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Top U.S. Cities with Free Summer Activities

Holly Mascaro



Planning a summer vacation in the United States this year?  Here are the top five U.S. cities with free summer activities and events, allowing you to cut down on cost without compromising any of the fun.

New York City

New York is one of the most exciting cities to visit in the United States — and also the most expensive. After paying a small fortune just to get there and have a place to stay, you’ll be pleased to know that there are plenty of free things to see and do during your trip, especially during the summer.

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The city abounds with free or donation-based museums (the Metropolitan Museum of Art should be the first on your list), beautiful parks (of which there are many more than just Central Park, such as the more naturally laid-out Prospect Park in Brooklyn), and scenic walks along (or across) the Hudson and East Rivers. Summertime sees the parks filled with concerts and plays, performed by the New York Philharmonic, the Met Opera and Shakespeare in the Park.

But perhaps the most unique free activities to take part in during a summer visit to this cultural melting pot would be attending the myriad of parades, street festivals and block parties throughout the city. Ranging from the artistic (the Museum Mile Festival in June, during which a 23-block stretch of Fifth Avenue is blocked off from traffic and museums like the Guggenheim open their doors to the public), to ethnic celebrations (the Egg Rolls and Egg Creams Festival, a Lower East Side block party celebrating the Chinese and Jewish communities who formed those neighborhoods), to the eccentric (nothing quite measures up to June’s Coney Island Mermaid Parade), each will leave you with the “only-in-New York” feeling that you’ve come to experience.

San Diego

San Diego is the perfect summer destination for the outdoorsman with a budget. Countless parks, beaches and gorgeous vistas are free for the taking, ranging from ocean views to desert landscapes. A few of the must-see spots include the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, filled with 600,000 acres of desert beauty; La Jolla Cove, where you can scuba or snorkel in some of the clearest waters off the California coast; Balboa Park, containing fine examples of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture (not to mention 15 museums, free daily park tours, seven free gardens and public organ concerts on Sundays); and the Big Bay, featuring 27 miles of waterfront parks, marinas, promenades and bikeways. If you prefer a little outdoor entertainment, try the Movies by the Lakes series on Friday nights on the Santee Lakes Recreation Preserve; Screen on the Green, an outdoor film fest by the San Diego Museum of Art (Balboa Park); or Stone Late Night Movies, hosted by the Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens on Wednesday nights.

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If you’re interested in the area’s history, check out Julian, a 100-year-old gold-mining town in the Cuyamaca Mountains (grab a free map at the Chamber of Commerce for a self-guided walking tour); the Gaslamp Quarter (for beautiful Victorian architecture); and the Old Town (housing an old blacksmith shop, Seeley Stables, Stewart House, Estudillo House, and the oldest schoolhouse in San Diego) — all for free.

Twin Cities

Summertime in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolis is an explosion of outdoor activities after a long, cold winter stuck indoors. Join in the fun by attending the Minneapolis Aquatennial Festival (in July, complete with parades, soap box boat racing, live music and fireworks), the Dragon Festival (celebrating Asian Pacific culture with traditional dances, martial arts exhibitions  and dragon boat racing — also July), and August’s Twin Cities Polish Festival (abounding with all things Polish, including plenty of music, food and polka dancing competitions). If you like music, then Twin Cities is the destination for you, hosting the Twin Cities Hot Summer Jazz Festival (June), the Minnesota Sinfonia’s free summer concerts, and the Concrete and Grass Music Festival (early September).

For a more quiet enjoyment of nature, join in the Nature Valley Bike Festival (June) or visit the Lyndale Rose Garden (over 100 varieties on the shores of Lake Harriet). If you need some time out of the sun, visit the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (free every day), or take a free tour of Surly Brewing, Summit Brewing, or Flat Earth Brewing (perhaps splurging to taste the product!).

Austin, Texa

No need to break the bank seeing a movie or attending a musical event in Austin during the summer. Popular events include the Blues on the Green concert series, held in 350-acre Zilker Park (playing from the end of May to beginning of August); KGSR’s Unplugged at the Grove (at local hot-spot Shady Grove); and the Movies in the Park series in historic Republic Square Park (this year’s movie theme is “heroes & heroines,” starting in May and playing through November). If you’re into psychedelic rock, soul and dubstep music, attend Get Yo’ Mind Right the second Thursday of every month at Frontier Bar (serving free Heineken from 10 to 11 p.m.). If you prefer your live music with a side of roaring engines, attend the Republic of Texas Biker Rally & Motorcycle Parade on Congress Avenue in June — the parade is held first, followed by a free concert.

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Embrace the summer heat at August’s Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival, free with a donation of three healthy, non-perishable food items towards the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas. Or, if you’ve had enough of the noise and want to get away from it all, visit the Barton Creek Greenbelt – 809 acres of biking, hiking and natural swimming holes.

Portland, Ore.

Whether you’re a nature-loving hippie or a seasoned art aficionado, you will find plenty to see and do in Portland. Get outside and bike, hike and horseback ride your way through 5,000-acre Forest Park. Visit The Grotto, a beautiful 62-acre Catholic sanctuary in which all of the lower-level gardens and structures are open to the public. Other must-see spots include the Hoyt Arboretum, featuring 185 acres crisscrossed with hiking trails, and the International Rose Test Garden, with more than 7,000 rose bushes, beautiful views of the area, and free tours on select weekdays in June-September.

Portland’s museums host plenty of free admission days, including the Museum of Contemporary Craft (free first Thursday every month), the Portland Art Museum (free fourth Friday every month from 5 to 8 p.m.), and the Portland Children’s Museum (free first Friday every month from 4 to 8 p.m.). Check out the Sherwood Robin Hood Festival the third week of July, complete with a parade, archery contests, castle-building contests and knighting ceremony; or, if you’re looking for a more modern celebration, attend the Portland Rose Festival (May/June), also fun-filled with parades, clowns, dragon boat races and fireworks.

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