AUSTIN, Texas — This past spring, my husband, our two girls, ages 5 and 8, and I were desperate for a change of scene. Guided by two desires — to enjoy the warm weather and to eat well — we decided on Austin as our destination.
We were using our friends’ home in Austin as a base camp. They had told us to expect good conditions, and they were right: Temperatures ranged from the 70s to lower 90s. Their home is in Hyde Park, a historic neighborhood of bungalows and playgrounds just north of the University of Texas. It was a treat to be in a walkable part of town.
To get our outdoors fix, we made three trips to Zilker Metropolitan Park, a 351-acre park in the center of town. Our first foray was to Zilker Botanical Gardens. It was 93 degrees, but rather than wilt, the kids skipped through the fragrant, well-planned gardens, many of which provided shade. The Hartman Prehistoric Garden, on the site of three-toed Ornithomimus tracks discovered in 1992, was their favorite.
Later, we swam in the Barton Springs Pool, a three-acre spring-fed pool in the park with a miniature train ride for kids.
Another day, we explored Zilker’s Umlauf Sculpture Park. The kids were given age-specific scavenger hunt materials, and we spent over an hour weaving in and out of the shady paths, examining the Rodin-inspired sculptures.
The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, a 20-minute drive from downtown, has a mission to present and conserve native wildflowers, plants, and landscapes. Each garden focuses on an element of the state’s diverse flora: the South Texas Mission garden; a wetland pond; a dry creek bed; and meadows planted with colorful wildflowers, like the brilliant orange, red, and yellow Texas lantana, and purple prairie verbena. (A Family Garden is set to open next spring.)
For shopping and strolling, we went to South Congress (known as SoCo), a neighborhood just south of the river on South Congress Avenue. We found three stand-out stops, all within a couple of blocks: Yard Dog art gallery has a focus on contemporary folk and outsider art; Lucy in Disguise With Diamonds is an emporium of all things dress-up: vintage clothes, costumes to buy or rent, every type of facial hair, makeup, tattoo, decoration, or mask imaginable; and Uncommon Objects with its curated flea-market vibe, replete with old sewing machines, musical instruments, steer skulls, household and farm tools, lamps, and displays of circular saw blades.
Austin is a foodie’s heaven where it’s easy to feast on a budget. The taqueria El Chilito served the best fish and shrimp tacos we had during our stay.
The city’s locavore culture was on full display during Sunday brunch at Contigo Austin, a mostly-outdoors restaurant meant to evoke the South Texas ranch it’s named after. We enjoyed thinly-sliced house-cured salmon and organic yogurt and granola parfaits on long tables made of reclaimed wood.
On our last night, our friends recommended Komé, a family-style Japanese restaurant. The staff was warm and welcoming to our group of four adults and four kids, and delivered an exciting mix of sushi, sashimi, and grilled seafood. (The kids had miso soup, edamame, cucumber rolls, and some amazing fries served with honey-wasabi aioli.) Our favorite maki was the swamp roll, made with spicy crawfish and pickled okra.
An unexpected boon of the trip was just how friendly everyone was. I expected to be snubbed by the hip clerk at BookPeople, an impressive independent bookstore downtown, for buying a Texas travel guide. Instead, she said, “Oh my gosh, are you visiting for the first time? That’s so great!” It was basically like that everywhere we went.