Maybe you have out-of-town guests to entertain. Or maybe you’re just looking for a new adventure in your hometown. These free museums offer air-conditioned explorations for the whole family, with free admission to boot!
Sheffield Education Center
A delightful complement to the Zilker playscape and Barton Springs Pool, the Sheffield Education Center is an air-conditioned oasis of learning for the whole family. Kids will enjoy the cave-like atmosphere and interactive exhibits, such as the water bug identification station. Adults can linger over watershed exhibits and grab a seat in the theater, which shows short videos about the history, science and culture of Barton Springs. Plan to spend 30 to 45 minutes here, depending on attention spans and pacing.
Location: 2201 William Barton Dr.
Parking: Parking is available throughout Zilker Park.
Hours: Tue-Sat 10 to 5; Sun 12 to 5.
Good to Know: Whether parking is paid or free and how much parking space is available depends on the time of day and season. My visit on a weekday morning included free parking.
Brush Square Museums
The Susanna Dickinson Museum and the O. Henry Museum sit side-by-side on one city block. Each tells the story of its famous occupant: Dickinson was a survivor of the Alamo, and writer O. Henry lived in Austin as William Sydney Porter. The museums are small (you’ll probably spend about 30 minutes total), but friendly docents will give you an interesting historical orientation. Pair the visit with a ride on the Metro Rail. The Downtown Station is just around the corner at Trinity and 4th streets.
Location: 409 E. 5th St.
Parking: Metered street parking is available but limited. Paid parking is also available in the Austin Convention Center garage.
Hours: Wed-Sun 12 to 5
Good to Know: The park’s shaded patio and grassy play area would make a nice location for a snack or lunch break.
Capitol Visitor’s Center
The oldest state office building – even older than the State Capitol Building – houses this visitor’s center and museum. Originally the General Land Office, you can still see the safe where early Texas kept its most valuable documents. If you’ve ever wondered how the Capitol dome was constructed or what life was like during the Texas Revolution, you’ll find answers here. The museum has plenty of engaging exhibits for kids. Expect to spend about an hour here. It’s a great place to check out before or after a visit to the State Capitol Building.
Location: 112 E. 11th St.
Parking: Up to two hours of free weekday parking is available in the Capitol Visitors Garage.
Hours: Mon-Sat 9 to 5; Sun 12 to 5
Good to Know: Visit the website to download teacher guides and scavenger hunt sheets.
Texas Military Forces Museum
Texans have been serving in military positions since the early 1800s, and this vast museum has collected over 10,000 artifacts, displaying everything from aircraft and flags to pins and toy soldiers. Housed in a repurposed mess hall built in 1918, the exhibits bring to life the stories of Texas troops, but there aren’t any hands-on activities for kids. Before or after you peruse the exhibits, take a walk outside to see a bevy of tanks and aircraft from by-gone times. Expect to spend about an hour here.
Location: Enter Camp Mabry at 2200 W. 35th St. If you’re using GPS, you’ll find the museum at 3038 W. 35th St. Note that a photo ID is required for all adults entering Camp Mabry.
Parking: Free and plentiful.
Hours: Tue-Sun 10 to 4; closed Mon
Good to Know: As of this writing, the main museum entrance is under construction, so visitors are welcomed through a rather nondescript side door.
George Washington Carver Museum
Visit this museum to learn about Juneteenth, a celebration of the date in 1865 when enslaved people in Texas were told about the Emancipation Proclamation. Stick around to learn about African Americans in Austin, including the histories of several key families from the city’s early days, an exhibit of memorabilia from Anderson High School and rotating art exhibits. There are a few opportunities for kids to interact with hands-on activities. Expect to spend about 30 minutes here. Pair it with a trip to the Carver Branch Library next door for a fun and satisfying outing.
Location: 1165 Angelina St.
Parking: Free parking is plentiful at the library lot next door.
Hours: Mon-Wed 10 to 6; Thu 10 to 9; Fri 10 to 6; Sat 10 to 4. Closed Sun
Good to Know: Two art exhibits – Constant Escape, which explores culture and identity, and Re-Membering is the Responsibility of the Living, which explores Black Lives Matter – are on display until July 27, 2019.
Harry Ransom Center
Taking pride of place on a busy corner of the UT Austin campus, this research library and museum houses a vast collection of photos, art, films, letters and artifacts. A rare Gutenberg Bible is on permanent display, as well as the First Photograph. Rotating exhibits showcase various aspects of the center’s archives. A visit to this space makes a great pairing with visits to some of the nearby museums that charge admission, such as the Blanton Museum of Art, the Bullock Texas History Museum or the Texas Memorial Museum. Expect to spend about 30 minutes here.
Location: 300 W. 21st St.
Parking: Limited street parking at $1 per hour is available. Campus garage parking is available at Rowling Hall Garage or Conference Center Garage.
Hours: Mon-Wed 10 to 5; Thu 10 to 7; Fri 10 to 5; Sat and Sun 12 to 5
Good to Know: Guided tours happen daily at noon. Additional guided tours happen at
6 p.m. on Thursdays and at 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.
Elisabet Ney Museum
For the contemplative set, here’s a museum with lots to take in. This former studio of Elisabet Ney, a German-born Austin sculptor, houses loads of life-size busts and figures, along with period furnishings, in a tiny castle tucked in the quiet heart of Hyde Park. Here you can learn about Ney’s life in Texas in the 1800s and view the expansive grounds, which have been restored to the natural prairie landscape of the time. Expect to spend 30 to 45 minutes at the museum.
Location: 304 E. 44th St.
Parking: Limited free street parking is available
Hours: Wed-Sun 12 to 5; closed Mon and Tue
Good to Know: Pair your visit to the museum with an outing to shady Shipe Park right next door. The park is equipped with a playground, and the newly-renovated pool is expected to open in mid-July.
Ways to Score Free Admission
There are many ways to gain free access to museums that usually charge admission.
Blue Star Museums: Museums across the country – including several in the Austin area – open their doors each summer with free admission for active-duty military personnel and up to five family members. For more information, visit bluestarfam.org.
Museums for All: Those receiving food assistance (SNAP benefits) can gain free admission to member museums across the country, including Austin’s Thinkery and the LBJ Library and Museum. For more information, visit museums4all.org.
Austin Museum Day: More than 35 museums throughout the Austin area will open their doors with free admission and special activities on Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019. For more information, visit austinmuseums.org.
More Free Museums
DPS Museum, Austin
Heritage House, Pflugerville
Texas Music Museum, Austin
The Williamson Museum, Georgetown
The Williamson Museum on the Chisholm Trail, Round Rock