Brilliant and budget-friendly
Whichever state you’re visiting, a day out doesn’t have to break the bank. From museums and galleries to the best of the USA’s backyard, there’s plenty you can do without spending a dime. Here we’ve rounded up the best of America’s free attractions that are open right now. (Remember that the situation is changeable due to COVID-19, so be sure to double check opening times and state travel restrictions before you go.)
Alabama: Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham
Recognized as the top gallery in the state, this artistic treasure trove holds more than 27,000 items. It has been welcoming art lovers since 1885, with pieces ranging from Native American works to those hailing from all over Europe, Asia and Africa. Make time to see the Charles W. Ireland Sculpture Garden in the upper plaza. A permanent exhibition, it spreads over 13,000 square feet (1,207sqm) – the focus is a towering water feature designed by renowned American sculptor Elyn Zimmerman. The museum is currently operating at 50% capacity.
Alaska: Flattop Mountain, near Anchorage
Denali may be Alaska’s most famous peak, but Flattop Mountain is hailed as the ‘most climbed’ pinnacle in the state. You’ll need to pay a fee to get up close to the former, but the latter can be scaled free of charge, and it offers panoramic views of valleys and mighty peaks including Denali itself. The vertiginous trail is 1.5 miles (2.4km) to the top, but the vistas are more than worth the effort. (Note that while it’s free to climb the peak, you may be required to pay a parking fee.)
Arizona: Camelback Mountain, Maricopa County
A stone’s throw from downtown Phoenix, the much-visited Camelback Mountain rises 2,704 feet (824m) into the sky. The peak’s proximity to the city – not to mention the epic views from its summit – makes it one of the most popular hikes in the area. Be prepared though: both the mountain’s trails – Echo Canyon and Cholla – are pretty strenuous, and you’ll need a good base level of fitness to complete them. Rest assured they’re worth it though.
Arkansas: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville
This shrine to American art has been in Bentonville since 2005. Big names here include Georgia O’Keefe and Andy Warhol, and there’s also a cavernous library filled with 50,000 reference books about art and design. The building is fit for purpose too – its unique design, with bold concrete blocks and a sloping copper roof, was the brainchild of leading Canadian architect Moshe Safdie. The museum is operating with reduced capacity, so it’s recommended that visitors secure a free timed ticket. Walk-ups will be admitted as capacity allows.
California: Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
The gargantuan Golden Gate Park – celebrating its 150th anniversary this year – is actually 20% bigger than Central Park in New York, and it’s got all the charm and attractions of its East Coast counterpart. Visitors can enter for free and drink in the park’s lakes, landmark windmills and its famed bison herd.
Colorado: Colorado Snowsports Museum, Vail
The sports of skiing and snowboarding are celebrated at this treasure-packed museum in Vail, one of Colorado’s key ski resort towns. You’ll find plenty of gear, clothing, medals and trophies that tell the story of the sports throughout time and also the Hall of Fame, which pays homage to sporting greats and “industry icons”. Admission is free, though a donation is appreciated.
Connecticut: Elizabeth Park, Hartford
Opened in 1904, this public park is home to America’s oldest rose garden. More than 800 varieties of rose grow here, climbing trellises and clinging to arches, and blossoming from late June. The rest of the grounds stretch for 101 acres, dotted with greenhouses and ponds, and typically attracting plenty of flower-loving visitors each year.
Delaware: Rehoboth Beach Boardwalk, Rehoboth Beach
Delaware has some of the most underrated beaches in the USA and the Rehoboth Beach Boardwalk is the perfect place to soak up one of the state’s many strands. A mile-long boardwalk hugs this city’s stretch of sand, and it’s fringed with shops, hotels and laid-back spots for a bite. Rent a bike or content yourself with an afternoon stroll (and remember to check the opening status of individual outlets before you go).
Florida: Southernmost Point, Key West
Key West offers plenty of free things to do, including wandering Duval Street or reclining on a sandy strand. But a landmark that always fascinates is Southernmost Point – as the name suggests, it’s the southernmost point in the continental USA, closer to Cuba than the mainland. It’s a nice photo op before an afternoon at the beach.
Georgia: Forsyth Park, Savannah
Spanish moss cloaks Forsyth Park, a leafy expanse in the heart of Savannah. It’s a dreamy spot for an afternoon stroll, its 30 acres flanked by trees and laced with shady pathways offering refuge from the Georgia heat. At the center you’ll find the striking Forsyth Fountain, a cornerstone of the park since 1858, and in spring, the green space typically swells with music for the annual Savannah Music Festival – keep an eye on the website for 2021 updates.
Hawaii: Harold L. Lyon Arboretum, Honolulu
Visiting the Harold L. Lyon Arboretum in Honolulu feels a little like stepping into Jurassic Park. Located at the northern end of Manoa Valley, the 194-acre tropical arboretum is home to more than 5,000 native and non-native plant species. A part of the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, it also functions as a research and preservation facility and is a fantastic way to experience the island’s diverse flora. Reservations are currently mandatory and visits are capped at two hours.
Idaho: Freak Alley Gallery, Boise
If you’re after something a little offbeat, Freak Alley Gallery in Idaho’s capital could be just the place. It touts itself as the largest mural gallery in the Northwest, and there is free, year-round public access to the colorful open-air displays down this alleyway. The space transforms each year, and works have ranged from eye-popping murals dedicated to cult TV series to portraits and animal paintings.
Illinois: Starved Rock State Park, LaSalle County
Dramatic canyons, sandstone crags, waterfalls and woodland all come together to make this one of the most spectacular state parks in Illinois. It’s as rich in history as it is in natural beauty too, with evidence of human settlement here dating as far back as 8000 BC. There are plenty of ways to enjoy the site, from hiking to boating and kayaking. In winter, you could also try cross-country skiing or even ice climbing. The Visitor Center exhibition hall remains temporarily closed.
Indiana: Indiana Dunes National Park
One of America’s newest national parks, Indiana Dunes is one to add straight to your bucket list. Some 15 miles (24km) of sand hem the mighty Lake Michigan, while an impressive 50 miles (80km) of trails lace through diverse terrain from dunes to woodland. And the best thing? You can explore most of its gloriously sandy expanse for free – only West Beach charges a fee for vehicles.
Iowa: Iowa State Capitol, Des Moines
Iowa’s ornate state capitol can be found in downtown Des Moines, and it’s as informative as it is beautiful. You can explore the historic capital on an independent or guided tour (both are free) and learn about the state’s history and the architecture of the building itself. The grounds are also dotted with interesting monuments, including a poignant holocaust memorial. Note that opening hours are subject to flux due to COVID-19.
Kansas: Great Plains Nature Center, Wichita
This Wichita nature center is packed full of exhibits covering the wildlife of the Great Plains. Koch Habitat Hall is at its heart, documenting the history of the prairie and the ecosystem here today. Armed with knowledge of the local wildlife, you can then strike into Chisholm Creek Park on site – also free to explore, it sprawls for 282 acres, criss-crossed with hiking trails and bustling with wildlife.
Kentucky: Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort
You can’t visit the Bluegrass State without sampling some of its finest whiskey, and the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, designated a National Historic Landmark, is one of the top places to do so. Come by for the complimentary Trace Tour, which chronicles the history of this legendary distillery and also offers the chance to wander through barrel-packed warehouses. You currently need to pre-register for your free tour and will need to undergo a temperature check and short questionnaire before being permitted entry.
Louisiana: Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve
Named after notorious French pirate Jean Lafitte, this sprawling preserve, made up of several distinct sites, is packed to the brim with both history and nature. Make time for the Chalmette Battlefield – where the 1815 Battle of New Orleans against the British took place – and the Barataria Preserve, a vast wetlands area where you’ll likely find an American alligator or two lurking in the swamps. Note that the visitor centers here remain closed for now.
Maine: Deering Oaks Park, Portland
This public park in Portland spreads out over more than 50 leafy acres and has plenty to keep sporty types occupied, from basketball courts to a baseball field. It’s also one for architecture lovers with a Victorian-era “castle” building, complete with a round tower and turret, and a cute Victorian duck house. The spot is a particular treat in fall, when the park’s attractions are under a canopy of gold, red and russet.
Maryland: Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore
Free year-round, this museum is more than 100 years old, opened back in 1914 in the well-heeled Charles Village District, and it holds a vast store of international works. The best bits include a huge collection dedicated to work by French artist Henri Matisse (there are more than 1,000 pieces), as well as two sculpture gardens dotted with striking works from talents such as Joan Miró. You’ll need a timed-entry pass (released on the 25th of every month) to enter and should visit in a group of no more than five.
Massachusetts: Freedom Trail, Boston
Following the Freedom Trail is one of Boston’s most popular activities. The route brings together key sites relevant to the American Revolution and other significant portions of US history and you can wander it and drink in the historic façades for no price at all. The free Bunker Hill Museum is also now open with modified opening hours, as is the USS Constitution.
Michigan: Heidelberg Project, Detroit
It’s completely free to wander down this street in the Motor City’s East Side and drink in the weird and wonderful works by artist Tyree Guyton. Guyton, who is often spotted tending to his curious creations, embodies the saying ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure’. He warps sculptures and scenes from materials that have been found and visitors can expect to see houses emblazoned with polka dots, rainbow-faced clocks and structures made from dolls, stuffed animals, shoes and auto parts.
Minnesota: SPAM® Museum, Austin
Yes, there is an entire museum dedicated to SPAM® in the southeastern Minnesota town of Austin. The institution is a loud, proud celebration of the canned meat, which was first invented back in the 1930s. You’ll learn all about the history of SPAM®, including its key role in the diets of troops during the Second World War, and pore over a huge store of SPAM® memorabilia. You can also schedule a live virtual tour if you can’t make it to the museum.
Mississippi: Front Beach, Ocean Springs
Mississippi has little shortage of great white-sand crescents, and Ocean Springs is a top destination for beach bums. Head to the city’s Front Beach, a sandy swathe popular with local vacationers, which is backed by scenic Front Beach Drive. Bask on the sand, hunt for crabs, and then drink in the sunset from a photogenic fishing pier. Now discover America’s most charming seaside towns.
Missouri: St Louis Science Center, St Louis
Science buffs will love this modern museum in St Louis. It’s family friendly with tons of interactive exhibits, covering everything from the environment to world discoveries. Most sections are completely free to explore, but you’ll need to buy a ticket for planetarium shows and other special events. The Science Center is currently operating at reduced capacity and you’ll need a timed ticket reservation to enter.
Montana: Yellowstone County Museum, Billings
You’ll find the unassuming Yellowstone County Museum close to the airport in Billings, Montana’s largest city. It’s dedicated to preserving the history of Yellowstone Valley and the plains, and dates back to 1950s. A whole host of treasures can be found inside, from the tools and trinkets of native peoples to the wagons and saddles once used by working cattlemen.
Nebraska: Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha
This hulking Omaha museum has a huge variety of collections. Most notable is its store of European art (from Renaissance to Medieval works) and its large set of ancient antiquities, including Egyptian statues and Grecian urns. You’ll need at least an afternoon to sample its delights, and it won’t cost you a penny. Visitors currently require a timed entry reservation.
Nevada: Bellagio Conservatory and Botanical Garden, Las Vegas
If you’ve spent all your money on the slots, don’t despair – lavish Bellagio hotel has something to offer those on a budget. Its conservatory and botanical garden are free to enter, and they’re always filled with whimsical floral displays, themed for the season. Visitors can wander among the brilliant blooms, which are tended to by some of the world’s leading horticulturalists.
New Hampshire: Andres Institute of Art Sculpture Walk, Brookline
Tipped as New England’s largest outdoor sculpture park, this arty site spreads across 140 acres. Miles of hiking trails join up more than 72 avant-garde sculptures, all the brainchild of engineer Paul Andres and lauded sculptor John Weidman. Pick up a map and delve into the forest: there’s no admission charge, but a donation is greatly appreciated.
New Jersey: Howell Living History Farm, Hopewell Township
This particular area has been farmed since the 1730s, and now a “living history” site celebrates New Jersey’s agricultural heritage: still operating by horsepower, it offers an insight into what farming would have looked like from around 1890–1910. It’s free to take a self-guided tour of the farm, though if you want to get lost in the seasonal corn maze, you’ll need to pay admission. You currently need to drop in at the visitor center to register when you arrive.
New Mexico: Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, near Taos
New York: Central Park, New York City
No trip to the Big Apple is complete without visiting the green heart of the city. Central Park covers 843 acres of Manhattan and is free for the public to enjoy all year round. There’s also currently an open-air exhibition dedicated to Seneca Village, the mostly African-American community that lived on this land before Central Park’s construction. Note that the park’s usual tours and shows are currently on hold.
North Carolina: North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh
The roots of this popular Raleigh museum stretch right back to the 1920s, when the North Carolina State Art Society was first established and a small collection began. Today it draws art lovers from all over the state and beyond who come to drink in masterpieces from Italian Renaissance painters, antiquities from Greece and Rome, and bronzes by French sculptor Auguste Rodin. The 164-acre Museum Park is also a favorite with its trails, sculptures and pretty terraced pond. Be aware that the museum opening hours have changed and you’ll need a timed ticket to enter.
North Dakota: Heritage Center and State Museum, Bismarck
This is the state’s official history museum. Brimming with relics from bygone eras, it pays tribute to the state’s native peoples, and boasts interesting exhibitions covering wildlife, archaeology, state innovations and more. Showcased items range from artworks to antique weaponry, all with aim of preserving “the fabric of life in North Dakota”. Note that a small number of more interactive attractions here are temporarily closed due to COVID-19. Here are 14 US cities you’ve never thought of visiting, but should.
Ohio: Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland
The reputation of the Cleveland Museum of Art proceeds it, home as it is to world-renowned masterpieces by great names including Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol and more. In all, there are some 61,000 pieces spanning around six millennia, all packed into a grand building in the cultural University Circle district. Museum capacity is currently limited and you’ll need to book a timed ticket in advance to visit.
Oklahoma: Gathering Place, Tulsa
This new, riverfront park is a source of great pride for Tulsa residents, who have anticipated this sprawling public space since at least 2014, when work first began. It stretches over almost 100 acres, complete with the giant Chapman Adventure Playground (pictured) for the kids, and the peaceful Sky Garden with its ginkgo trees and rainbow flowers. Visitors can also swing by Williams Lodge for a cup of coffee at a café or to cozy up in the lounge. Note that boat rentals are still on hold for now and park attractions are subject to capacity limitations.
Oregon: Hoyt Arboretum, Portland
Open to the public year round, this arboretum touts itself as a “living museum”. Acres of woodland make up the site, which is also home to the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, a curving wall inscribed with names of the fallen. Trails route through the trees too, which range from bamboo forest to redwoods. The usual visitor center is currently closed, but has been replaced with a temporary visitor services kiosk.
Pennsylvania: Liberty Bell Center, Philadelphia
A symbolic piece of Philadelphia’s, and indeed America’s, history, the great, cracked Liberty Bell (part of the Independence National Historical Park) once hung in Independence Hall. Today, it has its own dedicated center, with informative exhibits detailing the bell’s significance. The displays tell how the bell was rung out for the Declaration of Independence, and also for abolition and women’s suffrage.
Rhode Island: The Cliff Walk, Newport
South Carolina: Charleston Tea Garden, Charleston
This sprawling site prides itself on being the only tea plantation in North America. Acres of lush tea bushes spread across the garden, which has been a commercial operation since the late 1980s. Factory tours, where you’ll learn about production and see the machines in action, are free, as is entry to the site. Tours are currently being limited to 20 people and there is no cash being accepted on site.
South Dakota: Mount Rushmore, Keystone
The mammoth rock carvings of Mount Rushmore typically attract millions of visitors per year, and entry to the park is free. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln have peered out from this cliff face since 1941, each selected for their great impact on America’s history and progression. The Grand View Terrace offers great vistas of the sculpture. Now discover the hidden secrets of the world’s most famous buildings.
Tennessee: Lower Broadway, Nashville
There’s a reason Nashville is touted as “Music City”: you’re never far away from the sound of country or blues or rock ‘n’ roll, and nowhere is this truer than along neon-drenched Lower Broadway. Though you’ll probably want to buy a beer, there’s no cover charge for the bars and honky tonks along this fabled street, where you’ll typically find live music every night. If you don’t want to spend a single dollar, wandering along the boulevard, listening to the music pouring from the venues, is completely free. (Be sure to check the opening status of individual outlets before you go.)
Texas: The Alamo, San Antonio
This mission in San Antonio is famous as the site of the 1836 Battle of the Alamo. Here Texans clashed with invading Mexicans during the Texas revolution, in a cross swords that would last almost two weeks. Today it’s a preserved historic site and education center, bringing to life this pivotal battle, and remains one of the most-visited attractions in the state. You’ll need a free timed ticket to go inside the church itself.
Utah: Utah Olympic Park, Park City
While most of Utah’s state and national parks charge an admission fee, there’s plenty of free stuff to do at this sporty site in Park City. Utah Olympic Park, the legacy of the 2002 Winter Olympics, offers complimentary attractions including the Joe Quinney Winter Sports Center, with its displays on skiing history and the 2002 games themselves. The hiking and biking trails around the park are also free.
Vermont: Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum, Stowe
The pretty New England town of Stowe has attractions aplenty: a postcard perfect church, acres of color-splashed foliage in fall, and, of course, world-class ski trails. The dinky Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum is free to enter (though donations are appreciated) and is dedicated to highlighting and preserving the state’s skiing heritage. It’s tucked away in the 19th-century Town Meeting House, which is an attraction in itself.
Virginia: Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, Chantilly
This center forms part of Washington DC’s celebrated Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Located in Chantilly, the Virginia branch continues the work of its sister site, showcasing more than 1,000 items related to aviation. A highlight is the chance to watch as aircraft are painstakingly preserved at the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar. You’ll need a timed ticket to enter and select attractions such as the observation tower are currently closed.
Washington: North Cascades National Park
Beautiful North Cascades – with its lakes, glaciers, mountains and dense forestland – is one of the most underrated sites in the national park system, and among the 10 least visited. When you consider the fact that the park is entirely free, this fact becomes all the more mystifying. You can experience this unspoilt wilderness on myriad trails, which range from straightforward hikes (the Bridge Creek Trail) to much more strenuous and challenging undertakings (the Sourdough Mountain Trail). Pictured is Diablo Lake, in the Ross Lake National Recreation Area. Be sure to check for any new park alerts before you go.
West Virginia: Coopers Rock State Forest
West Virginia’s strapline is “Almost Heaven”, a nod to the 1970s John Denver track – and in the midst of the Coopers Rock State Forest it’s not hard to see why. The eponymous Coopers Rock is a knot of mighty sandstone bluffs, and the entire park extends over around 12,747 acres. Popular things to do include hiking the many scenic, wooded trails, skiing in season, and overnighting at one of the site’s 25 campgrounds.
Wisconsin: Wisconsin Concrete Park, Price County
This roadside spot in northern Wisconsin is exactly what it sounds like: a leafy park filled with eclectic concrete sculptures of everything from a horse-drawn cart to lumberjacks. They’re the vision of Fred Smith, a former lumberjack himself, who turned his hand to this quirky art form in his retirement. It’s free to visit these curious statues, embellished with colorful glass, though donations are welcome.
Wyoming: National Elk Refuge, near Jackson
This stunning refuge sprawls over 24,700 acres, close to Grand Teton National Park, and its meadows provide a habitat for wintering elk each year. The site was established in the early 19th century after rapid development affected the migratory routes of the Jackson Elk Herd, and today that herd numbers around 11,000. Beyond the elk themselves, you’ll get fantastic views of the Teton Range and may also spot bison, trumpeter swans, bald eagles and bighorn sheep. Now check out America’s most beautiful mountains to explore this fall.
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