The Best U.S. Cities for a Totally Free and Kickass Weekend
We’re not going to solve the eternal time vs. money rivalry in this travel section today. Sometimes you can afford a trip but are too busy to take one, other times you’ve got weeks to blow and no scratch in your pocket -- we get ya. What we can do, though, is ask writers across the country to help us untangle half of that equation. Cue Morpheus voice: What if I told you some of the most bangin’ cities in America had days’ worth of great stuff to do absolutely free?
Yes, we’re heavy on outdoor activities here -- parks and beaches are the best zero dollars you can spend in most towns, which is why your parents loved taking you there as a kid. But we’ve also stacked this list with free jazz, free river floats, free Shakespeare, free beer, free wine, free skateparks, free fireworks, a free zoo, free museums. And gobs of food that, while not free, won’t cost more than whatever shrapnel you have clanking around in your change purse. Wait, actually, no, we have a bunch of free food on here, as well. Forget what we said earlier. We’re wizards. If you have even a single day to blow -- and a couch to crash on anywhere on this list -- it’s time to get a move on.
Freedom definitely rings with no-cost history, baseball, and beer
Aside from DC, no city’s most famous attractions cost less than they do in the Bean. Start with the Freedom Trail, the most quintessentially Boston tourist attraction, where a 2.5-mile walk takes you through 16 of the most historic sites in America. This includes Boston Common -- one of the great urban parks in the country -- the Old State House, the Bunker Hill Monument, the site of the Boston Massacre and even an entire battleship at the USS Constitution. Add in lunch at Faneuil Hall and that’s an entire day for whatever the cost of your food is.
“But there’s Fenway!” you say. “With a reported 12 million consecutive sellouts, no WAY that’s free!” Yes, if you want to go inside and see the Sox play live it’ll cost you. But strolling down Landsdowne Street before a game is free, and is oftentimes a more authentic game experience than actually entering the park. Plus, Bleacher Bar -- set under the center field stands at Fenway -- has a mesh window that looks out onto the field. And while you SHOULD buy a drink if you’re going to stand there and watch the game, you can merely hang out as long as the bar allows you.
For an actual free beer, the Sam Adams brewery tour doesn’t cost a dime and includes free tasting at the end (though there is an encouraged $2 donation). Local brewers and winemakers host periodic free tastings as well, like The Urban Grape and Central Bottle. Intoxicating little town, this Boston. -- Matt Meltzer
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An urban oasis with many swimming holes
If you don’t mind the blistering heat (or you wisely time your trip to avoid it), ATX is best enjoyed outdoors -- lounging and dog-watching in Zilker Park, strolling along the Boardwalk at Lady Bird Lake, taking in the panoramic view from the top of Mount Bonnell, or cooling off in one of many spring-fed swimming holes. The chilly Barton Springs Pool is free before 8am and after 9pm (otherwise it’s just three bucks, not exactly wallet busting). If you’re feeling more ambitious, visit the Greenbelt, a 9-mile urban oasis for hikers, climbers, cyclists, and anyone keen on floating around with a can of Lone Star. The various swimming holes (Sculpture Falls is just one favorite) won’t cost you, but they do require a hike and some smarts to find, so grab yourself a local or consult our guide on the best places to take a dip in Austin. From March through November, be sure to catch a sunset on South Congress Bridge and watch a gang of Mexican free-tailed bats fly off into the night.
Other things Austin does well: ridiculously cheap and delicious breakfast tacos (try one of Tacodeli’s five locations or locate a vendor) and live music. On Thursdays in April through September, Unplugged at the Grove showcases Texas music royalty on a small, outdoor stage on Barton Springs Road -- for free. Down the street at Zilker Park you’ll hear electrified favorites when Blues on the Green takes over Wednesday nights, June through August. Also in the summer months, you can bring a picnic to “Concerts in the Park,” held on Sundays by Austin Symphony ensembles on the Lawn Center lawn. If the summer concert season's passed you by, don't worry: you can find live music just about anywhere in this city. The venues along Red River Street are great if you don't mind a cover charge, but The White Horse has live bands and free dance lessons every night of the week, and entry's usually free. Easy to see why it's one of our favorite dive bars in the country.-- Kelli McDonald
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A longstanding dedication to public art makes the streets a living gallery
Seattle has been sandbagging money for public art long before it was cool. Back in 1973 the city earmarked 1% of its budget to fund art in public spaces, and after 40+ years the city rocks more cool stuff on the sidewalks than any American city its size. Start your free tour of public art at the Olympic Sculpture Park, next to Pike Place Market (also a free place to watch guys toss fish and pick up cheap snacks). Then wander downtown to see the Hammering Man outside Benaroya Hall before heading up to Fremont to see the troll under the Fremont Bridge, and the sculptural tribute to beleaguered commuters, Waiting for the Interurban.
Perhaps Seattle’s most famous public art is the Sound Garden, not so much because it’s a cool set of 21-foot steel towers topped with organs and weather vanes that looks out over Lake Washington. More because some band decided it would make a cool name.
The Sound Garden is set next to Magnuson Park, a wetland-filled waterfront wilderness and one of Seattle’s many parks that make the city a natural getaway. Others that will calm your nerves are Discovery Park, where the 2.8-mile loop trail takes you atop the Magnolia bluffs with views of both the Olympic and Cascade Mountains. Or get the best view of America’s prettiest skyline from Alki point, which on the rare hot day in Seattle also doubles as the city’s best beach (and speaking of beaches, we have a lot of secret ones to explore). -- Matt Meltzer
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Venice Beach, California
The best people-watching on the West Coast, where everyone is a performer
Back when children were free to roam the streets, my mom would set me loose on Venice Beach all by my lonesome while she did… whatever it is moms do on vacation in LA. With nothing but a pair of flip-flops, I found Venice to be the most entertaining place I’d ever been. It’s not just a beach boardwalk; it’s an entertainment paradise with America’s greatest collections of colorful characters.
I mean, the pickup basketball games alone. Made famous in White Men Can’t Jump, they’re populated by guys who either played college ball, or could have if life had gone differently. Further down the beach, the bodybuilders Governor Arnold introduced us to in Pumping Iron will hold your attention for hours. Even if you’re not into sports, the variety of street performers in Venice -- chainsaw jugglers, singers, street artists -- are enough to fill a variety show at the Pantages. It’s nice to tip them if you can, but nobody’s chasing you down the sand if you don’t.
Pro tip: Snag a skateboard. It’ll not only allow you to traverse this sea of entertainment quickly, it’ll get you into the Venice Skate Park, where you can tell your friends back home to watch out for you on the live camera. Sans board, you’re always welcome to relax on the big, wide beach and enjoy the Pacific waves crashing into the shoreline. -- Matt Meltzer
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You’ve already funded these fantastic museums, so go see your taxes at work
You work hard. You pay your taxes. So by gum, get yourself to DC and enjoy some of the cool stuff you’ve bought. The greatest attractions there are free, and if you’re looking for a family vacation on a shoestring, there’s nowhere better than the Beltway. Start at the National Air and Space Museum, home to every stripe of plane, glider, and space shuttle that made this country great. The monuments to Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln are all a must, but take special note at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which strikes a somber, silent contrast to the bustle of the rest of the city. Visit the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution at the National Archives. It sounds Nic Cage-corny, but you’ll thank yourself.
For a dose of free culture, think summer’s honey breath. The Shakespeare Theatre Company hosts live performances during its two-week “Free for All.” The National Gallery of Art (also free to visit) hosts live jazz concerts in its sculpture garden. Or for art of the botanical variety, take an afternoon and enjoy the sunshine in the US Botanic Garden, one of the city’s best overlooked refuges and the country’s top urban gardens. -- Matt Meltzer
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Nowhere in America has a bigger time on a smaller budget
It doesn’t cost much to have a good time in the Big Easy, with plenty of freebies to be had. Turn any corner and you’re bound to collide with someone blowin’ a horn or pickin’ a guitar. If not, head to Frenchmen Street and club-hop from Maison to Spotted Cat, two storied music venues that rarely if ever charge a cover (though it never hurts to buy a drink and tip the band).
St. Claude Avenue is like a gritty, avant-garde Frenchmen -- plus, it’s a great destination for cheap eats. Get a bowl of handmade pasta at Arabella ($9) or cheese blini at Green Room Kukhnya ($3) -- remember you’re in one of America’s most legendary dining destinations. On the second Saturday evening of each month, St. Claude’s art galleries open their doors and free wine flows.
Speaking of festivities, you could shell out $70 for Jazz Fest -- or you could see many of the same artists for free at French Quarter Festival, a four-day music festival that brings out 1,700 musicians. There’s also Blues and Barbecue, Wednesday at the Square, and the party to end all parties: Mardi Gras. Parades, beads, and boob-flashing are totally free. Unless you piss publicly and get hauled to Central Lockup. Don’t be that person. -- Missy Wilkinson
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Work up a thirst on world-class trails, then hit the copious free beer tastings
The Mile High’s biggest draws are ample outdoor activities and even more ample supply of locally made beer (it’s all about balance, OK?). You can get a taste of both, no cash needed. Start with a hike at one of the city’s most iconic landmarks, Red Rocks Amphitheatre (just make sure there are no shows going on).Or go explore the numerous hikes in and around Denver.
Thirsty-making work, that walking/running/biking. Time for a tipple. Head over to Golden for a tour of the Coors Brewery (Colorado’s first brewery) where you’ll score three free pours in the tap room (and a small sample in the fresh beer room). Or pop back to Denver to get behind the scenes at Wynkoop Brewing Co. (Colorado’s first brewpub) or Great Divide, home of favorites like Yeti Imperial Stout. For a bite, head to the Ballpark neighborhood where you’ll only have to break out a few bucks for eats like Biker Jim’s encyclopedia of exotic sausages, a slice from the window at the Marquis Theatre, or the famed fried tacos at Mexico City. Staying a little longer in the Mile High? Why not check out our badass guide of everything Denver has to offer? -- Molly Martin
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St. Louis, Missouri
Some of the best city attractions in America are, weirdly, all free
The city everyone overlooks is a criminally underrated place for free attractions. It’s got one of America’s few free zoos, a stark exception to the life rule “you get what you pay for.” Here you’ll see sea otter shows, a polar bear, and an extremely rare red raccoon along with 600+ other species. That zoo is smack in the middle of Forest Park, one of the best city parks in the country and home to 1,400 acres of rolling hills and free attractions.
What else is Forest Park bringing to the free table? Well, there’s the St. Louis Art Museum for starters, displaying originals from names like Van Gogh and Warhol. There’s also the Missouri History Museum with an extensive exhibit dedicated to Charles Lindbergh (Spirit of St. Louis and whatnot), the St. Louis Science Center, and the Jewel Box greenhouse, a warm, tropical escape during the winters. Once you’ve exhausted the park, explore the historic riverfront around the Arch (a trip to the top costs $10) or hang around Ballpark Village and enjoy the atmosphere before a Cards game in one of the best sports towns anywhere. You can see parts of the field from the Budweiser Brew House in left field, where buying a beer might be tempting but isn’t always necessary. -- Matt Meltzer
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New York City
Scope out the jam-packed Parks & Rec calendar for world-class free fun
Most folks don’t need much convincing to visit New York City, the country’s largest, baddest, most-visited metropolis. If people do have reservations, they usually come down to: Gotham’s too expensive, too frenetic, and too crowded. Well, guess what? This urban jungle has plenty woodsy sprawl, too. New York City floweth over with 1,700 parks throughout its five boroughs, which can seem downright overwhelming. You could easily burn two days just wandering around Central Park, with its 360-degree skyscraper horizon, and another full day in Brooklyn’s eclectic Prospect Park (home to free fall nature explorations at the nation’s first urban Audubon Center). But dig into the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation’s calendar for a robust lineup of park events and activities citywide, most of which locals overlook, and many of which are totally free.
Just to pick a date: On October 5 alone, there’s a Latin dance class at Poe Park in the Bronx, hatha yoga session at the Jackie Robinson Rec Center in Manhattan, bird watching walk at alley Pond Environmental Center in Queens, sculpture exhibition at Red Shed garden in Brooklyn, and a glimpse into the Secret Life of Squirrels at Deere Park in Staten Island, all totally gratis. And that’s just a sliver of the park party on a single autumn Saturday. If you need even more freebies to sustain your weekend, go check these out.-- Alicia Lu
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The greatest urban beaches on the planet cost you absolutely nothing
As the most isolated landmass on Earth, Honolulu skews hella pricey. But we put up with it because year-round summer makes it easy to enjoy this garish paradise we live in. All beaches in Honolulu are open to the public, so all you need is a beach towel and some sunscreen to have a good time.
Start your day at Kaimana Beach, where the morning shade from the nearby hotel provides some relief from the heat. For spectacular, uninterrupted ocean views, make your way to Diamond Head Cliffs’ lookout, where you can watch surfers shred the endless surf breaks. For an easy hike, take a short drive inland to Manoa Falls, where the occasionally muddy, yet well-maintained 1.5-mile rainforest trail will reward you with a 100-foot waterfall. On Friday nights, watch the sunset at Ala Moana Beach Park (you’ll see no fewer than five couples taking engagement photos, guaranteed) then stick around as the Hilton Hawaiian Village’s fireworks show light up the night. Or, on the first Friday of every month, check out downtown Honolulu, where live bands entertain and art galleries open late.
When hunger finds you, go find Marukame Udon, where you can parlay $10 into a bowl of handmade noodles, fried add-ons like chicken and vegetable tempura, plus a cold drink. For dessert, trade in your loose change for a Leonard’s Bakery malasada: a warm no-hole donut filled with haupia or custard runs less than $2. -- Summer Nakaishi
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No one in post-urban America celebrates urban murals like the Motor City
When you think of Detroit, you no doubt picture cheap rent. You know who else gravitates toward cheap rent? Artists. They’ve made the city their canvas, making a free day in Detroit not only possible, but exhilarating. We have free museums, public art exhibitions, free concerts, and truly affordable eats. Starting along the River Walk and into Hart Plaza, visitors find beautiful public gardens, public art exhibits, statues dedicated to Detroit’s storied past, and stunning architecture like the iconic, skyscraping Renaissance Center, which offers free tours Monday through Friday.
The Dequindre Cut, a popular bike and walking path decorated with murals and bright graffiti, connects the walk to Eastern Market, where well-known national and international street artists like Maxx242 and Miss Van have made their mark. The shops, restaurants, and weekend farmers market work among some three dozen massive murals, celebrated yearly during the free Murals in the Market festival. A short walk away you’ll find a 184-foot-tall mural by renowned artist Shepard Fairey, five parks that host free events year-round, and tons of new restaurants. Power up at Lafayette Coney, a Detroit institution. A Coney dog, soda (read: pop), and a basket of fries will run you about $6. -- Lexi Trimpe
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San Francisco, California
All the outdoors and exercise of a national park, plus free wine at the end
One afternoon in San Francisco can feel like a month at the gym, without even having to pay whatever the hell an “initiation fee” is. Begin at Lands End, with views out over the water, including the ruins from the Sutro Baths and unfortunate ships. From there you can take the California Coast Trail about 9 miles down to the Presidio, which has a dozen hikes along coastal bluffs and through dense forest. Once knackered, head to the beach at Crissy Field, or wander through Golden Gate Park and gaze up at the only redwood trees to grace a major US city.
Need more exercise? Check out the views from the top of Twin Peaks or the base of Coit Tower (going to the top will cost you). For less quad-burning fun, take your pick from the 101(at least) free things to do in San Francisco. You can hit the free disc golf course at Marx Meadows, or the lake and artificial waterfall at the top of Strawberry Hill. It’s an excellent place to let the SF breeze cool your body down (maybe bring an extra layer, as it can get chilly in the cooler months).
Sweat your way to a better butt, then pack a pound back on. The Fat Grape Winery on Treasure Island offers free tastings, and you can get free chocolate samples at Ghirardelli Square. The ferry building is also full of food vendors who offer free samples. For a real meal, you’ll have to pay, of course, but even then it’s totally possible to have a satisfying day in San Francisco without dropping half your paycheck. -- Matt Meltzer
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Las Vegas, Nevada
Once you’ve lost your shirt on the Strip, break out the hiking boots
There are plenty of free things to do in Vegas -- yes, really! -- but after you've combed the Strip, what do you do? GTF away from the Strip, for starters. Many of us locals prefer to view it from 7,000 feet up. Just 20 minutes from the Strip is the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. You can access it from parking lots outside the actual park -- like the Red Spring Picnic Area -- and still enjoy the extraterrestrial beauty and scrambling fun of the Calico Basin's distinctive red rocks as well as world-class climbing routes and peak-bagging a'plenty.
Climbers and hikers the world over know Red Rock Canyon. Technically challenging, wildly scenic, and with a number of surprisingly diverse ecosystems in a relatively small area, it’s a jolt for even the most avid outdoors enthusiasts (or a regular ol’ day-hiker). Burn off a couple of thousand calories and then head to John Cutter, a low-key neighborhood steakhouse and burger joint that just happens to be the closest restaurant to Red Rock Canyon and also just happens to have excellent steaks and burgers. Plus on Sundays, steaks are half off. -- Nicole Rupersburg
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Stunning skyscrapers, free museums, and public art galore
Chicago may be better known for artery-clogging edibles, but don’t be fooled by the city’s gruff exterior: It's absolutely crawling with free things to do and public art. A day trip downtown will suffice for a start. Start at manicured Millennium Park -- possibly the boldest concentration of public art in America -- where Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (aka the Bean) and the spitting 50-foot-high digital faces of the Crown Fountain will make you forget your personal no-selfies policy. Re-enact Ferris Bueller at the Art Institute or at the nearby Museum of Contemporary Art (both of which have free days for Illinois residents), or head to the University of Chicago’s always free and greatly overlooked Smart Museum of Art.
Gawking at the city’s world-renowned architecture is also always free, as is the city’s underground ACTIVATE art series popping up in Downtown alleys. Stroll the newly revitalized downtown Riverwalk to get the best view of the buildings or hike Chicago's free Outerbellt if you're craving some greenery before hopping a quick subway ride to Chinatown, where a world of cheap eats unfurls itself in all of its dim sum-soaked glory. Oh, and did we mention there’s a floating museum? Because there totally is. -- Jay Gentile
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