How to Visit Museums for Free

by Matt Bell on 29 July 2011 2 comments
Photo: digital cat

Whether you’re into art or archeology, spacecrafts or handicrafts, there’s a museum for you — and you may be able to visit a museum that interests you for free. (See also: How to Have a Frugal Vacation and Still Treat Yourself)

Some museums are always free, including some of the most popular museums in the country, such as the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, National Air and Space Museum, and National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. In fact, most of the Smithsonian’s 19 museums and the National Zoo are free.

If you don’t live near the nation’s capital or aren’t planning a visit, don't worry. Chances are good that a museum near you has at least certain days or times when admission is free.

Search for a Free Museum Near You

A quick internet search is one of the easiest ways to find free museums in your area. Search "free museums in…” and then the name of your city. When I did that for Chicago, which is close to where we live, I found several blogs and other sites that had comprehensive lists of museums that have free days.

Here are the best sites I found for the scoop on museum free-days in the five largest cities in the country.

While searching for these, I also found these popular kids museums that offer free or deeply discounted admission on certain days and times.

The Association for Children’s Museums can help you find children’s museums in other cities.

You could also start by finding out what museums are near you by searching for the name of your city and “museums.” After finding a museum that interests you, go to its website and find its “Admission” page. If the museum offers free days, you’ll usually find the info there.

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Free Museum Visits in Your Wallet

Many libraries offer card holders free passes to nearby museums, zoos, botanical gardens, and more. Check at your local library so see if this option is available.

If you have a Bank of America credit or debit card, the company’s Museums on Us program gives you free access to many museums, zoos, and more on the first full weekend of each month.

If you’re a member of a museum, check to see if it has a reciprocity agreement with other museums. Premium members of the Art Institute of Chicago, for example, have free access to 16 other museums in the U.S. and Canada.

If you’re on active duty with the military, National Guard, or Reserve, a proper ID card will grant you and up to five family members free entry to your choice of more than 1,000 museums around the country through Labor Day via a National Endowment for the Arts program called the Blue Star Museums Initiative.

"Visit" Museums for Free

One final free option for those who love art museums doesn’t even require leaving the comfort of your home. Google’s Art Project provides no-cost online access to some of the world’s finest art museums, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum, Museum of Modern Art, and Frick Collection; London’s National Gallery and Tate Britain; the Uffizi in Florence; Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum; and more.

The Price of Free

Keep in mind that free admission doesn’t mean you won’t spend anything on your visit. At most museums, you’ll pay plenty for parking, special exhibits, audio tours, and food.

It’s also best to check with the museum directly before you go just to be sure their free offers are still available.

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Meg Favreau's picture

Another great, free museum-like activity is self-guided walking (or driving) tours. You can usually find free maps online, and many places feature informational placards so you can learn as you go.

Andrea Karim's picture

Seattle's museums are free on the first Thursday of each month. It's kind of an event.