Texas, aka the "Lone Star State," is an unexpected family vacation destination. The total area of Texas is a sprawling 266,807 square miles, with much to offer visitors of all ages. Whatever you're looking for -- big cities, deserts, forests, hills, or rivers (the Rio Grande, borders Mexico), Texas has it. Plus, it's possible to cross all of Texas in a week -- touring everything from Houston's Space Center to Austin's eclectic food truck scene to the Alamo in San Antonio . The very real Texan hospitality, patriotism, and adventure are tangible when traveling around the state by car, making the trip both unique and memorable.
We took a one-week road trip through the state, stopping in San Antonio, Austin and Houston. Here's what we loved and think you should definitely check out.
Texan hotels cater to traveling families, offering up space, overwhelming hospitality, and comfort.
In San Antonio, check out Hotel Contessa, the only luxurious, all suites hotel to be found in the city, or venture further out to for an exquisite Mediterranean experience at the Hotel Eilan Resort & Spa.
In Austin, a must visit is the JW Marriott, a centrally located hotel, that has on-site restaurants, a tremendous view of the city, and a short walk to Congress Avenue Bridge, where the bats fly nightly at dusk; or venture further out to the Sonesta Bee Cave Austin, a unique hotel overlooking rugged hills and rolling terrain in the Hill Country.
In Houston, Four Seasons Houston offers elegance, amazing service, and truly caters to kids' whims, giving them juice, space snacks, and space suits upon arrival; Omni Houston is another solid option for families.
Photo via Hotel Eilan Resort and Spa
The Great Outdoors
Within Austin's Zilker Park's 358 acres lies Barton Springs Pool, a warm pool that measures three acres in size, and is fed from underground springs, ideal for year-round swimming. Visit the nearby UMLAUF Sculpture Museum, a charming garden full of sculptures of mothers with their children displayed on four well-landscaped acres. The garden offers a waterfall and streams and has trails and path for kids to run through. At the end of a long day of sightseeing in Austin, Lake Travis in the Hill Country is a great place to catch the sunset. If you're staying nearby, a morning hike to soak in the view is a great way to start the day.
In San Antonio, visit Schlitterbahn, a water park 45 minutes outside the city center. Every local swears it's one the nation's biggest water parks, featuring four miles of slides, chutes, water coasters, water playgrounds, pools, lazy rivers, and more. On a warm day, there is no better option to cool kids off.
Educating the Kids at State Museums and Historical Sites
In Austin, the Bullock State History Museum is a great place to learn the history of Texas and a trip to the Texas State Capitol, the 2nd biggest State Capitol in the U.S., is a "must-do," to see the offices and chambers of the Texas Legislature and the Office of the Governor. Stop by the Driskoll, the oldest operating hotel in Austin, to see a piece of history in the making.
You can't visit San Antonio without a trip to the Alamo, a shrine to the men who died defending the mission in 1836, but before you visit the actual place, pique your kids' interest, by catching the IMAX movie, "Alamo...The Price of Freedom" at the adjacent AMC Rivercenter 11.
While you're in San Antonio, stop by the Witte Museum, a science and natural history museum with interactive, hands-on activities, an outdoor area, and climbing rock wall. Houston's Museum District is the proud home of the nation's sixth largest art museum, offering guests 300,000-square-feet of space dedicated to paintings, sculptures, costumes, photography, and textiles dating back to the antiquities.
Spending Fun-Filled Days at Texan Attractions
There is no shortage of great Texan attractions to visit. If you're in Houston, you'll definitely want to spend a whole day at Space Center Houston, the official visitors center of NASA's Johnson Space Center. It truly is a bucket-list experience. The center features a multitude of permanent exhibits, attractions and theatres, as well as a tram ride through the actual offices where astronauts are trained and where you can see the actual space shuttle and rockets used over the past 50 years.
San Antonio's River Walk is nearly 15 miles of winding passages along the river that can be viewed by a stroll or boat ride and is also a must do. It's literally the largest urban ecosystem restoration in the nation and it's quite a spectacle and a great place for any stroll (or stroller, for that matter)-loving family. A good way to get orientated to both the city and the River Walk is by jumping on one of the cruises that offer interesting background and a historical context to the area. The cruises run all day and tickets are quite affordable, particularly for young kids.
Indulging in Tex Mex Cuisine
Hands down, one of the best things about Texas is its food. Prepare to become real foodies by indulging in food trucks in Austin's Barton Springs and at local restaurants like Polvo's with its own salsa bar, Torchy's ("Damn good tacos" is their slogan and it says it all), Shady Grove for homemade guacamole, Gourdough's for the donut experience of a lifetime, or Curra's Grill where they make margaritas from avocados.
In San Antonio, head to Mi Tierra, located in the very busy Market Square, with its massively sized restaurant, Christmas lights, a big bakery, Mexican singers, and big plates of chips and queso.
Houston also has its fair share of Tex Mex offerings. Don't miss Molina's on Washington Avenue where you'll find high quality, inexpensive cuisine, at this 75-year old restaurant where they really knows how to treat a family. Choose from specialty dishes such as enchiladas, tamales, fish tacos, chalupas, pollo con mole, tilapia, redfish, or more.
Photo by Jessica Rosenberg of itsjessicaslife.com
Embracing Austin's Eclectic Side
In Austin, be prepared to explore, and make sure your kids are ready for adventures. You'll fall in love with breakfast tacos, hear music in the middle of the afternoon, swim in natural and man made water holes, catch the sight of 3,000,000 bats flying over your heads, indulge in salsa bars, try on cowboy boots while shopping on South Congress Avenue, hike in the Texan Hills, and gaze at the city from the middle of Lady Bird Lake. The highlight for your kids will probably be spending time in Graffiti Park, a massive playground with surreal art.
Sightseeing with a City Tour
Texas can be hot, and Austin is no exception, so opt to please the kids and take an air-conditioned tour. AO Tours Austin meets you in a Mercedes Benz Sprinter Van equipped with dual AC, driven by an enthusiastic tour guide who takes you on a 30 mile, 90 minute tour of the city. The tour covers Downtown, South Shore, Historic Austin, 6th Street, shopping, West Austin, State Capitol complex, and University of Texas campus. Another great way to see the city is via Live Love Paddle, a tour service that specializes in kayaking tours down local rivers, during the day or at night, with the option to view the city's famous bats' night time fly over. Guides are patient, interesting, and calm - perfect for kids.
In San Antonio, take a ride around town on Alamo Trolley, a hop on/hop off tour, starting at the Alamo, and going past sites including Mission San Jose, Mission Concepcion, Market Square, and the Institute of Texan Cultures.
Photo by Katja Presnal of skimbacolifestyle.com
Keeping the Kids Happy
In San Antonio, allow the kids to indulge in a tour of Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum, the Ripley's Haunted Adventure, Guinness World Records Museum and Tomb 3D Adventure Ride and Arcade.
Grab a CityPASS in Houston for a huge discount on attractions and check out the Children's Museum of Houston in the Museum District. For several hours, your kids can conduct science experiments, invent things, climb a three-story tower and use fake ATM machines.
You could spend endless weeks trying to take in all that Texas has to offer. Don't even try. Just come back again and again to experience old favorites and make new ones.