Ten bucket-list destinations that won’t cost you a dime.
Here are 10 of my favorite attractions in the U.S. that won’t cost you a cent. How many have you visited?
GETTY CENTER, LOS ANGELES
Welcome to the richest museum in the world, thanks to the endowment left by oil gazillionaire J. Paul Getty. There are two sites bearing his name: The newest and most famous one is a white monolith on 110 acres atop a hill in West Los Angeles; the original Getty Villa, in Malibu, is now devoted to ancient classical art. Both are free, and both are worth a visit. (Parking costs $15 at either.)
No tickets are required to visit the main museum, but you do need to download free tickets for the Malibu villa. To me, the spectacular buildings themselves are the real attraction, along with the gardens. Make sure you go up to the gardens, especially on a clear day, for a view all the way to Santa Catalina Island. The classic villa is a replica of an ancient Roman country house, while the larger site was designed by celebrity architect Richard Meier, with 1.2 million square feet of imported travertine. It reportedly cost $1.5 billion or so to build. Kids like the tram to get to the top, and also there’s a neat kids’ room. The center has free architecture tours daily. Learn more: getty.edu
GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE, SAN FRANCISCO
My teenage daughter was absolutely thrilled when I let her drive across this American icon recently for the first time, and no wonder: It is thrilling to be on this 1.7-mile bridge, with its spectacular views of San Francisco Bay. I recommend walking or biking the bridge (halfway if you get tired, then turn around), but bring a jacket because it’s always cold.
It’s only free to drive in one direction — northward. There’s a $7.25 toll to drive into the city from Marin County. There’s a new overlook called Strauss Plaza that offers great views of the bridge and has a visitors center, but there’s a charge for parking. If you don’t want to pay for a great view in the city, take Marine Drive on the Presidio to reach the Fort Point National Historic Site. This is a cool historic location in its own right, and also offers amazing views and photo opps of the bridge from beneath it. Learn more: goldengate.org
STATEN ISLAND FERRY, NEW YORK
This ferry ride across New York Harbor will take you 25 minutes, providing a harbor cruise past the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan skyline, and it’s completely free. Take it during the day to see the statue, and return at night to see the city lights. It runs seven days a week, 24 hours a day. If you can, avoid rush hour, when it’s mobbed with commuters. The Manhattan terminal is at 4 Whitehall St., New York. Learn more: siferry.com
NATIONAL MALL, WASHINGTON D.C.
One of the best things about visiting our nation’s capital is that most of the attractions you want to see are completely free, making it hard to pick just one or two. But the National Mall is a must that reduces me to tears every time I go there, from the Lincoln Memorial to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to the awe-inspiring Washington Monument.
Check the website for the schedule of free, ranger-led walks. Wear comfortable shoes and bring tracing paper and a pencil if you want to find a particular name on the Vietnam memorial. Note that there’s a Junior Ranger program here for kids; talk to a ranger for the booklet, or you can download it off the website.
Head over to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing next door to see money being printed. Learn more: nps.gov/nama
NEW ORLEANS JAZZ NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK
You can spend a fortune fast in the Big Easy, with all the gourmet restaurants and pricey hotels in the French Quarter. But your visit to the world’s only history center devoted to jazz, which originated here, won’t cost you a dime. And there’s live music nearly every day, as well as free talks, kids activities and more.
New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park has two visitors centers, one in the French Quarter and a secondary one in the Old U.S. Mint at 400 Esplanade Ave. Learn more: 916 N. Peters St. New Orleans. 504-589-4841 or at nps.gov/jazz/index.htm
REDWOOD NATIONAL PARK, CRESCENT CITY, CALIF.
There are no fees or entrance stations to this stunning collection of ancient coastal redwoods — some of the world’s most beautiful trees. It includes 200 miles of easy and backcountry trails, along with scenic drives. It preserves some of the old-growth redwood forests that used to blanket the entire region. The rain forest park is in Northern California, near the Oregon border. It adjoins the Klamath River, and parts are along the coast.
It’s open all year, but check the weather. In season, you can look for gray whales offshore, banana slugs, Roosevelt elk, black bears and sea anemones. Note that the National Park is free to enter, but adjoining state parks charge fees. The Kuchel Visitor Center is the largest, 1 mile south of the town of Orick. Learn more: Call 707-465-7335 or visit nps.gov/redw
FOUNTAINS OF BELLAGIO, LAS VEGAS
Vegas will suck money out of you like a centrifuge, but this attraction of 1,000 fountains is both free and so amazing; it was designed by former Disney Imagineers. I’ve heard that the Bellagio owners now regret building it, because they put their main attraction outside the hotel, not inside where it would lure people in. But no one else regrets it, except maybe drivers stuck in traffic behind cars stopped on the Strip to watch.
You can watch this marvelous water show synchronized to opera, pop and Broadway show tunes every 15–30 minutes, depending on the day. They put on holiday tunes at Christmas. There’s also a light show at night. More info: Bellagio.com
INDEPENDENCE HALL AND THE LIBERTY BELL, PHILADELPHIA
If you enjoy American history, there are few things more stirring than seeing the sites where our country’s democracy was founded. There’s a visitors center just for the 2,080-pound Liberty Bell in Independence National Historical Park. It includes a movie about the bell and photo opportunities.
It’s also free to visit Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were signed, but you must get free tickets at most times, distributed from the ranger station at the Independence Visitor Center, or you can call 877-444-6777 or order online at Recreation.gov in advance. If you order, the tickets incur a $1.50 handling fee. Check out the free mobile app, too. Learn more at nps.gov/inde or call 215-965-2305 to speak to a ranger.
GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK
This huge park, encompassing 500,000 acres in North Carolina and Tennessee, offers 270 miles of scenic drives, biking, hiking, backpacking, waterfalls, horseback riding, historic buildings and more. There’s fishing on 2,115 miles of streams. Fall colors are beautiful in October — one of the park’s peak seasons.
Wildlife includes black bears, foxes, elk, deer, wild turkeys — and then there are the fireflies. Visitors come from everywhere each spring to view the mating season of the synchronous fireflies, which can be seen in the southern Appalachians, usually in late May to early June. The fascinating synchronized flashing is so popular that you’ll need to enter the parking lottery and ride a trolley to the most visited areas during this period. The Sugarlands Visitor Center is in Gatlinburg, Tenn. 865-436-1200. More info: nps.gov/grsm
CHIRICAHUA NATIONAL MONUMENT, ARIZONA
A wonderland of twisting spires, pinnacles, columns and balancing rocks, this area was called Land of Standing Rocks by the Apaches. Today, it is a little-known but fabulous and free alternative to the more crowded and expensive Arizona attractions. Southeast of Tucson, outside of Willcox, it offers 12,000 acres of scenic drives, hiking, equestrian trails and more. The park operates a free hikers shuttle from the visitors center and campground daily, dropping off at the Echo Canyon or Massai Point trailheads.
Wildlife includes white-tailed deer, coatimundi, javalina and more than 300 species of birds. Some 87 percent of the park is designated as wilderness, accessible by foot or horseback only. Tours of Faraway Ranch, homesteaded by Swedish immigrants Neil and Emma Erickson in 1886, are available. Learn more: 520-824-3560 or nps.gov/chir