20 Free & Fantastic Things to Do in the Greater Boston Area
Founded in 1630, Boston is one of America’s oldest & most influential cities. For history buffs, there is no better destination. Home to The Freedom Trail, gorgeous old architecture, and numerous notable landmarks, the city is rich in historical significance. Boston is a great city to visit anytime of the year. There are plenty of year-round activities and attractions for everyone to enjoy.
In addition to top notch museums and historical landmarks, you will also find many beautiful parks and gardens. Fortunately, many activities in Boston are free, so if you are short on cash you can still enjoy a wonderful trip to New England’s largest and most influential city.
Free and interesting attractions abound both downtown and in nearby cities around the Greater Boston metro area. No matter which season you decide to visit, your eyes will get to feast on the most incredible architecture. Fall is a particularly scenic time to visit with every area surrounded with the tremendous colors of the season. The fall season brings forth endless opportunities for free hikes and seasonal events. Nevertheless, no matter what time of the year you visit, you can expect a fun, scenic, educational, & relaxing experience, all rolled into one.
Take a look at this list of 20 fun and free things to do in the Greater Boston area.
1. The Freedom Trail
Boston’s scenic 2.5 mile route takes you along a fun & educational journey past the city’s most historic sites, including: Boston Common, Faneuil Hall, the Site of the Boston Massacre, the Bunker Hill Monument, and many more. The brick-lined path is easy to follow and the architecture along the way is absolutely gorgeous. Take this opportunity to learn more about the history of this beautiful city; you won’t regret it. This is definitely the must-do here, no matter what time of the year you visit. Please check out my detailed Freedom Trail Map to help guide you along on your journey.
Tip: Be sure to climb to the top of Bunker Hill Monument – the views are outstanding!
2. Blue Hills Reservation
Blue Hills is located a short 20 minute drive outside of the city. Take this opportunity to escape the crowds and traffic for a day of hiking or biking at this picturesque nature oasis. This 6000 acre rural escape is so close to the city, yet so far away. From the Skyline Trail (a rough, yet scenic adventure), you will hike up to an observation deck where you will be treated to top notch views of the city and even better views of the surrounding hilly landscapes.
Hiking through the heavily wooded trails at Blue Hills is so peaceful and relaxing that you will forget you are anywhere near a big city. Over 100 trails and varied terrain will excite both the beginning and advanced hiker.
Tip: Visit during October and take a fall foliage chairlift ride at the Blue Hills Ski area.
3. Bunker Hill Monument
Your Boston experience is not complete until you climb to the top of the Bunker Hill Monument. Climbing the 294 steps to the top is a challenging, yet exhilarating experience. Don’t worry – your hard effort will pay off. After climbing up seemingly endless staircases, picturesque views of the city dominate the sky. Your legs may be burning, however, your eyes will be enjoying the sky high view. Be sure to bring your camera to take advantage of the best view of the city.
An amazing workout + tremendous views + free admission=an absolute must do in Boston!
Tip: If you are not in the best of shape, plan your climb as a separate experience from the trail. Although Bunker can be easily accessed from the trail, the trail itself is an all day exhausting experience! Adding an intense climb after a 3 mile walk may not the best idea for everyone.
4. Arnold Arboretum
The beautiful Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University is America’s oldest public arboretum. It’s one of the most beautiful places in the Boston area to take a relaxing walk. As you tour the beautiful grounds, you will be able to explore over 14,000 plants from around the world. Arnold Arboretum is a beautiful escape from the city congestion: a place to stroll, relax, and take in the sights and sounds of nature.
Tip: There are great views of the Boston skyline from Peter’s Hill, located at the southern portion of the arboretum.
5. Boston Common
America’s oldest public park and the starting point of The Freedom Trail, is not only beautiful, but also alive with interesting events all year-round. During the fall season, Boston Common is one of the best sites in the city to take in the amazing bright foliage. Frog Pond transforms into one of the country’s best ice rinks each winter. Spring and summertime means gorgeous greenery and blooming plants. Anytime of the year, this wonderful urban park offers the perfect ambiance for a leisurely stroll before heading out to other area activities.
Wonderful views of the city from the park
Tip: Be sure to visit during the annual tree lighting held at the end of November/beginning of December each year. This festive free event includes live music and a free ice skating show.
6. Minuteman Bikeway
This Rail to Trails Conservancy Hall of Fame recipient is well worth the short drive from Boston. The route, an easy, scenic 11 mile journey through a mostly forested setting, is a great place to enjoy a healthy burst of weekend morning exercise. The path is very flat, one of the easiest in the area. The views are terrific especially during prime fall foliage season. The tree-lined route passes through 4 historic Massachusetts towns: Bedford, Arlington, Lexington, and Cambridge. Any history buffs out there might find it interesting that the path closely follows Paul Revere’s Revolutionary ride.
Minuteman is easily one of the best leaf peeping destinations in Boston – check out that bright foliage!
Tip: Those looking for a longer ride can continue on by connecting to various other paths such as the equally scenic Charles River path.
7. Old North Church
One of the most beautiful sights along Boston’s Freedom Trail is Old North Church, built in 1723. Old North is the oldest church still standing in the city. However, it is most well-known for being the location from which the “one if by land, two if by sea” signal was sent by Paul Revere. The interior features unique architecture and box pews which are all original. Free admission to tour the beautiful interior is available, although $3 donations are suggested.
Tip: Special tours of the Crypt and the Bell Ringing Chamber are available for a small fee.
8. Middlesex Fells Reservation
Another great natural park just outside of Boston is Middlesex Fells Reservation, located just a short 10-15 minute drive north of the city. The skyline trail provides outstanding views of the city. Here, you can really escape the hustle and bustle as the trails are very peaceful, scenic, and opportunities for small wildlife sightings are abundant. Get out of the city and enjoy a day exploring nature at Middlesex Fells. A variety of trails to suit all levels are available, with views ranging from forests to city to wetlands to ponds.
Tip: Plan a full day hiking trip to complete the entire Skyline Trail. It is a difficult trail, however, the views are stunning. Be sure to come prepared with plenty of water, a few snacks, and sunblock.
9. Salem Witch Trials Memorial/Old Burying Point Cemetery
Salem is most famous for being home to the infamous witch trials of 1692. While in town, you can take a walk around and view the 20 granite benches, commemorating each of the accused/executed. Next to the memorials, you will see Old Burying Point Cemetery, the oldest burial ground in Salem and one of the oldest in the US.
At this historic cemetery, you will find the gravestone of Judge John Hawthorne of the Witch Trials. Because this cemetery is so old (built in the 1600s), many of the gravestones are weathered down, and thus, no longer legible. It is a very creepy place, especially during the fall and winter months where overcast skies and barren trees make for an especially eerie feeling!
Tip: Salem tends to get insanely crowd during the fall/Halloween season. Visit out of the prime season for a more peaceful experience. On the other hand, if you love Halloween (and Hocus Pocus), check out my Halloween in Salem post.
10. Faneuil Hall Marketplace
In 1742, Wealthy merchant Peter Faneuil funded the building of this marketplace and meeting hall. Many important figures such as Samuel Adams have made speeches here. Today, the marketplace is home to numerous shops, restaurants, bars, live events, and performances.
Tip: Be sure to check out Blink! A Light & Sound Extravaganza, a synchronized holiday light show featuring Holiday Pops music. Takes place each December.
11. Boston Public Garden
Adjacent to Boston Common, this beautiful garden is another must-see while visiting downtown. The gorgeous garden is home to many unique plants and a beautiful lake. It’s a beautiful place to take a stroll no matter what time of year. When the weather is nice, you can take a relaxing ride along the famous Swan Boats. Movie buffs will be interested to know that several popular movies filmed here.
The lagoon in summer vs. winter. Two drastically different settings, yet both are equally beautiful in their own way.
Movie fans will probably remember this bench, which Robin Williams and Matt Damon sat on during one of Good Will Hunting’s most memorable scenes!
Tip: Plan for a visit each season to experience the gorgeous changing landscapes.
12. North End Neighborhood
Take a stroll around Boston’s historic North End neighborhood. The area features beautiful old architecture and cobblestone streets. A section of the Freedom Trail goes right through the neighborhood. Here you can tour the Paul Revere House museum. The house was originally built in 1680 and many of the original structures are still standing despite renovations. The area is also known for being home to some of the best Italian restaurants in the city. Try out Giacomo’s, a great local restaurant serving authentic Italian cuisine (the Lobster ravioli is amazing!).
Giacomo’s – Best Italian food I’ve ever tasted!
Tip: Visit on a weekday for less crowds. A long line often begins to form shortly after opening!
13. Self Guided tours of Plymouth
Although Plymouth, where the Pilgrims landed by the mayflower in 1620, is located 45 minutes away from the city, a trip to Massachusetts would not to complete without taking the time to visit the quaint and historically significant coastal town of Plymouth. There is so much to do and see in this historic city, most of which is free.
The Mayflower II replica and Plymouth Rock are the big tourist draws here. However, numerous other historical attractions such as the National Monument to our Forefathers (at 81 foot tall, it stands as the 3rd largest US statue) and First Parish Church (built in 1620 it is the oldest running church congregation), and Old Burial Hill (one of the oldest and most picturesque cemeteries in the US) are also worthy of a look while in the vicinity.
The fun doesn’t stop at history! Be sure to take a walk along Plymouth’s beautiful waterfront. Views are simply gorgeous. As an added bonus, local shops and restaurants dot the entire waterfront region. If you feel like splurging a bit, consider taking a whale watching cruise. The whale watching cruises are spectacular. Sightings are guaranteed or your money back!
Tip: Check out the Plymouth Night tour around Halloween. This is the best ghost tour in Boston.
14. Myles Standish State Forest
An hour south of Boston, you will come across the largest recreation area in Southeast Massachusetts. At 13,000+ acres, you will never run out of things to do here. Year-round seasonal fun awaits you at this expansive forest which lies in both Carver and Plymouth. It’s an absolutely gorgeous place to hike with never ending views of beautiful pristine pine forests. A variety of hikes take you past picturesque ponds and reservoirs. Get out your walking shoes or bike (or even skis) and enjoy a natural escape from the city. The drive is more than worth it for the relaxing experience.
Tip: Sign up for a guided hike. The First Sunday of every month, The Friends of Myles Standish offer free walking tours.
15. Harvard University Tour
Tours are offered of the Harvard Yard area of historic Harvard University. Take this unique opportunity to learn about the history and academics of this world-class university. The grounds are absolutely gorgeous. Current students will lead you around to some of the best sights including beautiful Widener Library (pictured above), built in the early 1900’s as a memorial to a student who died on the Titanic.
A really unique part of the tour takes you past the John Harvard statue, otherwise known as the “Statue of 3 Lies.” Legend says that if you rub his foot you will have good luck. You may be wondering what is with the strange nickname? First off, the statue is not of John Harvard’s likeness. No one really knows who the statue represents. Second, Harvard did not found the University as stated on the plaque. He was rather a major benefactor. Finally, Harvard was not founded in 1638. It was founded in 1636, which makes it America’s oldest university.
Tip: Plan your tour during the fall season to enjoy incredible architecture surrounded by the vivid colors of the season.
16. Great Neck Wildlife Sanctuary
This beautiful refuge in Wareham (an hour south of Boston) provides habitat for many rare species such as wading herons and great horned owls. There are only 4 miles of trails, however, beautiful views of wooded forest and a picturesque peaceful marsh view keep you company. It’s a beautiful place far away from the city where you can take a relaxing stroll, enjoy nature, and take beautiful pictures.
The preserve is an easy place to get lost in the woods…
Tip: Don’t rule out a winter visit. The pine trees are beautiful when lightly dusted with snow.
17. The USS Constitution Tour
Boston’s USS Constitution, which was launched way back in 1797, is the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world. It is one of the 16 sights along the historic Freedom Trail. Admission is free. A tour gives you a chance to give your feet a break before heading back and completing the return journey of the trail. Guided tours run every half hour. For those interested in learning more about the history of “Old Ironsides”(the ship was named so as cannons could not make their way through the side of the ship), this tour is a must. As an added bonus, there are some great views of the Boston skyline aboard!
Note: The ship is not open for tours on Monday.
18. Little Harbor Beach
Little Harbor Beach is a great little uncrowded gem to visit during the winter months. You get to enjoy the same scenery, minus the hectic crowds. It’s an excellent place for birdwatchers and photography. The barren & oftentimes snowy winter climate offers a spectacular, yet dramatically different landscape, complete with striking icy views. Located in Wareham, it is a great activity to combine with Great Neck Wildlife Refuge.
Tip: Visit during the fall and winter months for complete solitude.
19. Tour old cemeteries
4 historic cemeteries are accessible via the Freedom Trail alone: King’s Hill Burying Ground, Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, and Granary Burying Ground. All are very old and interesting, not to mention the final resting place of many prominent figures such as Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, signers of the Declaration of Independence and many other notable people of the era.
Tip: Sign up for a free guided tour of The Freedom Trail. The tour guides will conveniently point out many of the prominent headstones and give detailed historical information.
20. Harbor Walk
Harbor Walk is a picturesque area of the city to grab a cup of coffee or tea and just stroll around. During your walk, you will take in the magnificent architecture found all around the city. There are several restaurants with outdoor seating if you want to dine while still enjoying the views. There are plenty of fantastic photography opportunities, so remember to pack the camera. The Walkway will eventually expand to include over 46 miles.
Tip: Explore the Harbor Walk by bike! Check out the Harbor Walk website for additional details on routes.
The following attractions offer free dates throughout the year
The Museum of Fine Arts – Regarded as one the country’s top art museums. Be sure to plan a visit to this museum on Wednesday nights where admission is free after 4:00pm. Suggested donation is $25.
The Boston University Art Gallery – This non-profit art institute is always free to the public.
The Worcester Art Museum – A bit of a drive (about an hour and 15 min), however, worth the drive for the impressive collection. Take advantage of the free dates (First Sundays from 10:00am-noon).
Sam Adams Brewery– Tour the Jamaica Plains facility and learn about the brewing process on this free tour. Tours are offered on Monday-Thursdays (10:00am-3:00pm), Fridays (10:00am-5:30pm), and Saturdays (10:00am-3:00pm).
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum – Admission is normally $20, however, if your name is Isabella you get in for free!
The Boston Public Library – This beautiful architectural wonder is a gorgeous place to explore. Free tours are offered at the following times: Monday 2:30pm, Tuesday 6:00pm, Wednesday 11:00am, Thursday 6:00pm, Friday 11:00am, Saturday 11:00am, and Sunday 2:00pm.
Coit Observatory at Boston University – The observatory is located on the roof of the College of Arts and Sciences building. Stargazing via telescopes is offered on clear nights. The times are Wednesday nights at 7:30pm in the winter and at 8:30pm in the spring and summer.
Museum of Fine Arts – Bank of America cardholders get in free the first full weekend of each month. This promotion is courtesy of the Museums on Us program.
The Institute of Contemporary Art – Like the Museum of Fine Arts, this is another Museums on Us deal. Definitely a good deal if you already use Bank of America. Also free Thursday nights, 5-9pm.
Boston Common Frog Pond – Free ice skating dates throughout the winter season. Check the winter schedule for listings. If you bring your own skates on a free day, you can enjoy a wonderful free night out in this beautiful city.
Also, be on the lookout for free events throughout the year. Be sure to check out the following: South Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, New Year’s Eve Skating Spectacular at Boston’s Frog Pond Ice Rink, Boston Pops 4th of July Celebration, Boston HarborFest, and many more!
What are some of your favorite free things to do in and around Boston?