By: Suzanne Steinert
No matter the amount of careful budgeting, trips nowadays, at home or abroad, tend to cost more than you planned – a catch-22 that’s especially true in big cities, which can sneakily suck bank accounts dry. But guess what? Many of the world’s most popular – and expensive – cities offer a wealth of things to see and do, entirely for free. From New York’s Central Park to Hong Kong’s Symphony of Lights to D.C.’s Smithsonian and National Zoo, we’ve combed the globe for the top 10 cities with free attractions. Our homework has paid off – not only did we round up the go-to hubs with the biggest roster of freebies, we uncovered secrets on gaining backdoor access to some of the world’s top sites.
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Many of this modern capital’s cutting-edge and well-known historic attractions are free. The Reichstag is the official seat of the German Parliament, both interesting and beautiful in itself (originally built in 1894 by Paul Wallot, it was re-designed by Sir Norman Foster in the ’90s). If the wonders of parliamentary procedures don’t hold your interest, the 360-degree views of the city from the top of the Reichstag’s striking glass dome certainly will (entry is free; advance registration required). Back on the ground, hit the pavement to experience Berlin’s divided past on a free, 3.5-hour walking tour of the Mitte district, kicking off at city’s majestic “trademark,” the Brandenburg Gate. The tour makes requisite stops at infamous Checkpoint Charlie on busy Friederichstrasse, as well as Museum Island, a UNESCO World Heritage site home to five first-rate national museums (those 18 and under get in free), and the Berlin Cathedral. Post-tour, head east to encounter the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall, the Eastside Gallery, now covered in colorful art and graffiti by international artists. Finally, trace the history and scope of World War II at the Topography of Terror and Holocaust Memorial (admission is free to both).
South America’s so-called answer to Paris, Buenos Aires is a world-class city in its own right, with many gratis attractions to boot. View the tomb of national heroine Evita Perone at Recoleta Cemetery. Watch real gauchos competing in action and take in a Sunday folklore show at the Feria de Mataderos, a market where the locals go for food and crafts. Witness a free performance of the city’s original dance at the Buenos Aires Tango Festival (beginning in late February and continuing through early March) or explore the city via Buenos Aires Free Tour (Mon.–Sat.) which offers 2- to 2.5-hour guided walking tours showcasing downtown and historic residential areas. The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes features an impressive array of European and South American fine art, free of charge. The Buenos Aires Tourist Board hosts a daily schedule of cultural events (some free) including concerts, lectures, art exhibitions, and more.
Pioneering architecture, world-class museums, a vibrant arts scene, and an expansive lakefront are a few of this Midwest city’s major draws. Lucky for travelers, many of them are free. Catch a water and light show summer evenings at Buckingham Fountain, one of the largest fountains in the world, in Grant Park. Nearby Navy Pier is ideal for a stroll, plus a few of its attractions, like the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows and live music on the Beer Garden stage (May-Oct.), are free. Take a free, local-led walking tour of one of the city’s many neighborhoods; view hundreds of animal species at the Shedd Aquarium (free select days) and Lincoln Park Zoo (always free); and check out the latest in modern design at the notable Archicenter which offers free gallery talks (Mon., Fri., Sat. 12:30pm). Almost all of Chi-town’s museums, including the famous Art Institute of Chicago, offer free days (the first and second Wednesdays of the month). Be sure to check the calendars for the Chicago Public Library and Chicago Cultural Center for year-round free programs and attractions.
One of the world’s most imposing skylines – a mix of gleaming skyscrapers and majestic mountains – and an array of cultures characterize the buzzing South Asian hub. The city’s seven major museums all offer free admission on Wednesdays, and its many parks (Hong Kong Park, Victoria Park, Kowloon Park) boast a variety of free activities, from kung-fu demos to art fairs. The Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens are home to apes, pythons, and over 1,000 plant species, and admission is always free. Take a tea appreciation class at the Lock Cha Tea Shop next door to the Museum of Tea Ware in Hong Kong Park (4-5pm; Mon., Wed., Fri.; registration necessary), or attend a free lecture by a local expert on feng-shui, kung fu, or Cantonese opera via the Hong Kong Tourism Board’s Cultural Kaleidoscope program. Free morning tai-chi sessions are offered on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront promenade (Mon., Wed., Fri.), also the perfect place to watch Victoria Harbor’s dramatic “Symphony of Lights” show (nightly, 8pm).
An ancient city with a dynamic modern spirit, Istanbul’s culture is constantly on display, from the tips of its minarets to the floors of its busy bazaars. It costs nothing to admire the Blue Mosque’s cascading tiled domes and wander the courtyards of the Suleymaniye Mosque. The Grand Bazaar is one of the world’s oldest and largest covered markets – boasting 4,400 shops – and is perfect for window-shopping. Relax afterwards in Gulhane Park (just outside Topkapi Palace), formerly the Palace’s royal gardens, which hosts free public concerts during the summer and offers pleasing Bosphorus views. View the living quarters of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of Turkey, at the Ataturk Museum, and tour the barracks where Florence Nightingale improvised modern nursing standards (both museums offer free admission; advance requests required for Nightingale Museum). The city also plays host to a number of festivals throughout the year offering free screenings and performances, such as the Istanbul Jazz Festival Tour (July 6-14)
The British capital is one of the priciest cities in the world, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere with more sophisticated, pocket-friendly amusements. An astounding number of London’s first-rate galleries and museums cost nary a thing, including the Tate Modern and the British Museum, home of the Rosetta Stone. The Victoria & Albert, one of the world’s premier art and design museums, is a must-see, flanked by huge fountains and lion statues in scenic Trafalgar Square. Browse jungles of stalls hocking unique and international wares at Camden and Brick Lane Markets or get your royal fix witnessing the changing of the guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace (if you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of the queen tending her garden).While attending a service is one of the only ways you’ll get an inside look at the famed Westminster Abbey (held multiple times daily; all are welcome) for free, the adjoining, centuries-old Cloisters is worth a peek and never charges admission. Do your best to nab a seat during a Parliamentary debate (Mon.–Thurs.) or Prime Minister’s Question Time (noon Wed.) at the Palace of Westminster (free seating on a first-come basis, with UK residents getting first dibs.)
For general trip-planning info, see our London Travel Guide, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to find the lowest rates on cruises, flights, hotels, and more travel deals.
New York City
It’s easy to devour the Big Apple’s best sites without emptying your wallet. For panoramic views of Manhattan’s inimitable skyline, including the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building, hitch a ride on the free Staten Island Ferry or traverse the iconic Brooklyn Bridge, one of the oldest suspension bridges in the country. Meander up Broadway to bustling Times Square (free tours are offered Fridays at noon), and enjoy unparalleled window-shopping and a peek into St. Patrick’s, one of the world’s largest cathedrals, on nearby Fifth Avenue. Catch a Shakespearean play in Central Park during the summer months (free but you’ll need to get in line early to score tickets), when the city’s parks and public spaces abound with impromptu concerts and street fairs. Renowned museums, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Natural History, are pay-what-you-wish admission, while others are free to the public on certain days (MoMa and Guggenheim on Friday evenings; New Museum on Thursday nights), or all the time (Museum of the American Indian). Extend your experience with a trip to the Bronx Zoo (free on Wednesdays during the fall and winter admission is just a suggested donation) about an hour’s subway ride from Midtown.
For general trip-planning information, see our New York City Travel Guide, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to find the lowest rates on cruises, flights, hotels, and more travel deals.
The birthplace of a nation, Philly is a treasure trove for history buffs who believe saving a few bucks is an inalienable right. Visit the Liberty Bell Center for a closer look at one of the most famous busted instruments – the Center displays x-rays of the bell’s interior. Take a tour of Independence Hall and imagine yourself in the sweltering chambers in 1776, dreaming of freedom from tyranny. (Tickets are required for admission, but are free and can be picked up at the Independence Visitor Center after 8:30 a.m.) Following the Independence Hall tour, explore the buildings that flank the landmark, Congress Hall and Old City Hall. Afterwards, stroll through neighboring Washington Square and pay tribute to the soldiers who lost their lives in the American Revolution at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Library Company of Philadelphia specializes in every aspect of early history of the city and country, housing rotating free exhibits of books, manuscripts, and photos. You can also tread in the footsteps of Philly’s favorite son, Benjamin Franklin, at the site of his former home. Though the estate was demolished years ago, it has been recreated with a “ghost” structure, and features an underground museum and replica of an 18th century print shop.
Seattle serves up quality free attractions better than it does a fresh cup o’ Joe! The Seattle Art Museum is notable for its modern and ethnic art collections, including a coffin shaped like a Mercedes Benz (free on the first Thursday of the month). Afterwards, enjoy SAM’s outdoor Olympic Sculpture Park backed by clear views of Puget Sound. Drop into City Hall during lunchtime for free local folk, jazz, and world music performances (most Thursdays) or embark on a gallery walk in Pioneer Square showcasing the city’s hippest new artists and exhibits (first Thursdays of the month, noon-8pm). Experience the sights and smells of 100-year-old Pike Place Market, famous for fresh produce and seafood, or peruse unique indie crafts at the Fremont Sunday Market (year-round, 10am–4pm). All downtown buses are free from 6am to 7pm daily, so making the journey won’t hurt your wallet. Rock out in a fantasy jam session at the Experience Music Project (recently renamed EMP Museum), a Frank Gehry-design that’s also home to the world’s first Sci-Fi museum (free the first Thursday of the month). Board the first Air Force One at the renowned Museum of Flight (also free the first Thursday of the month, from 5-9pm) or see maritime memorabilia at the Coast Guard Museum on Pier 36 (always free).
Perhaps the biggest marvel of the Free World’s epicenter is that so many of its major museums (the Smithsonian!), memorials, and government buildings are, indeed, free and open to the public. For free in D.C. you can: Read the Constitution at the National Archives; view the original Star-Spangled Banner at the National Museum of American History; watch money being made at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing; snag a seat in a Supreme Court session (Oct.-Apr.); or just revel in the history on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. If you don’t want to D.I.Y., DC by Foot (dcbyfoot.com) offers free walking tours of Arlington Cemetery and National Mall hotspots with fun commentary. Tickets (albeit free) are required for tours of the U.S. Capitol, and while tours of the White House are pro bono, requests must be made well in advance through a member of Congress. Stop by the Kennedy Center for free music performances nightly at 6pm, and be on the lookout for endless attractions (many which are free) happening throughout the year (washington.org/calendar).