In every city we visit, we want to see the “big” things, of course—the wonders, monuments, exit-through-the-gift-shop establishments that the city is known for.
But one of my favorite parts of visiting a new city is to discover what the locals love about their hometown. I don’t mind paying an admission fee for a renowned museum, but the real life of a people is in the cheap and free things they do on the weekends.
Now, part of my ritual has become setting aside some time a day or two before we arrive to crack open my trusty nomad laptop, to try to find some local intel. I tell you: It’s worth it.
I am one of those locals in the great State of Texas. So whether you’re passing through on your way around the world, or just stopping by for the weekend, here are some of my favorite cheap and free things to do in Austin.
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- About Austin
- 13 Cheap and Free Things to Do in Austin, Texas
- #1 Spend a day in Zilker Park
- #2 Scale Mount Bonnell
- #3 Stroll down SoCo
- #4 Visit the Congress Avenue Bridge bats
- #5 Visit the Cathedral of Junk
- #6 Find the food trucks
- #7 Walk the Tejano Trail
- #8 Check out a Farmers Market
- #9 Catch a free music show
- #10 Visit the peacocks at Mayfield Park
- #11 Take the kids to the Thinkery
- #12 Catch a show at The Paramount
- #13 Visit a museum
- Cheap Places to Stay in Austin
- What to do in Austin: Everything
- Expert Tips for Austin on a Budget
While Austin may be the capital of Texas, it is not necessarily representative of the rest of the state. It’s a hotbed for technology and innovation, thanks to the University of Texas. The vibe is more laid back and the live music scene is thriving. The city has a lot to offer visitors of all ages and interests.
13 Cheap and Free Things to Do in Austin, Texas
In Austin, it doesn’t take a lot of money to enjoy yourself. There are plenty of affordable things to do. Actually some of these suggestions are even free.
#1 Spend a day in Zilker Park
You don’t need plans or much cash for an awesome day at Zilker Park. Pack a picnic lunch, bring your favorite outdoor game, and roll up a blanket to nap on.
Zilker is a 350-acre oasis in the bustling capital city. A day in the park might include:
- Touring the Botanical Gardens (small admission fee)
- A dip in the Barton Springs Pool
- A round at the Zilker Disc Golf Course
- A performance at the Zilker Hillside Theatre
- Boats, paddle boards, or kayaks on Lady Bird Lake
- A ride on the Zilker Zephyr miniature train
- A picnic (and a nap) on the huge greenway
And it’s all right in the heart of the city, so when you’re ready to pack up for the day, you’re just minutes from your hotel.
#2 Scale Mount Bonnell
Mount Bonnell, in Covert Park, is the highest point in Austin, Texas, at 775 feet above sea level! The views of Austin and the Colorado River are stunning, but the climb is actually not that treacherous. You don’t actually “scale” Mount Bonnell. There’s a fairly easy trail and just over 100 steps to get the viewing deck at the top.
#3 Stroll down SoCo
If you really want Austin culture, if you’re ready for a unique shopping experience, or if you’re just hungry—head to South Congress (affectionately referred to as “SoCo” by the locals). Neither word count nor the average reader’s attention span would permit me to list all of the amazing eateries, boutiques, shops, spots, murals, gifts, and treasures to be found along South Congress.
Take whatever budget you can put together and remember (if you’re not a southerner) to stroll. If you don’t have any budget left, still come: the art is free and the music can’t be contained by beer gardens.
#4 Visit the Congress Avenue Bridge bats
You’ve probably heard of Austin’s famous bats. The largest urban bat colony in the world is definitely not a local secret, but you must see them if you’re in town.
If bats creep you out, you can watch them from a distance. It’s hard to miss 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats taking flight all at the same time. If you’re brave enough to watch from the bridge, you’ll also get a breathtaking view of the sunset over the Colorado River.
The bats don’t stick around during the winter, though, so you have to be on the bridge at dusk between May and early autumn.
#5 Visit the Cathedral of Junk
Is it a tree house or a landfill? Artistic or just weird? You’ll have to decide for yourself. It is more than 60 tons of junk arranged as a kind of growing, evolving clubhouse, that has—since 1988—merged with the dense backyard jungle of its creator: Vince Hannemann.
There’s no fee to get in, but admission is by appointment only, so call ahead. Your kids will love it. Get more information here.
#6 Find the food trucks
You don’t need to be in Austin for very long to realize that they love food trucks. Austin loves food trucks so much, they built a food truck trailer park (called The Picnic).
But the food trucks are all over Austin, and there is something for everyone. From Spicy Boys Fried Chicken (Thai-inspired fried chicken is a revelation.), to The Churro Co (Austin’s only completely homemade churro), to Kreyol Korner (Haitan), to the Burro Cheese Kitchen, and (I’m not kidding) more than 1,000 more—there is a food truck for everyone.
#7 Walk the Tejano Trail
If you like history, Austin is your place. The Tejano Walking Trail is almost five miles long, connecting more than 20 important sites that local residents have worked hard to defend and maintain against local development.
Read more about it here.
#8 Check out a Farmers Market
Austin is home to several year-round farmer’s markets, so there’s almost definitely one close to where you’re staying:
- The Barton Creek Farmers Market is at the Barton Creek Square mall every Saturday morning.
- The SFC Farmers Market Downtown is a huge market that takes over Republic Square every Saturday morning.
- The Lone Star Farmers Market is in the Hill Country Galleria every Sunday morning.
- The Texas Farmers Market at Mueller takes over the Mueller Lake Park every Sunday morning.
#9 Catch a free music show
There are so many ways to enjoy free music in Austin. It’s probably harder to avoid free music than it is to find it. In addition to Zilker Park, SoCo, and the farmers markets, here are some other places you can find free music:
- Waterloo Records
- Hot Summer Nights at the Red River Cultural District (July)
- Stubb’s Bar-B-Q (Sunday brunch)
- Little Longhorn Saloon
- Cherrywood Coffeehouse
- Sound & Cinema at the Long Center for the Performing Arts (June through August)
- The Pecan Street Festival (September)
#10 Visit the peacocks at Mayfield Park
Mayfield Park is a nature preserve that includes a historic cottage and beautiful gardens … and peacocks. Built in the 1870s, Mayfield can be reserved for private events, but is usually open to the public with no charge for admission.
#11 Take the kids to the Thinkery
The Thinkery is Austin’s children’s museum, and it’s a blast. There are community evenings, special mornings just for toddlers, a lab for big kids, and more. It’s a great option if you happen to be in Austin, with kids, during a rare rainy day.
There is a small admission fee for anyone two years old and up. Get more information here.
#12 Catch a show at The Paramount
The Paramount Theater is more than 100 years old, and has hosted every kind of celebrity, performer, and even U.S. Presidents. Today, it hosts more than 200 performances every year, so there’s almost always something to see!
In addition to music, you may be able to catch some comedy or a classic film. Get more information here.
#13 Visit a museum
There is no shortage of top-quality museums in Austin. Whether your passion is art or history, you could spend an entire day just hitting the some of the best museums in Texas. Some considerations as you plan a day of culture:
- The Blanton Museum of Art is the largest collection in central Texas, with everything from contemporary Latin American art to Renaissance and Baroque paintings.
- The Harry Ransom Center is a humanities research library and museum. Among its permanent exhibitions is a Gutenberg Bible (one of only five in the U.S.) and the first photograph (produced in 1826/1827).
- The LBJ Presidential Library features exhibitions on the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam conflict, social justice, and more.
- The Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum is a unique art experience, with a collection of bronze sculptures set in a beautiful garden and contemporary exhibitions indoors.
- The Neill-Cochran House Museum is a historic Greek Revival home, built in 1855. Today, it hosts a variety of events and exhibits including a lecture series and “Sunday Funday” for the kids.
- The Mexic-Arte Museum features traditional and contemporary Mexican and Latino art and cultural exhibitions. They also host the Taste of Mexico in the spring and a Viva la Vida Festival and Parade in autumn.
- The Bullock Texas State History Museum is dedicated to the history and culture of Texas. Try to catch them on Free First Sunday.
- The Elisabet Ney Museum is a small castle that was originally the studio of German-American sculptor Elisabet Ney. The building itself is worth seeing and you can occasionally catch an art class for a small fee.
- The Contemporary Austin Jones Center (formerly the Austin Museum of Art) is a stunning gallery with a busy schedule. Make sure to visit The Moody Rooftop while you’re there.
Be sure to call ahead or check online for current hours and admissions fees, if any.
Cheap Places to Stay in Austin
Austin hotels can be expensive, especially when there is a football game or other event in town. If you want to save money on accommodation in Austin be sure to book in advance and consider staying a bit outside of downtown. In many cases, holiday rentals will be a better value than a hotel. Check out the options on VRBO here.
If you prefer to stay in a hotel, here are some affordable options in the Austin area:
- Tru by Hilton Austin Airport – It may not be fancy, but this new hotels offers spacious, clean spacious room and a friendly staff. Most rates include breakfast. Check out reviews, prices, and availability here.
- East Austin Hotel – This budget-friendly hotel also has an outdoor pool and sun terrace. You are not going to find a better value in such a convenient location. Check out reviews, prices, and availability here.
What to do in Austin: Everything
Austin, Texas, is an absolutely beautiful city and it’s bustling almost every day of the year. Whether you’re in town for a weekend or you’re looking for the next place to call home for a little while, Austin doesn’t disappoint. There are also a lot of fun day trips from Austin.
And one of my favorite things about this city is that not only will you never be bored, you don’t need lots of extra cash to get out and about. From the expansive parks, to the massive food truck population, to the list of museums, there are always cheap (and free) things to do in Austin.
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Last Updated on September 22, 2023