In case you haven’t heard, Houston is the coolest city in America–at least according to Forbes’ recently-released list. And while Forbes would almost certainly never top any lists for coolest magazine in America (or, I think, be among those named reputable arbiters of ‘coolness’ by anyone other than themselves), Houstonians know that there certainly is some substance to Forbes’ claim. Houston is tremendously multicultural, sports an enormous number of locally-owned businesses, and is chock-full of whippersnappers–the median age in Houston is a sprightly thirty-three. It’s that last part that really bought Forbes’ favor: Houston’s young age is the result of a booming economy and the influx of successful young professionals (50,000 of them last year alone) with plenty of money to spend. If you’re one of those, have fun living it up in the Bayou City. If you’ve been left out of the boom, well, then this guide is for you. Here’s how to live large on the cheap in America’s coolest city.
Outsiders often possess an image of Houston as a stuffy, stiff corporate center surrounded by a culture-less expanse of sprawling concrete. This, my budget-friendly friend, is a misconception. Both aspects of Houston have their own unique cultural offerings, from the astounding art collections left open to the public by mindbogglingly-wealthy oil aristocrats to the homegrown wackiness of Houston’s low-slung wards. And much of what there is to do is free.
It will be easy for you to remember when the First Saturday Arts Market takes place, but perhaps less so to remember where–that would be in the historic area of Houston Heights between Wind Water Gallery and Gen’s Antiques on W. 19th and Lawrence St., if you need to write it down. Head out to the Heights for locally-produced handicrafts, jewelry, photography, sculpture and painting from 11am-6pm (10pm in the summer). Even if you’re not interested in buying anything, it’s still a great place to spend the afternoon.
While Austin might possess the more-robust music scene, not a venue in the “Live Music Capital of the World” can lay a finger on the Miller Outdoor Theater, which hosts a wide variety of musical and theatrical performances, all for free. That’s right: a state-of-the-art outdoor theater with a dense calendar of events for which there will never be a charge. Plus, dogs and alcoholic beverages are allowed, though make sure neither come in glass containers. Check out their calendar to see what’s going on.
Houston is home to a world-class museum district, but tickets can be pricey. Thursdays are free museum days–remember that. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is free all day every Thursday. If you can’t make it then, tickets are $1 cheaper if purchased online or $2 cheaper if purchased at a Fiesta Mart. The Houston Museum of Natural Science is free every Thursday from 2-5pm, as is the Health Museum. Take the kids (only if you actually have some) to the Children’s Museum for free on Thursdays from 5-8pm, or the John C. Freeman Weather Museum from noon to 4pm. There are also a surprising number of museums that are always free–so many we can’t include them all here (but we have to point out the Contemporary Art Museum of Houston and the Holocaust Museum as two of the most important). Check out the Houston Museum District’s site for an exhaustive list.
But don’t think it ends there. Bank of America cardholders can get into the Houston Zoo, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Children’s Museum of Houston for free on the first full weekend of every month, while the Children’s museum is also free–courtesy of Target–to everyone on the first Sunday. Free craft lessons can be found at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft on the first Saturday of the month. And if you think Houston is all stuffy corporate culture, revamp your image of the city at the funky Art Car Museum, which is free every day.
Finally, it would be criminal of us to not mention the Menil Collection, very possibly the best private art collection open to the public in the world, housed in a series of iconic buildings–buildings that are perfectly free to enter, any day of the week (at least, you know, during operational hours, which in case you were wondering are 11am-7pm Wednesday-Sunday). Assembled by a wealthy and eccentric couple (she an oil heiress, he the head of that company) this collection of 16,000 pieces–and their unique display style, which rejects the rigid categorical notions of most museums–reflects their collectors’ eclectic tastes and personalities. Information such as this warrants reiteration: not only is this the best museum in Houston, but it is always, completely and without exception, totally free.
Not in the mood for a day spent indoors, wandering a museum? Houston has plenty outside to offer, with more total green space than any of the other ten largest American cities. The Houston Arboretum boasts 5 miles of nature trails through 155 acres divided into a series of different ecosystems. Open from 7am-7pm, it’s a great place to run or, if that’s not your pace, stroll (and learn about biodiversity while you’re at it). In other American cities, you don’t head Downtown to hit the park–but other American cities don’t have Discovery Green, which does the whole ‘urban park’ thing the right way. You’ll find some way to enjoy (or escape) the Houston heat, from hustling along the trails to lounging on its well-manicured lawns, while kids (and ‘youthful’ adults) will love the play fountains and boat racing pools. Traveling musicians add sonic ambiance (for free) at noon on weekdays and at various times on the weekend in the amphitheater.
Though ‘Ima Hogg’ may sound like the derogatory appellation bestowed upon a person considered to possess inordinate wealth and gluttony, such a notion would be only half-true: though Ima was certainly enormously wealthy, she was no hog. Known as the ‘First Lady of Texas,’ this Renaissance Woman and dedicated philanthropist devoted her talents and means to the betterment of our state–and Ima’s still making it easier for you chumps to live large on the cheap. Her old home Bayou Bend in the ritzy River Oaks neighborhood is one of Houston’s unmissable attractions. Sure, it costs $3 to enter (you cheapskate) but upon seeing how well this place has been maintained, with its art collection that rivals museums, its architecture worthy or postcards, and its gardens that embarrass renowned arboretums, you’ll come away with the realization that you got your money’s worth.
Lest you think Houston’s size and wealth are solely the result of the oil industry, consider its port, which is the second busiest in the United States. Get up-close and personal on the free Sam Houston Boat Tour. Boats take off at 10am and 2:30pm, and last approximately 90 minutes.
Looking for something edgier? The Lee and Joe Jamail Skatepark is considered one of the premier skate parks in the United States, with cutting edge ramps and sweet views of the Houston Skyline–and it’s free!
Sure, you can find a $5.50 burger in Houston. But only at Bubba’s Burger Shack–a dingy dive hidden under a Westpark Tollway bridge–can you order a delicious buffalo burger for $5.50 (that’s 70% less fat, 50% fewer calories, 50% less cholesterol, and 30% more protein than traditional beef—meaning less fat, cholesterol, and calories than chicken, too). And yes, they’re not really exaggerating when they call it a shack.
Tacos A Go-Go’s tacos have garnered some stellar accolades over the years, among them “Best Breakfast Taco” (Houston Press, ’06, ’08) and “Tacos You Must Eat Before You Die” (Texas Monthly), yet they haven’t let fame go to their head: tacos are still $1.99 each.
At Pink’s Pizza you can get a giant, 28″ slice for $5–that’s the length of a Dachshund in pure, delicious pizza. They’re not exaggerating when they proclaim themselves the “Best Pizza in Houston”–sometimes modesty is an impediment.
Because bigger is not always better, most Texans know that not everything is bigger in Texas–it’s just better. Case in point: Little Big’s. The burger-flippers here have proven that great things come in small packages–three sliders for $5.78, to be exact.
A small, 6” Banh Mi (Vietnamese sandwich) at Cahe Th costs just $2.31. Or buy five and get one free. The H-Town strEATS food truck has been winning stellar reviews lately; try their $3 tacos. For more authentic Mexican fare, try Tacos Tierra Caliente, which are regarded as some of the best–and cheapest–tacos in all of Houston. Create your own sandwich for just $5.95 at Brown Bag Deli. While there are technically tons of choices to be had, in reality you should always choose the jalapeno cheese bread. Finally, though it’s small and in need of a remodel, Baby Barnaby’s Café has famously-cheap breakfasts.
Catbird’s is a filthy little dive about which we can claim only two things: 1.That you will have fun, and 2.That it’s as cheap as it is dirty ($3 wells and $2 domestics during happy hour, from 3-8pm).
Alice’s Tall Texan Drive Inn serves insanely-cheap beers in giant glass goblets–you get to pick your own, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade-style. Fill yours up with $1.50 Lonestar or $1.75 Shiner.
St. Arnold’s Brewery offers tours for just $7. You’ll come away with a souvenir beer glass and two drinks—bring food for picnic. Tours run Monday through Friday at 3:30pm, while on Saturday tours run at noon, 1pm and 2pm.
Traffic typically alternates between F-1 speeds and those that allow pedestrians to leave you in their dust, so travel times–and how often you’ll be frequenting the pump–are entirely dependent upon the time of day. Of course, traffic also hampers Houston’s public transportation system, which is almost entirely made up of bus routes. This, compounded with the fact that bus stops are few and far between (particularly outside the 610 loop) means that you’ll almost certainly be in need of a car to go anywhere–that being said, buses are relatively cheap: prices depend on how far you’re traveling, but a local one-way trip will cost $1.25. The sole redeeming aspect of travel in Houston is the fact that gas here is cheaper than anywhere else in the country.
That being said, there is one light rail line, and its 7.5-mile length was wisely positioned to cover some of the most important–and most traveled–parts of the city. The line connects Downtown, Memorial, the Museum District, Rice University, and the Texas Medical Center, and is fast and efficient. Prices depend on how far you’re traveling, but a local one-way trip will cost $1.25. With the Metro’s electronic payment method, the Metro Q card, you’ll earn five free trips for every 50 paid trips.
Have a tip on something we missed? Leave it for the benefit of us all in the comments below.