America's best free attractions

The Freedom Trail, Boston (Photo: reynolds.james.e / Flickr)
The Freedom Trail, Boston (Photo: reynolds.james.e / Flickr)

America is the land of the free—and that applies to many of the country's star attractions as well. Make the most of your summer by visiting these famous spots around the United States; you won't have to pay a penny to do it.

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The Freedom Trail, Boston


Learn history, see the city, and get some exercise at the same time with a walk along Boston's Freedom Trail. This 2 1/2-mile path highlights 16 sites that are historically significant to the American Revolution, and they are all free. Visit the Freedom Trail's website to read up on the Bunker Hill Monument and the Paul Revere House, among others, and prepare yourself for a self-guided tour. Best of all, for the directionally challenged, the trail is clearly marked the whole way by a red painted line or a brick path.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park,
North Carolina and Tennessee

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the few major American national parks that don't charge admission (and there's actually a deed restriction on the land saying that no toll or fee will ever be imposed). The park has so much to offer. Into wildlife? Come here to spot hundreds of species, from bears to deer. Looking for a more cultural experience? Learn about the history of the southern Appalachian region. Active visitors will be endlessly entertained as well, with many options for hiking, biking, and riding.

Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago

Lions, gorillas, and other wild creatures live just minutes away from downtown Chicago in Lincoln Park Zoo. The zoo is free and open every day of the year, making it an easy stop on any Chicago tour. Check the zoo's daily calendar for inspiration on what to see—you can watch sea lion training, see cows being milked at the zoo's farm, or even pet a goat. Make your visit even more fun by downloading the free SpotDash app, which will take you on a scavenger hunt throughout the zoo and the rest of the city.

The National Mall, Washington, D.C.

From the new Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial to the famous Smithsonian Castle, some of America's most iconic sights can be found on the National Mall. Everything along this open-air national park is free, from world-class museums in the Smithsonian complex to historical sites, such as the Capitol. There's even a free app you can download to help you find your way, learn facts, and create your own self-guided tours.

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge, so why not celebrate with a visit? Don't spend money on a tour; instead, download a free app (available for iPhone and Android) and learn behind-the-scenes trivia, get expert advice, and even listen to recordings of bridge workers' oral history. Walk or bike across the bridge and take in the fabulous views of San Francisco. Begin or end your visit with a stop in Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which can be accessed on either end of the bridge.

Independence National Historical Park,

See America's second birthplace, Philadelphia's Independence National Historical Park. Although Washington is the nation's capital, Philadelphia was the home of Congress and the Supreme Court for 10 years while the District was being built. Explore the remnants of that history at this large national park, where you can view the Liberty Bell, tour Old City Hall, or just enjoy the public green spaces. Everything is free except for the National Constitution Center. You will need tickets for tours of Independence Hall, but they won't cost a thing.

(Photo: Supermac1961 / Flickr)
(Photo: Supermac1961 / Flickr)

The Getty Center, Los Angeles

The Getty Center, one of Los Angeles' best art museums, is free. Permanent exhibitions feature important pieces like Vincent Van Gogh's Irises and Claude Monet's Sunrise (Marine), and there are always rotating exhibitions like Portraits of Renown: Photography and the Cult of Celebrity, which runs through Aug. 26. Be sure to leave time to visit the recently reopened Central Garden in the heart the museum, where you can see a waterfall, specialty gardens, and more than 500 different varieties of plants. The Getty is closed on Mondays, so plan your visit for any other day.

Jackson Square, New Orleans

Experience the real feel of New Orleans in Jackson Square. This public space houses an open-air artist colony where you can browse or buy work by local artists (or even just watch them create). Here, you'll find one of New Orleans' most recognizable landmarks, the St. Louis Cathedral, which is also free to enter, as well as the statue of Andrew Jackson, after whom the park is named.

(Photo: Shubert Ciencia / Flickr)
(Photo: Shubert Ciencia / Flickr)

International Rose Test Garden, Portland, Ore.

Make time to stop and smell the roses—all 10,000 of them—at Portland's International Rose Test Garden. This 4 1/2-acre garden features new varieties of roses, beautifully maintained landscaping, and the Shakespeare Garden, which includes herbs, trees, and flowers mentioned in The Bard's works. The rose garden has been in use since 1917, and it even harbored hybrids from Europe for safekeeping during World War I. The best time to visit is June through October, when the roses are in bloom, but the grounds are open year-round. It's free to look in the garden, but don't touch—you'll face a $500 fine if you try to take any roses home with you.

Central Park, New York City

A green oasis in the middle of bustling Manhattan, Central Park offers open spaces, beautiful views, and peace and quiet. Tour the 55 monuments, memorials, and sculptures, watch a game at one of its 26 ball fields, or hike 130 acres of woodlands. If you have kids, let them run wild on the park's 21 playgrounds, or do some running yourself on the park's many paths. Bring your own bicycle and go for a ride, or simply take a stroll around the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. Pack a picnic, a blanket, and a Frisbee, and you can entertain yourself all day for free.