Free Things You Can Do When Visiting Boston

Boston is one of the oldest cities in the country and the site of important historical events, such as the Boston Tea Party. It's full of character, drawing in curious visitors from within the United States and far beyond its borders. So if you've always wanted to check out New England, then Boston needs to be on your radar.

While the city's chock-full of exciting activities, doing all of them can quickly add up. However, it's possible to get a feel for Boston without spending a fortune, as there are things to do that don't cost a penny. Mix these up with paid activities, and you can save some money while still having a good time.

If you want to put aside cash for souvenirs and delicious bowls of clam chowder, then read on. We've compiled a list of free things to do in Boston, based on user reviews from sites like Google and Tripadvisor.

Take the Freedom Trail

An excellent way to get into the heart of Boston is to take the Freedom Trail. It's fun to do, especially when the weather's nice, and you can get physical activity in, too. This trail will take you through 16 sites that are historically significant for the city. As you walk across 2.5 miles of red-bricked roads, you'll discover what makes Boston so special, and you'll also see why it's one of the best tourist attractions in New England if you're a history buff.

Those who want to spend a little money can book walking tours, which are led by guides dressed in American Revolution costumes. Otherwise, you can go at your own pace and walk the entire Freedom Trail for free. Of course, you don't have to follow the red line to visit the sites in order, but it can be easier to do since it leads you in a line and not a loop. A few of the notable stops include the Boston Common, Old State House, Old North Church, and Bunker Hill Monument, some of which we'll discuss further in detail.

Walk the Black Heritage Trail

All too often, the history of Black communities is overshadowed by everything else. But the Black Heritage Trail gives people an opportunity to discover what it was like in the 1800s for this minority group. This is great to do in conjunction with the Freedom Trail since it'll give you a different perspective on what life was like in Beacon Hill centuries ago.

Before you leave for Boston on your trip, it's beneficial to download the free NPS app first. On it, there's audio that'll enrich your self-guided walk along this trail. 10 audio clips total just under 24 minutes, and the walk spans 1.6 miles, so it should be pretty doable in one afternoon. Do note that many of the stops are private residences; you should respect the residents' privacy.

If you're coming in the summer or fall, then take advantage of the free Park Ranger Black Heritage Trail tours. A complete tour lasts around 90 minutes and you'll get the special opportunity to converse with a Park Ranger about Boston.

Make the ascent up the Bunker Hill Monument

Even though New England soldiers were defeated in the Battle of Bunker Hill, they still hit the British army pretty hard. They managed to wound or kill 1,000 of the 2,400 total soldiers, which was an impressive feat, given that this was their first pitched ("planned") battle. This signified a turning point in the American Revolution since the idea of reconciliation essentially disappeared. According to the National Park Service (NPS), to mark such a significant event 50 years later, "the Marquis de Lafayette set the cornerstone of what would become a lasting monument and tribute to the memory of the Battle of Bunker Hill."

This obelisk stands 221 feet tall, and it was the result of hard work and perseverance, as it took 17 years to complete. It's also recently gone through restoration work that was completed in November 2023, meaning you'll see the monument in its full glory. If you're willing to accept the challenge, climb up the 294 tight spiral steps to reach the top. You'll be rewarded with a grand view. OrlandoMouse on TripAdvisor says, "From the top you can see great views of the surrounding Charlestown and Boston area."

Got some extra time? Right around the corner is the Bunker Hill Museum. It's free to check out, and you'll learn more about this vital battle.

Go on a free tour of Harvard University

Harvard University is part of the Ivy League, meaning it's a prestigious university that many strive for, but few get in. Whether or not you're planning on applying, you shouldn't miss out on visiting the campus, as it's large, beautiful, and very historical. It was founded in 1636, making it the first college in the nation.

For a taste of academia, you can find one of the many students who lead free campus tours for those who are interested. During a walk of approximately one hour, these guides inform visitors about the extensive history of Harvard University. In addition, they'll provide information about attending the university, as well as testimonies of their own experiences on campus. Be sure to register beforehand; registration is open every Friday.

If you want to wander around on your own, you're welcome to do that, too. You can download the free Harvard mobile app, which gives you access to several self-guided walks. 

Check out the Arnold Arboretum

When you're done with your Harvard University walking tour, you can experience a little more that the school has to offer. Within the university is North America's first and oldest public arboretum; the Arnold Arboretum was established in 1872. It's also a free public park, so you can take in the gorgeous greenery without paying an admission fee.

The park stretches across 281 acres and has over 10,000 accessioned plants, and over 16,000 individual ones. Plant lovers will go wild here, as a self-guided tour is sure to delight your eyes. To enhance your experience, download the Arnold Arboretum's free app, Expeditions. Not only will it take you through the arboretum's 150-year history, but it'll give you over 50 staff interviews, too. 

If you're bringing little ones, check out the StoryWalks, which are seasonal stories that change every month. These tickle the imagination while encouraging kids to learn about their surroundings. Even if you don't have kids, these StoryWalks can be fun, allowing you to get in touch with your inner child.

Explore Boston Common and Public Garden

Boston Common is the oldest park in the U.S.; it was founded in 1634, long before the American Revolution. Speaking of the American Revolution, according to the City of Boston, this was also where the Colonial militia gathered to fight, and later, "the hated British Redcoats began an eight-year encampment." Take a walk through Boston Common, and you'll see the George Washington statue, as well as the Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Regiment Memorial. The Freedom Trail site says the latter "commemorates the first all-Black volunteer regiment in the Civil War." If you're in town during the summer, you can catch free Shakespeare performances, too.

Across from Boston Common is the country's first public botanical garden: The Public Garden. It was established in 1837 and is a visual feast. Much thought and care has gone into the planting of breathtaking plants, and it's considered one of the most photogenic destinations in the country, so take plenty of pictures. This park is also home to the famous Swan Boats, which are huge paddle boats with swan sculptures. The business is open daily from April to September.

Visit the Boston Public Library

We know what you might be thinking: Why would anyone go to Boston to read books? Well, the Boston Public Library is much more than that. This library has been around since 1848, and according to their website, it was the first large free municipal library in the United States, the first public library to lend books, the first to have a branch library, and the first to have a children's room. As you can see, the Boston Public Library is a pillar in not only the local community, but also the nation's history.

In addition, its architecture is absolutely stunning. The McKim Building is a National Historic Landmark with a Romanesque design. The Boston Public Library says that on the exterior, you'll notice "a pattern of alternating seashells and dolphins ... referencing the city's maritime history." 33 medallions dot the spaces between the window arches, three sculptural seals, and most notably, the goddess Minerva's head. On either side of the library are two allegorical statues.

The interior of the library is just as amazing. There's a vestibule with bronze doors, and in the lobby are vaulted ceilings with mosaic ceiling tiles. The main reading room is Bates Hall, and the ceilings are even higher here. It's quite quaint, as it still retains the original English oak bookcases and tables from 1895.

Tour the Longfellow House-Washington's Headquarters

As the name suggests, the Longfellow House-Washington's Headquarters housed two very notable people in American history: Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and President George Washington. But even before these two stayed in the Georgian house, according to the NPS, "it was a site of colonial enslavement and community activism." As for Longfellow, he and his wife lived in the Cambridge area for over 45 years, and Washington spent only nine months here.

You can receive free tours from Park Rangers where you can learn all about this National Historic Site. Tours for the house are 50 minutes long and are only available during its open season, which is from late May to late October. If you're coming outside of this time, you can request tours in advance. Otherwise, you can visit the grounds and garden throughout the year during the daytime. There are no entrance fees or passes required, and you can do a self-guided tour.

Stroll through the Boston Harborwalk

Get some exercise with this free activity while taking in the city's sights. The Boston Harborwalk spans 43 miles, giving you an outstanding view of the waterfront and skyline. It's actually not complete yet; however, it's almost done, so walking here won't be an issue. This city park takes you from the Neponset River to Constitution Beach and covers over 90% of the shoreline.

Not only can you explore the waterfront, but you'll enjoy easy access to many activities and areas, too. For example, Boston Harbor Now says that you'll be connected to "over forty parks, a dozen museums, seven beaches, and hundreds of restaurants and stores." So you can stroll the Boston Harborwalk for free, as well as discover the beautiful greenery. There are several trails available, including the South Bay Trail, meaning you can kick up your physical activity a notch. Then, if you've got money to spend, you can carefully choose between the many amenities the city provides.

Wander around Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market

If you enjoy shopping, then you'll love Faneuil Hall. It's free to walk through, and you're not obligated to buy anything, so you can get a visual taste of the 40+ vendors here. However, don't be afraid to treat yourself if you have a little extra wiggle room in your vacation budget, as many of the businesses are locally owned, meaning you'll support Boston's community while bringing home something special. Google Reviewer Heather Rose Morris says, "[I] got some high-quality Boston memorabilia here ... better than all the cheap touristy stuff you could find elsewhere."

The highlight of Faneuil Hall is the street performances. Every day, from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m., the area's filled with talented people showing off their skills. If you think any of them are particularly intriguing, you can find their websites and Instagram pages on Faneuil Hall's page. You can even apply to perform if you're brave enough!

When you get hungry, take a few steps over to Quincy Market. Unfortunately, the offerings at these food stalls aren't free, but you don't need to pay an entry fee. Across three market buildings, you'll discover 100+ shops.

View art at the Institute of Contemporary Art on Thursdays

Fair warning: Admission isn't usually free at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), but if you happen to be in the area on a Thursday between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m., then you can take advantage of ICA Free Thursday Nights. The ICA itself recommends getting advanced tickets, which are available at 10 a.m. the same morning. Other good-to-knows are that children under 18 and BPS students get in for free, and if you're bringing kids 12 and under, you and another adult can get in for free on the last Saturday of the month, except the last two months of the year. The ICA is also free to visit on certain national holidays.

Even if you have to pay admission, it's worth a visit here; It's one of the best museums in Boston for contemporary art. The building itself is located on the waterfront, giving you stunning views. Inside, there's a diverse range of art in both the permanent collection and temporary exhibits. The most noteworthy part of its permanent collection is The Barbara Lee Collection of Art by Women, which totals 85 pieces from 20th and 21st-century female artists.

Relax on Castle Island

Do you want to step away from your busy life and relax in nature? Then you should go to Castle Island. Not only is it free to spend time on this island, but you don't have to pay to park at Fort Independence either, making it easy to drive over. If you want the convenience of beach parking, then you'll have to pay for metered parking.

There are many activities to choose from during your time on Castle Island. You can walk, bike, fish, swim, sunbathe, and more. In addition, there are picnic areas with grills, so you can have a laid-back cookout. There's a playground for kids and rinsing showers so you can feel refreshed after taking a dip.

If you're curious about the large fort in the middle of Castle Island, then you'll be pleased to know that the Castle Island Association offers free tours of Fort Independence in the warmer months. It's one of the oldest military fortifications in the U.S., which means you'll see a vital piece of our nation's history.

Catch a show at Hatch Memorial Shell

The Hatch Memorial Shell is an amazing half-dome made of wood in an Art Deco style. It started off as a temporary concert shell back in 1928, but became a permanent fixture in 1941 when a sturdier shell was built. Today, it's a place where both residents and tourists come to watch spectacular performances and attend fun events.

The best thing about the Hatch Memorial Shell is that performances are always free. This venue is best known for its Boston Pops Independence Day Concert, which is held every year on July 4th. If you're lucky enough to catch a performance, you'll be treated to a fantastic fireworks show afterward, too. Otherwise, most performances and events are between April and October, so all you'll have to do is look at the Hatch Memorial Shell event page to find out what's on when you're around. From concerts and movie screenings to runs for good causes, you're sure to find something fun and exciting.

Board the USS Constitution

The USS Constitution (a.k.a. "Old Ironsides") is the world's oldest commissioned naval warship that's still floating on water. You can climb aboard to explore the ancient ship, and you don't have to pay a cent either. Do note that you can only visit on a first-come, first-served basis, and you'll need to show an official ID and go through a security check to go on board.

What's incredible is that the USS Constitution is still sailable. In fact, it'll glide through the Boston Harbor on special occasions. If you're in Boston when this happens, then you'll get to witness the Navy crew firing a cannon salute during these sailings.

If you'd like to learn more about the ship, the USS Constitution Museum is across the way in Building 22. There's no official admission fee, but it's suggested that adults pay $10 to $15 and that children pay $5 to $10 for entry. In this museum, you'll find out more about the ship's details, such as how it was built and preserved.

Our methodology for picking these spots

We've carefully gone through online reviews for free destinations in Boston, and have only selected those with high ratings.