Lady Bird Lake). Plus, you can tour the grounds on the Zilker Park Train or frolic on the open green fields—perfect for a casual Frisbee or soccer game. Don’t miss out on a cool-off at Barton Springs Pool during the hotter months (let’s be real: that’s pretty much every month in Austin).
HOPE Outdoor Gallery, also known as Castle Hill for the fortress-like structure perched at the top, will be moving this summer to Carson Creek Ranch, but until it does, it remains Austin’s premier family-friendly intro to street art. Arm your kids with paint, brushes and/or spray cans and allow them to paint to their hearts’ desire (but please be responsible and protect their lungs with a safety mask). Or simply take a walkthrough and pique their creative interests by watching countless talented muralists render large-scale pieces. On a clear day or during a striking sunset, a quick climb to the top will reveal one of the best panoramic views of the city skyline—great for family photos!
For kids who like to get their hands dirty, a trip to the Austin Nature and Science Center is both educational and hands-on. A few of the areas located in the western corner of Zilker Park are indoors, but most of the center's activities—designed for people of all ages—are outside, with the goal of helping visitors "increase awareness and appreciation of their natural environment." Check out all the programs, relating to biology, astronomy and paleontology, among other subjects.
With three floors, a cozy café and plenty of quirky Keep-Austin-Weird decor, it’s no wonder that BookPeople—the largest bookstore in Texas—has been voted the capital city’s best bookstore year after year. One of its most beloved sections is the kids area, which features a colorful, carpeted mini-amphitheater perfectly suited for weekly story times held every Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday morning. No matter what tale they tell, you can count on the store’s staff to send your kids home with a smile—they even occasionally bust out their “preposterous puppeteers” for special sessions on the weekend!
It's common to witness a plethora of peacocks strolling casually among people at West Austin’s Mayfield Park and Preserve, where you and your young ones can picnic or explore the gardens while watching the full mating and life cycles of this fascinating, totally nonaggressive avian family, whose original descendants were introduced in 1935. Primetime is late winter (February) through Spring (April/May), when the males begin fanning their elaborate plumage to court the females—guaranteed to evoke some priceless “oohs” and “ahs” from all age groups.
It’s probably safe to say we’ve all visited some abysmally boring mini-golf courses, but South Austin’s Peter Pan Mini-Golf hasn’t lost its edge since opening in 1948. For just a few bucks, you and your young’uns can conquer two courses complete with plenty of iconic challenges, including the Giant Tyrannosaurus Rex, the Whale, the Old Mill, the Turtle and of course good ol’ Pan himself. Free party/picnic reservations are available—and there's a huge bonus for (responsible) parents/guardians: Peter Pan is BYOB (just no glass, please).
Bringing a slice of deep-sea life to North Austin and its curious kiddos, this aquatic playground offers 35 exhibits in which tropical and cold-water fish swim alongside larger sea creatures. Past the “shipwrecked” boat packed with sea anemones, you’ll see large tanks full of shrimp, nautiluses and a giant jellyfish swirling under color-changing black lights. Kids can touch and feed stingrays, leopard sharks and starfish in three large tanks and encounter land animals like chameleons, lizards, parrots and a giant tortoise.
Millennial parents may remember Discovery Zone as the perfect alternative to dirty, hot, outdoor playgrounds (or Pandamonium Playland if you’re ATX born-and-bred), but these days it’s all about North Austin’s Mt. Playmore. As Central Texas’s biggest indoor playscape, it’s an ideal spot for hours of supervised, spatial fun. Better yet, if you reach your adult limit, there are plenty of comfortable couches in a central seating area where it’s easy enough to keep close watch. There’s also an arcade and restaurant to complete the party package, plus a toddlers-only area if you’re toting tykes on the younger side.
Many Austinites will swear by the original location on Guadalupe for its employees’ zany antics and selection of fun hats, but the Burnet Road branch in North Austin is the better choice for you and the kids to grab a few scoops of one of this local mainstay’s 350 flavors. Why? Because it has a playground, of course! If you’ve never had one of Amy’s famous Crush’ns —anything from gummy bears to Heath Bar to fresh strawberries artfully crushed into creative homemade flavors like Mexican Vanilla, White Chocolate or Sweet Cream—you’re missing an essential part of ATX ice-cream culture. Fair warning: one taste and your kiddos may be asking for it all the time.
At the Contemporary Austin, there’s more than meets eye. For starters, it’s one institution with two locations—and the 14-acre Laguna Gloria site is incredibly kid-friendly. Not only does its expansive grounds allow children to wander around the pieces untethered (and without fear of screaming too loud in a quiet museum room), but families are encouraged to attend on Second Saturdays, when hands-on workshops are offered. They also offer kid-friendly backpacks stocked with art supplies, just in case inspiration strikes when touring the grounds.
If you’re among Austin’s countless transplants, here’s a music-focused weekend activity that might’ve skirted under your radar. Every Sunday, you can grab your coffee fix while entertaining the kids at East-Central Austin’s uber-chill Cherrywood Coffeehouse during brunch hours, which feature special live music performances just for children. Each weekend hosts a different act, like the highly interactive Groundworks Music folks on second Sundays or the fun-loving Staci Gray—known for encouraging copious bubble-blowing—on the final weekend of every month.
Though it’s technically 12 miles east of Austin near Bastrop, the local Dinosaur Park is a hotspot you won’t to neglect if your little peeps are Prehistorically inclined. Unlike a traditional dino museum, this park features full-scale statues on a mile-long trail depicting the creatures as they were when they ruled the Earth, plus a Dino Dig for unearthing some life-size “fossils.” On a nice afternoon, it’s an ideal site for a birthday or picnic. And if it’s the right season, the grounds offer up a fantastic lesson in local critter life—you can often spot lizards, wild rabbits, large stick insects and roadrunners as you traverse the path.