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10 events to celebrate the holidays in Austin for $20 or less

A tunnel of holiday lights, leading to a lit-up sign that says, "37th Street Lights."
Ivy Fowler
37th Street Lights is one of many free light shows taking place in Austin this year.

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Austin has its fair share of pricey events, and that’s especially true for the holidays. (Exhibit A: this sold-out rooftop igloo experience at Hotel Van Zandt downtown is $300, minimum, for a reservation plus food and drinks.)

Even though you might feel pressure to spend big, you can still find plenty of low-cost ways to enjoy the season. From ice skating to lights to live music, here are holiday events in Austin — vetted by KUT's newsroom — that you can go to for $20 or less.

37th Street Lights

This residential light display at 37th Street between Guadalupe and Home Lane is free and full of funky art. Neighbors have decked out the street during the holiday season for decades. You can check it out this year starting Friday until New Year’s Day, from around sunset to 10 p.m. every night. (P.S. If you're curious how the whole thing started, check out our ATXplained episode.)

Recommended by: Audrey McGlinchy, housing reporter

“The hottest new club in Austin is … Erk. Wait. OK. Yearning for a holiday light display that makes you feel like you drank a bowl of aged eggnog and invited your friends over for a night of finger painting and Gregorian chant? Have I got the place for you. The 37th Street Lights display will have you wondering, ‘What is art? What is life? Have I been making enough of both of these?’

Last year, friends and I wiggled through old CDs hung from trees, wandered into a cow-spotted tent and checked out a car adorned with holiday lights. It was odd. Glorious. Confusing. Beautiful. If family isn’t delivering up enough absurdity for you this holiday season, I recommend high-tailing it to Central Austin.”

Blue Genie Art Bazaar

The longtime holiday market near Austin Community College’s Highland campus features the work of more than 200 artists. It’s completely free to browse, and there are also small gifts you can buy without breaking the bank. The shop is open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. through Christmas Eve.

Recommended by: Stephanie Federico, senior digital editor

“Blue Genie Art Bazaar features row after row of gifts from local vendors, including your usual mix of soaps, candles, tea towels, ceramics, woodwork and T-shirts featuring iconic Austin landmarks. It’s hard to walk away without at least buying a greeting card — or maybe a super cute painting of an elephant shrew on a square block of wood. But if you’re not into the whole obligatory gift-giving thing, you don’t have to spend money; the space is as much gallery as it is shop. I like to wander the warehouse looking at all the artwork.”

A globe-shaped light display at night.
Gabriel C. Pérez
The Austin Trail of Lights features millions of lights and nearly 100 lighted trees.

Austin Trail of Lights

The Zilker Park holiday tradition, now in its 59th year, features more than 2 million lights, pictures with Santa, a Ferris wheel, a carousel and nearly two dozen food and drink vendors. Premium ticket options cost a pretty penny, but there are plenty of free or $8 admission days on the calendar. The lights are open to the public from 6 to 10 p.m. most days, starting Friday until Dec. 23.

Recommended by: Chelsey Zhu, digital producer

“Yes, it’s crowded, and some might consider it overhyped … but there’s still nothing quite like standing right underneath the Zilker Holiday Tree or walking through a huge tunnel of beautiful string lights. I went on a free night and probably waited 40 minutes in line before getting inside. After that, it was relatively smooth sailing. My favorite part was splitting a s’mores package with a friend and roasting them (the s’mores, not the friend) over an open fire. My biggest piece of advice: Take a rideshare to get there and back so you can avoid the mess of parking."

Bee Cave on Ice

If you’re hunting for something active, look into ice skating at the Central Plaza of the Hill Country Galleria in Bee Cave. Tickets are $10 to $15 per person for skates plus an hour of skating, depending on the day. The rink is open from now until Jan. 15. Check the website for hours of operation on specific dates.

Recommended by: Sangita Menon, general assignment reporter

“I like ice skating with my daughters at the seasonal ice rink at the Hill Country Galleria. It's a relatively small rink, which is perfect for those of us who look less like Olympian Michelle Kwan and more like Bambi on ice. There are supports (imagine a walker, but for ice) for little kids to push in front of them if they need help balancing. There are lights and decorations for some cute pictures to prove that, for a moment, you were still standing.

Register for a start time and fill out the waivers in advance so you can just show your QR codes when you get there. Remember long thick socks for all to protect your ankles from the skates. My girls and I went round after round with big smiles. Hope you do, too.”

A light in the shape of a longhorn head hanging from a lamp post.
Chelsey Zhu
Longhorn Lights runs until Jan. 1.

Longhorn Lights

New this year, Longhorn Lights is a free, UT-Austin-themed show featuring orange and white lights draped over 24 heritage oak trees on the east side of Guadalupe between 21st and 24th Streets. If you thought UT couldn’t have any more school pride — the lights twinkle to the beat of music by the Longhorn Band. You can see the lights along The Drag now until New Year’s Day, from 5 to 10 p.m.

Recommended by: Meghan James, digital intern 

“This week The Drag will illuminate students' tears as they scurry to campus to finish up finals. Longhorn Lights definitely lives up to its name: The trees flashed orange and white, on beat to the UT fight song. I stopped by on Saturday night before I went to see Alexander Payne’s new Christmas movie, The Holdovers. While it’s no Trail of Lights or elaborate show, it’s still lights, and they’re fun to look at. It’s not something you need to get out of your car for, but if you’re going to see a holiday movie like I did or doing something else festive at night, it wouldn’t hurt to pass by this vibrant exhibit to get you into the holiday mood. If you’re a student and finals are depriving you of holiday cheer, take a break, grab a hot chocolate and stroll down The Drag for a bit.”

Mozart’s Holiday Light Show

There are a lot of different ways to experience the annual show at Mozart’s Coffee Roasters by Lake Austin. Some tickets are more expensive than others, but there are options for maximum flexibility. Reserved seating close to the lights is $40 for a four-person table and $60 for a six-person table — so $10 per person for an hour. You can also snag a general admission walk-through reservation for free. The show runs from now until Jan. 6.

Recommended by: Luz Moreno-Lozano, Austin City Hall reporter

“Mozart's Holiday Light Show is one of my favorite holiday traditions in Austin. You won’t want to miss out on the lights accompanied by warm beverages and sweets, all with a lake view. But it can be tricky when it comes to crowds and parking. First, if you can reserve a table down on the main deck, that is really the best view. But if you can't get a deck spot, the standing tables are still enjoyable. The parking lots across the street have spots, but give yourself plenty of time to find one and walk over. There’s also street parking along Lake Austin Boulevard and Enfield Road. Or Uber, because who wants the hassle? If you’re going after dinner, be sure to leave some room for a treat from the dessert case (those cookies are the best), and a warm hot cocoa or tea.”

Buda’s Holiday Sip N Stroll: Plaid Tidings

Paid tickets for this boozy event in Buda are already sold out, but luckily it’s completely free to walk around the decorated downtown and soak in the holiday spirit. You can still do some holiday gift shopping, grab a bite to eat and dress up in event-sanctioned flannel. The stroll takes place this Friday from 5:30 to 9 p.m.

Recommended by: Ben Philpott, managing editor

“If you’re not a fan of the masses at Austin’s Trail of Lights, this holiday event is for you. The shops are nice: There are a few boutiques, a fun general store and some really good restaurants. My favorite part: a Santa and elf on site for family photos. The Buda Santa pictures are free, but he does suggest a donation. All the Santa money goes to the Buda UMC Food Pantry … and donating can help keep you off the naughty list.”

Community First! Village of Lights

This free event in Northeast Travis County features 250,000 lights synced to seasonal music, a market for gift shopping, food trucks, Santa and holiday movies. Donations are encouraged to support the Community First! Village, which offers permanent housing and community to formerly unhoused Austinites. You can attend the light show this Friday and Saturday from 5:30 to 9 p.m.

Recommended by: Olivia Aldridge, health care reporter

“I went to the Community First! Village of Lights for the first time last year, and I loved that I got to enjoy some traditional holiday festivities while also checking out a unique initiative to curb homelessness in Austin. The neighborhood’s residents contribute handmade items to a holiday market that makes for fun gift shopping. (Last year, I snagged some fantastic barbecue sauce.) The light show itself is a blast, but my friends and I probably enjoyed Christmas movies at the outdoor cinema most! I see classics like Elf and The Muppet Christmas Carol on the schedule for this year. Be prepared to leave your car at the Travis County Expo Center and take a quick shuttle to the event.”

Band members dressed in black and yellow playing instruments while marching at night.
Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
Minor Mishap's parade takes place Dec. 21 this year.

Minor Mishap’s Winter Solstice Lantern Parade

If you’re in the mood for music, the Minor Mishap Marching Band puts on a parade celebrating the solstice at Mueller Lake Park. It’s free, family-friendly and interactive — kids are encouraged to make and bring along flame-free lanterns to light up the night. The music kicks off at 6 p.m. on Dec. 21.

Recommended by: Mose Buchele, energy and environment reporter

“The lantern parade is a fun, laid-back way to celebrate with friends and family. It's kid-friendly, and it’s got a very DIY vibe with people bringing all sorts of illuminations and, often, costumes, to mark the longest night (or shortest day!) of the year. The Minor Mishap Marching Band always brings the party, and the whole thing fosters a great community feeling that makes you feel good to live in Austin.”

Colorful lights and ornaments decorate the inside of Lala's.
Renee Dominguez
Colorful lights and ornaments decorate the inside of Lala's Little Nugget.

Lala’s Little Nugget

This dive bar in the Crestview area of Austin is decked out with holiday decorations year-round, including lights, ornaments and a Santa on his sleigh taking flight from the rooftop. The “North Pole oasis in Central Texas” is open every day, including Christmas Eve. The best part is, if you don’t get around to visiting before December is over, Lala’s will always be there.

Recommended by: Becky Fogel, education reporter

“A friend introduced me to Lala’s Little Nugget years ago and I was hooked. The wall-to-wall decorations, the mysterious reason it’s always Christmas and the friendly atmosphere made this bar an instant favorite. Whether I’m celebrating Christmas in July in the sweltering heat or getting cozy on a crisp fall day, Lala’s always has a way of lifting my spirits.”

Chelsey Zhu is the digital producer at KUT. Got a tip? You can email her at
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