The best free museums in the US
The first portrait of a President

While exploring any new city can be pricey, thankfully, there are a number of great free attractions to enjoy in pretty much every major metro area in the country. If you are someone who loves exploring ancient history and incredible artwork, you are in luck as there are so many wonderful free history and art museums across the US. Below is a guide to the top ten free museums to incorporate into your trip plans. All of the featured museums are well worth traveling for, and because they are free, you will save a few bucks on overall trip expenses in the process.

1. Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

Location: Washington D.C.

African Bush Elephant at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

Washington D.C., “The Nation’s Capital” is a wonderful vacation destination for history buffs. In addition to being home to some of the nation’s most stunning monuments and memorials, there are 17 free Smithsonian museums to discover. These museums are so large that you could easily spend hours exploring which is great because outside of hotel and food costs, a trip to D.C. is actually pretty budget friendly. The wonderful Museum of Natural History should be high on your bucket list. Highlights include the Hall of Human origins where you can explore evolution, the dazzling Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals, and the Hall of Mammals featuring realistic dioramas showcasing animals in their natural habitats.

2. Cincinnati Museum of Art

Location: Cincinnati, Ohio

Contemporary Japanese ceramics at the Cincinnati Art Museum

The wonderful free Cincinnati Art Museum is not only one of the oldest, but also one of the best in the country. For true art lovers, it’s well worth a trip to Cincinnati solely to check out this museum. Of course, there are plenty more notable attractions (including the American Sign Museum) to justify the trip. The museum, founded back in 1881, claims the title of first purposely built art museum west of the Alleghenies. With more than 67,000 pieces of artwork, you can literally spend all day here. Most impressive is the East Asian art collection featuring incredible artwork from China, Korea, and Japan. The 5000 piece Japanese collection includes an impressive assortment of paintings, ceramics, metalwork, prints, sculptures, as well lacquer and ivory objects.

3. Cleveland Museum of Art

Location: Cleveland, Ohio

Andy Warhol Marilyn pop art at the Cleveland Museum of Art

Equally as impressive as The Cincinnati Art Museum is The Cleveland Art Museum. The expansive museum includes over 45,000 works spanning 6000 years. Highlights of the collection include European Paintings and Sculpture from 1500 to 1800, a contemporary art exhibit featuring works from 60’s icons like Andy Warhol, and a renowned Greek and Roman collection which features iconic bronze sculptures including Apollo the Python-Slayer from 350 BC attributed to Praxiteles, as well as painted vases from Archaic, Classical, and late Classical periods. Also of interest is the incredible Textile collection which includes over 4000 textiles from 62 countries, dating from 2000 BC to the present.

4. Smithsonian Museum of American History

Location: Washington D.C.

Dorothy's ruby slippers at The Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington D.C.

The original star spangled banner, a 24+ piece First Lady’s dress collection, Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, Lincoln’s top hat, and Jefferson’s lap desk, are just some of the exhibits which have made the Smithsonian Museum of American History one of the most popular museums in D.C. If you are a history buff, you will definitely be intrigued by museum’s expansive historical collection, which includes more than 3 million objects, from colonial times to the present. There is so much to see and read here that you really need at least a few hours to cover it all! What a fantastic free gem for anyone interested in exploring the political, military, scientific, and cultural history of the United States.

5. Griffith Observatory

Location: Los Angeles, CA

Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles

While it’s quite expensive to live in L.A., free activities and attractions are easily found. Out of all the free museums, the Griffith is definitely one to put on your bucket list. Featuring a world-class observatory, the best views of Los Angeles, and several miles of incredible on-site hiking trails, the Griffith is an absolute must-do on any first timer’s trip to L.A. Thankfully, philanthropist Griffith J. Griffith donated the land (in 1896) to make astronomy accessible to all. Since opening in 1935, the Griffith has remained the world’s most visited observatory. Today, the Griffith is also home to the city’s best hiking trails. For amazing views of the Santa Monica mountains and the Hollywood sign, there is no better place to be in L.A.

6. National Portrait Gallery

Location: Washington D.C.

JFK portrait at the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery in DC

One of D.C.’s best museums features beautiful portraits of every President, as well as many other famous figures. The expansive collection at the National Portrait Gallery includes over 1600 portraits and 5,450 glass-plate negatives, plus the original artwork for over 2000 Time Magazine covers. There are 3 massive floors of themed galleries to explore, the most renowned being the Hall of Presidents collection. Most notable is the 1796 Lansdowne portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. If you like history, there is plenty to learn during your visit. Overall, it’s a great choice for history buffs and art lovers alike. If you are more interested in modern art, definitely plan for some time to explore the 3rd floor, dedicated to celebrities and sports figures.

7. The Rodin Museum

Location: Philadelphia

The Thinker statue at The Rodin Museum in Philadelphia

Philadelphia is home to a wonderful assortment of world-class museums and historical attractions. Best of all, most of these wonderful historical sights are free! Several prominent art museums line the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, thus lendings to its’ nickname, Museum Row. The Parkway was modeled after the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Outside of Paris, The Rodin Museum in Philadelphia holds one of largest collection of Rodin’s incredible sculptures. The beautiful Beaux-Arts style building and gardens houses 150 famous sculptures including Rodan’s iconic Thinker. Admission to the outdoor gardens is always free and the indoor museum operates on a pay-as-you-wish format.

8. Independence National Historical Park

Location: Philadelphia

Independence Hall in Old City Philadelphia

A trip to the “birthplace of America” is a must at some point for any history buffs. Philadelphia is home to America’s “most historic square mile.” Most notably, Independence National Historical Park is home to Independence Hall where our nation’s most important documents were signed. Today, you can take a free educational tour and see the rooms where both the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution were signed. Other must-see historical sites include the Liberty Bell with the famous inscription “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof” and the Benjamin Franklin museum.

9. National Gallery of Art

Location: Washington D.C.

Holiday floral display at The National Gallery of Art in D.C.

If you love art in all its’ magnificent forms, then the The National Gallery of Art in D.C. is a great addition to your itinerary. From Byzantine altarpieces, to modern and pop art, to classic impressionist paintings, there is something in the massive collection for everyone here. With more than 150,000 sculptures, prints, drawings, paintings, photographs, and decorative arts comprising the collection, it is easy to spend hours getting lost in beautiful artwork. A few famous pieces include the Rotunda Mercury fountain, Women with a Parsol by Claude Monet, Portrait of Ginevra Benci by Leonardo da Vinci, The Sacrament of the Last Supper by Salvador Dali, and Still Life: Vase with Pink roses by Vincent Van Gogh. Also on-site is a gorgeous sculpture garden featuring over 2 dozen unique masterpieces of modern art.

10. Bicycle Heaven

Location: Pittsburgh

Vintage bikes at Bicycle Heaven in Pittsburgh, PA

This quirky museum is loaded floor-to-ceiling with vintage bicycles as well as rare antiques and nostalgic memorabilia. Today, with over 6000 bikes on display, Bicycle Heaven is considered to be the world’s largest bicycle museum and shop. Of particular interest are 17 super rare Bowen Space Landers from the 1940’s-1960’s. These rare futuristic looking fiberglass bikes are extremely limited in quantity (to date, only 30 or so have been found). Today (in mint condition) they are worth over $40,000! Also, the museum houses a number of memorable movie and TV bikes including Pee Wee Herman’s iconic red and white Schwinn and the Kuwahara bike that Elliott famously rode across the moon with E.T.

Honorable Mentions – More Fabulous Free Museums

Greenville Museum of Art – This small art museum in beautiful Upstate South Carolina (in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains) is home to one of the largest collections of watercolors by artist Andrew Wyeth. Admission is free and the museum is located just minutes away from one of the hottest Main Streets in the South.

Beautiful exhibit at the Greenville Museum of Art

Bunker Hill museum – Learn more about the Battle of Bunker Hill and the 221 foot obelisk monument. Also be sure to challenge yourself up the 294 step climb (so worth it!) to the top of the monument for one of the most amazing viewpoints of the city.

Bunker Hill monument in Boston, Massachusetts

USS Constitution – Take a self guided tour of the ship anytime of the year for free. “Old Ironsides,” the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat, is one of many interesting sites on Boston’s iconic Freedom Trail. If you do intend on visiting this amazing city, put walking the 2.5 mile historic trail #1 on your list!

USS Constitution "Old Ironsides" on Boston's Freedom Trail

Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum – Cool small, yet informative museum for baseball fans. Learn more about Shoeless Joe Jackson (born in Greenville, SC) and the infamous Chicago Black Sox scandal at this Upstate South Carolina gem.

Shoeless Joe Jackson museum in Greenville, SC

National Museum of the American Indian – Learn more about the history and culture of Native people from their own viewpoint at this free Smithsonian gem in D.C. This was the first museum dedicated to Native Americans.

National Postage Museum – An under appreciated Smithsonian gem in D.C. where you can explore the history of the postal industry in the US. The William H. Gross Stamp Gallery is the world’s largest.

Bank of America Museums on US

Rocky Steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
One of the country’s top art museums and a famous movie filming location. Remember the famous Rocky running scenes?

Bank of America cardholders receive free admission into many of the countries top museums on the first full weekend of each month. Check the Museums on US program to see participating museums. A few great options:

  • Tucson Museum of Art – Fantastic collection of Colonial Latin American Art.
  • Florida Aquarium (Tampa) – One of the country’s most renowned aquariums.
  • Center for Civil and Human Rights (Atlanta) – Comprehensive overview of the civil rights movement.
  • Art Institute of Chicago – Renowned 300,000 piece international collection.
  • Museum of Science and Industry (Chicago) – Largest science center in the US.
  • Philadelphia Museum of Art – 200,000+ renowned collection at the country’s oldest art institution.
  • Museum of the American Revolution (Philly) – Detailed exhibits on the American Revolution.
  • Andy Warhol museum (Pittsburgh) – Details the life and career of the pop art icon.