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Sound & Cinema
Photograph: Dillon Magnuson Sound & Cinema

The 25 best free things to do in Austin

From live music to museum galleries, Austin is full of fun, free things to do—and your wallet will thank you

By Alex Temblador and David Brendan Hall
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Any Austinite will tell you that music, art, and the outdoors are what makes the city great. What they may forget to mention is that you can enjoy all three without paying a cent. In addition to sweeping landscapes full of free watering holes and spots to hike within city limits, the best free things to do in Austin include free live music shows nearly every day of the week, free admission to museums, free yoga or dance classes, and a multitude of other gratis events throughout the year. We’ve put together the ultimate list of free experiences in Austin, because why pay for something when you can do it for free? Save a buck and buy a taco instead. 

RECOMMENDED: The best things to do in Austin

Best free things to do in Austin

Waterloo
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Jim Porter

1. In-store shows at Waterloo Records

There are shows happening at music venues across the city every night of the year but paying a cover (or hefty ticket price) is par for the course. Not at Waterloo Records: Throughout the year, touring artists host one-off, abbreviated in-store performances at this beloved record shop. These are first-come-first-served, typically on weekday afternoons and on Tuesdays include free beer for the 21+ crowd. Skip out of work early and you'll be rewarded with an intimate performance from bands about to hit it big.

Blanton Museum of Art
Photograph: Courtesy Blanton Museum of Art

2. Thursdays at the Blanton Museum of Art

Things to do Libraries, archives and foundations Universit of Texas

As one of the foremost university art museums in the country with incredible permanent and temporary collections, the Blanton is the spot for museum aficionados. There's something for every type of art lover here: dazzling interactive installations; a plethora of European, Latin American and American/Contemporary paintings; Ellsworth Kelly's new "Austin" structure; and plenty more. On Thursdays, the entrance fee (normally $9) is waived, and on third Thursdays the museum hours are extended to 9pm.

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Barton Creek
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Patrick Lewis

3. Barton Creek Greenbelt

The Barton Creek Greenbelt has hiking, climbing, and natural swimming holes ideal for any age within its 809 acres and 7.9-mile expanse, which is conveniently nestled just south of downtown Austin. A quick online search will reveal plenty of access points to this locally loved oasis. Don’t forget your sunscreen and a cooler (no glass or alcohol)!

Backyard Story Night
Photograph: Courtesy Backyard Story Night

4. Backyard Story Night

Looking for live entertainment that isn’t music-related? Backyard Story Night, held at various venues across town, is just the (free) ticket. Bring a blanket and snacks and enjoy the company of other humans telling personal stories (revolving around a specific theme during each event). Or, better yet, take the stage and tell your own tale!

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KGSR's Blues on the Green
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Steve

5. Blues on the Green and Unplugged at the Grove

Summer in ATX is primetime for free live music in part thanks to local radio station KGSR. Once a month, from May through August, everybody can enjoy the massive Blues on the Green shows, which welcomes innumerable picnickers to Zilker Park for public shows from the likes of Jimmie Vaughan, Hayes Carll and Sweet Spirit. From April through September, check out free gigs every Thursday at South Austin’s Shady Grove restaurant during KGSR's Unplugged at the Grove.

Barton Springs Pool
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Wally Gobetz

6. Free swim at Barton Springs Pool

In the summer, access to this one-of-a-kind spring-fed public pool costs $3 for adults, but you can avoid the fee by opting for an early morning swim between 5–8am or a night swim from 9–10pm. Caution, though: There are no lifeguards on duty during free hours, so swim at your own risk. And if you’re aching for a polar plunge, free admission to the pool is available from the end of October to the end of February. Also unguarded, but a fantastic free alternative: the spillway area adjacent to the pool’s southwest (deep) end. It’s a superb shallow swimming area but beware of slippery rocks!

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Barbella
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Kevin Christopher Burke

7. Dancing at Barbarella

You know it’s been (or going to be) a wild night when you end up at Barbarella. Conveniently located among countless bars, clubs and music venues in the Red River District, Barbs hosts different themed dance parties—with no cover—almost every night of the week. Tuesdays’ Tuesgayz is a good launch point or, if you’re craving a specific music genre, Grits and Gravy (50s, 60s, and 70s) and Passport (Latin and African on the patio) are held on Thursdays.

Pecan Street Festival
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Todd Dwyer

8. Pecan Street Festival

You’ve got two chances—the first Saturday and Sunday in May and the last Saturday and Sunday in September—to enjoy this annual Austin festival, located in downtown’s Sixth Street Historic District. Each weekend brings together hundreds of local and national artisans sporting creations made of any medium imaginable, including metal, wood, glass, stone and recycled materials. And it wouldn’t be true to ATX culture if there wasn’t food and live music—about 50 artists perform across three stages, and there are 30 food vendors on hand to keep you nourished.

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The White Horse
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Lars Plougmann

9. Dance lessons at the White Horse

So you've visited the White Horse and witnessed the regulars sweep each other off their feet to some of the finest honky-tonk jams in town? Still too nervous to join in? Easy solution: Show up early (7–8pm) on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays for free Texas two-step lessons. Once you've mastered the two-step, come by on Wednesdays for free Swing dance lessons, or Tuesdays for Blues dancing. You'll be boot-scootin’ with the best of ’em in no time!

Wonderbitch
Photograph: David Brendan Hall

10. Free Week

Free Week has come to act as a welcome wagon to the new year in Austin, a celebration of music held across the city with dozens of killer acts like Riverboat Gamblers, Whiskey Shivers, Peelander-Z, Lost Coast, and Otis the Destroyer, playing for free. Generally held the first week of January, the seven-day fest sees Austinites bopping from one music venue to the next while catching their favorite ATX bands and discovering new ones. While covers are always free, you'd be wise to still bring cash—tipping your bartender is always in fashion. 

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Austin Sound and Cinema
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Do512

11. Sound & Cinema

You’ve been to an outdoor movie screening, but have you ever heard of a live band opening up for the outdoor movie? Enter Sound & Cinema, a free event—produced by local entities Do512 and Alamo Drafthouse—held over four alternating Fridays each summer on the lawn of the Long Center, which features the splendid backdrop of the city skyline. Free music paired with a classic or cult film—eat your heart out, drive-ins.

Mayfield Park
Photograph: Shutterstock

12. Mayfield Park

Attractions Camp Mabry

Did you know that the correct term for a family of peacocks is peafowl? The term isn’t colloquially common—but neither is witnessing a plethora of the brightly colored birds strolling casually among people out in the open. That’s the norm at West Austin’s Mayfield Park and Preserve, where you can picnic or explore the gardens for free while witnessing the full mating and life cycles of this fascinating, totally nonaggressive avian family, whose original descendants were introduced in 1935. Note: no pets, please (let’s let the peafowls strut in peace).

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The Contemporary Austin
Photograph: Courtesy The Contemporary Austin

13. Tuesdays at the Contemporary Austin

Things to do Congress Ave District

Both of the Contemporary Austin's locations—The Jones Center downtown and the 14-acre Laguna Gloria site just a bit further northwest—waive their admission on Tuesdays. Take advantage of both: At the former, you'll find rotating exhibitions and the permanent installation With Liberty and Justice for All (A Work in Progress) by Jim Hodges. The latter houses an art school, French-Cajun restaurant épicerie, the installation-ready Gatehouse Gallery and the recently expanded Betty and Marcus Sculpture Park, which has pieces by Paul McCarthy, Elmgreen & Dragset, Ai Weiwei, Juan Munoz, and Monika Sosnowska, among others.

Farmers Market
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Roger Mommaerts

14. Farmers' markets

You might eventually spend a few bucks on something at one of Austin’s many farmers markets but browsing and enjoying a few samples won’t cost a thing (try some local honey—it’s good for your allergies!). Saturday and Sunday are the busiest days (we recommend Springdale Farm and the Texas Farmers Market at Mueller for those, respectively), but rest assured, there’s at least one open within the city limits every day of the week.

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Bullock Texas State History Museum
Photograph: Courtesy Bullock Texas State History Museum

15. First Sundays at the Bullock Texas State History Museum

Things to do Arts District

Austinites are proud people, but Texans as a larger group are even prouder. Case-in-point: the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, where three floors of the Lone Star State’s history—the Story of Texas, as they call it—come to life with continually updated artifacts ranging in scope from the 17th-century French shipwreck La Belle and the Civil War and surrounding eras to the Golden Age of NASA’s mission control operations out of Houston. Come by on the first Sunday of the month from noon to 5pm, when you'll be able to explore the museum for free.

Bats at Congress Avenue Bridge
Photograph: Shutterstock

16. Congress Bridge bats

Watching 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats—the world’s largest urban bat population—swarm out from under Austin’s Anne W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge is pretty dang impressive, but you don’t need to sign up for one of the many available boat tours to enjoy the sight. Instead, do as the Romans (er, Austinites) do and line up along the bridge’s eastern side on any evening from late March to early fall. The grandeur is impossible to miss from this vantage point as the bats fly out over the lake en masse right around dusk.

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The Harry Ransom Center
Photograph: Courtesy The Harry Ransom Center

17. Harry Ransom Center

Attractions Libraries, archives and foundations The Drag

Visitors come to this free museum for the 42 million manuscripts, one million rare books, five million photographs and more than 100,000 artistic works. Permanent exhibitions include the Gutenberg Bible (one of five complete copies in the U.S!) and original works by Frida Kahlo, including her iconic Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird. In other words, this is one Austin museum you don't want to miss.

HOPE Outdoor Gallery
Photograph: Shutterstock/Nagel Photography

18. HOPE Outdoor Gallery

Attractions Public spaces West End

HOPE Outdoor Gallery has moved across from the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport from its long-held spot in Castle Hill. It will open in Spring/Summer 2020 and will feature large-scale murals in the open-air art park, an events center, and educational art classes and events. Though the location is new, you’ll surely be able to capture some Insta-worthy shots with the graffiti and street art on display in Austin’s new –and free— art park.

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Zilker Kite Festival
Photograph: Courtesy Austin CVB/Bruce Lemons

19. Zilker Park

No, not everything at South Austin’s Zilker Park is free—sadly, there aren’t many ways to avoid the $250+ three-day ticket price for the annual Austin City Limits Music Festival. But any day there isn’t a private event, you can enjoy the lush grass of the athletic fields (perfect for playing or picnicking), the challenge of biking and walking trails, the whimsy of the expansive playground and kids’ train, plus countless other activities. Our top rec for special events: the annual ABC Zilker Kite Festival, held every March. 

Texas State Capitol
Photograph: Courtesy Texas State Capitol Building

20. Texas State Capitol

Explore one of the city’s most impressive feats of architecture and get a thorough Texas history lesson from one of the knowledgeable guides—all at no charge! There are free walkthroughs every day, but make sure to check the website for special tours such as Women in Texas History, Heroes of the Texas Revolution, African American Trailblazing Texans Tour (February), Hispanic Heritage: A Texas-Size Legacy Tour (September), Rest in Peace: Texas Capitol Halloween Tour (October), and the Holiday Tour (December). 

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Elisabet Ney Museum
Photograph: Courtesy Elisabet Ney Museum

21. Elisabet Ney Museum

Attractions Libraries, archives and foundations Triangle State

Completely free and open to the public, the Elisabet Ney Museum is the former studio and portrait collection of namesake Elisabet Ney, a 19th century German sculptor who moved to Austin in 1882. Her sculptures span from the 1850s to her death in 1907 and are supplemented by the work of contemporary artists in both the building and on the museum's stunning grounds. 

East Austin Studio Tour
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/David Ingram

22. EAST and WEST

Four weekends in May and November, hundreds of locations, countless artists—that’s exactly what you'll find at the annual West Austin Studio Tour and East Austin Studio Tour. Anyone is welcome to take self-guided tours (bikes recommended!) through home and pro studios, galleries, temporary exhibitions, one-off events and other programs—all of which truly reveal the breadth and impact of Austin's artistic community.

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Mexic-Arte Museum
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Elias Andrade

23. Sundays at the Mexic-Arte Museum

Things to do Libraries, archives and foundations Downtown

There's so much to learn about Austin’s connection to Latino art and culture, both historical and contemporary. The best place to start: downtown’s Mexic-Arte Museum, where celebrating that deep-seated link—through photography, painting, sculpture and more—is the goal. Come by on Sundays, when the museum is completely free.

Breathe
Photograph: Tim Goedhart on Unsplash

24. Yoga at Cherrywood Coffeehouse

Restaurants Cafés Upper Boggy Creek

Head to Central Austin’s Cherrywood Coffee House every Monday through Friday for free yoga. No mat? No problem! From 8–9am, just show up and get ready to release some stress while toning your muscles during free community sessions.

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Zilker Hillside Theater
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Jim Porter

25. Zilker Hillside Theater

Since 1959, Zilker Theatre Productions has produced summer musicals at the Hillside Theatre, adjacent to Barton Springs Pool in Zilker Park. Past shows included well-loved classics: Hairspray, Annie, West Side Story and Oklahoma!, to name a few. Free and suitable for all ages, the production is best enjoyed with blankets and chairs spread out on a lush green hill, the stars twinkling above.

Get outside in Austin

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