9 Free Things to Do in Any City You Visit

By Tim Lemke on 15 January 2014 (Updated 5 February 2014) 2 comments

OK, so you have a vacation planned to a big city, but your budget's already been shot to heck by airfare and hotel. You may feel like a lack of funds will limit your ability to have fun, but there are plenty of things to do in most cities that won't cost you a dime. In fact, one of the great things about cities is that there's a lot of free stuff built in. It may take some creativity, but rest assured you can find plenty to do without opening your wallet. (See also: 10 Ways to Get Free Airline Tickets)

1. Visit a Park

Most sizable cities have big parks (Central Park in NY, Grant Park in Chicago, Retiro in Madrid). These are usually pleasant to walk, run, or bike through, and you'll often be able to check out things like free music concerts or other performances. The park is also a great place to people-watch.

2. Visit a Church

Most major cities have churches that are some of the most historic buildings in town. The St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans or the San Miguel Mission in Santa Fe, for instance, are two of the oldest structures in the United States. Churches are usually landmarks and great examples of certain types of architecture. Best of all, they are usually free to visit.

3. Stop by a Cemetery

This may seem a bit macabre, but it's often a great history lesson. Most major cities have graveyards with markers of famous people. Did you know that Granary Burying Ground in Boston has the graves of three signers of the Declaration of Independence? In Halifax, Novia Scotia, there's a graveyard of those who perished on the Titanic. And the graveyards in New Orleans are a top tourist destination.

4. Go to a Museum

It's true that most museums do charge admission (the Smithsonian museums in Washington, DC being notable exceptions). But many popular museums do offer free admission at certain days or times, or under other special circumstances. Chicago's Museum of Industry, for example, offers free admission on special days if you are an Illinois resident. Boston's Children's Museum offers free admission to any teacher from New England. If you plan ahead and do some research, you may find that you can access some great museums without paying a cent. (See also: How to Visit Museums for Free)

5. Volunteer

This may not seem like a very touristy thing to do, but it's a great way to really learn about the people and culture of a city. Consider taking a day to help out a charity working on homes in a specific neighborhood. Help out at a soup kitchen or a park cleanup. You'll feel good about yourself, and you'll connect with some locals who can further enrich your visit there. (See also: Unexpected Benefits of Volunteering)

6. Check Out the Public Art

Most cities are filled with great sculptures, murals, and other pieces that are worth seeing. If you're in Barcelona, Gaudi's Parc Guell is a must-see attraction. Melbourne has a great collection of public art, thanks to an ongoing injection of public funds. Sculptures like the LOVE statue in Philadelphia and the Bull statue on New York's Wall Street are tourist destinations in and of themselves.

7. Search for Hollywood

Most major cities can boast of at least one or two famous movies filmed there, and some cities, like New York and Toronto, have been home to countless films. The movie "Rocky" came out in 1976, but not a day goes by that someone doesn't triumphantly climb the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In the Georgetown section of Washington, DC, anyone can go check out the famous "Exorcist" steps.

8. Browse the High-End Shops (But Don't Buy Anything)

When I was in high school, a few friends and I took a day trip to New York City and spent an afternoon browsing around Park Avenue and popping into places like Tiffany and Co., Gucci, and Prada. We had no money to spend, and the store employees knew it. But it was fun to play pretend for a while, and the whole experience was good for many laughs. We even saw a couple of supermodels! (See also: NYC Basic Tips and Etiquette)

9. Hold a Scavenger Hunt

This works great if you're with a sizable group of friends, but you could probably do it as challenge yourself as well. Before you visit a city, make a list of landmarks, then hold a contest to see who can find the most. It's a great, free way to make sure you're not missing a main attraction, and it will help you learn how to get around the city better as well.

Have you tried any free, fun activities while visiting another city? What'd you do?

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Guest's picture

If you are visiting NYC, be sure to hop on the Staten Island Ferry! Always free and goes right by the statue of liberty. I have lived here for years and still go on a regular basis!

Tim Lemke's picture

I had no idea the State Island ferry was free. Apparently they eliminated fares in 1997! Last time I rode it was before then. Great tip!