Austin has a great downtown. It’s small enough to navigate, but large enough that there is plenty to do. If you’re looking for someplace new to visit, we’ve compiled a list of some fun things to do in the downtown area for free!
Texas State Capitol Tours – Capitol tours are conducted daily beginning in the Capitol South Foyer and concluding in the Capitol Extension, and feature the Capitol, Texas history, and the Texas legislature. Guests can also take a self guided tour of the Capitol building, Capitol grounds, and the Trail of Trees. Our own Heidi Okla took her kids on a tour of the Capitol building and Capitol Visitors Center and has some great tips to share if you’re touring with kids. Free.
Congress Avenue Bats – From April through September, folks gather on the Congress Avenue Bridge and surrounding areas to get a glimpse of the largest urban colony of Mexican free-tailed bats emerge nightly on their quest for food. Free.
O. Henry Museum – The O. Henry Museum (409 E. 5th St) offers a look into the life of William Sidney Porter in the Austin years leading up to his controversial prison term, after which he assumed the pen name O. Henry and set about transforming himself into the famed short story writer. Check out the website for programs and events, including Lunchtime Lit, a free monthly discussion of O. Henry’s works. Free.
Explore the Driskill Hotel – Take some time to meander through this historic hotel with its opulent architecture and elegant common areas. Built in 1886, and located in the heart of downtown, the Driskill has been restored to it’s original beauty and is quite a marvel to explore. Guests can also enjoy live music from local artists at the Driskill Bar most evenings. (604 Brazos St) Free, but consider stopping for a treat at the Driskill’s 1886 Cafe & Bakery.
Historic Walking Tours – The Austin Visitor Center offers two free, guided walking tours of downtown Austin, one of the Congress Avenue/Sixth Street area, and one of the Bremond Block Historic District. The Austin Visitor Center also offers brochures for self guided tours through the Texas State Cemetery and the West Austin area. Or, you can download a Historic Austin Tours app for your iPhone or iPad. Visit the website for reservation information on the guided tours. Free.
Tour the Governor’s Mansion – Free guided tours of the newly remodeled Texas Governor’s Mansion are available Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to noon. Tours will last 20 minutes and are subject to availability. Reservations must be made at least one week in advance (to allow for background checks) and no walk up tours are available. To schedule a tour, visitors can call the Mansion Reservationist at 512-305-8524 or send an email to [email protected]. Free.
SFC Farmers Market at Republic Square Park – Open year round, rain or shine, the Sustainable Food Center’s downtown farmer’s market at Republic Square Park (422 Guadalupe St) is the place for farm fresh foods from local growers, as well as baked goods arts and crafts from local artisans. The SFC Farmers’ Market is not only certified by the Texas Department of Agriculture, but also by the more rigorous Texas Certified Farmers Market Corporation, a statewide professional agricultural trade organization that requires farmers’ markets to have 51% or more farmers at their markets. Limited free parking is available just south of the market and at City Hall, or at the State Parking Garage at 3rd and San Antonio. Free.
9th street BMX – 9th Street is an ongoing community cooperative work project where locals have worked to create hundreds of trails and dirt mounts in Duncan Park for BMX riding. (900 W. 9th St) Free.
Austin’s art scene continues to grow and evolve, and there are several spots to check out in the Downtown area.
- The Contemporary Austin – Formerly Arthouse at the Jones Center, The Contemporary Austin (700 Congress Ave) reflects the spectrum of contemporary art through exhibitions, commissions, education, and the collection. You can also visit Laguna Gloria, another Contemporary Austin property, just outside of Downtown (3809 W. 35th St). Both sites are free on Tuesdays. Under 18 and military are always free.
- People’s Gallery – The People’s Gallery at Austin City Hall showcases the talents of local artists with an extensive annual art exhibition in the atrium and open areas of the first three floors. Approximately 150 contemporary artworks are on display, including paintings, photographs, sculptures and more. You may view the exhibit for free anytime the building is open. Pick up the People’s Gallery brochure in the atrium or second floor lobby for a self-guided tour and information about each artwork and artist. (301 W. 2nd St) Free.
- Mexic-Arte Museum – Since its founding in 1984, Mexic-Arte Museum has been designated as the Official Mexican and Mexican American Fine Art Museum of Texas by the 78th Legislature of the State of Texas. (410 Congress Ave) Free on Sundays.
- HOPE Outdoor Gallery – HOPE is a three story outdoor art project located at 11th and Baylor Streets. Launched with the support of artist Shepard Fairey, it is one of the largest outdoor galleries in Texas and was developed to provide muralists, graffiti artists and community groups the opportunity to display large scale art pieces driven by inspirational, positive & educational messaging. Free.
University of Texas campus
There are plenty of free, fun things to do on the massive UT campus. Find some offsite parking and explore:
- Harry Ransom Center – Check out the HRC for their current and permanent exhibitions including the Gutenberg Bible, the first substantial book printed from movable type on a printing press; the First Photograph, an 8 x 6.5-inch heliograph produced by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in France; and more. Free.
- UT turtle pond is a fun place for some cute turtle viewing (and a little turtle education!). Free.
Explore on foot
Ann & Roy Butler Hike & Bike Trail at Lady Bird Lake – With more than 1.5 million visits a year, the 10-mile hike-and-bike trail is Austin’s most recognized and popular recreational area. Use this interactive map to find user amenities such as restrooms and drinking fountains, as well as current and future trail projects and places of interest.
Pease Park – Just outside of Downtown at Lamar and MLK, Pease Park offers a playground and a splash pad and many trails. Commuters driving down Lamar Boulevard can always look over to see the sand volleyball courts full of action. (1100 Kingbury St)
Explore by bus
Want to do your sightseeing by bus? Capital Metro can help you plan your trip to popular downtown destinations. Visit the Capital Metro website to get started. Children five and under with an accompanying adult can ride Capital Metro bus and rail services at no charge. For others, local fares start at $1.
Leigh Ann Torres is a freelance writer and blogger living in Austin with her husband and three girls. She’s a pretty good cook, a mediocre photographer, and a horrible housekeeper. She writes about the good, the bad, and the ridiculous of life with twins plus one at Genie in a Blog.