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Want to enjoy a great Texas vacation without spending an arm and a leg? Texas is full of captivating cities where you can experience its vibrant culture, rich history and enticing food scene. These options are not only budget-friendly, but they also offer the chance to enjoy a ton of fun in the Lone Star State.
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Austin offers a surprising number of cheap things to do. Proclaimed as the “Live Music Capital of the World,” on any Friday or Saturday night you’ll find the city’s bars, cafes, clubs and other venues offering a wealth of music, and of all genres. Much of it can be found along Sixth Street, and enjoyed for just the price of a cup of coffee or a pint of beer. Before heading out for the night, witness the largest urban bat colony in the U.S. take flight from under the Congress Avenue Bridge. During the day, you can view gems and fossils at the Texas Memorial Museum, and even tour the grand state capitol building for free – its magnificent architecture has earned it many accolades. Nearby, there are all sorts of outdoor adventures available, take a walk around Lady Bird Lake and the lush Fiesta Gardens, or enjoy swimming at Barton Springs Pool.
Named one of America’s best beaches for family travel by the Travel Channel, South Padre Island is a small resort town in extreme southern Texas that offers a fabulous cheap vacation. Travelers on a tight budget will appreciate the nearly endless options for inexpensive accommodations, from campgrounds with RV hookups to family motels, many of which can be found right along the shore. In addition to relaxing in the sunshine, you’ll find plenty to do, like collecting the brightly colored shells that float onto the sand, while anglers can fish for trout, flounder, skipjack and more from the piers. Take a walk along the Laguna Madre Nature Trail to catch a glimpse of exotic birds and even alligators. If you have a little to spend, consider embarking on a dolphin watching excursion too.
Galveston Island offers loads of inexpensive fun as well as cheap dining and family-friendly accommodations. It’s best known for its 32-mile sandy beach – Seawall Beach that includes the longest continuous sidewalk in the nation, which means there is lots of room for free beach fun. Stroll along the seawall or enjoy a game of beach volleyball. Play in the sand and surf, or build sandcastles. Galveston is home to multiple museums, and many have a very low admission price, like the Texas Seaport Museum, the Galveston Railroad Museum, Tall Ship Elissa, and Pirates! Legends of the Gulf Coast and the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig and Museum. As the grand finale, be sure to catch a glorious sunset over the ocean, which of course, is entirely free all year round.
San Antonio is also filled with cheap or free fun things to do. In fact, there’s no charge at all to visit the city’s most famous site, The Alamo, where’s you’ll get a fascinating glimpse at the place where in 1836, an epic 13-day siege occurred during the Texas Revolution. Just a short jaunt away is the most popular attraction in San Antonio: the River Walk. You can take a narrated boat cruise for only $10 a person (with significant discounts for children and seniors), where you’ll glide underneath arched bridges that might make you think you’re in Venice, Italy. Be sure to check out Market Square or El Mercado as it’s also known – the Mexican market hosts vendors that sell handcrafted items, fresh produce and other goods at minimal prices, and also features a 24-hour Mexican bakery. While taking in the 360-degree view of the city from the Tower of the Americas is a must, avoid paying the steep charge to visit the observation by heading to the bar just one level below. You’ll get the same views, for just the price of a drink or an appetizer.
In the spring and summer, the elevated trails and cliffs at Meridian State Park are reminiscent of the lush Pacific Northwest, making it a wonderfully refreshing place to experience when the weather gets hot. Most of the activity here centers on the 72-acre lake, which draws anglers, swimmers and paddlers. You can enjoy cheap and spectacular primitive camping as well as RV sites with full hook-ups and waterside cabins where you can fish just steps away from your campfire. Hiking enthusiasts can enjoy the 5-mile trail system that circles the lake, and bird watchers won’t want to miss taking a walk on the 1.64-mile Shinnery Trail loop for a rare sighting of the endangered golden-cheeked warbler.
Crockett Family Resort on Houston County Lake offers an inexpensive escape for families, particularly families with fishing enthusiasts as the water is stocked with trophy largemouth bass. There are all sorts of other activities too, like golfing on the mini-golf course, gliding across the lake in a paddleboat, playing shuffleboard or horseshoes and swimming, in both a pool and the lake. There are tent sites, RV sites and cabins to stay the night in, and the resort also hosts a restaurant, grocery store and bait shop.
Matagorda Island is just a boat ride away from Port O’Connor. If you don’t have your own watercraft, there are relatively inexpensive guides are available for hire to taxi you across and back. You can make it a day trip and stay in Port O’Connor, or enjoy primitive camping for a small fee. While the island has no residents, and motorized vehicles aren’t allowed, the Matagorda Island Wildlife Management Area features 38 miles of unspoiled, wild beach to explore. These idyllic stretches of sand offer some of the state’s best beachcombing, with lots of gorgeous shells. The island also offers a habitat for endangered Aplomado falcons, which can frequently be seen here hunting in pairs. It also is home to endangered Texas horned lizards and other endangered species, along with alligators that live in the coastal marsh.
Brazos Bend State Park, just southwest of Houston, is a 5,000-acre park filled with ancient coastal live oaks and practically guaranteed alligator sightings. It’s another great spot for a fishing vacation, with six lakes in the park (three of which have piers), and free interpretive hikes are offered on the weekend. With numerous hiking and biking trails meandering through the park’s diverse terrain, you can always head out on your own and explore too, on foot or two wheels. The nature center hosts a hands-on alligator discovery area along with snakes, a touch table and an aquarium. Stargazers won’t want to miss a stop at the George Observatory, where “Saturdays at the George,” a $10 program with telescope viewing, stargazing and educational programs are offered. The park offers primitive sites for camping as well as sites with water and electricity and screened shelters.
If you plan to visit in the spring, consider spending time in Texas Hill Country cruising the Willow City Loop, a back road in Gillespie County legendary for its gorgeous scenery and brilliant wildflowers, including the state flower: bluebonnets. This spectacular 20-mile stretch of road winds through the lush, green hills, with the narrow two-lane Ranch Road snaking for 13 miles through some of the most unique, and oldest, geology in the central part of the state. Picnic under the pecan trees by the Pedernales River at Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site, and take a walk on the nature trail that traverses past pastures that house longhorns, American bison and white-tailed deer. For a nominal fee, you can take a bus tour to the LBJ Ranch or visit the Sauer-Beckmann Farmstead, where park interpreters portray life on a Hill Country farm in 1918.
Jefferson was once a bustling port city, renowned for its grand plantation homes that were considered some of the most magnificent in the state. Today, it’s called the most haunted small town in Texas. You can tour those homes and hear tales about jilted wives, former slaves and owners who met a tragic end – and currently haunt them. The Jefferson Ghost Walk, led every Friday and Saturday evening, offers the chance to tour some of the city’s paranormal hotspots for a small price. More than a few tour participants have left with a rather unique souvenir: a photo of a purported spirit. Jefferson is also a great place for budget antique shopping with a wide array of vintage goods and low price tags. While you’re here, you can also visit nearby Caddo Lake. With centuries-old cypress trees draped in Spanish moss, it looks similar to a Louisiana bayou and is teeming with wildlife like alligators, mink, wood storks, owls, eagles and great blue herons.