Save your cents with the 10 best free activities in Austin

Austin’s incredible live music and culture scene has resulted in skyrocketing popularity in recent years – it’s quickly become one of the most visited cities in the US.

This boom, combined with a population surge during the pandemic, has resulted in price increases across the board in the Texan capital. But while Austin may be more expensive, you don’t need to blow your budget on a visit.

There are lots of fun activities that will show you the best of the city and all without spending a dime. Here are our 10 favorite free things to do in Austin. 

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 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 a magnificent sight to witness and can last about 45 minutes. 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 Congress Avenue Bridge or 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. For a more unique experience, take your kayak, paddleboard, canoe, or water bike to Austin and watch the bats’ nightly flight from the water.

People walk down a path approaching a grand domed government building
Free walking tours are available of the Texas State Capitol © Sungjin Kim / Getty Images

2. Go on a free historic walking tour

Learn more about Austin’s incredible history on a free guided or self-guided tour of the Texas State Capitol. Admire the incredible 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 and their 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 them even have a GPS bike route that you can follow on two wheels.

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.

Keep exploring in these top neighborhoods in Austin

3. Explore Zilker Park

Hanging out at a park may not seem all that exciting but trust us – 358-acre Zilker Park is one of THE places to visit in Austin. Forget you’re even in a city as you wander along the Hike-and-Bike Trail, play some disc golf or sand volleyball and then settle down to enjoy a picnic with downtown in view. You can even hire a kayak, canoe, or paddleboard and float onto Lady Bird Lake from Zilker Park’s shores.

Zilker Park is also home to some of Austin’s most notable attractions and several are free to visit. The Austin Nature & Science Center doesn’t cost a dime 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.

The Zilker Botanical Garden has several days when you can visit for free every year and people receiving food assistance (SNAP benefits) get free access to the gardens at any time.

Many of Austin’s most notable festivals and events are hosted in Zilker Park. Join the crowds to enjoy summer music and theatrical performances at Zilker Hillside Theater and other festivals like the Trail of Lights – which has some free admission nights – and the completely free ABC Kite Fest.

And as if all that wasn’t enough free fun, Zilker is also home to the Barton Springs Pool, a three-acre swimming pool fed by natural springs that have an average temperature of 68°F. From November to spring break, admission to the pool doesn’t cost a thing.

People gather in a bar to listen to live music being performed by a band on a stage at the front
There’s no cover charge at some Austin bars so you can catch a free live music performance © Rolf_52 / Shutterstock

4. Hear live music for free

People come from all over the world to hear live music in Austin and 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 regularly.

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 in the oak-shaded garden at Güero’s Taco Bar.

If you’re in Austin during the first weekend of the first week of January, don’t miss the chance to see about 100 bands play in the Red River Cultural District’s Free Week festival. 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 are both free annual music series.

Planning tip: There are plenty of other live music opportunities throughout the year – 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 opened 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.

A man catching sunset at Mount Bonnell in Austin
Soak up the views of Austin from the top of Mt Bonnell © scottiebumich / Getty Images

6. Get a different view of Austin from 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 but it has free parking too.

Start stretching in the car park because you’ll have to climb 102 stairs on the way to the top. 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 descending.

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 driving 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 many more artworks 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.

View of downtown Austin from Barton Creek Greenbelt
Austin’s Barton Creek Greenbelt offers lots of outdoor adventure possibilities for free © Trong Nguyen / Getty Images

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 work that speaks to the biggest topics in Texas and the world today. The Blanton is also home to the Austin building designed by Ellsworth Kelly. The limestone structure has luminous-colored glass windows and is a photo-worthy spot.

Every Tuesday, 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

The city’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 Vince Hannemann as it’s 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 project, it’s best to leave it at home. Just enjoy the artwork as it is and take lots of pictures.

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