Bucket list on a budget: These 12 essential Houston experiences are completely FREE

Smither Park (Orange Show Center for Visionary Art)

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Gorgeous greenery, incredible museums and music, mouthwatering food -- Houston has it all.

That said, enjoying everything the city has to offer takes time, patience and A LOT of moolah.

Many of Houston’s most-beloved institutions are shockingly expensive. But on any given day, you can enjoy some of the city’s “bucket list” experiences without breaking the bank.

Here’s our shortlist of Houston attractions with very agreeable admission fees. How does $0 sound to you?

MORE: Just how Houston are you? Take this quiz to find out!


🚢 Tour the Houston Ship Channel

Sam Houston Boat Tour (Image courtesy of Port of Houston)

Operated by the Port of Houston Authority, the M/V Sam Houston offers free tours along the Houston Ship Channel, the 52-mile-long, 530-foot-wide waterway that connects the port to Galveston Bay. The 100-passenger Sam Houston has operated as Port Houston’s public tour vessel since its inaugural voyage on July 30, 1958. During leisurely, 90-minute roundtrip tours, passengers learn about the port and the maritime industry while enjoying passing views of international cargo vessels and operations at the port’s Turning Basin Terminal.

Sam Houston Boat Tours depart from 7300 Clinton Dr. in Houston. Reservations are required.

📞 Call (713) 670-2416

💻 porthouston.com.


🎭 Catch a show at Miller Outdoor Theatre

Miller Outdoor Theatre (Image courtesy of Miller Outdoor Theatre)

A beloved cultural treasure since 1923, Miller Outdoor Theatre is a cherished gathering place where generations of Houstonians have enjoyed films, plays, dance and musical performances. The Miller’s eight-month season of professional entertainment is said to be the largest “always free” program in the country. Classical music, jazz, dance, ballet, Shakespeare, musical theatre, popular concert artists, and films are among the quality offerings presented by the event venue.

📍 6000 Hermann Park Dr., Houston, TX 77030

💻 milleroutdoortheatre.com


🛶 Kayak the Armand Bayou Paddling Trail

Wildlife seen from the Bayou Ranger II at the Armand Bayou Nature Center. (Image provided by the Armand Bayou Nature Center)

The Armand Bayou Paddling Trail follows Armand Bayou near its confluence with Clear Lake upstream through the Armand Bayou Nature Center to Horsepen Bayou.

The paddling trail offers scenic views of the Armand Bayou Coastal Preserve, which provides a habitat for alligators, waterfowl, and other wildlife such as raccoons, bobcats, and river otters. Noteworthy bird species known to inhabit the area include pileated woodpeckers, red shouldered hawks, barred owls, ospreys, and migratory songbirds.

💻 https://tpwd.texas.gov/fishboat/boat/paddlingtrails/coastal/armand_bayou/


🖼️ Visit Contemporary Arts Museum Houston

UNITED STATES - AUGUST 09: CAMH, the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, Texas (Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images) (Getty)

This longstanding Houston institution is a non-collecting museum dedicated to presenting the “best and most exciting international, national, and regional art of our time. Founded in 1948, “the museum prides itself on presenting new art and documenting its role in modern life through exhibitions, lectures, original publications, and a variety of educational programs and events.” Museum admission is free.

📍 5216 Montrose Blvd., Houston, TX 77006

💻 camh.org


🌷 Frolic through Hermann Park’s gardens

McGovern Centennial Gardens (Pixabay)

Hermann Park’s crown jewel, McGovern Centennial Gardens, boasts a gorgeous lawn bookended on one end by a fountain and on the other by a waterfall flowing down the side of a thirty-foot mount. The perpetually green expanse at the center of the park is an ideal spot to set down a blanket and stare up at the sky, crack open a good book or enjoy a picnic.

A short walk west of McGovern Centennial Gardens, Hermann Park’s other resident garden offers a serenity not always on offer at McGovern Centennial. The tranquil Japanese Garden features waterfalls, a winding stream, Koi pond, tea house, stone pathways and carefully manicured blooms. The entrance to the Japanese Garden is near the Pioneer Memorial obelisk in the heart of the park. The garden is often overlooked by park visitors flocking to the area to see the Sam Houston monument, iconic reflection pool and the obelisk that are among the park’s most identifiable landmarks.

📍 6001 Fannin St, Houston, TX 77030

💻 hermannpark.org


🧘 Sit in silent reverie at the Rothko Chapel

Rothko Chapel (©Elizabeth Felicella)

Completed in 1971, Rothko Chapel was designed in collaboration with American painter Mark Rothko. The interior serves both as a non-denominational chapel and a major work of modern art. On its walls are 14 dark black and blue paintings by Mark Rothko. Philip Johnson, Howard Barnstone, and Eugene Aubry are the architects.

Outside the chapel, Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk sits above a reflecting pool. The sculpture is dedicated to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The chapel is free and open to the public daily from dawn until dusk.

📍 3900 Yupon St., Houston, TX 77006

💻 rothkochapel.org


🚣 Paddle through downtown Houston

HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 25: An egret hunts for fish in Buffalo Bayou on August 25, 2018 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Loren Elliott/Getty Images) (2018 Getty Images)

Enjoys passing views of downtown Houston while traversing the city’s first paddling trail.

💻 https://tpwd.texas.gov/fishboat/boat/paddlingtrails/coastal/buffalo_bayou/index.phtml


🌳 Houston Arboretum and Nature Center

Goats eat unwanted vegetation at the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center. (ANTHONY RATHBUN)

The Houston Arboretum and Nature Center is a 155-acre non-profit nature sanctuary located on the western edge of Memorial Park. It has five miles of nature trails. It is free to the public.

💻 https://houstonarboretum.org/

📍 4501 Woodway Dr, Houston, TX 77024


🖼️ Absorb the art at The Menil Collection

The Menil Collection (Kevin Keim)

The museum opened to the public in June 1987 and houses John and Dominique de Menils’ privately-assembled collection of 20th century art including over 19,000 paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, photographs, and rare books.

Make sure to take a turn through the Menil’s surrealist galleries. The Menil’s began collecting Surrealism in the late 1940s and their holdings eventually grew to include over 300 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper. Three artists form the core of their surrealist collection: Victor Brauner, Max Ernst, and René Magritte. The couple ultimately amassed the most significant holdings of these artists’ work in the United States.

The Menil Collection is open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday.

📍 1533 Sul Ross St, Houston, TX 77006

💻 menil.org


📸 See spectacular shots at the Houston Center for Photography

"Beyond the Record" exhibition at the Houston Center for Photography (Houston Center for Photography)

Free to the public, this exhibition gallery displays works of contemporary photography.

📍 1441 W Alabama St, Houston, TX 77006

💻 hcponline.org


🌼Go mad for mosaics at Smither Park

Smither Park (Orange Show Center for Visionary Art)

Located on a half-acre lot next to The Orange Show, Smither Park is a work of art in progress, providing visitors an opportunity to see artists in action and the slow evolution of a creative space.

The mosaic art park is free to the public and features an amphitheater, a pavilion, swings, a meditation garden, an elaborate marble roll tower, and a sprawling 400-foot memory wall. Everything is decorated with colorful mosaic work created out of recycled and found materials and designed by local artists and community members.

📍 2441 Munger St., Houston, TX 77023

💻 orangeshow.org/smither-park


🌇 Glimpse the “Twilight Epiphany” at Rice University

Twilight Epiphany (Photo by Florian Holzherr, Provided by Rice University)

Located at Rice University, James Turrell’sTwilight Epiphany” Skyspace has a large hole in its ceiling which opens directly to the sky, allowing visitors to view it as if it were framed. At dawn and dusk, an LED light sequence change colors to affect the viewer’s perception of the sky.

The Skyspace is free and open to the public. The “Twilight Epiphany” light sequence can be viewed every day at sunrise and sunset. The sunrise light sequence begins approximately 40 minutes before sunrise. The sunset light sequence begins about 10 minutes before sunset. Each sequence lasts approximately 40 minutes. Daily sunrise and sunset times can be found here.

📍 Suzanne Deal Booth Centennial Pavilion, Houston, TX 77005

💻 moody.rice.edu


Good people of Houston and beyond, what would you add? This list is by no means comprehensive and I’m grateful for recommendations. Email your suggestions to Briana Zamora-Nipper at bzamora@kprc.com.


A list of lists:

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Get our Things to Do newsletter, a preview of events and activities assembled by the KPRC 2 Digital Team and delivered to your inbox each week. To subscribe, visit click2houston.com/newsletters.


About the Author:

Briana Zamora-Nipper joined the KPRC 2 digital team in 2019. When she’s not hard at work in the KPRC 2 newsroom, you can find Bri drinking away her hard earned wages at JuiceLand, running around Hermann Park, listening to crime podcasts or ransacking the magazine stand at Barnes & Noble.