In a city as big as Houston, it can be tough to decide what to do in any given weekend, day-off, or vacation. With the various cultures, activities, and areas, narrowing down how to spend the day can be tricky—especially on a budget.
Here are some ideas that will cost $10 or less per person and will keep you entertained in the Bayou City.
See the Alligators at Brazos Bend State Park
If you have a free day in the spring or fall, head an hour southwest to Brazos Bend State Park in Needville. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department estimates that about 250 alligators longer than six feet live in the park, and if you go in the right seasons, you’re sure to see one or 20.
Head to Elm Lake or 40-Acre Lake, and alligators will likely be lying around on the walking paths. It is not uncommon to see more than 12 alligators within a mile or so of walking.
Don’t worry. The park has never recorded an attack on a human. There are signs, however, encouraging a close eye to be kept on small kids and dogs. Just keep your distance. If the close proximity makes you nervous, some days, the visitor center workers will bring out a baby alligator for people to pet—a little less intimidating when it’s only the size of your arm!
As a side note, you may want to take a look at the Texas State Parks Pass. It will get you and your guests into any state park in Texas for free for a year.
Watch a Movie at the Showboat Drive-In
Those born pre-1990 will particularly enjoy this one: a drive-in movie theater. The Showboat Drive-In is about 45 minutes northwest of downtown Houston, in Hockley. Typically, the drive-in is open on Fridays and Saturdays, with times that change along with the seasons to account for daylight hours. During summer break and other holidays, extended weekday hours are observed.
Paying the entrance fee will get you in for two movies, which the theater posts on its website each Tuesday ahead of the weekend. Bring lawn chairs, pillows, comfortable blankets, and anything else that might make your vehicle or truck bed more cozy for the shows.
If you plan to visit the Showboat during the summer (or the numerous other months in Houston when it’s hot and humid), keep in mind that car engines must be turned off—no-idling allowed. There’s also a pretty good snack bar if you’re hungry.
Head to the Woodlands Children’s Museum
The Children’s Museum in the Woodlands falls in our $10-or-under category. Located north of Houston’s center, the museum functions more like a play place with learning stations and is a great spot for younger kids. Activity stations for things like art, critters, building, and real-world scenarios like grocery store shopping will keep little ones entertained and having fun.
The museum is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Extended hours are offered during holiday seasons.
Go to the Zoo or Another Museum on Free Days
While typical admission to the Houston Zoo and most of the museums in the Museum District don’t offer admission for less than $10, many offer free admission on certain days of the month, which can save a family a decent chunk of change.
Note: Most of these will still require paid parking, but that won’t be more than $10.
- The Houston Zoo is free from noon to closing on the first Tuesday of months, September to May.
- The Children’s Museum of Houston (the Museum District location near Downtown—separate from The Woodlands Children’s Museum mentioned previously) is free every Thursday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
- The Houston Museum of Natural Sciences is free on Thursdays from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. This is for permanent exhibits only—not extra traveling ones.
- The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is free Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
- The Buffalo Soldiers National Museum is free Thursdays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
- The Czech Center Museum Houston is free the last Monday of each month from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.
- The Health Museum is free Thursdays from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m.
- The Holocaust Museum Houston is free Thursdays from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.
- The Houston Museum of African American Culture is free Thursdays from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Spend the Day at Buffalo Bayou Park
Buffalo Bayou Park, located centrally, offers a little bit of everything. Encompassing work from the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, the City of Houston, and the county’s flood control district, the 160-acre park protects, expands, and beautifies one of the bayous that give Houston its nickname.
The park sits between Memorial Drive and Allen Parkway and runs from Shepherd Drive to Sabine Street. Wander the length of the park, and you’ll find playgrounds, dog parks, and miles of walking and cycling trails. Check out the Waugh bat colony (located under the Waugh Drive bridge), which numbers more than 250,000 bats, or the Lee and Joe Jamail Skate Park. All of these things are free.
The Kitchen at the Dunlavy is within the park as well. With giant windows and patio seating that overlooks the bayou, enjoy a snack or drink here for less than $10.
See the Cistern at Buffalo Bayou
Okay, so this one is technically also at Buffalo Bayou Park, but it’s definitely an outing in and of itself. The Cistern at Buffalo Bayou Park is a drinking water reservoir from the 1920s. Since being decommissioned in 2007 after an inoperable leak was discovered, the bayou partnership took it over and has turned it into a space for public art installations. According to the bayou partnership, your voice will echo for 17 full seconds in the 87,500 square-foot space.
The cistern is free on Thursdays. Buy tickets and make reservations online. Tours of the cistern are offered Wednesday to Friday from 3:30 p.m. to 7 p.m., as well as Saturday and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Kayak at Discovery Green
If it’s a warm day (which there’s a good chance of in Houston!), head down to Discovery Green downtown, and go on a kayak or stand-up paddleboard tour. Find Kinder Lake in the northeast portion of the park, and after signing a waiver, Bayou City Adventures will take you on a few guided laps around the shallow lake that is stocked with fish. This activity is limited to weekends from March 18 to May 29, and daily after that until June 25.
Take the Ferry in Galveston
The Galveston-Port Bolivar ferry originally began its services in the 1800s. Now it is free to the public and open to vehicles and pedestrians.
The 20-minute (approximate) ferry ride will take you over to the Bolivar Peninsula. The 27-mile-long peninsula hosts things to do, such as birding, fishing, shopping, and swimming. While these things may not fall in the $10 or under category, the round-trip ferry ride is a fun afternoon in itself; if you go to the front of the ferry, you'll often see dolphins jumping and splashing ahead in the water.
Meander Through the Downtown Tunnels
Sure, you could go to any one of Houston's great shopping areas, but it’s a pretty cool novelty to have six miles of shopping and eating underground. Enter the tunnels through numerous stairs and escalators on the streets of downtown, or through the Wells Fargo Plaza (1000 Louisiana, Houston, Texas 77002), and McKinney Garage.
Once you’re 20 feet below the streets, you can shop, eat, and generally stay out of the heat or rain. Much of the tunnel system is privately owned, so hours are mostly limited to business hours on the weekdays.
Cycle With Critical Mass Houston
Critical Mass Houston is a monthly free bicycling event on the last Friday of each month. Thousands of cyclists meet at Market Square Park at about 7 p.m. and take off for a 20-mile (approximately) ride through the city.
The route is different every month, but the pace is always slow-going and easy. The cycle will last between two and three hours, and the night typically ends with food and drink. Bear in mind if you have kids, this ride is not strictly "family-friendly."