America's Top Free Attractions
Imagine seeing masterpieces by van Gogh, entertaining your kids with activities, and strolling a hilltop garden with waterfalls and beautiful views at sunset.
Now imagine doing it all for free. That’s how your day could play out at the Getty Museum in L.A., where admission doesn’t cost a thing.
Enjoying what America has to offer can get expensive fast: in 2011, the U.S. travel industry made $813 billion, and some of America’s most popular cities are also its most expensive. Travelers of all budgets can appreciate a good deal, and with high gas prices and airline fees, it’s refreshing to know that there are still some venues like the Getty that give another meaning to the land of the free.
In our search for the top free attractions, we bypassed public parks and train stations to focus on experiences you wouldn’t necessarily expect to be free: a guided tour of Gothic-style Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah; an afternoon with cute baby animals at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo; and a behind-the-scenes look at a Harley-Davidson factory.
Money-saving strategies for New York, the priciest U.S. city for visitors according to Hotels.com, include taking advantage of free admission evenings at museums and timing your trip to July and August, when hotel prices drop. One of our favorite freebies year-round is a ride on the Staten Island Ferry for views of the Statue of Liberty and downtown Manhattan. When you’re done, you might pay your respects at the free National September 11 Memorial not far from the terminal.
Tim Leffel, affordable-travel expert and author of the book Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune, points out that during the summer in particular, cities cater to both locals and tourists with “a packed schedule of freebies, from outdoor concerts to art walks, plays in the park to outdoor movie screenings.” Spoiler alert: we know where to find free ukulele and hula classes.
Find out just how far $0 can get you from coast to coast—and share your favorite free experiences in the comments below.
Smithsonian Museums, Washington, D.C.
The National Zoo, National Museum of Natural History, and National Air and Space Museum—which displays The Spirit of St. Louis—are the biggest crowd-pleasers among the 18 Smithsonian institutions in D.C., otherwise one of the country’s priciest cities. Indeed, making knowledge accessible is key to the mission of the world’s largest museum and research complex. Affordable-travel expert Tim Leffel observed that the three museums he visited with his wife and daughter would have set them back more than $100 in most European capitals. And here's a bonus: you can download a free app about the National Mall sites from the National Park Service.
New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park
Most national parks encourage you to tune in to nature; this one celebrates jazz in its birthplace, New Orleans. There’s live music at the visitor center in the French Quarter and the Old U.S. Mint six days a week, and a kids’ music workshop on Saturdays at Perseverance Hall in Louis Armstrong Park. The visitor center also hosts free talks, video documentaries, and exhibits on local jazz history. You can pick up one of two self-guided audio tours, “Jazz Sites in New Orleans” or “Jazz Walk of Fame.”
The Getty Center, Los Angeles
Maximize your time at the Getty by visiting on a Friday or Saturday, when this sprawling hillside art complex is open late—allowing you to take in sunset views. The light-filled museum interiors display an impressive collection of European and American art including Vincent van Gogh’s famous Irises. Debbie Dubrow of the family travel blog Delicious Baby recommends the Family Room’s interactive exhibits, giant illuminated manuscripts, and an art treasure hunt. “And whenever you need a break, just pop outside to the Getty’s fabulous gardens,” she says. While parking is admittedly expensive ($15), the Getty is also accessible by public transit.
Staten Island Ferry, New York City
Even in the most expensive city in America, you can find great deals like free admission nights at MoMA (otherwise $25), discounted Broadway tickets, and lower hotel rates in July and August. Then there’s the thrill of one of the world’s most beautiful ferry rides on the Staten Island commuter ferry—which also happens to be free 24/7. Board at sunset, when Lady Liberty is silhouetted against a pink-and-orange sky. You’ll pass the Statue of Liberty, with a panoramic view of glittering downtown Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Jersey City. Affordable-travel expert Tim Leffel says: “It’s one thing I always recommend when people ask what they should do in New York.”
Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia
Folks line up to see the 2,000-pound Liberty Bell—enshrined in glass—and tour Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the Constitution drafted. (Look for George Washington’s “rising sun” chair.) Mara Gorman of the blog The Mother of All Trips also enjoyed visiting the Second Bank of the United States, “which houses a wonderful portrait gallery with paintings of many of the principal figures of the American Revolution.” Benjamin Franklin, Betsy Ross, and Washington all attended services at nearby Christ Church.
Conservatory at Bellagio, Las Vegas
Take a breather from the hectic win-or-lose atmosphere of Vegas at the Bellagio’s 13,000-square-foot Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. Horticulturists create seasonal over-the-top displays, rearranging the gardens and their trappings—gazebos, bridges, giant topiaries. After the free live musical performance at the gardens (5 to 6 p.m. daily), step out onto the Strip to witness the light-and-music show put on by the Bellagio fountains.
Royal Hawaiian Center, Honolulu
Free cultural programming sets the remodeled Royal Hawaiian Center apart from your average shopping mall. You can drop by for a traditional Hawaiian massage (lomilomi), lei-making, Hawaiian quilting, or a crash course in playing the ukulele or dancing the hula. There are also free performances, including Polynesian song and dance, and hula ‘auana, which is hula’s modern form. It’s an added bonus that parking is unusually affordable for Waikiki: free for an hour with validation.
The Alamo, San Antonio, TX
“Remember the Alamo!” became a rallying cry after a small group of Texans stationed at this Catholic mission was defeated in March 1836 by a Mexican army after a 13-day siege. These days, the Alamo chapel is an official Texas State Shrine—and the state’s most popular site with more than 2.5 million annual visitors. After your visit, stroll the nearby River Walk, lined with shops and restaurants like Boudro’s for homemade guacamole and prickly-pear margaritas.
Pike Place Market, Seattle
This iconic Seattle waterfront market occupies nine acres with an assortment of vendors selling fresh, locally produced food—most famously, flying fish. The market was established in 1907 with the explicit aim of connecting citizens and farmers, and it’s still home to more than 200 independent small businesses, including bakeries, flower and butcher shops, and casual seafood restaurants. Markets with a similar ethos have sprung up across the country; look for one on your next trip.
National September 11 Memorial, New York City
Pay your respects at twin reflecting pools that occupy the footprint of the former World Trade Center towers. The memorial is inscribed with the names of all who died in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and of February 26, 1993. Hundreds of white oaks help create a peaceful atmosphere. While admission is free, advance reservations are required.
Harley-Davidson Factory Tour, Kansas City, MO
Go behind the scenes to see the manufacturing and assembly processes and get the chance to sit on hogs currently in production. You’ll learn how fenders and gas tanks are formed from raw materials, watch live welding, laser-cutting, and frame-bending, and check out sophisticated robotic technology. Watch for the roller test—when each motorcycle is started and ridden on rollers that serve as a simulated road. Harley-Davidson factory tours are also available in Menomonee Falls, WI, and York, PA.
Olympic Training Center, Colorado Springs, CO
Before they take the Olympic spotlight, athletes put in long hours here to prepare for the world’s largest athletic competition. The Colorado Springs center is one of three in the U.S. and focuses on summer indoor sports like swimming and fencing. You can tour the facility for free, and depending on your timing, your guide may even be an athlete. Linda Kramer of the blog Travels with Children says, “Our kids loved sitting in a bobsled, seeing how long the longest jump really was, and pretending to get their own gold medals.”
Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago
Open 365 days a year, the Lincoln Park Zoo is just a few minutes from Chicago; you can actually hear the lion’s roar echo off nearby apartment buildings. And yet, if you want to feel like you’ve gotten away from city life, you can retreat to the re-created rainforests or savannas. Kids will enjoy the colorful Bird House and Bear Habitat, and you’ll pretend not to squirm when you visit the Lion House or get close to a boa in the Small Mammal-Reptile House.
Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah, GA
The novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil made this 100-acre Gothic cemetery famous, but it’s much more than a tourist trap for literary buffs. Built on the site of a former plantation in 1846, Bonaventure is graced with moss-draped trees and a mix of tombstones and ornate stone statuary. Savannah was the (fictional) stomping grounds of Scarlett O’Hara, and Bonaventure sets an evocative mood of the Old South. The Bonaventure Historical Society offers free tours on the second Sunday of each month.
Freedom Trail, Boston
Follow this red-brick path through metropolitan Boston, and you’ll pass key landmarks where colonial history was made: Boston Common, the Old State House, the site of the Boston Massacre, Faneuil Hall, Paul Revere House, and Bunker Hill Monument. You can prep for your walk in advance with this Freedom Trail sites guide, or pay for an official tour with a guide in period costume.
Houston Museum District, Houston
Like a Texan version of the Smithsonian complex, the Houston Museum District numbers 19 museums within about a 1.5-mile radius around a fountain—and 12 are free daily. The freebies include the Menil Collection, whose light-filled gallery space displays everything from African and Oceanic art to modern surrealists. Continue on to the Houston Center for Photography, the Holocaust Museum, and the nondenominational Rothko Chapel, inspired by Mark Rothko’s mural canvases. Many come to meditate or quietly read in the ethereal space.
Allagash Brewery Tour, Portland, ME
Rob Tod felt there weren’t enough Belgian-style beers in the U.S., so he decided to do something about it by founding the Allagash Brewing Company in 1995. It became one of the first American brewing companies to make cork- and cage-finished beers and use bottle conditioning, which makes beer carbonate naturally. Free tours begin with samples of about four types of beer—rumor has it they pour generously—and spend about an hour among the brewing equipment. Be sure to make an advance reservation and wear closed-toed shoes.
San Francisco Cable Car Museum
Hop off one of the city’s cable cars and into this Nob Hill museum for the backstory about their construction—and the chance to see cars from the 1870s. “Your kids can watch the cables running on huge wheels, ring a real cable car bell, and see photos and exhibits of the 1906 earthquake,” adds Jamie Pearson, publisher of Travel Savvy Mom. She recalls a poignant video about how cable cars were saved in the 1940s, despite the fact that buses had come into vogue and were less expensive to operate. As Pearson says: “Tourists don’t exactly throng to San Francisco to ride the buses.”
Birmingham Botanical Gardens, AL
Some botanical gardens charge upwards of $20 per person. But in Birmingham, you’re truly free to roam among more than 12,000 different plants, more than 25 themed gardens, and more than 30 outdoor sculptures spanning 67.5 acres. A traditional Japanese teahouse, free science activities for children, and a vegetable garden where visitors can learn how to cultivate a greener thumb round out a visit. There’s even the Enabling Garden, which is wheelchair-accessible, with raised planting beds so there’s no need to bend or stoop.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR
Walk or bike along the trail of art installations—including a James Turrell skyscape—that leads through the forest, building your anticipation until you arrive at Crystal Bridges. Founded by Walmart heiress Alice Walton, the museum showcases a remarkable collection of American art: colonial portraits; Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter; Andy Warhol’s Dolly Parton; and masterpieces by the likes of Edward Hopper and Mary Cassatt that would make a big-city museum jealous.
The Enchanted Highway, Regent, ND
Just off North Dakota’s Interstate 94, these seven larger-than-life scrap-metal sculptures are the fanciful creations of local resident Gary Greff. Works like the 110-foot-tall Geese in Flight and Fisherman’s Dream are staggered along a 32-mile stretch of road. “Each of them has a small picnic and play area,” recalls Linda Kramer, a mother of four who blogs at Travels with Children.
Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center, Duluth, MN
At the largest of the Great Lakes, you can get a free crash course in local history at the Lake Superior Marine Museum—and learn about the clockworks in the lighthouse on the South Pier of the Duluth Ship Canal, installed in about 1901. You can also access a self-guided tour of the Corps of Engineers’ Canal Park through your cell phone (dial 218-213-9069). It includes an old tug, the shipping canal, Duluth’s Aerial Lift Bridge, and the anchor display.
Baltimore Museum of Art
Matisse, Picasso, Cézanne, and Degas are among the heavyweights whose works are free for all to admire at the BMA. There are contemporary works, too, in a wing that reopened in November 2012, part of a $24.5 million renovation to be completed in 2014. A family audio tour (narrated by Matisse’s schnauzer Raoudi) highlights 20 works of art, and the museum also caters to kids with workshops and sketching tours.