Austin on a Budget
Free and Cheap Things to Do in Austin
Music-loving, outdoorsy Austin -- the city that chose “Keep Austin Weird” as its logo -- may now have more posh restaurants, hotels and celebrities, but that doesn’t mean it’s getting too big for its britches. If you know where to go, Austin is a budget traveler’s playground -- truly weird doesn’t have to cost much at all.
Live Love Paddle
Lady Bird Lake
There is no better place than Lady Bird Lake to see just how very outdoorsy Austin can be. Runners, bikers and walkers fill the trails, stand up paddle boarders and rowers skim the lake -- even the dogs play Frisbee. The iconic statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan graces the south side of the lake at Auditorium Shores, which also happens to be the favorite romping grounds for leash-fresh canines and the site of concerts throughout the year. And see if you can find Woode, the friendly guitar-strumming troubadour who is often perched on the stone wall near Lou Neff Point; when he’s not singing a song, he’ll shout out encouragement to stroller-pushing moms running by.
Barton Springs Pool
No matter what the weather in Austin may be, the blue waters of Barton Springs are always welcoming, hovering between a cool 68 to 71 degrees. With year-round swimming, full-moon parties and the famous New Year’s Day Polar Bear Club, this is no mere swimming hole -- for many Austinites, Barton Springs is the soul of the city and an indispensable part of keeping it weird. Plus, the minimal entrance fee is waived from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. and from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. -- that’s when the truly adventurous -- or perhaps just the truly broke -- hop in. Closed Thursdays from 9 a.m. until 7 p.m.
Live music is so abundant in Austin, you can’t flick a guitar pick without hitting a free show somewhere. Happy hour at the legendary Continental Club regularly has no cover, depending on who is playing -- and you get free peanuts. The Thursday noon concerts at Central Presbyterian Church downtown are both free and not just for churchgoers -- their high-quality shows range from classical to alternative. Check the website calendars to see who is playing.
Happy Hour at the Highball
Karaoke at the retro Highball lounge hits the apex of cool Austin amusement. If you’re too shy to sing in front of strangers, no worries -- that’s what their decked-out private karaoke rooms are for. Each room is themed -- a portrait of Johnny Cash in the Country Room and shag walls in Xanadu, and so on. And guess how much these private rooms cost during their weekday happy hour? Nothing. That’s right, you and your friends get the microphone, the music, the shag walls -- and your expense could be as minor as a $2 Lone Star beer. Also check their calendar for an ever-changing schedule of free music and swing dance classes.
Thursdays at the Blanton
The Blanton Museum at the University of Texas is considered by many to be Austin’s foremost art museum, and, in many ways, it is also the most user-friendly -- particularly on Thursdays. Not only is entry free on Thursdays, but so are their top-tier art tours, lectures and film screenings. You can even take a yoga class in the galleries on Thursday. And every third Thursday, the museum stays open until 9 p.m. when you can have a glass of wine and slice of gourmet pizza in the museum cafe for a few bucks.
Watch out Chicago, the Austin improv scene is busting out. It seems like Austin can’t get enough of brave and mostly talented people who are willing to walk out on stage with no clue what’s going to happen next. And happily, there’s plenty of good improv that’s either free, by donation or offered for a mere pittance. The dark and funky ColdTowne Theater is “Pay What You Want” Sunday through Wednesday (Tuesday night Stool Pigeon is a fave). And the Hideout Theatre downtown puts on The Free Fringe every Thursday. Both theaters also give a monthly free class. Because it’s improv, there’s no guarantee what will happen (like, it might not always make you laugh), but throw yourself into the unknown -- chances are your laugh-to-cost ratio will be very, very high.
Eat and Sleep
Eating and sleeping in Austin may not be “Pay What You Want,” but there are still deals to be had. The popular Austin food carts scene will keep your wallet fat and your belly happy -- exceptionally happy if you make your way to one of the East Side Kings trailers, located adjacent to three different bars on the artsy East Side (the beet home fries in the Thai-inspired trailer at the Liberty Bar will make you swoon). The cluster of trailers on South Congress in the trendy SoCo area will give you everything from barbecue to cupcakes -- the Mighty Cone is a favorite.
And for an affordable place to lay your head, walk from the SoCo food trailers down the street to a themed room in the old-school Austin Motel, where rooms start under $100.