Travel Writing by Cory Hanson

Fun for Free in Austin

Austin’s reputation as a vibrant, diverse community is well deserved, and travelers of all tastes will find no shortage of entertainment in this warm-weather melting pot. From history to high art and taco trucks to traditional Texas barbecue joints, Austin has it all. A trip to the capital of the Lone Star State doesn’t have to break the bank, though. Budget travelers with a taste for adventure can soak up some of the city’s best without spending a penny.

Visit Austin’s Famous Bats

Every summer night, hundreds of locals and visitors line up along the South Congress Bridge to watch the emergence of more than a million Mexican free-tailed bats. The first and most impressive wave of bats takes wing about 15 minutes before sunset, but you’ll want to secure a good viewpoint early at the height of the summer bat season. The best views are from the Statesman Bat Observation Center on the southeastern side of the bridge. From here, you’ll see the beautiful downtown skyline through a thick screen of clicking, chattering bats.

Take a Hike and a Dip in Barton Creek

Barton Creek | Image via Flickr by BruceTurner

Lady Bird Lake, a reservoir of the Colorado River, is an outdoor recreation centerpiece of downtown Austin. Several small mineral springs feed Barton Creek, a small tributary of the lake, keeping the water temperature comfortable for year-round swimming. Barton Springs Pool offers deeper, human-made swimming holes with lifeguard supervision for a small fee, but access to Barton Creek above and below the pool area is free.

Hikers looking to avoid summer crowds can follow the pleasant Barton Creek Greenbelt Trail upstream for access to more secluded swimming spots. After your swim, walk on to the trails at the nearby Zilker Nature Preserve.

Tour the Texas State Capitol

Texas State Capitol | Image via Flickr by StuSeeger

When in any capital city, it’s important not to overlook the informative and often free tourist opportunities provided by the state government. In Austin, a visit to the historic Texas State Capitol should be at the top of your list. Guided tours of the original 1888 building and its modern underground expansion are free and available seven days a week.

After taking the guided tour, history buffs should consider a cheap, easy day trip. Use this San Antonio guide for inspiration and visit the Alamo battle site for a hands-on experience with the turbulent birth of the state of Texas.

Catch a Show

Austin’s eclectic music scene offers a little bit of everything. Spit-and-sawdust honky-tonks coexist peacefully on the same block with rock bars and booming nightclubs. Before your visit, check one of the city’s music guides for full listings of paid and free concerts, or simply take a stroll through the Sixth Street District — Austin’s answer to New Orleans’ Bourbon Street — until you hear something you like. Arrive early to skip the cover charge at some of the more popular music bars.

Whatever brings you to Austin, from craft beer to music festivals to a Texas Longhorns football game, take advantage of these free favorites to save some money without sacrificing your experience.

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