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Museum of Fine Arts
Photograph: ShutterstockMuseum of Fine Arts

The 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

Written by
Eric Grossman
&
Time Out Boston Staff
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Boston is widely recognized for its high cost of living, but fortunately there are some pretty fun cheap things to do in Boston that are easy on the wallet. In fact, you can even find plenty of free things to do. With ample history, architecture, museums and green space, going out in Boston can be very budget-friendly. 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 both indoors and out. After having some fun for free, apply your savings towards having a meal at one of the best restaurants in Boston, or keep it wallet-friendly with the best cheap eats in Boston.

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

Best free things to do in Boston

Visit the city’s best museums
Photograph: Shutterstock

1. Visit the city’s best museums

Yes, you can gaze upon world class art collections for free. Every Wednesday from 3-4pm, the venerated Museum of Fine Arts allows guests to enter for a voluntary contribution ($5 minimum). On Thursdays from 5pm 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 birthday, and anyone with the name Isabella gets in for free, now and forever.

  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • Boston Common

The Public Garden is a fantastic, free place to enjoy any time of year. Americas first botanical garden, it’s a Parisian park in miniature, with pathways designed for promenading, formal flower beds and a petite lagoon fringed with weeping willows. Across Beacon Street is the Boston Common. Depending on the season, you can ice-skate on the Frog Pond, toss a frisbee around or simply lounge with a book on one of the grassy knolls.

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Tour galleries during SoWa’s First Fridays
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/SoWa Sundays

3. 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. 

  • Bars
  • Breweries
  • Roxbury
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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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  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • 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.

  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • East Boston

The ICA’s seasonal (May-October) annex has transformed an abandoned space on the Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina into a venue for large-scale, immersive art. Each summer sees new installations and public programming. There’s also a gallery covering the history of the shipyard and East Boston. While Watershed admission is free, a cool trip across the Harbor on a water shuttle is included in regular ICA admission.

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For the first-time visitor to Boston, the Freedom Trail provides a useful starting point before checking off the best attractions in Boston. For locals, it's a chance to brush up on everything you should know about your city's history. The two-and-a-half-mile trail is easy to follow for a free, self-guided tour.

  • Attractions
  • Libraries, archives and foundations
  • 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.

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  • Attractions
  • Monuments and memorials
  • 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.

  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • 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 most days throughout the year—call for details.

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  • Attractions
  • Zoo and aquariums
  • 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 activitylike paintingwith their handlers.

  • Travel

Serious local hikers may head farther afield to the White Mountains or the Appalachian Trail, but when you just need a little bit of nature, there are plenty of quality hikes near Boston that are easy to get to. Whether it’s climbing a lung-busting hill or exploring trails through scenic wooded reservations, these Boston hikes offer relaxation and a healthy dose of fresh air at no cost.

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  • Shopping
  • Markets and fairs
  • South End

In the South End, the SoWa Open Market runs every Sunday from May through October. The area becomes a street festival that draws visitors from all over the city and beyond. Around 200 makers and vendors sample and sell their wares, and there's a farmers' market, food truck bazaar, and beer barn. Both kid- and pet-friendly, the market is a favorite area pastime among young families.

  • Things to do
  • Event spaces
  • 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. Be sure to incorporate a stroll along the Esplanade (another great free activitity).

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See Shakespeare for free on the Common
Photograph: Courtesy Yelp/Voravut R

15. See Shakespeare for free on the Common

Boston’s favorite way to see Shakespeare is in the park, sitting on a blanket while 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.

  • Travel

When it comes to sand and seaside, thoughts turn to a day trip to Cape Cod and beyond rather than anything nearby. However, Boston’s North and South Shores have picturesque beaches, all less than an hour’s drive from the city, summer traffic withstanding. Within Boston city limits, there are also sandy beaches perfect for relaxing or taking a refreshing dip in the ocean. Some have a fee, but most are free.

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Gaze at the stars and planets
Photograph: Shutterstock

17. Gaze at the stars and planets

Every Wednesday night (weather permitting), the Coit Observatory at Boston University opens up its facilities for free (tickets required) public viewings of the stars. The program starts at 7:30pm in fall/winter, 8:30pm in spring/summer. Visitors can use telescopes and binoculars to see the great beyond. At the Museum of Science, the Astronomy After Hours program is offered for free on Friday nights from April through October. Both are weather permitting—call first.

Conquer the Minuteman Bikeway
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Madeleine Ball

18. 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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More wallet-friendly thrills

  • Restaurants

Yes, Boston is a notoriously expensive place to live and dine. But there are a few spots where you can get a cheap, tasty meal. The best cheap eats in Boston offer satisfying fare that’s actually delicious. Here are some of our favorites that clock in at $10 or less.

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