Best free things to do in Boston
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.
As Boston’s 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.
A fantastic, free place to hang anytime of year, the Public Garden was America’s 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.
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 monument’s 294 steps (a brisk ascent takes five minutes) for a breathtaking view of Boston.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Boston’s 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 area’s 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 Arlington’s Spy Pond.
Atop a multi-story parking garage in Cambridge’s 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.
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.