21 free things to do in the most popular US vacation cities


Are you going on vacation this summer? If so, Google can take a good guess as to where. Analysts for the site recently looked at three months’ worth of searches for summer flights and used that data to create a list of the top 20 places that U.S. travelers are hoping to visit this summer. Twelve American cities made the list.

If you’re planning a trip to one of these cities, you’ll probably have to pay for a hotel, a rental car and several restaurants. But there are plenty of things you can do that won’t cost a dime. Here are some free activities you can enjoy while you’re there.

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Orlando, Florida

Take in some art. See if you can spot all 44 murals in the Mills 50 District. (This is a highly Instagrammable activity.) Then head over to CityArts, a group of seven art galleries with free admission and a café — all housed in the oldest commercially operational building in Orlando (it’s been there since 1886).

Visit Disney Springs. Disney’s shopping and entertainment district has free admission, free parking and lots of free activities. There’s live music, shows from Disney’s Performing Arts dance troupes and great photo opportunities. And like all things Disney, this place is made for kids. For example, little ones can dig for “fossils” in the Paleo Zone sandbox.


New York City

Tour Alexander Hamilton’s estate. Of the many free things you can do in New York City, one of the most interesting is touring the estate of Hamilton Grange, where the founding father lived the last two years of his life (before dying in a duel with Aaron Burr). The 25-minute tour is free, but you must arrive on-site early to make a reservation for this popular attraction.

Walk the High Line. This art-filled, elevated popular park (formerly a train line) isn’t just a must-see attraction; it’s also free. You can even get a free, 90-minute, docent-led tour, but arrive early. There are no reservations, and they only take 20 people at a time.


Seattle, Washington

Stroll through a museum. Seattle is full of free museums — or free on certain days, at least. One interesting one is the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, which showcases artifacts from the 1897 Klondike gold rush, when prospectors stopped in Seattle to fuel up on their way to the Yukon in Canada. As the tour begins, you learn the stories of five 1890s-era stampeders (Klondike prospectors).

Watch the boats in Ballard Locks. These locks, officially called Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, act as a sort of boat elevator that helps move boats from the water level of Lake Washington, Lake Union, and Salmon Bay to the tidal water level of Puget Sound, and vice versa.

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Visitors can sit and watch the boats move through. Would you rather watch salmon fighting their way upstream? There’s also a fish ladder in the locks for migrating salmon. Plus, the grounds feature a visitors’ center (which offers free tours at 2 pm every day that the center is open) and a botanical garden.


Los Angeles, California

Watch a TV taping. Whether you’d like to be an audience member of a sitcom taping, a talk show or a game show, tickets are almost always free. Reserve tickets ahead of time from companies like On Camera Audiences (for TV talent shows and game shows), TV Tix (for a wide mix of shows), and 1iota (for late-night talk shows among others).

Look out from Griffith Observatory. One of the best scenic lookouts in L.A. is also free and includes a free museum and an opportunity to gaze through high-powered Zeiss and solar telescopes. Line up before it gets dark if you want to view the night sky, because they do limit the number of people allowed in.


Denver, Colorado

Visit an iconic bookstore. The Tattered Cover Book Store is a famous independent bookseller in the renovated Lowenstein Theater, which is located on the busy and popular section of East Colfax Avenue. There’s an in-house coffee shop and lots of comfy chairs where you can plop down and sample a book or three.

Tour the Colorado State Capitol Building. The capitol building in Denver doesn’t just have great historical significance. It’s also an architectural marvel and scenic lookout with breathtaking views of the city skyline and Rocky Mountains. And visiting is free! There are temporary exhibits, galleries and an hour-long tour that includes a trip to see the gold-plated, 272-foot-high dome.


Las Vegas, Nevada

See the world’s largest nugget of gold. It’s 61 pounds, it’s called the Hand of Faith, and it’s housed at the Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino.

Take photos with flamingos. There’s no need to book a room at the Flamingo Hotel and Casino to enjoy its coolest attraction: a flock of Chilean flamingos roaming around the Flamingo Wildlife Habitat. Walk around the four-acre gardens and take photos of all the creatures that live there, including turtles, swans, ducks, pelicans and more.

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Miami, Florida

Take an Art Deco walking tour. Jump on and off of Miami’s free trolleys as you take a self-guided tour of the Art Deco architecture Miami is famous for. Pick up a free walking guide from the Art Deco Welcome Center or download the free app, GPSmycity, which also offers guided walking tours.

Honolulu, Hawaii

Hike along the Spitting Caves. These natural, wavy rock formations are among the many natural wonders that Hawaii has to offer, but this place is named for the way the cliffs spit the waves back out. While it’s not guaranteed, rainbows are a frequent feature of this natural attraction (and they’re free, to boot).

Visit the Pearl Harbor National Memorial. It’s free to visit the site of the sunken battleship, the USS Arizona Memorial, where 900 sailors and marines lost their lives. But reserve your free ticket ahead of time, since this popular attraction can fill up fast.


Chicago, Illinois

Stroll along a water promenade. Chicago has two great ones: Walk along the Chicago Riverwalk (where you’ll see world-famous architecture along the Chicago River) and the Lakefront Trail (which runs alongside picturesque Lake Michigan but also features playgrounds, gardens, tennis courts, public art and more).

Visit the Lincoln Park Zoo. One of the few free zoos in the country, the Lincoln Park Zoo is open year-round and has almost 200 animal species and over 1,200 plant species.


Boston, Massachussetts

Follow the Freedom Trail. You can learn about Boston’s rich history simply by walking a 2.5-mile trail that leads you to 16 of the city’s most iconic sites. There’s no fee to walk the Freedom Trail, and there are free guides like this one to help you on your way. Just be aware that some of the sites do charge admission.

Cool off in one of the Greenway’s fountains. Can you find all the iconic fountains along the Greenway? The park features seven major fountains which are generally running from late May through mid-October. Move through the Harbor Fog sculptures, and a foggy mist is released. Or check out the bamboo walkway and ever-flowing waterfall at the Chinatown Stream.


San Francisco, California

Have a brush with Sea-lebrities. Check out the group of sea lions that sun themselves on Pier 39’s K-dock. They won’t charge you to gawk. Just don’t expect any tricks — this isn’t Sea World!

Explore the Presidio. This is a 1,500-acre national park that’s brimming with picnic areas, hiking trails, historic buildings and cool play areas. The latest addition is the Presidio Tunnel Tops, which has a two-acre “nature play area,” in which the playground equipment is fashioned from boulders and fallen trees and an indoor facility where kids can learn about art and science.


About the Author

Jennifer Graham Kizer

Jennifer has written features and essays for over a dozen magazines, including American Baby, Cosmo, Cosmo Girl, Fit Pregnancy, Good Housekeeping, Health, Marie Claire, Parents, Parenting, Redbook, Self, Teen People, TV Guide, and YM. More.

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