Often, the real expense of travel isn’t plane tickets and hotel costs; it’s the small expenses that add up. The cost of guided tours, premium access to attractions, and entry fees can costs that make it harder to travel.
But here’s one of my best secrets as a pro traveler – many of my best travel days are days I spent exploring all the free things to do in a city. Over time, I began to realize that the types of attractions that drew me over and over in cities around the world were the same 7 things.
🆓😊🙌🏾 In this article, you’ll learn one of the best secrets I discovered through years of travel as a digital nomad: These seven types of attractions are always free. Heading to these spots means that you can travel farther and afford to stay longer and a destination.
As a bonus, these free things to do in every city are often some of locals favorite things to do. By skipping the tourist destinations and getting to know a city through its free civic buildings and public amenities, you’ll get an insider’s look at the city you are visiting.
Did you know that there are a lot of free things to do which would allow you to explore the city without burning a hole in your pocket? Even when you already have a budget set aside for the activities, wouldn’t it be great if you can stretch it out enough to add a few extra days or to splurge on a final night exploring the local find dining options?
Check out a City’s Library or Post Office
I know, I know, but hear me out: when you’re wandering around a city enjoying the vibe and the architecture, post offices and central libraries are often worth checking out. Not only can you grab some stamps for your travel postcards, but you can often discover some jaw-dropping architecture.
WHY? 100-years-ago, cities took great pride in public buildings. A regal post office and a cathedral-like central library were signals to the world that that city was worthy of respect on the world stage. Because of this you’ll find that the central library or post office in large cities is worth a visit. Bonus- they’re always free.
Find the Nearest Open Market
Open markets are always free- with the exception of some international flea markets– my favorite souvenir shopping spots. In many parts of the world, walking through a market can be a glimpse into a vibrant hub of local culture. Even if you aren’t in need of groceries or souvenirs, walking through the booths of local produce, handmade goods, and local spices can be a sensory experience you’ll remember long after typical travel memories fade.
Believe it or not, free samples are everywhere in local markets! But if you’re feeling generous enough, you can also support the locals by purchasing a few of their products! You would still save up a few bucks compared to buying in a supermarket or mall store where products are priced higher.
Churches, Temples, and Cathedrals
When I drove around Chiloe Island in Northern Patagonia, I was delighted to discover one of the few completely free UNESCO sites. Almost all major cities- and many rural areas- have iconic churches and temples that they are famous for.
⛪ While many cathedrals and temples charge an entry fee, here’s the travel hack ya’ll are here for: If you show up on time for a religious service, admission is free. You can leave when you’ve had your fill or stay through the service and explore for free afterward. You might even be invited into private spaces to see spaces beyond a typical tourist.
While religion isn’t for everyone, observing a service can be a cultural part of travel. (Trust me, once you experience a cathedral filled with the voices of a choir, you’ll understand the architecture much better!)
While many religious temples and churches like the Lotus Temple in New Delhi, the Cathedral of Brasilia, and La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona charge an admission due to popularity, smaller religious buildings do not. Smaller temples and churches can teach us a lot about the culture and history of the city- lessons we actually miss when we’re shelling out money to see the version we saw an Instagram travel influencer post about.
What you need bring:
- Shawl or scarf 🧣 – Some religious places are very strict when it comes to clothing, so be sure to read the policies before heading out! It would be best (for the ladies) to bring a shawl or scarf in case more covering is required.
- A love for beauty 💗 – Cheesy, I know! But to fully appreciate each structure, be sure that you bring along love and appreciation.
Explore By Foot
Walking around the streets instead of hailing cabs or riding the bus in a new city can be very exciting. It also gives an authentic feel to the trip especially after seeing all the places that you could miss if you are aboard a fast-moving vehicle.
Be sure to take lots of photos of street art and maybe one or two street performers and statues that are unique to each city. Most statues have epigraphs that you could use to learn more about the history of the city and its people.
What you need bring:
- Comfortable walking shoes 👟 – You wouldn’t want to ruin your trip because of flimsy footwear that may cause blisters, soreness, and exhaustion.
- Your own bottled water 🧴 – If your hostel or hotel has a water dispenser, it’s best and safe that you bring your own bottle and go for refills instead of buying outside or asking for service water.
Go on a Nature Adventure
Most cities have a local park where you can bask in the company of birds, plants, and trees. Why not head on to one and find a good spot for a picnic or just to watch the city go by? This can also be a good place to hang out with locals who frequent this place. Sometimes, you can even strike up a conversation with a local. These conversations can be a great source of local recommendations for things to do, see, or eat.
What you need bring:
- Sunglasses 😎 – An eye doctor once told me that if it’s bright enough to squint, it’s bright enough that you need sunglasses. Sunglasses not only protect your eyes from bright sunlight, they also reduce glare. Premium sunglasses even intensify color and make it easier to see under the surface of water. A great pair of sunglasses can be an investment in a better travel expereince.
- A good book or Kindle 📘 – To peacefully pass hours while at a park alone, it’s best to have a good book. Reading a book that’s set in the city you’re in can be a fun way to experience a destination and give you more ideas of free things to do and places to visit.
Do a Mural Walk and Explore Local Culture
When I arrived in Timisoara, Romania, I exited the train to discover a town square filled with opera music- free festivals like this occur in every city. From music to murals, museums, to art galleries, the list of free things to do in every city that are arts-related can be endless as long as you know where to go!
Most museums are free of charge on certain times or days; the Renia Sophia in Madrid, for example, is free after 4pm on most days, while all museums in Seattle are free on the first Thursday of the month. Sculpture hunting in the city is one of the best things to do in Oviedo. If you want to see museums on a tight budget, research in advance the most affordable times to visit.
What you need to bring:
- Patience 😌 – If you plan to visit a museum on a free entrance days, be sure to bring lots of patience as it can get a bit crowded.
- Jacket 🧥 – Museums and art galleries need to maintain a specific temperature and humidity to preserve art. Consider a lightweight jacket so you stay comfortable throughout the tour!
Pools, Beaches, and Waterfronts
Many popular tourist cities are located on the shores of oceans, lakes, or rivers. These natural waterfronts always offer public-access waterfront recreation areas.
While beachfront hotels and resorts make big money by renting umbrella-shaded loungers, in many destinations beaches are, by default, public property. With a turkish towel and some sunscreen, you’ve got everything you need to spend a day relaxing on the beach. (Read more money-saving resort tips)
No natural waterfront? Don’t worry! There are free ways to enjoy the water in almost every city. If your hotel doesn’t have a pool as a free included amenity, just hit that search engine to find where’s the nearest public pool. A “free pool near me” google search should help you find a city’s free swimming options.
What you need bring:
- Sunscreen 🏖️ – Even on cloudy days, it’s important to block out those harmful UV rays and sunburn!
- Snacks 🥪 – A couple of sandwiches or fruits should be enough to enjoy your time by the shore without stepping away to grab a bite.
- Download a beach-trip packing list.
Final Thoughts and More Tips
To help you save more bucks during a trip, here are other free things to do that you may consider:
- Take advantage of free hotel/hostel breakfast – If your hotel has a buffet breakfast, try to come in during the last serving hour so you get your meal stretched out and not get hungry again by lunchtime. Having some snacks or energy bar in the afternoon should be enough to fuel you for the entire day before you head off again to your dinner destination.
- Try to get a hotel within the city – Most hotels or hostels outside the city can have lower prices, but if most of your desired tour locations are in the city, save up on commute by getting a hotel nearby. Otherwise, take advantage of the free shuttle services that most hotels offer.
Nearly everyone wants to travel, but time and money put a limit on just how much most of us can get away. Once we’ve paid airfare, hotel, food, and local transport expenses, there may not be much left over for visiting attractions like museums, shows, or attractions- let alone for the special spurges that make travel special.
What are your recommendations to do in YOUR own city? Tell us in the comments section below to help other travelers, and who knows, they might be able to use the savings to buy you a free drink! 😄
Lynli Roman’s unique approach to travel is informed by decades of experience on the road with a traveling family and, later, years spent as a solo international traveler. When she’s not writing about Seattle from her Pike Place Market apartment, Lynli writes on-location while conducting hands-on research in each destination she covers. Lynli’s writing has been featured by MSN, ABC Money, Buzzfeed, and Huffington Post. She is passionate about sharing information that makes travel more accessible for all bodies.