Many people say that Austin, Texas, comes to life and fills with music after sundown. If you’ve ever visited historic, fun-filled 6th Street, that holds true. Haven’t you seen Austin City Limits?! But Austin is oh so much more than that! Think Houston without the crime and humidity (we kid, Houston, we kid).

Austin, the Texas state capital, is located near the center of the state. It hosts the University of Texas’ main campus and the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) music and technology festival. The town also boasts a vibrant arts scene, a committed green movement and so many lip-smacking restaurants you’ll overdo it. Many restaurants feature fantastic live music.

So if you are headed to the Lone Star state, make sure to take a swing through Austin, which has plenty of things to see and do that don’t cost a darn penny!

1.  Go Batty on Congress Avenue. Bats as a tourist attraction? Yes Ma’am! In downtown Austin, an estimated one million bats call the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge home from early spring through October. At dusk, a black cloud of bats emerges from the crevices of the bridge to go out and forage for insects. (Needless to say, this area of downtown doesn’t have much of a bug problem.) Though it sounds bizarre, the nightly exodus is fascinating to watch and has become a must-see item on the Austin tourist list.

2. Tour the Heart of Texas: Saunter through the Texas State Capitol Building in the heart of downtown Austin. The 22-acre site includes the domed, 19th century seat of government, manicured gardens and grounds which include 17 statues of historic Texans. Visitors can tour both the building and the grounds. Self-guided and guided tours are free and offered Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

3. Go Green: Hike the Barton Creek Greenbelt. Austin has one of the most extensive and beautiful public park systems in the United States…and it’s free.  This system includes the Barton Creek Greenbelt, ranked the No. 7 best hiking trail in the U.S. The 7.25-mile trail begins at Zilker Botanical Park just south of downtown and runs southwest. The terrain along the trail includes caves, limestone formations and shallow creek beds.

4. Hobnob with the Prez:  Visit the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum, which houses more than 45 million pages of documents. Don’t be put off by the volume. The museum also offers an interesting collection of artifacts and memorabilia from the Johnson presidency. Among these are gowns worn by Mrs. Johnson at state dinners, a replica of the Oval Office as it looked during President Johnson’s time in office, and the Presidential limousine used during the Johnson administration. The museum, which sits on 14 acres adjacent to the University of Texas campus, is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (Note: As of July, 2012, some of the permanent exhibit galleries are closed for renovation.)

5. Oh Henry: Explore the O. Henry Home and Museum. Located in the heart of downtown Austin, just a block from the convention center, stands the unassuming Victorian cottage where lived the writer William Sidney Porter (better known by his pen name, O. Henry). Porter lived from 1884 until 1895 (including a stint in prison) and crafted such literary masterpieces as “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Cop and the Anthem.” The house, now a museum, contains some of the writer’s possessions, books and a glimpse into what life was like in Austin around the turn of the 20th century. The museum is open daily.

Austin makes an affordable and family-friendly getaway from most parts of the United States (including Houston). For more information on visiting Austin, check out the city’s official Web site.

Other Cities

Free tourist sites are available in almost every city across the country. Here are some tips for finding free tourist attractions:

Travel/Tourist Websites: The official tourism site for the city or state you are visiting is a great resource for fun and free things to do. Each site is run by the local tourism department. If you need help finding free activities, call or send an email. These cities want you to come visit and will happily provide you with all the information you need.

Local Visitor's Bureau: Make the local visitor's bureau your first stop. Tell them you are interested in free local activities, and see what they come up with. Best of all, you'll probably receive a few free maps while you're there (which means that you won't have to ask for directions or buy a map of your own when you get lost).

Ask Locals: Who knows better than residents the best of free things to do. Every town has a few hidden gems, and if you don't ask, you might not find them.

Call Before You Go: Before you head out to a tourist site, pick up the phone and ask a few questions. Many places offer reduced prices or free tickets on certain days and times or have free exhibits available. Don't be afraid to ask for discounts and specials. This is a fantastic site with plenty of content and reviews generated by actual tourists. Before visiting an attraction, check out the reviews. Also look for hidden gems and other things to do.

This has been a guest post by Sandy from Ohio
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A Note

Nickel Tours is a new series of KCL’s travel section. Look for periodic posts highlighting free and very inexpensive things to do in destination cities around the United States. Leave a comment and let us know what you think! Oh, and let us have it, Houston!

Nickel Tours: A Texas-Sized Austin Adventure on a Dime