Austin is all about the outdoors pretty much all the time (except, perhaps, when the temperature falls below 70 or some sort of weird liquid falls from the sky). When the temperatures linger above 100 degrees or more—and especially during those months when school is out, two events that don’t necessarily coincide—we just pump up the party.
Outdoor events don’t necessarily come cheap—surf around for private outdoor wedding venues or rooftop bars available to rent if you want a dose of sticker shock—with even some of the tonier civic spaces priced at daunting levels.
Luckily, we still have plenty of the great outdoors to go around, even for those in the cheap seats. If your event is small and informal, you are especially likely to luck out finding an inexpensive-to-free place to host your shindig. And with planning, you can lock down some of the loveliest, funnest, most Austiny-est spaces with cash to spare. Here are a few suggestions along those lines.
The City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department maintains more than 18,000 acres of parkland and other green space, which includes 300 parks, 147 playgrounds, and 11 museums and cultural arts centers. Depending on the size of your event, there are a lot of ways you can go when it comes to the spaces it maintains.
For small, informal picnics, parties, and other gatherings, smaller city parks, such as Stacy (Big and Little), Lott, Edward Rendon, Reed, and Eastwoods work well, as does the time-honored first-come, first-served tradition of nabbing a picnic table or grill for your group.
Larger outdoor gatherings, which can range in size from small weddings to the Austin City Limits Festival, require reservations and, in some cases, fees; permits and fees for such things as bounce houses (or “moonwalks,” as the Parks & Rec site calls them), sound, and alcohol are also required at some locations. These facilities includes the playscape and other areas of Zilker Park, the picnic area at the south end of Pease Park, and the covered picnic pavilions at Walnut Creek Metropolitan Park and Dick Nichols District Park, and to name just a few appealing spaces (in some cases, you can skip the fee if you skip the big pavilions and just make use of the park grounds).
If you’re planning a wedding, company party, or something else that needs a structure and firm, locked-down dates, you can (and should) make reservations for such spaces as Mayfield Gardens, Park, and Cottage (lovely! with peacocks!), the Zilker Clubhouse (available for events only) overlooking the city, or Fiesta Gardens. (Fees for these places will be more, of course, but still relatively inexpensive as event spaces go.)
You can find details about locations, maps, availability, permits, and much more on the Parks and Recreation city website.
Central Market North Lamar
Austin’s original Central Market has done most of the party work for you: There are ample picnic tables under the trees on its large, outdoor patio, as well as a playscape, and a stage for daily music performances (it has generously booked those for you, as well). It gets crowded during meal times (and other times), but you should be able to nab at least a small table any other time of the day or evening.
Peter Pan Minigolf
Sure, you can book a party at quite a few public sportsball places, but odds are that none of them are as special as this old standby of bizarre and welcoming fun. It’s been on the corner of Barton Springs and North Lamar since 1948, but its giant namesake statue, T-Rex, and other fanciful structures (most designed and placed to make your game more interesting) are timeless.
In addition to its reasonably priced course, it has a large, shaded picnic area that groups can use for free. You must book in advance and for no longer than one and a half hours, which includes set-up and break-down time. If that’s not special enough, birthday-party honorees get their names displayed on the front marquee for the special occasion.
Butterfly Bar at the Vortex
The Vortex Theater is another longtime Austin institution and community gathering space that morphed over the years to include a full bar (inside) and a large, lovely seating area and garden outside (delicious eats from Patrizi’s Italian food truck are also available seven nights a week). Most nights, the bar hosts events, ranging from trivia nights and magic shows to live music, but the space is open from 5 p.m. to midnight, and there’s usually room for a small party for adults to make its own fun or join in with the crowd.
Austin also has quite a few family-friendly, locally based restaurants with large patios, plentiful picnic tables, and other features that make them perfect for organized but informal gatherings.
Cosmic Coffee + Beer Garden
The South Austin space has a garden inspired by a permaculture approach and a rainwater-fed pond is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna—so successfully that it has a National Wildlife Habitat Certification. There are food trucks and live music on offer as well.
Since its opening on Congress Avenue in 1976, local favorite Waterloo Icehouse has grown to have four locations in different parts of town, all good for group gatherings and featuring playgrounds and kids menus.
Phil’s was opened by the founders of iconic Austin establishment Amy’s Ice Cream, and its namesake was one of that business’s partners. The burgers & beer restaurant is an old Humble gas station in Crestview and has a fun neighborhood feel as well as featuring a playscape, cow sculptures, hopscotch, shuffleboard, movies, and music. The cozy spot is able to accommodate small parties and other events Mondays–Thursdays, 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., only and asks that organizers call to schedule a week in advance. No food or drinks are allowed outdoors—except, of course, birthday cakes.
The nonprofit zoo, which houses and cares only for animals in need of rescue or rehab (along with a few domesticated animals in the petting zoo), has a number or reasonably priced options for parties large and small, especially if one books in a two-hour slot and/or on weekdays. The Picnic Grove is the largest and potentially most affordable option (prepaid, discounted admission for attendees plus a $50 deposit that is applied to ticket cost) and can be booked for the whole day; for more structured events, there are three covered areas with seating and other amenities.