21 Free Things to Do in Boston
This is a list of free things to do while you're visiting Boston, including museums, tours, events, entertainment, places to eat and lots more, all with one low entrance price: $0.
Now make no mistake—this isn't a list of second-rate destinations out in the suburbs where the buses don't run. These are major tourist attractions, most of which are in the downtown area and within easy walking distance of hotels and subway stops.
I worked in the city for 18 years and know a thing or two about the sights. I started this list a number of years ago when my children were growing up and frankly I grew tired of taking out a bank loan every time we visited Beantown. That's when I realized there were many exciting things to do in Boston for free.
This is the first time I've compiled this information in one place. I also invite you to add a comment at the bottom to tell me your favorite free things to do in Boston. I promise to add them to the list after I've checked them out myself.
I know there's probably too much here for a single visit, so I see this as a resource to keep coming back to as it continues to grow by contributions from others.
It's been designed to skim and browse to your heart's content and dip into those activities that intrigue you the most.
The list is growing and is now at 22, although with all the events listed it was over 50 at last count anyway.
If you're a newbie to Boston, you may want to read the following quick history and check out the orientation map. At least watch the video as it shows many of the places listed here.
Quick Tour of Boston
A Little Bit of History
But not too much right? I'll keep it brief and try not to sound too encyclopedic (and that's the biggest word you'll find here.)
The city of Boston has a population of about 600,000 and was founded in 1630 by Puritans from England who named their town after Boston, Lincolnshire in England. You can expect to find many places in New England named after towns in England that people had left behind, such as Manchester, Plymouth, Portsmouth, and Worcester.
Much of the city today is built on reclaimed land from the sea and surrounding marshes. Situated at the mouth of the Charles River as it enters Massachusetts Bay, Boston played a key role in the revolutionary war and was a major seaport and trade center in the early years of America's history.
The city brims with historic buildings sandwiched between skyscrapers, parks, and chic shops. It makes an odd sight at times, but does provide a unique and satisfying blend of old and new architectural styles.
The following map will help you get oriented with Boston. It highlights a number of the destinations on my things to do list.
Boston Map Showing Main Areas of Interest
Step Into Boston's Historical Past
A lot of people's money and time has gone into preserving Boston's rich history and heritage for you to enjoy. All it will cost you to experience it is a little of your shoe leather.
When it comes to a city in America to visit for historical significance, it's hard to beat Boston. It's practically impossible to walk a few steps anywhere without stumbling over some colonial or revolutionary landmark, and through these trails and locations you'll discover the fertility of the city and its people's past, soaking in an educational experience while having fun as well. Sound like a good deal?
1. The Boston Freedom Trail
Put on your walking shoes and trek 2.5 miles along the nation's history on The Boston Freedom Trail. Just follow the red-bricked trail as it winds its way through sixteen historical sites, including:
- The Boston Massacre
- The Old South Meeting House (where the Boston Tea Party episode began)
- Faneuil Hall
- Granary Burying Ground
- Paul Revere's House
- Lots more!
You can pick up a free map at the visitor's center on Boston Common. Allow 2-3 hours at least and a full day if you can spare to visit all the sites.
2. The Black Heritage Trail
Beacon Hill is a distinctive Boston neighborhood with its alleys, walled gardens and narrow red-bricked cobbled streets lined with gas lights. It's a delight to walk in, even moreso because you can also discover the historic Black Heritage Trail.
The Trail consists of 14 sites beginning at the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in front of the State House and winding through the hill around memorable Louisburg Square, Charles Street, and Phillips Street before ending at the African Meeting House.
Free maps are available at the Abiel Smith School. Ranger-guided tours are also free and run Monday-Saturday.
3. The Irish Heritage Trail
Downtown and Surrounding Neighborhoods
Since colonial times, Boston has had a thriving Irish population which has shaped the arts and political traditions of the city. If you have a tinge of Irish—and let's face it most of us do, especially as March 17th approaches each year—then take this three mile self-guided walking tour through Boston's downtown, North End, Beacon Hill and Back Bay neighborhoods.
There are about 16 sites marked on the tour map that you can easily walk to, and an additional six sites located in Charlestown, East Boston, and Dorchester which you'll need a car or public transportation to view. Many of the sites are memorials and plaques that commemorate great sons and daughters or major events, with some parks and gardens sprinkled along the way.
The Heritage website provides maps and details about each site so you can plan a visit and even combine it with the other free walking tours already discussed.
4. Bunker Hill Monument
The Battle of Bunker Hill took place on June 17, 1775 and is mostly remembered because of the legendary command "don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes!"
While the American forces were eventually overwhelmed and retreated after three assaults, the site is commemorated by the 221-foot granite obelisk and is marked as the first major battle of the revolutionary war.
The area surrounding the monument is a park with a museum, and you can climb the stairs all the way to the top. The monument is open 9:00am - 5:00pm. See the park website for more information.
5. Old North Church
This church is in Boston's famed North End neighborhood, an area known more for Italian restaurants and pastry shops rather than one of the most significant events leading to the revolutionary war. From the steeple of the church, Robert Newman held up two lanterns as a signal from Paul Revere that the British were marching to Lexington and Concord by sea and not land.
Though the steeple itself has been replaced twice since the lanterns were lit—both because of storms, not fighting—it still makes for a stirring patriotic sight. The visit and looks are free but the basic guided tour, if you want it, is a $1 donation (still a bargain).
6. USS Constitution
Charlestown Navy Yard
Built in Boston and launched in 1797 to provide protection for American ships sailing the North African coast, "Old Ironsides" saw its most memorable action in the War of 1812 when it defeated HMS Guerriere in a 35-minute battle that in one event projected the United States into a super naval power.
Today this historical ship is permanently docked at the Charlestown Navy Yard and offers free tours of the ship every 30 minutes.
Catch One of These Free Guided Tours
Some buildings and places are so immense or significant that it helps to have a knowledgeable guide to appreciate them fully, and the ones on this list definitely fall into that category.
These tours are popular during the summer tourist season, so sign up early.
7. Boston Public Library
The Boston Public Library in Copley Square is much more than just a collection of books, although if you measured it purely by its number of rare volumes it would stand out as one of the greatest collections in the world.
But the central library also houses fine art, rare prints, and now even interactive multimedia exhibits. So at its heart, it is indeed just a library but that's sort of like saying Mt. Everest is just a mountain, right?
You can get a free tour on Mondays at 2:30pm, Tuesdays & Thursdays at 6:00pm and Fridays and Saturdays at 11:00am.
8. Massachusetts State House
Charles Bullfinch's 1798 masterpiece sits on top of Beacon Hill and is the oldest surviving building in the area. The distinctive gold dome was first covered in copper in 1802 and eventually gilded with gold leaf in 1874. There are many rooms and chambers to see and architectural styles to admire.
Free tours are conducted by staff and volunteers covering the history and architecture of the State House. They're given weekdays from 10:00am to 4:00pm and last for approximately 30-45 minutes.
9. The Custom House
Boston Harbor Waterfront
This landmark building is one of the more distinctive shapes in the harbor area, and at one time was the tallest skyscraper in Boston. The original foundation was laid on reclaimed land and at one time the Boston waterfront came right up to the building.
Today the building stands back embedded among taller office buildings and busy traffic routes. The tower was added on to the foundation in 1915 and when the custom officials moved to another building, it was sold to Marriott Hotels.
Free tour by appointment includes a trip to the 26th floor open-air observation balcony and the Rotunda Museum. It's open 10:00am - 4:00pm daily, except Saturdays.
10. Massachusetts Historical Society
The Massachusetts Historical Society collects, preserves and makes available to the public manuscripts and artifacts related to Massachusetts. The society has a large collection of papers and letters from historical figures and politicians from Massachusetts.
They also publish books and loan their materials to other museums and libraries. They hold numerous seminars and weekly tours, all of which are open to the public and (of course) free.
11. MIT Campus Tour
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus in Cambridge is spread out over a huge area, and encompasses unusual architectural styles, art collections, and a crazy numbering scheme for its buildings. Wait . . . let me be fair. I'm sure it makes sense to MIT but to the average visitor it's. . . a challenge.
There are two ways of touring the campus: self-guided and organized. The campus tours depart from Building 7 Lobby, located at 77 Massachusetts Avenue (though this is the address of every building), and generally lasts 75 - 90 minutes. They are offered at 11:00am and 3:00pm Monday-Friday.
You can pick up a map for a self-guided tour at the Information Center Room 7-121, which means Building 7, First Floor, Room 121. And Building 7 is located at 77 Massachusetts Avenue . . . on second thought just ask a student for directions.
Family Fun at No Cost
I don't know about you but every activity I do with my kids seems to empty out my wallet, and then they want to eat.
So here's some things to do in Boston that not only leave your wallet intact but if they get hungry . . . well that's covered as well, at least on Wednesdays.
12. New England Aquarium
In the summer school vacation months this place is better described as a "zoo" rather than an aquarium—just kidding. But it does get mobbed with families on vacation and it continues to be one of the most popular attractions in Boston.
The New England Aquarium is also one of my favorites because I love the familiar things like the massive ocean tank with the sharks and giant turtles swimming around together, but I also enjoy the new exhibits that revolve in and out.
The Aquarium is involved in whale conservation programs and conducts whale watch cruises during the season, though an extra fee is required. Free tickets for general admission are available from the Boston Public Library free ticket program. These free passes will admit up to 4 persons from September - June and do not include admission to the IMAX Theater.
A Stroll Inside Quincy Market...
13. A Free Lunch at Quincy Market
Quincy Market is the place to eat at lunchtime in Boston. Don't argue. Just go there. You can book a table at your favorite Italian restaurant in the North End in the evening, but at noon Quincy Market is where it's at.
In one long building are hundreds and hundreds of food stalls ranging from . . . ah forget it, just go. But wait a minute you say. Food is not free, right? Well, every Wednesday, Quincy Market has their International Food Festival where you can sample foods for free at stalls bearing "The Taste of Quincy Market." Sure they're not going to feed you a heaped plate of food, but sample enough from the variety of offers and it'll keep you going until snack time.
14. Stargaze at Coit Observatory
Looking for a heavenly experience after an early dinner on a cloudless Wednesday evening? Take yourself and family over to Boston University's Coit Observatory where you can do a spot of stargazing through their telescopes and binoculars.
This is definitely one of those "weather permitting" activities but it is available most of the year and begins after 7:30pm and in the spring and summer you can come after 8:30pm. The public evening lasts for about one hour. Call 617-353-2630 ahead of time to confirm the free gaze is on for the night. You know why? That's right: Boston's unpredictable weather. Bring a sweater or coat too since it's an outdoor event.
15. Get Lost in a Museum
I grew up in London where most museums were free to visit. So when I came to Boston and found I had to pay for a museum, I was a little perplexed. After all, didn't they build the museums and purchase the artifacts with donations and taxpayer's dollars?
Well, I've long since understood the laws of economics and am not worried about paying for a trip to the museum. But with the drop off in attendance, most museums have introduced opportunities to visit for free, though they are limited. These museums offer free hours at certain days and times, or participate in the public library's free ticket program.
Please note the free passes from the library program require you have a valid library card from the Boston Public Library.
- Museum of Fine Arts: Free on Wednesday from 4:00pm - 9:45pm
- Museum of Science: Public library free ticket program
- Harvard University Art Museums: Free on Saturday from 10:00am - Noon (includes Fogg Museum, Arthur Sackler Museum, and Busch-Reisinger Museum)
- Harvard Museum of Natural History: Free to Massachusetts residents on Sunday from 9:00am - Noon and Wednesdays from 3 to 5pm (September to May). Also free to Bank of America card holders on the first weekends of every month.
- Institute of Contemporary Art: Free on Thursday from 5:00pm - 9:00pm
- Peabody Essex Museum (Salem): Free on the first Friday of month from 5:00pm - 8:00pm
- Commonwealth Museum (Columbia Point): Free everyday
Entertainment for Nothing and Your Tickets for Free:
Boston's 4th of July Fireworks Event
Okay, so my apologies to Dire Straits. As much as I enjoy seeing a show or concert in Boston's Theater district, there's something mesmerizing about a performer on the streets or a free event like the 4th of July fireworks that's infectious and makes you want to get involved.
It's staggering the amount of work and time people contribute to practice their performance or organize these events which keep our spirits high and keep the fun in our hearts.
Here's a selection of events to consider for the next time you visit Boston.
16. Harvard Square Entertainment
It's just a short "T" ride across the Charles River to Cambridge and Harvard Square, and you're planted in a different world of cafes, shops and meeting places with students and plenty of atmosphere.
For no fee at all, you can browse during the day, and when the sun goes down, the street performers come out in force and the shops stay open late. So browse the bookstores and gift shops or find a cafe and listen to a singer/guitarist or watch in disbelief at the magicians or jugglers. Anyway you dice it you can't beat the price. Take the red line to Harvard Square.
17. Catch a Boston Event
The diversity of Boston and its heritage means there's always a parade, street festival or concert performance going on in the city most months.
Here's a quick rundown of just a few of the free events to do in Boston:
- Reenactment of Boston Massacre - March 5th - Old State House
- St. Patrick's Day Parade - mid-March - South Boston
- Boston Marathon - April (third Monday) - Copley Square
- Patriots Day Parade - April (third Monday) - City Hall Plaza
- May Fair - May - Harvard Square, Cambridge
- Duckling Day Parade - May (second Sunday) - Boston Common
- Hidden Gardens of Beacon Hill - May (third Thursday) - Beacon Hill
- Street Performers Festival - Late May - Faneuil Hall
- Performing Arts Series at Hatch Shell - June - Esplanade
- Boston Seaport Festival - mid-June - Boston Waterfront
- Scooper Bowl (Ice Cream Festival) - early June - City Hall Plaza
- Dragon Boat Festival - June (second Sunday) - Charles River
- Cambridge River Festival - mid-June - Banks of the Charles River
- Boston Harborfest - July 4th week - Boston Harbor
- Italian Feast days - July - North End
- Boston Pops 4th of July Concert and Fireworks - July 4th - Esplanade
- Annual Festival of Betances - late July - South End
- Copley Square Concerts - July
- Boston Caribbean Carnival - August (third weekend) - Franklin Park
- Italian Feast Days - August - North End
- Copley Square Concerts - August
- Boston Arts Festival - September (second weekend) - various venues
- Feast of Saints Cosma & Damiano - late September - East Cambridge
- Boston Blues Festival - late September - Banks of the Charles
- Boston Globe Book Day - mid-October - Back Bay
- Columbus Day Parade - early October - East Boston - Downtown
- Head of the Charles Regatta - late October - Cambridge
Then it gets too cold for me and I look for inside stuff.
18. Free Movies at the Hatch Shell
Esplanade, Charles River
The Hatch shell is where the famous 4th of July Boston celebrations take place with concerts and fireworks. The Shell is in an area along the Charles River known to locals as the Esplanade which can be accessed by a footbridge from Beacon Hill.
Between mid-June and the end of August every Friday evening you can see a popular family film under the stars for no cost at the Hatch Shell. People grab a blanket, some lawn chairs, a picnic, and settle in for an evening of films.
You can even pick up a bag of popcorn (not free) from one of the many vendors catering for the audience.
When you've reached saturation point on the history trails or when your recall of which museums you visited yesterday is hazy, then its time to take a break from being a tourist and seek refuge and quiet in one these Boston parks.
These playgrounds are not just for show but are recreational destinations for residents. Some are known only to the locals. In my view, these are the best free deals in town as no matter how many times you visit there's always a surprise lurking around the next bend in the path.
19. Emerald Necklace - Six of the Best
The Emerald Necklace is a collection of six parks over six miles circling Boston's western neighborhoods. The parks are The Back Bay Fens, Riverway, Olmstead Park, Jamaica Park, Arnold Arboretum and Franklin Park.
You can access the first park from Boylston Street near the Museum of Fine Arts. The parks include green open spaces, rivers, ponds, wildlife habitats, nature trails, shrubs, flowers, bridges, and even a zoo at Franklin Park (though there is an admission fee for this).
Created by Frederick Law Olmstead, these jewels of Boston are a gift of the peoples of the city and the commonwealth of Massachusetts for all to enjoy.
20. Boston Common and Public Gardens
Beacon Hill / Downtown
Boston Common is the oldest park in America and is where a colonist's sheep once grazed. Today Frog Pond, sculptures, free summer theater performances, and park benches shaded by maples provide an oasis in the surrounding concrete and red brick structures of Massachusetts' capital city.
The Public Gardens are a short walk across Charles Street that separates these two sections of Boston's major park. The Gardens have a more formal layout and the popular Lagoon was added in 1871. The famous Swan Boats have been operating since 1877. The formal displays of flowers in spring and summer are splendid, but there's also plenty of deciduous trees to ensure a showy fall foliage.
If you're around at lunchtime, do like everyone else and purchase something from a vendor and spread out on the grass and catch some inner city peace.
21. Blue Hills Reservation
Just a 30-minute drive from the crowded waterfront attractions of downtown Boston is one of the best-kept secrets of this city, the Blue Hills Reservation. The park consists of 22 hills and 125 miles of trails covering an area of 7,000 acres.
Blue Hills is open year round from dawn to dusk, and activities include:
- Horseback riding
- Ice skating
- Mountain biking
- Rock climbing
- Cross-country skiing
- Downhill skiing
- Swimming at Houghton Pond
The Summit of Great Blue Hill is the reservation's high point at 635 feet, and has an observation tower offering views of the Boston Skyline and surrounding countryside. Use of all the trails is free.
22. Turtle Lane Maple Farm
Just a few miles north of Boston is residential (some would say sleepy) North Andover. But in early spring when the maple sap starts flowing, usually late February or early March, suddenly sugarhouses are burning the midnight oil capturing the sweet gold.
It's fascinating to watch it being turned into syrup and sugar products. One such place where you can go and watch for free is Turtle Lane Maple Farm. But you better hurry because there's only a few weeks for tapping, even though the maple it produces can be enjoyed all year.
Tips on Getting Around Town
Plan A for getting around Boston is to walk. Seriously, that's my first choice, and of course it's free. This is a small city and just about everything here is in reasonable walking distance from the downtown area. But realistically, there are some destinations that it's not really practical to walk to, and your legs will get tired before the end of the day unless you're training for the marathon.
So when you need to take the weight off your feet, go to Plan B, which is taking the "T." This is Boston's subway system, which is the oldest in the country. At times, it shows. But it mostly works and the network will get you out to all the locations mentioned in this guide as well as back to base. It's not difficult to figure out and navigate around. But listen up . . . it's not free. Sorry, you have to buy tickets to use it.
And if you have a car . . . park it in a garage and forget about it. You don't need it as it'll be a terrible waste of your time and cause you hours of frustration trying to find your way around.
And most of all . . . enjoy these free things to do in Boston!
More Resources for Boston
New England Vacation and Getaways Video
This article was started in February 2008. All the information was correct as of that date and I have updated it as programs have changed over the years. Usually, people let me know by adding a comment or sending me an email. This is good and I appreciate it.
However, if you intend to make use of any of the programs, please double-check first to ensure the program is still being offered or restrictions have not been introduced which could prohibit your eligibility for a free program.
I believe this to be the most complete list of free things to do in Boston on the web and I'd like to keep adding to it as well as keep it accurate, so please keep sending in corrections.