Free things to do on any vacation

Traveling is exciting, however, it can also be very expensive. When you factor in flying, hotels, and costly meals, oftentimes, there is not much left over for fun. Fortunately, for those on a tight budget, there are plenty of free attractions available pretty much everywhere, whether it be a beautiful park, a rustic hiking trail, a historical site or museum, or a gorgeous man-made architectural wonder. Many times, the best attractions are the ones which will cost you absolutely nothing! If you can plan your vacation destination nearby a few of the following free activities, your trip is guaranteed to be more budget friendly!

Here are 10 free activities to incorporate into your next trip plans.

1. Hiking at state/national/local parks

Stunning views along the Hidden Canyon trail in Tucson, Arizona

Out of all the free activities easily available, hiking is by far one of the most enjoyable, memorable, and exciting. And yet, it will (most of the time) cost you absolutely nothing. Not to mention you will get in a great workout in the process. Many state and national parks offer free admission as do the majority of local parks. No matter where you are vacationing, you can find a beautiful park to enjoy a vigorous hike or a quaint nature stroll. Whether you are a fan of bird watching, wildlife watching, mountain biking, kayaking, or hiking, the options are endless.

Free National parks

Many national parks are completely free to visit. Here are 3 amazing freebies!

Cuyahoga National Valley (Ohio) – Gorgeous national park located just outside of Cleveland. The highlight here is 60 foot Brandywine Falls, one of the most mesmerizing waterfalls in the Midwest. Other attractions include a scenic paved bike trail, miles of hiking trails, and a picturesque train ride.

Brandywine Falls in Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Redwood National Park – This mesmerizing park in Northern California is home to some of the tallest trees on Earth. There are many ways to enjoy these ancient beauties include scenic drives, bike paths, and hiking trails.

Redwood National park

Great Smoky Mountains (Tennessee) – America’s most popular national park offers much scenic beauty to explore. With one of the highest black bear populations in the US, seeing wildlife is quite common. From scenic drives, to waterfalls, to mountain overlooks, there is plenty to do year-round.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee

Don’t worry if your favorite is not on the list. Many free days are offered throughout the year. Check out the NPS free days calendar for starters.

Free state parks/forests

State parks in the following states are free: Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Ohio, Missouri, Tennessee, Iowa, Illinois, Oklahoma and Hawaii. Also, entrance and parking for trailheads in many national and state forests is free.

Myles Standish State Forest – Gorgeous 13,000 acre park in Southeast Massachusetts. A year-round destination for hiking, cross country skiing, biking, and horseback riding.

Beautiful fall scenery at Myles Standish STate Forest in Massachusetts

McConnells Mill State Park – Located about an hour outside of Pittsburgh, McConnells Mill is the perfect escape from the urban clutter. Highlights include a covered bridge, a historic grist mill, and several small waterfalls.

Covered bridge at McConnells Mill State Park in Pennsylvania

Pisgah State Forest – A massive 500,000 acre forest in the beautiful mountains of Western North Carolina. So many gorgeous waterfalls and trails to explore.

Linville Falls in the Pisgah National Forest of Western North Carolina

2. Museums

African bush elephant at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in DC

Many fabulous museums are completely free to explore. Others offer free days throughout the year. Oftentimes, passes can be checked out at a public library. Additionally, Bank of America cardmembers can take advantage of the Museums on Us program which allows cardholders free entry into select museums on the first full weekend of each month. Also, be on the lookout for free community days at various museums.

A few of the best year-round freebies:

Smithsonian Museums in Washington D.C. – There are 17 wonderful Smithsonian museums to explore in D.C., all free to the public. The Natural History, National Portrait Gallery, and The National Museum of American History are all worthy of a spot on your bucket list.

George Washington lansdowne portrait at the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery in DC

The Cleveland Museum of Art – The renowned museum is open free to the public. The 45,000 piece collection includes an impressive assortment of Asian, medieval European, and ancient art.

Cleveland Museum of Art

The Griffith Observatory – A free observatory and hiking area for all to enjoy. Amazing views of the Hollywood sign and L.A. Also a wonderful place to stargaze on a clear night!

The Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles

The Cincinnati Museum of Art – One of the oldest and best art museums in the US. The 67,000 piece collection includes an amazing and well regarded assortment of 19th century American and European paintings.

Pinocchio statue at the Cincinnati Art Museum

3. Scenic drives

Oak Creek Canyon Scenic drive in Sedona, Arizona

For those not keen on working up a sweat, taking a picturesque drive is another way to enjoy the scenery of a beautiful area. Besides the obvious cost of gas, taking a cruise is one of the best freebies to enjoy on any vacation. Compared to pricey shows, restaurants, and tourist attractions, a drive is a great value! Grab a cup of coffee, a few snacks, and hit the road. Here are a few of the best-of-the-best free drives!

Blue Ridge Parkway – “America’s Favorite Drive” runs a beautiful 469 mile course from the Great Smokies to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Many gorgeous hiking trails and waterfalls can be enjoyed for free. There are no trailhead parking fees and the drive is mesmerizing in and of itself.

Gorgeous overlook via Craggy Gardens on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina

Oak Creek Canyon Scenic Drive – Incredible 14 mile drive that runs from the ponderosa pine covered forests of Flagstaff, Arizona to the towering ancient red rock formations of Sedona.

Red rock scenery along Oak Creek Canyon scenic drive in Sedona, Arizona

Red Rock Scenic Byway – Amazing 14 mile drive which passes by many of Sedona’s most prominent and mesmerizing rock formations. Easy access to enchanting hiking trails.

Stunning red rock vista in Sedona, Arizona

Mt. Lemmon Scenic Byway – This stunning 27 mile long drive begins just outside of Tucson (elevation 2300 ft) and climbs up to 9000+ foot Mt. Lemmon. From Saguaro cacti, to pine trees, this diverse drive is absolutely mesmerizing.

Gorgeous views on the drive up the Mt Lemmon Scenic Byway

Pacific Coast Highway – The premier coastal drive which begins in Southern California is one for the bucket list. Although the drive is over 600 miles, you only need to drive a short portion to take in jaw dropping coastal scenery.

Gorgeous views along the Pacific Coast Highway in California

4. Events

Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center in NYC

As part of your trip planning process, you will want to check out any annual or local events that may be going on as these are wonderful free additions to any trip. Typically, farmers markets, art shows, holiday festivals, parades, concerts, and movies in the park require no admission fee. There are many local apps which you can use to locate upcoming events. Eventbrite is my recommended choice. A few bucket list worthy free events:

Christmas in NYC – An iconic experience for anyone who loves the holiday season. Marvel at the grand Rockefeller tree, window shop on Fifth Ave, take a stroll through Central Park, see the giant red ornaments, visit Home Alone 2 sites…there are endless free holiday activities!

Giant ornaments in New York City

Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade – Brave the cold and crowds at least once to see the iconic floats and balloons which have been floating strong since the parade’s birth in 1924.

Macy's Thanksgiving Parade in NYC

Christmas in Chicago – The best Christmas city in my opinion. Must less crowded this time of the year compared to NYC, but just as festive. From a free ice skating rink in iconic Millennium Park, to the festive windows on Macy’s on State St, to a free Zoo lights extravaganza, Chicago is a place to call home for the holidays.

Lincoln Park Zoo Lights in Chicago

5. Self guided walks (or free walking tours)

Haunted Wright Square in Savannah, GA

One of the best things to do on any vacation is to simply walk around and explore. You can’t see much driving and you won’t see anything ordering room service from your hotel room. Get out there on your feet, get in some exercise, and explore all the magnificent cultural and historical sights around you. Most visitor centers will provide you with a free walking map, or you can simply download one to your phone. Also, it’s pretty easy today to find a free walking tour in most major cities. A few of the best walking destinations!

Boston’s Freedom Trail – Explore 16 prominent historical sights on this 2.5 mile self guided tour. So many great photos to take, history to learn about, architecture to marvel at, and delicious restaurants to enjoy.

Paul Revere statue in Boston, MA

Savannah Historic District – Savannah is a wonderful city to explore for anyone interested in history and architecture. Southern charm, gorgeous architecture, lovely public parks, and 22 historic squares make it a really interesting & beautiful destination for architecture and history buffs. The city is easy to navigate due to its’ grid like layout.

Beautiful Forsyth Park fountain in Savannah, Georgia

The National Mall in D.C. – The Capitol Hill area in D.C. is easily explored by foot. The National Mall area is clean, safe, and lined with gorgeous historical monuments. The trek from the Capitol Hill building to the Lincoln Monument is approx 2 miles. Along the way, there are many free Smithsonian museums to explore.

United States Capitol building in D.C.

6. Beaches/lakes

Beautiful Indian Rocks Beach on Florida's Gulf Coast

Who doesn’t love a gorgeous beach vacation especially in the dead of winter? It helps to break up the monotony of the long dark winter days by traveling to a sunny destination with palm trees and blue water. Unfortunately, this is the most expensive time to stay at the beach. Summer rates are often much cheaper as all the snowbirds have gone home. However, if you do visit this time of year, there are many handy tips to help you save a few bucks on your beach vacation. Fortunately, most beaches are free. Plus, because you will be spending most of your time at the beach, this will help prevent you from spending too much money shopping and visiting overpriced tourist traps!

A few of the best!

Siesta Key – Gorgeous Sarasota gem known for having the finest sand in the world. Comprised of 99% pure quartz.

Siesta Key Beach in Sarasota, Florida

Indian Rocks – Quiet gem on Florida’s Gulf Coast. This beauty offers excellent shelling and great waves for swimming. Close to many Gulf Coast attractions.

Beautiful Indian Rocks Beach on Florida's Gulf Coast

Mission/Pacific Beach – 2 gorgeous beaches in the San Diego area connected by a fantastic pedestrian/biking path. Clean, lots of shops, beautiful place to watch a sunset.

Pretty views from the Pacific Beach boardwalk in San Diego, CA
Mission Beach is a beautiful place to watch a Southern California sunset!

7. Paved biking trails

Biking the beautiful Bayshore Blvd. path in Tampa, Florida

Biking is a wonderful workout, free, and oftentimes, a great way to explore a new area. Compared to hiking or walking, you can cover a lot of ground more quickly. Many cities today are transforming old railroad routes into multi purpose pedestrian paths. Other biking paths connect to various city attractions, while others travel amongst magnificent natural & man-made scenery. Here are a few of the best free biking paths.

Chicago Lakefront Path – A picturesque 18 mile journey along Lake Michigan. Connects various city attractions including the Lincoln Park Zoo and the Museum campus.

Beautiful skyline views via the Chicago Lakefront Path

The Strand – Iconic 22 mile L.A. beachfront path which travels amongst lively beach destinations such as the Santa Monica Pier and Muscle Gym at Venice.

The Strand bike path in Los Angeles

Pinellas Trail – Lengthy 50 mile course on Florida’s Gulf Coast stretching from Tarpon Springs to St. Petersburg. Many interesting sights line the route including beautiful preserves and charming Main Streets. Easy detours to area beaches is a bonus.

Pinellas trail running through downtown Dunedin, Florida

Bayshore Blvd. – Beautiful waterfront path known to be “the world’s longest continuous sidewalk” at 4.5 miles. Manatee sightings, palm trees, workout stations, and easy access to downtown Tampa.

Palm trees lining Bayshore Blvd in Tampa, FL

More fantastic biking trails across the US

8. Historic sites

Liberty Bell in Old City Philadelphia

Fortunately, most cities steeped in rich history, offer plenty of fun educational and touristy activities to take advantage of without paying a dime. From ancient monuments, to fascinating museums, to dazzling architecture, these cities offer so much history to take in that you will not even be thinking about wasting money on tourist traps. A few great historical cities to add to your list:

Boston – A city rich in historical significance with much to explore. Check out The Freedom Trail, Boston Common, Faneuil Hall, Fenway Park, The USS Constitution Museum, and the Paul Revere House.

George Washington statue in Boston Common

Philadelphia – “The birthplace of America.” See the Liberty Bell and take a tour of Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were signed.

Independence Hall in Philadelphia

Plymouth – Site of the first Pilgrim settlement in 1620. See Plymouth Rock, the Mayflower II replica, the National Monument to our Forefathers, and explore Pilgrim Hall museum.

Mayflower replica in Plymouth, Massachusetts

Other interesting historical cities to explore: St. Augustine, Charleston, Savannah, and Washington D.C.

9. Local Main Streets/shopping district

Main Street - Greenville, South Carolina

Today with so many people living in suburbia surrounded by big box stores and restaurant chains, it really is a refreshing step back in time to visit a quaint, old-fashioned Main Street. These charming Main Streets have now become tourist attractions in many parts of the country. With independent coffee shops, restaurants, and boutique shops replacing Starbucks, Applebees, and Kohls, it’s no wonder that tourists are quickly rediscovering the benefits of small town life.

A few wonderful revitalized Main Streets:

Greenville, SC – This charming city in the Upstate South Carolina region is home to one of the trendiest downtowns. In the center of the lively tourist district is gorgeous Reedy River waterfall and Falls Park. Dozens of local restaurants and shops, and a year-round calendar of fun local events, make this one worth seeking out.

Beautiful spring day in Greenville, South Carolina

Winter Park, FL – Just outside of all the craziness of Disney and Universal Studios lies a beautiful upscale suburb known as Winter Park. Park Avenue features old time cobblestone streets, local shops, museums, and an abundance of local restaurants which feature beautiful patio dining.

Beautiful Winter Park, Florida
A view of the brick streets and beautiful trees lining the Winter Park neighborhood.

Davidson, NC – This charming college town located near Charlotte is very pedestrian friendly compared to the surrounding suburbia. Featuring southern charm, pretty landscaping, local restaurants and shops, and ongoing yearly events, it’s a nice place to take a stroll anytime of year.

Downtown Davidson, North Carolina

Siesta Key Village – This colorful and lively dining and shopping area is located just steps from beautiful Siesta Key Beach. It’s the perfect place to shop, grab a bite to eat, or enjoy a cup of joe after a long tiresome day of fun-in-the-sun.

Bonjour French Cafe in Siesta Key Village

10. Waterfalls

Multnomah Falls near Portland, Oregon

Waterfalls are one of the most mesmerizing natural wonders you will ever come across. Fortunately, they are almost always free to visit and easily accessible year-round. While some require a lengthy hike, others can be viewed via the road. No matter your fitness ability, there are endless opportunities to marvel at these awe-inspiring wonders. Here are a few waterfall hotspots to consider booking your next trip around.

Columbia River Gorge (Oregon) – Just 30 minutes outside of Portland, Oregon lies the gorgeous Columbia River Gorge. Loaded with gorgeous hiking and mountain biking trails and 90+ waterfalls, it’s an outdoor lover’s dream destination.

Horsetail Falls in the Columbia River Gorge of Oregon

Blue Ridge Parkway – There are more than 60 gorgeous waterfalls to explore on this 400+ mile drive. Many of these are located within close proximity to Asheville, a wonderful base for your adventures. Check out the most mesmerizing Parkway waterfalls.

Graveyard Fields - The Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina

Upstate South Carolina – This beautiful region of South Carolina is located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains. There are dozens of incredible waterfalls to explore, many located in beautiful isolated settings. Check out my guide to the top Upstate waterfalls.

King's Creek waterfall in Upstate South Carolina

Southern Idaho – Surprisingly, this high desert region is home to many magnificent waterfalls. Most notably, Shoshone Falls is considered “Niagara of the West.” Even more spectacular, are Upper and Lower Mesa Falls, accessed via a 29 mile long scenic drive.

Upper Mesa Falls in Idaho