Move over, Disney! Thanks to its expansive parks, fascinating museums, rich history, and delicious food, Houston is one of the best destinations for family travel in the U.S. of A. Great weather, friendly locals, and car-friendly roads make the Bayou City the perfect place for a family vacation at any time of the year. And a huge variety of fun, exciting things to do in Houston that don’t break the bank mean that a H-Town getaway is probably be much cheaper than a week at a theme park. Besides, who wants to spend their vacation waiting in line for rides anyway?
If you’re planning to visit Houston with the whole fam in tow (or if you’re already here and frantically looking for things to do), then you’ll appreciate our list of the best free activities and attractions in Houston. No matter when you visit - if it’s over winter break or a holiday weekend in summer - we’ve got you and your family covered when it comes to free things to do in Houston today, next week, or next year.
Hang out in a park
If the kids have pent-up energy after a long car ride or flight (is that even a question?), there’s no better place to go than one of Houston’s sprawling city parks. In fact, out of the top 10 largest cities in the country, Houston has the most acres of parkland! These massive green spaces offer plenty of grassy expanses for games of tag, frisbee, or picnics, and many have playgrounds, water features, or sport courts that can keep kids occupied for hours. So pack some sunscreen, put on play clothes, and head out for some outdoor adventure at these Houston parks.
Houston’s most famous park is Hermann Park, an enormous swath of green space (445 acres!) that contains museums, a golf course, and the Houston Zoo. While admission to the museums and zoo comes at a cost, the park itself is totally free to explore. Kids will enjoy the playgrounds, water features, and kid-friendly railroad that costs a couple of dollars to ride. Don’t miss the unique Japanese Garden, which features an authentic tea house and ponds with turtles and fish.
Buffalo Bayou Park and Eleanor Tinsley Park are among some of Houston’s most iconic green spaces. Perched on the banks of the Buffalo Bayou, these parks offer picturesque scenery, lots of trails, and even some nice views of the Downtown skyline. Buffalo Bayou Park has a nice fountain, and Eleanor Tinsley Park has a volleyball court and a nice picnic pavilion. On the other side of the river, you’ll find Barbara Fish Daniel Nature Play Area, which contains a huge sandbox and some climbing structures that kids will love. Though it’s not free, Bike Barn Buffalo Bayou Rentals or B-Cycles are quite affordable, and tooling around on two wheels is a great way to explore the Bayou.
And your park tour of Houston surely must include a trip to Memorial Park, which is nearly a century old and covers nearly 1500 acres. While many locals come here to golf or walk through the forested trails, there are also a great playground and lots of shady picnic spots.
Looking for a different kind of park? Check out Gerald D. Hines Waterwall Park, which contains a 64-foot-tall wall of water. It’s a cool spot for family photo ops!
Dine at restaurants where kids eat free
Traveling as a family is expensive enough, so you shouldn’t need to pay more than necessary for meals during your trip. Treat everyone to a yummy meal at a Houston restaurant - and maybe even order a well-deserved drink for yourself - at one of the area eateries that runs a “kids eat free” promotion. Some restaurants only offer free kids’ meals on certain days of the week, so we’ve done the research to provide savvy planners like you with a whole itinerary of meal deals.
Monday: If you’re visiting Texas, you’ve got to try Tex-Mex! Houston favorite Alicia's Mexican Grille offers a free kids meal with the purchase of an adult meal every Monday. Or if you’re craving a burger, head to BuffBurger, which is known for using locally grown beef and has several locations in the Houston metro. Kids eat free at BuffBurger on Tuesday too!
Tuesday: Like Tex-Mex, cajun food is another Houston essential. Eat your fill of seafood gumbo or fried catfish at Boudreaux's Cajun Kitchen while the little ones enjoy a free kids meal. Or, go for a deconstructed chicken pot pie or a healthy brussels sprout super salad at the hip Dish Society, which serves equally delicious (free) kids meals every Tuesday.
Wednesday: What’s not to love about eating fish tacos and drinking a margarita while the kids gobble up free plates of quesadillas? At Berryhill Baja Grill, kids eat free every Wednesday when you buy an adult meal at most of their locations around the Houston metro.
Thursday: Wrap up a day at Memorial Park or a visit to the Art Car Museum with a meal at El Rey Taqueria, which specializes in - you guessed it - tacos. In addition to al pastor and carnitas tacos, the adults can also enjoy Cuban specialties like ropa vieja and Cuban sandwiches while kids dig in for free.
Friday: Not many restaurants offer free kids meals on Friday nights, but Rio Ranch Restaurant does! Up to two kids under 12 get a free meal with the purchase of an adult entree, which could be a grilled steak or buttermilk fried chicken.
Saturday: If you’re out and about on Saturday, you’ll probably near a Luby’s location, where you can grab a meal for yourself and a freebie for the kiddo. From 11am onward, Luby’s offers free kids meals while adults can savor homestyle fare like chicken fried steak, blackened fish, or macaroni and cheese. Top it off with some pecan pie for dessert!
Sunday: We’d go to Jax Grill even if they didn’t have a kids discount - it’s that good! There are two locations just outside Downtown Houston, so it’s a convenient spot too. Kids eat free with the purchase of an adult entree after 4pm. Their Texas-inspired menu gives you plenty of choices, like fried catfish and mesquite-grilled burgers. Now that’s a good way to beat the Sunday scaries!
Visit Houston’s art museums
In some cities, you need to fork over some serious cash to visit the best museums in town, but in Houston, that’s not the case. Several art museums offer free admission year-round so you don’t need to blow your budget to admire the city’s greatest art. Are the little ones less than excited about the prospect of spending the day in a museum? Make art museums more kid-friendly by bringing a notebook and crayons so they can create their own masterpieces when inspiration strikes.
The Menil Collection is one of Houston’s most well loved museums - and not only because it’s free to visit. This small museum’s impressive collection spans thousands of years, with pieces from the prehistoric era and pieces from today. Exhibits range from medieval art to ancient African masks to textiles and musical instruments from Polynesia. The museum also has a significant collection of Surrealist works, showcasing pieces by Max Ernst, René Magritte, and more. The Menil Collection is open from Wednesday through Sunday, so it’s a nice option if you’re visiting over a long weekend.
The natural next step on your museum tour is the intimate Houston Center For Photography, which is just one block from the Menil Collection. This photography institution is always free to enter and has ever-changing exhibits that range from fashion photography to portraits. After you’ve finished indoors, walk over to Rothko Chapel to check out the outdoor sculptures and enjoy the fresh air.
If modern art is more your style, Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum has a lot to offer families. The museum publishes “family reviews” of some exhibits, so families can read up on the exhibits before or after their visit to get the most out of the experience. The museum also hosts frequent family-oriented events (nearly every day), which could be music workshops or scavenger hunts. Exhibits change frequently, so you can add this one to your itinerary every time you visit Houston.
Two more great options for art are the Lawndale Art Center and the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, which are conveniently located across the street from each other. If the kids like to sew, make jewelry, or any other type of craft, they might find Houston Center for Contemporary Craft especially interesting. This museum hosts a free monthly “Hands-on Houston” event for families, which is an engaging craft-making workshop. After checking out the crafts, walk over to the Lawndale Art Center to see some thought-provoking works by up-and-coming artists. Admission to both institutions is free.
What about something a little more unconventional? Even if you’ve visited a lot of museums, you’ve probably never been to a place like the Art Car Museum. The museum contains half a dozen ornately decorated cars, and the collection changes a few times per year. See for yourself why it’s been given the nickname “Garage Mahal.”
See the local flora and fauna
A day trip to the Houston Zoo can be pricey, but if the kids want to experience some local animals and plants, you’ve got some fantastic free options throughout the Houston metro. And thanks to Houston’s typically mild weather, you can enjoy these outdoor attractions at any time of year. Houston’s summers are warm and sunny, and winter temperatures rarely drop below freezing. Just remember some sunscreen and sunglasses in summer and a jacket in the winter, and you’ll be good to go!
One of the Bayou City’s best places to discover local flora and fauna is the Houston Arboretum & Nature Center, which is set in Memorial Park. The arboretum seeks to educate its visitors about Houston’s natural landscape, so the entire grounds are free to access. The nature center includes a variety of trails and an indoor “discovery room” where you can learn more about the local ecosystem. On Saturdays, you can even join one of the guided nature walks, during which a guide will point out notable plants and wildlife that you encounter on the trail.
If a visit to the arboretum made you curious about what other species call Houston home, then you’ll want to watch thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats emerge nightly at Waugh Drive Bridge near Eleanor Tinsley Park. Houston isn’t the only city in Texas with a Mexican free-tailed bat colony, but this colony is the only one that remains in town year-round. Other colonies head south for the winter, but Houston’s bats just don’t want to leave! Not only is the nightly bat flight impressive to view, it’s also a great opportunity to educate kids about how important bats are for the ecosystem. They eat the pesky insects that would otherwise disrupt the native plants, crops, and animals. Thank you, bats!
McGovern Centennial Gardens at Hermann Park is another solid option for some time outdoors. These gardens contain a huge variety of plant species, including roses, azaleas, shrubs, trees, and over 50,000 bulbs. The unique Family Garden is a must-see for kids, since it is not only hands-on, but also edible. That’s right, this garden contains herbs, berries, vegetables, and citrus that grow in Houston’s ecosystem, and kids can help with both planting and sampling. The Family Garden hosts a kids’ storytime every Friday morning, and after the story, kids receive a little gift to take home, like a coloring sheet or a seed to plant.
Learn about Houston history
Today Houston is a true 21st-century city, with gleaming skyscrapers and innovative tech companies, but it wasn’t always that way. Since its founding in 1837, numerous historical events happened in Houston that shaped the city’s character. If the kids are on a school break, that doesn’t mean that the learning needs to end. At these interesting historical sites, the whole family can discover what exactly makes Houston so special.
Your first stop on a historical tour of Houston should be Sam Houston Park, which is conveniently located in the heart of Downtown. The park contains 19th-century buildings, including homes and a playhouse, some of which have been moved from their original locations around the city. While you’ll need to pay for a guided tour of the buildings’ interiors, taking a stroll through the park feels like a trip back in time.
Another opportunity to learn about the history of Houston is at the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site, where Texas won its independence from Mexico in 1836. Visitors can walk in the footsteps of Texan soldiers and imagine what it would be like to live nearly 200 years ago. Today the battle is memorialized with an iconic obelisk monument, and there’s also a museum where you can see photos and artifacts from the pivotal moment in Texas history. If you’re lucky, you can catch the museum staff demonstrating how to shoot a musket or a cannon. Admission to the park and the museum is completely free.
One factor in Houston’s growth over the decades is its close proximity to maritime trade routes via the Buffalo Bayou and the Gulf of Mexico. The Sam Houston Boat Tour is the perfect way to learn all about Port Houston’s past. On the tour, you’ll have the chance to see massive freight ships and hear stories from the guide about maritime history and the industry today. The free 90-minute sailings run in mornings and afternoons on Tuesday through Saturday, and reservations are required.
And for an unconventional history lesson, check out the 150-year-old Glenwood Cemetery, where you can see gravesites of Houston’s most famous residents, including mayors, governors, and even movie director Howard Hughes. This excursion is probably best suited for older kids.
Enjoy seasonal outdoor events
No matter when you visit, there’s something exciting happening in Houston. The city’s calendar of events never seems to stop, and you can find free seasonal activities throughout the year.
One of locals’ favorite seasonal traditions is the outdoor entertainment series at Miller Outdoor Theatre at Hermann Park, which runs from March to November. All shows are completely free, which makes for an affordable family outing. Some shows are especially for kids, like past showings of Seussical: The Musical and Matilda, while others, like motown bands and Cinco de Mayo celebrations are fun for all ages. Book a ticket online ahead of time or snag a seat on the day of.
What kid doesn’t like dressing up? Every fall, the Texas Renaissance Festival brings its old-fashioned magic to Todd Mission, a town about an hour’s drive from Houston. While the fair itself has an admission fee for adults, kids are free every Sunday. Kids will be wowed by the festival’s entertainment options, which include jousting contests, magicians, birds of prey, live music, and more. The little ones can even learn how to make candles, coins, paper, and brooms, so they can be even more useful back at home. It’s also fun to peruse the shops selling all sorts of fantasy items from magic wands to jewelry to armor.
In Downtown Houston, Discovery Green also puts on a packed calendar of special events in all seasons. During summer months, families can kick back on a picnic blanket on the lawn to watch an outdoor movie, and in the winter, you can watch ice carving, admire holiday lights, and even get free ice skate rental on special “cheap skate” nights. You’ll still need to pay for access to the rink, but we think it’s worth the price!
Discovery Green isn’t the only place where you and your family can enjoy the holiday cheer; several pop-up holiday events can be found around the Bayou City to make up for the city’s lack of snow. Don’t miss the Midtown Mistletoe Market, the Parade of Lights (featuring fire trucks decked out in Christmas lights), the Tomball German Christmas Market and Festival, and Snow Fest at Jordan Ranch (which has 70,000 pounds of man-made snow), which all happen throughout the month of December.
Get free admission to top museums on Thursdays
We’ve already talked about a few art museums that are always free, but we know the kiddos like a little variety. If your trip to Houston happens to fall over a Thursday, you’re in luck! Several area museums that usually charge upwards of $20 offer free admission for a few hours on Thursdays. Schedules vary throughout the year, so we recommend checking each museum’s website for the most up-to-date hours.
At the top of every parent’s list is the Children's Museum of Houston, which offers kid-friendly exhibits and a hands-on philosophy. If the little ones don’t want to stick to inside voices or keep their hands off the exhibits at other museums, then the Children’s Museum is the perfect place to go. Exhibits range from science-y topics to construction to music, and museum staff often host workshops or kid-focused events which make learning fun.
Speaking of science, the Houston Museum of Natural Science also runs some free admission hours on Thursday. This institution is perfect for kids who have outgrown the Children’s Museum but are still interested in learning about the world around them. Recent exhibits include a special installation about Stonehenge and “The Art of the Brick,” an exhibit about LEGO blocks that includes LEGO versions of famous art pieces like the Mona Lisa and Starry Night. The museum also contains a planetarium and permanent collections that include dinosaur skeletons, artifacts from ancient Egypt, Fabergé eggs, and dioramas showing native Texan wildlife.
If the Museum of Natural Science piques the kids’ interest, then you may also want to check out The Health Museum, which is just a couple of blocks away and also runs some free Thursday hours. This museum is all about the human body, and the exhibitions cover topics like epidemics, cells, and artificial intelligence. In the hands-on cell lab, kids can suit up in lab coats and goggles to experience what it’s like to work in a biology-related career. Maybe you’ll have a future scientist in tow when you leave!
But not all of Houston’s museums that offer free Thursday admission are related to science; the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum is a fantastic one to visit to learn about this history of African-Americans in the military. Older kids might recognize some lessons from history class come to life in the exhibits about the Civil War, the Vietnam War, and World Wars I and II. The museum’s collection of artifacts includes military uniforms, weapons, photos, medals, and more.
The Holocaust Museum Houston also offers free Thursday afternoon admission, though the museum’s content might not be suitable for younger kids. Older kids and parents, however, can experience the poignant stories of Holocaust survivors in the museum’s exhibitions. The museums is the 4th-largest Holocaust museum in the country, so there’s a lot to take in. The content can lead to some thought-provoking family discussions and encourage kids to make the world a better place.
Of course, we can’t forget about Houston’s iconic Museum of Fine Arts! This classic institution offers free admission all day on Thursday, so you can spend hours wandering its galleries. Or, at least as long as the kids will last. Exhibits include paintings, sculpture, textiles, furniture, and more, and they change frequently, so there’s always something new to see. The museum’s collection includes pieces by famed artists like Renoir, Cezanne, and Monet, including Monet’s Water Lilies. Across the street, the museum also maintains a sculpture garden.
Not visiting on a Thursday or prefer some more flexibility? While it’s not free, the Houston CityPass can unlock some great museum discounts. The pass gives you access to the Children's Museum of Houston, the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and the Museum of Fine Arts, plus the Downtown Aquarium and Space Center Houston. If you’re planning on visiting at least two of these attractions, then it might be worth purchasing the CityPass instead of individual museum tickets.
Do some unique things you can only do in Houston
Okay, everything on this list is unique, but there are some free things to do in the Bayou City that are truly one-of-a-kind. And while some once-in-a-lifetime experiences come with big price tags, these cool Houston activities are - of course - totally free.
One of our favorite free, family-friendly activities in Houston actually involves leaving Houston entirely… and going to the beach! On a warm summer day (let’s face it, that’s pretty much every summer day), there’s nothing better than taking a refreshing dip or playing in the sand. And when you’re traveling with kids, you’ll be surprised at how long simple sand will keep them entertained. The closest beaches are about halfway between Houston and Galveston, about a 30-minute drive from Downtown Houston. Here you’ll find a stretch of coastline that includes Sylvan Beach and El Jardin Beach. These aren’t necessarily the Houston area’s absolute best beaches, but they’re convenient, so they’re worth including. For a proper beach day trip, drive a bit further to Galveston Beach, a huge stretch of sand on the Gulf of Mexico. There’s no shortage of space here, with 32 miles of coastline, so you can bring the whole family and spread out. While you’re there, you’ll want to wander through Galveston’s historic district, where you can spot sites like the Galveston Seawall and Moody Mansion.
If a beach day isn’t in the cards for your family this time, why not pay a visit to the Houston Police Department’s horse force? The little ones will be thrilled to see the police horses up close at the Houston Police Department Mounted Patrol Barn. While they’re not as popular as Canada’s “mounties,” Houston’s police horses are an important part of the area’s law enforcement team. During certain hours on weekdays (check their website for exact opening times), visitors can drop by the stables and even feed carrots, apples, and peppermints to the horses. It’s an experience to remember!
Visiting with teenagers? Take them on a tour of Rice University to get a taste of college life. Whether you schedule a guided tour with the admissions office or opt for a self-guided stroll is up to you, but either way, you’ll be able to see the university’s beautiful, tree-lined campus without having to fork over a tuition payment - yet, at least. Rice is one of the country’s top universities and is very selective about who they admit, so even setting foot on campus can feel exclusive. Wander through the quads, check out Rice Stadium (where Super Bowl VIII was held), and don’t forget to see James Turrell's "Twilight Epiphany" Skyspace, an extraordinary art installation.
With so many fun, free activities and attractions to experience with the whole family, you’ll surely be tired at the end of each day. What better way to relax than by staying in a spacious travel apartment with all the conveniences you need? Every Stay Alfred travel apartment in Houston comes fully equipped with a modern kitchen, a comfy living room, in-unit laundry, and fast WiFi. You can even relax at your building’s outdoor pool, work up a sweat in the gym, or cook up a barbecue dinner, since all of our buildings come packed with fantastic amenities. But one of the best parts of your Houston Stay Alfred travel apartment isn’t even found in the apartment itself - it’s our friendly guest service team who’s available around the clock to help you with anything you (or your family) might need.
But we know you won’t spend your whole Houston trip in your travel apartment (that’s why we compiled this handy guide, after all), so we’ve chosen only the most prime locations to dig our Houston roots. Our buildings are set in Houston’s Central Business District, within walking distance of highlights like Discovery Green, the Toyota Center, and public transit. You can even explore Houston without a car since light rail and bus stops are within blocks of your front door.
Well, what are you waiting for? Get out and explore the beautiful Bayou City with our guide to fun, free, family-friendly things to do in Houston.