20 Fun Cheap Things to Do In Austin, TX
With the rise of big tech and real estate prices, Austin isn’t as cheap as it used to be. But the city still has plenty of inexpensive and free places to visit. So, before you settle on spending triple digits every day, look for these fun cheap things to do in Austin, TX.
1. Ride around Lady Bird Lake
Lady Bird Lake (named for Lady Bird Johnson) has a bunch of routes, ranging from one to ten miles. The ride is peaceful, smooth and full of optional stops like Zilker Park and Barton Spring pool. The latter is a natural spring that hovers between 68 °F and 74 °F year round. You can always rent from one of those automated bike stands, but I recommend Streamline Cycles. The owner is great and you’ll get a helmet with your rental. Plus, the shop is based in a vintage Airstream home, pretty cool stuff.
There’s usually a couple of food trucks next to Streamline, so use that opportunity to grab some sustinence and water before the trip, which can last two or three hours depending on your pace.
Bike rental cost: $10 – $25
2. Grab a beer or three on Rainey Street
Take one of the electric scooters from your hotel or hostel over to Rainey Street – the hipster, more laid-back alternative to the debauchery of Austin’s “Dirty” Sixth Street. There’s a large selection of small-batch craft beer and artisanal ale at Craft Brew. Go get a snifter of something nice, but eat early and avoid the pizza place out back if you’re on a budget. It’s good – and a few beers could have you dropping $15 on a pizza at 313.
3. Explore the Cathedral of Junk
You’ll need an Uber or Lyft to reach the south side of Austin and the Cathedral of Junk. The “Cathedral” isn’t an homage to any deity, just the muses of creativity. From its unassuming street, the pile of junk is surprisingly easy to miss, as silver, brass
Admission: optional donation
4. Learn at the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum
The museum doesn’t cover every aspect of LBJ’s – err, let’s say, long career. But the man who became president after JFK’s death did leave a substantial legacy. Other than Grant and Lincoln, few presidents have done more for black and brown people than Lyndon Johnson (i.e. Civil Rights Act of 1964).
He’s a man worth learning about.
5. Hang Out at Cheer Up Charlies
As mentioned in my guide to local gay bars, Cheer up Charlies is far and away one of the most “Austin” of Austin bars. In other words, kombucha on tap, a 100% vegan menu, and cushy, bohemian furniture strewn about. This is a good place to catch a live show too.
6. Browse Uncommon Objects
Uncommon Objects is a common mention on lists of must-see in Austin. It’s basically a thrift store on cocaine and LSD, selling “transcendent junk.” Due to its South Austin location, I’d suggest hitting it up on your way to the airport, before stopping at nearby Radio Coffee & Beer (#19 on this list). The meticulous hand-written labeling on hundreds of keys and chunks of glass is a sight to behold.
7. Eat bread at Easy Tiger
My travel diet is 100% carbs, so maybe this is just for me – but Easy Tiger over on E 6th street has an awesome selection of bread. I’m talking about loaves bigger than your head: focaccia, ciabatta, sourdough. Also, a long list of craft beer on tap and a lovely, large outdoor beer garden. You could go here with a big group for a few hours.
8. Walk on South Congress Avenue
South Congress or “SoCo” is the artery of Austin’s hipster crowd. Go for your ironic embroidery, pop-up shops, cowboy boots, and record stacks. On a nice day, you can spend a few hours just dropping into the colorful shops and browsing the wares on sale. A couple of my favorite stores are Triple Z Threadz and Tesoros Trading Company.
9. Watch the bats fly at Bat Bridge
The Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge has inadvertently become home to world’s largest urban bat colony. Somewhere between 750,000 and 1.5 million bats rest in the bridge’s concrete slats during summer days before emerging into the sky at dusk. During peak season, there can be more bats under this bridge than humans in Austin.
Since I visited in the Winter, I didn’t get to see this nightly event, but it sounds awesome. The cultural impact is visible throughout the city with shirts that read “batty about Austin” and the minor-league hockey team, “Austin Ice Bats”.
10. Stop by Big Top Candy Shop
Go ahead and die from a sugar overdose at Big Top Candy Shop, a circus-themed store of sweets on South Congress. They’ve got all the fixings: old-fashioned soda jerks, ice cream floats, and over 3,000 kinds of wrapped candies. Thankfully you don’t have to BYOB, bring your own bucket, as the store can give you one to fill.
11. Kick through Allens Boots
Allens Boots is a staple store on SoCo. You won’t miss the unmistakable sign, a big red boot that beckons you into 8,500 square feet of footwear and cowboy hats. You’ll spend a couple hundred dollars for even the most basic kicks, so go in there like a city-slicker and enjoy the free smell of tanned leather.
12. Visit the Peacocks of Mayfield Park and Nature Preserve
Who knew? This small botanical garden hosts a herd of two dozen free-roaming peacocks (technically, it’s a muster of peacocks but cut me some slack). The birds are great to see any time of year but will start fanning their feathers from February through spring. If you need a walk, go past the cottage grounds and into the full 21-acre nature preserve.
13. See the tanks at the Texas Military Forces Museum
The Texas Military Forces Museum is on an active military base, Camp Marby. This free museum is surprisingly expansive with a few dozen tanks, trucks, and pieces of artillery equipment stationed outside the exhibits. The interior has a collection of artifacts from the Texas Revolution all the way up to the present, including some questionable tributes to the Confederacy and the “Lost Cause” fallacy. Such is Texas.
14. Tour the Texas State Capitol
For architecture, art, and history go to the Texas State Capitol. The impressive structure dominated much of the Austin skyline and is close to downtown. Tours run every day of the week and last around 45 minutes. It’s easy to go on one, just find the tour group and follow along. The history is dense, so it’s helpful to have a guide that points out what you might miss on your own.
15. Visit the Museum of the Weird
Pictured at the top of this article, the Museum of the Weird was everything I hoped it would be. Fans of folklore and horror movies will enjoy the various rooms, one of which includes wax replicas of Hollywood’s greatest monsters. I would make sure there’s a performer at the end of your tour before buying a ticket. It made the whole thing so much better.
16. Watch a drag show at Sellers
Per my opinion, Sellers Underground has the best drag shows in Austin. It’s quite the experience. If you’ve never been to one, this is a good place to start. It’s a gay bar, but open to all genders and orientations – as long as you’re down for a good time.
17. Graffiti Park
Photographers, graffiti artists, and selfie-aficionados will find extra enjoyment at the Hope Outdoor Gallery. This multi-tier space of spray-painted concrete slabs is an iconic Austin destination. Go early or late in the day due to harsher light in the afternoon hours. For portraits, a cloudy day is your best friend – just be sure to bring sturdy shoes and watch where you sit because wet paint is present. Parking can be a hassle, so Uber or ride a scooter. And feel free to bring spray paint if you want to leave a mark.
18. Have a Cup at Mozart’s Coffee Roasters
During wintertime, Mozart’s has a beautiful porch dressed in Christmas lights. Plus, outdoor seating on Congress Avenue all year long. They roast on location too, so this is an added chance to try some local coffee. I didn’t actually make it here, but my Uber driver and Uber Pool co-passenger had rave reviews.
19. Relax at Radio Coffee & Beer
Here’s what you do: go to Uncommon Objects, then scooter to Radio Coffee & Beer and order a stout with espresso and a little bit of chocolate. As Kendrick once said, “DAMN.” This was an awesome little spot to spend my weening Austin hours. Lots of outdoor seating, a bunch of puppers, and Whataburger is right across the street.
20. Eat at Whataburger
For northerners like me, this regional burger chain exists only in the realm of imagination. But, I met my destiny thanks to a Whataburger located across the street from Radio Coffee & Beer. I can confirm: they do serve burgers and they’re pretty good.
Staying in a hostel during your Austin visit? Remember these rules.