The 18 best free things to do in Boston

From museums and tours to shows and nature walks, here are the best free things to do in Boston
By Eric Grossman and Time Out contributors |
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Not all of the best things in life come for free. But gratis enjoyments can be found all around Boston, a city known for its high cost of living. In fact, an outing in Boston makes for a pretty great cheap date, owing to the city’s ample history, architecture, museums, green spaces and exciting performances. Whether catching the best live music in Boston, touring the best Boston attractions or figuring out where to see art in Boston—the city offers a variety of free things to do alone, with friends, on a date, or with kids in tow. After having some fun for free, apply your savings towards having a meal at one of the best restaurants in Boston.

RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best things to do in Boston

Best free things to do in Boston

1
Museum of Fine Arts
Photograph: Shutterstock

Visit the city’s best museums

Want to gaze upon million-dollar paintings for free? Every Wednesday night after 4pm, the venerated Museum of Fine Arts allows guests to enter for a voluntary contribution. On Thursdays from 5 to 9pm, admission at the Institute of Contemporary Art is also free. And don’t forget: everyone gets a free pass into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on their birthdays, and anyone with the name Isabella gets in for free, now and forever.

2
The Hatch Shell
Photograph: Courtesy Yelp/Annamarie T.
Things to do, Event spaces

Catch a show at the Hatch Shell

icon-location-pin The Esplanade

As Bostons epicenter for free outdoor performances and events, the Hatch Shell hosts an eclectic program from Spring through Fall. Whether it’s a classical, jazz, or dance performance, or a family-friendly movie, there’s usually something for everyone. Bring a picnic and a blanket and enjoy the fresh air, but expect chaotic crowds during the Fourth of July and other major events. Check the venue website for scheduling updates.

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3
Boston Public Garden
Photograph: Shutterstuck
Attractions, Parks and gardens

Stroll through the Public Garden and Boston Common

icon-location-pin Boston Common

A fantastic, free place to hang anytime of year, the Public Garden was Americas first botanical garden. It’s a Paris park in miniature, with pathways designed for promenading, formal flower beds and a petite lagoon fringed with weeping willows and crossed by a wrought-iron bridge. Across Beacon Street is the Boston Common; depending on the season, you can toss a frisbee around or simply lounge with a book on one of the grassy knolls, the majestic State House behind you.

4
Bunker Hill Monument
Photograph: Shutterstock
Attractions, Monuments and memorials

Climb Bunker Hill Monument

icon-location-pin Charlestown

This 221-foot granite obelisk commemorates the first major battle of the American Revolution. Visitors can listen to free talks from park rangers, or climb the monuments 294 steps (a brisk ascent takes five minutes) for a breathtaking view of Boston.

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5
Greenway, Things to do, Boston
© gconservancy
Attractions, Parks and gardens

Walk the Greenway

icon-location-pin Downtown

The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway is one of the most celebrated results of the now-infamous Big Dig. Free to stroll, this verdant, mile-long ribbon of grassy parks and outdoor resting places provides a perfect option for a cheap date. Keep an eye out for the periodic festivals, events, and art displays located on or near the park.

6
The Freedom Trail
Photograph: Shutterstock

Follow the Freedom Trail

This urban trail winds through Boston, highlighting key sites in American history while taking you through some of the most atmospheric neighborhoods around. Whether you walk the whole thing or jump in at various points, it’s one of the easiest ways to enjoy Boston for free. There’s no planning or tour guide required, just follow the red line.

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7
SoWa First Fridays
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/SoWa Sundays

Tour galleries during SoWa’s First Fridays

Every first Friday of the month, the SoWa Art + Design District opens its doors to the public from 5pm to 9pm. With more than 200 artists, galleries, shops and showrooms to choose from, this creative hub offers a variety of options: steampunk sculptures, stunning photography, contemporary takes on famous paintings, and more. 

8
Great Blue Hills
Photograph: Courtesy Yelp/Aimee G.
Attractions, Parks and gardens

Hike Great Blue Hills

Boston is no Denver, but there are still a couple of mountains (hills, really) to climb. Just a few minutes outside of the city proper is a 7,000-acre reservation with 125 miles of free hiking trails. Climb to the top of Great Blue Hill and enjoy an unmatched view of the city skyline; just prepare for crowds in the warmer months. Ski bunnies can return in the winter for some modest slalom action.

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9
Boston Public Library, Sights and attractions, Boston
Photograph: Shutterstock
Attractions, Libraries, archives and foundations

Hear a talk or take a tour at the BPL

icon-location-pin Back Bay

The main branch of the Boston Public Library (BPL) is a strange beast with myriad architectural details: half 19th-century McKim masterpiece, half modern mishmash. (Renovations have finally brought the 1970s-era wing into the 21st century). Get the scoop during a complimentary hour-long architectural tour, then sign up for a free guided walk through the venue’s robust art collection. Literary types can schedule their visit to coincide with an author talk or book reading.

10
Sam Adams Brewery
Photograph: Courtesy Yelp/Thomas C.
Bars, Breweries

Take the Sam Adams Brewery Tour

icon-location-pin Roxbury

Historically, the city’s most famous brewer was Samuel Adams, the Revolutionary and “maltster” for whom the famous beer is named. Tours of the Samuel Adams Brewery in Jamaica Plain are virtually free (there’s a $2 suggested donation). Friendly, entertaining guides let you smell the hops and, of course, sample the results. 

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11
Arnold Arboretum, Sights and attractions, Boston
Photograph: Elan Fleisher
Attractions, Parks and gardens

Smell the flowers at the Arnold Arboretum

icon-location-pin Jamaica Plain

The 281-acre arboretum was planned and designed in collaboration with Frederick Law Olmsted. Open to the public, this living collection of thousands of trees, shrubs, and woody vines is recognized as one of the most comprehensive and best documented of its kind in the world. Free guided tours are available on designated days throughout the year—phone for details.

12
New England Aquarium, Sights and attractions, Boston
Photograph: Elan Fleisher
Attractions, Zoo and aquariums

Greet the seals at the New England Aquarium

icon-location-pin Waterfront

Bostons beloved aquarium has thrilled countless passersby with its 42,000-gallon harbor seal exhibit, free to view and located right out front of the main entrance. Kids and adults alike love watching the playful seals; you may even catch them feeding or participating in a learning activity - like painting - with their handlers.

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13
SoWa Open Market
Photograph: © Firesika
Shopping, Markets and fairs

Peruse the SoWa Open Market

icon-location-pin South End

In the South End, the SoWa Open Market runs every Sunday from May through October. The area erupts into a weekly street fest that draws visitors from all over the city and beyond. Around 200 makers and vendors sample and sell their wares, and there's also a farmers' market, food truck bazaar, and a beer barn housed in the imposing SoWa power station (complete with lawn games and live music). Both kid- and pet-friendly, the market is a favorite area pastime among young families.

14
Shakespeare on the Common
Photograph: Courtesy Yelp/Voravut R

See Shakespeare for free on the Common

Boston’s favorite way to see Shakespeare is in the park, sitting on a blanket while (discreetly) enjoying treats from home. So claim a grassy spot on the Boston Common and check out the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company's productions of the Bard’s best works, with performances taking place in July and August. All performances are free, making for a perfect summertime date or relaxing literary outing.

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15
Coit Observatory
Photograph: Shutterstock

Gaze at the stars and planets

Every Wednesday night (weather permitting), the Coit Observatory at Boston University opens up its facilities for free public viewings of the stars. The program starts at 7:30pm in fall/winter, 8:30pm in spring/summer. For around an hour, visitors use telescopes and binoculars to see the great beyond.

Over at the Museum of Science, the Astronomy After Hours program is offered for free on select Thursdays and Fridays from April through October (call ahead for details). Located on the museum's parking garage rooftop, the Gilliland Observatory is equipped with a powerful computer-controlled telescope, and when it's cloudy there are hands-on astronomy and space science activities.

16
Minuteman Bikeway
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Madeleine Ball

Conquer the Minuteman Bikeway

Stretching from Cambridge to Bedford, the Minuteman Bikeway is an 11-mile path that doubles as a great way to check out some of the areas most scenic communities. Built on a former railway, it’s open to biking, rollerblading, jogging, walking and more—anything sans motor, basically. Take a pedaling pause to take in water views at either the Alewife Brook Reservation or Arlingtons Spy Pond.

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17
Kendall Square Rooftop Garden
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Rob Sheppard

Explore a secret garden in Kendall Square

Atop a multi-story parking garage in Cambridges Kendall Square sits a clandestine garden made up of tulips, trees and rose bushes. Though not as undiscovered as it was a few years back—there’s actual signage now, with urban gardens and occasional cooking demos and fitness classes—the garden remains the perfect spot for a restorative midday lunch for one.

18
Warren Anatomical Museum
Photograph: Courtesy Yelp/Tom J.
Museums, Natural history

Visit the Warren Anatomical Museum

icon-location-pin Mission Hill

Free to enter, the Warren Anatomical Museum is hidden away near some of the city’s best-known hospitals. Visitors gawk at medical equipment and human remains from yesteryear. Learn about Civil War-era surgery and the history of bloodletting before moving onto the star of the show: the skull of Phineas Gage, who was impaled in the head by an iron rod in 1848 yet survived, albeit with an altered personality that remained the obsession of the medical community for the rest of his years.

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