Just how many free or nearly-free things are there to do in Houston? Quite a few. I set my limit at $5 — not including tips or donations — and this is what I found, beginning with the free attractions.
Note: CityPASS gave me a free pass to use, valued at $64. Opinions are my own.
1. Check Out The Menil Collection
The 17,000-piece art collection includes paleolithic, Middle Eastern, African, contemporary, and religious art. Paintings by Miro, Max Ernst, and Picasso are some of the more familiar works.
Pro Tip: The ADA-accessible museum is always free, but reservations are required. It is closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
2. Spend Quiet Time In The Rothko Chapel
Another of de Menil’s contributions to Houston, the Rothko Chapel is located near the Menil Collection. The nondenominational chapel is named for the Russian-born artist, Mark Rothko, who painted the 14 massive canvases that at first glance appear nearly black.
Have a seat on one of the chapel’s benches. As you adjust to the ambient light, you see colors, depth, and movement in his paintings.
In keeping with John and Dominique de Menil’s passion to elevate all people and obliterate social injustice, they dedicated the Barnett Newman sculpture in the courtyard, entitled The Broken Obelisk, to Martin Luther King, Jr.
While you’re in the neighborhood, pay a visit to the Houston Center of Photography. Admission to the exhibit hall is always free but requires a reservation.
Pro Tip: The ADA-accessible chapel is closed Mondays.
3. Contemplate Sunrise Or Sunset
James Turell’s Twilight Epiphany Skyspace is an outdoor art installation on the Rice University campus. The futuristic structure has seating on the ground and second floors.
The light sequence begins about 40 minutes before sunrise and about 10 minutes before sunset. Quietly watch the sky, and Skyspace that frames it, subtly change color. The evening show is more dramatic.
Pro Tip: The show lasts 40 minutes. A daytime visit does not have the same impact. The show is free but I paid $5 for parking.
4. Cool Off At The Waterwall
The Gerald D. Hines Waterwall Park is an oasis in Uptown Houston. Truly, pictures don’t do justice to this iconic fountain that pumps 11,000 gallons of water over the inner and outer semicircular walls every 3.5 hours.
Once you pass through the Scanae Frons, a limestone and brick portal, you’ll only hear water, no street noise. A cool mist is especially welcome.
There are benches shaded by live oak trees along the pathways leading to the fountain.
Pro Tip: The Waterwall Park opens at 8 a.m. and is free. Street parking is limited but there is a parking garage half a block away.
5. Window Shop At The Galleria
Strolling the air-conditioned mall and window shopping are free. So is watching ice skaters during the public skating at Ice at the Galleria. Good luck, though, getting out of there without handing over your credit card to buy a little something at one of the 400 shops or renting a pair of skates to take a twirl around the ice.
6. Admire An Art Car
The Art Car Museum is a privately-owned museum that displays art cars year round and rotating exhibits by local artists.
Affectionately called the “Garage Mahal,” the Art Car Museum displays three or four cars, including one outside. The demon car was driven to California once and I’m sure caused more than a few heads to turn.
In addition to the cars, the museum has temporary art exhibits that have included photography, fine art, and ceramics. The current What I did on my COVID Vacation showed a thought-provoking, wide range of perspectives.
Pro Tip: The museum is always free but requires reservations to limit the number of guests in the building.
7. Be Amazed By Street Art
Houston’s mural artists have painted on hundreds of walls throughout the city and suburbs. A website makes it easy to find a mural nearest to where you are.
If you’re in Houston Heights, check out the retro-looking space/UFO-themed mural by Sergio Aquilar and Jose Kontos on the Heights House Hotel. If you stand in the beam of light, it will look like you’re being abducted. In Midtown, Preservons la Creation, Sebastien “Mr. D” Boileau, painted God holding a can of spray paint in the style of Michaelangelo at 2800 San Jacinto Street.
Downtown, the Houston Is Inspired mural by GONZO247 is across from Market Square Park, where incidentally, they show free classic movies on summer nights. Bring your lawn chairs and blankets. You can buy something to eat or drink at Niko Niko’s in the park.
8. Learn About Early Settlers
Sam Houston Park, the oldest in Houston, dates back to 1900. A museum and restored homes are highlights of Houston’s history. The museum includes a replica of a general store that originally stood in Egypt, Texas. The oldest house, built in 1823 and moved here in 1973, stands near the museum where it is better protected from hurricanes.
A walking tour around the park located across the street passes homes and St. John Church. Some were destined for demolition but relocated and restored here in the park.
The only home that was original to this location is the stately Kellum-Noble House, built in 1847. It became the park keeper’s home, and the grounds were the site of the original Houston Zoo.
A placard stands in front of each home and gives instructions on how to listen to the description of who built and lived in the house. Owners came from all walks of life — from a freed slave who became a minister and founded Bethel Baptist Church to German immigrants.
Pro Tip: The self-guided tour of the park is free and the museum entrance is $5. A tour to enter three of the seven buildings can be arranged with the Heritage Society.
9. Visit A Museum
Thursday means free admission during certain hours for the Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of Natural Sciences, Health Museum, Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, and the Holocaust Museum Houston. You do need to make reservations.
The Houston Zoo is free the first Tuesday of the month but you’ll need to request tickets the Wednesday before. The tickets are limited in number.
Pro Tip: Take a look at this website for specific hours and for a list of museums that are always free.
10. Take A Harbor Tour
Tuesday through Saturday, the Sam Houston Tour Boat leaves from Port Houston’s Sam Houston Landing for a 90-minute guided tour of this commercial port. You may pass in the shadow of gigantic international freighters and see dock workers unloading cargo. The tour is narrated and everything is free — the parking near the terminal, the tour, and the refreshments.
Pro Tip: The tours haven’t resumed yet. Keep an eye on the website to make reservations. You’ll need to show a photo ID to gain access to Port Houston. The boat is ADA accessible.
11. Join A Bat Walk
The Waugh Bridge colony of Mexican free tail bats numbers 250,000. They hang upside down in the bridge’s crevices by day and emerge at dusk, with a vortex flight pattern. The Waugh Bridge crosses Buffalo Bayou in the middle of Houston and as the bats head out for a night of feeding on insects, you can watch from a viewing platform.
Buffalo Bayou Partnership also organizes Bat Talk and Walk Tours with a bat expert to give a better understanding of these flying mammals and their importance in the ecosystem. I was very happy to learn they are eating corn- and cotton-eating moths and reducing the need for pesticides. These tours occur in July and August.
Pro Tip: Bats emerge at dusk. If it’s too cold (50 degrees is their cutoff) or rainy, they’re not likely to fly. They return to Waugh Bridge at around 5 a.m. in the summer months.
12. Consider A CityPASS
As I mentioned, I received a free CityPASS. It gives you prepaid entrance to five attractions — Space Center Houston, the Downtown Aquarium, the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts or the Houston Zoo, and Kemah Boardwalk or the Children’s Museum. Once activated at the first attraction, it’s good for nine days.
If you are spending several days in Houston, want to save some money, and don’t want to be restricted to visiting museums on Thursday or the zoo on Tuesday, I recommend buying the pass.
Paying separately, entrance fees are $109 for adults and $93 for seniors. With the CityPASS, you pay $64 for entry into five attractions.
Pro Tip: You may still need to make reservations in advance for some attractions. CityPASS sends a QR code via email. You can present the code electronically or by printed copy at the ticket counter.