Best free things to do in Austin
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 often 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.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Jim Porter
Boasting hiking, climbing and natural swimming holes ideal for any age, the Barton Creek Greenbelt has it all within its 7.25-mile expanse, 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)!
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Patrick Lewis
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 to 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 summertime evening—the grandeur is impossible to miss from this vantage point as the bats fly out over the lake en masse right around dusk.
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.
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 you 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.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Roger Mommaerts
Normally, access to this one-of-a-kind spring-fed public pool costs $3 for adults, but you can avoid the fee by opting for a night swim from 9 to 10pm. Caution, though: There are no lifeguards on duty during free hours, so swim at your own risk. 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!
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Wally Gobetz
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.
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—no cover before midnight—almost any night of the week. Tuesdays’ Tuesgayz is a good launch point or, if you’re craving a specific music genre, try Jimmy Eat Wednesday (emo/pop-punk) or Footloose Friday (‘80s).
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Kevin Christopher Burke
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 like Rodney McMillian's Against a Civic Death and the permanent installation With Liberty and Justice for All (A Work in Progress) by Jim Hodges. The latter houses an art school, the installation-ready Gatehouse Gallery and the recently expanded Betty and Marcus Sculpture Park, which has featured pieces by John Grade, Charles Long, Paul McCarthy, Jim Lambie and Monika Sosnowska, among others.
UT's Harry Ransom Center strives to encourage diversity, creativity and an understanding of the humanities—all of which has been headily achieved since opening in 1957. Visitors come to this free museum for the 36 million literary 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 the First Photograph (developed on a pewter plate by Joseph Nicephore Niepce in mid-19th-century France). In other words, this is one Austin museum you don't want to miss.
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!
Photograph: Courtesy Backyard Story Night
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/walking trails, the whimsy of the expansive playground and kids’ train, plus countless other activities. Our top rec for special events: the annual free Kite Festival, held every first Sunday of March.
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.
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 (7pm-8pm) on Fridays and Saturdays for free Texas two-step lessons. Once you've mastered the two-step, come by on Wednesdays for free Cajun dance lessons, or Thursday for swing dancing. You'll be boot-scootin’ with the best of ’em in no time!
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Lars Plougmann
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, and make sure to check the website for special tours: Women in Texas History, Heroes of the Texas Revolution, African American Trailblazing Texans Tour (February), Rest in Peace (October), Honoring Texas Veterans Tour (November), the Holiday Tour (December) and Early Texas Artists in the Capitol (available upon request).
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 playing for free (last year saw Riverboat Gamblers, Whiskey Shivers, Peelander-Z, Lost Coast, Otis the Destroyer, Fort Never and more all make an appearance). 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.
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 welcoms 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.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Steve
HOPE Outdoor Gallery, also known as Castle Hill for the fortress-like structure perched at the top, will soon be relocating to its new location near Carson Creek Ranch—meaning you'd better satisfy your inner artist's itch before the site gets demolished. Show up with paints, brushes and/or spray cans and paint to your heart's desire, or simply take a walk through and watch countless talented muralists render large-scale pieces. On a clear day or during a striking sunset, a quick climb to the top will reveal one of the best panoramic views of the city skyline.
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.
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