Houston invites superlatives everywhere you turn. It has one of the best living standards anywhere in the USA and a big portion of Texas’ best urban sights, architecturally-spellbinding buildings, world-class museums and dazzlingly-designed green spaces.
What can you do in Houston for free? The gorgeous parklands are all free-of-charge, as are some of its premier cultural institutions and religious buildings, but focusing on doing the fee-less things here will also ensure you will see sides to the metropolis few visitors ever see. Thursday is when many of the best museums offer entry gratis.
Here are the 15 best Houston free things to do.
Editor's note: During COVID-19, please check the latest US government travel restrictions before planning any trip and always follow government health advice. Events may be subject to change.
Downtown Houston, for all its grand towering buildings, is surprisingly low on attractions compared to its action-packed outer districts. The only properly free thing to do in central Downtown is to relax on the vibrant Discovery Green, which has revitalised the neighbourhood no end. There is a performance stage, outdoor art, a lake, fountains, trails and even grassy knolls for viewing the surrounding skyline.
Buffalo Bayou Park
Houston’s green lungs spread-eagle west from Downtown along the meandering course of the Buffalo Bayou, with this, the most impressive extent, spanning from Sabine St to Shepherd Dr across 160 acres. Buffalo Bayou Park is the peaceful, verdant antidote to Houston’s bustle, where you can cycle, run or walk riverside trails, or kayak, with the cityscape looming augustly behind. Of all the Downtown Houston free things to do, this is the most absorbing. Highlights include a one-time waterworks transformed into an exhibition and recreation space, nature reserves and of course spying the bats at Waugh Drive Bridge (see below).
Waugh Drive Bridge Bat Colony
Just as Austin has Congress Avenue Bridge for bat-watching, so Houston has Waugh Drive Bridge. An estimated 250,000 Mexican free-tailed bats reside on the underside of this bridge across the Buffalo Bayou, and differ from Texas’ other big bat colonies in living here permanently, rather than migrating south in winter.
Come sunset, they launch in huge cacophonous crowds on a nightly insect-hunting spree. Beholding the spectacle from the bridge or the Buffalo Bayou Park pathways below is Houston’s finest free show. These metropolitan mammals may wish they had high-tailed for warmer climes, though: freezing weather in February 2021 wrought havoc on the population, but the latest is they still have Waugh Drive Bridge as their preferred hangout.
Art Car Museum
Houston’s favourite alt event is the Art Car Parade, where wackily decked-out autos and indeed a cornucopia of other eccentric wheel-mounted art takes to the streets in what is, this being Texas, the biggest event of its kind in the world. The Art Car Museum, on Heights Blvd south of Katy Fwy, is where you get to see a few of the fabulous contraptions that won, for free.
Also displayed is other, invariably idiosyncratic contemporary art but the museum’s nickname – the Garage Mahal – gives a clue as to the overarching theme.
Houstonians John and Dominique de Menil amassed an astonishing stockpile of 10,000 objects spanning everything from prehistory to pop art during their lifetimes and this assortment has been almost doubled since then to form today’s transfixing body of work housed in the Menil Collection, a long, white modernist building designed by Renzo Piano.
Watch for paragon pieces by Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol and Kara Walker, and do not pass over the Cy Twombly Gallery, a Piano-designed annex showcasing some of abstract artist Twombly’s best creations. The peerless collection southwest of Downtown is perhaps the best free thing to do in Houston.
Houston philanthropists the de Menils commissioned this unusual contemplative space in 1964, aiming to create a nondenominational place of worship. Standing southwest of Downtown near the Menil Collection, the Rothko Chapel was the building that fabled American abstract painter Mark Rothko spent the final years of his life working on. It got completed a year after his death in 1971.
Walls within the octagonal structure are adorned in 14 Rothko canvases. At first, these appear black but, the longer you focus, they morph as if by magic into myriad different shades: a profound experience for a profound place.
After Abraham Lincoln’s abolition of slavery, and word reaching Texas that slaves had been emancipated on June 19, 1865, black communities countrywide began to celebrate the anniversary (as Juneteenth). Galveston, just down the road from Houston, was the first city to do this. But in Houston former slaves went to greater lengths. They purchased these ten acres of land in South Central Houston as a special spot for Juneteenth festivities, which still happen here today.
Momentous history aside, Houston’s oldest public park is an extremely well-maintained and free-to-enter facility, with a walking trail, playgrounds, swimming pool and recreation center.
This venerable recreation space extends to 445 lake-dotted landscaped acres and, big and rich with facilities like so many city attractions, Hermann Park has enough distractions to while away a day without shelling a cent.
Edged by some of the city’s best museums, including the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences (below) and stippled with cultural delights like Miller Outdoor Theater (below), it also boasts a miniature railway, Japanese gardens, the McGovern Centennial Gardens which feature a spiral climbing hill plus botanical and sculpture gardens, a boating lake and much more.
Miller Outdoor Theater
The best free romantic thing to do in Houston awaits in Hermann Park. This vast and varied verdant expanse is not just a pretty face flanked by blockbuster museums: it has its own cultural shenanigans going on, including this amphitheater designed by William Ward Watkin who had a hand in many of the metropolis’ most magnificent structures. After a day spent exploring Hermann Park, a genteel conclusion is to recline on the grassy slopes of the Miller Outdoor Theater enjoying a free concert or play.
Contemporary Arts Museum
Focusing only on art created in the last 40 years, the Museum District’s Contemporary Arts Museum is a centre for ever-changing displays of cutting-edge works and exhibitions by the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, Nic Nicosia and James Turrell. There is no permanent collection here, but this ensures repeat visits invariably offer something utterly different and thrilling. It sits across the street from the equally free Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden, a serene green enclave where you can admire works by Rodin, Matisse and others.
The Waterwall, Gerald D. Hines Waterwall Park
The centrepiece of Uptown Houston is the Gerald D. Hines Waterwall Park, a pleasing green space flanked by live oaks and high-rise offices with one rather large, impressive feature. This is the 64-foot-high, horseshoe-shaped Waterwall, down which sheets of water cascade whilst strikingly framed by Romanesque arches. It’s free to gaze at the structure or sit in the park with a picnic lunch.
Shri Swaminarayan Mandir
The Shri Swaminarayan Mandir was the first Hindu Mandir (temple built to sacred designs laid down in ancient scriptures) of its kind in North America and makes a truly splendid addition to a city renowned for raising and changing the game with its architectural innovation. It beggars belief that this open-air multi-domed edifice, raised in Turkish limestone and Italian marble and spanning 11,500 square feet, could have been completed in just 16 months. Come to gaze in awe – or to worship – cost-free, and reserve time for a turn around the arresting 22-acre grounds. The temple is out in Stafford, 20 miles southwest of Downtown.
Houston Ship Channel Cruise
Most people have clocked Houston’s big money originates from oil, but the lion’s share of its success stems from the Port of Houston which, through this channel, is able to be the most commercially-successful port in the USA and the sixth-largest anywhere in the world. The free, 90-minute pretty-but-gritty tours along the waterway might be the best-kept secret on the long list of city attractions: they are incredibly informative, yield sensational panoramas of the Houston cityscape and even come with complimentary refreshments. Tours embark from Port Houston’s Sam Houston Landing.
Houston Museum of Natural Science
This huge, riveting museum in lovely, lake-bestrewn Hermann Park is Houston’s premier tourist sight, not to mention Texas’ most popular museum. Entrancing exhibits encompass dinosaur skeletons, real mummies from ancient Egypt, mock-ups of Aztec temples and a fabulous trove of objects from the famous Fabergé firm, such as Catherine the Great’s crown jewels. However many hours you spend here, they will be full, fascinating ones. Most of the time, this mega-attraction commands an entrance fee, but on Thursday between 2pm and 5pm, all permanent exhibitions are free.
Houston Museum of Fine Arts
Houston Museum of Fine Arts stands out even in a city chock-a-block with phenomenal cultural attractions, and amidst a state renowned for doing everything bigger than anywhere else. It is one of the USA’s largest museums, spanning several edifices including the imposing neoclassical Watkin Building which is named after its celebrated Houstonian architect, William Ward Watkin. The collection is colossal, beginning with a cache of pre-Columbian treasures and climaxing in an exquisite journey through art history from the Renaissance to post-WW2, European talismans like Rembrandt to American greats like Georgia O’Keeffe. Situated in the Museum District north of Hermann Park, it is free to visit on Thursdays.