Friday, August 8, 2014

Totally Texas -- Last minute vacation destination: Austin

How to squeeze in a vacation as the kids’ return to school nears? Make it a weekend, if possible a long weekend, to some of the Texas attractions within easy driving distance.

Traveling without family last month, I combined a trip to Austin for a writing conference with sightseeing between classes and craft panels. I arrived the evening before the annual ArmadilloCon, wondering what tourist destinations I could hit that wouldn’t leave me too groggy for an early morning writing workshop the next day. My choice¾ the state capitol building at 11th Street and Congress Avenue. I joined the surprising number of visitors who stroll the grounds of our quirky pink granite capitol building once daytime heat gives way to more bearable nighttime temperatures.

Parking was easy, streetside just outside the capitol grounds. The building‘s lighted exterior looks charming at night, there are plenty of easy to walk paths through the grounds, with their collection of native trees and collection of statues and monuments. Before the evening visit, I’d thought of the capitol building as dominating the downtown Austin skyline. But the capitol’s lawns are great places to view the rest of the skyline, including the, if possible, even quirkier Frost Bank Tower with its lighted crown of shard-like glass.

For directions and visiting information, I liked

Then it was off to our family’s favorite book store, the independent BookPeople, at 603 North Lamar. Its shelves are hung with handwritten notes of recommendation from staff members that helped me pick out the graphic novels my eight-year-old grandsons now love to read. For more information, see Although the bookstore has its own café, next to a magazine rack with a mouthwatering array of periodicals, it’s also across the street from a Whole Foods market where you can read and eat inside or out.

The big find on this trip was the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, 4801 La Crosse Avenue, on Austin’s southwest side. I’d been to the Wildflower Center years before, but it’s grown amazingly since. And not a moment too soon, with suburban development just across the street. Lady Bird Johnson (in public life, Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson), headed campaigns to beautify her state and the country during her husband’s terms as president.

Thanks to her, Texas highways are now homes to native plants and wildflowers. The center she founded is now administered by the University of Texas. Radiating off a central courtyard, it includes a viewing tower, child-sized educational playroom, gardens landscaped with Texas wildflowers, and trails through an arboretum of native trees. Except for the viewing tower, area generally are accessible to strollers and wheelchairs. New this year is the Luci and Ian Family Garden, with a shade house, small stream, grotto, and children’s play area.

The Wildflower Center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Tickets are $9 for adults, $3 for children ages 5-12, free to children aged four and younger. Discounts are available for students and adults age 65 and older. Free onsite parking. There’s an onsite café, or bring your own meals and snacks to eat on the shaded picnic tables. For more information, directions, and special events, see

On previous Austin visits with children, my family has also enjoyed Zilker Park, home to Barton Springs Pool, (see “Sixty-eight degrees of cool,” at this site, August 1, 2011) and the nightly emergence of resident bats from under the Congress Street bridge, (“Going batty in Austin,” June 13, 2011.)

(Next Friday, more vacation destinations less than a day away)

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