163 Free Things to Do in America’s Top Destinations
Our favorite free things to do in America’s most-visited cities.
They say the best things in life are free, and for every avid traveler, it’s a sentiment worth keeping in mind. We combed the streets of some of America’s biggest tourist destinations, keeping a list of our favorite gratis activities in each one. The biggest takeaway? You can enjoy the spoils of just about anywhere without spending a dime.
1. Get up close and personal with the new Mangalitsa piglets at the Lincoln Park Zoo’s “Farm-in-the-Zoo.”
2. Experience the sounds of the Chicago Jazz Festival in Millennium Park.
3. Squeeze in a workout in the sun on Saturday mornings, with free yoga, tai chi, and pilates classes on the Great Lawn in Millennium Park.
4. Check out one of more than 200 free concerts that the Chicago Cultural Center hosts every year.
5. Make an appointment with a Chicago Greeter, and get one of three dozen insider tours of neighborhoods throughout the city.
6. Look over the three millennia of Middle Eastern treasures at the Oriental Institute, part of the University of Chicago in Hyde Park.
7. Learn about social reformer Jane Addams at the Hull-House Museum on the University of Illinois at Chicago campus.
8. There’s flora for everyone at the Garfield Park Conservatory, which contains spectacular aroids, a lush fern room, and a fine children’s garden, complete with play area.
9. Experience a sunset along The 606, Chicago’s elevated park, which has excellent views of the skyline.
10. From ancient Chinese pottery to Picasso, the Smart Museum at the University of Chicago is a great place to spend an afternoon.
11. Located just north of the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Alfred Caldwell Lilly Pool is a perfect respite from the surrounding bustle in any season.
12. With galleries profiling everything from North Korean society to monumental architecture from around the world, the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College is a gem.
13. To explore the National Museum of Mexican Art is to know the breadth of the Latino experience, in Chicago and beyond.
14. Visit the Crystal Gardens on Navy Pier. Look up and view 80-plus palm trees, “leapfrog” fountains, and a range of distinctly non-native foliage.
15. The original Water Tower’s City Gallery is a tiny marvel on Michigan Avenue, and you might find a photographic tribute to Charlie Trotter or an exploration of Chicago’s printmaking traditions within.
16. Inside the Harold Washington Library Center, visitors can make their way through more than 50 pieces of public art.
17. You can hear John C. Reilly as Abraham Lincoln or David Schwimmer as the Bean (a.k.a. Cloud Gate) via the Statue Stories Chicago program. Just swipe your phone on the statue’s tag to hear more than two dozen sculptures come to life as you visit them around the city.
19. Hike the high trail at Radnor Lake—the site has 1,200 acres and hosts canoe floats, wildflower walks, and aviary tours, all free and open to the public.
20. Located within the Country Music Hall of Fame, the legendary letterpress studio Hatch Show Print offers tours for $15 a person, but if you stop by the shop, you can see right into the work space and watch the posters printed, free of charge.
21. Built in 1897 as part of Tennessee's centennial celebration Nashville’s Parthenon is an exact copy of the Athenian one. While there’s a charge to enter the museum inside, viewing the façade is free.
22. Take in the Bluebird Cafe Early Show. Reservations are free and tickets become available online about a week before the show.
23. Meet your favorite author at Parnassus Books, Ann Patchett's neighborhood bookstore. Free readings, signings, and children’s events happen near daily.
24. Make the pilgrimage to CMA Music Fest, a weekend-long celebration of country music's biggest fans that offers of a plethora of budget-friendly things to do, from free concerts to meet-and-greets, giveaways, and more.
25. Open-house days at Vanderbilt's Dyer Observatory (the first Tuesday of every month, from 9 a.m. to noon) offer visitors the chance to try out the site's solar telescope, free of charge.
26. Stop by a practice of the Nashville Predators, the city’s hockey team, at the Centennial Sportsplex, which are always open to the public.
27. Live on the Green happens every summer in Public Square Park, and features established performers as well as emerging artists.
28. The Tennessee State Museum is a must-see for Southern history buffs. It's open six days a week, and admission is always free.
29. Nashville's Centennial Park has several free entertainment offerings, from plays to outdoor film screenings.
30. Come the holidays, keep your eye on the Nashville government website. In early December, that's where they'll announce the winners of the Ann Chapman Holiday Lights Contest, which you can visit for free.
31. Immerse yourself in art and music at LACMA, where during the summer they offer open outdoor jazz concerts on Friday nights, as well as gratis access to the museum on the second Tuesday of every month.
32. Indulge your inner birder and take a complimentary bird walk with the L.A. Audubon Society in the city’s many woodlands, lakes, shrubs, and salt water marshes.
33. Pay a visit to the magnificent Central Library in Downtown L.A.
34. Ears will be happy and wallets will be full, thanks to the countless free concerts offered during the summer all across town.
35. Take a stroll or bike ride down a portion of the Marvin Braude Bike Trail—a mostly-flat, well-paved 22-mile beach path running along the Pacific from Will Rodgers State Beach to Torrance.
37. At the Downtown L.A. ArtWalk the blossoming community convenes on the second Thursday of the month to showcase art, music, and more.
38. You can help counteract the effects the local car culture has on the environment by planing trees with the folks at Tree People, then spend the afternoon hiking Fryman Canyon.
39. Head over to Venice for Abbot Kinney First Fridays, to support locally owned businesses and peruse one of the city’s top art walks in one of its hippest neighborhoods.
40. Crane your neck at the historic Watts Towers, a series of 17 interconnected sculptural structures built over 33 years by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia.
41. There are free Metro Station art tours put on by the department of transportation called Metro Art Moves, which highlight murals, architecture, digital installations, and more.
42. Zen out at the donation-based morning meditations at Zenshuji Soto Temple in Little Tokyo, then stroll the 120-year-old neighborhood’s streets to see its restaurants, galleries, and indie clothing shops.
43. Capitalize on the complimentary, docent-led tours that take visitors through the interior space and gardens at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry.
44. Take a self-guided tour of the up-and-coming galleries in the unassuming alleyways of Chinatown’s Chung King Road on various Saturday nights, when they fling their doors open to the public.
45. One of the city’s most-filmed commercial buildings is also one of its oldest. The Bradbury is recognizable by its open cage elevators, marble stairs, and ornate iron railings.
46. The Los Angeles Conservancy website offers plenty of maps for self-guided walking architectural tours of the city, from locations spotted in “500 Days of Summer,” to the DTLA Arts District and more.
47. Built in 1899, the Hollywood Forever Cemetery is the resting place for some of Hollywood’s greats, like Johnny Ramone, Cecil B. DeMille, Jayne Mansfield, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, and more.
48. The Annenberg Space for Photography showcases digital and print photography from some of the world’s most renowned photographers alongside up-and-comers.
49. Angelenos love to climb the city’s staircases—originally designed to connect steep-streeted communities in the 1920s—to fit in a workout. Use the Secret Stairs app to get sweat like the locals in Echo Park, Silverlake, Santa Monica, and beyond.
50. The sights and sounds at the Original Farmers Market are a feast for the senses, and entry is free.
51. The stunning Malibu property at the Getty Villa, part of the Getty Center, focuses on Greek, Roman and Etrurian art, is also free to visit.
52. The La Brea Tar Pits in Hancock Park are home to the largest discovery of Ice Age fossils in the world. You can always wander the outdoor grounds, and on the first Tuesday of the month, they also offer free museum and active archeological site visits.
53. Griffith Park is the largest municipal park with urban wilderness area in the country. They offer free access to the building and grounds, as well as complimentary entry to their star parties and guided sunset walks.
54. The Broad Museum in Downtown L.A. opens September 20 and plans to make art democratic by extending complimentary general admission.
55. Get a dose of local Latino culture and history at Olvera Street while shopping, listening to mariachi music, and watching traditional folkloric dances.
56. The Museum of Modern Art offers free admission every Friday from 4 p.m. to 8 pm., and you can visit the sculpture garden for free every morning from 9:30 to 10 am.
57. The Financial District’s Federal Bank of New York holds more than 6,500 tons of gold. Anyone can sign up for a free tour of the gold vault on weekday afternoons.
58. Visit the bucolic Brooklyn Botanic Garden on Tuesdays, when its admission fee is waived
59. For a peek inside a preserved historic home, head to Hamilton Grange in Harlem, Alexander Hamilton’s former home.
60. The Dia Foundation has several art installations in New York City, but the most impressive are the New York Earth Room and the Broken Kilometer. Though closed for the summer, they will reopen in September.
61. You can go stargazing on the High Line every Tuesday starting at dusk. The Amateur Astronomers Association sets up telescopes on the section between West 15th and West 16th Streets.
62. Bryant Park is one of the city’s liveliest spots during the summer, with lots of free activities. Yoga fans should head there on Tuesday mornings at 10 a.m., or Thursday evenings at 6 p.m., for free classes.
63. A handful of NYC parks offer free outdoor movies during the summer. There’s still time to catch the end of the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival and Syfy Movies with a View at Brooklyn Bridge Park.
64. During the summer, there are few things more pleasurable than taking a ride on a boat, and the Staten Island Ferry is absolutely free.
65. There are hundreds of art galleries in Chelsea, mostly located between W. 14th Street and W. 29th Street around 10th and 11th Avenues. They’re free to visit during opening hours, and many put on museum-quality exhibits (check out Gagosian, David Zwirner, Milk Gallery, and Pace).
66. New York has plenty of public beaches that are free to visit. Brighton Beach, is near Coney Island, but is more under-the-radar and full of Russian restaurants. The Rockaways draw surfers to Queens, and Fort Tilden is a favorite among hipsters.
67. It’s easy to overlook the public library, but the Schwarzman Building on 42nd Street and 5th Avenue is one of the city’s architectural gems. It’s not only free to visit, but it also hosts exhibits, docent-led tours, and talks with acclaimed authors.
68. One of the most alluring aspects of Grand Central Terminal is the Whispering Gallery under the Guastavino-tiled arches near the Oyster Bar. When two people stand at diagonal arches and whisper to each other, their voices ring through like an old game of telephone.
69. Central Park is free and open to the public, but not many people know that the Central Park Conservancy offers free guided tours of Manhattan’s largest park.
70. SummerStage concerts in the city’s parks are ending soon, but the Harlem Meer Performance Festival will continue into September.
71. Occupying 8 out of 16 acres where the World Trade Center once stood, the 9/11 Memorial honors the lives of those lost during the terrorist attacks on the site in 1993 and 2001. While the museum is complimentary only for 9/11 survivors and their families, the outdoor memorial is always free.
72. Brooklyn Bridge Park curves around the waterfront in DUMBO and Brooklyn Heights, and is chock full of activities, from basketball to bocce, and a pop-up pool made of recycled shipping containers.
73. Stop by the pioneering Brooklyn Brewery in Williamsburg to learn about the fine art and science of beer making. There are free tours every half hour on the weekends.
74. One of Brooklyn’s best craft distilleries, the New York Distilling Company, opens its doors to the public for free tours and tastings on Saturdays and Sundays from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.
75. Fans of the Tonight Show can watch a taping with Jimmy Fallon at NBC’s studios in Rockefeller Center with a bit of advanced planning. Free tickets are released a month in advance, though if you’re lucky you can get standby tickets the night of the event.
77. Nearly everyone who comes to D.C. plans to stroll around the city’s famous National Mall and Memorial Parks. While the monuments are free anyway, you might not know that the National Park Service offers free tours at most of these sites on the hour.
78. One of the best things about visiting the city is its abundance of free museums. The Smithsonian Institution operates 17 museums in the D.C. Metro area that offer free admission.
79. The drum circle at Meridian Hill Park is one of the city’s longest-running traditions.
80. Just north of Georgetown, the Washington National Cathedral is one of the more recognizable landmarks in Washington; tours are free on Sundays.
81. Rock Creek Park spans more than 2,000 acres in Northwest D.C. with hiking trails, picnic grounds, an ampitheatre with a summer concert series, bicycle paths, a tennis center, and more.
82. Another key member of the free museums in the Smithsonian Institution is the National Zoo, located in the southern end of Rock Creek Park.
83. For a quick fix of nature and beauty, the U.S. National Arboretum has colorful azalea gardens in the spring, a holly and magnolia garden in the fall and winter, the Bonsai & Penjing Museum, and the National Grove of State Trees.
84. The most popular spot for watching planes land at Reagan National Airport is Gravelly Point, located just next to the airport in Arlington, Virginia.
85. Anyone can take a free tour of the White House with some advance planning.
86. The Shakespeare Theatre Company shares the famous playwright’s work with as many Washingtonians and visitors as possible through its Free For All shows.
87. Tucked among the Smithsonian museums near the Capitol building, the U.S. Botanic Garden features plants from all over the world, from desert-friendly succulents to a tropical rainforest, to regional mid-Atlantic plants.
88. Free outdoor movies are a favorite summer event in the city, especially the 17-year-old Screen on the Green on the National Mall, which generally shows classic movies.
89. The U.S. Capitol Visitor Center also offers tours of the Capitol, including the Crypt, the Rotunda, and the National Statuary Hall.
90. The Folger Shakespeare Library offers free tours of its collection, reading rooms, and Elizabethan garden.
91. Just across the Memorial Bridge from the Lincoln Memorial lies Arlington National Cemetery, which honors America’s fallen men and women of the military.
92. For an especially scenic tour of Georgetown, hop on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Trail.
93. Every summer, the National Gallery of Art hosts a concert series in its sculpture garden called Jazz in the Garden.
94. At the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, there’s a free performance very day at 6 p.m. at The Millennium Stage; there are also free guided tours of its theaters, artworks, and the Hall of Nations.
95. One of the most beautiful buildings in town is the Thomas Jefferson building at the Library of Congress, open since 1897. Free walk-in tours discuss the art and architecture of the building, its contents, and more.
96. See the original Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, and Bill of Rights at the National Archives, which houses all three as well as exhibit rooms, a theater, and a learning center.
97. Located on the National Mall, the National Gallery of Art and its various events are free to the public, as are guided tours of the museum’s many collections.
98. There aren’t any guided tours of the Supreme Court, but visitors can hear arguments, walk around the first and ground floors of the building, and on weekdays can attend free 30-minute Courtroom Lectures.
99. Many Washingtonians have a serious love for the free Fort Reno summer concert series that features local punk bands in a relaxed park in Tenleytown.
100. As part of Passport DC, countries including Japan, Belize, Qatar, Ghana, and Costa Rica offer free admission to their embassies in the city, along with exhibitions, performances, and cooking demonstrations that highlight their culture and traditions.
102. Catch Off the Grid’s popular Twilight at the Presidio campfire party every Thursday, from April through October from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
103. Every Tuesday at 6:15 p.m., Grace Cathedral floods with urbanites toting neon yoga mats for a soothing, free yoga class that sprawls throughout the entire cathedral.
104. Several free film screenings happen in parks across the Bay Area each summer, spanning from the Mission to Napa.
105. Once a month the city’s globetrotting literati convene at the Hotel Rex bar for Weekday Wanderlust, a chance to mingle and swap stories of their travels.
106. One of the most renowned museums in San Francisco, the de Young, is free on Friday evenings.
107. There are many urban hikes throughout the city. One of the best is the Lands End trail, which begins near the ritzy Sea Cliff neighborhood, then winds around the craggy coast along the Pacific.
108. From Sansome Street, make your way up the Filbert Street Steps, a steep wooden staircase that leads to to the top of Telegraph Hill, where you’ll find Coit Tower and a 360-degree view of San Francisco and the Bay.
109. At Oakland’s monthly Art Murmur event, dozens of local galleries open their doors to the art-curious, while food trucks and street performers take over the streets.
110. Not many people know about the Wave Organ, an acoustic metal sculpture that the Exploratorium installed nearly 30 years ago.
111. In the Outer Sunset district, the aptly named Grandview Park provides vistas that span downtown to the Golden Gate Bridge and, on a clear day, even Pt. Reyes.
112. Giants Stadium is the only stadium in the U.S. that offers a designated space where fans can watch the games for free.
113. The Cal Sailing Club hosts an open house almost every month, giving free rides on their fleet from the Berkeley Marina.
114. Local figure Deleano Seymor is famous locally for his immersive and informative free tours of the Tenderloin (by appointment; donations appreciated).
115. Inside the Presidio are stunning works of art crafted from natural materials by famed artist Andy Goldsworthy.
117. Every second and third Tuesday of the month, Milk Bar, a small trendy bar in the Upper Haight, hosts a free comedy night with local and national comics.
118. From July to October, the annual People in Plazas festival kicks off at squares across the city, offering more than 140 free lunchtime micro concerts.
119. The best way to see the Bay Area’s bounty of heirloom produce and flowers is at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturday mornings.
120. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is coming up October 2 through 4 in Golden Gate Park. The annual festival sets up multiple stages for three days of totally free musical fun.
121. Get a free crash course in the lore of San Francisco’s most Instagramable transport system at the Cable Car Museum.
122. Beginning in late August, the KA Theatre in MGM Grand opens its doors to the public every Tuesday between 11 a.m and 11:30 a.m. for the ultimate insider tour of the mechanics of this $165 million production.
123. The world’s largest permanent circus can be found at Circus-Circus, where you can watch death-defying stunts by unicyclists and acrobats high above the casino floor at no charge every half hour.
124. On weekends starting at 7 p.m., join the Carnival-like parade of dancers and acrobats dance down the Rio’s main course hourly during the Masquerade in the Sky at Rio.
125. The largest gold nugget in the world is right here in Las Vegas—at The Golden Nugget.
126. Local chocolatier Ethel M sits right in one of the largest botanical cactus gardens in the world, and you can take factory tours (free samples!) after a stroll of the unusual gardens.
127. Don’t want to leave the strip? Don’t miss M&M’s World, a four-floor chocoholic’s haven, with a free 3-D movie starring Red and Yellow.
128. Right across the street, Hershey’s Chocolate World has opened in New York-New York, a two-story flagship featuring an 800-pound chocolate Statue of Liberty.
129. Incredible public artworks on the 67-acre CityCenter campus include 15 works by artists such as Nancy Rubin, Claes Oldernburg and Coosje van Bruggen.
130. Within Crystals, CityCenter’s high-end mall, light artist James Turrell has installed Shards of Color—four recessed geometric shapes lit in neon.
132. The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas houses some of the best free art around: there are the so-called Wallworks—murals by artists like Kenny Scharf and Shepard Fairey—on the concrete walls of the parking garage, and much more.
133. P3 Studio has hosted artists from Fab 5 Freddy to Shelter Serra, who work there for several weeks; passersby can wander in and often take part in an interactive art piece.
134. At Wynn Las Vegas, look for the 7-foot-tall, 2,000-pound Popeye sculpture by Jeff Koons right on the shopping esplanade that Steve Wynn purchased for $28 million.
135. Love Pawn Stars? Line up early to get a look inside the real Gold and Silver Pawn Shop in Downtown Vegas.
136. This fall, Rick Harrison opens a kingdom for his devoted followers in the form of Pawn Plaza, a giant shopping center made out of shipping containers with retail and restaurant tenants.
137. You could hold your dream nuptials at Denny’s, on Fremont Street, or just gawk at it with your family between the hours of 4 p.m. and 10 p.m., when kids eat free.
138. The best way to drink for (nearly) free is to play the slots at older downtown casinos, such as El Cortez, Golden Nugget and The D, where the play amounts are lower. (Still, make sure you tip, or your server will mysteriously become unavailable.)
139. The 9-foot-tall chrome Lucky Cat at the Cosmopolitan dispenses fortunes free to those who put their hand on his paw. They vary from fortune cookie messages to free drinks and room nights.
140. You’ll inevitably end up at the Fountains of Bellagio, which recently added a three-song electronic medley by Tiesto to its lineup of Celine Dion, Andrea Bocelli and Tony Bennett.
141. Some of the best gawking in Las Vegas happens inside the Bellagio’s 14,000-square-foot, skylit conservatory, where 120 horticulturalists, engineers and designers create incredible displays.
144. … but the nearby 50,000-gallon aquarium is even better. Enjoy this water-tainment without guilt: Vegas resorts account for just seven percent of the Las Vegas Valley’s water use: overall, some 80 percent of the Strip’s water is returned to Lake Mead.
145. The open-air Grand Bazaar Shops has opened across the street from Bellagio, mashing up the outdoor dining and retail concepts from Seattle to Marrakesh.
146. Don’t miss the massive new Swarovski Starburst, a 14-foot LED-lit crystal starburst that lights up the Grand Bazaar Shops at night.
147. Nearby you can stroll along the new LINQ entertainment corridor, which runs perpendicular to the Strip, all the way to the High Roller.
148. Don’t miss The Polaroid Fotobar, one of the best free hidden gems in Las Vegas—a museum open until 2 a.m. on the weekends, and midnight on other days, that showcases great work of photographers working in the format.
149. On the south end of the Strip, the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign, a symbol of excess once perched on a perilous median, is now solar powered and has plenty of convenient parking.
150. There’s the spewing volcano in front of the Mirage—now with flame shooters, a soundtrack, and water and lighting effects. It starts each night at 5 p.m., erupting every 30 minutes until 11 p.m.
151. Check out the Downtown Container Park, a retail, dining and play park made entirely of shipping containers. Find the free entertainment calendar, including a new outdoor family movie series, on the park’s website.
152. Do a self-guided tour of the Fremont East Entertainment District, whose refurbished vintage neon lights include the famous horseback rider from the Hacienda Hotel, a red slipper and a martini glass—and the newest addition: a new neon sign of a 30-foot-tall Pabst Blue Ribbon.
153. Hike in Forest Park, one of the largest natural areas in any city in the U.S., filled with fiddlehead ferns, 112 bird species and 62 types of mammals.
154. Tour the International Rose Test Garden, inhaling blooms that are being developed and evaluated for scent and color, and can't be seen anywhere else in the world.
155. The Simpsons creator Matt Groening is from Portland, and named some of the show's major characters after streets in Northwest Portland. From NW 2nd Street to NW 24th Street, and from Burnside to Vaughn, there are roads named Flanders (Ned Flanders), Lovejoy (Reverend Lovejoy), Quimby (Mayor Quimby), and Kearney (one of the bullies).
156. Flip through hardbacks in the Rare Room at Powell's City of Books, the country's largest independent bookstore.
157. Mount Tabor is a volcanic cinder cone that's now home to a city park, where you can walk on paved or dirt trails, enjoy a picnic, or take kids to the playground. On a clear day, you can see Mt. Hood from the top.
158. Tour the Oregon Rail Heritage Center; there's no entrance fee to see the museum's vintage steam locomotives.
160. Tilikum Crossing opens September 12, the first bridge in the country made to carry walkers, bikers, and public transportation—but no cars.
161. Pop into galleries with the First Thursday Gallery Walk each month from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., with more than 20 participating galleries downtown.
162. The beloved young adult author Beverly Cleary grew up in town, and Grant Park has bronze sculptures of three of her characters: Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins, and Henry's dog Ribsy.
163. Cruise along the Eastbank Esplanade, a paved 1.5-mile path with awesome downtown views. It runs along the river and links up to the 20-mile Springwater Corridor trail, if you want to go farther.
Written by Andrea Bennett, Max Grinnell, Caroline Hallemann, Laura Itzkowitz, Amy McKeever, Jenna Scatena, Krista Simmons, Sarah Z. Wexler.