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Fall in love with the area for less with these tips

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Company coming? Need a tour guide? Here's some tips for entertaining those out of town friends and family on a budget.

Austin Children's Museum/Jo's Coffee

I'm all about what I call the "toddler two-fer" - two places you can hit in one outing with your child for a morning or afternoon. After all, if you've managed to get everyone out the door and into the car, you might as well make the most of it. The best two-fers combine quality time with fun, as well as education and (at least a little bit of) nutrition. One of my favorites, especially in the hottest months, is the Austin Children's Museum/Jo's Coffee combo in the Second Street District.

Which place you hit first is up to you. It can be breakfast at Jo's while you wait for the museum to open its doors a block away. Or you can get your ya-yas out first and then settle down to lunch or dinner. And Jo's is making it easier than ever to please even the pickiest preschooler: They're rolling out a new menu this month with more burger options, hot dogs and expanded offerings for the kiddos including ready-to-grab box lunches, mini-cupcakes and All Natural root beer on tap. For you, there are new wine and beer lists. Also this summer, look for family-friendly events at Jo's from live music on the patio to Game Night Wednesdays, featuring board games and food and drink specials.

We usually spend about three hours at the Children Museum. Its latest exhibit, "MakerKids," which opened June 6 and goes through Sept. 11, features 20 guided do-it-yourself projects. The activities feature options for all ages. The museum is still collecting materials for this, so if you bring 10 paperboard boxes, 20 yards of fabric at least 8 inches wide or 20 plastic round lids, you get can get a free pass. Among the permanent exhibits is "En mi familia," which recently returned to Austin after a long tour. It's an interactive exhibit based on works by Carmen Lomas Garza, who grew up in South Texas. Although I miss the "Austin City Limits" room, which it replaced, my son always spends the most time in the "En mi familia" room, making "tamales" and playing the drums while watching himself on TV.

- Kathy Blackwell

If you go ...

Museum address: 201 Colorado St.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays.

Admission: Adults $6.50, children 2 and up $6.50, children 12 to 23 months $4.50, younger than 12 months free.

Information: 472-2499, www.austinkids.org.

Alamo Drafthouse

If you're a movie buff or not, film and food at the Alamo Drafthouse is a true Austin experience. Beer, burgers, pizza and a movie, all without leaving your (uncommonly comfy) seat. I make sure all of my out-of-towners see a movie at the cathedral of kitsch and camp and all-out film reverence, most often at the central locations - the Alamo Ritz and the Alamo South.

Waiters slinking through the dark while you watch a movie doesn't sound ideal. But it works winningly. Take a seat, grab a hefty menu contrived by top local chefs, scribble your order on a scrap of paper with a pee-wee golf pencil and sit back.

Well before the film, the show's already begun: The Alamo staff, an inventive, fun-loving crew, regale the audience with pre-show clips and reels that have thematic links to the feature, be it vintage trailers, classic television programs, music videos, even aerobics lessons.

Your drinks come first. The lights dim, the picture starts. You realize you're watching a perfect print of a new movie ("Star Trek") or a cult classic ("The Goonies") with state-of-the-art projection and sound, some of the very best in town. Then your waiter, discreetly ducking down the aisle, hoists your food in front of you and gives the "OK" sign.

It's better than OK. The Alamo theaters garner national acclaim, with Entertainment Weekly crowning the collective Alamo chain the best theater in America. We'd have to agree.

- Chris Garcia

If you go ...

Address: Alamo Ritz, 320 E. Sixth St.; Alamo South, 1120 S. Lamar Blvd.

Admission: $6.75 matinees, $8.75 general; more for special screenings and programs. But also look out for free events.

Information: www.originalalamo.com.

Tip: As a general rule, get to the venue 40 minutes before showtime to have plenty of time to order food. Auditoriums are relatively small and popular movies tend to sell out quickly. Online ticket buying recommended.

Dome River House

All anyone really needs for pure summer happiness is a stone patio with a Hill Country view, a few hundred yards of riverfront property and a cavernous dome-shaped house that sleeps a dozen, right?

The inside of this rental house, about 5 miles outside Wimberley on a hill above the Blanco River, is all 1970s funkiness, with a pot-bellied stove, giant dice-shaped cushions and trundle beds. But if you've got a crowd that needs entertaining, there's function to this funk.

Plus there's no place like that patio for sipping a glass of wine or playing board games with the family. We brought along our road bikes and headed out on the two-lane country roads to get a little morning exercise under our belts before we plopped in the river to cool off. Another happy pastime? Experimenting with the acoustics of the place, where a whisper along one wall carries magically to the other side of the house.

The pet-friendly house is one of about 100 properties offered by Hill Country Sunset Premier Lodging. It's owner is Austin architect DeWitt Gayle of STG Design. And no, Gayle didn't build the half-globe house. He bought it six or seven years ago and has since marveled at the energy efficiency of the four-bedroom, two-bath structure.

Trust me, it's just fun to stay in a dome home.

- Pamela LeBlanc

If you go ...

Information: During the summer, the house rents for $450 per night for up to 10 guests, plus $25 per night for additional guests, with a two-night minimum (three nights for holidays) and a $25 per pet fee. Discounts for weekly and low-season rentals. 512-847-7460, hillcountrysunset.com.