The year is 2020. Children are more adept at technology than their parents. Weekend hours turn into days while family members huddle over individual screens with little to no interaction.
Make a new year commitment to escape tech land, at least briefly, by conquering our list of free things to do as a family. You can post about it later.
From volunteering to garden in one of Houston’s most beloved green spaces to animal encounters and tours that will get you talking, here are more than 50 places and activities for families to experience Houston that don’t cost a dime.
Obviously, there are far more events and places than can be listed here. It’s a region of nearly 7 million people after all. But, whether you’re a newcomer to the area or are native-born, there’s something satisfying here in these places and experiences for you to enjoy with your family for the first — or 100th — time.
1. Museum District tour — Many museums here are always free. They include the Menil Collection (with its new Drawing Institute), the Houston Museum of African-American Culture, Moody Center for the Arts, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, the Jung Center, Lawndale Art Center and the Rothko Chapel, a must-visit that is closed for remodeling until March. Other institutions offer free admission (some during select hours) on Thursdays, including the Houston Museum of Natural Science , the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Buffalo Soldiers Museum and the Children’s Museum of Houston. The Czech Center Museum Houston is free on the last Monday of the month from noon to 4 p.m. houmuse.org/free-admission-times/
2. Pose for a family selfie, climb a slanted roof — “Cloud Column,” by Anish Kapoor (the creator of “The Bean” in Chicago), is a frequent selfie spot at the Brown Foundation, Inc. Plaza at the Glassell School of Art. Located next to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s free sculpture garden, the 30-foot-tall outdoor artwork makes for a unique snapshot, due to its partly-concave surface that inverts the surroundings. An easy climb up the landscaped stairs on the school’s slanted roof leads to a deck with views of the Museum District, including the eye-popping Kinder Building, under construction next door. Taking place in the Plaza, a free Lunar New Year event on Jan. 25 celebrates the Year of the Rat with a lion dance, art-making, games and complimentary treats including mochi and bubble tea. 5101 Montrose. https://www.mfah.org/visit/the-brown-foundation-inc-plaza/
3. See art on wheels at Garage Mahal — The Art Car Museum, called “Garage Mahal” by some, offers a glimpse into the rich history of the Art Car Parade in Houston. The gallery offers a small, rotating collection of Art Cars to view, in addition to exhibitions by regional and local artists. . 140 Heights Blvd. artcarmuseum.com/
4. Blaffer Art Museum — While the Museum District (deservedly) gets a lot of love, don’t forget this contemporary art museum at the University of Houston. 4173 Elgin; blafferartmuseum.org.
5. Project Row Houses — A ccommunity of restored shotgun houses in Third Ward includes five contemporary installation spaces where artists create projects on shared themes. . The Houses also provide a window into the history of Houston’s Third Ward neighborhood. . 2521 Holman St.; projectrowhouses.org.
6. Houston murals — Houston doesn’t yet have any place as globally famous for wall art and graffiti as Miami’s Wynwood Walls but it has tons of place for colorful wall art. From the mosaic murals at Smither Park in south Houston to the facades of commercial buildings in downtown, EaDo and the East End, street art is everywhere. orangeshow.org/smither-park; visithoustontexas.com/things-to-do/arts-and-culture/visual-arts/murals-in-houston/
7. Second Saturdays — Held on the second Saturday of each month at Sawyer Yards in conjunction with Sawyer Yards Open Studios when artists open their studios to the public, this market showcases artists of all stripes. 1502 Sawyer St. sawyerstreetmarket.com.
8. Stroll an outdoor art gallery. Twice each year, Rob Fleming Park in The Woodlands hosts the family-friendly Arts In The Park at Rob Fleming Park, where families can bring a blanket to take in live music, shop local art and participate in children’s crafts. March 14. 6055 Creekside Forest Dr., The Woodlands. thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov/artsinthepark
9. Public art at Discovery Green — The rotating public art at the 12-acre Discovery Green, downtown’s popular green space, is often complemented by free educational programming. “Paloma,” on view through Feb. 24, is a site-specific installation of bird sculptures hanging along the park’s promenade and a sound installation that features the calls of migratory birds (and humans imitating them) . To immerse yourself further in the art, attend a pigeon encounter at the park on Feb. 1 that features craft making and a demo of large birds of prey. 1500 McKinney St. discoverygreen.com/paloma-pnc
10. Build a sculpture that moves — On the first Saturday of each month, the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, which is always free, holds a drop-in art-making class for families. On Feb. 1, the artist-led class invites attendees to build a kinetic cardboard sculpture inspired by current works on view. 4848 Main St.
11. Experience a ‘Twilight Epiphany’ — James Turrell’s Skyspace on the Rice Univ. campus offers the artist’s LED light sequence daily during sunrise and sunset. Visitors can experience “Twilight Epiphany” from either of the structure’s two levels. Suzanne Deal Booth Centennial Pavilion on the campus of Rice University, 6100 Main.
12. Take an art scavenger hunt — Download a free map and try to spot Mini Murals, a public art project that taps artists to paint traffic light utility boxes in neighborhoods throughout Houston. http://minimurals.org/tours/
13. Explore the bayous — The bayous are to Houston what the lakefront is to Chicago or the ocean is to Miami Beach: the lungs of the city and a natural respite from urban congestion. Most offer trails for running and biking. Bikes, canoes and kayaks can be rented at the 160-acre Buffalo Bayou Park. For kids specifically, the Barbara Fish Daniel Nature Play Area and Picnic Pavilion features a play area with a rolling lawn, a stream and waterfall, a boulder rock scramble, climbing logs and stones, a 33-foot slide, and a tri-level tree house/boat deck with climbing net. buffalobayou.org. To discover parks along the vast Bayou Greenways network — including White Oak Bayou in northwest Harris County and Sims Bayou and Brays Bayou in southern Harris County — go to houstonparksboard.org. .
14. Hermann Park — Though full of activities that do cost money — the Hermann Park Railroad, the Houston Zoo, the pedal boats, the Pinewood Café — the 445-acre park itself is a fantastic place to explore on its own with McGovern Lake, picnic spots, gardens, the Sam Houston Monument, the Pioneer Memorial Log House, the Hawkins Sculpture Walk and the Mary Gibbs and Jesse H. Jones Reflection Pool. 6001 Fannin. hermannpark.org
15. Visit the zoo for free — But there are days when the zoo is free, too. Throughout the school year, the Houston Zoo is free the first Tuesday of each month. 6200 Hermann Park Dr.https://www.houstonzoo.org/plan-your-visit/prices-and-discounts/free-tuesdays/
16. Waugh Drive Bat Colony — Many don’t know that you don’t have to drive to Austin to see an urban bat colony emerge at dusk. You can do it on the Waugh Drive Bridge over Buffalo Bayou at the northern end of Montrose, between Allen Parkway and Memorial Drive. houstontx.gov/parks/batpage.html
17. Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge — This nature preserve sprawls over 37,000 acres bordering Galveston Bay and is home to an amazing array of wildlife from alligators to snow geese. FM563, Anahuac; www.fws.gov/refuge/anahuac/
18. Learn to canoe — Kickerillo-Mischer Preserve is an 80-acre forested public park that’s home to Marshall Lake, two fishing piers, a canoe launch, restrooms, and 1.7 miles of paved hike and bike trails. Free community programming includes opportunities to camp and to learn to fish and canoe. 20215 Chasewood Park Dr. hcp4.net/parks/kmp/
19. Houston Arboretum and Nature Center — With five miles of wooded trails amid 155 acres and such events as Arbor Day and Earth Day festivitie, the Houston Arboreturm is the perfect spot to observe and learn about local plants and animals. 4501 Woodway Drive; houstonarboretum.org.
20. The George Mitchell Nature Preserve — Those in Montgomery County can check out the George Mitchell Nature Preserve which covers 1700 acres and contains a two-mile hiking trail loop and three miles of bike trails. Flintridge Dr. between Kuykendahl Rd. and Gosling Rd., The Woodlands. thewoodlandstx.com/parks/george-mitchell-nature-preserve.php.
21. Sugar Land Memorial Park — This park offers 420 acres and 2.5 miles of walking and biking trails and an enclosed play area. 15300 University Blvd., Sugar Land; sugarlandtx.gov/Facilities/Facility/Details/6
22. Waterwall Park — Long before Instragram was a thing, the Water Wall — a man-made, 64-foot, semi-circular waterfall set in the midst of a small forest of oak trees right in the heart of Uptown — has been been a place where visitors and locals like to have their photos taken. 2800 Post Oak Blvd. uptown-houston.com/news/page/water-wall-park
23. Glenwood Cemetery — This historic, beautifully designed, tree-shaded, nearly 85-acre resting place for Howard Hughes and many famous Houstonians is still a working cemetery so visitors should read the rules for behavior on the Glenwood web site before visiting. But this place is a fascinating step back into Houston history and feels a world away from the hustle and bustle of nearby downtown and the Heights. 2525 Washington Ave.; glenwoodcemetery.org
24. Evelyn’s Park — BYO imagination to the bronzed “Move One Place On” sculpture at Evelyn’s Park in Bellaire. With recognizable, 8-foot characters from “Alice in Wonderland” and a table for sitting, families can bring a picnic or simply climb for fun. 4400 Bellaire Blvd., Bellaire.
25. Art Car Parade — This annual celebration of wild, rolling automotive art is ultimate proof that Austin does not have the monopoly on weird in Texas. The next parade is April 18. thehoustonartcarparade.com
26. MLK Day Grand Parade — Parade honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. This year’s takes place Jan. 20. 1160 Smith St.; facebook.com/events/493819891482637/
27. Peace Through Pie — An event that celebrates both MLK’s dreams of peace and his love of pie. 10 a.m. Saturday. St. Matthews United Methodist Church, 4300 N. Shepherd; https://www.peacethroughpie.org/mlksocials-2020
28. Lyons Avenue Renaissance Festival — The Fifth Ward’s DeLuxe Theater is starting to enjoy a renaissance and the city as a whole is beginning to appreciate what the neighborhood has to offer. This spring festival, happening April 4 this year, brings together the vendors, chefs, music and what is claimed to be the city’s only Easter egg drop by helicopter. Lyons Ave. between Gregg and Benson Streets. www.lyonsavenuefestival.com/home
29. AIA Sandcastle Competition — Each summer in Galveston, the American Institute of Architects hosts this free fund-raiser that pits professional architects against one another in a friendly face-off to take home top honors for elaborate sandcastles, some as high as two stories. Many teams build masterpieces that are themed around pop culture or recognizable, kid-friendly characters. The next one is Aug. 22.
30. Movies at Market Square Park and Discovery Green — There’s no need to pay multiplex prices when you can see movies for free under the stars at both Discovery Green, 1500 McKinney and Market Square Park, 301 Milam. Up next at Discovery Green on Jan. 23 is PG-rated “Pokémon Detective Pikachu” and at Market Square on March 4 is PG-13-rated “Anchorman”; discoverygreen.com/1652612; marketsquarepark.com/calendar/
31. 24th Annual Texas Lunar Festival — Celebrate the Year of the Rat in Chinatown at this daytime Chinese New Year Festival. This year’s is Jan. 25 in front of the Southern News Group Building, 11122 Bellaire Blvd; texaslunarfest.net.
32. East End Street Festival — Fall street party on the east side of town with music, food and children’s activities. eastendstreetfest.com
33. Nigerian Festivals — The 19th Annual Igbofest (June 27 at Discovery Green) and the Nigeria Cultural Parade & Festival (Oct. 3 at Root Memorial Square Park, 1400 Clay) are ways to experience the culture of the area’s large Nigerian population. igbofesthouston.com; nigeriaculturalparade.com
34. Katy Market Day — Every third Saturday of the month from March through November in historic downtown Katy, vendors, food trucks and musical acts are on hand for browsers to enjoy. 5717 2nd Ave., Katy. katymarketday.com.
35. Urban Harvest Farmers Market — Said to be one of the state’s largest farmers’ markets, it takes place every Saturday at 8 a.m. at St. John’s School, 2752 Buffalo Speedway; urbanharvest.org/farmers-market/saturday/
36. Hermann Park Conservancy’s Kite Festival — Kite fans converge on Miller Hall to watch and display kites of all kinds. The next one is March 29. 6001 Fannin. hermannpark.org/calendar/annual-hermann-park-conservancy-kite-festival/
37. Imperial Farmers Market — There’s something new to discover (or sample) every Saturday morning at the Sugar Land farmers market. In addition to fresh produce, meats and other staples, artisans set up shop and food trucks are on-hand. 234 Matlage Way, Sugar Land.
38. Tomball German Heritage Festival — The annual Tomball German Heritage Festival takes place each spring in historic downtown Tomball, with live music and dance performances, vendors selling authentic food and wares, a petting zoo and children’s carnival. March 27-29. 201 S. Elm.
39. Climb aboard a boat ride through the Port of Houston — The free boat tour serves as an educational intro to the Houston Ship Channel. Reservations required.
40. Learn to skateboard — Access to Lee and Joe Jamail Skatepark, attractive to families for its “bowls” that are separated by skill level, is always free. Throughout the year, the park offers beginner skateboard lessons for kids as young as age 6, in addition to youth workshops to learn to make art using aerosol paint. Classes are free and online registration fills up quickly. 103 Sabine. https://www.houstontx.gov/parks/parksites/leejoepark.html
41. Miller Outdoor Theatre — This historic outdoor amphitheater in Hermann Park is a gem. That the performances here — ranging from daytime shows for children to jazz, pop and Shakespeare — are free makes it even better. Open from March-November. 6000 Hermann Park Dr.; milleroutdoortheatre.com
42. BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir — This magnificent Hindu temple, which looks like something out of a fairy tale, is open to visitors. But remember to follow the visitor guidelines as outlined on its website regarding behavior, photography and clothing. Audio and group tours are available. 1150 Brand Lane, Stafford; baps.org/Global-Network/North-America/Houston.aspx
43. Read to a dog — To inspire confidence in young readers, Houston Public Library offers free “Read With Paws-itive Pups” sessions at select branch locations. Kids choose a book to read aloud to a trained therapy dog — pets and cuddles included. http://houstonlibrary.org/taxonomy/tags/read-trained-therapy-dog-0 Included with regular museum admission on select days, the Houston Museum of Natural Science Sugar Land offers a similar PAWS (Pets Are Worth Sharing) program.
44. Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern — On Thursdays, visitors ages 9 and up can take a free, guided, 30-minute tour of Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern. The dark, underground, cavernous space is a former municipal water reservoir. Online reservations required. 105 Sabine St.
45. Pick fruit on Missouri City’s Edible Arbor Trail — From kumquats in winter to plums and pomegranates in summer, the trail offers free access for a tasty hike of nuts and fruits along Oyster Creek Trail. 3401 FM 1092 Rd., Missouri City.
46. Play a solar-powered piano — Once a week, Levy Park invites the public to try out the instrument during a weekly outdoor playing session. Available everyday, other hands-on fun at the park includes mini-golf and a complimentary art station. 3801 Eastside.
47. Hold a baby chick — Wabash Feed & Garden allows shoppers to pet and hold livestock that is for sale. Depending on when you visit, this might include chicks or bunnies. For additional cuteness, the store almost always has puppies and kittens up for adoption. 4537 N. Shepherd. wabashfeed.com
48. Garden together — Green thumbs or not, families can volunteer to help maintain gardens at Hermann Park. After completing the online application steps, drop in to help in the Family Garden at McGovern Centennial Gardens during designated hours on Wednesdays and Saturdays mornings or in the Japanese Garden on Thursday mornings. Tools are provided. 6001 Fannin.
49. Make a movie trailer — The Apple stores host free, hands-on classes for kids and families, with the latest equipment provided. Topics range from designing your own emoji to robot obstacle courses, coding and art labs. Online registration is required using an iTunes account. 303 Memorial City; 4012 Westheimer; 5085 Westheimer; 2000 Willowbrook Dr.
50. Feed a horse — Bring your own apples and carrots to the barn at the Houston Police Department Mounted Patrol Facility, where you can give the horses a snack. 5005 Little York Rd.
51. Use tools to build at Home Depot — Kids get a free apron to take home at regular DIY craft classes that take place inside the chain’s stores. Demos and hands-on projects might include hammering, sanding and painting. February’s craft is Valentine’s Day-themed. Online registration required. homedepot.com/workshops
52. Borrow an iPad loaded with games — A free library card unlocks a vast amount of resources at the Houston Public LIbrary, including on-site check-out of technology. A parent or guardian can use a valid library card so kids can play on a device for up to two hours. (Psst: the games and apps are educational.) .http://houstonlibrary.org/find-it/available-technology#ipads-for-kids In addition, library branches hold regular, free classes for kids, families and parents focused on coding, Legos, robotics and more.
Cary Darling contributed to this report.
Allison Bagley is a Houston-based writer.