How to Vacation in Austin, TX on a Budget
by Travis L.
As the capital of Texas, Austin is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the southwest. Austin is a vibrant and diverse city, offering ample opportunities to explore the great outdoors, some of the best food you’ll ever to eat, and enough live music to warrant the nickname “Live Music Capital of the World.”
If you’re thinking about visiting the city that likes to keep it weird but are hesitant about the big city price tag, don’t fret! There are plenty of affordable things to do and see in Austin. I recently visited Austin and was able to truly experience everything the city had to offer, even with a low budget.
Here are my tips for vacationing in Austin on a budget.
Affordable Hotels in Austin
Finding a place to stay in Austin doesn’t have to break the bank. Cheap but quirkily modern hotels, like the Austin Motel, are common in the downtown area. Many budget hostels, like Native Experiential Hostels, have recently made Austin their home. Most of Austin’s biggest attractions are centrally located, so staying in the downtown district puts you in a great location and keeps travel costs at a minimum. Websites like kayak.com, roomkey.com, and hotels.com can help you find a great deal on local lodging.
When booking accommodations, keep in mind that Austin is home to many large, annual events, like SXSW, Austin City Limits, and Formula 1. During these events, hotel rooms book up quickly and hotels may temporarily increase their room prices. When planning your visit, look at what events are going on and schedule accordingly to avoid spending more than necessary.
Cheap Transportation for Tourists in Austin
Austin doesn’t have a robust public transportation system, but I found it easy to get around without spending a fortune. The city’s Capital Metro bus system can get you pretty much anywhere you’d want to go, with a day pass only costing $2.50. If the bus isn’t your style, rent a B-cycle, Bird or Lime scooter, or a car2go to quickly zip around the downtown area at a low cost.
Explore the Great Outdoors
Austinites are known for their love of the environment, and there’s no shortage of opportunities to soak up some sun and fresh air. Paddleboarding on Lady Bird Lake was one of my personal favorites during my time in Austin, but here are some the most affordable options for exploring the great Texas outdoors.
Lady Bird Lake
Situated right in the heart of downtown Austin, Lady Bird Lake (named after Lady Bird Johnson) is brimming with plenty of fun activities. The Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail spans 10 miles around the perimeter of the lake and is one of the oldest urban hike and bike paths in the state of Texas. If you want to get out on the water, rent a canoe, kayak, or paddleboard from the Texas Rowing Center starting at just $10 per hour.
Along the edge of Lady Bird Lake sits Zilker Park, a 351-acre metropolitan park featuring trails, volleyball courts, natural springs, swimming, and more. Pack a picnic and spend some time on the sprawling green lawn or visit the Zilker Botanical Gardens, which are free and open to the public.
Barton Springs Pool
Looking for a place to relax by the pool? Austin’s Barton Springs Pool is a three-acre, natural spring-fed pool located in Zilker Park. The water temperate ranges from 68-70 degrees Fahrenheit, making it ideal for swimming no matter the weather. Barton Springs is open from March until October each year, and entry prices range from $4 to $9.
Barton Creek Greenbelt
Stretching more than 12 miles, the Barton Creek Greenbelt is one of the top hiking trails in Texas. If you enjoy hiking, mountain biking, or rock climbing, make sure to spend some time exploring this lush green oasis that runs straight through South Austin. Check out this greenbelt guide for more information.
Hike up Mount Bonnell for some of the best views in Austin. Not into climbing? Don’t worry, it’s only 785 feet up, so it won’t take you more than 10 minutes to climb the stairs to the top.
Experience the Live Music Capital of the World
Austin is known for its live music for a reason. No matter what time of year you visit, there’s sure to be a place to listen to live music somewhere in the city, with many venues offering free admission. Check out these venues and events and get your groove on.
Blues on the Green
During the summer months, 93.8 KGSR takes over the Zilker Park lawn for a free Blues on the Green concert series. This event is pet-friendly, and attendees can settle down in the park to watch local Austin artists grace the stage for one night each month.
The Broken Spoke is an Austin staple and one of the last true Texas dancehalls. If you’re into country music and good barbeque, make your way down to South Lamar to enjoy their free performances that take place every night, Tuesday through Saturday. Need to brush up on your dancing skills? The Broken Spoke offers two-step lessons Wednesday through Saturday from 8 to 9 p.m.
Little Longhorn Saloon
The Little Longhorn Saloon has been a go-to for honky-tonk country music lovers for more than four decades. You’re sure to find live performances at this local dive bar any night of the week, and on Sundays, take part in their infamous Chicken Shit Bingo for just $2.
The Paramount Theatre in downtown Austin regularly hosts movie screenings, concerts, comedian performances, and more. If you’re looking for something fun to do at night, check out the Paramount’s schedule of events. You’re sure to find something to fit your fancy. Ticket prices range depending on the event.
The Long Center
The Long Center has truly become a community gathering place offering performances that can be enjoyed by young and old. The Center serves as the permanent home of the Austin Opera, Symphony, and Ballet and hosts musical and theatrical events year-round. In the summer, the Austin Symphony Orchestra presents its free Concerts in the Park series, and Do512 and the Alamo Drafthouse team up to present Sound & Cinema on the Long Center lawn.
Other Free Music Venues
There is no shortage of bars and venues offering free shows regularly. The Elephant Room, Continental Club, Carousel Lounge, and C-Boy’s Heart & Soul are just a few of the most popular options for free live music throughout the city.
Soak Up the Authentic Austin Culture
Austin boasts a unique culture that truly sets it apart from the rest of the state of Texas. There’s no better way to experience Austin than to immerse yourself in the local culture by visiting the following attractions.
State Capitol Building
Nothing says “Texas” like the State Capitol building. Visitors are welcome for free tours of the Capitol any day of the week to learn about the building, Texas history, and legislature.
South Congress Avenue (referred to as SoCo by locals), is a vibrant and electric neighborhood just south of Lady Bird Lake. Walking down the main stretch, you’ll find a wide variety of shops, restaurants, galleries, and music venues that epitomize everything Austin has to offer.
Guided Walking Tours
Want to learn about Austin’s rich history and get some steps in at the same time? Take a guided walking tour of downtown or the Capitol area with local Austin experts. Tour tickets are $10 for adults and free for children under the age of 12.
Congress Bridge Bats
Seeing the bats is a must for any new visitors to Austin. The South Congress Bridge is home to the world’s largest urban bat colony, with 750,000 to 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats calling the bridge home at any given time. Each night between 7:30 and 8:30 p.m., the bats emerge for their nightly feeding creating a spectacle that draws visitors from around the world.
The Percy V. Pennybacker Jr. Bridge is one of Austin’s most popular icons. The bridge joins the north and south sections of Highway 360 and allows for amazing views of Lake Austin and the surrounding landscape. Locals and tourists alike frequently hike up the bluff overlooking the bridge to take stellar photographs.
Tejano Walking Trail
Experience Austin’s Tejano heritage firsthand on the Tejano Walking Trail, a 4.9-mile long self-guided trail featuring 22 culturally significant sites. The trail begins in the Tejano neighborhoods of East Cesar Chavez and Holly near downtown and can be toured by foot or bicycle.
Enjoy Austin’s Cheap Art and Entertainment Offerings
Art and entertainment lovers can rejoice because Austin offers many opportunities to enjoy the arts all year round. These were some of my favorites from my trip to ATX.
Austin has several iconic and quirky murals that have become tourist attractions over the years. Grab your camera and take a tour around the city to see if you can find these street art murals.
Hope Outdoor Gallery
The HOPE Outdoor Gallery is a community paint park located at 11th and Baylor St. in downtown. The HOPE gallery is the only paint park of its kind in the country and welcomes muralists, street artists, art education classes, and community groups to display large-scale art pieces on the gallery’s concrete walls. The bright colors of the diverse art creations are truly a sight to see.
Movies in the Park
Every summer, the Austin Parks Foundations presents their free Movies in the Park film series in partnership with the Alamo Drafthouse and Whole Foods Market. During the events, visitors can screen well-known movies the entire family can enjoy at different parks around the city.
UMLAUF Sculpture Garden and Museum
The UMLAUF Sculpture Garden and Museum displays the work of Charles Umlauf, a renowned sculptor and Austin local. The garden and museum are open Tuesday through Sunday, and tickets are $5 for adults and free for children under 12.
Zilker Hillside Theatre
In July and August, Zilker Theatre Productions puts on their rendition of popular Broadway shows at the Zilker Park Hillside Theatre. All performances are free and seating at the outdoor stage is first come, first serve.
Relish in the Low-Cost Food Scene
Tacos, pizza, fried chicken, oh my! Austin’s food scene has blossomed in recent years. You won’t struggle to find a restaurant to enjoy during your stay. If you’re in the mood for Mexican cuisine, head over to Torchy’s Tacos, Taco Deli, Juan in a Million, or Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ for cheap tacos that will make your mouth water.
For breakfast, you can’t beat the Omelettry and Kerbey Lane Café. The Picnic brings together Austin’s best food trucks, while Top Notch Hamburgers, Sandy’s Hamburgers, and P Terry’s offer some of the best burgers in town. Home Slice Pizza, Texas Chili Parlor, the Soup Peddler, and Tamale House East are Austin food staples that you won’t want to miss.
For sushi and traditional Japanese fare, Kome should hit the spot and Kebabalicious grills up some of the best kebab. I also encourage you to check out Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken and Lucy’s Fried Chicken and decide for yourself which offers better comfort food.
Visit an Austin Museum
Austin is home to many world-class museums dedicated to art, literature, history, science, nature, and more. Make a trip to one or more of these must-visit museums during your trip to Austin.
Blanton Museum of Art
The Blanton Museum of Art sits on The University of Texas at Austin campus (which is also worth touring on your own) and showcases nearly 18,000 works of art from across the ages. The museum has a year-round schedule of traveling exhibitions, so make sure to find out what collection will be on display during your trip. Admission ranges from $5 to $12 and is free on the third Thursday of every month.
LBJ Presidential Library
The Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library is located on The University of Texas at Austin campus. The library houses 54,000 objects donated by the Johnson family, 45 million pages of historical documents, 650,000 photographs, and 5,000 hours of recordings from President Johnson’s political career. Admission is $10 for adults and free for children under 12.
Bullock State History Museum
The Bullock Museum features artifacts from Texas’ most significant moments and follows the path of Texas history through more than 50 special exhibits. Admission is $13 for adults and $9 for children, but on the first Sunday of every month admission is free thanks to a partnership with H-E-B grocery stores.
The Thinkery creates educational and hands-on experiences for children of all ages. If you’re traveling with youngsters, you must stop by the Thinkery to see what it has to offer. Admission is $12.
Harry Ransom Center
Also located at The University of Texas at Austin, the Harry Ransom Center is one of the nation’s finest research libraries and showcases art and literature collections on a rotating schedule. Check out the exhibition schedule online to see what collections are on display during your trip. Admission to the Center is free, but donations are encouraged.
Austin Nature and Science Center
The Austin Nature and Science Center is free to explore and is located on the edge of Zilker Park. The ANSC provides both indoor and outdoor exhibits dedicated to furthering environmental science education.
Visiting new cities doesn’t have to break the bank. Take some time before your trip to create a list of budget-friendly things to do and places to eat. Creating an itinerary will make you feel more prepared and ensure you don’t accidentally stumble into an expensive restaurant or museum. For more money-saving travel tips, visit our blog.
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