16 Free Things to Do in the Top Affordable U.S. Destinations

From Seattle to New Orleans, here's how to explore locales across America without breaking the bank.

U.S. News & World Report

16 Free Things to Do in the Top Affordable U.S. Destinations

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Free activities are abundant in these low-cost U.S. cities.

Just because your travel budget is small doesn't mean you can't experience all that a city has to offer. To help bargain hunters make the most of their travels, U.S. News rounded up the top no-cost activities and attractions available in the Best Affordable Destinations in the USA. From free beer tastings in Portland, Oregon, to photography classes in Yosemite National Park and nightly entertainment in three music capitals, these are the coolest free things to do in the top inexpensive destinations across America.
Charlottesville, Virginia
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Watch the sunset in a mountain orchard in Charlottesville, Virginia.

This charming Virginia city can be explored on a tight budget, but you will likely want to skip a few top attractions in favor of checking out free, lesser-known gems. Monticello and Ash Lawn-Highland, former presidential estates, require an entry fee but can be admired from the outside for no extra cost. The Downtown Pedestrian Mall affords a nice stroll and the University of Virginia is notable for its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site. There's also the Crater Mountain Orchard, which hosts a Thursday Evening Sunset Series during the summer, offering visitors the chance to watch the sunset from its mountain perch free of charge.
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Free activities are abundant in these low-cost U.S. cities.

Just because your travel budget is small doesn't mean you can't experience all that a city has to offer. To help bargain hunters make the most of their travels, U.S. News rounded up the top no-cost activities and attractions available in the Best Affordable Destinations in the USA. From free beer tastings in Portland, Oregon, to photography classes in Yosemite National Park and nightly entertainment in three music capitals, these are the coolest free things to do in the top inexpensive destinations across America.

Watch the sunset in a mountain orchard in Charlottesville, Virginia.

This charming Virginia city can be explored on a tight budget, but you will likely want to skip a few top attractions in favor of checking out free, lesser-known gems. Monticello and Ash Lawn-Highland, former presidential estates, require an entry fee but can be admired from the outside for no extra cost. The Downtown Pedestrian Mall affords a nice stroll and the University of Virginia is notable for its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site. There's also the Crater Mountain Orchard, which hosts a Thursday Evening Sunset Series during the summer, offering visitors the chance to watch the sunset from its mountain perch free of charge.

Tour city street art in Pittsburgh.

The Steel City's best freebies can be found outside, so consider visiting in the warmer months. The Three Rivers Heritage Trail, a 24-mile nonlinear trail, connects visitors to various parts of town including the north side, downtown and the south side. Pittsburgh is also a street art hub, with hundreds of works by hundreds of artists, including Shepard Fairey, scattered throughout the city. And keep in mind, the Duquesne Incline isn't the only way to take in Mount Washington's views of the city skyline. You can also drive or walk, but make sure to wear comfy shoes and bring water.

Watch wild bats wake up in Austin, Texas.

Austin offers a diverse range of free activities. Outdoorsy types will enjoy Zilker Park and Barton Creek Greenbelt, with both offering trails and swimming spots. And art aficionados will appreciate the graffiti-clad HOPE Outdoor Gallery, while animal lovers will get a thrill from seeing the 1.5 million bats that reside beneath Congress Avenue Bridge. What's more, there are plenty of budget-friendly music venues for audiophiles in the Live Music Capital of the World. The White Horse rarely has a cover charge, while the Elephant Room waives admission fees during weekday shows. And 7 p.m. acoustic acts at Hole in the Wall, a dive bar that has seen the likes of St. Vincent and Don Henley play, are free of charge.

Explore southern salt marshes in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

The main reason many travelers flock to this seaside city is for its 60 miles of beaches, which don't cost a thing to access. But beaches aren't the only free attractions here. Strolls around the boardwalk and promenade prove relaxing for recent visitors and even though Broadway by the Beach, an entertainment and shopping complex, is pricey, tourists say it's a great spot for people-watching and soaking in the atmosphere of the summer crowds. Those wanting some time away from the hustle and bustle should venture to Vereen Memorial Historical Gardens, which offers trails and boardwalks through salt marshes and views of the Intracoastal Waterway.

Sample free beer in Portland, Oregon.

Portland hosts the most local breweries of any city in the world, with some offering complimentary tours and samples, including BridgePort Brewing Company and Hopworks Urban Brewery. There are also an abundance of free natural attractions, including Washington Park and the International Rose Test Garden, along with city hot spots such as Powell's City of Books and the Portland Saturday Market. Those looking for something off the beaten path should travel to the series of waterfalls that line the Columbia River about 35 miles east of the city, including Multnomah Falls and Lower Oneonta Falls.

Discover Pacific Northwest parks in Seattle.

The Emerald City is as easy on the eyes as it is on the wallet. Pike Place Market, considered one of the best markets in the country, is free to browse and often offers tasty samples to patrons. And Discovery Park boasts trails and beaches within city limits, but if you're looking for more adventure, Mount Si sits just 40 miles east of the city center and offers free entry. For even more amazing views, skip the pricey admission ticket at the Space Needle and head to Kerry Park instead. This park on Seattle's Queen Anne Hill is where many famous skyline photos are snapped.

Traverse the Adirondack High Peaks in upstate New York.

Adirondack Park in upstate New York offers more than six million acres of amazing, affordable exploration – at no cost to visitors. Since it lacks a national park distinction, it doesn't charge an entrance fee. There are endless opportunities for outdoor adventure, with 46 mountains comprising the Adirondack High Peaks. Plus, there are 30,000 miles of rivers and streams and a whopping 3,000 lakes and ponds spread throughout the region. Lake Placid and Saranac Lake are popular spots for visitors, and though you'll have to pay to get the top of Whiteface Mountain, there are roads and trails that visitors can take for similar views at no extra cost.

Enjoy beaches and sunset celebrations in Key West, Florida.

Key West embodies a unique spirit, and visitors don't have to pay a dime to experience it. Southernmost Point is a popular photo op not to be missed and Key West Cemetery’s droll tombstone inscriptions, including "Told you I was sick" and "At least I know where he’s sleeping tonight," are worth exploring. At the Mallory Square Sunset Celebration, which occurs nightly, you'll find a variety of musicians, clowns, magicians, artists and even psychics. And when you want a little relaxation at no added cost, Higgs Beach and Smathers Beach are both free to access.

Take a history lesson in San Antonio.

A number of San Antonio's top attractions are free to visit, including the Alamo and Missions National Historical Park. When you've had your fill of history, head to the charming River Walk and Brackenridge Park, which don't charge entrance fees. The Japanese Tea Garden, another fee-free treasure, and Barney Smith's Toilet Seat Art Museum – which features nearly 1,200 decorated seats – is a quirky, zero-cost way to spice up your afternoon. And speaking of art, the San Antonio Museum of Art offers complimentary admission every Tuesday evening and Sunday morning.

Jam to free tunes in Nashville, Tennessee.

Though free attractions are few in Nashville, it's possible to enjoy a slice of Music City on a budget. There are many free concerts and festivals offered throughout the year, such as Let Freedom Sing! and CMA Fest, but venues like Tootsie's Orchid Lounge and Robert's Western World host live music daily for no cover charge. You can also acquaint yourself with music legends by strolling the Music City Walk of Fame. And art lovers wary of paying for the $15 Hatch Show Print studio tour can visit the affiliated shop for free, which offers views into the workspace that prints the posters.

Stroll the public squares of Savannah, Georgia.

Savannah is a dream for budget-conscious travelers. Its top points of interest, including Forsyth Park, Bonaventure Cemetery and the striking Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, are all free to visit. There are also 22 public squares spread out around the city, including Chippewa Square, where scenes from "Forest Gump" were shot. When you're not admiring the Spanish moss-laden trees, head over to the charming City Market area and the waterfront River Street for some window shopping and people-watching. And if you're looking to get out of town for a day, Tybee Island boasts miles of beaches and is just a half-hour east of the Historic District.

Join a free walking tour in Charleston, South Carolina.

Many of Charleston's top attractions require no cost to visit. The Battery, Folly Beach, Sullivan's Island and Isle of Palms County Park are all free and popular points of interest. There's also the beautiful (and enormous) Angel Oak Tree, which measures 28 feet in circumference and is located on John's Island, about 13 miles southwest of central Charleston. When you're ready to learn about the Holy City's deep-rooted history, join a free walking tour with Free Tours by Foot, which offers both a Charleston Historic District Tour and a Charleston Civil War Tour, among other tour options.

Listen to live jazz in New Orleans.

You can't visit the birthplace of jazz without listening to some live music. Luckily in New Orleans, it's everywhere. You can find people jamming on the street in the French Quarter, especially in Jackson Square. Plus, there are tons of notable music venues that have no cover charge, including the Spotted Cat, Cafe Negril and The Maison. And if you're heading out on the town on a Friday night, stop by Le Bon Temps Roule for free oysters starting at 7 p.m.

Visit the National Mall in Washington, District of Columbia.

Believe it or not, it's easy to save money on visits to top attractions in the District. The monuments on the National Mall and Tidal Basin, such as the Lincoln Memorial, the National World War II Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial, as well as the White House and the Smithsonian museums are free of charge. Plus, visitors can also arrange free tours in some of the country's most important office buildings. If you plan ahead, you can also partake in complimentary tours of the White House, the Department of State and the Capitol. And when the Supreme Court is in session, you can watch oral arguments at no extra charge.

Learn new photography skills with the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite National Park.

Budget-minded travelers can benefit greatly from Yosemite's park ranger programs and its multitude of complimentary activities. Ranger hikes include trips to Mirror Lake and El Capitan for the unique "Ask A Climber" program. During this excursion, park visitors use telescopes to observe brave climbers as they scale El Capitan, while rangers answer questions about Yosemite's vertical environment. For those who would rather brush up on their photography skills, the Ansel Adams Gallery in the nearby Yosemite Village offers free camera walks through the park, which teach participants about camera operation and landscape composition.

Go on a geyser hike with a Yellowstone National Park ranger.

Yellowstone's low admission fee – $30 for a seven-day vehicle pass – is a huge steal for the amount of natural attractions that reside within the world's first national park. Along with access to nearly 3,500 square miles, visitors can participate in a variety of free, seasonal activities offered by the park's ranger programs. The ranger programs include educational talks, including astronomy lessons, wildlife presentations and a multitude of walks through Yellowstone Lake and Geyser Hill, which features about 30 geysers, including Old Faithful.
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Rachel Center, Editor

Rachel Center is an Editor for the Travel section at U.S. News & World Report. She joined U.S. ...  Read more

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