Vacationing can be expensive, especially when you want to see and do everything. Have no fear. Whether you're looking to cut down on egregiously expensive attractions or you're on a budget-friendly vacation, we've got you covered. Here are some of the best free attractions across the U.S. including some of your favorites, plus a few more just for fun.
Many of the best museums in the country are free, including all of the Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C. Of the 19 museums, the top Smithsonians include the Museum of Natural History (visit the Dinosaur Wing), the National Air and Space Museum, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Museum of American History.
Other U.S. museums that offer free admission:
Baltimore Museum of Art
Dallas Museum of Art
Frye Art Museum - Seattle
Cleveland Museum of Art
Getty Center and Getty Villa - Los Angeles
Much of the United States is intensely beautiful, if only we stop to appreciate the grand majesty of the mountains, the sweeping glory of the wheat plains, and the massive power of the redwood trees. Many of the best places to witness natural beauty lie along highways such as the Pacific Coast Highway which runs from San Diego to San Francisco. The Hana Highway in Maui, Hawaii is another that reveals the strong yet delicate triumphant beauty of Hawaii's coast from the roadside. The Enchanted Highway, leading through western North Dakota may not be exactly like its sister roadways but it gathers interest for its abundant roadway art, landmark highway attractions, and more.
If you're like me, and most of the world, you like visiting wildlife whether it's in zoos or wildlife preserves or seeing them roaming the plains on the roadside. There are a couple free zoos in the U.S., one of the best being the St. Louis Zoo, free 365 days a year. This gorgeous and environmentally conscientious zoo takes traditional exhibits and enclosures to a new and aesthetic level. The new polar bear exhibit is a fantastic and interactive place to meet these great Arctic creatures underwater and above ground, playing with the crowd. They also have a touchpool where you can pet stingrays and small sharks, free for the first hour from opening.
The National Zoo, otherwise known as the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in D.C., is yet another example of free wildlife viewing. Being a "national zoo," the Smithsonian's park is a leading example of zoological care and exhibit design. See the giant pandas, seals and sea lions, Asian elephants, and 296 other species of wildlife.
Most if not all of the country's national parks come complete with protected animal species and native wildlife open for viewing any day of the year, free of charge. You probably won't see pandas or African lions but you might find an alligator or two or maybe even a bear.
Free Tours and Community Events
Be it festivals, farmers markets, or open tours of factories, community events and tours are a highly coveted attraction when vacationing and offer great insight into the personality of a city's people. There are, of course, festivals like Mardi Gras that are famous nationwide but these other attractions last year long like the Pike Place Market of Seattle or Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. Both are free to peruse, though not free to sample the delicious fare of the booths and stores. Pike Place Market began in 1907 and has grown to containing hundreds of businesses from fish markets to romantic Italian restaurants. You can find eclectic markets like these in most high population cities and they make great places to people watch and sample the local favorite foods.
Tours are another wonderful addition to any vacation and can range from government buildings to simple factories or breweries. Some of the coolest tours include:
Boston's Freedom Trail
U.S. Supreme Court
U.S. Olympic Training Center
Hershey's Chocolate World Tour
Historic and Religious Wonders
Since before the Revolutionary War and even before British colonization of the Americas, this great continent was collecting historic sites and landmarks. Since it would be nigh impossible to list everything worth visiting, we will stick with a few great choices when it comes to historic and religious wonders in the United States.
Of course the U.S. does history beautifully, from the earliest settlements to battlefields, historic plantations, and memorials. Native American heritage sites like the Bighorn Medicine Wheel and Taos Pueblos make great stops as do Civil War sites of significance. Some of the top historic wonders in the country include the National Mall and memorials in Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, the Alamo, the National September 11th Memorial, Waikiki Historic Trail on Oahu, Hamilton Grange in New York, and the Freedom Trail landmarks in Boston.
Religious sites are beautiful, faith-based destinations to add to any tour, and most are free of charge to visit. No matter your religious background, everyone can appreciate the architectural genius that went into making the St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans or the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Hindu temples from Atlanta to Los Angeles. Some of the top faith-based destinations also include: Temple Square of Salt Lake City, the Alta California Mission Churches, Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis, Missouri, Eldridge Street Synagogue of New York City, and the Baha'i House of Worship in Dearborn, Michigan.
Public, State, and National Parks
Out of the 397 national parks in the U.S., 264 of them are free of charge and open 365 days a year. Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier Bay and Denali National Parks in Alaska, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee are all recommended and free. State parks, whether they are lead by the Department of Natural Resources or the state's own conservation commissions, are all beautifully preserved and maintained according to state standards. Chances are there are parks near your homebase worth visiting, or near your desired destination.
Public Parks Worth Visiting in Top U.S. Cities:
Griffith Park - Los Angeles
Central Park - NYC
Patterson Park - Baltimore
Lincoln and Memorial Parks - Chicago
Forest Park - St. Louis