12 Fun and Cheap Things to Do in Austin, Texas

There’s no denying it: Austin is a little different.

A liberal city in an otherwise very red state, Austin stands out among the crowd. And it’s not hard to see why. With amazing food, quirky street art, a laid-back vibe, and friendly locals, I’d dare you to find a more welcoming city in the US. 

Austin has changed a lot in the past decade thanks to a massive population boom from out-of-staters. Austinites are not exactly thrilled about it either: locals will often tell you how great their city is, but then urge you not to move in.

Nevertheless, Austin has plenty to do for us tourists, and the motto “Keep Austin Weird” isn’t just a silly catchphrase; it’s a way of life.

Experience the weird for yourself (on a budget!) with these 12 fun and cheap things to do in Austin.

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A postcard-style mural reading "Greetings from Austin, Capitol of Texas" in Austin, TX.
A mural with one piece of toast reading "You're My" and one slap of butter reading "Butter Half" in Austin, TX.
A toddler standing in front of a green wall with cursive words painted red reading: "i love you so much." in Austin, TX.

1 | Hunt for Austin’s Colorful Murals

You can’t visit Austin without a few obligatory selfies in front of Austin’s iconic murals. You’ll find them all over town.

If you want to see a bunch in one place, head straight to East Austin. This once seedy area is now one of the hippest neighborhoods in Austin. Simply take a drive down 6th Avenue and you’ll spot one on just about every corner. And of our personal favorites, “You’re My Butter Half” is on the corner of E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd & Alamo St.

South Congress Avenue has plenty of its own murals too, like the famous “Greetings from Austin” mural on the side of Roadhouse Relics or the “I Love You So Much” mural outside Jo’s Coffee on South Congress.

See them all with the help of a guide on this Austin Pedicab Mural Tour.

Laura’s Tip: While in East Austin, stop by Franklin Barbecue, Austin’s (and possibly the world’s) most famous barbecue joint. This place gets busy, so get there a bit before it opens at 11 am to minimize your wait.

A group of Kayakers gathers on the water under the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, TX.

2 | Watch the Congress Avenue Bats Fly

Every evening during “bat season“, just after sunset, 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats descend from under the Congress Avenue Bridge to do their nighttime hunting. It’s said to be the largest urban bat colony in North America!

And it’s quite a sight to see. We arrived at the South Congress Bridge 15 minutes before sunset to find it already packed with people. Apparently, people love these bats! We squeezed our way through a tiny opening in the crowd and sure enough, just after sunset, a flurry of bats made their way out from under the bridge!

For the best look as the bats leave the Congress Avenue Bridge, consider booking an evening kayak tour. You’ll have a front row seat to these flighty creatures while taking in some additional sightseeing along the way.

Evelyn and Matt sit at a picnic table, pizza and cupcakes on top with an airstream food truck in the background, in Austin, TX.

3 | Eat at a South Austin Trailer Park

Austin loves its food trucks. So much so, that food truck trailer parks are a pretty regular sight throughout the city!

If you’re looking for a kid-friendly restaurant in Austin, skip the fancy dinner and head to the trailer park instead!

Some of the most notable ones include the South Austin Trailer Park & Eatery on 1st Avenue, and The Picnic on Barton Springs Road. Expect good food, but not necessarily cheap prices – these food trucks are serving up some pretty fancy dishes from their 2-axle eateries.

4 | Explore the Cathedral of Junk

When Vince Hannemann started creating his backyard shrine to all things junk, it wasn’t because there was some profound meaning behind it. He just “did it because it was kinda cool“. And while his disgruntled neighbors have tried to have it removed several times, their efforts have been to no avail. The structure is rock solid!

To minimize traffic in the neighborhood, visits to the Cathedral of Junk are by appointment only, and sadly, we missed it as I didn’t plan ahead! If you do want to check it out, I recommend you call Vince at least a week in advance to reserve a spot for your own self-guided tour and bring a $10 suggested donation.

Matt stands with Evelyn (here toddler-aged) on his shoulders looking at a waterfall in Zilker Botanical Garden, Austin, TX.
A kiddie train travels through Zilker Park, Austin, TX.
A view of the water and surrounding green space at Barton Springs Pool, Austin, TX.

5 | Spend the Day in Zilker Park

Zilker Metropolitan Park is a true gem and you’ll find plenty of fun and cheap things to do for your Austin itinerary in this 361 acre park in the heart of Austin.

The urban oasis is the perfect place to spend a day in Austin, with a plethora of outdoor activities like bike and kayak rentals, picnicking areas, a disc golf course, miles of trails, and a large playground for the kids complete with the Zilker Zephyr train for kiddie rides.

Inside Zilker Park you’ll also find one of Austin’s most famous attractions: the Barton Springs Pool.

The 3 acre pool fed by underground springs maintains an average temperature of 68 degrees year-round, making it a popular spot any time of year. For just a few bucks from March to October, you can dip your toes in the Barton Springs Pool or lounge on the grassy areas surrounding it. Just bring your swimsuit, towel and sunscreen, but leave the cooler at home: outside food is not allowed.

After visiting Barton Springs Pool, head over to the Umlauf Sculpture Garden. Again, for a low admission fee (plus children 12 and under are free!), you can view Charles Umlauf’s collection of over 2000 drawers and 273 sculptures gifted to the City of Austin in the 80s.

Finally, end your day at Zilker Botanical Gardens. This 28 acre garden nestled along Lady Bird Lake provides a lush oasis within the urban city. Following winding paths between streets, Koi-ponds, and sunny lawns for a cheap and fun way to spend the day.

A neon sign in the shape of a cocktail glass reads "Guero's Taco Bar" in Austin, TX.

6 | Take in Austin’s Free Live Music Scene

Austin is known as the live music capital of the world, with free live music shows happening all around town. 

You’ll find free shows during the summer at events like Blues on the Green in Zilker Park, an annual concert series that’s free to the public. Or if an event is happening, there’s always free music to be found at various restaurants and breweries.

On South Congress you’ll find a few favorite venues with cheap or no cover, including Güero’s Taco Bar with it’s packed live music calendar, Jo’s Coffee for Sunday afternoon live shows, or White Tiger’s outdoor stage. Armadillo Den, Moontower Saloon, Radio Coffee and Beer and ABGB are other popular spots.

Not sure where to go? Book this Austin Live Music Crawl walking tour and have a guide show you around Austin’s iconic music scene.

The side of a building with white facade and red door. A sign on the building reads Roadhouse Relics and features an Native American with feather headress. Another neon sign points to the door and reads "this is it".
Painted on the side of a white building in bold font reads "Roadhouse Relics. Visit our Gallery featuring Vintage Neon SIgns & Decor. For Homes Restaurants and Movie Sets. 512-442-NEON" in Austin, TX.
Evelyn stands in fron tof a aqua blue striped vintage trailer, looking derelict, with a large sign over top that reads "Austin".

7 | Browse Neon Art at Roadhouse Relics

On the side of his studio at 1st and Annie, Todd Sanders claims to have the most unique art gallery in Austin. It’s a small space, but inside Roadhouse Relics you’ll find his massive, vintage, Americana-inspired neon signs, which each sell starting at $3,500.

We stopped by on a whim (Todd said the gallery is open on “South Austin hours”, so if he’s there, it’s open), and we were lucky enough to get a peek out back where musicians and others often do photoshoots. 

Todd’s become pretty famous for his work and does mostly custom pieces, like a horseshoe he recently crafted for Willie Nelson, or a piece he did for Kings of Leon’s 6th album cover. If you’re in the neighborhood, give him a call to schedule a visit: it’s definitely worth stopping by!

The view from the top of Mount Bonnell in Austin, TX.

8 | Climb to the Top of Mount Bonnell

Another popular place for visitors, climb the 102 steps to the top of Mount Bonnell, Austin’s highest point, and you’ll be rewarded with views of downtown Austin, the Colorado River and even Texas Hill Country.

This landmark is one of Austin’s most visited places and it’s also absolutely free!

Aside from the views, many locals and tourists alike flock to the area for mountain biking or hiking along Mount Bonnell Trail. While short but steep, the climb can be tough, taking about 20 minutes to reach the top. Come at sunrise for cooler temperatures and less crowds.
Laura’s Tip: After your hike up to Mount Bonnell, stop by the historic Mayfield Park just down the road. This park is home to 23 acres of manicured grounds and scenic hiking trails surrounding a historic estate.

The view from the Congress Avenue Bridge of Lady Bird Lake with kayakers and a swan boat. The Austin, TX skyline is seen is the distance.
A boardwalk trail along Lady Bird Lake in Austin, TX.

9 | Explore Lady Bird Lake

In the heart of the city, Lady Bird Lake, a river-like reservoir that’s actually part of the Colorado River, divides the city into north and south halves. The summer months are the perfect time to explore all the fun things this urban lake offers.

A Lady Bird Lake walk along the beloved boardwalk (officially known as the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail) is a must when visiting Austin. Hike the trail for free, or go for a bike ride with a cheap bike rental from an ATX Metrobike Station. The “pay-as-you-ride” option allows you to unlock a bike for just $1, and then pay 23 cents per minute after that.

A large metal star in front of the Bullock Museum in Austin, TX.

10 | Visit the Bullock Texas State History Museum

You are visiting Texas’ state capitol, so why not learn a little Texas history?

The Bullock Texas State History Museum located downtown offers free admission on the first Sunday of every month. But even if that doesn’t line up with your trip, general admission is still quite cheap. 

The museum spans 3 floors, telling the story of Texas from Mexican Independence to its journey towards statehood and finally the Texas we know today.

After a visit to the Bullock Museum, head a few blocks over to the Texas State Capitol Building. There is no cost to enter and if you arrive at the right time, volunteer docents will even show you around the legislative chambers for free.

View from above of the Barton Creek Greenbelt and skyline in Austin, TX.

11 | Hike the Barton Creek Greenbelt

One of the best ways to experience Austin nature is along the Barton Creek Greenbelt, a 12 mile trail that travels through South Austin. Though the trailhead officially begins in Zilker Park, to experience the greeny shady trees that make this trail so popular, you’ll want to start your journey a little farther south.

The easiest way to access the greenbelt outside of a few residential spots is at the Main Access Point off Capital of Texas Highway. There’s plenty of parking here and the terrain is vastly different from the flat paved trail that starts in Zilker Park. Instead, expect to find rocky trails, steep clips and a few swimming holes along the way.

Once on the trail, enjoy the lush trees along Barton Creek towards Twin Falls; its just a short jaunt away from the trail. Splash around and then carry on a little over a mile morel reach another popular watering hole: Sculpture Falls.

As you carry on past Sculpture Falls, you’ll reach the infamous climb to the Hill of Life, the steepest section of the Greenbelt. The trail ends here, so end your adventure with a bang by climbing this 300-foot ascent.

12 | Try Your Luck at Little Longhorn Saloon

Perhaps one of the best free attractions in Austin, put on your cowboy boots and head to Little Longhorn Saloon, the home of honky tonk and Chicken Sh*t Bingo for the past 40+ years!

Every Sunday from 4-8 pm, this Austin tradition draws crowds for the wacky and iconic event. Bet on a random number from the large bingo board (or just watch for free), then have yourself a drink while you wait to see where the chicken will do its business.

If the Chicken Sh*t Bingo doesn’t entice you, stop by for cheap beer during happy hour or the ever rotating selection of live music. Little Longhorn Saloon hosts over 10 bands a week with absolutely no cover.

A residential looking building with a shrubbery covered fence that reads "Hotel San Jose" in Austin, TX.

Where to Stay in Austin, TX

If you want to experience all of the fun and cheap things to do in Austin, it’s best stay in the heart of it all! These two South Congress hotels make for a perfect overnight stay:

Hotel San Jose | In the heart of quirky South Congress, the Hotel San Jose offers a sleek, modern getaway. Delivery of nearby Jo’s Coffee and Polaroid cameras on loan from the front desk are just a few reasons to love this place.

Compare Prices on Hotels.com | Booking.com

Austin Motel | The Austin Motel will remind you of that kitschy 80’s motor inn, but make no mistake about it, after a recent renovation this hotel has become one of the coolest spots to stay in town. Between the “best swimming pool in Austin” and the patio bar, you’ll never want to leave.

Compare Prices on Hotels.com | Booking.com

With plenty of free things to do in Austin, there’s always fun to be had in this quirky city.

Which of these fun and cheap Austin activities tops your bucket list?

xo laura

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