Frugal Vacation Notes: Dallas/Fortworth

Over the past week, my wife, my children, my parents and I all went on vacation to the Dallas/Fort Worth area (we had planned a longer road trip, but we made an on-the-fly decision to just stick around DFW). While there, we visited family and saw a large number of sights and events in the area.

Before the trip, I collected suggestions for free things to do in the area from both readers of the site and on Twitter. The response was pretty surprising, with lots of great suggestions thrown our way. I collected all of the ones suggested by multiple people, selected the handful that I was sure would be a hit with my family, and we tried out several of them.

So, here are the great free things to do in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

Free Things We Enjoyed

Here are the four free things we really enjoyed on our trip. We tried several things, but these stood out from the pack.

Pioneer Plaza

Pioneer Plaza

Pioneer Plaza is a beautiful park in the middle of Dallas that features a life-size bronzed cattle drive – three cowboys herding a lot of cattle across a stream. The setting is beautiful and the sculptures are fantastic.

We wound up spending almost two hours here, even on a hot summer day. We admired all of the bronze statues, walked across the stream a few times, and my children petted a horse ridden by a Dallas police officer. It would have been a perfect place to have a picnic had we been more prepared.

You can find out more about Pioneer Plaza from the Texas Trees Foundation.

Dallas Farmer’s Market

My daughter at farmer's market

What can I say? I love farmer’s markets. There are tons of fresh food samples, opportunities to buy delicious produce at a very low price, and almost always a surprise or two. The Dallas Farmers Market, on the quiet Wednesday morning that we were there, was sparsely crowded but had a lot of vendors happy to talk and offer samples of all kinds.

In the picture above, my daughter was discovering that she loves watermelon – she was trying a (free) piece of yellow watermelon. We wound up buying quite a few fruits at the market, which provided afternoon snacks for the family and some breakfast food as well.

You can find out more about the Dallas Farmers Market at their website.

Dealey Plaza

This is the area where President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963. You can stand outside the School Book Depository and observe the route that Kennedy took. There’s also a lot of public works projects in the area, built in the 1930s.

Although there is actually a very nice museum nearby in the School Book Depository, I found that the actual setting outside the Depository had much more of an impact. I walked along the route that Kennedy took, absorbed the area, and thought about that tragic moment.

Wikipedia has an excellent entry on Dealey Plaza.

Fort Worth Stockyards

Fort Worth cattle drive

Over in Fort Worth, we visited the Stockyards. While there are a lot of shops in that area, there’s also a ton of free things to see and do – walking around the stockyards themselves, for starters. There are several free special events each day as well.

The highlight, though, was seeing the longhorn steers being leisurely driven down the street by three or four cowboys (pictured above). My son loved this part and kept talking about it for days afterward.

This is a great way to spend most of a day in Fort Worth. You can find out more at the Stockyards website.

Things Recommended By Readers

Here are five free activities recommended by multiple readers that we simply didn’t have time to make it to on our trip. All of these sounded like quite a bit of fun – and we would have likely done all of them had our trip been a few days longer.

Jazz Under the Stars

Each summer, the Dallas Museum of Art has a free concert series – in 2009, this series is called “Jazz Under the Stars.” Each Thursday at 8 PM, people gather at Ross Avenue Plaza, spread out blankets and picnic baskets, and enjoy a free outdoor concert by some very good jazz ensembles.

Crow Collection of Asian Art

The Crow Collection of Asian Art is a beautiful art museum located in the Dallas Art District that several readers raved about. It’s right in the heart of the city and features a stunning collection of Asian art, both historical and modern. Outside, there’s an extensive sculpture garden, which includes 20 statues from the French masters. Find out more at CrowCollection.org.

Farmer’s Branch Historical Park

This is a large collection of historical buildings from the 19th and early 20th century, maintained in a state as close to the original as possible. For people into folk history, this is apparently an exquisite place to visit. You can find out more about the Farmer’s Branch Historical Park here.

Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center

The Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center is a spectacular concert hall with extremely impressive architecture and acoustics. Built by I. M. Pei, the Center also features one of the best pipe organs in the United States. Check it out at MeyersonSymphonyCenter.com.

Thanks-Giving Square

This is an open area in the center of downtown Dallas dedicated to the idea of giving thanks as a universal human value. The location features an interfaith chapel, a stunning courtyard, and an impressive array of nature and art. Find out more about it at ThanksGiving.org.

Believe it or not, our summer vacations for the next five summers are penciled in right now. For each of those trips, I intend to do the same thing: ask around for free things to do, try out as many as I can, and report on the ones we didn’t make it to.

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  1. et says:

    My favorite free spot in Fort Worth is the Fort Worth Water Gardens downtown – several different types of huge water fountains you can walk through.

  2. Todd @ The Personal Finance Playbook says:

    Great post – I’m going to be in Dallas for a week in September. I’ll be sure to reference this then.

  3. NYC reader says:

    I can’t believe you missed one of my favorite free attractions in Fort Worth, the Fort Worth Water Gardens. Fabulous to hang out there on a hot day.

    Another favorite (low cost) attraction is the Fort Worth Botanical Gardens. Also great on a really hot day. Kids can feed the koi (Japanese carp), they will literally jump up from the pond and eat from your hand.

    Did you go to Six Flags or any of the amusement parks in Arlington? What were your frugal strategies for the amusement parks?

  4. Johanna says:

    Although I have no particular plans or interest in going to the Dallas/Fort Worth area, I think this is a great idea for a post, and I look forward to reading similar posts in each of the next five years. (Any chance that you’ll let us know now where you’re thinking of going?)

    A suggestion: Don’t exclude non-free things from consideration. A lot of cities have museums, for example, that do charge admission, but the admission price is a real bargain for what you get. I realize that that could be a slippery slope (since not everyone has the same budget for things like museum admission, whereas free stuff fits in everyone’s budget), but if you find one that really stands out, I’m sure plenty of your readers would like to know about it.

  5. Joanna says:

    Thanks for the article, Trent. I’m from Dallas, so it was cool to see the things that you enjoyed. I’m glad that you and your family had a good time here.

  6. Sherry says:

    Yes great post – I live just north of Dallas – been here over 5 years and still learning about some great things. Stock yards is a lot of fun. Glad you had a great time here!

  7. MegB says:

    I’m a little bummed that you didn’t check out the Sixth Floor Museum. With the audio tour, it is well worth the price of admission. Very educational and very moving. Although, I admit that it might have been difficult to get the full experience with two small children.

    I love our Farmers’ Market. I think it’s one of my favorite things about Dallas. I have great memories of my dad taking us there to pick out fresh fruits and veggies, and as an adult I love to go, especially in the summertime.

    Sounds like you enjoyed your visit. I hope you’ll come back sometime!

  8. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    @MegB: we went to the museum, but it’s not a free attraction so I didn’t discuss it here.

    @NYC: No amusement parks for us. Our kids are really too young to enjoy it, and corralling them at Six Flags Over Texas seemed nightmarish.

    I wish someone had mentioned the Water Gardens – I don’t think it was suggested even once. Sounds cool.

  9. beth says:

    This would be a great series of posts for cities all over the country, though you would, of course, have to rely strictly on reader input for a lot of them. Trying to find interesting free things to do in a city when all you have it the Chamber of Commerce’s point of view can get tiring.

  10. Michelle says:

    I’d be curious to see this about other cities. We went to San Francisco a couple weeks ago (we have family in the area) and my Aunt gave me this book called, “Bay Area Mama’s Handbook” and it was a guide to kid friendly stuff in the bay area. It was awesome! Not only did the book have an entry for just about anything you could want to do in the bay area, it had hours, and admission prices and a review of just how “kid-friendly” something was. It was a great resource, and I’m sad we won’t have something like it when we visit other cities!

    BTW- if you’re in San Fran with kids, the Bay Area Discovery Museum is a great place to take kids! And the view of the Golden Gate Bridge can’t be beat!

  11. Adrienne says:

    Any suggestions for the San Antonio area? I’ll be there in mid-July with my family (husband and four kids–7, 5, almost 4, and 20 months). We are going to visit family, but we’re also planning some sight-seeing. We might splurge on Sea World (AAA has a great deal for members–kids are free, adults get in for kids’ price), but I’d also like free attractions.

  12. Juliska says:

    Adrienne, isn’t the Alamo near San Antonio? I’d certainly check that out!

  13. Sarah says:

    @ Adrienne,

    I live in San Antonio, be sure to check out the riverwalk if you go to the Alamo, they recently expanded it.While there be sure to tour the Menger hotel and the Emily Rose hotel, they are supposed to be some of San Antonio’s most haunted places. (Free thrills!) If you’ll be here during the week, San Antoino Missions has dollar night on Thursday, you can get in and see the hometown
    baseball team for a buck. (not quite free but not exactly pricy either)

    Trent,

    Great post, I lived in the DFW area, it was nice being reminded of some of the places I enojoyed while there.

  14. Amy says:

    Omaha, NE (where I live) also has a Pioneer Plaza very similar to the Dallas one. We even have a wagon train with a family and lots of animals, if you’re ever in the area.

  15. The DepressingTruth says:

    If you are going to San Antonio, drive the 15miles North to New Braunfels and go “Tube’n” down the Guadalupe River…and/or visit Schlitterbahn Waterpark (just DON’T try it on a Weekend…It’s Packed)

  16. Robin Crickman says:

    You know, Trent’s report suggests to me an interesting possible business idea for someone.
    Start a website which has various cities and regions and gathers suggestions from contributors
    about what free or low-cost sites to see while
    visiting. Could have a section for families, some specialty areas for various interest groups (golfers, baseball fans, art lovers,…). Maybe it
    is already out there and I just don’t know about it. But I could see it being interesting to anyone
    who is visiting or planning a visit to places.

  17. Leigh says:

    I’ve got one more fabulous freebie. The next time you are in the DFW metroplex check out the Federal Bureau of Engraving and Printing. It’s just north of FW. We went with our 6 yr olds last summer and it was a blast. You get to see how money is printed from start (plain paper and engraved metal) to finish (enormous stacks of bills). The workers there really make the tour fun and informative. The kids had a blast and even purchased an uncut sheet of real $1 bills. Very cool.

    Best,
    Leigh

  18. Mary W says:

    I always try to visit farmer’s markets when I’m on vacation. It’s always fun to see what’s grown in the area and the food is usually inexpensive and delicious.

    I thought I was the only one.

  19. Su says:

    I just love the picture of your daughter… she’s totally adorable!

    It’s nice seeing pictures of you and your family… it makes your writing more personal for me because I have a picture of the people you care about most, and write about frequently.

    Thanks!

  20. Georgia says:

    I like the idea of knowing where to look for free or low cost places to visit. I belong to AAA and they usually give out booklets for your itinerary that list pages of places to see, their hours, and their costs. Spendid help.

    I just learned from my daughter that she had company and they had a big list of things they wanted to see. She is in Huntsville, AL area. She has said that we will go to several when I go down in July. She was surprised because she hadn’t heard of these places before and she has lived in northern AL for at least 15 years.

  21. Maria says:

    And don’t forget the fantastic Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth – FREE admission to the main exhibit. Guest exhibits cost extra.
    Also free, love the Monnig Meteorite Gallery over at TCU in Fort Worth

  22. reulte says:

    I really enjoyed this post and look forward to future posts like it. I would prefer to see only free stuff highlighted here. There are plenty of enjyable free things to do in almost everyplace you can image without going into things that are a great value for their cost.

    For Adrienne – In San Antonio, there’s the McNay Art Institute (mcnayartmuseum.org) which is free on Thursday nights and the 1st Sunday of the month for the general exhibition, also free for kids under 10. It’s well – art – so younger kids may not enjoy it much.

    The San Antonio River runs through Brackendrige Park (not near the Riverwalk which is downtown) and is a nice experience. You can swim there or dangle your feet in the water, feed the ducks and the park has nice picnic areas, a Japanese garden and the San Antonio zoo is right next door to this enormous park. I don’t believe the Japanese garden has a charge. The Witte Museum is in Brackenridge Park and admission is free on Tuesdays and for kids under 3. It is a very kid-oriented museum and most kids I know really love it. Across from the Witte Museum are some places to eat but if it’s lunchtime, it’s more enjoyable to take a picnic lunch.

    The San Antonio Missions (not the team mentioned by Sarah!), dating back to the 1700’s, are part of the National Park Service and are also free.

  23. reulte says:

    By the way, I am not a travel agent and haven’t been back home (San Antonio0 in 4 years, so double check my information.

  24. reulte says:

    Oh yes — I am not a travel agent and haven’t lived in San Antonio for 2 years, so double check prices and times.

  25. Sarah says:

    To Robin

    There is one, I have started VisitForFree.com which is small now but I hope to become worldwide, if anyone would like to contribute please get in touch.

    Sarah

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