And while most of the museums, galleries and top tourist destinations across Texas are worth the price of entry, there are also plenty of places to visit that don’t cost a dime. From city parks to hill country hikes, here’s our guide to the best free things to do in Texas.
Tour the Capitol Building in Austin
After Texas won independence from Mexico in 1836, the capital of the new republic moved multiple times before finally settling in Austin. Construction on the first state building began in 1853, but today’s structure is actually the third iteration of the Capitol. At 302.64ft (92.24m) tall, the iconic pink granite dome is taller than the United States Capitol (289ft/88m) in Washington, D.C., which was the building’s model.
While only the sixth tallest state capitol in the country, the Texas Capitol has more floor space than any other state building at 360,000 sq ft (33,000m2). With nearly four hundred rooms, nine hundred windows and a whispering gallery in the central rotunda, visitors can opt for either a self-guided or guided tour of the building – both are free. Be sure to wander the grounds as well, where tall trees and historic statues adorn the sprawling lawn.
Houston Arboretum & Nature Center
While NASA and Houston’s many, many galleries are a big draw to Texas’ largest city, Houston also has urban green spaces that provide an escape in the heart of the metropolis. About four miles from downtown, the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center on the western edge of Memorial Park provides respite from bustling city life.
With 155 acres and five miles of free trails, this non-profit nature sanctuary plays a vital role in protecting native plants and animals. Find interactive exhibits and activities in the Discovery Room at the Nature Center, or browse the Nature Shop for gifts and souvenirs.
NorthPark Center, Dallas
While items in the shops at Dallas’ NorthPark Center are not free, the shopping center is a nice place to catch some free art installations, thanks to the Nasher Sculpture Center. Specifically designed in the 1960s to house some of Patsy and Raymond Nasher’s growing contemporary art collection with the public, this luxury retail space is a free alternative to entry at the Nasher Sculpture Center.
Wander the Historic Riverwalk in San Antonio
Thanks to its historic significance in the war for Texas Independence, the Alamo is probably the top tourist spot in San Antonio. Here, a fledgling Texan army sacrificed their lives defending the tiny fort against the much larger forces of the Mexican army. While the Alamo’s legendary status often means that it looms larger in people’s minds before visiting, walking through the surviving structure is a helpful way to grasp just how small the fort was – and just how much the tiny Texas army was up against.
But be sure to catch the other San Antonio missions, too: long before the Alamo became a turning point in the fight for Texas Independence, it was known as the Mission San Antonio de Valero, the first of five Spanish missions in the area. Now designated a UNESCO World Heritage site (and the only one in Texas), the missions are connected by a hike and bike trail with about 2.5 miles between each one. The ancient aqueduct of Mission Espada is a great place to start, winding your way back into town toward missions San Juan Capistrano, San José, and of course, the Alamo.
Scenic drive in El Paso
Following the southern tip of the Franklin Mountains and the winding Rio Grande, Scenic Drive is popular at night for city-lights viewing as it offers expansive vistas of El Paso, Ciudad Juarez and the surrounding mountains. Take N Mesa St to Kerbey Ave (across from the university), head east till it becomes Rim Rd, then turn right on Scenic Dr. En route, keep an eye out for little Murchison Park (4222ft), a fine spot for sunrises.
Snap a selfie with Buddy Holly in Lubbock
Recently moved across the street from the new Buddy Holly Museum, this statue to one of Texas’ legendary country musicians is a perfect photo opportunity in this north Texas town. Born in Lubbock, the famous musician died tragically in an airplane incident in 1959, but not before changing the future of rock and roll forever. Surrounding the statue are plaques from the West Texas Walk of Fame, and the whole plaza is floodlit at night so you can spot the statue from nearby Interstate 27.
Davis Mountains scenic drive
While most West Texas sojourners will make the 40-minute trek from Marfa to Valentine to spot the famous Prada Marfa art installation, many miss out on the natural wonders another short drive away in the Davis Mountains. If you’re starting out at Prada Marfa, circle back on US-90 until the turn at Ranch Road 505, which eventually connects to Texas 166 before looping back down Texas 118 into Fort Davis. Passing Mount Livermore, Texas, this dramatic mountain drive loops through the highest point on Texas highways and offers unforgettable views.
Hike Hancock Hill
Known for the iconic twin peaks of Paisano Pass in the distance, Alpine is home to the beautiful campus of Sul Ross State University. Established in 1917 and part of the Texas State University System, Sul Ross nestles into the side of Hancock Hill, where a short but steep hike provides a spectacular view of Alpine and the surrounding mountains. Be sure to take in the views at the Desk, which three Sul Ross students dragged to the top of the hill in 1981. Today, visitors can still sign the guest book and read messages from previous visitors to the scenic writing spot.
Galveston sea wall
Gulf Coast views are always worth a stroll along the sea wall in Galveston, which leads to the Pleasure Pier. Reopened in 2012 after being destroyed by Hurricane Carla in 1961, the island icon stands in the same location as a pleasure pier from the 1940s and still provides the perfect backdrop for your sunset beach photos.
Not to be confused by the Colorado town of the same name, Sulphur Springs, is a great place to take in small-town Texas. Walk around the beautiful Hopkins County Courthouse, Celebration Plaza, and the Hopkins County Veterans Memorial, or hike the walking trails that circle Coleman Lake nearby.
Old Tunnel State Park
A few miles outside Fredericksburg, Old Tunnel State Park is the site of an abandoned railroad that once connected Fredericksburg to the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway. The railroad ceased operations in 1942, after which several colonies of bats took up residence in the abandoned tunnel. Between May and October, tickets are required to view the emergence of the Mexican free-tailed bats at dusk, but there is no entry fee to access the park’s short hiking trail for bird watching and wildlife viewing.