Not all best things come for free. But gratis enjoyments abound in life, even in a city known for its sneakily high cost of living. In fact, Boston makes for a pretty great cheap date, owing to its history, architecture, museums, green spaces and exciting shows. 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 or with kids in tow.
Best free things to do in Boston
There's a double humiliation in paying big bucks to have some personal trainer kick your ass. Sweat for less—which is to say, nothing—with the November Project, which hosts early-morning, large-scale group workouts in outdoor spots around the city. No time like the present to finally tackle the Harvard Stadium stairs.
Visit the Museum of Fine Arts, the Institute of Contemporary Art and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Want to gaze upon million-dollar paintings for free? Every Wednesday night after 4pm, the venerated Museum of Fine Arts allows guests to enter the premise for a strictly voluntary donation. On Thursdays from 5 to 9pm, admission at the Institute of Contemporary Art is also free, no strings attached. And don’t forget: everyone gets a free pass into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on their birthdays (and Isabellas get in gratis forever; tuck that one away for your future child-naming responsibilities).
Boston hardly lacks for breweries both great and small, but Samuel Adams was the one that started it all. The beer patriarch offers free daily tours of its Jamaica Plain space, during which you can smell the hops and, of course, sample the results. If you're an early riser, we suggest you hit up the 9:40am. Morning Mash In tour.Photograph: Courtesy Yelp/Thomas C.
It’s a stress-free journey to the center of the earth—Jules Verne would be duly impressed. Built in the 1930s, the Mapparium—a three-story, stained-glass orb—puts you inside the globe while testing your geography skills. Once you’ve spent some time gazing at countries from the inside out, have fun with the acoustics: a mere whisper on one end of the walkway can be heard on the other side of the globe.
Shakespeare on the Common
Every summer the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company puts on an outdoor, two-week production of one of the bard's greatest hits; viewers need only bring a lawn chair and their favorite picnic provisions.Photograph: Courtesy Yelp/Voravut R
Public Open Night at Coit Observatory
Stargazing is free, of course, but powerful telescopes are best left to the well-funded professionals. Every Wednesday night (cloud cover permitting), the Coit Observatory at Boston University offers free public viewings starting at either 8:30pm. (spring and summer) or 7:30pm. (fall and winter). The hour-long viewing parties with professional astronomers last about an hour.
SoWa First Fridays
Want to peek behind the hand-woven art-making curtain? Every first Friday of the month, the SoWa arts district becomes part of the public domain. More than 60 artists invite guests inside their studios to peruse (and purchase) their work and works in progress, while the many area galleries stay open late and lure in passersby with wine and cheese.Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/SoWa Sundays
Appalachian Mountain Club hikes and walks
The Appalachian Mountain Club wants to show you areas you've never seen before. Year-round hikes and nature walks, both accessible and challenging, take you all around the state (and, sometimes, to New Hampshire too)—spanning 3 to 20 miles. Technically, these walks cost $1 if you're not an AMC member—but consider membership a worthwhile investment.
The main branch of the Boston Public Library is a strange beast: half 19th-century McKim masterpiece, half modern mishmash (a recent renovation has finally brought the 1970s-era wing into the 21st century), the space boasts multifaceted architectural details. Get the scoop during a complimentary hour-long architectural tour, then sign up for a guided walk through the venue’s robust art collection.
Observation deck at Independence Wharf
There are lots of observation decks in the city and they all cost a fair bit of money—except for one. Right on the Harbor Walkway is a semi-hidden, 14th-floor deck that gives you terrific views of the harbor and the surrounding buildings. Bring your binoculars and your ID (you can’t go up without it) to check out the Harbor Islands and watch planes land at Logan Airport.Photograph: Courtesy Yelp/Anna C.
Boston is no Denver, but there are still a couple of mountains to climb. Just a few minutes outside of the city proper is a 7000-acre reservation with 125 miles of resplendent hiking trails. Climb 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.
Photograph: Courtesy Yelp/Aimee G.
The Greenway is one of the most celebrated results of the now-infamous Big Dig (a kind of street-level answer to New York's High Line). Formed when I-93 was sunk underground, this verdant, mile-long ribbon of grassy parks and outdoor resting places invites the weary traveler (or office warrior) to stop and take a moment to appreciate the city's fleeting sunshine. There are also periodic festivals, events and parades located on or near the park.
Explore the secret garden in Kendall Square
Mary Lennox would be proud. Atop a multistory 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, and a ping-pong table, too—the garden remains the perfect spot for a restorative midday lunch for one.Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Rob Sheppard
Yes, that Bunker Hill—although, technically, most of the infamous Revolutionary War battle took place nearby on Breed Hill, which is where this 221-foot granite obelisk sits today. Hoofing it to the top—294 steps—affords you a fruitful city view; just be sure to secure your climbing pass ahead of time at the Bunker Hill Museum.
Frederick Law Olmstead did right by Boston. His 1100-acre park system through Boston and Brookline—hugely ambitious and never technically completed—gave us the Boston Public Garden and the Boston Common, Franklin Park, Jamaica Pond and the Riverway, to name but a few iconic parks. Come spring, there is no more heartening sight than the lilacs in Arnold Arboretum, another of the necklace jewels.
Bike the Minuteman
Get your two-wheeling mojo back on the 11-mile Minuteman Bikeway, which stretches from Cambridge to Bedford. Built on a former railway, the path is also open to joggers and walkers, but biking is the modus operandi of choice. Take a pedaling pause to take in water views at either the Alewife Brook Reservation or Arlington's Spy Pond.Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Madeleine Ball
No, the New England Aquarium is not free (well, except for the sea lion exhibit out front), but here’s a little secret: the Boston Public Library lets you check out an aquarium pass for free with advance reservations. Penguins, sea turtles and a newly arrived giant Pacific octopus are even more enthralling when seen for less, especially when you spot the long ticket lines out front.
Take an audio tour of the city
We're a headphones society, no doubt, which means podcasts are the right way to tour a city. Download any number of the city's self-guided tours, from the two-and-a-half hour Freedom Trail tour to the lesser sung Black Heritage Trail or Women's Heritage Trail. The Irish Heritage Trail even gives you a taste of JFK ties to the city, which are expansive.
Go wine tasting
Au courant wine shops like Central Bottle, Brix and Urban Grape offer regular tastings of their newest and/or best bottles, and often invite the makers to pour the drinks in person. Beer, spirits and sake might make an appearance, too, as might an alcohol-neutralizing food item or two.Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/PRODave Levy