One of the great things about visiting a city the size of Houston is that there are plenty of fun and interesting things to do that don't cost a lot of money. Being the most populous city in the state of Texas, Houston supports the arts, outdoor recreation, cultural events, and preserves Texas history.
With no cost at all, you can take a harbor cruise, hit the museums on a free admission day and wander the historic district. There's the natural world to discover including watching a colony of bats fly into the evening skies to hunt insects.
The 20 best free attractions in the Bayou City will keep you busy for a weekend or a week's vacation.
Sam Houston Boat Tours offer a free, 90-minute cruise aboard the Port of Houston Authority’s public charter boat. This 95-foot vessel holds 100 passengers. Check the tour schedule to find out when you can reserve a spot. On occasion, the vessel will be pulled for maintenance and that will be announced on the website.
The vessel leaves from Port Houston’s Sam Houston Landing and the tour will take you around the port where you'll see international cargo ships and see them unload at the port’s Turning Basin Terminal. There is both lounge seating and outdoor places to stand and enjoy the tour.
Reservations at least 24 hours in advance are required. Reserve your spot online.
More than 250,000 Mexican Free-Tailed bats live under and emerge each night from the Waugh Drive Bridge at sunset unless it’s rainy or foggy. This bat colony inhabits the Waugh Drive Bridge over Buffalo Bayou between Memorial Drive and Allen Parkway. The Waugh Bridge Bat Colony remains in Houston throughout the year, one of the few colonies in Texas that does not migrate seasonally.
There is a bat observation deck in Buffalo Bayou Park which is a great place to watch the bats at nightfall.
Free parking is available along Allen Parkway and Spotts Park.
Houston's remarkable Museum District has 19 attractions all within a 1.5-mile radius. There are four walkable zones where you can discover art, natural history, and parks. Thursday is the magic day for free admission to many of Houston’s museums, though it varies by location.
The museums are places to explore subjects ranging from natural science to the African-American experience. The Museum of Fine Arts collection includes Egyptian antiquities, Impressionist art, and American sculpture.
Downtown Houston is home to a unique outdoor green space dubbed Discovery Green. With a schedule consisting of all kinds of free weekly events—Zumba, Thursday Concerts, and STEM Saturdays—as well as loads of special events, including a winter ice rink, Discovery Green is a winner for free entertainment. The venue also offers fountains, restaurants, a dog run, and a playground.
Skate at Jamail Skatepark
Lee and Joe Jamail Skatepark is a public skatepark near downtown Houston with 30,000 square feet of fun. Skaters of all levels are encouraged to work on their tricks or just learn how to stay balanced. Helmets are required.
The horseshoe-shaped water wall in Gerald D. Hines Waterwall Park in the Uptown District is a sight to behold. At 64 feet high, the rushing water fountain is certainly worth a visit. It’s especially beautiful at night with the lights shining on the unique sculpture, which has been in operation since 1983.
Waterwall Park is 2.77 acres and is surrounded by 186 live oak trees. It is the community centerpiece for Uptown Houston, the nation’s 14th largest mixed-use business center.
Miller Outdoor Theater is a rare outdoor amphitheater situated in Hermann Park near the Houston Zoo. For more than 80 years, it has offered Houstonians dance, theater or ensemble performance for free. Miller Outdoor features lots of cultural events and performances each weekend.
Outdoor spots promoting nature, fun and education are great choices for free family entertainment. The Houston area is home to two such venues—Houston Arboretum & Nature Center and Mercer Arboretum and Botanic Gardens (in Humble).
The Houston Arboretum features a 155-acre nature preserve with five miles of walking trails, a Discovery Room with hands-on activities, and lots of special programs and classes.
Mercer Arboretum features 300 acres of East Texas Piney Woods along Cypress Creek. Sights include a beaver pond at the Endangered Species Garden, trails, visitors’ center, playground, and special educational events.
Experience Hands-on Science at the Nature Discovery Center
Hana and Arthur Ginzbarg Nature Discovery Center is a little-known gem for free science-related activities. It offers a variety of kids’ science activities geared to toddlers through elementary and up. Discovery Rooms feature interactive exhibits and 23 Discovery boxes—modeled after the Smithsonian—for hands-on learning. Topics are targeted to specific age groups and entice children to explore topics such as shells, critters, snakes, seeds, minerals, birds, and animal teeth.
This collection of eclectic, unusual and creative cars is all about fun and admission is always free. If you miss Houston’s classic Art Car Parade in the spring, you can still catch a glimpse of some of the elaborately decorated cars here. The museum also features innovative art throughout the museum, so it’s not just about cars.
The Historic District in downtown Houston is a place that is fun to explore. Found on the northern edge of downtown, there are quaint restaurants and shops in historic building facades lining the streets. In the middle of the district is Market Square Park with a dog run, summer movie nights, and live music making this a vibrant neighborhood.
You can stop in at places for coffee or enjoy a beer at one of the historic bars. Allen’s Landing is the site of the original port of Houston and was at this exact place in 1836 that August Chapman and John Kirby Allen stepped ashore and claimed Houston. Industrial buildings have been re-purposed and the area is now a pleasant place to stroll and bike.
Visit the Animals at the Houston Zoo
In the Museum District area, you'll find the Houston Zoo, home to exotic animals like rhinos and cheetahs. The Houston Zoo offers free admission on the first Tuesday of each month September through May from 12:00 p.m. until closing. In January, free admission is on the second Tuesday of the month.
The zoo houses over 6,000 animals from 900 different species. There are 15 areas to explore including a new bear habitat, the African forest, an elephant habitat with pond, a sea lion habitat, and places for smaller animals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects.
There are snack bars, a carousel to ride, and on warm days, kids enjoy the water park.
Stroll the Japanese Garden
A Japanese Garden at Hermann Park is a great place to find a bit of peace and quiet. The garden was designed by famous landscape architect, Ken Nakajima and focuses on the use of natural materials. The garden has a teahouse and winding paths to explore the lush gardens.
See the Miniature Railway
Hermann Park is popular for its pedal boats, Japanese garden, and miniature railway. The railway is fun to watch and photograph but for only $3.75 you can go for a ride. The railroad takes a two-mile, 18-minute trip around the park departing from Kinder Station every 25 to 30 minutes. The train stops at three places in the park where you can hop on and hop off.
The terminus is Lake Plaza, where all riders must get off.
Bike the Bayou
There is a bike path along Buffalo Bayou through Eleanor Tinsley Park where you can ride over hills and bridges into downtown and back. For a charge, there are bike rentals from the Houston BCycle stations, so borrow or bring your own if you can. The paths are also ideal for a run or walk as the views of the Houston skyline are memorable.
Meditate at Rothko Chapel
Rothko Chapel is a non-denominational place of worship open to everyone. The chapel, which is on the National Registry of Historic Places, is a work of art itself and houses 14 of artist Mark Rothko's paintings.
A famous sculpture by artist, Barnett Newman, "Broken Obelisk," stands in front of the chapel in a reflecting pool. The piece is dedicated to the late Martin Luther King, Jr.
The grounds, open to the public dawn to dusk, are a calming green space where you can have a moment of reflection.
Visit Historic Houston
At The Heritage Society, an outdoor museum, you'll get a sense of what Houston was like in the early days. Nine historic buildings, including homes dating back to the 1820s and the St. John Church built in 1891, can be toured on the west side of downtown Houston.
The area hosts special events and scheduled tours by docents in period costume.
Kayak the Bayou Trail
You can kayak the Armand Bayou Paddling Trail from near its confluence with Clear Lake. When you follow the Armand Bayou Paddling Trail you'll experience the wilds of coastal woods that are home to wildlife, including pelicans, ospreys, egrets, and even alligators.
The most popular launching point is Bay Area Park, where Bay Area Blvd. crosses Armand Bayou. The area has kayak rentals and there are some tour companies that will take you out for a fee, of course.
Go to the Beach
Galveston Island is a fun place to go for the sandy beaches, sunrises, and coastal vibe. And it's only 50 miles away from Houston.
In the Strand Historic District in downtown Galveston, a National Historic Landmark District, you'll find Victorian-era buildings that now house shops, restaurants, and souvenir shops.
There are plenty of things to do on the island which charge admission fees such as amusement parks, an aquarium, and museums, but the beauty of being on the shore is completely free.
See the Police Horses and Museum
The Houston Police Department has a stable of 40 police horses that you can visit. You can even feed them carrots and apples. The downtown business district and Hermann Park are the primary beats for the Mounted Patrol so you may have seen them while touring Houston.