Though it’s the most populous city in Texas, Houston often gets overlooked for its smaller and weirder sister, Austin. But take a visit to Bayou City and you’ll find tons of cool things to see and do that you can’t find anywhere else, as well as some very unique community art initiatives. The people are friendly, the vibe is laid-back, and there’s no shortage of activities, especially during late summer and early fall. Here are some of our favorite free things to do in Houston.
1. Walk the Buffalo Bayou.
The city of Houston and Buffalo Bayou Partnership worked for years to renovate this stretch of land by the bayou and transform it into a park full of jogging, walking or biking trails, all of which offering a great view of downtown. Spend an afternoon wandering through the park, especially if you’re staying at the Royal Sonesta Hotel Houston, less than a mile away.
2. Check out the Buffalo Bayou Park cistern.
While renovating the park, the city discovered the remains of what was once Houston’s first underground drinking-water reservoir, a mammoth 87,500-square-foot expanse with 25-foot slender concrete columns hovering above two inches of water. It was drained in 1927 after it sprung a leak that couldn’t be found. Recognizing the natural beauty of the structure, the city reclaimed it and renovated it as a very unique art space. Typical entry is $2, but it's free on Thursday, assuming you can get a coveted reservation (book online in advance).
3. Watch a free show at Miller Outdoor Theater.
For an awesome, free date night when you’re staying at Hotel ZaZa Houston, located within walking distance, check out what’s playing at Miller Outdoor Theater, the city’s only fresh-air theater that offers entertainment in Hermann Park eight months out of the year. Enjoy everything from jazz shows to movie screenings and plays. Bring a blanket and a snack or your own libations -- just make sure to respect the park’s no-glass rule. If you don't want to camp out on the lawn, coveted seats are also available on a first come, first served basis.
4. Get artsy at the Menil Collection.
The Menil Collection is an art museum spread throughout several buildings, all of which are completely free to visit. Wander through modern and surrealist art on a lazy afternoon or rainy day -- there’s plenty here to keep you entertained for hours. Stay at nearby Sheraton Four Points, so you’re close enough for a second visit if one just isn’t enough.
5. Walk along the Kemah Boardwalk.
Get (20 miles) outside of downtown and take a stroll along the Kemah Boardwalk, a 60-acre stretch of waterfront that’s great for roller coasters, restaurants and people watching.
6. Check out a light show at sunrise or sunset.
The James Turrell Skyspace at Rice University puts on a meditative and trippy light show in which lights are synced to music and projected onto buildings, created by artist James Turrell. It’s free to attend, but you’ll need to make reservations on their website beforehand. Stay at Houston Marriott Medical Center and you’ll be just .3 miles away.
7. Visit a stunning Hindu temple.
If you find yourself in the Houston suburb of Stafford, be sure to stop by the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir. This stunning Hindu structure is made up of 33,000 pieces of Italian marble and Turkish limestone, not to mention 136 marble pillars and 12 domes. It took 28 months to build and is the largest structure of its kind in Texas. Best of all? Viewing this masterpiece will cost you exactly zero dollars.
8. Support local art at Project Row Houses.
Several restored shotgun houses have been transformed into a series of community art studios in the city’s Third Ward, one of the oldest African-American neighborhoods in Houston. Founded in 1993 by the residents themselves, the project was founded to create a positive creative presence in the community. It’s free to visit these studios, but donating helps this non-profit to focus on initiatives like youth empowerment, education, and sustainability.
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