FOR THE (FREE) FUN OF IT
Whether you're on vacation or you just want to learn more about the city you live in, there are many free activities and events to take advantage of all over the United States. From West Coast sunset vistas to South Beach architecture, grab a camera and create memories without spending a dime in these 61 popular cities.
PAWN SHOPS AND CONCERTS IN LAS VEGAS
Everyone knows there's a ton of things to see and experience for free on the Strip, but head closer to downtown for family-friendly activities. On the east end of Fremont Street is the Downtown Container Park, which has shopping, dining, and most notably free concerts and family-friendly movie screenings often. And on your way downtown, stop at the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop, made famous by the TV show "Pawn Stars."
ELK REFUGE IN JACKSON HOLE, WYOMING
Gaze at herds of majestic elk at the National Elk Refuge just north of Jackson Hole. There are an estimated 11,000 elk on the refuge, which migrate up to 60 miles away in other parks. Bison, wolves, swans, and eagles can also be spotted here.
BUTTERFLY GARDEN IN LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY
The Louisville Nature Center is a great spot to get in tune with nature. It offers educational programs for kids and adults in an urban forest. There's also a butterfly garden, wildflower pond, hiking trails, a bird blind, exhibits, and rental spaces.
CHELSEA ART GALLERIES IN NEW YORK CITY
Sure, NYC is filled with world-class museums, but they're also pretty expensive to get into. Head to the Chelsea neighborhood where a number of modern art galleries are free to visit, like Gagosian Gallery. It's always nice to support young, local artists.
PARKS AND BOARDWALKS IN NEW YORK CITY
Of course you know about Central Park, but check out Brooklyn Bridge Park, which was created only a few years ago. You'll get some unique views of the most iconic bridge in the state. If you still feel like strolling, head to the famed Coney Island boardwalk to do a little people watching.
GRANT'S TOMB IN NEW YORK CITY
The largest mausoleum in the United States is located in Harlem. The General Ulysses S. Grant National Memorial houses the remains of our 18th president and his wife, Julia. Take time to reflect on the memorial's simple quote: Let us have peace.
TUBING IN PHOENIX
Though the price can add up with tube rentals and bus rides, tubing is free on the Salt River just outside Phoenix if you bring your own tubes. There's a free parking lot as well, you'll just have to walk a bit farther. It's a popular way to cool off in the desert sun.
TOUR A U.S. MINT IN PHILADELPHIA
After recreating the famous scenes from "Rocky," head to the U.S. Mint in Philly. Tours are free, self-guided, and take about 45 minutes. You'll see the coining operations floor and the press used to strike America's first coins in 1792.
INDEPENDENCE HALL IN PHILADELPHIA
BEACHES AND SUNSETS IN SAN DIEGO
San Diego has 17 miles of coastline, which makes for a lot of beaches. Swim, surf, play volleyball or sunbathe at any one of them. They've all got great views, but for the best sunset viewing spot, head to La Jolla Cove with its sandstone cliffs.
JFK MEMORIAL IN DALLAS
Pay homage to one of America's most inspiring presidents at the John F. Kennedy Memorial in Dallas. The memorial was dedicated in 1970 and its architecture symbolizes JFK's spirit. Just a short walk away is Dealey Plaza, the site of the assassination in 1963, where a smaller memorial sits.
STATE CAPITOL AND GRAFFITI MURALS IN AUSTIN, TEXAS
CABLE CAR MUSEUM IN SAN FRANCISCO
The old cable cars climbing San Francisco's hills are one of the city's most iconic symbols. Learn all about their history and technology at the Cable Car Museum. It's located in a functioning cable car barn in the Nob Hill neighborhood and houses historic photos, mechanical displays, vintage cable cars, and a gift shop.
GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE IN SAN FRANCISCO
There are a number of ways to take in the Golden Gate Bridge. Head to the Bridge Plaza visitor's center at the south end of the bridge to take in the view and learn the bridge's history. Pedestrians are allowed to walk the bridge's full 1.7-mile span for views of the city and Alcatraz.
FACTORY TOURS IN JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA
FREE MUSEUMS IN CLEVELAND
The Cleveland Museum of Art is always free. It houses and permanent collection of modern art masters like Picasso, Pollock, and Warhol. For something a bit different, head to the Cleveland Police Museum, where you can learn about policing in the 19th century and see exhibits like motorcycle and canine units.
MONUMENTS AND CULTURAL TRAILS IN INDIANAPOLIS
WINDOW SHOPPING IN LOS ANGELES
Just because those designer handbags are out of your budget doesn't mean you can't window shop on LA's many shopping streets. Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills is best known for its cameo in "Pretty Woman" and its high prices. Head to the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica for something a little more down to earth.
SEE THE ANIMALS IN CHICAGO
The Lincoln Park Zoo is one of the last major city zoos to remain free to the public, 365 days a year. If you head over in winter, seeing the penguins and polar bears enjoying the snow might make you hate winter a little less yourself.
GANGSTER HAUNTS IN CHICAGO
For those of us who are a little morbid, there are many gangster-related spots to see in Chicago. The Biograph Theater is on the National Register of Historic Places because it's where John Dillinger was shot in 1934. Drive by Al Capone's south side home at 7244 Prairie Ave. where Capone moved his family in 1923.
NAVY PIER IN CHICAGO
Navy Pier is a huge tourist attraction full of chain restaurants, kitschy souvenirs, and street performers. But near the middle of the long pier is the Driehaus Museum of stained glass, which offers a quieter experience. It doesn't even have to be sunny outside, as almost all the windows are illuminated by artificial light.
HISTORICAL SITES AND GARDENS IN CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA
James K. Polk, 11th president of the U.S., was born just southwest of Charlotte. Free 30-minute tours are offered of the restored homestead at the James K. Polk Memorial State Historic Site. Then visit the outdoor gardens and McMillan Greenhouse at the free Botanical Gardens at the University of North Carolina - Charlotte.
PIKE PLACE MARKET IN SEATTLE
Pike Place Market is one of Seattle's top tourist attractions, and with good reason. You could spend all day roaming around the market, looking at fishmongers, cheese shops, fruit vendors, and buskers. There's also a crafts market with more than 200 booths, and three floors of collectibles shops selling everything from comics to antiques.
SCENIC VISTAS IN LOS ANGELES
Hike around the 160-acre Runyon Canyon for some of the best views of LA (and potentially some celebs working out). If that's a little too much activity for you, check out the grounds of the Griffith Observatory instead — the observatory itself is one of the country's most iconic architectural landmarks — especially at night when the lights of the city twinkle below you.
SKATEBOARDING AND BOOKSTORES IN DENVER
Denver Skatepark is a huge complex of bowls, rails, and other obstacles for skateboarders of all abilities. Even if you don't skate, it's fun to watch those who know how to do it well. For something a little more mellow, check out locally owned Tattered Cover Book Store and browse its massive collection.
WALK THE MALL IN WASHINGTON, D.C.
If you've never been to Washington, D.C., then the first thing you need to do when you get there is walk the National Mall, the area between the United States Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial. There are countless free things to see, including the Washington Monument, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Korean Veterans Memorial, and the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool.
ARCHITECTURE AND CANDY IN DETROIT
Tour Detroit's acclaimed Main Library on a free docent-led walking tour. Tours last about one hour and highlight the architectural details of the Cass Gilbert-designed building. For something even sweeter, take the guided tour at the Sanders Chocolate factory, which includes delicious chocolate samples.
LIVE MUSIC IN NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE
Nashville is nicknamed Music City for a reason. There are countless spots where you can catch live music with no tickets or cover charges, like the famous Bluebird Cafe. Explore the Honky Tonk Highway, a section of Broadway Street downtown that houses countless bars and music venues that never charge a cover.
POLAR OPPOSITES IN PORTLAND, OREGON
The world's smallest park, Mill Ends Park, is really just a forgotten hole in the middle of a street median. But a journalist took a liking to it in the 1960s and turned it into a creative, playful spot for art and festivities. It's on the opposite end of the size spectrum from Powell's Books, the world's largest independent bookstore. It takes up a full city block.
ART MUSEUM IN OKLAHOMA CITY
The Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma is always free, thanks to a gift from the university's athletic department in 2012. The museum's collective features over 17,000 objects, including notable collections of French impressionism and American Southwest art.
INNER HARBOR AND EDGAR ALLAN POE'S GRAVE IN BALTIMORE
BREWERIES AND HIKING IN MILWAUKEE
Milwaukee has a long history of breweries, and it's where Miller Brewing was formed. Head to the 155-year-old brewery for a free tour of the production area and historic caves, plus free samples. Work off those calories with a hike along a ravine on the Seven Bridges Trail in Grant Park, where you'll end up on the beach.
EXAMINE PETROGLYPHS IN ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO
In the northwest part of Albuquerque lies Petroglyph National Monument. It's one of the largest petroglyph sites in the U.S., and you can enter and hike it for free. There are over 20,000 images carved into the volcanic rock by Native Americans and Spanish settlers centuries ago.
FISHING AND TUBING IN BOISE, IDAHO
Barber Park in Boise serves as a one-stop shop for all kinds of outdoor activities. You can go fishing in the stocked Boise River, or you can tube down it. Bring your own tube and there's no rental fee.
ANIMALS AND SCIENCE CENTER IN ST. LOUIS
LEARN ABOUT HISTORIC FIGURES IN ATLANTA
Examine Martin Luther King Jr.'s life and what he did for the civil rights movement in America at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. The 35-acre site includes his birth home, monuments, landmarks and his tomb. From there, head to the Anne Frank Exhibit, a free museum about the young Jewish girl who lost her life in the Holocaust.
PLANE-WATCHING IN RALEIGH, NORTH CAROLINA
The Raleigh-Durham International Airport has an outdoor observation deck set up near the air traffic control tower with views of the runways. They pipe in the communications between the pilots and air traffic control on loud speakers, and even have bathrooms if your kids want to stay the entire afternoon.
BEACHES AND ARCHITECTURE IN MIAMI
Miami has plenty of beautiful beaches to sun on. Choose South Beach for a vibrant party atmosphere and proximity to the art deco buildings Collins Avenue is known for. Once the sun goes down, take in the neon-lined architecture in SoBe.
BIRDS AND ALLIGATORS IN ORLANDO, FLORIDA
If you're vacationing in Orlando, you and your wallet may be feeling the Disney burnout. Head to the Black Hammock on Lake Jessup for free live alligator and bird exhibits. It's adjacent to the Black Hammock Wilderness area, where osprey and alligators nest.
FESTIVALS AND FARMERS MARKETS IN VIRGINIA BEACH, VIRGINIA
It's no surprise that most of the activities and events in Virginia Beach center around the beach. That includes the Old Beach Farmers Market, where you can browse rows of local produce, meat, dairy, and other food products. You may even run into a free festival, concert, or fireworks thanks to Beach Street USA.
SCULPTURE PARKS IN OMAHA, NE
Six city blocks of downtown Omaha have been turned into sculpture parks with more than 100 bronze sculptures. The sculptures at the Spirit of Nebraska's Wilderness and Pioneer Courage Park depict the story of the first pioneers to settle in the area.
MEGA MALL IN MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA
Malls can be great fun even if you're not planning to spend money, and the biggest mall of all is in Minneapolis. The Mall of America has over 500 stores for window shopping, plus a full amusement park, aquarium, flight simulation center and movie theater. Even if you don't spend any money, there's plenty of great people — and roller coaster — watching.
COVERED BRIDGES IN FAIRMONT, WEST VIRGINIA
West Virginia has 17 picturesque covered bridges, and many of them are clustered around Fairmont. The Barrackville Bridge is located just out of town, was built in 1853, and was spared in the Civil War by a local couple who argued with a general who ordered it burned down.
CEMETERY TOURS IN NEW ORLEANS
Cemeteries are a unique part of the NOLA landscape. Learn about how people are buried and who is buried where on a walking tour. Start at St. Louis Cemetery #1, the oldest cemetery in the city.
NATURE CENTER IN WICHITA, KANSAS
A cooperative effort by three government agencies, the Great Plains Nature Center in Wichita offers exhibits and educational programming to teach kids and adults about wildlife and nature in Kansas. Both indoor and outdoor exhibits are always free.
BEACHES AND MONUMENTS IN HONOLULU
Really a string of many separate beaches, Waikiki is a must-see for any visitors to Honolulu. Then pay your respects to the 1,102 sailors that died at the Pearl Harbor and U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, which is free to enter. (Note: The Arizona Memorial has been closed for repairs this year and is expected to reopen after Oct. 1, though a specific date has not been announced.)
PARKS AND ART CARS IN HOUSTON
BAT VIEWING IN HOUSTON
Houston is home to a large bat population. One of the best sites to view a colony is the Waugh Drive Bridge where a viewing platform has been built. The Mexican free-tailed bats spend the day under the bridge, then come out nightly to feed on insects. Head to the bridge around dusk to watch the colony take flight.
STAR GAZING IN PITTSBURGH
The Allegheny Observatory located at the University of Pittsburgh offers free tours during the summer months. You'll see a short video, get a tour of a facility, and end at the Fitz-Clark refractor where you'll be able to see celestial objects, weather permitting.
GRACELAND AND DUCK MARCH IN MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE
Though it's not cheap to enter Graceland, you can enter the meditation garden and pay your respects at Elvis' grave every day between 7:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. Later in the day, head to the Peabody Hotel to watch the resident ducks march into the lobby fountain, a tradition that's been going on for decades.
FIREFIGHTERS MUSEUM IN TAMPA, FLORIDA
Located in a 1911 building in downtown Tampa, the Tampa Firefighters Museum serves as a tribute to those who have served as firefighters in the city. Visitors can learn about the history of firefighting, the Tampa Fire Department, and fire safety and prevention.
SALMON VIEWING AND DISC GOLF IN ANCHORAGE, ALASKA
EXPLORE NATURE IN NEWARK, NEW JERSEY
Escape the hustle and bustle of the city while never leaving downtown at the Greater Newark Conservancy. Two buildings and outdoor gardens and ponds serve as an environmental classroom for all ages.
AUDUBON CENTER IN CONCORD, NEW HAMPSHIRE
The Susan M. McLane Audubon Center offers hiking trails, education programs, picnic areas and a gift shop. Most importantly, though, are the raptor mews, which house a bald eagle, red tailed hawk, falcons, and owls. Visit anytime between dawn and dusk for free.
ART MUSEUM IN DES MOINES, IOWA
Des Moines' main art museum, the Des Moines Art Center, has free admission all the time. It's collection is comprised of mostly contemporary art, which is displayed through three buildings. Don't forget to check out the grounds, including a reflecting pond and modern sculpture works.
CIVIL RIGHTS DISTRICT IN BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA
STATE CAPITOL BUILDING IN LITTLE ROCK, ARKANSAS
The State Capitol of Arkansas offers free guided tours on weekdays until 3 p.m. The building, which was completed in 1915, contains a rotunda with a stained glass seal of the state, exhibits on the history of the state, and 10-foot tall bronze doors purchased from Tiffany's.
PIONEER MUSEUM IN SALT LAKE CITY
The Pioneer Memorial Museum in Salt Lake City is dedicated to preserving the history of the first settlers who founded the city in 1847. It houses the world's largest collection of artifacts on one subject, along with a history department for genealogical and family research.
RAILROAD HISTORY IN SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA
The Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum houses a collection of local railroad and aviation artifacts, photos, and exhibits. Free docent-led tours are available, and you can take a 35-minute ride railbus ride on Saturdays.
HISTORIC HOME IN PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND
The 1707 home of Stephen Hopkins, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, has been turned into a small museum with guided tours. On the tour, you'll see the room where George Washington slept when he was a guest, the slaves' quarters, and countless antiques.
WATERFALLS IN SIOUX FALLS, SOUTH DAKOTA
Visit the waterfalls that are the city's namesake at Falls Park, located right in the middle of the city. The 123-acre park offers breathless views of the falls, along with a visitor center, bike paths, a farmers market, and picnic areas.
GOVERNOR'S MANSION IN JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI
The State Capitol of Mississippi is home to the second-oldest continuously occupied governor's mansion in the U.S. It was first occupied in 1842 and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1975. Visitors can tour the historic section of the mansion for free Tuesday through Friday mornings.
SMELL THE ROSES IN HARTFORD, CONNECTICUT
America's oldest public rose garden is located in Hartford. The Elizabeth Park Conservancy opened in 1897 and spans 103 acres today with various gardens, pond house, tennis courts, softball fields, and greenhouses.
HIKING WITH A VIEW IN BILLINGS, MONTANA
Billings is surrounded by geological sandstone formations called the Rimrocks, and most of them have hiking trails. Once you hike to the top of one of the cliffs, break out your camera for sweeping views of Billings.
SOUND RECORDING HISTORY IN DOVER, DE
Eldridge Reeves Johnson founded the Victor Talking Machine Co. in 1901. He was a native of Dover, and you can learn about him, his company, and the history of sound recording at the Johnson Victrola Museum.