America’s Favorite Cities for Affordable Getaways
“Norfolk once had a bad reputation as a Navy Town,” says one Travel + Leisure reader from the Virginia port city. “While we still are a Navy Town (and proud of it!), we’re so much more.”
Indeed, Norfolk is home to a strikingly full calendar of events. The best part? Most of them are free to attend.
In our annual America's Favorite Places survey, we ask T+L readers to dish about their hometowns — the place they grew up or have lived in and know better than anywhere else on Earth. Unlike the World's Best Awards, which encourages readers to weigh in on travel experiences across the globe, the America's Favorite Places survey is a way for locals to share what their hometowns do best.
And when it comes to scoping out the best free things to do in a destination, who better to turn to than locals? They selected Norfolk as one of this year’s favorite cities for an affordable getaway, thanks to its wealth of free events. Yet coastal Norfolk is an outlier. Eight out of 10 high-scoring cities are located inland, with a plurality in the Corn Belt states of the Midwest.
Regardless of region, each of these cities offer a priceless combination of standout attractions at low to no cost. So read on for this year’s picks of America’s favorite cities for affordable getaways — and put away your wallet.
15. Chicago, Illinois
The Windy City comes in as number 15 on this year’s list of America’s favorite cities for affordable attractions, thanks largely to its collection of activity-filled public parks. In West Chicago, the massive Garfield Park Conservatory (the third largest plant conservatory in the world) displays thousands of species in jungle-like settings under its glass roofs. Near the lakefront, the Lincoln Park Zoo is one of the last major zoos to offer free admission. More than 1,000 animals representing over 200 species — many of them rare and endangered — call its spacious, landscaped enclosures home. And in the downtown Loop, Maggie Daley Park Play Garden is a must for families traveling with children. Close to the iconic Bean of Millennium Park, the 20-acre whimsical playground has a lighthouse, ship, gardens, and picnic areas.
14. San Antonio, Texas
Remember the Alamo? Travelers to San Antonio will be pleasantly surprised to find that visiting the historic mission is free. The 18th-century Catholic convent, site of a pivotal battle during the Texas Revolution in 1836, is the most visited attraction in the state. After touring the UNESCO World Heritage site, visitors can meander the famed San Antonio Riverwalk, a 15-mile park lined with restaurants, bars, and skyline views.
13. Greenville, South Carolina
This charming South Carolina city at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains made it onto T+L’s list of The 50 Best Places to Travel in 2018 due to its rising status in the culinary world. But there’s plenty to do between meals here, and readers appreciate the town’s affordable attractions. Visit the free-of-charge Greenville County Museum of Art (home to impressive collections of works by Andrew Wyeth, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns) or bike along the scenic, 20-mile Swamp Rabbit Trail, before heading to the just-opened outpost of Husk, chef Sean Brock’s ode to New Southern cuisine.
12. Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota
Twin Cities residents are famous for being “Minnesota Nice,” and T+L readers find their hometowns to be just as friendly on the budget. Several local breweries, such as St. Paul’s popular Summit Brewing, offer free tours with samples. And admission is always free at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, with its encyclopedic collection of 80,000 pieces that covers 5,000 years of history. Come summertime, the annual Minnesota State Fair is one of the most renowned in the country. While it doesn’t cost a cent to enter the fairgrounds, there’s no guarantee how much you’ll spend on fried cheese curds, nachos, and grilled cheese bites.
11. Santa Fe, New Mexico
T+L readers have a soft spot for Santa Fe, New Mexico’s artsy, all-adobe capital, which has no shortage of light-on-the-wallet activities. (It was even the 2017 readers' choice for Destination of the Year.) Go gallery hopping along Canyon Road, which is home to hundreds of artist studios showcasing colorful creations, and explore the vibrant galleries at the Museum of Contemporary Native Art (admission: $5), explores modern American Indian culture. Locals and visitors alike converge in the historic central Plaza to hear live music at the bandstand and enjoy cheap, made-to-order fajitas from street vendors.
10. Grand Rapids, Michigan
Michigan’s second-largest city is packed with affordable attractions for visitors. Each fall, for example, the downtown hosts ArtPrize, the world’s largest art competition, in which local museums, offices, bars, and even laundromats become exhibition venues for artists from around the world. And year-round, architecture lovers will want to stroll Heritage Hill, just east of downtown. The landmarked district of 1,300 homes showcases dozens of styles of American architecture after 1843, when the city’s lumber barons first began building there. Walking the streets of a virtual open-air museum, visitors should be sure to stop by the Meyer May house, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Touring the 1909 home is free of charge, and offers an inside look inside the restored Prairie-style masterpiece.
9. Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Brew City is bubbling up on travelers’ radars, thanks to its thriving arts and theater scenes, beautiful lakeside setting, and — of course — abundance of breweries. And travelers looking for an affordable getaway in the Wisconsin city will find ample free attractions to check out. While the Milwaukee Art Museum charges a $19 entrance fee, it’s waived the first Thursday of every month. Plus, the gleaming Santiago Calatrava-designed building is itself a work of art, so stop by at least to see its spired exterior. Later that evening, sample the brews on offer with a free tour of Miller; or head to a Brewers game, where day-of tickets can go for as low as one dollar.
8. Cleveland, Ohio
On the southern shores of Lake Erie, Cleveland, Ohio, is a leading destination for arts and culture lovers — especially those looking for an affordable alternative to other meccas like New York City. The Cleveland Museum of Arts, which holds one of the country’s greatest collections, is free of charge, and the prestigious Cleveland Orchestra offers free tickets at select concerts to anyone under 18 (a boon for families). Hear even more tunes at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where the premier instrumentalists of tomorrow regularly perform in recitals open to the public.
7. Rochester, New York
Just south of Lake Ontario, on the Genesee River, Rochester is a university town with a proud industrial history. T+L readers give Kodak City high marks for its affordable attractions, including its downtown ARTWalk, which connects several of its major arts centers and parks with a sculpture-dotted trail. There's also Maplewood Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. The leafy green space has a sprawling rose garden (home to 3,000 plantings) and offers views of two waterfalls in the river gorge below.
6. New Orleans, Louisiana
Luckily for visitors, the Big Easy can be easy on the wallet, too. Live music fills the streets of the historic French Quarter, where the party rages during the city’s many free festivals, including legendary Mardis Gras. And the city’s famously delicious food is often astoundingly affordable: the massive po-boy sandwiches at local favorite Adams Street Grocery, near Tulane, all cost under $10, and an order of fluffy beignets at New Orleans Coffee & Beignet (away from the lines at Cafe du Monde), is a sweet steal at $3.
5. Indianapolis, Indiana
T+L readers with little ones in tow think Indiana’s state capital is an ideal destination for families. Its Children’s Museum — the world’s largest — rewards advanced ticket buyers with steep discounts (think: $5 per ticket) to see its five floors of exhibitions, including a steam locomotive, dinosaur habitat, and a carousel. The recently-completed Indianapolis Cultural Trail, meanwhile, is Indy’s prized new park. The eight-mile ring of bike and walking paths connect the revitalized downtown to surrounding neighborhoods. With the local bikeshare day passes costing just $8, it’s an affordable way for the whole family to explore the city.
4. St. Louis, Missouri
By the time St. Louis hosted the World’s Fair in 1904, its population had ballooned to America’s fourth largest city. Today, the Gateway to the West’s cultural heritage remains in the form of premier national cultural institutions — several of which are free to experience. The Saint Louis Museum of Art, for example, is one of the largest fine arts museums in the country, and it has a particularly strong collection of German artworks (thanks to the ancestry of many St. Louis settlers). In summer months, the Municipal Opera company stages musicals at the country’s largest and oldest outdoor theater, where the last nine rows are available on a first come, first served basis: no tickets required. And at St. Louis Zoo, which ranks alongside San Diego’s famed animal haven, visitors can see thousands of animals representing every continent, without the $60 tickets of its California peer.
3. Buffalo, New York
Shuffle off to Buffalo for some affordable activities, say T+L readers. Get your bearings at the Art Deco city hall, where the 28th floor observation deck is open to the public and offers the best vantage point in town. Next, stroll the mural-lined streets of Allentown, a historic neighborhood north of downtown now famous for its ever-expanding collection of street art. Along the spruced up waterfront, the new Canalside district comes alive with free concerts and festivals in the summer. Only slightly further afield — just 25 minutes west on I-90 — natural wonders await at Niagara Falls State Park. The oldest state park in the country, it has some of the best views of the massive falls.
2. Norfolk, Virginia
T+L readers recommend timing your visit to this Virginia naval city to coincide with one of its many annual festivals, most of which take place along the waterfront at Town Point Park. These make for an affordable and efficient way to get a taste of local life in the hometown of the world’s largest navy base. Harborfest is one of the most popular events, and is now in its 42nd year. It honors the region’s close ties to the sea with concerts, beer and wine tastings, fireworks, and, of course, water activities like an awe-inspiring Parade of Sails. Escape from the Harborfest crowds for at least an afternoon to check out another free attraction in Norfolk: the compact but impressive Chrysler Museum of Art. Along with its world-famous collection of glass, the museum is also home to Tintorettos, Cézannes, Cassatts, Pollocks, and Warhols.
1. Washington, D.C.
T+L readers selected Washington, D.C., as America’s favorite city for affordable attractions in this year’s survey — and with good reason. Virtually all of the capital's most notable attractions, such as the National Mall and its iconic monuments, are open to the public, making D.C. an ideal destination for budget-conscious travelers. And each year, a staggering 30 million culture seekers visit the 17 free-to-enter Smithsonian museums in the District. Many of them put on free events, too. One mainstay for locals is the National Portrait Gallery’s sculpture garden jazz concerts, a summer Friday tradition since 2000. And don’t miss the National Zoo. Also part of the Smithsonian, it’s home to panda celebrities Tian Tian and Mei Xiang.