Nothing makes travel less appealing than costly, overrated attractions. But when a city has incredible things to see and fun events free of charge, you should consider paying it a visit. Here are some of the best bang-for-your-buck U.S. cities.
San Antonio, Texas
San Antonio is a big city with a small-town vibe. It offers all the perks of a larger city — good food, live music and great museums — with a small town price tag. Many of San Antonio’s museums offer free admission at least one day a week or month, including the San Antonio Museum of Art and the Witte Museum. Plus, the historic Alamo and San Antonio Missions are free all day, every day. Make sure to stroll down the River Walk, which runs 13 miles along the San Antonio River, with scenic portions that can be hiked or biked. If you need to cool down from the high Texas temps, you can float down the river on one of the five different rivers near the city.
San Diego, California
While much of California seems overpriced and expensive, visiting the sunny city of San Diego proves to be an exception. San Diego’s trolley system makes it easy to skip the car rental and travel by rail around the city. Simply buy the $5 day pass for unlimited rides to the city’s tourist hot spots, like Seaport Village, the Gaslamp Quarter and historic Old Town. If you want to get out on the bay, buy a ferry ticket for $5 and travel to Coronado to go shopping or enjoy the beach. And speaking of beaches, all the beaches in San Diego are free.
Smaller midwestern cities like Indianapolis are beginning to squash the “flyover state” myth. The capital city of Indiana has grown rapidly over the past ten years, which means there's lots to see and do, yet it still retains a budget-friendly, community feel. For starters, many of the city’s growing list of top-notch restaurants and bars are affordable and delicious. And if you’re traveling with children, the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is the largest in the world and is only $5 on the first Thursday of every month. The Indianapolis Cultural Trail boasts 8 miles of bicycle and walking paths and has public art installations, food tours and bike rentals for $8 a day. If you don’t want to pay the $25 for Symphony on the Prairie, there’s a number of free outdoor summer concerts for your enjoyment.
St. Louis, Missouri
It’s easy to get your money’s worth when you visit the charming city of St. Louis, Missouri. Forest Park, the original site of the 1904 World’s Fair, is a veritable smorgasbord of budget-friendly activities. Besides enjoying the park’s greenery and picnic sites, the World’s Fair Pavilion is an iconic landmark that is home to many free events and festivals. Even better, admission to the St. Louis Art Museum, the Science Center and the zoo is free of charge. Plus The Muny (Municipal Opera) hosts musicals in the country’s oldest outdoor theatre, with no tickets required for the last nine rows. And Citygarden sculpture park likens to an outdoor museum, except that you may wander through the park’s large sculptures, waterfalls and art installations without paying a cent.
The nation’s capital is a great place to get the most bang out of your travel buck. Although you’ll be paying a higher premium for hotels and meals in this cosmopolitan metropolis, the city’s many affordable attractions make up for it. There are 17 Smithsonian museums with free entry, including the National Zoo, the American Art Museum, the Natural History Museum and the Air and Space Museum. And while not affiliated with the Smithsonian, D.C.’s Holocaust Museum, Botanical Gardens and National Archives are free to visit as well. When you’re burnt out on museum visits, hit up one of the city’s many free events, like the National Portrait Gallery’s Friday Lates, a weekly no-cost event that includes music, drinks, drawing sessions and film screenings.