Texas State Capitol: Seeing Government in Action in AustinDecember 29, 2011 No Comments
I’m a bit of a government nut, always keeping up with the latest Senate and House debates. So when Dad and I were in Austin, Texas during the spring of 2011, I was excited to tour the Texas State Capitol complex. As it turned out, the state legislature was in session, offering us the chance to watching government in action from the observation gallery. We planned to spend an hour or two at the Capitol, but actually ended up staying for the better part of a day.
About the Texas State Capitol
Opened in 1888, the Texas State Capitol building is second in size only to the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. It is actually taller than the U.S. Capitol by 15 feet. The Capitol Extension opened in 1993, doubling the Capitol’s square footage. In 1994, the former General Land Office, located across the grounds from the Capitol building, opened as the Capitol Visitors Center.
As of 2011, the Capitol Visitors Center is open 9 to 5 Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 on Sunday. The Capitol building and Extension are open 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 to 8 on weekends. Hours may be extended during legislative sessions. There is no admission fee.
Free tours of the Capitol and Extension are available Monday through Friday 8:30 to 4:30, Saturday 9:30 to 3:30 and Sunday noon to 3:30. The 45-minute tours depart roughly every hour, subject to tour guide availability.
Parking in the nearby garage is free for 2 hours and $1 per half-hour after that. The maximum daily charge is generally $8, although this may be higher on weekends during special events.
Dad and I arrived around 11:00, and started our adventure at the Capitol Visitors Center. An information desk just inside the entrance was packed with helpful brochures on the Capitol, Austin, and the entire state of Texas. The friendly front desk staff provided a guide map and a bit of information, and we were on our way.
Several rooms of exhibits provided an excellent overview of daily life throughout the state’s history. Numerous exhibits were interactive, allowing children to try on a cowboy hat or attempt to learn some of the most common cattle brands of the Old West. Cowboys, Native Americans and early settlers were all given space in the spotlight, and some exhibits spoke to the challenges of heading west into an uncertain future. A collection of computers provided quizzes and interactive experiences, though they were packed with local school groups on the day of our visit.
Leaving the Capitol Visitors Center behind, we crossed the immaculately manicured grounds to the Capitol building and found ourselves in the midst of a protest! It appeared to be something to do with educational funding, and the protestors were polite and well-behaved. It was good to see that Austin’s citizens take their rights seriously and are not afraid to express their opinions. There was a fairly heavy security presence, but the officers were unobtrusive and clearly there just to make sure that nothing got out of hand.
Making our way through the crowd, we entered the Capitol building. A fairly large group of people was milling around inside, but we made it through the security checkpoint (metal detector) quickly. A walking tour was about to start, so we milled around and took a few lobby photos while we waited.
The tour was fascinating. Our guide was extremely well-versed in the history of both the Capitol and the state, and he pointed out quite a few design features and hidden tributes that we never would have found on our own. He was particularly good at engaging visitors of all ages and backgrounds, making everyone in the group feel included. We walked through the entire Capitol building and Extension in 45 minutes, maintaining a brisk but not strenuous pace.
The tour ended just down the hall from the Capitol Grill, which is open to the public. Before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, visitors to the U.S. Capitol were permitted to dine in that building’s eateries, including the famed Senate Dining Room. We were big fans of that experience, so we were very much looking forward to recreating it on a smaller scale.
We were not disappointed! Though Texas does not serve the U.S. Capitol’s legendary bean soup, we found the food top-notch and the prices surprisingly reasonable. Portions are large, so plan to split if you have smaller appetites.
After lunch, we were ready to see government at work, so we headed upstairs to the Visitor Galleries. There we had a birds-eye view of debates taking place on the floor below. Although we are not familiar with the issues faced by Texas residents and their elected leaders, the debates held our attention for quite awhile.
When we grew weary of politics, we wandered out to the Capitol Extension to take a closer look at a few things that were mentioned on the tour. On our way out, we stopped in the surprisingly well-stocked gift shop.
Tips for Parents
The Texas State Capitol is well-worth a visit for families of all ages. The Capitol Visitor Center offers interactive exhibits that are fun for kids yet engaging for adults. The free guided tour is fast-paced and fun, yet highly informative, and simply wandering through the building is a treat.
If your visit occurs while the legislature is in session, take a few minutes to sit down and watch. Observing the democratic process in action is both educational and entertaining, and gives kids real-world experience to complement the lessons they learn in school.