This article is sponsored by Delta Air Lines
I admit it: I’m a type A planner. I think family vacations go best when there’s at least a loose itinerary in place. But I’ve recently come to learn that if you let a vacation unfold naturally, it leaves room for spontaneity and really lets everyone relax and be present for every part of the trip. I have to be honest though: I didn’t come to this understanding on my own. My plans for our trip to Texas were actually foiled! I originally wanted our family to explore Austin’s outdoors activities. There are so many things to do in Austin with kids outdoors like kayaking, hiking and swimming in natural springs, but as the trip drew closer we realized it would be rainy and stormy much of the time we’d be there. We ended up making plans on-the-fly and it turned out even better than my original vision! We ate fantastic food, discovered some hidden gems in the city, reconnected as a family, and even got to spend time with friends who either lived in Austin or happened to be in town at the same time as us.
Check out our travel vlogs from both San Antonio and Austin here:
We flew into Austin from JFK and there were no shortage of flights to choose from. Delta has nonstop flights from JFK to Austin up to three times a day! We spent some quality time in the Delta Sky Club in Terminal 2. One of the upgrades I recommend for all traveling families is to wait in an airport lounge instead of at the gate, and Delta Sky Club is one of our favorites! There’s always a good selection of healthy food (including at least a couple of hot dishes), beverages, and the service is consistently pleasant.
After we landed in Austin that afternoon, we were ready for some grub! We headed to Javi’s Best of Tex Mex, which was just a five-minute drive from the airport. We sampled several tacos. My favorites were the fish tacos and the grilled shrimp tacos.
First Stop: San Antonio!
Since San Antonio is only about a 90-minute drive from Austin, we decided to spend the first night of our vacation there. We checked into Hotel Contessa, a great hotel right on the popular San Antonio River Walk. We booked room 721, a very spacious Riverview King Corner Suite. It had a fabulous view of the river below.
We spent the evening exploring the River Walk area, which has lots of cafes and restaurants lining either side, and several cute bridges to get from one side to the other. Up on the street level, the girls loved seeing the horse-drawn carriages going by. We were there over Easter weekend, which is when there’s a big Fiesta in San Antonio. There were lots of people walking around with lit-up flower crowns, making the area pretty and festive.
The next morning, we had brunch at Gourdough’s Public House. This eatery is known for making all kinds of dishes with donuts. The girls ordered the Unicorn Grilled Cheese from the kid’s menu, which featured unicorn-colored cheese melted between two halves of a donut. I ordered the Petunia, which is a donut topped with pulled pork, fried egg and cream gravy. By far the best dish though, was Serge’s. He ordered the Dirty Plucker, which is a donut served with fried chicken, honey butter and maple icing. It was basically chicken and waffles, but with donuts instead of waffles.
After brunch, we explored the area around The Alamo, before getting on a hop-on, hop-off bus tour around downtown San Antonio. Sean has always wanted to ride one of these open-top, double-decker buses, so she was excited. The tour was interesting, but it got hot really quickly so for the last few stops we headed to the bottom deck to get out of the sun.
Hotel Van Zandt in Austin
After the tour, we loaded our luggage in the car and drove over to Austin. We hit a bit of traffic on the way (not surprising for a Sunday afternoon), but we still got there pretty quickly.
We checked into Hotel Van Zandt, a stylish boutique hotel in downtown Austin. The lobby has a cool industrial vibe, and instead of the typical, single-wide check-in counter, there are four individual counters made of a striking hammered metal.
We stayed in room 1414, a Queen Queen Spa Studio. The spa rooms at the property are called that because they each have an oversized bathroom and a large soaking tub. The room had two queen beds plus a pull-out sofa in a spacious sitting area. At 655 square feet, this suite felt really luxurious in terms of space.
The property serves complimentary beer and wine every evening from 5:00 to 6:00 p.m. in the lobby, encouraging guests to mingle and connect with one another. At many hotels, we would have felt awkward bringing the girls to something like this, but the Van Zandt welcomed the girls and offered them each a can of Pellegrino fruit sodas, while Serge and I enjoyed some wine.
As soon as we were seated in the lobby, a gentleman came over to compliment Sean and Ella’s multi-colored “mermaid” hair. The girls were immediately taken with him. They loved that his sequined bow tie matched their hair color perfectly! It turns out, his name is Frankie G, and he’s in the music business, specializing in booking cool jazz artists and bands. We found ourselves having this great conversation with him, and recognized this as one of those moments of connection unique to travel. It’s like when you have a deep discussion with a stranger on a plane that you never see again, but just know you were meant to meet. There’s this sort of magic and destiny quality to the seemingly-fleeting connections you make while traveling…has that ever happened to you?
Chicken and Popsicles
We made it a priority to stop at Gus’s Fried Chicken after a recommendation of a chef friend of ours. Gus’s is actually a national chain, with locations from California all the way to Maryland, but if I hadn’t checked out the website, I would have assumed it was just a local joint, as it doesn’t have a “chain” feel at all.
This was definitely some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had. The batter is ever so slightly spicy, and has the perfect amount of crisp. The baked beans served with the chicken are sweet, which nicely sets off the spice of the chicken. The mac and cheese and collard greens are both great as well.
If you’re looking for fun things to do in Austin with kids, check out Popbar. This place lets you customize your own popsicle! After selecting a flavor, you choose your dipping and your toppings. For example, Sean ordered a mango popsicle half dipped in chocolate with crumbled waffle cone, while I ordered a coffee popsicle dipped in chocolate with chopped hazelnut. Turns out Popbar has franchises in six different states already, including one in NYC! We’ll definitely be dropping in on that location.
Breakfast Tacos and a Dip in the Pool
Austin is known for its tacos. The locals even eat them for breakfast! So the next morning we went off hunting for some breakfast tacos to try. I found a great breakfast place near our hotel called Cenote. While it’s more of a general cafe and not specifically a taco joint, their tacos were well-reviewed online. Sean stuck to her New York roots by ordering a bagel and lox, while Serge, Ella and I tried all three types of breakfast tacos they serve: bacon, chorizo and potato. They were all tasty, but our favorite was definitely the bacon.
Just a note: There were quite a few folks in the area near Cenote who appeared to be experiencing homelessness. We saw a few makeshift tents under the highway, and there’s a church near Cenote that operates a soup kitchen, which draws a lot of unhoused residents. While Serge and I didn’t feel at all unsafe walking around there with the girls, I thought I’d mention it here as every family’s comfort level is different. Unfortunately, the number of people in Austin experiencing homelessness has increased year over year as housing has become less affordable, so this was not an uncommon sight as we explored the city.
While there’s no shortage of fun things to do in Austin with kids, there’s nothing our girls love more than spending time in the pool! So after breakfast we headed back to Hotel Van Zandt to change into our bathing suits. The property has a really gorgeous outdoor pool on the fourth floor, with a lovely outdoor bar and fireplace. Unfortunately, when we were there, a lot of construction projects were going on in the area right around the hotel, so it was a bit noisy and the views weren’t always great. The pool was still a fun place to unwind, however. If you’d like to upgrade your experience, you can rent a cabana that can hold up to 12 people.
In-n-Out and Public Art
After working up an appetite at the pool, we headed out for lunch. We’d driven by an In-N-Out Burger the previous day, and Sean was so excited to try it. Why? Not because the burgers are good, but because “YouTubers eat there.” In Los Angeles, of course! The girls had a great time there, and the staff even gave them a couple of In-N-Out Burger paper hats to wear to enhance their experience.
Serge had heard about HOPE Outdoor Gallery, an open-air collection of graffiti murals, so we headed over there. Unfortunately, when we arrived, the gate was padlocked, so we could only peer through the chain link fence at the art beyond. Apparently, the space was permanently closed a few months before, and there are plans to build a more elaborate gallery on this location.
We decided to head over to the University of Texas at Austin campus instead. I had seen photos of a beautiful structure there called “Austin” by the artist Ellsworth Kelly, so it was on my list to check it out in person. To go with the theme of our “expect the unexpected” vacation however, both Austin and the Blanton Museum of Art were closed on the day we went. We weren’t able to explore inside, but we ended up spending nearly two hours there anyway. It was one of those impromptu travel moments where something that you didn’t think would be fun for kids ended up being one of their favorite parts of the trip. We had a great time taking both serious and silly photos of each other and the girls loved running around the beautiful grass surrounding the building. In terms of fun things to do in Austin with kids, this one ranked high on our list!
South Congress and Ice Cream
After that, we headed to South Congress Avenue to explore this popular area in Austin. We had a lot of fun popping into random stores and enjoyed some cocktails on the patio at Perla’s (virgin pina coladas for the girls of course). We had to take a photo at the iconic Austin Motel sign, and I was amused to see that motel absolutely embraces the famously phallic nature of its sign as the gift shop was full of funny, innuendo-laden souvenirs. Sean loves sushi, so we had dinner at the Japanese fusion restaurant Lucky Robot.
After dinner we headed to The Baked Bear for dessert. I’d seen online that this place was known for its amazing ice cream cookies. The girls loved that they got to customize every aspect of their dessert, from the ice cream flavor to the type of cookie on the top and bottom (They can be different!) and what toppings to include.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but The Baked Bear is located inside the Seaholm Power Plant, a former power station that has been redeveloped into a mix of offices, residences, retail shops and restaurants. There’s a beautiful plaza right in front of The Baked Bear, and in another one of those impromptu travel moments, we spent a good hour there enjoying the beautiful evening, the girls playing tag and practicing their cartwheels. I definitely recommend this area a place to head to for fun things to do in Austin with kids!
Fairmont Austin and Torchy’s Tacos
Torchy’s Tacos is one of the most popular chains of taco joints in Austin, so we wanted to make sure we tried it on our trip. After all, eating is one of the fun things to do in Austin with kids! We got there at around 11:30 a.m., so we went for a brunch vibe, trying an assortment of both breakfast and regular tacos. The Monk Special breakfast taco, made of eggs, bacon, green chiles, cheese and tomatillo sauce was excellent. Out of the non-breakfast tacos, we really enjoyed the Trailer Park, which includes fried chicken and poblano sauce, and the Baja Shrimp, made with lightly battered shrimp and a delicious cabbage slaw.
After Torchy’s, it was time to check into our second hotel in Austin, Fairmont Austin. This property is just over a year old, having opened in March 2018. While Hotel Van Zandt had a darker, moodier, industrial vibe, Fairmont Austin is bright, airy, and colorful. We stayed in rooms 2962 and 2963, which together make up a Grand Suite. It was a spectacular setup, with a spacious bedroom, two luxurious bathrooms, a full-sized living room, dining room, and even a separate butler’s pantry with a full-sized fridge, microwave and plenty of cabinets filled with stemware and dinnerware. At 1,230 square feet, the suite had floor-to-ceiling windows with wrap-around views of downtown Austin and Lady Bird Lake.
Exploring Texas Hill Country
If you’re spending more than a couple days in Austin, I highly recommend that you take some time to explore Driftwood. Just a 20-30 minute drive from downtown Austin, this area is full of beautiful wildflowers and rolling hills. A drive out to Driftwood is definitely among the fun things to do in Austin with kids. In recent years it’s become a culinary hotspot, with lots of new restaurants and wineries opening up, and many Austin residents are moving out to one of the area’s many new residential developments.
We headed out there to check out The Salt Lick, one of Austin’s most famous barbecue joints. The Salt Lick began in 1967 as a simple barbecue shack, but since then has expanded into a sprawling compound that includes the restaurant, event spaces and even a winery. The first thing you see when you enter the restaurant is an enormous pit where meat is cooking over an open fire. It’s both impressive and mesmerizing. We each ordered brisket, and were given the choice of lean, marbled, or burnt ends. We tried both marbled and burnt ends and they were both incredible. Even Ella, who’s not usually much of a meat lover, couldn’t get enough of it. The sausage was also fantastic. It was wonderfully seasoned and just a little spicy. The pork ribs were pretty mediocre, but the fantastic flavors and texture of the brisket outshone everything else on our plate. The quality of the food and the beautiful surroundings make visiting The Salt Lick one of the fun things to do in Austin with kids.
After dinner, we headed to a friend’s house. Jennifer Borget is also a content creator, and we had met her and her family on our Disney Creator Days trip. She lives in Driftwood, a short drive from The Salt Lick, and it was great to get to see the residential part of this area. Sean and Ella had a great time playing with her kids, especially in their sprawling backyard, complete with trampolines and swings. Ella was particularly infatuated with Jennifer’s gorgeous baby girl, so much so that she promptly began asking me for a baby sister. (Sorry Ella, it’s not happening!)
A Rainy Play Date
The next day, it rained non-stop as a massive storm moved through the area, so we took it easy and hung out in our suite most of the day. Serge and I caught up with some work, while Sean and Ella caught up with some YouTube videos.
In the early evening, we headed out to Central Austin to see another content creator friend, Jen Pinkston. We had met Jen, her husband Aaron and their daughters Parker and Ever on our trip to Martha’s Vineyard last summer, and our girls had really hit it off. The kids were excited to play together again, and after seeing so many photos of Jen’s gorgeous modern home on her Instagram feed, I was excited to see it in person! A playdate with locals is definitely one of the fun things to do in Austin with kids. We had a really enjoyable evening hanging out, eating enchiladas and catching up.
Library Fun and Yet More Barbecue!
The next morning, we enjoyed a delicious breakfast in the Gold Lounge at the Fairmont Austin, before heading out to see the Austin Central Library. This gorgeously modern, 198,000-square-foot building opened in October 2017 and has become a favorite place for Austin locals, especially for families with young kids. The children’s library has an extensive schedule of free programming like crafting circles, Lego labs, and writing camps, so it’s one of the most fun things to do in Austin with kids. When we went, Sean and Ella immediately fell in love with the oversized chess set and played a long, intense game of chess.
I was awestruck by the gorgeous design of the library. Apparently in most libraries, daylight accounts for only 20% of the space’s lighting, but when they set about designing the Austin Central Library, the architects aimed for 80% of illumination coming from daylight. As a result, there are massive windows everywhere, gorgeous skylights, and the whole building feels incredibly bright and vibrant.
For lunch, we were really tempted to drive back to Driftwood to try The Salt Lick again, but Alem, one of the team members at Fairmont Austin, suggested that we try one of his favorites: Terry Black’s Barbecue. The girls absolutely loved the photo stand-ins outside the restaurant, and we spent a good 15 minutes taking silly photos there before heading in for grub. Sometimes, some of the most fun things to do in Austin with kids are also the simplest! The brisket and sausage were excellent here too, though the flavors were completely different from The Salt Lick. We ordered an assortment of sides, and hands-down my favorite was the cream corn. It tasted so fresh and bright (nothing like the usual canned-tasting cream corn I’ve had elsewhere).
A Glorious Afternoon at the Pool
The weather was absolutely beautiful on our last day in Austin (finally!), and we took advantage of it by spending the entire afternoon at the Fairmont Austin pool, which happens to be the largest outdoor pool in downtown Austin. It was extremely hot and sunny, so we found some relief by staying in a poolside cabana. The cabanas are great for families, with a comfy couch, a TV and a mini-fridge to make sure your drinks stay cool. The girls had a lot of fun playing in the pool, and lounging in the chaises that were actually in the water itself. A day at the pool is definitely high on our list of fun things to do in Austin with kids. We ordered drinks and snacks from Rules & Regs, the poolside bar, and I particularly enjoyed the Froze Revision, made of rum, rose wine, aperol, cream of coconut, blackberry kombucha, and lime.
We were still stuffed from our barbecue lunch, so instead of dinner we just enjoyed some canapes in the Gold Lounge at the hotel. They had a great selection, including grilled cheese and tomato soup, shrimp cocktail, and a large assortment of antipasto.
Delta operates more than 20 daily departures out of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and will be opening a Delta Sky Club this month. I found the compact airport to be a breeze to get through since it’s not at all crowded and there’s CLEAR.
One of the best things about flying Delta for families is its in-flight entertainment. All the entertainment is 100% free. You can watch TV shows and movies, text for free and connect to Wi-Fi all at the same time! There is even in-seat power on most Delta flights for you to charge your devices. The girls enjoy flying so much because of the endless entertainment options. In fact, they’re sometimes disappointed when it’s time to disembark the plane!
Funny enough, when we landed in JFK, I ran into my fellow Delta ambassador Sarah Herron! If you’re a fan of The Bachelor, you may remember her from the 17th season. She’s a content creator, retreat facilitator, and avid traveler.
All in all, we had an incredible trip that really didn’t go according to plan at all! Having a loose framework and a list of ideas was enough. The theme really seemed to be connection, whether it was being more present with each other because we were having fun, making spontaneous travel plans in the moment; or because we were meeting new and inspiring people we wouldn’t have otherwise; or because we made time to stop in and visit with friends when too often we say, “We really should get together sometime,” and never follow up. If you’re planning a trip to Austin, San Antonio is worth a quick visit, as is a drive out to Driftwood. Jot down the delicious eateries, fabulous hotels, and fun things to do in Austin with kids I’ve mentioned here, then ask the locals where they would recommend you go and wing it. What I learned from this trip is that even if your best-laid travel plans fail, you might be surprised by the silver lining you find!
What are your favorite fun things to do in Austin with kids?