While Austin continues to show up on many “best of” lists for everything from its green space to its music scene, the city is rarely mentioned these days in articles about affordability. In some ways, Austin is a mid-sized city with big-city prices. Fortunately, there are still a few fun things to around town when you’re on a limited budget.
A three-acre, spring-fed swimming pool just south of downtown, Barton Springs is well-known as a place to beat the heat in the middle of summer. However, since the water temperature hovers around 68 degrees F year-round, you can also enjoy a refreshing dip during mild fall and winter weather. If you wish to arrive fully clothed, the pool has large restrooms with dressing areas and lockers for rent. The springs are also home to the endangered Barton Springs salamander; bring snorkeling gear to scour the bottom of the pool for glimpses of this alien-looking creature. They tend to hang out around the source of the springs near the diving board.
Cost: $3 for adults, $2 for children
Tucked away in a corner of Zilker Park, the Austin Nature and Science Center offers an excellent balance of education and entertainment. If your kids have extra energy that needs to burned off, start with the center’s Forest Trail, a half-mile route through a lush canopy of trees. All 45 trees are labeled with information about the tree’s benefits (shade, flowers) and optimal growing conditions. It’s also a good starting point for adults seeking advice on the best trees to plant in Austin. The Dino Pit also helps bring science to life. Kids can dig in the sand for bones and learn about the dinosaur species that actually lived in the Austin area millions of years ago. The wildlife area also introduces children to the wildlife that’s native to the area, from bobcats to bats. Many of the animals on display have been rescued by volunteers and are in the process of recovering from injuries.
Cost: Free admission (additional programs and activities may have a small fee)
You can learn several different dance styles at Austin’s hippest honky-tonk on the east side. Cajun dance lessons are offered every Tuesday at 7 p.m.; wwing dancing is featured on Wednesdays at 7 p.m.; and two-steppin’ lessons are provided on Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m. While the lessons are free, you may be tempted to stick around and try out your new skills later in the evening. The club books up-and-coming country bands as well as acts that don’t fit neatly into any category.
Cost: Free ($2.50 well drinks and $2 Pabst Blue Ribbon during happy hour)
If you’re tired of watching movies at home but aren’t willing to pay the high prices at a typical theater, look no further than Southwest Theaters. The theater in northwest Austin features both recently released movies and older films. You won’t find fancy chairs or state-of-the-art sound, but it’s a clean, well-run theater that’s ideal for a family night out.
Cost: $3 after 6 p.m., $2 matinees before 6 p.m.
The Blues Specialists have been playing the Friday night happy hour at the Continental Club since 1988. One of the original members passed away but was replaced by his son to carry on this venerable Austin blues tradition. Expect traditional blues in the style of T-Bone Walker and an occasional touch of jazz. The dance floor at the Continental Club is small, but it fills up fast when the band plays an upbeat tune. Located on the popular South Congress Avenue, the bar is an ideal spot to start your evening. Several other bars, restaurants and shops are within walking distance.
Cost: Free ($1 off all drinks during happy hour)
Two comedy teams battle it out for your amusement and to earn your votes every Monday night at the New Movement Theater. Combining sketch comedy and improv, each show features up-and-coming comedians and actors from Austin’s bustling comedy scene. Each week’s winner advances to the next level of competition, and the ultimate winner will earn a high-profile slot on the TNM stage.
Located on the University of Texas campus near Guadalupe Street, the Harry Ransom Center houses everything from movie memorabilia to the personal papers of famous writers. In fact, the museum has so much stuff that it can only display a small portion of it any one time. Check the museum’s website for information about upcoming rotating exhibitions. The permanent exhibits include the Gutenberg Bible and the first photograph, which was taken in the 1820s in France. The etched windows near the front entrance are artistic depictions of many of the museum’s holdings, ranging from author’s publicity photos to still images from early films.
Cost: Free (donations encouraged)
It’s increasingly difficult to find affordable, filling food in Austin—even from a food truck. But the Kerlin BBQ truck will lure you in with buttery kolaches stuffed with cheese plus smoked sausage, brisket or pork shoulder. Of course, once you devour these tasty meat-packed pastries, you might be tempted to try the other menu items, which cost a little more. That’s probably part of the business plan, and you’ll be more than happy to take part in this delicious scheme.
Cost: $3.75-$4 each
Every Friday night, the ColdTowne Theater presents a standup comedy show featuring several up-and-coming comedians. Hosted by local comics Sam Harter and Carina Magyar, the event consistently offers some of the best comedy in Austin. In fact, now that word of the show is spreading beyond Austin, semi-famous touring comedians often pop in and try out their new material. Could ColdTowne become Austin’s version of Chicago’s Second City? Check out the show on Fridays and judge for yourself.
To mark its 60th season, Zilker Hillside Theater is presenting All Shook Up, a musical comedy featuring the music of Elvis Presley. Bring a blanket and have a picnic during the show. Coolers are allowed, but don’t bring glass containers. Parts of the hillside are at a fairly steep angle, so the flatter spots go fast. Get there early to claim the best seats. There’s a low rock wall about three-fourths of the way up the hill; beyond that point, standard lawn chairs are allowed. Low-back chairs, which can be used anywhere, are available for rent for $5.
Cost: Free ($5 parking fee on weekends)
The Contemporary Austin is made up of two venues several miles apart. You can pay admission at one location and get access to both on the same day. The downtown location, the Jones Center, is a sprawling, airy space with rotating exhibitions. The Jones Center features new works by some of the most innovative artists working today, in every medium imaginable. The other site, Laguna Gloria, is primarily an outdoor exhibition space. The lush fauna throughout the Laguna Gloria grounds serves as a beautiful backdrop for large sculptures and other outdoor art.
Cost: $5 adults, $3 students
The museum presents both historic and contemporary works by Mexican and Latin American artists. Recent exhibits have included an photos of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, an exploration of the importance of altars and death in Mexican culture, and a display of traditional Mexican nativity scenes. The museum also supports up-and-coming artists in a variety of ways, including exhibiting their work and hosting classes. The museum also offers guided tours that provide more background information about the art and artists.
Cost: $5 general admission, $4 students