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Fun and free: 10 things to do in Houston without spending a penny



Budget travelers are in luck; many of Space City's most beloved attractions won't blow through your travel budget. In fact, many of them don't cost a thing. Add these 10 attractions and activities to your itinerary, and save your money for shopping at the gallery, splurging on game day tickets or treating your tastebuds to Houston's diverse and exciting culinary scene.

With a climate that rarely dips below freezing, Houston is blessed with numerous outdoor attractions that remain open throughout the year. Spend a day wandering through Hermann Park or the Houston Arboretum, or enjoy some outdoor recreation along Buffalo Bayou, extending west from downtown. 

Experience the city's multiculturalism with a visit to a traditional Hindu temple, marvel at the impressive collection of art and artifacts at the Menil Collection, or get meditative inside the modernist Rothko Chapel. For something uniquely Houston, be sure to visit the quirky Art Car Museum in the Heights.


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Waugh Bridge Bat Colony
Photo courtesy of iStock / milehightraveler


This unassuming bridge over Buffalo Bayou is home to a year-round colony of Mexican free-tailed bats that emerge each night at dusk to feast on insects. Watch the spectacle from the viewing platform at the corner of Waugh Drive and Allan Parkway.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: This natural spectacle is one of Houston's best kept secrets (and a free form of evening entertainment).

Lydia's expert tip: The bats only emerge when temperatures are above 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Read more about Waugh Bridge Bat Colony →




A 124-acre greenway that stretches from Downtown to the River Oaks neighborhood, Buffalo Bayou offers great views of the city skyline. Within the park, paved trails welcome runners and bikers, and a disc golf course, boat launch, dog park and children's playground draw visitors as well. Eleanor Tinsley Park rests within Buffalo Bayou Park (in the section from Taft Street to Sabine Street) and is the site of many city festivals, most notably the Fourth of July celebration.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: This greenway offers some of the best views of downtown Houston.

Lydia's expert tip: Head to the intersection of Buffalo Bayou and Preston Street and press the nondescript red button. Trust us!

Read more about Buffalo Bayou Park →




This architectural wonder and Hindu temple will make you feel like you're on the other side of the world. It's an excellent example of Houston's cultural diversity. The temple was built from Turkish and Italian marble according to ancient architectural scriptures of India. Some 34,000 stone pieces were shipped to India, hand-carved by a team of more than 2,000 artisans, and shipped to Houston to assemble. The architectural detail is staggering.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: This is one of the best spots to experience Houston's cultural diversity.

Lydia's expert tip: The temple is at its most photogenic at sunset. Photography inside the building is prohibited.

Read more about BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir →


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Port Of Houston


Explore one of the busiest ports in the world at no cost. The Sam Houston Boat Tour is a 90-minute journey through the international cargo port along the Houston Ship Channel. Visitors can stay cool in the air-conditioned seating area or enjoy the view from the sundeck. The boat even offers free drinks to patrons during the excursion. With the exception of Mondays and Sundays, tours are provided at least once a day.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: This free tour shows a side of Houston few visitors get to see.

Lydia's expert tip: While boat trips are free, they have to be reserved at least 24 hours in advance.

Read more about Sam Houston Boat Tour →




Each weekend from March through October, the Miller Outdoor Theatre hosts delightful, free performances, including live music reflecting cultures around the globe, children's plays, famous musicals, Shakespearean dramas and presentations by the Houston Symphony. While all shows are free, guests can sometimes acquire tickets through the box office for seats in the covered area.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: The caliber of performances staged at Miller Outdoor Theatre could easily cost upwards of $50 a ticket at other venues.

Lydia's expert tip: Bring blankets, chairs and something to snack on, and arrive about an hour before the production begins to secure a great seat.

Read more about Miller Outdoor Theatre →


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Medical Center


Centrally located, Hermann Park boasts lots of free attractions, including an outdoor theater, Japanese garden, children's playground, reflection pool and a jogging and exercise trail. Visitors can enjoy a picnic under the pines, watch the birds in the massive duck pond or simply stroll about and enjoy the scenery.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: This is the Central Park of Houston, offering several free gardens and loads of recreational space.

Lydia's expert tip: The park's Pinewood Cafe is an excellent spot to grab a drink (including local craft beer) and do some people watching from the outdoor tables.

Read more about Hermann Park →


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Houston Heights


Affectionately called the Garage Mahal by many, the Houston Art Car Museum extends free admission to those interested in previewing stunning art cars as well as works by some of the best, underrepresented contemporary artists in town. From a mural-covered Cadillac to a wire-constructed Volkswagen Bug, the creative cars in this museum are a hit car and art lovers alike. Art Car also arranges new exhibits every few months, displaying paintings, photographs, sculptures and found art.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: The Art Car Museum is uniquely Houston.

Lydia's expert tip: Visit Houston in April to see the annual Art Car Parade to see even more of these quirky and colorful works of art.

Read more about Art Car Museum →




Retreat to a veritable sanctuary for nature lovers at the Houston Arboretum & Nature Center. Visitors enjoy free access to more than 5 miles of trails across 155 acres of greenery. Start the day with a nice, long walk along the Outer Loop, and then visit the Discovery Room to learn more about the plants and wildlife encountered during your trek.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Not only is admission free, but the park offers free guided nature hikes every Saturday.

Lydia's expert tip: Check out the arboretum's calendar of events for photography classes, edible plant workshops, cooking demos and gardening classes.

Read more about Houston Arboretum & Nature Center →




This non-denominational spiritual center in the heart of Houston's Museum District welcomes visitors of all religious and spiritual backgrounds. The stark interior offers a calming setting for reflection or meditation beneath a collection of canvases by American abstract expressionist Mark Rothko.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Modern art and spirituality join forces in this uniquely Houston attraction.

Lydia's expert tip: The chapel may seem simple at first glance, but take some time to linger, and details will start to emerge.

Read more about Rothko Chapel →




Making great art accessible to all, the Menil Collection exhibits a captivating array of ancient and modern art that's free for public viewing. The museum's unique white steel exterior is a stunning work of art in itself, but inside, guests tour diverse galleries filled with everything from Byzantine-era pieces to creations by renowned modern artists such as Max Ernst and Andy Warhol. The Menil also presents new, rotating exhibitions throughout the year.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: The Menil Collection is like a mini Louvre, and it's always free.

Lydia's expert tip: Come hungry and grab a bite at the Menil Bistro, or spend some meditative time at the nearby Rothko Chapel.

Read more about Menil Collection →


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Meet Lydia Schrandt

Lydia, Senior Photo Editor and Readers' Choice Production Manager for USA TODAY 10Best, has traveled to more than 40 countries in Europe, Asia and North and South America, and has lived in...  More About Lydia

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