Over the last five years, Austin has become one of the most popular US travel destinations.
That, combined with a major increase in population during the pandemic, has resulted in some price increases in the capital of Texas. But don’t worry, travelers – while it’s no longer considered a “budget destination,” there are plenty of things you can see and do in the city without breaking the bank.
We’ve made a list of all the free things that Austin has to offer, from music to art and a lot of outdoorsy experiences, too. Check it out.
1. Watch the Congress Avenue Bridge bats emerge at night
Austin is famous for having a colony of Mexican Free-Tailed bats that live under the Congress Avenue Bridge. In fact, it’s the largest urban bat colony in the world!
If you visit Austin from late March through early fall, you can watch the 1.5 million bats ascend into the sky around sunset (7:30-9:45 pm) every night. Their nightly flight will start slow and then grow into a massive wave of bats that fly over Lady Bird Lake. It’s quite a magnificent thing to witness and can last about 45 minutes. You’ll want to arrive early to get a good spot for the show.
Planning tip: The bats fly to the east when they leave the bridge, so keep this in mind when choosing a viewing spot on the Congress Avenue Bridge or on the grassy hill of the Statesman Bat Observation Center (adjacent to the bridge.) If both areas get too packed, find a spot (off the path) on the Butler Hike and Bike Trail. Remember to pick a spot on the path that’s east of the Congress Avenue Bridge. For a more unique experience, take your kayak, paddleboard, canoe, or water bike to Austin and watch the bats' nightly flight from the water.
2. Go on a free historic walking tour
The incredible history of Austin can be yours to experience with a free guided or self-guided tour. See the Texas State Capitol, learn all about the architecture, and visit different areas like the Senate Chamber, Supreme Court Courtroom, and more.
If the Capitol isn’t your vibe, check out Preservation Austin, which created 12 different self-guided historic tours around the city. These tours will take you through major neighborhoods like South Congress, showcase the East Austin Barrio landmarks, and tell you all about historic homes and sites in Downtown Austin. Some of these tours even have a GPS route that you can follow.
Preservation Austin also set up narrated audio-visual tours through the Otocast App, including “Tejano Trail” and “African American Austin”, which exhibit the city’s diverse populations and their impact on Austin, while the “Iconic Music Venues” tour tells the story of Austin’s musical past.
3. Explore Zilker Park
Hanging out at a park may not seem all that exciting but trust us when we say that the 351-acre Zilker Park is one of THE places to visit in Austin. Walkers and cyclists will love the Hike-and-Bike Trail. Take your family or friends and play disc golf and sand volleyball or enjoy a picnic with downtown in view. If you have your own kayak, canoe, or paddleboard, you can always float onto Lady Bird Lake from Zilker Park’s shores.
Zilker Park is home to some of Austin’s most notable attractions, some of which have no entrance fee. The Austin Nature & Science Center is free to all and has hands-on nature exhibits and educational programs that the whole family will love. The UMLAUF Sculpture Garden & Museum has affordable entrance fees and allows children under 12, active military, and veterans to visit for free. There are some free days at the Zilker Botanical Garden, but they’re few and far between. People receiving food assistance (SNAP benefits) get free access to the gardens any day of the year.
Many of Austin’s most notable festivals and events are hosted in Zilker Park. Free summer music and theatrical performances can be enjoyed at Zilker Hillside Theater year after year. Other festivals like the Trail of Lights – which has some free admission nights – and the completely-free ABC Kite Fest are other great events to attend.
And finally – Zilker is home to the Barton Springs Pool, a three-acre swimming pool fed by natural springs that have an average temperature of 68°F (20°C). From November to spring break, admission to the pool doesn’t cost a thing.
Planning tip: In 2022, the City of Austin offered a free weekend shuttle service from the One Texas Center Parking Garage to Zilker Metropolitan Park from June 25 through September 5. Those who parked in the garage had their parking ticket validated by the shuttle driver. It’s unclear if this shuttle will be available in 2023, but you should keep an eye out for it.
4. Hear live music for free
People come from all over the world to hear live music in Austin and you’ll be glad to know that you can hear many a live band without paying a cover charge. Check out venues like the Elephant Room, Maggie Mae’s, Rustic Tap, Cheer up Charlies and the Little Longhorn Saloon for free live shows on a regular basis. The Saxon Pub has free weekday happy hour shows, while the Texas Radio Live series presented by Sun Radio is a free weekly event that showcases Texas singers, songwriters, and musicians. It’s held every Wednesday through Sunday in the oak-shaded garden at Güero’s Taco Bar.
If you’re in Austin during the first week of January, don’t miss a chance to see about 100 bands play in the Red River Cultural District’s Free Week festival. The free concerts run from Thursday through Saturday in one of the most popular music districts in Austin. In the summer, the district hosts another free live music series called Hot Summer Nights that features local musicians.
Summer is always a good time to hear live music, especially in the parks of Austin. The Drop-In Summer Concert Series at Hartman Concert Lawn and Austin Symphony Concerts in the Park in Zilker Park are free annual music series.
Planning tip: There are plenty of other live music opportunities throughout the year, especially at festivals and around the holidays. Keep an eye on EventBrite and Visit Austin’s Instagram page to stay in the loop.
5. Admire Mexican and Latin American art at the Mexic-Arte Museum on Sundays
The Mexic-Arte Museum is a great introduction to the Mexican and Latine culture that makes Texas so special. The museum began in 1984 to share the art and culture of Mexico with Texans, but it has since expanded to offer cultural programs and showcase the art of emerging Latine artists in the US, Mexico, and Latin America. The collection comprises over 5000 pieces. With rotating exhibitions throughout the year, you’ll never have the same experience twice at this museum.
Most importantly, the Mexic-Arte Museum is free to visit on Sundays. Also, active-duty military personnel and up to five family members receive free admission any day of the week from Armed Services Day to Labor Day.
6. Hike Mt Bonnell
See Austin in a whole new way with a hike up Mt Bonnell. Located in Covert Park, Mt Bonnell is one of the highest points in Austin, reaching 781ft into the sky. Not only is it free to visit Mt Bonnell, but it’s free to park there too. To get to the top, you’ll have to climb 102 stairs. Once you’re there, you can take amazing pictures of downtown Austin and the Colorado River. There is a deck and pavilion at the top of the hill where you can rest your aching legs before you descend. This is a popular picture-taking site and date destination in the evenings (picnic at sunset, anyone?) so be patient and wait your turn. The view isn’t going anywhere.
7. Take a self-guided mural tour
See all the amazing, quirky, and colorful murals of Austin on a self-guided walking, biking or car tour. Some of our favorites include the Greetings from Austin mural in South Austin, the I Love You So Much mural on Jo’s Coffee and the We Rise Mural in East Austin. There are so many other murals about town waiting to be admired like a tribute to Tejana singer, Selena, and a famous frog named Jeremiah the Innocent.
Planning tip: To find the best Austin murals, you can download the Austin Street Art Walk tour from GPSMyCity, refer to the Downtown Mural Bike Tour from the Downtown Austin Alliance Foundation, or check out the Murals of East Austin map from Creative Austin.
8. Hang out at the Barton Creek Greenbelt
You don’t have to go outside of Austin to have a truly amazing outdoor adventure. The Barton Creek Greenbelt, a 7.25-mile stretch of nature that runs through South Austin, is a great destination for rock climbing, swimming and kayaking. It also has 12 miles of hiking, running and cycling trails.
There are a variety of entry points to the Barton Creek Greenbelt, and which one you use will depend on what you want to do. Campbell’s Hole and Gus Fruh are popular swimming holes, though Gus Fruh also has a natural rock wall that climbers lovingly call the Urban Assault. Hike to waterfalls like Sculpture Falls and Twin Falls, and along the way, you’ll enjoy lush forests, rock walls, and swimming holes.
9. Visit the Blanton Museum of Art on Thursdays
The Blanton Museum of Art has the largest public art collection in Central Texas. In fact, the permanent collection has over 21,000 pieces that primarily focus on the modern and contemporary art of America and Latin America, paintings from the Italian Renaissance and baroque periods, and prints and drawings.
The museum’s rotating exhibitions introduce people to some of the most exciting and innovative artists of our time who are creating art pieces that speak to the biggest topics in Texas and the world today. The Blanton is also home to the Austin building that was designed by Ellsworth Kelly. The limestone building has luminous-colored glass windows and is an Insta-worthy spot.
Every Thursday, the Blanton Museum of Art is free to all visitors. University of Texas ID holders, children under 12, and K-12 teachers with valid IDs receive free admission any day of the week. From Armed Services Day to Labor Day, active-duty military personnel and up to five family members also receive free admission.
10. See the Cathedral of Junk
Austin’s slogan is “Keep Austin Weird” and there is perhaps nothing “weirder” than the Cathedral of Junk. Vince Hannemann didn’t mean to create a roadside attraction. He started building his funky clubhouse with junk in 1988 – just for fun – but today it has over 60 tons of old-fashioned TVs, kitchen utensils, ladders, cables, parts from bicycles and lawnmowers, old clocks, toys, tools, toilets, and more. Parts of this "cathedral" are wheelchair accessible, though it does have stairs that lead to the second and third floors. It’s a maze of wonderment, one that Hannemann is still working on today.
Planning tip: To visit the Cathedral of Junk, you must call ahead (512-299-7413) and make an appointment with Hannemann as it is located on his private property. The Cathedral of Junk is his personal art piece, so while you may want to bring a piece of junk to add to the cathedral, it’s best to leave it at home. Just enjoy the artwork as it is and take lots of pictures.