20 Incredible & Free Tourist Attractions in the Northeast
The Northeast is a beautiful and exciting region of the United States. Both New England and the Mid Atlantic states are typically included, and thus, there is an abundance of geographically diverse recreational areas, as well as historic cities to explore. From America’s most populated city, to the nation’s capital, to gorgeous national and state forests, to historic landmarks, to quaint coastal towns, there is something to do no matter your interests. Interestingly, the Northeast is both the most populated and the most forested portion of the country! From an action packed adventure in NYC or Philadelphia, to a rustic hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, to skiing in the Appalachian mountains of Vermont, diverse vacation destinations await.
1. The Freedom Trail
Location: Boston, Massachusetts
One of the top things to do in one of America’s prettiest and most historical cities is free. The 2.5 mile long Freedom Trail is one of the country’s historical treasures. The red brick line trail is easy to follow as you navigate Boston’s rich history. Along the way, you will pass 16 sites of historical significance. There’s lot of history to explore, architectural wonders to photograph, ancient cemeteries to meander through, and lovely parks to take a break and enjoy nature. Highlights include: Boston Common (the country’s oldest park), the Old South Meeting House (where the Tea Party originated), the USS Constitution (the oldest commissioned warship afloat), the Bunker Hill monument (climb 294 steps for an amazing view!) and Faneuil Hall (site of America’s first town meeting).
2. Kaaterskil Falls
Location: Upstate New York
At 260 feet, Kaaterskill Falls is the tallest waterfall in New York state. Located in the beautiful Catskill mountains region, the trek through maple, oak, and beech trees is beautiful in and of itself. Fortunately, the trail is only 0.7 miles long so pretty much doable by anyone in basic shape. The waterfall is even more picturesque during the leafy fall season (really the entire Catskills region enjoys brilliant fall foliage). Note that with over 200,000 visitors per year, this hike can get busy. Plan on arriving early in the morning to beat the crowds! After your hike, there are many more beautiful hiking trails and waterfalls to explore in this wonderful section of the Catskills.
3. White Mountains National Forest
Location: New Hampshire and Maine
The 800,000 acre wooded wonderland is one of only 2 national forests in New England. If you are seeking a quiet getaway far away from city life, then the White Mountains will not disappoint. From hardwood forests, to mountain alpine streams, it’s one of the most beautiful regions of New England. From spring waterfall hikes after the snow melts, to summer hiking amongst wildflowers, to fall leaf peeping, to winter snowshoeing in an idyllic snow covered forest, there is never a bad season to visit. In addition to over 1200 miles of hiking trails, there are many quaint inns and B&Bs found throughout the region. Staying in the White Mountains is an ideal choice for a restful & rejuvenating vacation.
4. Devil’s Hopyard state Park
Location: East Haddam, Connecticut
This beautiful 1000 acre park in Southeastern Connecticut is home to a gorgeous 60 foot waterfall, a covered bridge, and miles of hiking trails. It is an amazing place to visit during Connecticut’s gorgeous leaf peeping season, of which East Haddam frequently ranks as one of the best. This time of the year the entire area is ablaze with hues of gold, orange, and red – really it is one of the best foliage destinations in the state. As to the unusual name, legend says that the devil himself created the mysterious potholes found near the waterfall. Not surprisingly, today the park is considered one of the most haunted places in the state, no small feat for an area of the country no stranger to the eerie and paranormal occurrences.
5. Liberty Bell
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
One of the most iconic symbols of American Independence is located in Old City Philadelphia, “the birthplace of America.” The timeless message inscripted on the bell “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof” inspired abolitionists seeking to end slavery. Today, the bell remains an important symbol of liberty. The bell rung for the first time on July 8, 1776 from the tower of Independence Hall (formerly Pennsylvania State House) to celebrate the Declaration of Independence. At this free exhibit, you can take a self guided tour while you learn more about the history of the bell including the history of the famous crack and much more!
6. Tours of Independence Hall
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Another must-do when visiting America’s most historic square mile is taking a free tour of Independence Hall. The historic building, founded in 1753, is the site of 2 famous document signings: the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. Knowledgeable and entertaining National Park rangers lead the tour. A highlight of the tour is seeing the Rising Sun chair in the Assembly Room. George Washington used this chair during the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Tickets are free although they are timed and must be reserved online (no tickets required in January & February).
7. Mount Washington
Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Pittsburgh is easily home to one of the country’s most impressive skylines. One of the coolest attractions in the city is a historic red cable car which travels up to Mount Washington (via the Duquesne Incline). The ride is fun, scenic, and worth a one time splurge. However, you can enjoy the same incredible view by driving to the top of the 367 foot mountain. From the observing area, you will discover the most spectacular viewpoint of the three rivers (Allegheny, Monongahela, and the Ohio) and the pretty cityscape. USA Today even called it one of “10 most beautiful views in America”.
8. Wanamaker organ pipe show
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The historic Wanamaker building in Center City Philadelphia is now a Macy’s. Today a National historic Landmark, the Wanamaker opened in 1910 as one of America’s first department stores. It had 12 floors at the time. The gorgeous Wanamaker Organ is the largest fully functioning pipe organ in the world. In 2021, the pipe celebrated its’ 110th anniversary. Today, free shows are offered twice daily, Monday-Saturday. Although a must visit anytime of year, the Christmas season is really special as a festive holiday themed LED light show accompanies the music! The beauty and historical significance alone make the Wanamaker building the top sight to see in Philly.
9. Three Rivers Heritage trail
Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
This 33 mile long paved recreational trail is located in downtown Pittsburgh on both sides of the river. As far as scenic places to work out in “the Burgh,” nothing beats a jog, bike ride, or walk along the Three Rivers trail. Along the way, you will take in fabulous views of the cityscape, the iconic bridges Pittsburgh is so famous for including the Warhol and Clemente, and have access to some of the city’s top attractions including The Warhol Museum (free on the first full weekend for Bank of America members), The Strip District (former manufacturing hub now home to many restaurants and coffeehouses), and Point State Park (the official joining point of the 3 rivers).
10. Central Park
Location: New York City
Since opening in 1858, Central Park has become a world-class tourist destination. Although it is not the oldest urban park, it is the first landscaped. It’s also America’s most visited urban park with a whopping 40+ million visitors per year. The beauty was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Central Park is a true green oasis amongst America’s most bustling city. At some point, you will find yourself seeking a break from all the action, and Central Park is the perfect place for a relaxing stroll.
According to the Central Park Conservancy, the park is home to more than 18,000 trees including one of the largest and last remaining strands of American elms. In addition to lovely trees, the Park is home to many attractions and offers pretty views of the skyline. Several famous movies scenes were filmed here including the iconic ice skating scene in Home Alone 2!
11. Smithsonian Museums/The National Mall of DC
Location: Washington D.C.
If you are at all interested in politics and history, then you will want to place a visit to D.C. high on your bucket list. The beautiful National Mall is home to so many interesting monuments and statues, all of which can be explored via a self guided walking tour. From the Capitol Hill building to the Lincoln Memorial is about a 2 mile walk, with gorgeous views and historical significance throughout. Also, all 17 Smithsonian museums are free! Highlights include the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, The National Air and Space Museum, and The National Portrait Gallery featuring wonderful artwork dedicated to each President as well as many other famous and historical figures.
12. Cape Cod National Seashore
Location: Cape Cod Massachusetts
The 40 mile long Cape Cod National Seashore is home to many pristine beaches, ponds, marshes, and uplands. It’s a beautiful relaxing vacation destination especially for those seeking to escape the urban congestion of nearby cities like Boston, Providence, and New York. Coast Guard Beach marks the start of what Henry David Thoreau called “The Great Beach” – an uninterrupted 20+ mile long sandy coastline. He said “A man may stand there and put all America behind him.” Other Cape Cod highlights include Race Point Beach in Provincetown (a fabulous sunset destination), Marconi Beach (a seal and whale watching hotspot), and the Great Island trail (one of the most scenic trails in the state).
13. East Bay Bike Path
Location: Providence, Rhode Island
This gorgeous 14.5 mile bike path in Rhode Island’s capital city is easily one of the most gorgeous in all of New England. This rail trail has been included in the Rails to Trails Conservancy Hall of Fame category. Most of the flat paved path runs along the scenic waterfront or passes lovely park areas. There are numerous detours to enjoy along the way including state and local parks (check out beautiful Colt and Haines State Park). After your ride, treat yourself to some fresh seafood at Quitos.
14. Plymouth waterfront/Pilgrim Memorial State Park
Location: Plymouth, Massachusetts
This gorgeous waterfront park draws over a million visitors per year. History buffs from all over the country come to see Plymouth Rock and the Mayflower replica. The harbor views are fabulous and there are numerous beaches where you can stroll around and even collect a little rare seaglass. Whale watching cruises are super fun although a bit on the pricey side. Also, there are lots of tourist shops to browse and restaurants featuring fresh seafood and beautiful patios facing the waterfront. Mamma Mia’s is a local Italian gem and Wood’s serves delicious seafood in a beautiful waterfront setting.
There are many more historical sights to enjoy throughout the city via a self guided walking tour. Must sees include the 80 foot National Monument to our Forefathers statue, 17th century Burial Hill (several Pilgrims buried here), and Leyden St (the oldest continuously inhabited street in the US). Also consider signing up for the Plymouth Night Tour – best ghost tour in New England!
Location: Newport, Rhode Island
This incredible 3.5 mile walk along the Newport shoreline is considered the top attraction in Rhode Island. It is the first National Recreation Trail in New England. The beauty of the New England coastline is hard to top here. Along with enjoying beautiful water scenery, native plant life, and birdwatching, you will also get to take in the beauty of the historical Newport mansions. These spectacular Gilded Age mansions are quite a sight to behold. Packages to tour the opulent interiors are available, although Cliffwalk really is an experience in and of itself if you are seeking to keep your trip budget friendly. Tip – also be sure to check out beautiful Easton’s beach (Free parking during the off season).
16. New Jersey beaches/boardwalks
Location: Jersey coast
With 130 miles of coastline, New Jersey is home to some of the most beautiful beaches on the East coast. Fortunately, many of them are free to visit. The three Wildwoods beaches stretch on for 5 miles and are a popular destination for summer sunbathing, beach walks, and events. The beaches are nice and clean with plenty of space for everyone to enjoy the summer weather. The 38 block long boardwalk lined with shops, rides, foods stands, and arcades, is another bonus. All summer long you can expect free concerts, firework shows, and more.
17. Ashokan Reservoir
Location: Hudson Valley
This is a unique attraction to add to your New York bucket list. Ashokan Reservoir provides 40% of the drinking water for New York City. It’s located in the gorgeous Catskill mountains region. A beautiful 3 mile path offers an incredible viewpoint of the reservoir plus the surrounding mountains. An easy walk due to the flat nature, however, it can be very windy and cold if you visit during the colder months. Fall is the best time scenery-wise to plan your visit as the Hudson Valley is one of the country’s prime leaf peeping destinations.
18. Niagara Falls
Location: New York
Although not an official world wonder, Niagara Falls is considered one of the 8th world wonders. While Niagara is far from the tallest waterfall (over 500 waterfalls around the world are taller!), it is one of the most powerful by volume. Plus, it’s free to see and easily accessible from many major cities in the Midwest and Northeast. More than 6 million cubic ft of water goes over the crest during daytime hours. NIagara is actually a name given to 3 waterfalls – Horseshoe which lies in Ontario and American and Bridal Veil Falls which lie on the American side. Horseshoe Falls is the largest with a crest line width of 2200 ft. On an interesting side note, the beautiful greenish hue is due to the presence of dissolved minerals in the Niagara River.
19. Myles Standish State Forest
Location: Southeast Massachusetts
This massive 13,000 acre state forest truly is one of the gems of New England. It’s the largest recreational area in Southeast Massachusetts and also the best in the state. No matter when your visit falls, whether during the gorgeous mild summer months, the vivid leaf peeping season, or after a winter storm, Myles is a wonderful nature escape. With 13 miles of hiking trails, 15 miles of biking trails, and 35 miles of equestrian trails, you will never run out of options. Because it is located close to several touristy cities like Plymouth, Fall River, and Newport, it’s an easy daytrip destination. The park is so quiet and serene, and really a wonderful temporary escape from any city or tourist congestion.
20. Cape Cod Rail Trail
Location: Cape Cod (South Dennis to Wellfleet)
One of the best rail trails in the country is located in beautiful Cape Cod. The 25 mile trail travels through 6 beautiful Cape Cod communities. Biking is the best way to cover a lot of ground quickly, although walking and running are also popular means of exercising. There are a number of attractions along the way including pretty state parks, most notably Nickerson at mile 14. Food options along the route include Hot Chocolate Sparrow, a delicious coffee and ice cream shop and Cobie’s, a popular seafood stand. Also be sure to stop at Marconi Beach – a super scenic beach known for whale sightings – conveniently located just off the end of the trail in Wellfleet.