The US of A is home to a wide variety of cities, yet many cities cost a lot more to visit than others, potentially doubling or tripling the cost of your vacation when you may have been just as happy in another destination! Being frugal doesn’t mean you’re a cheapskate, it simply means that you will be able to travel longer and more often than you would have otherwise. Here’s my favorite destinations for free attractions:
1. Washington, D.C. – Head to the nation’s capital to take in the culture while seeing some of the most incredible sights in the nation. From prominent, world renowned landmarks to the coolest of museums, you’ll never run out of things to do in the place that our President calls home.
- Discover The National Mall – Located right in the heart of the city, this is where you will find dozens of free museums and historical sites. Be sure to ride the elevator to the top of the 555 foot tall Washington Monument, see works by famous artists, including Picasso and Pollock, at the National Gallery of Art, The cutting edge creations residing in the National Air and Space Museum, the ever popular National Museum of Natural History, and see over 4,000 plants at the indoor state of the art at the U.S. Botanic Garden.
- The National Zoo – Located within the scenic Rock Creek National Park, this 163-acre zoo is part of the Smithsonian Institution and truly has it all. It’s ranked one of the top zoos in the nation, with species including the giant panda, elephants, and tigers. It opened in 1889 and has grown to accumulate over 400 species of animals.
- You cant go to D.C. without getting your very own complimentary guided tour of the 540 room U.S. Capitol Building (as pictured below), which is the place where the Senate and the House of Representatives meet. The Capitol Visitor Center allows visitors to browse through galleries with historic artifacts, watch live video feeds from the House and the Senate, and touch a model of the capitol dome.
- Tour the famous 624-acre Arlington National Cemetery, where over 330,000 American servicemen and celebrities are buried. Now you may be thinking… Why would I want to visit a random cemetery when I’m on vacation? The Arlington Cemetery is actually quite extraordinary with must-see features such as the Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
- See the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the original Declaration of Independence at the National Archives.
- Last but definitely not least, consider touring The White House free of charge. But you must make a request through a member of Congress. Group tours need to be scheduled one month in advance.
2. Las Vegas – There’s no need to get caught up in the midst of high rollers and five star dining when you’re in a city with countless free, top notch attractions. While they no longer have the African penguins at the Flamingo Hotel or the Lion Habitat at the MGM Grand, there is still plenty of free fun in Sin City. Vegas is all about touring each hotel and checking out cool features and atmosphere galore, the majority of which is free. Don’t let the slots eat through your bank account, let these attractions help you leave feeling satisfied and well off!
- The Flamingo has a free Flamingo Habitat where you can see Chilean Flamingos as well as swans, ducks, koi, and turtles.
- The Bellagio has their iconic fountain show in the huge lake in front of the resort, where insanely tall fountains are coordinated to music, making this an absolute must for any visitor.
- The Forum Shops Fountain Shows are also quite epic, it’s a place where giant Greek statues come to life in a thunderous combination of water, fire, and mind-blowing special effects that are sure to leave the family in awe (it’s also conveniently located to one of my all time favorite restaurants, the Cheesecake Factory!).
- The Aquarium at The Silverton is a 117,000-gallon saltwater aquarium that is located right off the strip. Go if you have the extra time.
- The Volcano at The Mirage – Have you ever wanted to see a “volcano” erupt right before your very own eyes? Well here’s your chance! The mountain and lake light up in a revolutionary way, bringing the heat of the fire right up to you.
- The Sirens of TI – An outstanding pirate themed outdoor show that is located right on the strip, featuring all the latest in special effects. Parents may want to think twice about bringing their little ones!
- Fremont Street Experience – This $70 million light canopy is located just a short ways from the strip in downtown Las Vegas, where the more historic hotels reside. This outdoor attraction spans seven-blocks, featuring seven daily shows and concerts. Adjacent is the famous Golden Nugget Hotel, which is home to the world’s largest golden nugget (called the Hand of Faith).
- The Conservatory at the Bellagio is actually open 24 hours a day and features special events for each season. This greenhouse atrium is trull worth the short walk off the strip. Also check out the 27-foot-tall chocolate fountain at the Bellagio.
- Car enthusiasts will want to check out the Auto Collections at the Imperial Palace Hotel and Casino.
- The Wynn Conservatory is also worth the visit (but aware that Wynn is a little further down from the rest of the strip); across from the Fashion Show Mall. This is one of, if not the nicest hotel on the strip, named after legendary hotel designer Steve Wynn. Open 24 hours. Also, the Wynn Lake of Dreams show is considered fee but (for the most part) it can only be seen if you are dining or drinking at one of the resorts lakeside restaurants or bars. The lake comes to life with light, sound, hologram images projected on the waterfall.
- Show in the Sky at the Rio is a little adult oriented, featuring carnival-style floats with singing and dancing people, all dressed up to put on the show of a life time. The earlier shows are a little more kid friendly.
- See and park your car next to the famous 50-year-old Welcome to Las Vegas Sign to get a great pic! Many forget to do this but I think it’s a must see!
3. NYC – While New York City can be very expensive for those staying in Times Square and eating lavish meals for every meal, it really does not have to cost an arm and a leg. You can stay on the outskirts of town and ride the subway in everyday and go to as many free attractions as possible. Even some of the biggest and baddest museums have certain times where you can visit without emptying your piggy bank.
- Central Park is Manhattan’s claim to fame, as it has been since the 1860s, giving NYC visitors and locals a place right in the heart of town where they can experience 843 acres of wide open, grassy spaces, attend events, visit the zoo (not free), and take in the scenery.
- Times Square is the center of the action, surrounded by massive billboards, flagship stores, Broadway shows, and five star dining.
- The National September 11 Memorial is free to visit. But the adjacent museum plans on charging $20-$25 for admission when it opens next year (but a recent petition could change that).
- The American Museum of Natural History is free in the last hour of the day, while they encourage you to pay at other times but it is technically free at any given time.
- Ride the Staten Island Ferry to commute from Battery Park to Staten Island, offering amazing views of the city and the Statue of Liberty.
- Also check out these free NYC Walking Tours
These NYC attractions are free at specific times (but that is also when they are going to be the most crowded, typically):
- Brooklyn Botanic Garden is free on Tuesdays and from 10am to noon on Saturdays.
- The Bronx Zoo allows you to pay what you wish on Wednesdays. While it is a little distance from the heart of Manhattan, it is much bigger and better than the Central Park Zoo; many even consider it to be the best zoo in the nation. They also say that buying your tickets off of their website allows you to save up to 20%.
- The Museum of Modern Art is free from 4-8pm on Fridays and you better bet that it’s going to get busy!
4. Miami, FL – Or nearly any smaller beach town is perfect for those looking not to break the bank. Spending time on the beach or pool is always free and often, so is visiting national parks and taking in the local culture.
- The Miami Art Museum offers free admission the second Saturday of the month from 1-4 p.m. to view its collection of contemporary art.
- The internationally known Wolfsonian-FIU art museum, located in a 1926 Mediterranean revival-style warehouse, features paintings, ceramics, posters, books, furniture, and architectural creations from the modern era. Peruse the exhibitions free on Fridays after 6 p.m.
- The Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables offers free tours of its historic grounds on Sunday afternoons. Professional storytellers regale audiences with tales from the hotel’s early years when it hosted celebrities like Judy Garland and Ginger Rogers, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Al Capone.
- Explore the city’s historic art deco architecture on a self-guided walking tour through South Beach.
- The Miami Beach Architectural Historic District is rife with more than 800 art deco buildings located within a one-mile radius on South Beach. Meander on your own through art deco, Mediterranean Revival, and Miami Modern styles, or hop aboard the South Beach local bus shuttle for just 25 cents.
- Pause at the opulent Versace Mansion, Casa Casuarina, to see where Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace once hosted lavish galas for glamorous guests like Madonna, Elton John, and Princess Diana.
- Admission is always free at Miami’s Holocaust Memorial. The memorial site features a photographic mural and a Memorial Wall with the names of concentration camp victims.
- Located on the 50-acre Vizcaya estate, the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens invites visitors to participate in programs that include performing arts, lectures, demonstrations, and tours of the National Historic Landmark on Free Sundays (the last Sundays of July, August, and September).
- Adventure seekers come to Biscayne National Park for snorkeling and scuba diving among the colorful coral reef. Others boat, fish, watch wildlife, and meander in a canoe through one of Florida’s longest stretches of mangrove forest. Rangers offer advice for spotting the manatees and dolphins that swim along the shore. Family Fun Fest is a free program held on the second Sunday of each month, January through May that highlights the park’s diverse resources.
- Ichimura Miami-Japan Garden offers a quiet place to stroll with its carefully manicured landscape, peaceful rock garden, and stone pagoda.
5. Los Angeles, CA – From attending a taping of your favorite TV show to strolling down the iconic Hollywood Walk of Fame, there’s an endless amount of complimentary fun in the city that the stars call home.
- Get as close as you possibly can to the Hollywood sign to get some picturesque snap shots of the cities most famous landmark
- Anyone visiting LA has to check out the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the place where over 2,400 stars have been unveiled since the 1960s. You never know, you just might get a complimentary sighting of one of Hollywoods biggest A-listers. Maybe even a free autograph too!
- Griffith Park is home to a free Merry-Go-Round, the historical Travel Town Museum, and the amazing Griffith Park Observatory.
- Paramount Ranch is pretty cool if you have the extra time. Hollywood’s Wild West was created here in 1927 and the site has been used for filming ever since. Two fun hiking trails are nearby.
- Getty Center and Getty Villa are home to attractions such as the world class J. Paul Getty Museum, where admission is free of charge and stunning art takes place front and center. Not to mention that this is a great place to get great views and pictures of the LA skyline.
- Hit the beach! One of my favorite spots is the Venice Beach Boardwalk, which happens to be the most visited destination in all of LA.
- Point Dume State Beach is a Malibu state park with all the fun a day can allow for. Everything from white sandy beaches to scenic coastal bluffs, to panoramic sandy bluffs, to discovering the little creatures in the shallow tide pools, this place is fun for the whole family.
Check out the next US City Traveler Podcast to learn about the best cities to travel in the US.
What’s your favorite free attraction in America? Let us know in the comments!