Free is good, especially when you are on vacation. With hotel bills and airline tickets, even the vacation basics can get expensive. Add museum admissions, event tickets, sightseeing tour fees and pricy big city restaurants into the mix, and your weeklong urban vacation budget could be blown in a couple of days.
For frugal travelers, some cities are better than others. Every city has free attractions, but sometimes that does not go much beyond activities like feeding crumbs to pigeons in a park. Luckily, there are cities with heaps of free activities that can make a trip exciting without making it expensive.
Here are the best cities for free activities.
This city is a budget traveler’s playground. There are free activities galore. The Anheuser-Busch brewery offers tours daily. The tour features views of the brewery’s inner workings and includes free samples. The smaller Shlafly Brewery has a similar experience and will appeal to beer purists and those who consider Budweiser too flavorless. Saint Louis also has a full museum menu. Despite being world class museums (of the type that charge high admission in most cities), the Saint Louis Art Museum, History Museum and Science Center are all free. The Saint Louis Zoo is one of the few completely free zoos remaining in the United States. If museums and beer aren’t your thing, Saint Louis is filled with outdoor art and features summertime theater performances at the historic Muny amphitheater.
The obvious attractions here are the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial and other similar sites. Recognizable government buildings also offer snap-shot-taking opportunities. Of course, a visit to Washington DC can go well beyond having your picture taken in front of the White House and Lincoln Memorial. The National Zoo, Library of Congress, National Air and Space Museum and National Archives are all free with the latter three offering regular docent-led tours. And there are plenty of additional options beyond the well-known attractions. The National Museum of Women’s Art, the Goethe Institute, the Mexican Cultural Institute and the African American Civil War Memorial also have historic and sightseeing value. The Kennedy Center, National Theater and National Gallery of Art all have free weekly concerts during the warmer months. This is only a small sample of DC’s freebies.
Houston is a sprawling city that can be difficult to navigate. But there are plenty of free activities and most take place at centrally-located venues. Some of the city’s museums are free all of the time, and most, if not all, offer free admission on certain days or evenings. Some rely on corporate sponsorship to offer a free day once a week or once a month. The Children’s Museum, for example, has free admission on Thursday evening (and is reasonably priced anyway). The Museum of Fine Arts is free on Thursdays and the well-respected Houston Photography Center regularly hosts free events. The Cullen Sculpture Gardens is a popular, free outdoor option. But the free-ness goes beyond the museum scene. For example, Houston’s Port Authority offers free 90-minute cruises around the Houston ship channel.
This art-happy city in the Northern Midwest has plenty of free museums and events. The Minneapolis Institute of Art never charges admission and the world-renown Walker Art Center offers free admission on some evenings. The sculpture garden, adjacent to the Walker, is free every day. The Como Park Zoo (actually located in Minneapolis’s smaller twin, Saint Paul), is one of the few remaining free zoos in the country. Free concerts are held in Downtown Minneapolis during the summer. And a stroll around one of the city’s picturesque lakes is always free.
The user-friendly West Coast city is filled with money saving opportunities. Forest Park, one of the world’s largest urban parklands, is a popular attraction for nature lovers. Pioneer Courthouse Square, a uniquely designed central commons area in Downtown Portland, is known as Portland’s living room. There are frequent performances and events held in the square and food vendors can be found in the area at meal times. Portland is known for its arts scene. Whereas most cities have art walks once a month (where art galleries open their doors to the general public), Portland’s art parties happen twice monthly. The more upscale Pearl District has open houses in galleries on the first Thursday of the month, while the hip Alberta District hosts a more colorful event (complete with music, street performers and artists selling their work on the street) on the final Thursday of the month.