Free for All

A tank of gas now costs as much as your first car. Your utility bill equals the gross domestic product of Luxembourg. But who says you can’t afford to have fun? We searched high and low for the best museums, meals, music, movies, and more that won’t cost you one red cent.

August 2006By Comments


The Big Texan Steak Ranch, in AMARILLO, has been giving away 72-ounce top sirloin steaks, complete with baked potato, salad, roll, and shrimp cocktail, since 1960. The catch? You have to eat it all in an hour or less, otherwise you’ll have to fork over $72. An 11-year-old boy has done it. So has a 69-year-old grandmother. But the odds are against you: More than 37,000 carnivores have attempted it, and only 7,000 have succeeded. Needless to say, if you hurl, the contest is over. 800-657-7177,

AUSTIN On the first Saturday of every month, Independence Brewing Company is determined to woo you with a quick tour and a generous tasting of its hoppy concoctions, from Independence Pale Ale to seasonal releases like Jasperilla Old Ale. 512-797-7879,

SHINER Mosey through the historic Spoetzl Brewery on one of the weekday tours and you’ll eventually wind up in the hospitality room, where you’ll be rewarded with four samples of the poor man’s bubbly. 361-594-3383,


Austin City Limits may be free, but it ain’t easy. Gaining entry to the legendary studio on the University of Texas campus in AUSTIN to watch bands (like the Killers, below) tape one of the twenty yearly episodes of the longest-running live-music show on television is a Tolkien-esque quest. First, call the KLRU hotline to find out which newspaper or radio station(s) will reveal the place to get tickets for the musician you want to see. Then, when the location is announced, drop what you’re doing and sprint over there, because tickets can disappear in less than five minutes. Even then, a ticket doesn’t guarantee entry! So camp out at the entrance until the doors open. Winners’ bonus: Free beer is served inside the studio. Losers’ consolation: You can tour the studio every Friday except holidays, and you can always catch the show on television. 512-475-9077,

AUSTIN Now at Rock Island, in Zilker Park, Blues on the Green has become a summer music staple, featuring the likes of Marcia Ball, Eric Johnson, and W. C. Clark. 512-974-6700, Zilker

Dust off your top hats and your parasols and promenade down to Woolridge Square Park for the Hartman Foundation concert series, starring various Austin Symphony Orchestra ensembles performing works from Mozart to Rodgers and Hammerstein. 512-476-6064,

Even if the night is overcast, you can still enjoy Music Under the Star (albeit one big metal one) on the plaza at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. If you can pull yourself away from the global rhythms—from polka to Latin bolero—you can also get a free peek at the museum’s exhibits. 512-936-8746,

CORPUS CHRISTI Bay Jammin’ at the Anderson Amphitheater, in Cole Park, runs the gamut from soul to swing. 361-883-0639,

DALLAS Both the jazz and the Dallas Museum of Art—including lectures and Sketching in the Galleries—are free during Thursday Night Live! at the DMA. 214-922-1200,

Although the Lay Family Concert Organ at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center is stunning to behold—we’re talking 4,535 gleaming pipes, some of them 32 feet tall—free demonstrations from September to June prove that its looks are nothing compared with its voice. 214-670-3600,

EL PASO El Pasoans can groove to ranchera, romantic, reggae, and other genres at Alfresco Fridays at the Convention Center Plaza through August 25. 915-541-4481,

Swing free at El Paso Friends of Jazz Society concerts at various locations around town. 915-592-1357,

FORT WORTH Bring your sack lunch to the Fort Worth Central Library during the school year to hear the sounds of high school and middle school orchestras, choirs, and mariachi bands. 817-871-7701,

HOUSTON From March through October, downtown’s Jones Plaza is a freebie hotbed, with tejano on Tuesdays, salsa on Wednesdays, and zydeco and R&B on Thursdays. 713-250-3666,

LUBBOCK The Buddy Holly Center continues to carry the torch for this town’s rich musical heritage with its Summer Showcase Concert Series. 806-767-2686,

ODESSA The Hot Summer Nights concert series brings gospel, classic rock, and cowboy poetry to downtown’s Noel Heritage Plaza. 432-335-4684,

SAN ANTONIO Concerts Under the Stars has certainly taken root at the San Antonio Botanical Garden, with performances from funky soul to salsa through August. 210-829-5360,


When it comes to movies, EL PASO’s Charles Horak has passion to share. And so he does, discussing and screening both classic and obscure films on the first Saturday of every month in the “groovy fifties-era chapel,” as he describes it, at Trinity First Methodist Church. Series over the past four years have included screwball comedies of the thirties, film noir of the forties, and a program of short films that included one of the fifteen-second Edison epics that started it all. Even free child care is provided with advance notice. 915-533-2674,

AUSTIN City planner Edwin Waller might not have had a screening of Napoleon Dynamite in mind when he designed Republic Square Park 167 years ago; still, he’d probably be tickled by the camaraderie sparked during Movies in the Park, on Thursday nights in the spring and fall. 512-477-1566,

CORPUS CHRISTI On Friday nights the lights go up when the sun goes down at the Anderson Amphitheater, in Cole Park, during the Bay Jammin’ cinema series, whose eclectic program features everything from To Kill a Mockingbird to The Polar Express. 361-883-0639,

DALLAS The Movie Series at the J. Erik Jonsson Central Library draws from the library’s collection of several thousand films and DVDs. 214-670-1643,

EL PASO Prepare for some cinematic globe-trotting at the El Paso Museum of Art with films from Israel, Argentina, South Korea, India, Spain, and Norway through November 4. 915-532-1707,

FORT WORTH The First Sunday Film Club meets monthly at the Fort Worth Public Library to watch and discuss movies such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and A Raisin in the Sun. But this isn’t a rickety-projector-in-a-classroom production; there’s digital projection and free popcorn! 817-871-7791,

The Cine de la Rosa series at the historic Rose Marine Theater features a bilingual lineup of films, from Mad Hot Ballroom to a Spanish version of Dracula. 817-624-8333,

MIDLAND Tote your lunch over to the Museum of the Southwest for the First Friday Film Series and take in an entertaining introduction to art history, from Andy Warhol to Le Corbusier. 432-683-2882,


If you really want to get an earful, time your visit to the Texas Capitol, in AUSTIN, when the inmates are in session. But if a building could run for office, this one would win in a landslide. What’s not to love? It’s rock solid—we’re talking granite outside, limestone inside—but full of pizzazz, with lacy column caps, gilded and twinkling stars scattered about, meaningful and cryptic designs in the terrazzo, and robust, personalized hinges. During the 45-minute tours, offered seven days a week, you’ll be regaled with Capitol trivia, like the number of doors in the building, why there are so few formal portraits of Stephen F. Austin, who the Senate mascots are, and where to find Jim Bowie in H. A. McArdle’s gruesome painting Dawn at the Alamo. 512-463-0063,

AUSTIN You don’t have to qualify for one of the anointed fellowships at the James A. Michener Center for Writers, at the University of Texas, to sit in on its reading series, which has brought such luminaries as Jane Smiley, Michael Cunningham, and Haruki Murakami to the ACES building’s Avaya Auditorium. 512-471-1601,

Do you dream of being read to by David Sedaris, Bill Clinton, Pam Houston, Richard Ford, Anne Rice, Kinky Friedman, Dave Eggers, Sarah Vowell, and Joyce Carol Oates? You can make that dream come true by waiting in the sometimes long, long line at BookPeople, the largest independent bookstore in Texas, and then sitting back—or standing—and listening. 512-472-5050,

EL PASO The Tumblewords Project, a not-for-profit literary organization, rolls into the La Fe Cultural and Technology Center on most Saturdays with two-hour write-and-recite workshops. 915-328-5484,

HOUSTON Brazos Bookstore, a stalwart independent since 1974, lures big-name authors to its signings and readings, like Larry McMurtry, Isabel Allende, Alice Sebold, and John Graves. 713-523-0701,

SAN ANTONIO When Gemini Ink throws a reading, it often does it with flair, using professional actors and original music in its popular Dramatic Readers Theater. And don’t miss the readings at the Autograph Series, which has featured international heavyweights such as Grace Paley, Margaret Atwood, and Edward P. Jones. 210-734-9673,


As if the SAN ANTONIO Missions National Historical Park weren’t a grand enough gift in itself—admission to its four Spanish missions is always free—it’s also a cornucopia of no-cost demonstrations and tours, whether you want to learn more about the rigors of mission life in the 1700’s at San Jose, try your hand at marking and mapping a dig unit on Archaeology Day, or watch a puppet show that explains the symbolism of the Day of the Dead. Then you’ve got your blacksmithing demonstrations and weaving classes at Mission Espada. And yes, the Alamo, which is maintained by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, is free as well, though attentive visitors will leave feeling as if they have completed an intensive course in Texas history. National Historical Park Visitors Center: 210-932-1001, The Alamo: 210-225-1391,

AUSTIN For years the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, at the University of Texas, was like a heavy geode, secreting away its sparkle. Well, the rock cracked wide open in 2003 thanks to a welcoming remodel, and the gems just keep tumbling out: illuminating exhibits on Modernism in the arts, photographs printed by Ansel Adams himself, and ancient maps and globes that leave cartophiles weak in the knees. 512-471-8944,

Despite its candid exhibits on a tumultuous presidency, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum is anything but dour. And while the library has made a reputation for itself with a speakers series featuring some of the deep thinkers of our time, it’s not above less-academic fare like, say, an outdoor screening of A Hard Day’s Night. 512-721-0200,

What the tiny O. Henry Museum lacks in square footage it makes up for with enthusiasm, especially with its free writing workshops that guide people through the land-mine-strewn field of family history. 512-472-1903,

DALLAS Meet up with in-the-know docents under the red-and-white umbrellas at the Trammell Crow art center for a one-hour Arts District Stroll on the first Saturday of each month. 214-953-1977, arts

You may leave the Trammell and Margaret Crow Collection of Asian Art a bit jaded, but not in the negative sense. Of all the intricate works from China, Japan, India, and Southeast Asia, the pieces carved from jade are especially arresting. The curl of a pony’s lip and the flowing robe of Bodhidharm belie the hard stone from which they’re created. 214-979-6430,

EL PASO A former Greyhound bus station was transformed eight years ago into the welcoming El Paso Museum of Art, whose ambitious collection includes works from the Renaissance, colonial Mexico, and the contemporary Southwest. 915-532-1707,

FORT WORTH The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth may steal the limelight these days, but the Amon Carter Museum is the dependable character actor. Best known for its unbeatable assemblage of Remingtons and Russells, the Carter also counts works by Thomas Eakin, Winslow Homer, and Georgia O’Keeffe among its collection. 817-738-1933,

The brigade of evenly spaced trees shading the entrance of the Kimbell Art Museum is alone worth the visit, but you’ve still got the architecture of Louis Kahn to admire, not to mention the Caravaggios, Picassos, Ming dynasty porcelain, Syrian mosaics, and Egyptian mummy mask. 817-332-8451,

The Monnig Meteorite Gallery is an out-of-this-world freebie where you can ogle one of the top collections of meteorites in the country and even create your own meteorite impact. 817-257-6277,

HOUSTON Thank heavens for rich people, at least rich people who share their largesse as artfully as John and Dominique de Menil. They could’ve stopped at the Menil Collection, a celebration of Modern art from Magritte to Flavin. But no. The couple also gave the Bayou City the meditative Rothko Chapel and the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum. Menil: 713-525-9400, Rothko Chapel: 713-524-9839, Fresco Chapel Museum: 713-521-3990,

ORANGE Art lovers on a budget could do with more treats like the Stark Museum of Art. Heralded as one of the finest collections of Western art in the nation, this off-the-beaten-path museum houses works by frontier artists such as John Mix Stanley and Taos School icons Henry Sharp and W. H. Dunton. 409-883-6661,

SAN ANTONIO It seems downright socialistic to allow the teeming masses on the lush grounds of the McNay Art Museum, much less inside the swank Spanish Colonial Revival–style mansion, to view the works of nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists from Goya to Picasso. So is it any surprise that many of the objects in the 10,000-piece Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts have a Russian pedigree? (Even Marx would understand why a fee is charged for traveling exhibitions.) 210-824-5368,


Since 1958 the M/V Sam Houston has served as the public tour vessel of the PORT OF HOUSTON, carrying millions of passengers on its ninety-minute cruise through one of the busiest shipping terminals in the nation. And what might all these international cargo ships be carrying? Your nose can answer that: petroleum. One quarter of the refining capacity in the United States is on the channel, along with scads of other industrial behemoths. No food, drink, or large backpacks can be brought onboard, although passengers receive a free beverage during the trip. 713-670-2416,

AUSTIN Quit whining about the lack of parking in downtown Austin and take the ’Dillo instead. Whether you’re late-night barhopping in the Warehouse District (until three o’clock in the morning!) or touring the UT campus, the color-coded ’Dillos have you covered. 512-472-1200,

THE COAST After a ride on one of the Texas Department of Transportation’s two coastal ferries, you can almost forgive TxDOT for always ripping up the highways. Although the crossing at Port Aransas can take less than three minutes, oh, what a dolphin-rich ride it can be. The crossing between Port Bolivar and Galveston is a 2.7-mile, eighteen-minute trip in the company of squadrons of pelicans—and the occasional squeal-inducing dolphin family feeding in the wake.409-795-2230,

DALLAS McKinney Avenue is as good a place as any to stroll in Dallas, what with the galleries, cafes, boutiques, museums, and spas that line it. But once you’re overfed, burdened with shopping bags, suffering from “museum back,” and waiting for your toenails to dry, you might prefer to hop aboard an M-Line trolley. The restored vintage electric streetcars run every 15 minutes on weekdays and every 25 minutes on weekends and can transport you from the Dallas Museum of Art to the West Village in nostalgic style. 214-855-0006,


Although you wouldn’t want to live there, the Observation Area in Founders Plaza, at DFW Airport, in GRAPEVINE, is a great place to visit if you get off on takeoffs—or landings. We’re talking almost two thousand flights a day. Telescopes, aircraft information, and audio straight from the control tower enhance the high-flying, voyeuristic experience. Note to dads: We know firsthand that this is the kind of outing your kids will remember for years to come. 972-574-6000,

ABILENE On Thursday evenings, visitors to the Grace Museum, including the Children’s Museum, can explore the rhyme and reason of Tot Spot; the Grace Space Station, with its VW Beetle spaceship; and “Recollections,” an interactive exhibit involving a huge psychedelic video screen. 325-673-4587,

AUSTIN The renovated George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center is back with a freebie vengeance, offering programs like Smile on My Face, a photography and darkroom workshop for budding shutterbugs. 512-974-4926,

The goal of the Saturday Morning Film Club at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar is not to numb your munchkins with yet another showing of The Little Mermaid but to tweak their cine­magination with classics like The Green Slime and King Kong. 512-476-1320,

BEAUMONT Family Arts Days at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas brings more to the creative table than construction paper and paste. Think sugar skulls for el Día de los Muertos, shoe painting, self-portraiture, and the ever-popular making of paper flowers. 409-832-3432,

DALLAS Several times a year, the Meadows Museum, at Southern Methodist University, indulges its future patrons on Super Saturdays with storytelling in the galleries, live music and dance, art projects, and adventures. 214-768-2516,

HOUSTON The acclaimed Children’s Museum of Houston gives it all up for zip on Thursday evenings. Kids can explore a replica of a Oaxacan village, milk a robotic cow in the “Farm to Market” exhibit, and discover the magic of pulleys by raising themselves five feet in the air. 713-522-1138,

MIDLAND You may feel like Godzilla plodding through the “My Town” exhibit at the Fredda Turner Durham Children’s Museum, but your kids will feel perfectly proportional in this pint-size cityscape. 432-683-2882,

SAN ANTONIO For more than 35 years, Saturday Morning Discovery at the Southwest School of Art and Craft has paired art-hungry kids with professional instructors in a variety of media, from photography to textiles. 210-224-1848, ext. 321;


The most demanding attraction at Sea Center Texas, in LAKE JACKSON, is the three-hundred-plus-pound Queensland grouper Gordon—those basset hound eyes that lock on yours, those Charles Laughton lips, that shear mass! The big guy, who turned 21 this year, shares his 50,000-gallon aquarium with some equally intriguing tankmates, like the state’s largest moray eel, resplendent in toxically bright chartreuse and needle teeth. But don’t let these flashy showboaters completely overshadow the more subtle sea creatures, like the languid anemones at the touch tank, the smooth-sailing sting rays in the salt marsh aquarium, or the zillions of wee redfish at the hatchery. 979-292-0100,

AUSTIN Every Friday and Saturday when the University of Texas is in session, the Department of Astronomy hosts viewings of the cosmos through its vintage nine-inch telescope at the Painter Hall Observatory. On Wednesday nights you can take a gander at binary stars and a planet or two through the sixteen-inch telescope on top of Robert Lee Moore Hall. 512-471-5007,

CLUTE You can while away hours at the Brazosport Museum of Natural Science by puzzling over its collection of 14,000 shells, the delicate and wacky masterworks of a bunch of soft-bodied mollusks who have no formal training, no dealers, no angst, and no tools or materials other than their own calcium-rich secretions. 979-265-7831,

DALLAS Join naturalists for illuminating strolls along the ten miles of trails at the 633-acre Cedar Ridge Preserve, where you might stalk trout lilies or learn the basics of birding. 972-754-1755,


EL PASO’s Chamizal National Memorial (below) is the love child of a diplomatic solution to a border dispute between the United States and Mexico. It takes its mandate to “celebrate” the blending of two cultures to heart, and this summer marks the twenty-third anniversary of the Music Under the Stars concert series, where as many as 15,000 fans pack the amphitheater to listen to music by the likes of Tito Puente Jr. or the El Paso Symphony. 915-532-7273,

AUSTIN The Beverly S. Sheffield Zilker Hillside Theater has been the bucolic setting for nearly five decades of Broadway musicals, Shakespeare productions, and dance performances. 512-477-5335,

HOUSTON The Miller Outdoor Theatre packs the calendar from March through November with performances by the Houston Ballet, the Ebony Opera Guild, and more. 713-284-8352,


• You’re driving home after Thanksgiving on Interstate 10. Somewhere between Austin and El Paso you realize you’re sick of microwaved burritos and, even if you weren’t, you’ve spent your last nickel on gas. Now’s the time to heed the call of the pecan trees surrounding the Crockett County town square, in OZONA, where a nutritious snack is free for the taking. Sort of. First, you have to beat the squirrels to the bounty. Second, pecans are usually plentiful only every other year. And third, the Algonquins didn’t call them pacane—which means “nut too hard to crack”—for nothing. Once you’re in the foraging habit, you’ll notice that the state is lousy with this native treat.

• Are you an Internet-oholic? If so, stay out of AUSTIN, a major enabler ranked second in the nation for wireless connections. But temptation lurks across the entire state, with Wi-Fi hotspots popping up from Abilene to Wichita Falls.

• To earn the coveted title of Texas Master Gardener, you must complete a fifty-hour Texas Cooperative Extension course that covers the secrets of weed control, fruit production, lawn care, and other botanical challenges. Then you must complete another fifty hours of volunteer work, during which time you’ll get to flaunt your newfound knowledge. 979-845-8565,

• Texas fish don’t want you to know about the Junior Angler and Advanced Fishing Clinic classes or the fly-fishing workshops taught by Texas Parks and Wildlife at various locations throughout the year. Largemouth bass, in particular, wish people would shut their traps about the free fishing (no license necessary, though park fees apply) at more than seventy state parks through the month of August. 800-792-1112,

• Considering the scenes of wine-samplings-gone-wrong in the movie Sideways, who could blame a winery for pulling the plug on free tastings entirely? Then again, how else can Becker Vineyards, in STONEWALL, hook you on its Viognier or Val Verde Winery, in DEL RIO, introduce you to its Don Luis Tawny Port? The Texas Department of Agriculture is the keeper of the list of wineries that have tours and tasting rooms. (Not all are free, so call ahead.)

• Texans who are unable to read standard print because of visual, physical, or reading disabilities can borrow audio, large-print, and Braille books from the Texas State Library Talking Books Program, which includes 80,000 titles, from best-selling novels to biographies, and eighty-plus magazines. The books are delivered by mail to the patron’s door, and even the return postage is paid. 800-252-9605,

• The state’s free museums—from big-city contemporary to tiny-county historical—could sate a culture vulture for years. Thankfully, the Texas Association of Museums has information on hundreds of museums, some always free and almost all of which offer at least one admission-free evening a week.

• You can forget picking up any free samples from the Bureau of Engraving and Printing’s Western Currency Facility, in FORT WORTH, but the 45-minute tour is an exquisitely cheap education on the moneymaking process. (Warning: Don’t try this at home.) 866-865-1194,

• Regardless of the weather, anywhere from twenty to a hundred participants—adults, children, even pets—show up at the Ridge Oak Drive scenic overlook, in AUSTIN, during the full moon for an hour of gentle stretching led by yoga instructor Charles MacInerney. 512-459-2267,

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