- July 16, 2012

Our Weekend as Tourists in Austin


For months I have daydreamed about taking my family on vacation in our very own city.  I have stayed downtown and pretended to be a tourist before, when a friend came to visit from Virginia. We had a blast quacking our duck bill kazoos on the Austin Duck Tours, strolling through the Capitol building, and attending Esther’s Follies. I have been hoping to try the same sort of thing with my kids (minus the adult comedy). So, when I got the opportunity from South Point Nissan to take a 2012 Nissan Quest Minivan on the adventure of my choice, I knew Austin was the place I wanted to go.  We booked a night at the Omni Downtown and set off to pretend we were visiting from someplace far away. 

As it turns out, being a tourist with kids is hard work. It requires planning. Even if you have lived in a city for 11 years and think you know everything. This is where I went wrong.  In fact, that first day of being tourists went so poorly, I debated whether to mention it at all. But, pointing out my mistakes may help you to avoid them, so I’ll just sum up what I learned and we can move right along to Day Two!

Barton Creek
Lessons learned on Day One: 
  1. Franklin BBQ may well be the best barbecue restaurant in America, I couldn’t tell you. When Austin Monthly magazine says the lunch line will take 2 hours, they are not exaggerating. And that line is outside. In 100+ degree heat. Kids (and wilting parents) cannot wait in line outside for two hours in 100+ degree heat, no matter how magnificent the barbecue promises to be. (I have since learned that you can pre-order a minimum of 5 pounds of meat, a week in advance, to be picked up without having to wait in line. This sounds like the way to go! Check out the menu here and email [email protected] to coordinate.) 
  2. If you plan to visit Zilker Park on a Saturday, go early. If you go late, because, say, you spent the morning waiting in line for barbecue that you never got to eat, and are coming from downtown, it could take you half an hour to make a left turn into the Zilker Park parking lot. This may make you grouchy.
  3. It now costs $5 to park in Zilker Park on weekends. Once you have paid the $5, you feel obligated to stay, even if the line to get into Barton Springs Pool is about a mile long. (See point #2. Go early!). If you decide you cannot possibly wait in another outside line, head down to Barton Creek to splash. You may find snakes and tadpoles, which are plenty exciting for kids. 
Barton Creek
As is often the case, even though everything seemed to go wrong, our kids had a great time on Day One. It was just their hot, weary parents who weren’t sure we could tackle another day of tourism. But, we declared Sunday our do-over day, and headed out early to make sure we did it right. 

Sunday was a lovely day (thank goodness, or this would have been a very hard article to write). We turned into Zilker Park and paid our $5 to park, without any wait at all. We arrived at Zilker Park Boat Rentals on Barton Creek just after 9 a.m. and hopped into two canoes to explore Austin by water (coupon here – yay!). For two relaxing, not-too-hot hours, we paddled around Lady Bird Lake, watching turtles, fish, birds, and swans. It was a wonderful morning on the water. When we arrived back on shore, it was just starting to get toasty, so we headed next door to Barton Springs. We walked right in (no line!) and cooled off in the refreshing spring-fed waters. My husband had never been before and he was surprised at how much he loved it. He swam the length of the huge pool, while I sat with the kids in the shallow end. The boys had a great time trying to catch minnows. 

Barton Springs
After Barton Springs, we grabbed a quick not-very-exciting bite to eat because Stubb’s Gospel Brunch, where I had planned to go for lunch, was fully booked. I had actually called Stubb’s the day before, which I thought was pretty organized, but apparently other people plan further ahead than one day in advance. Smarties! Oh well, we were not meant to have barbecue on this adventure. We spent the time at the Omni Downtown rooftop pool instead. 

Omni Downtown Rooftop Pool
You may notice a water theme for this weekend. In Austin, in the summertime, we alternate outdoor activities with air-conditioned or water activities. We are heat wimps. Splashing in the pool helped us to gear up for the second (hot) half of the day. 

Cathedral of Junk (Do you see my son peeking through the window on the second story?)
Cathedral of Junk is my favorite uniquely Austin tourist attraction, and the one place I always take visitors. Housed in Vince Hanneman’s backyard, this ever-evolving wonderland of oddities offers new discoveries on every visit. We gave Vince a call (512-299-7413) to make sure he was home and headed over to wander through the multi-level maze of curious knick-knacks. As always, I was amazed at how much the Cathedral had changed since the last time we were there. 

For dinner, we ate at Torchy’s Tacos, at my nine-year-old foodie’s request. He loves their fried avocado tacos. Then, we headed over to the corner of S. First and Annie Street to make our own picture postcards using the Greetings from Austin mural as a backdrop. 

We had reservations with Capital Cruises to see the flight of Austin’s Mexican free-tailed bat colony at 8 p.m., but I was sorely tempted to put the kids to bed and call it a day. We knew the bats wouldn’t come out until 9:20 p.m., which meant we wouldn’t get back to the Omni until nearly 10 p.m. But we soldiered on. We are hardcore tourists! 

We have seen the flight of the bats from atop Congress Avenue Bridge (free) and from below, standing on the lawn of the Austin American-Statesman offices (free), but the best bat-viewing experience can be had the water (not free, but worth it). Plus, our tour guide kept us entertained for the hour before it got dark, regaling “us tourists” with interesting tidbits about Austin. This ended up being my favorite part of the day.

Of course, we barely scraped the surface when it comes to touristy fun in Austin. And I certainly could have done better on the food front (we didn’t even eat at a single trailer!).  But we are fortunate that we live here and can head back downtown anytime. We may just wait until it cools off a little.

A huge thanks to South Point Nissan for sponsoring this post and for the use of the 2012 Nissan Quest. Thanks also to Omni Downtown for spoiling us with a swanky penthouse suite.

Destination: Torchy’s Tacos!
What we loved about the 2012 Nissan Quest:

This van is an entertainment center on wheels! The kids had wireless headphones to watch their movies on a big screen, and there were outlets to attach a gaming system. I had a huge navigation system with touchscreen, Bluetooth for my phone, usb connection port for my iPod, and an outlet to plug in my laptop. After discovering how much fun the Quest is, I found myself wishing that we had taken it on a long distance trip. (I did suggest that South Point Nissan let me test it out on our road trip to Canada, but they didn’t bite.) Another cool feature Nissan offers is the Intelligent Key, which allows you to start the car with the push of a button.  The key also recognizes which driver you are when you unlock the car and automatically adjusts the seat and mirrors to your preferred settings.  The two rear passenger doors and the trunk open with the touch of a button on the Intelligent Key, which is handy, and there is neat hidden storage in the trunk.  There is also an alert system that tells you when there is a car in your blind spot and a rear view camera, both of which are pretty awesome. Plus, and this may be my favorite feature, there are 16 cup holders.  16!  To see all of the vehicle specifications, click here.

What we loved about Omni Downtown:

Omni Downtown recently spent over $1 million on each of the top five floors of the hotel to reconstruct 42 one-bedroom and 3 two-bedroom suites (about $77,000 per suite).  Suites range in size from 633 square feet to 1717 square feet.  We stayed in an incredible two-bedroom suite with three bathrooms, two of which were only slightly smaller than my daughter’s bedroom at home. They call it “rustic urban.”  I call it amazeballs.

Programs Omni Downtown offers if you are visiting with kids: 
  • Camp Omni offers a welcome amenity for kids, a scavenger hunt and gift cards for kids to redeem in the hotel.  A “camp counselor” will call before you arrive to set up your stay and the kids will get a camp newsletter when they arrive detailing the scavenger hunt and the opportunity to earn a merit badge.
  • Omni Sensational Kids program is a way for your kids to get the VIP treatment while you get away.  They receive a backpack upon arrival filled with fun things with just them in mind. The Omni Austin Hotel at Southpark, also has a Kids’ Sensory Suite which is specifically designed for kids – with twin beds, gender specific bedding, bean bag chairs, game systems and DVDs.  Plus Omni Hotel at Southpark has a large indoor-outdoor pool.
Disclosure: I was compensated to write this post and we received a complimentary stay at Omni Downtown. All opinions are my own.  For more information, please read our Disclosure Policy.