5 Things to Do in Austin on a Budget

If there’s any advice I could offer a traveler or visitor looking to get to know a new city, it would be this: Take a day or even a week to explore the city with less than $10 in your pocket. Being broke is never fun in the longterm, but it can definitely open your eyes to new experiences that money simply can’t buy. If you ever find yourself low on cash in Austin, here are a few suggestions on how you can have a great time without spending a dime:

1. Visit Graffiti Park. 

Castle Hill Graffiti Park, graffiti gallery, legal graffiti gallery, Austin, Texas, artists, local artists, public art, free things to do in Austin

Owned by Castle Hill Partners, Austin’s legal graffiti gallery is truly amazing. There’s something to see on every surface from every angle. Seriously, the graffiti artists have left nothing unmarked – including trashcans, pipes, picnic tables, and more. You’ll have to do a bit of climbing if you want to see the whole park, but when you get to the top, you get a truly stunning view of Austin’s skyline. It’s very peaceful at the top, and would make a great place to chill out and have an afternoon picnic. You might even be lucky enough to catch a graffiti artist at work!

2. Eat Free Samples at the Whole Foods Flagship Store.

Whole Foods Market, Whole Foods truck, Whole Foods flagship store, Austin, Texas
(Photo Credit: ChasingTheFrame.com)

Perhaps you didn’t know this, but Whole Foods Market actually originated in Austin. The history behind it is actually pretty crazy. The first store was founded by a 21-year-old young woman and her 25-year-old college dropout boyfriend, who borrowed $45,000 from family and friends to start the store. When they got booted from their apartment building for storing food products, they decided to live at the store itself. They used the hose from the Hobart dishwasher to bathe themselves. If these had been my friends, I would have considered them practically insane and would have suggested they find a better way to spend their lives. But today their business is booming nationwide as one of the nation’s leading natural food markets, so I would have certainly wound up with my foot in my mouth. Today, you can go visit the original Whole Foods in Austin and fill your belly with their numerous amount of free samples!

3. Listen to Free Live Music.

Austin live music, Austin, Texas, live music, singer songwriter, band, solo artists, ukulele, guitar, acoustic performance, the Sahara Lounge

Anyone who knows a little bit about Austin is aware that it’s one of the greatest cities for music in the country. You don’t have to spend money to see a free live show – just walk in and take a seat! Austiners usually congregate on East 6th street for live music. My first time walking down 6th street, I found a band or solo artist performing in every other bar I walked past, equating to about 3 performances per block. And if you want to explore the fascinating music history of this city further, take advantage of the Texas Music Museum‘s free admission!

4. Visit the Capitol Building.

Texas State Capitol Building, Austin, Texas, living local, free things to do, free capitol tours

Funnily enough, Austin is the capitol of Texas. The Texas State Capitol building in Downtown Austin is pretty easy to find – you can see it from basically any spot in the city. You can take a free capitol tour, or just opt for a casual afternoon stroll around the building and its surrounding park. It’s a pretty magnificent site, and the park contains this crazy old tree that’s branches have to be held up by thick construction wire. This is a local attraction to which you’ll definitely want to bring your camera!

5. Watch the Congress Avenue Bridge Bats Take Flight.

Congress Avenue Bridge, bats, free-tailed bats, Austin, Texas, free things to do, living local, bats take flight, theknot.com
Photo Credit: TheKnot.com

I’m actually super bummed that I won’t be able to do this in my stay here because of the time frame. From April until September, groups of people gather on and around the Congress Avenue Bridge to witness the largest urban colony of Mexican free-tailed bats take flight for their nightly quest for food. Apparently these bats made their homes in the Congress Avenue Bridge after its renovations in 1980, which left 15 open crevices that make perfect spots for bats to live. Perhaps it is because of these bats, but for some reason the free-tailed bat is the official “flying mammal” of Texas. Who knew? Anyway, this free attraction is obviously not for the faint-hearted, but to those of you who don’t like bats at all, know that they are eating up tons of the city’s insects, meaning a few less bug bites for all of us.

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Old North End: A Neighborhood of Immigrants Both Human and Feline

While looking at a painting, my grandmother once told me, “Art doesn’t become art unless it contains some form of life.” By this she did not mean plants or flowers, but movement – a woman taking a walk, a flock of birds crossing the river. Take what you will of the opinion, but it left me thinking about my photography and how close I was willing to get to “life,” or more specifically, people. People fascinate me, but normally I prefer to be fascinated from afar.

So, I decided to take some walks through Burlington and star snapping photos of people. At the end of my walks, I would upload my photos and realize that, still, I wasn’t getting very close to anyone. I started over by heading into a different area of the city, a neighborhood officially called “Old North End.” This is what I found:

 

Old North End

The neighborhood is known for being home to many immigrants and refugees. It is also known, as I learned from my walks, for its enormous abundance of stray cats. Yes, apparently people aren’t the only ones finding affordable housing in Old North End. While I’m still working out my camera shyness towards people, I thought I might start by telling the story of Old North End while documenting the other life forms dominating this neighborhood. And so it goes…

stray, cats, kitten, cat, kitty, Burlington, Old North End, neighborhood, grumpy cat

In Burlington’s early industrial years, Old North End became home to immigrant workers seeking employment at local wooden mills and on the waterfront. Irish immigrants came to the neighborhood in 1840, and French Canadian immigrants soon followed in the 1850s and the years of the Civil War in the 1960s. Walking along North Street, the commercial center of the neighborhood, you would pass small grocery stores offering gasoline, tanneries, metalworking shops, automotive repairs, scrapyards, boat building, roofers, woodworking, furniture manufacturing, and more. In these distinct neighborhoods of craftsmen and artisans, a strong sense of community pride rose up.

Vermont, Green Mountain State, stray, cats, kitten, cat, kitty, Burlington, Old North End, neighborhood, grumpy cat

Home to Irish, Italian, English, Lithuanian, Russian, Polish, German, Tibetan, Vietnamese, Laotian, Bosnian, Yugoslavian, Senegalese, Somalian, and Quebecois immigrants, as well as refugees from other Eastern European, Asian, and African countries, Old North End is one of the most racially diverse areas not just in Burlington, but in all of Vermont. While immigrants have been coming here since the mid- to late-1800s, refugees of darker skin tones are more of a recent phenomenon. In the years 2000-2010 alone, the black population in the neighborhood nearly tripled to reach 9.9%, while the Asian population increased seven fold to reach 8%. The white population also dropped from 84.3% to 77%.

Vermont, Green Mountain State, stray, cats, kitten, cat, kitty, Burlington, Old North End, neighborhood, grumpy cat

Finding affordable housing is tough in Burlington. It is especially difficult for low-income residents of Old North End and broke college students finishing up their degrees at University of Vermont or Champlain College. The city of Burlington has attempted to help its housing problem by maintaining an “inclusionary zoning” law, which demands that with every new commercial space, a ratio of affordable housing be opened as well.

The office in which I worked happened to be the first commercial space to open in Old North End in over 50 years, and above it were 6 brand new apartments. Many residents of the area would simply walk into the office and demand to know what we were doing in there. One of us would welcome the neighbor, kindly explain that we were an accelerator for digital marketing, and offer them a look around the place. Most people would just walk back out. There was a definite sense of ownership that residents felt over any new space in Old North End, and it was our moral obligation to respect that as we presented the looming threat of gentrification.

Vermont, Green Mountain State, stray, cats, kitten, cat, kitty, Burlington, Old North End, neighborhood, grumpy cat

A lot of residents in Burlington describe Old North End as “the hood.” When I once described the neighborhood as “interesting,” someone responded,”That’s a nice way to put it.” And so it goes that while its definitely filled with more low-income families than any other part of Burlington, it is also certainly the most racially diverse area in the city. Coming from Cleveland, I’ve experienced the unfair stigma of low-income areas being considered “dangerous,” when really statistically, you’re in more danger living near UVM campus. Those who live near the campus have a greater chance of being robbed, mugged, or coming into contact with people using hard drugs, specifically cocaine and heroine.

When talking to one neighbor of Old North End, he told me, “There’s not much you can get away with around here without someone noticing.” That much seemed to be true. On all of my walks through Old North End, you’d see people sitting out on their porch or on the sidewalk in lawn chairs, and others peeking out their windows. My presence was always known, and a lot of people would ask me what I was doing with my camera.
Vermont, Green Mountain State, stray, cats, kitten, cat, kitty, Burlington, Old North End, neighborhood, grumpy cat

People aren’t the only ones watching you as you enter Old North End. The stray cats of the area are known to keep their eyes on any suspicious intruders – specifically, dogs. One man told me a story about a big Siberian Husky that came through the neighborhood until slowly, one by one, the stray cats surrounded and attacked the dog. The poor dog survived but wound up having to get surgery.

Vermont, Green Mountain State, stray, cats, kitten, cat, kitty, Burlington, Old North End, neighborhood, grumpy cat

So what of my experience in Old North End? It ended up being one of my favorite parts of Burlington. Sure, Church Street is great and filled with delicious restaurants, but it’s also pretty touristy and filled with white people. Being in a culturally diverse neighborhood makes me feel more at home since living in Yonkers and then Washington Heights, New York – also known as Spanish Harlem.

I also really liked the little shops that are around. The small bakeries and coffee shops that are never too crowded, the best burgers in Burlington that came out of a convenience store, the Halal store where I bought incense and candles. The people were definitely aware of me, but never rude or abrasive. Even the cat-calling felt very mild. All-in-all, Old North End made the experience of Burlington more real to me, more raw, and I would definitely recommend that any visitors to Burlington explore the neighborhood at least once during their stay. Just don’t bring your dog – those cats mean business.