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This story is on The Today Show web site today…Comment here, what is your favorite free attraction?
Leon Neal / AFP – Getty Images
No matter how much you budget on a trip nowadays, at home or abroad, you tend to spend more than you planned — a catch-22 that’s especially true in big cities (which can sneakily suck bank accounts dry if you’re not careful). But guess what? Many of the world’s most popular — and expensive — cities offer a wealth of things to see and do entirely for free. From New York’s Central Park to Hong Kong’s Symphony of Lights to D.C.’s Smithsonian and National Zoo, we’ve combed the globe for the top 10 cities with free attractions. Our homework has paid off — not only did we round up the go-to hubs with the biggest roster of freebies, we uncovered secrets on gaining backdoor access to some of the world’s top sites.
Many of this modern capital’s cutting-edge and most well-known historic attractions are frei. Not only is the Reichstag, the official seat of the German Parliament, both interesting and beautiful in itself (original designed by Paul Wallot and re-designed by Sir Norman Foster in the ’90s), it also offers 360-degree views from the top of its striking glass dome (entry is free; advance registration required). Back on the ground, hit the pavement to experience Berlin’s divided past on a free, 3.5-hour walking tour of the Mitte district, kicking off at city’s majestic “trademark,” the Brandenburg Gate. The tour makes requisite stops at infamous Checkpoint Charlie on busy Friederichstrasse and Museum Island, a UNESCO World Heritage site that’s home to five first-rate national museums (those 18 and under get in free) and the Berlin Cathedral. Post-tour, head east to encounter the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall, the Eastside Gallery, now covered in colorful art and graffiti by international artists. Finally, trace the history and scope of World War II at the Topography of Terror and Holocaust Memorial (admission is free to both).
2. Buenos Aires
South America’s so-called answer to Paris, Buenos Aires is a world-class city in its own right, with many gratis attractions to boot. View the tomb of national heroine Evita Perone at Recoleta Cemetery. Watch real gauchos competing in action and take in a Sunday folklore show at the Feria de Mataderos, a market where the locals go for food and crafts. Witness a free performance of the city’s original dance at the Buenos Aires Tango Festival (Aug. 12-30) or explore the city via Buenos Aires Free Tour (Mon.–Sat.), which offers 2- to 2.5-hour guided walking tours showcasing downtown and historic residential areas. The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes features an impressive array of European and South American fine art, free of charge. Jump to the Buenos Aires Tourist Board website for a daily schedule of cultural events (some free) including concerts, lectures, art exhibitions and more.
Video: Buenos Aires city guide (on this page)
Pioneering architecture, world-class museums, a vibrant arts scene and an expansive lakefront are a few of this Midwest city’s major draws. Lucky for travelers, many of them are free. Catch a water and light show summer evenings at Buckingham Fountain, one of the largest fountains in the world, in Grant Park. Nearby Navy Pier is ideal for a stroll, plus a few of its attractions, like the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows and live music on the Beer Garden stage (May.-Oct.), are free. Take a free, local-led walking tour of one of the city’s many neighborhoods; view hundreds of animal species at the Shedd Aquarium (free select days) and Lincoln Park Zoo (always free); and check out the latest in modern design at the notable Archicenter which offers free gallery talks (Mon., Fri., Sat. 12:30pm). Almost all of Chi-town’s museums, including the famous Art Institute of Chicago, offer free days (the first and second Wednesdays of the month). Be sure to check the calendars for the Chicago Public Library and Chicago Cultural Center for year-round free programs and attractions.
Video: Chicago city guide (on this page)
4. Hong Kong
One of the world’s most imposing skylines — a mix of gleaming skyscrapers and lush mountains — and a kaleidoscope of cultures characterize this buzzing South Asian hub. The city’s seven major museums all offer free admission on Wednesdays, and its many parks (Hong Kong Park, Victoria Park, Kowloon Park) boast a constant variety of free activities, from kung-fu demos to art fairs. The Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens are home to apes, pythons and more than 1,000 plant species, and admission is always free. Take a tea appreciation class at the Lock Cha Tea Shop next door to the Museum of Tea Ware in Hong Kong Park (4-5pm; Mon., Wed., Fri.; registration necessary), or attend a free lecture by a local expert on feng-shui, kung fu, or Cantonese opera via the Hong Kong Tourism Board’s Cultural Kaleidoscope program. Free morning tai-chi sessions are offered on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront promenade (Mon., Wed., Fri.), also the perfect place to watch Victoria Harbor’s dramatic “Symphony of Lights” show (nightly, 8pm).
Video: Hong Kong city guide (on this page)
An ancient city with a dynamic modern spirit, Istanbul’s culture is constantly on display, from the tips of its minarets to the floors of its busy bazaars. It costs nothing to admire the Blue Mosque’s cascading tiled domes and wander the courtyards of the Suleymaniye Mosque. You don’t have to buy anything, but the Grand Bazaar’s 4,400 shops (it’s one of the world’s oldest and largest covered markets) is a must-see. Relax afterwards in Gulhane Park (just outside Topkapi Palace), formerly the Palace’s royal gardens, which hosts free public concerts during the summer and offers pleasing Bosphorus views. View the living quarters of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of Turkey, at the Ataturk Museum, and tour the barracks where Florence Nightingale improvised modern nursing standards (both museums offer free admission; advance requests required for Nightingale Museum). The city also plays host to a number of festivals throughout the year offering free screenings and performances, such as the International Istanbul Jazz Festival (July 1-19) and Short Film Festival (Nov. 23-30).
The British capital is one of the priciest in the world, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere with more sophisticated, pocket-friendly amusements. A startling number of London’s first-rate galleries and museums cost nary a thing, including the Tate Modern and the British Museum, home of the Rosetta Stone. The Victoria & Albert, with 4.5 million-object decorative arts collection, is a must-see, flanked by huge fountains and lion statues in scenic Trafalgar Square. Browse jungles of stalls hocking unique and international wares at Camden and Brick Lane Markets; get your royal fix witnessing the changing of the guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace; and pay your respects to past monarchs by attending mass at Westminster Abbey (held multiple times daily; all are welcome). While attending a service is one of the only ways you’ll get an inside look at the famed cathedral for free, the adjoining, centuries-old Cloisters is worth a peek and never charges admission. Do your best to nab a seat during a Parliamentary debate (Mon.–Thurs.) or Prime Minister’s Question Time (noon Wed.) at the Palace of Westminster (free seating on a first-come basis, with UK residents getting first dibs).
Video: London city guide (on this page)
7. New York City
It’s easy to devour the Big Apple’s best sites without emptying your wallet. For panoramic views of Manhattan’s inimitable skyline, including the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building, hitch a ride on the free Staten Island Ferry or traverse the iconic Brooklyn Bridge, one of the oldest suspension bridges in the country. Meander up Broadway to bustling Times Square (free tours are offered Fridays at noon), and enjoy unparalleled window-shopping and a peek into St. Patrick’s, one of the world’s largest cathedrals, on nearby Fifth Avenue. Catch a Shakespearean play in Central Park during the summer months (free but you’ll need to get in line early to score tickets), when the city’s parks and public spaces abound with impromptu concerts and street fairs. Renowned museums, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Natural History, are pay-what-you-wish admission, while others are free to the public on certain days (MoMa and Guggenheim on Friday evenings; New Museum on Thursday nights), or all the time (Museum of the American Indian). Extend your experience with a trip to the Bronx Zoo (Wednesdays during the fall/winter are suggested donation) or Coney Island’s historic boardwalk, both about an hour’s subway ride from Midtown.
Video: New York city guide (on this page)
With an endless maze of cobblestone streets leading to charming piazzas, ancient ruins and Renaissance art and architecture at every turn, The Eternal City isn’t just full of priceless attractions — it is the attraction. The beauty of Rome lies in the ability to walk freely amidst its world-famous, millennia-old monuments, from the Forum (once the nexus of the Roman Empire) and Arch of Constantine, to the remarkably preserved Pantheon (free 30-minute tours nightly at 7pm, except Sun.). Admire the glittering Trevi Fountain and walk off gelato on the staggering Spanish Steps. Take a stroll around the Colosseum (though it’s not free to enter) or along the Via Appia (one of Rome’s oldest roads). Of course, no trip would be complete without a visit to the Vatican. Entry to St. Peter’s Basilica, where Michelangelo’s “Pietà” is on view, is free. The Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums are free the last Sunday of every month (between 8:45am and 12:20pm only), but every week it is possible to witness a papal blessing in St. Peter’s Square (if His Holiness is in town).
Video: Rome city guide (on this page)
Seattle serves up quality free attractions better than it does a fresh cup o’ Joe! Check out the Seattle Art Museum’s notable modern and ethnic art collections, including a coffin shaped like a Mercedes Benz (free on the first Thursday of the month). Afterwards, enjoy SAM’s outdoor Olympic Sculpture Park backed by clear views of Puget Sound. Drop into City Hall during lunchtime for free local folk, jazz and world music performances (most Thursdays) or embark on a gallery walk in Pioneer Square showcasing the city’s hippest new artists and exhibits (first Thursdays of the month, noon-8pm). Experience the sights and smells of 100-year-old Pike Place Market, famous for fresh produce and seafood, or peruse unique indie crafts at the Fremont Sunday Market (year-round, 10am–4pm). Note: All downtown buses are free from 6am to 7pm daily. Rock out in a fantasy jam session at the Experience Music Project (recently renamed EMP Museum), a Frank Gehry-design that’s also home to the world’s first Sci-Fi museum (free the first Thursday of the month come fall 2011). Board the first Air Force One at the renowned Museum of Flight (also free the first Thursday of the month, from 5-9pm) or see maritime memorabilia at the Coast Guard Museum on Pier 36 (always free).
Video: Seattle city guide (on this page)
10. Washington, D.C.
Perhaps the biggest marvel of the Free World’s epicenter is that so many of its major museums (the Smithsonian!), memorials and government buildings are, indeed, free and open to the public. For free in D.C. you can: Read the Constitution at the National Archives; view the original Star-Spangled Banner at the National Museum of American History; watch money being made at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing; snag a seat in a Supreme Court session (Oct.-Apr.); or just revel in the history on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. If you don’t want to D.I.Y., DC by Foot offers free walking tours of Arlington Cemetery and National Mall hotspots with commentary. Tickets (albeit free) are required for tours of the U.S. Capitol, and while tours of the White House are pro bono, requests must be made well in advance through a member of Congress. Stop by the Kennedy Center for free music performances nightly at 6pm, and be on the lookout for endless attractions (many which are free) happening throughout the year.