While the cost of almost everything seems to be going up in Austin, there are still plenty of things to do around town that are completely free. You can view art, explore Austin’s natural beauty, learn about the town’s quirky historical characters, or simply enjoy free music. Here are some of the best freebies in Austin.
The 350-acre park offers an abundance of green space to explore. You can feed ducks along Barton Creek, or watch dogs play in the water just outside the pool area. Barton Springs does charge admission, but you can access a portion of the creek just outside the gates at no cost. The water is just as cool and refreshing, but there aren’t many places to sit along the banks, and you’ll be competing for space with overexcited dogs.
An abandoned construction site on a hillside was transformed a few years ago into an ever-changing public art installation. The multilevel concrete walls are packed with colorful images, ranging from graffiti to huge murals. Local artists and art students are invited to contribute to the installation only as part of organized events, but anyone is welcome to peruse the art during daylight hours.
The trail around the lake is sometimes still referred to as the Town Lake or Lady Bird Lake hike and bike trail, but Ann and Roy Butler is the official name. The full trail is a 10-mile loop stretching from the Mopac expressway in west Austin to Pleasant Valley Road in east Austin. The eastern part of the trail is often less crowded and features the trail’s newest addition: a boardwalk over the water. This clever solution was implemented to avoid having the trail stop and start around apartments built close to the water. Instead of demolishing the apartments, the city extended the trail out over the water.
A good climb up a long staircase is an excellent idea for an active day. No one seems to be able to agree on the number of steps, though. Some sources say 99, others say 102, and still others say 106. At the top, you’ll be rewarded with a panoramic view of the city and Lake Austin. The viewing area at the top has a limited amount of shade, so remember to bring a big hat, sunscreen and plenty of water.
The castle-like home is full of sculptures crafted by Elisabet Ney, who arrived in Austin in 1892. She created sculptures of Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin, along with well-known figures from Germany, her homeland. The collection includes several busts and life-sized statues. Other exhibits delve into Ney’s intricate process of building the sculptures. During her lifetime, the building functioned as both a home and a studio (originally called Formosa). The museum consists of just a few rooms, but it provides a fascinating glimpse into the life of an aristocratic German woman living and working alongside some of the most famous early Texans.
Tucked away on a little island on Lake Austin, Red Bud Isle is mostly known as a leash-free dog park. There’s an open play area just for pups near the park’s entrance. If you're dogless, however, it's also a nice place for an easy hike. The main trail is a big loop around the island, but there are also smaller trails cutting through the brush in the center of the island. The park also offers a good view of the mansions of Austin's rich and famous. Several large homes are perched on cliffs over Lake Austin.
The Mexican American Cultural Center pays tribute to the artistic and cultural achievements of Mexican Americans and Native Americans in the United States. Two galleries offer rotating exhibits featuring the work of contemporary Latino artists. Book signings, film screenings, artist’s receptions, and other community events are also held at the center.
One of the few surviving independent bookstores in Austin, BookPeople is also one of the biggest. In addition to having a huge selection, the store boasts a knowledgeable staff that can help you find the books that are right for you. BookPeople regularly hosts book signings, readings and book club meetings. There’s a small cafe on site serving coffee, sandwiches, and desserts.
Tucked away in the tree-shaded Travis Heights neighborhood, Big Stacy is a medium-sized neighborhood pool. Early mornings are generally set aside for lap swimmers, but the pool is open for recreational swimming after 9 a.m. on most days. The pool is in the middle of Stacy Park, which is a long, narrow park and hiking trail that meanders along a creek. The park also has tennis courts, picnic tables, grills, a volleyball court and a backstop and field for baseball.
One of the gems of the Austin parks system, Pease Park sits just west of the University of Texas along Shoal Creek. You’ll find a mix of developed and undeveloped trails as the route heads to the north. Depending on which path you choose, you can enjoy a mellow stroll under a canopy of trees or you can climb over boulders. From 24th to 29th Street, the trail is a leash-free area, and there’s a designated open area at 24th where the dogs can play with each other. All along the trail, there are wide swaths of green space ideal for throwing Frisbees or playing soccer. Sand volleyball courts are also available, but they have to be reserved in advance.
Free guided tours of the Texas State Capitol building are offered daily. The life-sized statues of Texas leaders are fascinating works of art that include informative plaques. Keep in mind that the Texas Legislature meets only once every two years, so it may be bustling with activity or more low-key depending on when you visit. The knowledgeable guides help visitors understand both the immensity of the task of building a massive pink-granite structure as well as some of the minuscule details, such as door hinges shaped like Texas. When the complex needed to expand a few years ago, they had run out of room above ground, so they built a four-story office building underground. The new portion was built with huge skylights, so there’s still abundant natural light in the hallways even though the entire structure is underground.
Two of the museum’s highest-profile treasures are the Gutenberg Bible and the first photograph. Other highlights of the permanent collection include manuscripts and ephemera of authors such as Arthur Miller and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Periodic exhibits feature costumes and sets from old movies like Gone with the Wind and Alice in Wonderland. For a fascinating overview of the museum’s extensive holdings, spend some time at the etched windows exhibit on the first floor. Guided tours are available at noon daily.
Depending on which animals have recently been in need of a rescue, temporary residents may include bobcats, skunks, owls, or hawks. After viewing the critters, you can take a short hike on a nature trail that includes a pond and plenty of shade. At the Monarch Waystation, you can see monarch butterflies in the fall and learn how to grow the plants that attract them. The Forest Trail is an easy walk along a row of trees with informative signs for the aspiring botanist in the group.
Offering plenty of green space alongside a tranquil pond, Butler Park is an ideal destination for a picnic on a hot summer day. There’s also a lovely hilltop view of downtown at the highest point in the park. There’s plenty of open space for tossing around a Frisbee or flying a kite.
The O. Henry Museum houses artifacts and exhibits exploring the life of writer William Sydney Porter. The building was actually his home at one time and still contains some of the original furniture. Porter adopted the pen name of O. Henry as a way of getting a fresh start after serving a five-year prison term for embezzlement. His most famous short stories are Gifts of the Magi and The Cop and the Anthem. The site is also home to a quirky annual event known as the O. Henry Pun-Off.
While the food inside this fancy grocery store is expensive, the property has a huge outdoor patio where it hosts free music in the evenings, Thursday through Sunday. In addition, there are often afternoon shows on Sunday. The musical acts range from jazz to soul to salsa.
In addition to exploring the work of scientist and artist George Washington Carver, the 36,000-square-foot museum delves into several other subjects, including African-American families, the work of African-American artists, and inventions and scientific advances made by other African-American innovators. Carver first recommended planting peanuts as a cost-effective way of improving soil quality. He went on to develop peanut butter and several other uses for the nutritious legume. He was also one of the first professors at the now-famous Tuskegee University.
Even if you don’t have a dog, the leash-free dog park at Lady Bird Lake is a lot of fun. It's always a good idea to ask the owner before interacting with any dog, but it’s generally a very friendly crowd. Just before sunset, the action at the park really picks up, but there are at least a few dogs around all day. This area is officially known as Vic Mathias Shores, but most people simply refer to it as the dog park at Lady Bird Lake.