As 13-year-olds, my best friend and I would often picnic in the elementary school playground nearest my house. By “picnic,” I mean we would sit in the abandoned-for-the-summer playground and sloppily devour pints of ice cream we had just purchased at the nearby CVS with spoons stolen from the nearby McDonald’s. At the time, I couldn’t imagine a better picnic. However, after a week spent researching the best picnic spots in Austin, I believe I’ve come across at least four places that put my ice cream feast to shame. So the next time you feel like getting out of the house, take your best friend/significant other/favorite pet to one of these four spots and take a shot at the accompanying menus. Don’t worry: you won’t have to steal a single spoon from Mickey D.’s.
All of the following locations have no entrance fees.
Mount Bonnell, 3800 Mount Bonnell Drive
Known for its romantic view of Lake Austin, Mt. Bonnell presents a challenge to the eager picnicker: the steep set of stairs that brings you to 785-foot summit makes lugging a cooler a hellish affair. Instead, pack light: Spread some Brie on two sides of a sliced baguette and top it with sliced figs. Wrap it in parchment paper and bring a Mexia peach for dessert. If you want something more filling, add some prosciutto to the sandwich. With a picnic this compact, you can eat while perched on the most precarious of limestone ledges and get the best of Mt. Bonnell’s amazing views.
Ease of Enjoyment: The climb is steep, but the picnic is easy. There aren’t any bathrooms, so bring wet wipes for your hands.
Mayfield Park, 3505 West 35th Street
Just below Mount Bonnell, a well-kept garden full of preening peacocks anchors this former-estate-cum-nature preserve’s 22 green acres. The ancient cottage just inside the park’s gate, recently restored, gives the place the feel of an abandoned, old Hollywood property. Spread out your picnic blanket on the grass behind the cottage or, on the less busy weekdays, the stone path between the koi ponds. Make sure to bring a feast that complements your avian friend’s plumage — say red quinoa tossed with pesto and feta with sides of watermelon and cherries. Perhaps best of all, if you neglect to bring a friend/date/dog, the peacocks will happily join your feast. Just make sure to shoo them away from your quinoa — they will devour it.
Ease of Enjoyment: Parking is easy, the paths are flat, and there are tables as well as a myriad of grassy spots.
Treaty Oak Square and Central Park, 507 Baylor Street and 4001 N. Lamar, respectively
These bite-sized parks are grouped together because they share picnic spot traits: Though their decidedly urban locations won’t get you closer to nature, both of them are situated less than a city block away from high-end grocery stores. Central Park is located directly behind Central Market, while Treaty Oak Square is near Whole Foods. Even smaller than Central Park, Treaty Oak Square claims only a single tree — the 500-year-old treaty oak, a legendary meeting spot for the Tonkowa and Commanche Native Americans.
Ease of Enjoyment: The 1L bus will take you straight to Central Park, or you can park in Central Market’s parking lot. Parking is scarce around Treaty Oak Square, but pay-to-park spots are available. As for the picnic, is there anything easier than buying it pre-packaged at the grocery store?
Open Room Sculpture, Sand Beach Park, below the Pfluger Bridge
A project of the Art in Public Places government program, this sculpture consists of a long picnic table covered in a lacy aluminum tablecloth and four tree-like chandeliers that light the area at night. It is difficult to access (you’ll have to find parking downtown and take a walk along Lady Bird Lake), but if you’re going for a picnic, you should also go for a stroll. Your picnic should be as classically American as the table feels: Go with macaroni and potato salad and apple pie for dessert, with fruit sides.
Ease of Enjoyment: You may find yourself sharing your table with strangers or sitting on the ground. Though definitely not the easiest spot to reach, once there, there’s nothing to do but enjoy yourself.