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Saturday, July 18, 2015

Things to do in Austin, TX

Alisha McDarris

Austin, Texas. Music capital of the U.S., one of the fastest growing cities in the country, and one of our all-time favorite places. We even got to live there for 8 months! And yes, it was a pretty great 8 months. Despite the traffic and often difficult parking situations, it's definitely worth a visit. There's always something going on (and I do me always) and you couldn't possibly get bored in this city alive with art and music and festivals and outdoor activities. Of course, not all of the options are budget friendly, but you'll find more free and cheap things to do here than just about anywhere else, so head to Texas and get to it! No cowboy hat or boots required. Here's our guide to Austin on a budget.


Getting Around in Austin:
  • Austin International Airport: It's not huge, but it does the job and it's not far from downtown, so you can easily get to and from the city center when you arrive. The airport in San Antonio might be cheaper if you don't mind the 1½-2 hour drive.
  • Parking: If you'll be driving around town, keep in mind that parking is almost always pay to park. There are pay to park lots (which are usually more expensive than metered parking unless you're going to be parked for more than 5 hours) and plenty of metered parking around town. Meters usually run about $1 per hour and are in plentiful supply, but be prepared to walk as you'll rarely find a spot precisely where you want to be, especially on weekends.
  • Pedicabs: Austin is one of those cool places where you can hail a pedicab, a person on a bike pulling a trailer that usually holds one or two people. They're cheaper than cabs and often more convenient when you're downtown because you probably won't need to go far and they can be found everywhere! Prices are usually clearly marked somewhere on the cab, so check it out!
  • Bike rental: There are certainly storefront locations to rent a bike in Austin, whether for a few days or a few hours, but there are also quite a few B-Cycle rental racks around town where you can grab a bike for a quick ride and drop it off at another rack near your destination. If you only need the bike for 30 minutes or less it doesn't cost you a penny.
  • MetroBus: Starting at only $1 per ride, the MetroBus is a viable transportation option in Austin. It'll get you all over town and you can even park at one of the many park and ride lots and head downtown if you're not feeling up to combating traffic.


Free Things to do in Austin:

There's soo much to do for free in Austin. Just pull up Meetup, The Austin Chronicle or any number of websites to find scores of free concerts, craft fairs, festivals and activities. We promise you'll never be bored.
  • Toms: Yes, the shoe store. But it's also a coffee shop. One of only two in the country, actually. But besides selling boots and lattes, they also host events every month that range from yoga for kids to craft and cocktail nights. There's even a free movie out in the yard once a month. Just sign up for their e-mail newsletter on the website and have the schedule e-mailed to you before you get to town.
  • Theatre: Zilker Hillside Theatre offers several free shows a year on, you guessed it, a hillside. Bring your blanket and a picnic and see musicals, Shakespeare and orchestras in the warmer months. Keep an eye on their Facebook page for upcoming events. Present Company also offers free Shakespeare at various locations at various times of the year and is always quality.
  • Comedy: There's usually a free comedy show or two per week ranging from stand-up to improv. One takes place at Austin Java every Saturday night and features up and coming and established comedians. Grab a beer or a coffee and get ready to laugh.
  • Movies: I'm a sucker for free movies in the park. Somehow it's even better when there's a stunning view of the city in the background. Austin Parks Department and the Alamo Drafthouse offer several outdoor movies each spring, summer and fall and the Alamo, together with Do512, also hosts free Sound and Cinema events with movies and live music.
  • Swim: While many swimming holes and natural pools charge admission, it's free to swim in Lady Bird Lake! A popular spot is just down the trail from the famous Barton Springs Pool where on warm days you'll find lots of people (and their dogs) enjoying the water and the scenery. You might even make a few new friends! 
  • Music: So much music! Austin is the live music capital of the world, after all. On any given night (and I many any given night) you can find live bands playing at bars, convention centers, events, festivals, even on the street all over the city. There's something for everyone from metal to classical. Our fave is Jazz at the Elephant Room. It's free Sunday-Thursday.
  • Holiday Festivities: In December there are a wealth of free things to do to get you in the holiday spirit. The Trail of Lights is a big hit every year and during the week admission is free. Mozart's Coffee offers a free light show (coffee and specialty hot chocolate is available for purchase) set to music in the evenings.
  • Take a hike: There are plenty of places to take a relaxing or invigorating stroll in Austin, including around Lady Bird Lake, the Greenbelt and Mount Bonnell. Check out a list of local favorites on the Austinot blog.
  • Mayfield Preserve: If you've never seen a peacock up close, here's your chance. You can wander around the park and gardens surrounded by the colorful birds, then take a hike around the grounds if you like. Don't forget your camera!
  • Blanton Museum of Art: Every Thursday admission to this museum is free, so take an afternoon and stroll through the exhibits.
  • Bullock Texas State History Museum: On the first Sunday of every month learn about the early days of Texas for free.
  • Street art: There's plenty street art to see in Austin, so print out our handy guide and get going! There's lots of iconic artwork around the city to enjoy.
  • Festivals: All year round there are festivals in abundance in and around Austin. And Austin festivals are not taken lightly. From the Lavender Festival near Fredricksburg to the Zilker Kite Festival in the spring to Eeyore's Birthday and South by Southwest events every March, there's always something going on. My favorite is definitely Texas VegFest. You can find a handy list on Everfest.com.


Our Favorite Things:

Spend the cash. It’s not much for these attractions and it’s worth it.
  • The Alamo Drafthouse: Never has going to the movies been such an experience. It's a theater and pub all in one. There's a bar in front of every row of seats and you can order real food and alcohol (including some vegan selections) right from your seat.
  • Live Theatre: There's plenty of it in Austin, but if you want it on the cheap you'll have to keep your eyes peeled. Hyde Park Theatre and Salvage Vanguard Theatre are two unassuming little theatres that look more like warehouses to the untrained eye, but produce a few interesting shows a year that offer a "pay what you can" night on some Thursdays where you just show up and offer whatever you want to pay in exchange for a ticket. Sign up for the theatres' mailing lists to make sure you know when those plays are.
  • Improv: There's live comedy in Austin almost every day of the week, but there are a few places you can catch a show for next to nothing. Coldtowne Theater, The Hideout Theatre and The New Movement all offer shows for as little as $5. Some are even family friendly!
  • Barton Springs Pool: It's $5 per person ($3 for residents), and it's worth is to spend an afternoon in the natural spring-fed pool that stays at a bracing 70 degrees year-round. It's beautiful, it's refreshing, and you can see the city skyline from the pool or the green grass surrounding it.
  • McKinney Falls State Park: It's $6 per person to get in (all Texas state parks are), but you can spend the day navigating the trails, admiring the falls, or swimming in the swimming hole. Not as cold as Barton Springs Pool, but still super refreshing on a hot day. I could relax here for hours.
  • Kayak on the lake: It's fun to take in the view of the city skyline by water, so rent a canoe or kayak and start paddling! You can usually find a deal on Groupon or Living Social that will keep the cost under $15-$20.
  • Main Event: often a little pricy, this playland for all ages offers bowling, laser tag, black light mini golf, a restaurant and bar and rock climbing and on Monday evenings you can enjoy unlimited play for $10 per person.
  • Blue Starlight Mini Urban Drive-In: There's just something about a drive-in movie that is so fun and relaxing. Maybe it's the throwback to simpler times. It's $5 for walk-in admission and $15 more for a car slot. There are package deals available, too, and you can usually score some savings on Groupon.
  • Trivia: Technically trivia is free, but since you really ought to at least buy a drink or a basket of fries, we'll say it costs a few bucks. There are plenty of places to play in the city, but we enjoyed an evening of hilarious team names and embarrassingly incorrect answers with Geeks Who Drink most.


Grab a Bite:

There is no shortage of excellent options for dining in Phoenix. But not all of them are cheap, so we rounded up a few quality options that might save you a few bucks.
  • Wheatsville Food Coop: Yeah it's a grocery story, so what? It actually has pretty great hot food, including vegan stuff. The popcorn tofu is killer. But they also have tacos and other sandwiches, smoothies and a hot bar for a quick meal. Hey, if you're cooking your own food while you're in town, it's also a great place for good produce.
  • Austin's Pizza: We like Austin's Pizza because they have whole wheat crust AND vegan cheese. Don't expect Domino's prices, but if two or three people are splitting a pie you can still cash out for under $10 per person.
  • Chilantro: Food truck alert! This one's delish and their kimchi fries are practically world famous. They serve up tacos and burgers with your choice of filling (including tofu) and everything tastes great.
  • Conscious Cravings: Also a food truck, this one serves up strictly vegan fare. It's less than $7 for a meal like a portobello or seitan wrap and it's definitely tasty. There are several locations so check their website to find one close to you.
  • Frank: Like hot dogs? You'll love Frank. Grab a hot dog or sausage dinner for under $10. The best part? They have a vegan chili cheese dog option.
  • Vegan Nom: The best vegan tacos in town. Seriously. So good. They range in price from $3-$6. Try the Del Rey. You won't regret it.
  • Bistro Vonish: Another awesome food truck, this one serves up elevated vegan cuisine. Kolaches, pizza with aged cashew cheese, orange french toast, this stuff is legit. Prices are a little closer to $6-$10 per meal, but it's totally worth it.
  • Arlo's: For the best veggie burger ever, check out Arlo's. They have a bacon cheese burger that will change your life. Meat eaters approve. Josh said it reminded him of a McDonald's burger from childhood, only way, WAY better.
  • Torchy's Tacos: OK, I get it! Not everybody wants to go to a vegan food truck for dinner! So go to Torchy's. It's an Austin staple and offers killer tacos. There are breakfast tacos, the Republican, Democrat and Dirty Sanchez and they still have options like the Fried Avocado and Independent that you can request be made vegan.
  • No Va Kitchen and Bar: An more upscale and classy establishment, this restaurant offers Taco Tuesdays where diners can snag two delicious tacos for $6. At those prices you can enjoy a cocktail to go with your dinner! The options rotate, but there was a vegetarian option while we were there and the omnivores agreed that the pork taco was killer.
  • Amy's Ice Cream: If ice cream's your thing, don't miss this local legend where the employees (Scoops) perform tricks with ice cream.
  • Sweet Ritual: If dairy free ice cream's your thing, then you'll want to stop by this place inside a Juiceland (also a good place to grab a quick bite or smoothie to go) where you'll find flavors like Unicorn Poop and Cinnamonkey Elephantastic.


Ways to Save:
  • Austin Chronicle: This weekly entertainment paper is an Austin staple. Not only does it have relevant local news, but events, reviews, features, and an events calendar where you can find plenty of free things to do in the upcoming week. Pick up a free coffee just about anywhere.
  • Do512.com: Find events like music, theatre and more on this website based on when you want to go, who's with you (family events, anyone?), even how much you want to pay (there's a free events tab). Pretty much anything and everything that's going on will be listed here.
  • Meetup.com: For events targeted to your interests, search meetup.com for upcoming events ranging from book clubs to kayak water polo, rock climbing to nature clubs. Most of them are free and because Austin is so big, there are hundreds to choose from.
  • Groupon and Living Social: There are so many deals for restaurants and activities in Austin it's crazy. You can often find great deals on movie theatres, rentals, restaurants and spas, among other things.
Is there anything we missed? Add it in the comments below. Enjoy your trip!

Alisha McDarris / Author & Editor

Alisha has been a writer and photographer forever. OK, maybe not forever, but at least for more of her 20-something years than she hasn’t been those things... [Read More]

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