Cheap Must-See Attractions in All 50 States
Summer is prime travel time. Whether you're in the midst of planning a road trip or looking at a map for the first time to decide where to go, you can count on finding plenty of free or cheap attractions across the country. Cheapism.com took an in-depth look at tourist destinations and found one site in every state that's sure to delight travelers on a budget.
The search factored in ways to reduce out-of-pocket expenses, whether in rural or urban settings. We did not set a specific price ceiling for the attractions, but where fees are imposed, they're generally less than $15 for adults and cheaper for children, seniors, military members, and sometimes for students; stated price ranges reflect these discounts or different tour options.
Birmingham is home to many inexpensive museums and historical sites. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute costs $12 for adults, but is free or discounted for seniors, college students, and youth. Across the street, the 16th Street Baptist Church offers daily tours for $5 a person; entrance to the church is by donation. Nearby, ride to the top of a tower at the Vulcan Park and Museum for a view of the city and learn about its history; tickets are $4 to $6.
Dog-sled teams are a symbol of the region and an important part of the area's history, and still used in Alaska. You can learn about the sled dogs at the Denali Kennels during the summer or winter. The kennels are located within the Denali National Park, which charges a $10 entrance fee for visitors 16 and older.
The Grand Canyon is a destination for travelers from around the world, but it's worth fighting the summertime crowds in the South Rim area. The visit can be as inexpensive as you make it; camping and grocery stores are friends to anyone on a budget. Take the time for a short hike, along the South Kaibab Trail to Cedar Ridge (1.5 miles) or Skeleton Point (3 miles), for example, and enjoy stunning views of the canyon from a different perspective.
One of the few attractions where you can make money by visiting, the diamond-bearing Crater of Diamonds State Park lets you keep what you find. Although your chances are low, a few diamonds are found almost every day; 585 in total during 2014, in fact. The fee for searching is $5 for children aged 6 through 12 and $8 for adults; diamond hunting kits (shovels, buckets, etc.) can be rented for $10 or $13 a day, depending on the contents.
Although the cost of living in San Francisco may be high, there are some surprisingly cheap and fun attractions to experience in the city. Watch a Giants' game for free from the waterfront promenade; tour the Mission District's street murals; walk across the Golden Gate Bridge; make faces at the sea lions at Pier 39; or take in a view of the city by riding up the glass elevator the Westin St. Francis hotel in Union Square.
Mesa Verde National Park in Montezuma County is a must-see if you're in southwest Colorado. Entrance to the park costs $15 a vehicle from late May to early September ($10 otherwise) and is valid for seven days; guided tours for the Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House cost $4 a person. This extra fee gives you access to the largest archeological preserve in the country, with structures that are at least 700 years old. The park website recommends several one-day itineraries as well as options for visitors with more time.
The Gillette Castle State Park in East Haddam boasts a 24-room mansion that looks like a medieval castle. Completed in 1919, the state of Connecticut bought the grounds and castle from the estate of William Hooker Gillette (a distinguished thespian of the time) in 1943. The site is fun, interesting, and enjoyable for all ages, according to TripAdvisor reviews. Parking and entrance to the park are free, but there's a $6 fee for ages 13 and up and $2 for ages 6 to 12 to enter the castle.
The Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington has something for everyone. History buffs can learn about the evolution of the DuPont Company while nature lovers will enjoy a tour of the estate. (The house is currently closed for restoration.) Entrance for children aged 6 to 14 is $5, adults pay $14, and students and seniors pay $10.
When you're in the nation's capital, the range of free and cheap things to do is almost endless. The Smithsonian museums are mandatory, and each of the constituent parts offers something different (e.g., air and space, natural history, American art).
Everglades National Park, the largest tropical wilderness in the United States, is just an hour west of Miami. The entry fee is $10 per car and it's good for seven days, leaving plenty of time to explore the park's fantastically diverse environment, which includes mangrove swamps, freshwater sloughs, and cypress forests. The park is home to a dazzling array of wildlife, ranging from crocodiles, manatees, and panthers to more than 350 species of birds and 300 species of fresh and saltwater fish.
One of Savannah's biggest attractions -- a stroll through the city's downtown historic district -- costs absolutely nothing. With cobblestone streets, beautiful churches, and many places to stop and grab a beer or coffee, this is a lovely way to spend an afternoon. If strolling isn't your thing, hop aboard downtown's free shuttle, which will ferry you around the historic district.
Lying on the beach, hiking, and snorkeling are all favorite pastimes in Hawaii, and none cost much. Visitors to the Big Island should stop by the National Volcano Park for a chance to get up close to an active volcano. Enter with a vehicle for $10 (good for seven days) and drive to the lookout points. There also are hikes for any fitness level or desired duration.
Near Boise, the Peregrine Fund's World Center for Birds of Prey is an 850-acre site with breeding facilities, offices, a research library, and educational centers. Visitors enjoy getting a close look at, and learning about, birds of prey from around the world. Entrance is $5 to $7 a person.
The Lincoln Park Zoo in northern Chicago is free. Recently, two lionesses and two red pandas moved in, and two babies -- a snow monkey and a gorilla -- were born. Parking at the zoo can be costly, but four city buses stop near or at the entrance and the Brown or Purple rapid transit lines can drop you off at Armitage station, about one mile away.
Racing enthusiasts shouldn't miss their chance to visit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the Indianapolis 500 and the Auto Racing Hall of Fame. Admission is inexpensive -- $5 to $8 (youth and adult prices, respectively) -- although a gate fee of $5 to $50, depending on the race, is added on race days. Tour the facility on non-race days, when a narrated lap around the track aboard a bus costs $5 to $8.
The High Trestle Trail just north of Des Moines is 25 miles long, but you can skip to the main attraction -- a 13-story bridge over the Des Moines River between the towns of Madrid and Woodward. The trail is free to explore, and the half-mile-long bridge is a work of art, with intentionally placed steel cribbing and blue LEDs that light up the structure at night.
Wichita's botanical gardens are a favorite attraction for residents and tourists alike. Admission is $5 to $7 and there are nearly 30 different gardens to explore, including one inspired by Shakespeare. Stroll across the meadows and through woodlands, or amble about the indoor greenhouse or butterfly house, the peony garden or the children's garden.
A little more than an hour's drive south of Louisville, the Maker's Mark distillery offers a tour and tasting for $9; children are free but only adults can imbibe. You'll learn about the history of bourbon and how it's made today. While visiting, you can buy a bottle of Maker's White, a one-day-old white whiskey. Some say the unaged spirit is more novelty than anything else.
With more than 9 million visitors a year, New Orleans is one of the world's most popular tourist destinations. Keep things cheap by enjoying the street music and take a free tour through Algiers Point, the Besthoff Sculpture Garden, and many cemeteries. The India House Hostel is just a few minutes from a streetcar stop and offers dorm or private rooms from $17 to $30 a guest.
Recently renovated and free to the public, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art features a mix of permanent and special exhibits. The painting and drawing collection dates back to 1811, but over the years, donations and acquisitions have added more than 20,000 pieces in a myriad of styles and media from around the world.
If you're stopping in Baltimore, don't miss the chance to visit Fort McHenry. The inspiration behind "The Star-Spangled Banner," the fort is accessible by public transportation. Entrance is $7 for those 16 or older, and there are free daily ranger talks at 11 a.m., 2 p.m., and 3 p.m.
Take a history-filled adventure and walking tour of Boston along the 2.5-mile Freedom Trail, which winds through the city's neighborhoods, with stops at more than 15 sites; many are free to enter. Guided tours cost $6.50 to $8 for children, $12 to $14 for adults, and $10 to $12 for seniors or students, but you can enjoy a free self-guided tour by reading information at each site and using the official Freedom Trail Foundation app.
The Mall of America is filled with more than just retail stores -- there's an aquarium, movie theater, house of comedy, CSI Barbie and Star Trek exhibits, and Lego store with a 34-foot Lego robot. Although walking around the mall is free, you're not likely to leave empty handed. Check the Mall of America's website for current promotions from retailers.
The Vicksburg National Military Park commemorates the battle of Vicksburg and the larger Vicksburg Campaign of the Civil War. Reviews at TripAdvisor give high marks to the licensed tour guides and the historical artifacts, including a gun boat, cannon display, and fortifications. The visitor center offers a 20-minute orientation video. Entrance is $8 a vehicle, and a guided tour (in your car) costs another $40 for up to two hours.
In the Missouri side of Kansas City, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is free for all visitors, which also offers free guided drop-in tours. There's an outdoor sculpture garden, visiting exhibits, and a permanent collection with works of art from around the world and throughout history. Reviews at TripAdvisor say it's worth a visit even if you aren't "museum people" and that there's something for everyone.
In Montana, the outdoors draws more visitors than any museum. Between Yellowstone ($30 entrance fee, good for seven days) and Glacier National Park ($15 to $25 entrance fee, good for seven days), there's no way to choose a "best" destination, so go with the one that suits your itinerary and interests.
Walk through Gene Leahy Mall in the central part of the city and enjoy the waterfalls and horseshoe pit. Hear concerts at the amphitheater during the summer and marvel at the thousands of lights adorning the park in winter. One highlight not to be missed: two large slides that children and adults like to race down.
Tour the historic sites in Portsmouth by following the Harbour Trail. Choose among the three sections -- downtown and the waterfront, the commercial and residential South End, or State Street to Haymarket Square -- or take it all in.
Atlantic City lacks the glamour of Las Vegas, but boy, does it have history. The boardwalk was a first in the United States; this is the birthplace of salt water taffy; and the city was known as "the world's playground" during the two decades before World War II. Sign up for the casinos' loyalty programs; even if you don't gamble, they offer benefits off the floor, such as discounted parking.
The Carlsbad Caverns beneath the Guadalupe Mountains contain more than 117 limestone caves. Entrance to the park costs $10 for those 16 and older (free for younger visitors), which includes self-guided tours through the caves; ranger-led tours cost an extra $8 to $20 for adults and $4 to $10 for children, depending on the tour. Time your visit to coincide with the bats' flight out of the caverns in the evening and you can catch the free Bat Flight talk by a park ranger.
A well-known secret among New Yorkers who regularly show the sights to out-of-towners, the free Staten Island ferry floats right past the Statue of Liberty for a view of the iconic lady. Many of the city's top attractions, such as Central Park, Grand Central Terminal, and Rockefeller Center, are free to enter. Summer visitors can take advantage of the no-cost concerts and movies presented in parks throughout the five boroughs.
Drive the 252-mile Blue Ridge Parkway for total immersion in the Blue Ridge Mountains and make pit stops along the way. Buy a treat at the Mast General Store (the oldest continuously operating general store in the country) in Valle Crucis, ride horseback through the woods on the Dutch Creek Trail in Sugar Grove, and take home a memento from the famous Folk Art Center in Asheville.
Located next to the capitol building in Bismarck, the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum is newly remodeled, open for business, and free to enter. Looking back at prehistoric times through to the era of the Northern Plains Indians to the present and on to the future, you'll get an extensive education about the area you're visiting. This is a must-see attraction, according to reviews at TripAdvisor.
Dedicated to the Wright brothers and the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historic Park offers visitors free tours and entrance to several museums and historical buildings. See Dunbar's home, the Wright brothers' bicycle shop, a flight simulator, and the flying field.
In Ponca City in northern Oklahoma, the Conoco Museum will appeal to some travelers. Admission is free, and the museum gives an in-depth history of the oil and gas company ConocoPhillips, the state's oil industry, and the oil and gas industry in general.
The Portland International Rose Test Garden, a.k.a. the Portland Rose Garden, boasts more than 650 varieties of roses and more than 10,000 flowers when in full bloom (that would be June). Entrance is free, as are the daily tours at 1 p.m. from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend.
An outdoor art performance that's become an annual tradition in Providence, WaterFire features more than 80 bonfires that line the city's waterways every Saturday evening from August through the beginning of October. (There are occasional partial or full lightings at other times of the year.) Walk along the river and enjoy the scene with the crowd, which can reach 100,000 people.
Charleston is a charming city filled with history -- this is where the first shots of the Civil War were fired. Take a name-your-own-price tour through Charleston with Free Tours by Foot, which offers several thematic tours, including ghost, architecture, food, and Civil War.
Many of South Dakota's popular sites are clustered in the state's southwest. Wall Drug Store, the Badlands, Mt. Rushmore, Custer State Park, and Mammoth Hot Springs can all be visited over several days. The national and state parks aren't expensive, and if you camp out, the total cost of the trip will be fairly cheap.
You can't visit Nashville without catching a few live shows. There are free concerts in Centennial Park on Saturdays in May, June, September, and October; free bluegrass on Sundays at the Station Inn; and free performances on Thursdays and Fridays by faculty and students from the Frist Center for the Visual Arts. To get around, hop aboard the Music City Circuit, the free downtown-area bus service.
Join the more than 2.5 million people who drop by the Alamo every year. Free to visit, the several remaining structures are fully supported by donations and proceeds from the gift shop. Audio tours are available for $7, but one recent visitor writes on TripAdvisor that you can learn just as much (or even more) by reading the posted information around the site.
Tackle two top sites in one trip by visiting Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks. It's worth taking several days at each to get the full experience. Unfortunately, the parks' popularity comes at a cost: accommodations can be limited and the entrance fee for both is $25 a vehicle (valid for seven days)
Hildene, in Manchester, Vermont, was the summer home of President Lincoln's eldest son. The house remained in the Lincoln family until 1975, and was purchased soon after by the Friends of Hildene. Admission costs $18 for adults and $5 for youth and includes access to the house, farm, and gardens.
Pike Place Market in Seattle is free to enter, but you likely won't leave without buying a nosh. This is one of the oldest farmers' markets in the country and spans nine acres. Watch fish fly at the Pike Place Fish Market, sip a cup of coffee at the original Starbucks, or try some fermented goodness at Britt's Pickles or a sweet bite at the Daily Dozen Doughnut Company.
Charles Town, in the easternmost part of West Virginia, is home to Bloomery Plantation Distillery, which offers free tours and tastes. It's small and tucked away, but reviews at TripAdvisor say it's well worth a stop.
Construction on the Basilica of St. Josaphat began more than 100 years ago and today the church stands as one of the top tourist attractions in Milwaukee. Admission is free, and the visitor center is open daily. Self-guided tours are always an option, but there's a free guided tour every Sunday after 10 a.m. mass.
A visit to Yellowstone shoots to the top of many bucket lists despite the $30 vehicle entrance fee, which is good for seven days. Even if you can't find a vacant campsite or cabin within the park, you can lodge nearby and spend all day sighing at the bounteous natural wonders.