Imagine seeing masterpieces by van Gogh, entertaining your kids with activities, and strolling a hilltop garden with waterfalls and beautiful views at sunset.
Now imagine doing it all for free. That's how your day could play out at the Getty Museum in L.A., where admission doesn't cost a thing.
Enjoying what America has to offer can get expensive fast: in 2011, the U.S. travel industry made $813 billion, and some of America's most popular cities are also its most expensive. Travelers of all budgets can appreciate a good deal, and with high gas prices and airline fees, it's refreshing to know that there are still some venues like the Getty that give another meaning to the land of the free.
In our search for the top free attractions, we bypassed public parks and train stations to focus on experiences you wouldn't necessarily expect to be free. Find out just how far $0 can get you from coast to coast.
See More of America's Top Free Attractions Most national parks encourage you to tune in to nature; this one celebrates jazz in its birthplace, New Orleans. There’s live music at the visitor center in the French Quarter and the Old U.S. Mint six days a week, and a kids’ music workshop on Saturdays at Perseverance Hall in Louis Armstrong Park. The visitor center also hosts free talks, video documentaries, and exhibits on local jazz history. You can pick up one of two self-guided audio tours, “Jazz Sites in New Orleans” or “Jazz Walk of Fame.” nps.gov Photo: Courtesy of Vanguard Film & Video Productions and The People United for Armstrong Park
See More of America's Top Free Attractions Maximize your time at the Getty by visiting on a Friday or Saturday, when this sprawling hillside art complex is open late—allowing you to take in sunset views. The light-filled museum interiors display an impressive collection of European and American art including Vincent van Gogh’s famous Irises. Debbie Dubrow of the family travel blog Delicious Baby recommends the Family Room’s interactive exhibits, giant illuminated manuscripts, and an art treasure hunt. “And whenever you need a break, just pop outside to the Getty’s fabulous gardens,” she says. While parking is admittedly expensive ($15), the Getty is also accessible by public transit. Photo: Ted Soqui/Corbis
See More of America's Top Free Attractions Even in the most expensive city in America, you can find great deals like free admission nights at MoMA (otherwise $25), discounted Broadway tickets, and lower hotel rates in July and August. Then there’s the thrill of one of the world’s most beautiful ferry rides on the Staten Island commuter ferry—which also happens to be free 24/7. Board at sunset, when Lady Liberty is silhouetted against a pink-and-orange sky. You’ll pass the Statue of Liberty, with a panoramic view of glittering downtown Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Jersey City. Affordable-travel expert Tim Leffel says: “It’s one thing I always recommend when people ask what they should do in New York.” Photo: Darcy Strobel
See More of America's Top Free Attractions Before they take the Olympic spotlight, athletes put in long hours here to prepare for the world’s largest athletic competition. The Colorado Springs center is one of three in the U.S. and focuses on summer indoor sports like swimming and fencing. You can tour the facility for free, and depending on your timing, your guide may even be an athlete. Linda Kramer of the blog Travels with Children says, “Our kids loved sitting in a bobsled, seeing how long the longest jump really was, and pretending to get their own gold medals.” Photo: Tom Kimmell
See More of America's Top Free Attractions Take a breather from the hectic win-or-lose atmosphere of Vegas at the Bellagio’s 13,000-square-foot Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. Horticulturists create seasonal over-the-top displays, rearranging the gardens and their trappings—gazebos, bridges, giant topiaries. After the free live musical performance at the gardens (5 to 6 p.m. daily), step out onto the Strip to witness the light-and-music show put on by the Bellagio fountains. Photo: Courtesy of MGM Resorts International
See More of America's Top Free Attractions Free cultural programming sets the remodeled Royal Hawaiian Center apart from your average shopping mall. You can drop by for a traditional Hawaiian massage (lomilomi), lei-making, Hawaiian quilting, or a crash course in playing the ukulele or dancing the hula. There are also free performances, including Polynesian song and dance, and hula ‘auana, which is hula’s modern form. It’s an added bonus that parking is unusually affordable for Waikiki: free for an hour with validation.royalhawaiiancenter.com Photo: Courtesy of Royal Hawaiian Center
See More of America's Top Free Attractions Open 365 days a year, the Lincoln Park Zoo is just a few minutes from Chicago; you can actually hear the lion’s roar echo off nearby apartment buildings. And yet, if you want to feel like you’ve gotten away from city life, you can retreat to the re-created rainforests or savannas. Kids will enjoy the colorful Bird House and Bear Habitat, and you’ll pretend not to squirm when you visit the Lion House or get close to a boa in the Small Mammal-Reptile House. lpzoo.org Photo: Courtesy of Lincoln Park Zoo
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