We often feel the pressure of having to pull out our wallet at every attraction when we travel. But there are a variety of free things to do on any vacation that will still allow us to immerse ourselves in the culture and history of a destination. Here are our favorites that don't leave us worrying about blowing our budgets.
Picnic in the Park
Even the busiest cities in the world harbor pockets of green, with urban oases of manicured lawns and polished gardens festooned with weeping willows, public parks are ideal settings for idyllic picnics. Central Park is New York City’s peaceful sanctuary, inviting visitors to lounge on 840 acres of grassland and to bike its tree-lined paths. Fill a basket by taking advantage of the free breakfast your hotel serves, or browse the city’s popular bakeries for fresh bagels, and observe the mesmerizing daily activities of locals around you on a picnic blanket.
With a movement toward making culture and history more accessible, many destinations around the world offer free admission to museums. Groundbreaking exhibits have transformed learning into an immersive and hands-on experience, and the Smithsonian family of galleries and museums in both Washington, D.C., and New York City offer complimentary admission every day of the year, allowing visitors to plunge into the history of flight at the National Air and Space Museum, and discover Earth’s history at the Natural History Museum. Browse the world-class state museums of France and Italy for free on the first Sunday of each month, and peruse the timeless pieces of Botticelli at Florence's Uffizi, set foot in Rome’s iconic Colosseum and see the Mona Lisa in Paris’s Louvre.
Window Shop the Markets
A window into foreign cultures, markets are a prominent setting for the transactions of daily life. Interacting with the people behind the destination’s products is a great way to learn about the place you're visiting. And as many vendors offer free samples, you’re invited to taste your way through the stalls.
Time-honored marketplaces like the one in Chichicastenango, 2.5 hours northwest of Guatemala City, provide for captivating sensory experiences. Stalls are populated with traditional wooden masks, vibrant woven scarves and table linens, along with an assortment of medicinal herbs. While you browse you can engage in conversation with vendors or lose yourself in a cacophony of colorful sights and foreign smells.
A church tower, a hilltop lookout or a bridge — there’s always a free alternative to paying a hefty admission fee to access an iconic tower for a sweeping view of the city. This way, these landmarks will also be a part of the skyline you look out at. Instead of climbing the steps of the Duomo's church tower in Florence, visit the hilltop lookout of Piazzale Michelangelo, where you can marvel at the romantic cityscape while listening to soothing tunes of nearby live performers. And the advantage of viewing Paris's glittering skyline from the steps of the Sacré-Cœur Basilica instead of atop the Eiffel Tower is that your view now encompasses Gustave's crowning structure. View sunset or sunrise from these lookout points for unique perspectives.
On foot is the most immersive way to explore a destination, allowing you to uncover its hidden delights without having to spare your dollars on transportation. Some of the world's largest metropolises like Boston, Barcelona and Vancouver boast surprisingly compact and pedestrian friendly cores, where free walking tours have steadily become a favorite choice for exploring a new destination.
Organized by passionate freelance tour guides and knowledgeable locals, these free walking tours are designed to introduce you to a city's most prominent landmarks and recognizable sites for a comprehensive overview. The tours incur no upfront costs and operate on a tip-only basis, allowing you to express your appreciation to your guide accordingly. Popularized all over Europe, free walking tours are now available in destinations all over the world. And though most cities offer generalized tours, there are also a number of specialized ones, focusing on the royal attractions on a walk through London, or the city's Chinese influence on a Chinatown tour through San Francisco.