Are you drawn to the big city when you travel, or do you thrive on active, outdoor adventures? Are you a museum buff or live music fanatic? Whatever you’re looking for on your next getaway, you can find it in the U.S. Best of all, satisfying your unique travel appetite doesn’t have to come at a price, as the U.S. is teeming with free (or very low cost) adventures for every kind of traveller.
If you love the big city
The U.S. has some of the most dynamic cities in the world — Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York … the list goes on. While venturing to one of these vibrant metropolises may make you think “expensive,“ they in fact hold some of the best free attractions going.
To start, these major cities, while stacked with their share of concrete, are home to incredible urban parks, each with their own unique features.
- New York’s Central Park is an iconic landmark that’s free to explore.
- Griffith Park overlooks L.A. and has 53 miles of trails to hike — go high enough and you can get spectacular views of the city below as well as the famous Hollywood sign.
- Millennium Park in Chicago, Boston Common and San Diego’s Balboa Park are free to enjoy and explore, and often feature public concerts, exhibits and other cultural events.
Consider too the landmarks you can take in while discovering the city by foot. The Brooklyn Bridge, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Golden Gate Bridge, Boston’s Beacon Hill and Chicago’s Navy Pier are photo-worthy sites with no cost of admission.
If you love the great outdoors
When you’re a fan of outdoor exploration, you’ve already got a great head start when it comes to finding amazing, free attractions and experiences.
The beaches south of Los Angeles — from Venice to Hermosa — offer all the free sand and surf you can handle. Travel a bit further south to San Diego and bathe in over 70 miles of coastline that’s yours to explore from the sea, the beach, or the hiking trail above. During the winter months, you can take in the spectacular grey whale migration here – no need to pay for a boat tour as you can spot this incredible natural event from shore.
In Florida, you’ve got two sides of the state to explore. The Gulf Coast is known for its laid-back, family-friendly beaches and calm waters in towns like Naples and Clearwater. Florida’s Atlantic side offers the energy and glitz of the Miami and Fort Lauderdale beach scene. While resorts might reserve chairs and umbrellas for their guests, the beaches — and the ocean — are open to everyone.
If you’re more of a rugged outdoor adventurer, you can’t beat the U.S. National Parks Service for exploring the country’s diverse terrain and scenery. There are currently 60 national parks in America, many of them with free entrance days (and some of them are free every day). Outside of free days, the fee to get in is generally not prohibitive ($10-$20 per individual or a flat rate for a car). Load up your vehicle with friends and get in for just a few dollars each!
One of the best known national parks is Yosemite in California, home to the largest slab of granite in the world, the tallest waterfall in North America, and 750 miles of trails. The Grand Canyon National Park, Yellowstone, and the Saguaro National Park all offer spectacular vistas and miles and miles of trails.
If you’re a history buff
Love digging into the history of the place you’re visiting? Want to keep costs down on your trip? You’re in luck! The U.S. has countless historic sites that are free to explore for everyone.
The Freedom Trail in Boston is a 4km (2.5 mi) red brick line that snakes through the sidewalks of the city, telling the story of the American Revolution with every step. Boston’s Black History Trail winds past 14 historic landmarks critical to the nation’s earliest movements to end slavery and achieve equal rights.
In Washington D.C., admission is free for all Smithsonian museums (and the zoo!). The largest museum complex in the world, the Smithsonian is home to 19 museums and galleries, and approximately 154 million artifacts and specimens. The Lincoln Memorial is free every day, as is the Martin Luther King Junior National Historic Site in Atlanta where you can discover the places where Dr. King was born, lived, worked, worshipped, and is buried.
Many museums in the U.S. are pay-what-you-wish or have nights of the week where admission is free. New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) is free on Friday nights and Chicago’s museums have numerous free museum days across the city. It just takes a bit of planning!
If you like to be entertained
A Broadway musical in New York might set you back hundreds of dollars, but across the U.S. you’ve got options if you love to take in live performances — even on a tight budget.
In Nashville, live music is quite literally everywhere you turn. Along Broadway (aka Honky Honk Highway) live music is pumped into the streets from 10am to 3am. There’s no cover charge at these spots, but a tip jar is passed around if you want to contribute. For a quieter sound, the Bluebird Café of TV fame has no fee to get in and requires just a $10 food and drink minimum, while the Listening Room Café has outstanding acoustics and a line-up of crazy-talented musicians, also with no cover.
If you’re in New York, you can see a TV show being filmed — from late night talk shows to daytime news to sitcoms. There’s no fee to be part of a studio audience! For something a bit more upscale, the revered Lincoln Center has a full calendar of free events, and the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Arts Center in Washington D.C. has free performances every day at 6:00pm.
If you love to shop
While the shops on NYC’s Fifth Avenue, Chicago’s Magnificent Mile or Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills might not make this list, there are plenty of amazing markets across the U.S.
Check out Pike Place Market in Seattle, where you can browse comics and collectibles, taste a seasonal jam or honey, or stop and listen to bluegrass from buskers. The Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia is one of America’s oldest, housed in a National Landmark Building since 1893 and offers locally sourced foods, a wide selection of restaurants and free events.
Oxbow Public Market is a gathering place for great food and wine in Napa, California, while Market Square in San Antonio, Texas is the largest Mexican market in the U.S. and offers free tastes and family events. Quincy Market in Boston and the Los Angeles Farmers Market are both large, historic markets with a great deal to see, taste and experience.
Whatever your travel style, exploring the U.S. on a budget, and taking advantage of free and low-cost adventures, can be a fun way to discover some of the best of what the country has to offer.
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