Austin on a Grad Student’s Budget

by Chad Garrett on behalf of the SAA UT Student Chapter

Graduate school isn’t a lucrative point in life, and conference travel can be a real challenge with a student’s budget. We’ve collected some of our favorite affordable (or free!) things about Austin: sights to see, drinks to drink, food to eat, and places to go. By no means comprehensive, this list for grad students by grad students includes tips for getting the most bang for a buck.

Get out and about

Austin Public Library Rooftop Garden, 710 W. César Chávez, 512-974-7400

Just a quick walk or bike ride, Austin’s new central library is a beautiful space with a shady rooftop view of the lake and downtown.

Ann Richards Congress Avenue Bat Bridge

Ok, ok, here’s the deal with the bats: They’re actually super cool! There are several roosting colonies of Mexican freetailed bats in the Austin area. The most famous bats reside under the Congress Avenue bridge, just a few blocks from the JW Marriott. To see them, you have to show up around dusk and stand with the hundreds of other people doing the same thing – the bats emerge east, and it’s very cool to peer down and see them streaming out from underneath you. There are viewing platforms under the bridge on both sides and some companies do boat tours. If you go this route, remember: KEEP YOUR MOUTH CLOSED. Sometimes the bats don’t come out. Who knows why. They’re bats.

Chicken Shit Bingo at the Little Longhorn Saloon, 5434 Burnet 

Lonestar beer is $1.50, tickets are a $2 donation, the chicken walks around on a bingo board and…well, you can guess the rest. Hours of fun.

The Texas Capitol, 1100 Congress

It’s hard to miss, but if you haven’t ventured into the giant pink building in the middle of downtown, it’s really worth a visit. The capitol  is surrounded by a huge green park that’s open to the public, so pick up your lunch and hang out under a tree while shaking your fist at politicians. 

Peter Pan Mini Golf, 1207 Barton Springs, 512-472-1033

It’s cash only and BYOB! Lovely way to spend a few hours, especially in the evening. If you’re hungry before/after, you can walk to P. Terry’s across the street.

Ladybird Lake Trail

Sometimes you’ve just got to get outside. Austin does, en masse. This 10-mile trail (officially the “Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail”) circles through downtown, down to Zilker Park, and back all the way east along a boardwalk to East Riverside. It is STUPID CROWDED on weekends, but beautiful on weekday mornings. Beat the heat and go before 10am.

Eklektikos with John Aielli

For the true Austin experience, tune into 98.9 on any FM radio from 6-8am from Monday to Friday. John has been hosting the KUTX morning program for 50 years (before there was a KUTX). Come for the wide range of styles and songs, stay for the bizarre discussions of John’s garden and the amount of rain we have or have not gotten.

Sound and Cinema, 701 W Riverside

JULY 31st ONLY! Every summer the Alamo Drafthouse screens FREE movies on the lawn of the Long Center for the Performing Arts, right across the river from the convention. There will be long lines at the food trucks, but just grab and go from the Trader Joe’s down the street and spread out on the lawn. Movies start at dusk, free live music usually starts the hour before.

Paramount Theater Summer Film Series, 713 Congress

Check the schedule and aim for films marked “Paramount” to see the inside of the glorious restored downtown theater, originally opened in 1915. Admission is $12, but if you go for any films marked “double feature,” your admission counts for both. Spend all hot summer afternoons in dark, air conditioned theaters.

Take in some culture

Neill-Cochran House Museum

Built in 1855 as a “suburban estate” in what was then the outskirts of Austin, the museum is in the heart of a neighborhood called West Campus, adjacent to UT’s main campus and near the iSchool.

Mapping Memory: Space and History in 16th Century Mexico (at the Blanton Museum of Art), 200 E. MLK, Jr.

The Blanton is a small museum that’s smartly invested in modern works and fascinating temporary exhibits. During SAA, it will be showing a collection of maps from the Nettie Lee Benson Center, UT’s preeminent Latin American archive. Also check out the freestanding structure ‘Austin’ by Ellsworth Kelly. $5 with a student ID, and free on Thursdays!

Mexicarte Museum, 419 Congress, 512-480-9373

This art museum in the heart of downtown focuses on Latin(x) artists and will be displaying “BUEN VIVIR/VIVIR BIEN,” with a focus on young upcoming artists. Great gift shop, $4 student admission!

La Peña, 227 Congress

I don’t know how this place is still open, but they’re a community arts center smack in the middle of downtown. Most importantly in the middle of the Austin summer, they serve paletas.

Treat your ears 

Cheer Up Charlie’s, 900 Red River

A big squishy hug of a queer-friendly music venue, with kombucha and cocktails on tap and $2 tallboys at happy hour. Be careful walking home late from the Red River district.

Kenny Dorham’s Backyard, 1106 E. 11th

An endangered venue in the quickly-gentrifying East 11th neighborhood, it hosts a variety of music acts including jazz, world, cumbia and rap, great food trucks and a community garden. Great place to spend an afternoon

Sahara Lounge, 1413 Webberville

Welcoming East Austin venue, the number one place to dance all night without dealing with sixth street. Open Wed-Sun. Check the schedule – Africa night includes a free buffet. THOSE BEANS OMG. Far from downtown so plan to rideshare.

Kick back with a pint or a cup

Full Circle Bar, 1810 E. 12th

Absolute favorite bar in Austin because it’s a Skee-Ball bar! They have a Brewskeeball league that has incredible team names (see posters of past years’ teams covering the bathroom walls), and FREE unlimited Skee-Ball on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 5-8pm. Happy hour also is every Wednesday through Saturday from 5 – 8p with $3 wells and $3 mimosas. 

The Butterfly Bar, 2307 Manor

Only opens at 5pm, but it’s a bar, a performance space, a butterfly sanctuary, and once – for two weeks – it was an interactive circus art exhibit. Limited inside seating, so watch the weather 🙂

Kitty Cohen’s, 2211 Webberville

Eastside venue with cocktails that DO NOT skimp on the booze. The pool on the patio is not technically for use, but have we jumped in? Yes. Yes, we have. If you take a selfie here and post it to instagram, they’ll donate a dollar to the local domestic violence initiative, SAFE.

Lazarus, 1902 E. 6th, 512-394-7620

East 6th Street brew pub with a giant patio space gets CROWDED during weekend brunch. It’s worth it, dang it. The black bean torta is *kissfingers*!

Jackalope, 404 E. 6th

Ok, fine, if you HAVE to go to 6th Street, go to the bar that shows horror movies and serves waffle fries. If you have a drink in your hand, they’ll let you ride the giant jackalope.

Rio Rita, 1203 Chicon

The bloody Mary is not cheap, but it’s got so many garnishes you don’t need breakfast afterwards.

Hole in the Wall, 2538 Guadalupe

It doesn’t get more Austin than this storied bar, open since 1974 and host of thousands of drunk students and musicians ever since. The live music can be transcendent or awful, it’s dingy and sticky, the bathroom graffiti is impressive, and it offers happy hour from 3-8 every day and all day Sunday. (Also the unofficial headquarters of SAA UT Student Chapter.)

Chuy’s, 1728 Barton Springs, 512-474-4452

All other Chuy’s are chain restaurants. This is the original and their giant happy hour margaritas include a free nacho bar served out of a pink Cadillac. QUESO FOR DAYS, Y’ALL. Happy hour is 4-7.

Parkside, 301 E. 6th

The swankiest restaurant on Dirty Sixth has a great happy hour, but it’s only from 5:00-6:30, so get there fast! Half-priced cocktails and bar menu.

The Hideout, 617 Congress

The oldest independent coffeeshop in downtown, cheap, great for getting work done. Also home to an improv theater. You know whether or not you’re an improv person, but the 8pm Thursday shows are always ten year veterans Parallellagramaphoneagraph, and they’re no joke. Well, apart from the jokes.

Fill your belly

Wheatsville Co-Op $5 Thursday Dinner, 3101 Guadalupe, 512-478-2667

Show up early – they sell out! 4-8 PM.

Baby A’s, 1705 S. Lakeshore #A, 512-447-1339

Tex-Mex yumminess with a friendly price tag. Try the Purple Rita…but only one!

Milto’s, 2909 Guadalupe, 512-476-1021

$6 pizza night on Tuesdays. Get a medium cheese or pepperoni pizza on regular or thick crust for only $6!!!

Quality Seafood Fish Taco Night, 5621 Airport, 512-407-9240

$4 Fish tacos on Tuesday nights. Your choice of grilled, blackened or fried fish or shrimp.

Arlo’s, 900 Red River

If you go to Cheer Up’s, you have to get a vegan bacon cheeseburger at Arlo’s. Trust me. And split your tater tots with me.

Blackstar Coop, 7020 Easy Wind

Amazing worker-owned brewpub on Austin’s north side that might seem far away until you realize the train goes right to its doorstep. The avocado club is the world’s best sandwich. Also they won’t let you tip since the staff already gets paid a living wage.

Tamale House East, 1707 E. 6th

Tamale House is a third generation restaurant serving tex-mex comfort food on the East side.

The Texas Chili Parlor, 1409 Lavaca

A storied hangout for Austin politicians and writers, memorialized by the late, great Guy Clark in ‘The Dublin Blues.’ (“I wish I were in Austin/in that chili parlor bar/drinking mad dog margaritas/and not wondering where you are”). A mad dog margarita, if you’re wondering, is made with mescal. Mmm mmm.

The Driskill Hotel Bakery, 604 Brazos, 512-439-1234

This supposedly haunted fancypants hotel right in the middle of downtown is not known for being budget conscious, but you know what’s great? Their cinnamon rolls. Grab a pastry and coffee and sit in the lobby, feeling fancy as all get out.

Kebabalicious, Corner of W. 3rd and Congress Ave

Delicious kebabs in a food truck close to the JW Marriott. 

Hut’s Hamburgers, 807 W. 6th, 512-472-0693

It may not be trendy, but Hut’s is delicious, cheap and classic. 2-1 burger specials on Wednesdays. Or just get onion rings and a cherry milkshake. I won’t judge.

Bouldin Creek Cafe, 1900 S. 1st, 512-416-1601

A classic Austin institution that’s moved from its greasy coffeeshop beginnings into a bright, bustling hangout with a great patio. I would take a bullet for their BLT. Did I mention they’re vegetarian? Take the bus – there’s no parking.

La Mexicana Bakery, 1924 S. 1st, 512-443-6369

24 hour Mexican bakery on South First street. So good.

Churro Co., 1906 S. 1st, 512-905-5267

Yep, they’re a churro truck. And you can get ice cream on your fresh churros. Mmm. Churros.

P. Terry’s, 404 S. Lamar

Austin’s home grown fast food chain. There’s another location near sixth street, but the food is better at the original down near Barton Springs.

Koriente, 621 E. 7th, 512-275-0852

Delicious cheap, healthy asian fusion food just off east sixth street. Free miso soup with dine in orders.

Hippie Church, 2529 S. Lamar

Live gospel, dancing, and strawberry margaritas every Sunday.

Moonshine Grill – Downtown, 303 Red River

Great/cheap happy hour for appetizers and cocktails from 4-6pm on weekdays. Ask about the patio bar–I prefer it to the bar near the host stand. Less than a 10 minute walk from the JW Marriott. 

June’s All Day, 1722 S. Congress, 817-404-7554

If you want to go to South Congress but don’t want to feel like too much of a tourist, this is a great brunch place! They serve Stumptown coffee and it is always so good!

Salty Sow (happy hour), 1917 Manor

This is a really nice restaurant (has a James Beard award) that has a surprisingly great happy hour! The deviled eggs are so good.

Torchy’s Tacos on 2nd, 110 San Antonio, Unit 120, 512-792-5909

Engage in the Austin taco wars! Torchy’s very generous Happy Hour runs 3-6. Order a Dirty Sanchez because when else do you get the chance?

Dia’s Market, 812 Justin

This is an organic market, but the real deal is the deli in the back. They have delicious sandwiches for lunch, and–the best part–$5 breakfast sandwiches that are gourmet (the best one is the “Turkey Sage Sausage, Habanero Jelly, Fried Egg & Cheddar Cheese”). It’s so good!

Shop ‘til you drop

Room Service Vintage, 117 E. North Loop

A favorite vintage store in Austin. It can be a little pricey – but can always find hidden-gem deals! Save time to walk around the North Loop area  there a few more vintage stores on the same block!

ToyJoy/Yummi Joy, 403 W. 2nd, 512-320-0090

The very best place to wander aimlessly among amazing tchotchkes and to pick up one-of-a-kind souvenirs. Next door is their candy store, featuring homemade fudge and vegan ice cream from beloved Austin company Sweet Ritual.

Treasure City Thrift, 2142 E. 7th, 512-524-2820

Eastside community thrift store with a well-curated selection. TC is zero waste and has regular “free days” every few months. Oh right, and the clothes are cute.

BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar, 512-472-5050

Austin’s largest independent book store, named after the archives-adjacent professionals at the end of Fahrenheit 451. A joy to browse. Also has a great coffeeshop if you need to catch up on work or take an interview.

Allen’s Boots, 1522 S. Congress

Allen’s has been a mainstay of the South Congress area since the days when it was selling mainly workboots. Now SoCo is trendy and the boots have gotten fancy. Just walking in and smelling all that leather is a fun experience. Also great fun is taking pictures of yourself wearing sequined snakeskin cowboy boots and a big old cowboy hat. 

Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds, 1506 S. Congress, 512-444-2002

Another mainstay of the South Congress drag, it’s a GIANT costume store. It’s the most fun. End of story.

Roadhouse Relics, 1720 S. 1st

Though you probably won’t be able to fit a neon sign into your checked luggage, this store has a beautiful window display and is mobbed by tourists every day taking pictures with the ‘Welcome to Austin’ mural on the south side of the building.

Downtown Farmer’s Market

SATURDAYS, 9-1. Literally a block away from the conference, this farmer’s market Republic Square Park in front of the beautiful new federal courthouse downtown. Not everything is cheap, but it’s fun to look and then pick up a poblano tamale from Tamale Addiction for $3.50 (bring cash).

Get there (or anywhere)


Austin’s only homegrown rideshare network; just as easy as Uber and Lyft, but better. I’ve found that even rideshare drivers juggling several apps will often thank me for taking RideAustin, since it’s nonprofit and better to its drivers. Support the workers! …and support local archivists and the Austin Archives Bazaar by rounding up your fare for the Archivists of Central Texas!

CapMetro App

Never deal with cash or losing paper bus passes again! Just download the CapMetro app and get anywhere you want to go in Austin. It’s literally $3 for 24 hours of unlimited bus rides, a little more for the trains. And the app provides real time estimates of when your bus is going to arrive.